War and peace have been the dominant themes of the Middle East this month. Iran and the United States stepped back from a major confrontation, and a much-delayed US peace plan was unveiled for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Syria’s suffering has continued, and there are risks of a new front opening up after clashes between Syria and Turkey.
Since 2018, under an agreement with Syria and Russia, Turkey has deployed forces to observation posts in a “de-escalation zone” in part of Idlib province in the north-west of Syria. However, Syria’s Russian-backed campaign against rebels in the province and parts of nearby Aleppo has intensified and recaptured some 200 square miles in recent months. Although the rebels include a few thousand jihadists, most of the over three million population are civilians. The Syrian offensive has been relentless and indiscriminate, destroying hospitals, schools and homes and forcing some 700,000 civilians to flee towards the Turkish border. Turkey, which backs some of the rebels, has poured more forces into the area to prevent the Syrian advance and stop a flood of refugees across its border. This week Turkey shelled Syrian and Iran-backed militia sites and claimed to have killed over 50 soldiers loyal to the Assad government. This was in reply to two attacks on its observation posts that killed 13 Turkish soldiers.
In Yemen, too, the war and human suffering continues. Some 116 soldiers belonging to the internationally recognised government have died following a Houthi missile attack on a mosque, where troops had gathered for evening prayer. In a de-escalation, meanwhile, the UAE officially withdrew its troops from Yemen with a widely promoted ceremony in Abu Dhabi.
A new government has been formed in Lebanon under newly appointed Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a professor at the American University of Beirut. The new cabinet includes six women and the Arab world’s first female defence minister. Although Diab described his technocrat cabinet as “non-partisan” and claimed that it would meet the aspirations of the tens of thousands who have been calling for reform, protesters are not convinced. They see the same political class behind it and want to see root-and-branch reform. The grave economic crisis the government has to address is also deepening. Lebanon’s stock market has hit a 15-year low, and the country is struggling to find financing. With confidence in Lebanese banks destroyed, citizens feeling disillusioned and politics highly dysfunctional, the chances of finding a solution seem slim.
In Iran, the likelihood of serious retaliation against the US after the killing of Qassim Soleimani seems to have receded for the moment. The Iranian regime was rocked by public anger following the revelation that a Ukrainian passenger jet carrying mostly young Iranians and Canadians had been shot down accidentally by Iran’s revolutionary guards.
Meanwhile, there was no let-up in Iran’s repression of religious minorities. The 350,000 followers of Iran’s Baha’i faith were informed that their religion would not be included on new identity cards. If they do not have the cards, many essential services such as cashing cheques or obtaining a driving licence will be withdrawn from them. A group of human rights charities has also asked the United Nations to investigate Iran’s arrests and interrogations of the country’s estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Muslim-background Christian believers and its denial of religious freedom to them. Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) around the globe is one of the issues that UK government representatives will raise at this year’s session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (24 February – 20 March).
A valuable outcome of an EU and UN discussion on FoRB to which SAT-7 contributed has been a new online FoRB Learning Platform. SAT-7’s Persian-language channel is translating clips from this to educate viewers about their legal rights to freedom of belief. An expert on the channel’s Insiders talk show has explained how Iranians should legally be entitled to freedom of belief because Iran has signed both the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Peace in Jerusalem?
In other news, the US administration announced its much-heralded Middle East “Peace to Prosperity” plan, intended to address the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, the plan departed radically from the course agreed upon by both sides in the 1990s Oslo Accords. This offered the possibility of two sovereign states with the status of Jerusalem to be resolved through negotiations. US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017 had already pre-empted such discussion and prompted Palestinian leaders to withdraw from talks.
Many commentators suggest that the new plan hammered out by the US and Israel appears to meet the demands of only one side. It would give Israel the whole of historic Jerusalem and the right to annexe the settlements and the fertile Jericho valley (together comprising a third of the West Bank). The Palestinians are offered the possibility of a geographically scattered state with limited sovereignty, no army, Israeli control over certain areas (including the sea), and a capital outside Jerusalem. The main compensation would be an investment plan that President Trump said would create a million jobs over ten years.
While Israeli President Netanyahu praised the plan, Palestinian Authority President Abbas called it “dead on arrival”. Many countries criticised the deal, and former foreign ministers from across the European Union urged the bloc to reject it. Many Arab Evangelical leaders and the Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches stressed the need for a solution that recognised the equal rights and dignity of both Jews and Palestinians.
On the eastern side of the Levant, conditions in Iraq continue to cause concern. Protests against the ruling elite are ongoing in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. It is often said that almost half of Iraq is under 21. It is four months since many young people across the country began to protest, demanding jobs, better public services, an end to corruption, and reform of government structures. They were met with a brutal clampdown by security forces and attacks by militias. Amid continuing anti-US sentiments there are occasional reports that the US is planning to scale down its military presence. Meanwhile, the government has announced it will welcome Chinese infrastructure investment as part of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.
In some good news, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia edged closer to a final agreement on the question of the Blue Nile dam being built by Ethiopia. The tensions over the construction had led some to fear a possible military confrontation, given how sensitive the use of Nile water is and how vital to millions of lives in Egypt. There is a lot to be agreed regarding the dam’s operations, including how it will be managed in the dry season and questions over its security. The United States has been key to bringing the three countries to some sort of understanding. It is hoped they will reach an agreement by end of February.
Peace hopes also grew for Sudan after the transitional government signed a preliminary peace deal with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Both have been fighting in the areas of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan since 2011. Efforts to conclude a peace agreement with rebels in Darfur and Eastern Sudan are also under way. Important progress was made this week when Sudan announced that it was willing in principle to hand over ousted President Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court over alleged war crimes and genocide in these areas. (Read our update on Sudan for more news.)
The deeply harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) has come under the spotlight in Egypt after the tragic death of a 12-year-old girl. Although the procedure is banned under Egyptian law, a 2016 UN survey found that 87 per cent of Egyptian women and girls aged 15-49 had undergone it. Posters were displayed at a central Cairo metro station, and doctors distributed leaflets alerting commuters to the dangers of the practice.
Read our Sudan update: Teresa Sfeir charts the progress towards democracy the country has made since last April’s removal of long-term ruler Omar al-Bashir and highlights some positive signs for Sudan’s Christians.