Increased interventions by Saudi Arabia impact Yemen and Syria, while descendants of Ottoman Armenians remember their “Great Catastrophe”.
Changes in Saudi Arabia’s royal family structure are slowly but increasingly affecting the region. The appointments and foreign policy moves made by King Salman (crowned head of state in January) demonstrate a far more proactive Saudi Arabia in the region. The Kingdom is leading an air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen and there is renewed Saudi engagement in Syria through backing opposition groups with Turkey and Qatar. Syria is often read as Saudi’s proxy war with Iran for influence in the region. While the relationship of Shiite groups in Yemen with Iran is not straightforward, Saudi Arabia is concerned about the influence Iran now enjoys stretching from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq.
As negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme continue, there is renewed hope that the preliminary agreement might open Iran for trade and lift substantial levels of sanctions. Opposition from within and outside Iran remains, however. Nationalistic Iranians within the security establishment see a deal as a sell-out of Iran’s position and critics in Israel and the US view it merely as a delay in Iran developing nuclear weapons. There have been fears that Iranian nationalistic groups could try to break off the process by pressuring President Rouhani or causing new tensions. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has hinted at the solution of a heavy bomb to stop Iran developing weapons if the deal was to fail.
Yemen and Libya continue to undergo disastrous civil war. The escalating crisis and destruction in Yemen has raised deep humanitarian concerns as even basic food and medical aid have become hard to access by civilians affected by aerial strikes and battles on the ground. There have been calls for a ceasefire and for talks between the fighting groups in Yemen with their regional backers involved. Such a push could indeed bring stability, but for now it does not seem to be immediate. In Libya, sadly, such initiatives are nowhere in sight.
Last weekend alone European naval ships rescued some 6,000 people undertaking the risky sea journey from Libya towards Italy. The European Union faced fierce criticism last month for suspending its search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Many of those attempting the crossing are fleeing the conflicts in Libya and Syria.
In Syria, the renewed push by Saudi Arabia and its allies is causing damage to the Assad regime. There are reports that the government’s position is weakening among even its dedicated Alevi Muslim constituency, as many are now tired of the prolonged war and see no future as things stand. New analysis has suggested this might be the beginning of the end for the Assad regime. But we have seen such analysis before and must be cautious. Either way, the country is so fragmented with multiple armed groups and agendas that no single solution offers the possibility of ending the civil war.
The election of the new president for Turkish Northern Cyprus has caused optimism. Mustafa Akinci, who won the elections, has a good rapport with the leadership of the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus and is committed to renewed peace talks over the disputed island. Since 2002, there have been multiple UN-led attempts to unite the divided island, all failing. Akinci’s election has been seen as a desire by Cypriot Turks to pursue unification of the island. Both the EU and UN welcome the start of talks but there is scepticism that a new solution can be found. Potential offshore energy resources are attracting attention, and could either encourage peace to pursue shared economic interests or trigger new tensions.
In April, Armenian Christians commemorated the 100th anniversary of the massacres and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which are widely viewed as a genocide. Across the world including Turkey itself, Armenians held memorial services and for the first time, a Turkish government representative read a message of condolence at a commemorative service in the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. While the Turkish state vehemently rejects the term “genocide” for what Armenians call “the Great Catastrophe”, things are changing: there is more open conversation between Armenians and Turks, Turkish people are learning about the events in their history that were omitted from the state school books.
For the Armenian community, the events of 1915 still have repercussions today. In Syria, Armenians whose forebears were deported from Turkey a century ago, are now fleeing from Syria as the country collapses. A community of around 80,000 is thought to have halved since the civil war began. Many Syrian Armenians have taken shelter in Lebanon or Armenia itself. They risk serious suffering in opposition-held areas and, although often safe in areas under Syrian government control, even here security concerns and the dangers of petty crime are real.
The sickening brutalities of Islamic State (IS) continue. A video released on Sunday 19 April, showed some 28 Ethiopian Christians being beheaded and killed in Libya. It is truly heartbreaking to imagine their suffering just because they are Christians. These men have left Ethiopia for work in Libya and faced such a monstrosity. Thousands of mourners gathered in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, on 22 April, in protest and commemoration of their martyrdom. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister spoke to the crowd and declared three days of national mourning.
The visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Egypt saw him share condolences with the families of Egyptian Christians murdered in Libya by IS. Justin Welby met with President Al-Sisi and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, as well as the Coptic Pope and called for greater protection for Christians in the Middle East and Africa. The President and Imam both made statements supporting inter-faith cooperation and tolerance.
Nevertheless, the annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released last month made for discouraging reading. On Egypt, the US Commission noted the very positive gestures of President Sisi towards Coptic Christians, but lamented the lack of tangible protection for Copts, the delayed implementation of promised new provisions in the constitution and failure to suspend discriminatory laws and policies.
On Iran, the Commission notes that since President Rouhani came into office, “the Iranian government has imprisoned more than 350 people, including 150 Sunni Muslims, 100 Baha’is, 90 Christians, and at least a dozen Sufi Muslims for their beliefs. The number of Christians imprisoned has nearly doubled over the past year.” Promised changes in Iran’s foreign policy have not been matched in domestic matters.