Weekly News 17 – 21 September 2018 | Mediterranean Affairs


Monday, 17 September 2018

Syria: Russian and Turkish troops are to enforce a new demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region from which “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by the middle of next month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday after a meeting with his Turkish counterpart. Russia, the biggest outside backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against rebels, has been preparing for an offensive on the city of Idlib, which is controlled by rebels and now home to about 3 million people. But after Putin’s talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has opposed a military operation against the rebels in Idlib, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters there would not now be an offensive. Erdogan, who had feared another cross-border exodus of Syrian refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, said the deal would allow opposition supporters to stay where they were, and avert a humanitarian crisis. (Reuters)

Turkey: The Turkish lender Isbank warned against political interference on Monday after Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that the government should take on shares in the bank that are owned by the opposition. The Turkish president questioned why the Republican People’s Party (CHP) owned a 28 per cent stake in the bank and had four members on its board of directors. “It owns 28 percent of Isbank shares. It can’t get money from there but it has four board members. What do these four members do? This must be looked into,” he told journalists accompanying on his return from Azerbaijan, according to Hurriyet newspaper. In a statement, the bank said that it was an “important institution that cannot be used as political tool” and stressed that Turkish banks were vital to the country’s economy. Shares in Isbank, which is Turkey’s largest listed bank by assets, were down 4.4 per cent on Monday after Erdogan’s remarks were made public. The row comes at a time of heightened investor concern about the Turkish economy and the banking sector, after a currency crisis that has seen the lira lose around 40 per cent of its value since the start of the year. (Financial Times)

West Bank: A Palestinian fatally stabbed an American-born Jewish settler in the occupied West Bank on Sunday then was himself shot and seized by armed civilians who gave chase. The victim, Ari Fuld, 45, was well-known amongst settlers as a pro-Israel advocate. According to his Twitter account, he had planned a lecture tour in the United States in November. Israeli police said the Palestinian who stabbed him in the back at a shopping mall in the Etzion bloc of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem was shot and wounded by one of several armed civilians – including a bleeding Fuld – who gave chase. The suspected assailant was identified by his family as Khalil Youssef Jabarin, 17, from the village of Yatta in the southern West Bank. He was taken into custody. Palestinian street attacks against Israelis, many carried out by assailants with no known affiliation to militant groups, have been sporadic since 2015, a year after peace talks collapsed. (Reuters)

Hungary: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Monday vowed to oppose an EU plan aimed at bolstering the bloc’s external borders, accusing Brussels of wanting to take away Hungary’s control of its own frontiers. According to the fiercely anti-immigration premier, the plan to reinforce border defences on the bloc’s margins would “strip Hungary of its right to protect its own borders”. “We will not give up our right to defend a border, no-one can take an iota of that away from us,” he said during a speech in parliament in Budapest. Hungary “understand(s) border defence better than anyone in Brussels or an international organisation,” he said. (EurActiv)

Algeria: Germany and Algeria want to find ways to speed up the repatriation of Algerians living illegally in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday during a visit to Algeria. Since around a million asylum seekers reached Germany in 2015, Merkel’s government has been pushing for ways to speed up the process of sending home those whose applications are denied. Germany wants to declare Algeria, like Tunisia and Morocco, a safe country of origin, which would make it easier to deport asylum seekers from there. Less than 2 percent of Algerian asylum applicants in Germany receive protected status. Merkel later on Monday met President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algerian state TV said, showing footage of the meeting without giving details of the talks. The 81-year-old Bouteflika, in office since 1999, has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013 which has confined him to a wheelchair. (Reuters)

European Union: Poland was banned Monday (17 September) from the EU body representing the member states’ judicial institutions over its perceived lack of independence after controversial government reforms. The European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) announced it had stripped the Polish National Judicial Council of its voting rights and excluded it from the network following a meeting in Bucharest. “The extreme circumstances of this particular case have led to the decision just taken,” the body said in a statement. “It is a condition of ENCJ membership, that institutions are independent of the executive and legislature and ensure the final responsibility for the support of the judiciary in the independent delivery of justice,” it added. Under recent changes pushed through by Poland’s rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) government, magistrates will now be elected by parliament instead of judicial council members. (EurActiv)

