The United Nations has urged Syria, Russia and Iran to avoid a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Syria’s Idlib province as Syrian forces and allies are poised for an offensive on the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold.
The latest stage in the Syrian war is about to start with an imminent military operation against the rebel held city of Idlib. Over 60 air strikes have already been made on the southern edge of the province as Russian and Syrian government forces mass on the border. The area hosts more than 3 million people, with around half being internally displaced Syrians who have taken refuge there. Turkey and Western countries echoed appeals by the UN for Russia, Syria and Iran to avoid “the century’s worst humanitarian catastrophe” and protect civilian lives, particularly given fears that chemical weapons could be used once again.
Turkey worries that millions will seek to take refuge inside its borders, and with 4 million Syrians already in Turkey, the government says it cannot host any more. Televised negotiations between Iran, Turkey and Russia failed to achieve any tangible result to prevent the assault. President Trump has agreed to US Department of Defence requests to keep US troops in Syria and not pull them out by the end of the year as he had promised. The new US strategy focuses on deterring Iranian and Russian reach in the country, as well as seeking to ensure that so-called Islamic State does not re-emerge in areas it has been cleared from. Sceptics have raised concerns that this was an indefinite commitment, with little chance of achieving its stated aim of containing Iranian influence.
In Libya, violence continues. Rival militant groups have clashed in the capital, Tripoli, with reports suggesting up to 50 people were left dead and more than a hundred injured. A short-lived truce at the end of August collapsed with further clashes closing the airport and causing grave concerns among the city’s migrant workers. The UN-backed government declared a state of emergency. The deadline for the agreed constitutional basis for national elections will lapse later this month. This is likely to deepen the political deadlock in Libya, which has resulted in two centres of power that both claim legitimacy over the country, along with a myriad of militias and criminal networks dominating localities.
In Iraq, Basra saw unprecedented protests that seem to have arisen purely from frustration over unemployment, public services and corruption. Most government buildings were burnt down, as well as offices belonging to various political parties and groups. An estimated 18,000 people have fallen ill from heavily polluted water, intensifying the anger in the city.
The UN Human Rights chief urged Egypt to overturn the death penalty given to some 75 people for partaking in the 2013 sit-in protests against the ousting of then president Morsi. The sentences were given in Egypt’s latest mass trial, with 600 others given prison sentences including 47 for life. The protests had ended with massive violence, with some reports suggesting hundreds of protestors were killed by gun fire from the security forces. Egypt denies the reports, and states that protestors had weapons.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church hosted the first World Coptic Youth Forum with 200 selected 22- to 28-year-old Egyptian Christians from 50 countries. The event, based in Wadi Natrun, an historic monastic centre, was designed to connect diaspora Copts with the roots of their faith and culture. The week’s opening and closing ceremonies were broadcast by SAT-7. So too were meetings of “Days of Harvest”, organised by the Evangelical Church, that drew thousands in Bana Mazar, Minya governorate.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards fired ballistic missiles at an Iraq-situated base of a Kurdish group fighting for autonomy in Iran. There have been multiple clashes between the Kurdish militants and Iran on its borders this year. The missile attack demonstrates high risk-taking and willingness by Iran to use force. The attack caused concern among Iraqi Kurds, as the targets hit were in Koya in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
The US announced it was ending all funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. The US gives around a third of all funding to the UNRWA, so its decision is likely to make the agency’s work unsustainable. UNRWA supports around 5 million people including providing social care, healthcare and education to some 500,000 Palestinian children. A Jerusalem representative of the World Lutheran Federation whose hospital annually provides cancer and dialysis treatment to over 60,000 Palestinians, said the consequences of the decision, especially for child cancer patients, are “truly heartbreaking”. The World Council of Churches called on President Trump to reverse the decision, describing it as “immoral and unjust, driving Palestinian refugees to more hopelessness, despair and desperation”.
Morocco says it has stopped 50,000 migrants from attempting to cross into Europe this year, and has seized almost 2,000 smuggling boats and dozens of criminal networks. The country had faced criticism due to recent cases of migrants entering the small Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on the tip of Morocco. It is a stark reminder that while the crossings between Greece and Turkey have slowed, desperate individuals seeking a better life are actively looking for alternative routes. Most of them are now coming from West and East Africa, as well as Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.
Human rights and religious liberty were two of the issues addressed during a meeting of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Secretary General Efraim Tendero in New York. Guterres also “acknowledged the role that evangelicals played in serving the needs of refugees coming to Europe”.
Employment practices in Qatar have come under close scrutiny as it employs thousands of foreign workers in construction work for the 2022 World Cup. In response, the Gulf state has announced an important change to its residency law that has been welcomed by the International Labour Organisation. Most workers will no longer need their employer’s consent to travel abroad or switch jobs, a system that human rights groups said had left people vulnerable to forced labour. An observer said, “It is a welcome change and there is a sense of relief as people discuss it. However, there are significant steps still to take such as the situation of domestic workers that is not covered by Qatari law.” The traditional Kafalah system, binding foreign workers to employers, is not unique to Qatar but is used throughout the Gulf.