Weekly News 11 February – 16 February 2019 | Mediterranean Affairs


Monday, 11 February 2019

Syria: Russia and Turkey agreed to stabilise Syria’s Idlib using “decisive measures” as hardcore fighters continue to seize control of the northwestern province along Turkey’s border. A joint statement on Monday didn’t specify what military moves would be taken or when, however, after talks between Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar in Ankara. (Al Jazeera)

Spain: The leaders of three of Spain’s right-wing parties managed to bring out tens of thousands of people on Sunday to Madrid’s central Colón square, to protest against Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and demand that the Socialist Party (PSOE) politician call elections as soon as possible. The conservative Popular Party (PP), center-right group Ciudadanos (Citizens) and far-right newcomer Vox attracted flag-waving crowds of 45,000 people, according to the central government delegate in the Spanish capital, although the organizers put the figure as high as 200,000. The manifesto that had been agreed between the three groups accused the prime minister of having “betrayed” Spain by accepting 21 demands of pro-independence groups in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia. (El País)

 Hungary: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban launched his European elections campaign on Sunday, calling on voters to defend “Christian” nations against immigration, which he said led to the “virus of terrorism”. Delivering a “state of the nation” speech in the capital, Budapest, Orban also announced a seven-point package of tax breaks and subsidies to encourage families to have more children – a move he called “Hungary’s answer” to its falling population, instead of increasing immigration. (Al Jazeera)

Iran: The Trump administration is pressuring Iraq to stop buying energy from its neighbor and sole foreign supplier, Iran, in what has become a major point of conflict between Washington and Baghdad. Iraqi leaders, fearing that a further shortfall in power would lead to mass protests and political instability in their electricity-starved country, are pushing back on the demand, which is rooted in President Trump’s sanctions against Iran. Iraq’s defiance further jeopardizes Mr. Trump’s goal of getting all nations to comply with sanctions after withdrawing from the deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program last year. Already, European nations have set up a legal financial mechanism to do business with Iran, and China and India are resisting American efforts at prodding them to cut off oil purchases. (The New York Times)

Palestine: Two Palestinians were killed overnight in a tunnel between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the Hamas-run interior ministry said Monday. According to spokesman Iyad al-Bozum, one of the casualties was a Hamas police officer and the other a civilian. Witnesses said Egypt pumped gas into the tunnel. The two killed Palestinians were on a mission to rescue three workers who had called for help after the toxic gas was pumped into the tunnel, according to the spokesman. Civil defence crews, alerted on Sunday, retrieved the two bodies from the tunnel “after a great effort that lasted several hours”, Bozum said in a statement. (Al Jazeera)

Spain: With just hours to go before Spain’s Supreme Court opens the trial of the leaders of the failed Catalan secession bid, all political bridges between Madrid and Barcelona appear to have been burnt. But according to some, there is still room for things to get even worse. In an effort to maximize transparency and avoid accusations of bias, the Supreme Court has allowed live coverage of the hearings. The Catalan justice chief, Ester Capella, on Friday reiterated a message that the independence movement has been repeating for months: guilty verdicts will only deepen the Catalan crisis. Starting on Tuesday, 12 people will stand trial at the Supreme Court for their role in facilitating the illegal independence referendum of October 1, 2017 and the unilateral independence declaration subsequently passed by separatist parties in the Catalan parliament. (El País)

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Israel: A number of Israeli and international companies are facing the risk of being included on a United Nations blacklist for doing business in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, according to a report. The companies threatened with inclusion on the UN blacklist include Bezeq telecommunications, Teva Pharmaceutical industries and beverages giant Coca Cola. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution to gather a blacklist of Israeli and international companies operating in the illegal settlements. Despite Israeli and US pressures, the council is set to release an updated list of the blacklisted companies in March. (Al Jazeera)

UK: Philip Hammond’s claim that Britain can reap an economic dividend from Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been flatly rejected by MPs, as official figures confirmed the UK has suffered its worst year for GDP growth since 2012. In a highly critical report, the Treasury select committee warned that the chancellor’s claims of a “deal dividend” if Britain avoided a no-deal exit lacked credibility. The criticism came after data on Monday showed the economy grew by just 0.2% in the final three months of 2018, down from 0.6% in the third quarter. The fourth-quarter figures contained signs of an even sharper slowdown, with the economy posting a decline of 0.4% in December amid signs that Brexit uncertainty is taking hold. For 2018 as a whole, GDP growth slipped to its lowest since 2012, at 1.4%, down from 1.8% in 2017. (The Guardian)

