One conflict has been averted and another ignited. The pace of events in the Middle East over the last 30 days has been rapid.
Last month, we saw drone and missile attacks on refineries in Saudi Arabia. Although Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, many saw the hand of Iran behind them. Observers worried that this would trigger the long-feared conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, drawing in the US and Israel, and inflaming the entire region. Thankfully Saudi Arabia chose to deescalate the situation with a cool-headed response.
The US is now set to deploy another 1,800 troops to the country. Meanwhile, Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman has been working hard on public relations to ease the continuing pressure on him over the brutal execution of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. An announcement that the Saudi kingdom will offer tourist visas to holidaymakers is another step in normalising the country in the eyes of the world. While the attack on Saudi refineries reduced global oil production by 5 per cent, notably it did not trigger the surge in oil prices that many countries feared. The changing dynamics of energy politics should be monitored carefully.
October also saw a phone conversation between Presidents Erdogan and Trump trigger a Turkish military offensive in north-east Syria that has already changed the balance of power in the area. Tension was building in Ankara ever since the US decided to arm Kurdish forces in the Syrian border area that have links with the PKK, a group Turkey views as an existential threat. The defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and the question of who controls the territories recaptured from it brought this to a climax. President Trump has been keen to pull US troops out of Syria’s border region from the start of his term of office. But their sudden withdrawal and subsequent vacuum allowed Turkey to move against Kurdish forces, sparking a humanitarian crisis and the risk of an IS resurgence.
As Turkish-backed forces advanced into the Syrian border territory, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces brokered an agreement with the Assad government. On Monday (14 October) Syrian troops began arriving in the town where the Kurdish semi-autonomous administration is headquartered and in other key towns in the area. It is difficult to assess what all of this will mean. It is certainly a dramatic reversal for the Kurdish administration and offers the prospect of the Assad government regaining control of another third of the country.
It is also clear that the suffering of Syria’s people has not ended. In the last week, relatively peaceful north-east Syria has seen around 160,000 people displaced and civilian deaths and casualties on both sides of the border. Syriac and Assyrian Christians and smaller numbers of Kurdish believers who live in this area of Syria are affected by the new conflict. On 14 October President Trump phoned Ankara again. He urged President Erdogan to implement a ceasefire and announced new sanctions on Turkey.
In some good news, Tunisia continued its peaceful, democratic progress. Law professor Kais Saied emerged as the clear victor after securing more than 70 per cent of votes cast in the presidential election. He was running against an imprisoned businessman who is serving time for money laundering and tax fraud. The surprise emergence of two outsiders as frontrunners was an expression of Tunisian disillusion with established political parties and figures. Saied holds conservative views on a range of issues but has promised to fight corruption, to decentralise and to give more attention to deprived parts of the country. Tunisia faces serious economic challenges, but it is encouraging to see the nation that gave birth to the “Arab Spring” progressing in a positive direction.
CRY OF THE POOR
Across in Egypt and Iraq, meanwhile, there was a new outbreak of protests. Demonstrations have been as rare as hen’s teeth in Egypt, where security forces under President el-Sisi have virtually extinguished any public criticism of the government. But a series of social media videos by a businessman alleging presidential corruption seemed to strike a chord. Relatively small-scale protests by young adults in several cities caught analysts and Egyptian officials alike off guard. Protesters were angered by claims that the president had spent large sums on the construction of palaces and facilities for officials while almost a third of citizens live on less than $1.40 a day. The president denied the allegations, and the authorities responded by detaining almost two thousand protesters and influencers they see as having encouraged discontent.
Larger-scale protests in Iraq by young people, demanding jobs, better public services and an end to corruption, met fierce violence from the government. Security forces responded with tear gas and live fire, and there were reports of snipers firing into the crowds. Reuters news agency reported that over 110 people had been killed and 6,000 wounded since protests began on 1 October. At a meeting in London, the Chaplain of St George’s, Baghdad, Revd Faez Jirjees, said that corruption was more dangerous than IS and that it was destroying the Iraqi economy. On Saturday (12 October) the government agreed to reforms and said that the families of those killed would receive payments usually reserved for fallen soldiers. The hopes of a new direction when Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was appointed a year ago have turned to bitter disappointment.
Grinding poverty is a daily reality for many in Iran, too. The exiled group that opposes the Iranian government, the Foreign Affairs Committee of National Council of Resistance, released a report detailing the growth in human organ sales. The trade, in which impoverished people offer to sell a kidney or other organ to pay off debts and dealers grow rich, has become endemic across the country. It even has the approval of Iran’s religious hierarchy, who say it does not contradict Sharia law.
The suffering of women was highlighted in the Palestinian West Bank. The death last month of make-up artist Israa Gharib, who apparently fell from a staircase in a hospital while fleeing from her brother, provoked street demonstrations in Ramallah and online anger. Activists believe her death was an honour killing and demanded new laws to protect women. They pointed to 18 other women who have died this year, allegedly at the hands of family members, over alleged honour crimes.
CRY OF THE CHURCH
Finally, there has been a serious escalation in the crackdown on churches in Algeria. Middle East Concern said that a popular Algerian daily reported (8 September) that the Ministry of the Interior had ordered regional governors and security heads to intensify investigation into the activities of Protestant leaders. The order also grouped Protestant Churches with radical groups whose “activities … contradict national religious constants”. Subsequently, four more churches including the 700-member Full Gospel Church of Tizi-Ouzou and a 500-member Protestant church in Makouda were given orders to close. The churches are all members of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) that received official recognition in 2011 and permission to register congregations. Article 42 of the Algerian constitution allows for freedom of worship and religious assembly. EPA President, Pastor Salah Challah, made a video appeal for support to Christians worldwide. Please pray for these vibrant and growing churches.
The situation of Christians in Algeria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa will be one of the challenges facing the new UK Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief. Please pray for Rehman Chishti MP, who took up this important role on 12 September.