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Syria: Russia’s defense ministry said early on Tuesday that one if its military aircraft with 14 people on board disappeared from radar screens over Syria at the same time that Israeli and French forces were mounting aerial attacks on targets in Syria. A U.S. official said Washington believed the aircraft, which is an Il-20 turbo-prop plane used for electronic reconnaissance, was inadvertently shot down by anti-aircraft artillery operated by Moscow’s ally, the Syrian government. (Reuters)

Italy: Italy’s Economy Minister Giovanni Tria could lose his job if he refuses to fund a proposal to introduce a universal income for the poor. “They do not want us to do the universal income… If they keep going like this Tria can go home,” Luigi Di Maio, who is the leader of the ruling 5-Star Movement and Deputy Prime Minister, was reported as saying. The introduction of a universal income for the poor is a flagship campaign promise of the 5-Star Movement. Tria is an academic who is not a member either of 5-Star, or its coalition partner, the League party. (La Stampa)

Gaza: Gaza medics said on Tuesday two Palestinians were killed by an Israeli missile strike near the enclave’s boundary with Israel after the Israeli military said it attacked a group suspected of tampering with the border fence. There was no immediate word on the identities of those killed in the overnight missile strike east of Qarara village. An Israeli military spokesman said in a statement late on Monday an aircraft fired at “terrorists (who) suspiciously approached the security fence in the southern Gaza Strip and placed an object adjacent to the fence”. (Reuters)

Israeli forces opened fire during a demonstration in the northern Gaza Strip near a border crossing on Tuesday, killing two Palestinian protesters and injuring 46 others, the Palestinian health ministry said. The Israeli military had no initial knowledge of any casualties or that live fire had been used, a spokeswoman said. Israel was marking the Yom Kippur fast day from dusk on Tuesday, when very few officials are available for comment. (Reuters)

A Palestinian man was shot on Tuesday by Israeli police who said he tried to stab a Jewish worshiper near Damascus Gate outside the walled Old City on Yom Kippur, the holiest fast day in the Jewish calendar. (Reuters)

Iraq: Shi’ite militia leader Hadi al-Amiri, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, withdrew his candidacy for prime minister on Tuesday, putting the country one step closer to forming a government after months of political stagnation. (Reuters)

Poland: President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States is considering a request from Poland for a permanent U.S. military presence in the fellow NATO country, acknowledging that he shares Poland’s concerns about possible Russian aggression. Polish President Andrzej Duda asked Trump for a permanent U.S. base during a White House meeting, offering to name it “Fort Trump,” and explaining it would be a bulwark against what he considers a threat from Russia. Trump said he agreed with Duda that Moscow had “acted aggressively” in the region and said the request for a base was under consideration. He said he appreciated Duda’s offer to put more than $2 billion into the project. (Reuters)

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Morocco: African emigrants are defying a campaign by Morocco to keep them away from land and sea crossings to Spain, which has become the main entry point to Europe for migrants and refugees following crackdowns elsewhere. Moroccan police conduct regular raids of areas popular with people from elsewhere in Africa and have bussed thousands to the other end of the country since 800 people stormed a fence to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco in July. The transports drew criticism from human rights groups after two men from Mali died en route and Reuters has found that many people have simply returned, hiding in forests or back streets of the main city of Tangier and planning their escape to Spain. “We came to Morocco to stay in the north until the time was right to force our way through the Ceuta fence. We have no other choice,” said Aboubakar, a 25-year-old sociology graduate from Guinea who withheld his surname for fear of repercussions. (Reuters)