Syria: An Israeli drone has fired four missiles near a demolished hospital and an army observation post in Syria’s southern Quneitra province near the border with Israel, but there had been only material damage, the Syrian army has said. An army source was quoted by state news agency SANA as saying that the “Israeli enemy” on Monday also hit several sites along border villages close to a 1974 demilitarized zone on the Golan frontier, which with Russian support, the Syrian army regained control from rebels last year. State media earlier said the sites in Quneitra that were hit by Israel came from several tank artillery rounds. (Middle East Eye)

Italy: “Europe has lost touch with its people” Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, amid heavy criticism from MEPs. Conte spoke to the plenary as part of a series of debates with national leaders on the future of Europe, but came under heavy attack for his government’s diplomacy, economic and migration policies and received only lukewarm applause. (Euractiv)

Iran: Iran’s president has insisted “enemy” plots against the country will fail and called President Donald Trump an “idiot” as vast crowds marked 40 years since the Islamic revolution. “The presence of people today on the streets all over Islamic Iran…means that the enemy will never reach its evil objectives,” a defiant President Hassan Rouhani told those thronging Tehran’s Azadi Square, decrying a “conspiracy” involving Washington. A pre-prepared resolution was read out ahead of Rouhani’s speech that proclaimed “unquestioning obedience to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei”. (The Guardian)

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

UK: Theresa May’s high-stakes Brexit strategy may have been accidentally revealed after her chief negotiator Olly Robbins was overheard in a Brussels bar saying MPs will be given a last-minute choice between her deal and a lengthy delay. The prime minister has repeatedly insisted that the government intends to leave the EU as planned on 29 March, and urged MPs to “hold our nerve”, while she tries to renegotiate changes to the Irish backstop. “So our work continues,” she told MPs on Tuesday. “Having secured an agreement with the European Union for further talks, we now need some time to complete that process. The talks are at a crucial stage. We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this house requires and deliver Brexit on time.” (The Guardian)

Russia: Aleksander Lukashenko is in Sochi for three days of talks with Vladimir Putin. The meetings come amidst persistent rumors that Belarus could become part of a single state controlled by Russia, and even ruled by Putin. It’s Belarusian President Lukashenko’s third meeting with his Russian counterpart, Putin, in less than two months. And according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, their talks won’t just last one day but will continue “tomorrow and even the day after.” However, behind the empty diplomatic statements from both sides about “questions on Belarusian-Russian cooperation” things could be tense. There is likely to be economic wrangling going on behind closed doors and it could have implications for the future of the Belarusian state. (Deutsche Welle)

Israel, USA: Freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is defending her controversial views on Israel as they come under scrutiny in Washington, telling CNN that “it’s not surprising” her positions are generating attention and that she finds it “exciting” to be sparking debate. Omar along with Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, are indeed changing the conversation on Capitol Hill over the United States’ long-standing relationship with Israel by speaking out critically against the Israeli government over its treatment of Palestinians. Omar told CNN that Israel should be held accountable for living up to “the same values that we push for” in the United States as one of its allies. As they challenge the political status quo over Israel in Washington, Omar and Tlaib are facing intense scrutiny and criticism, in particular from Republicans eager to exploit divisions in the Democratic Party. (CNN)

Poland: The United States is in talks with Poland over Warsaw’s request for more American troops on its soil, but no decision has been taken so far, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, as Washington weighs potential military threats from Russia. Poland asked President Donald Trump last year for a permanent base to complement U.S. troops already present in Poland as part of a rotating NATO deployment in eastern Europe. (Reuters)

Iran: Twenty-seven members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard were killed and at least 10 were wounded in the suicide car-bomb attack, which targeted a bus transporting the security force in the southeast of the country. “This incident will not damage the resolute will of the people in defending the Islamic revolution, and the national resolve for an unrelenting battle against terrorism will become more resolute than ever,” said Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.  (Al Jazeera)

Germany: Germany says it has arrested two former Syrian intelligence officers alleged to have been involved in torturing critics of President Bashar al-Assad. Both men seem to have sought asylum in Germany after leaving Syria a few years before the migrant influx in 2015. One them, Anwar R, is suspected of committing crimes against humanity. He was allegedly in charge of a General Intelligence Directorate (GID) prison where 2,000 people were tortured between April 2011 and September 2012. The other man, Eyad A, is suspected of aiding and abetting a crime against humanity at the same prison. A third man – also believed to have been a GID employee – was arrested in France on Tuesday as part of a joint investigation, according to Germany. (BBC)

