On 15 March Syria will have been at war for nine years. Its prolonged, multi-sided conflict and the fate of the millions who are still seeking safety became the region’s headline again this month.
The war in Syria entered a new phase at the end of February. After the killing of 39 Turkish soldiers in Idlib province, Turkey unleashed its military power on Syrian forces. Ankara’s unprecedented use of drones and high-tech weapons took many by surprise. A large number of Syrian soldiers and Iran-backed militia members have been killed and tanks, personnel carriers and air defence systems destroyed. Eventually, ceasefire talks with Russia, Syria’s military backer, halted the escalation, although how long the pause in hostilities will last is anyone’s guess. In Ankara, calls by Turkish opposition parties for direct talks with the Assad regime have gone unheard.
As Turkey ramped up its operations in Idlib, it appealed to NATO allies for support and secured commitments to deepen intelligence-sharing and aerial defence. However, its attempts to exert pressure on the European Union (EU) by opening its borders and allowing Syrian refugees to enter Europe led to horrendous incidents on the border with Greece. Footage emerged of Greek soldiers firing on boats and tear-gassing, beating and turning away migrants. The EU scrambled to persuade Turkey’s President Erdogan to honour the 2016 agreement in which Turkey agreed to stem the tide of Syrian migrants in return for €6bn. Turkey says that not all of this has been paid and that other conditions have not been met.
The Pandemic Arrives
Shortly after these events, the region started seeing the impact of the Coronavirus, especially in Iran. The authorities initially denied the outbreak, but Iran quickly emerged as one of the most affected nations after China. No-one knows the true scale of infection, but even top-level officials have died. Countries in the region shut their borders with Iran, and as the pandemic spread, many banned flights from affected countries. Saudi Arabia barred pilgrims for the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca, and Christian pilgrims were barred from visiting Bethlehem after a 30-day lockdown was announced following infections in the Palestinian West Bank. SAT-7’s Persian, Turkish and Arabic channels all provided information on the contagion and gave advice and reassurance. Reza Jafari, a broadcaster on SAT-7 PARS, commented on the number of messages the channel received from Iran expressing fear. In situations like this, he said, “We inform our viewers, we pray for them and we try to reassure and support them during worrying times.”
Lebanon saw a further weakening of its economy after the country failed to repay a $1.2 billion bond this month, and more repayments are due in April and June. Lebanon is one of the world’s most heavily indebted states. Hezbollah, the military-political group that is one of the government’s main backers, is refusing to take the only available option of making a deal with the International Monetary Fund. This would require restructuring the economy, painful austerity and considerable scrutiny and intervention in a system which has high levels of clientelism and corruption. While the country desperately needs cash, investors see no reason to loan their money. The impact on daily life is seen in growing hardship and restrictions on how much of their own money individuals or businesses can withdraw from banks.
A third round of parliamentary elections in Israel seemed to bring Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition a step closer to victory, but it still fell three seats short of giving them a majority. Opposition leader Benny Gantz continues efforts to build a larger coalition, although the stalemate seems set to continue. One notable result of the March polls was the success of an increased number of Arab politicians. Fifteen members of the Joint List alliance won seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset after comments made by Netanyahu and the recent US peace proposals both provoked an angry backlash.
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In Tunisia, meanwhile, politicians agreed on a coalition government after four months of discussions following their October elections. Citizens are now hoping the new government will make long-overdue economic reforms, especially those that will tackle the needs in disadvantaged areas.
The mood was less cordial in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS”) ordered a new wave of arrests of senior royal family figures, including his uncle and cousin. They have not been charged but have been detained on accusations of contacting foreign powers with a view to carrying out a coup. Speculations continue as to how genuine or serious this activity was, but it is clear that MBS has asserted his tight control over the kingdom. A spate of rumours that MBS’ father, King Salman, had died turned out to be false.
On a lighter note, the Saudi kingdom enjoyed its first legal Valentine’s Day this year. Previously, shopkeepers had to hide cards and chocolates from raids by the religious police. Now that the police have been disbanded, and since a 2018 clerical ruling that the day does not contradict Islamic law, Saudis have become free to reveal their romantic side.
On International Women’s Day (8 March), women took to the streets to call for greater equality in a number of Middle East countries. In Sudan women activists gathered outside the Ministry of Justice to call for an end to male guardianship when women travel abroad and for the age of marriage to be raised to 18 for girls. In Iraq women in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, marked the day with red and white roses and purple banners. In cities across Turkey the day was marked in multiple ways, from the launching of lighted balloons in Van, in memory of the 467 women who were murdered last year, to musical performances in several cities and a women’s street race in Izmir.
Keep Libya in your prayers. While the campaign by General Khalifa Haftar to overrun Tripoli and achieve full control of the country has stalled, reports of large deliveries of new arms from the UAE and the supportive stance of President Macron of France could give Haftar further impetus. Ironically, over the last two months it has been forces deployed by Turkey that have protected the UN- and EU-backed government in Tripoli.
After months of reduced conflict in Yemen, this impoverished and battered nation is seeing a increase of fighting again. Recent clashes in Al-Jawf province in the North have displaced tens of thousands of people. and the momentum to achieve any kind of peace deal is slipping away.