Syria: An arms deposit was destroyed in the Israeli air raid carried out in north-western Syria in the night between Monday and Tuesday and after which a Russian military plane in the area was accidentally downed. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Israeli jets hit and destroyed an entire building in the industrial area of Latakia, the main Syrian port in the Mediterranean. Israel said the arms deposits contained material and weapons for Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian and anti-Israeli movement. (ANSAmed)

Hungary: The latest shake-up in Hungarian media since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s election win in April sparked fresh fears Tuesday (18 September) about increasing government control over the sector. Since coming into power in 2010, Orbán has transformed the country’s public media into a government propaganda organ while allies have steadily bought up swathes of the private media sector. According to statements published on Monday, Cemp-X media group – which sells advertising space for the independent news-site Index.hu – was sold to buyers who include a governing party politician. A 50% share of the company is now owned by Jozsef Oltyan, a businessman and member of the Christian Democrats, the coalition partner of Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party. (EurActiv)

Germany: Germany approved a delivery of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a government document showed on Wednesday, after saying it would halt arms sales to countries involved in the war in Yemen. The government signed off on the consignment of four artillery positioning systems, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier wrote in a letter to lawmakers seen by Reuters. The vehicle-mounted systems can locate enemy fire, enabling accurate counter-strikes. (Reuters)

Thursday, 20 September 2018

 Migration: Italian PM Giuseppe Conte said after an informal EU summit in Salzburg Thursday that a deal on migrants was still needed. He said “we told each other that we have to reach conclusions” on migrants because “the more we delay the more we’ll all get into difficulty”. There were no winners in the recent standoff between Italy and EU over the case of the migrants rescued by the Diciotti coast guard ship, Conte said. “The Diciotti case sees us all as losers,” Conte told reporters. “If European wants to have an immigration policy, this means defining a strategy, revising the Dublin procedure and quickly pursuing new mechanisms of collective management featuring solidarity”. (ANSAmed)

European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos on Thursday signed an agreement in Belgrade with Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic to deploy EU border agency Fontex units in Serbia. The agreement, the commissioner said, will enable Frontex, in cooperation with Serbian police, to control illegal migrant pathways at the border, boosting the security of the European Union’s external borders. The EU has recently signed two similar agreements to deploy Frontex units with Albania and Macedonia. Commissioner Avramopoulos added that Frontex will not replace Serbian border police but will provide support in patrolling borders in order for the EU to boost the defense and security of its external borders. (ANSAmed)

Libya: Violations continue of the ceasefire agreed in Tripoli to put an end to clashes between militias. After violations on Monday and Tuesday, others were reported by Libyan media between Wednesday night and Thursday morning in the southern part of the capital. The most severe clashes were reported on the Facebook page of Akhbar Libya between the 7th Brigade (rebels that initially sparked the fighting last month) and the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigades (TRB). (ANSAmed)

Spain: Thousands gathered in Barcelona on Thursday to mark the first anniversary of a police raid on Catalan government offices in the Mediterranean city, a move that sparked a huge demonstration ahead of a banned vote on a split from Spain. (Reuters)

Friday, 21 September 2018

UK: The “big four” accounting firms could be broken up under plans by UK’s Labour Party to overhaul the auditing industry, Britain’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell told The Financial Times on Friday. Lawmakers have accused EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC of being an “oligopoly” that checks the books of nearly all the 350 leading companies in Britain, with smaller rivals barely having a look in. Options under consideration by Labour included breaking up the companies, or setting a maximum audit market share for each firm, McDonnell was quoted as saying by the newspaper. (Financial Times)

Belgium: A confidential report by Belgian investigators confirms that British intelligence services hacked state-owned Belgian telecom giant Belgacom on behalf of Washington, it was revealed on Thursday (20 September). The admission by Belgium is one of the consequences of the myriad revelations made in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden and risks fraying ties between the close allies. The report, which summarises a five-year judicial inquiry, is almost complete and was submitted to the office of Justice Minister Koen Geens, a source close to the case told AFP, confirming Belgian press reports. (EurActiv)