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Spain: The first defendant to take the stand at the trial of Catalan separatist leaders in Madrid has refused to answer prosecutors’ questions, casting himself as “a political prisoner.” Oriol Junqueras, a former deputy premier of Catalonia and head of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party, is one of 12 people accused of crimes in connection with the unauthorized independence referendum of October 1, 2017 and the unilateral independence declaration that followed, despite warnings from the courts that this would violate the Constitution. The independence movement has sought to cast doubt on the impartiality of the Spanish justice system, and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez recently traveled to Strasbourg to meet with EU officials and insist that the defendants will get a fair trial. (El País)

Syria, Iraq, Yemen: At least 550,000 babies probably died as a result of armed conflicts between 2013 and 2017 in the 10 worst-affected countries, according to new analysis by Save the Children – an average of well over 100,000 each year. Three countries from the Middle East feature in the 10 worst-affected countries – Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The death toll, which is based on United Nations data, includes infants who succumbed to indirect effects of war, such as hunger, damaged infrastructure and hospitals, a lack of access to health care and sanitation and a lack of aid. The total number of deaths from indirect effects jumps to 870,000 when all children under the age of five are included.  By comparison, the UK-based charity estimates from available data that in the same five-year period almost 175,000 fighters were killed in the conflicts. (Middle East Eye)

Iran: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has condemned the suicide bombing in the country’s Sistan-Baluchestan province, and vowed to punish the “criminal mercenaries” who carried out the attack that killed 27 members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “Without a doubt, all perpetrators and those who ordered this vicious, flagrant act will be punished soon with the hard work of the powerful security forces of the country,” Rouhani said in a statement published on his website on Thursday. He said that the attack on Wednesday night was “another shame in the dark history of the main sponsors of terrorism”, drawing a link between the incident and actions by the United States, Israel and their “regional agents” against Iran. (Al Jazeera)

Egypt: The family of jailed Egyptian journalist Hisham Gaafar has announced his run in the Journalists Syndicate board elections scheduled next month. Gaafar, 55, former editor-in-chief of the IslamOnline website, has been in solitary confinement awaiting trial since October 2015 on charges of receiving funds from foreign agencies to harm national security and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt.  Amnesty International says the charges against Gaafar are “trumped up”, with rights advocates pointing out that he has served the two-year maximum pre-trial detention period legally allowed in the country. If convicted, Gaafar could face life in prison. His decision to run in the election is symbolic of calls to stop the detention of journalists, according to his wife, Manar Eltantawi, and his family. (Middle East Eye)

Friday, 15 February 2019

Israel: This week’s global summit in Warsaw will test the main pillar of the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East: the belief that Israel and key Arab states can form an alliance against Iran, even when peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians seem more distant than ever. According to the Foreign Ministry of Poland, which is hosting the event, at least 10 Arab countries will send representatives to the summit, called Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East. Israel will be represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The administration originally characterized the summit as focusing on Iran and the threats it poses to different countries in the region. That description caused some European countries – which are less hostile toward Iran than the Trump administration – to express skepticism about the event. Over time, the description shifted from focusing on Iran to a broader emphasis on peace, stability and security in the Middle East. (Haaretz)

UK: A pregnant British teenager who fled to Syria as a schoolgirl to live in the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s could be prevented from returning to the United Kingdom, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has said. Javid told the Times: “We must remember that those who left Britain to join Daesh were full of hate for our country. “My message is clear – if you have supported terrorist organisations abroad, I will not hesitate to prevent your return. If you do manage to return, you should be ready to be questioned, investigated and potentially prosecuted.” (Al Jazeera)

Spain: Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called a snap general election for 28 April, after Catalan nationalist MPs withdrew support for the Socialist government’s budget. It is just eight months since Mr Sánchez took office, heading a minority government reliant on Catalan support. Opinion polls suggest that no single party would win a clear majority. But conservatives and the far-right Vox party are expected to do well. The Catalan crisis is still simmering. Catalan separatist MPs rejected Mr Sánchez’s budget bill after the government refused to discuss the region’s right to self-determination. (BBC)

France: In Paris, it is French students rather than secondary school pupils who are mobilising for the youth climate march, a movement which is slowly gaining momentum in France. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is in Brussels next week to take part in a Belgian climate march on 21 February, French people are also starting to get involved. Students from the greater Paris region gathered outside the French ecology ministry on Friday (15 February) morning, part of the first youth movements on climate change observed in France in recent weeks. Other gatherings have taken place in Valence and Nantes. (Eractiv)

Italy, Pakistan: A court in Pakistan has acquitted the father, brother and uncle of a woman who died in a suspected honour killing last year. Sana Cheema, 26, lived in Italy but died while visiting her family in Gujrat in April 2018. She was originally buried without an autopsy – but when exhumed a cause of death was identified as strangulation. It was widely reported that she had been brought back to Pakistan for an arranged marriage, but refused. (BBC)