Week of January 29

The systemic discord in the Middle East was further complicated in the last week by some troublesome twists to regional dynamics and conflicts. On Tuesday, southern separatists in Yemen seized control of the strategic Yemeni port city of Aden after two days of clashes. The infighting is the latest development in a three-year-long civil conflict that has pitted the northern Houthi rebels (Shia), backed by Tehran, against the Hadi government, backed by a coalition (Sunni) of regional powers. That coalition appears to be fraying as the southern Yemeni separatists, supported by the United Arab Emirates, rose up Sunday against former allies loyal to Hadi, who is aligned with Saudi Arabia. The separatists, known as the Southern Transitional Council, are seeking the revival of the independent state of South Yemen, which existed before Yemen was unified in 1990. Residents told Reuters on Tuesday that separatists had seized the last stronghold of Hadi’s presidential protective force, engaging in battles using tanks and artillery. The splintering of the formerly-unified Saudi-led coalition and the added regional dimension — Houthis are based in the north but have displaced the Saudi-backed central government, while the separatists seek control of the south — to the conflict brings more chaos and players to a conflict most notable for its catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

A New York Times report revealed that for the last two years, with the consent of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign against jihadists in Egypt’s Northern Sinai. Israel has conducted more than 100 airstrikes, often more than once a week. The jihadists had killed hundreds of soldiers and police officers, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, briefly seized a major town and begun setting up armed checkpoints to claim territory, but Egypt had been unable to stem the tide. Israel, alarmed at the threat just across the border, has stepped in to weaken the militant presence. The Israeli intervention has helped the Egyptian military regain its footing in its nearly five-year battle against the militants. For Israel, the strikes have bolstered the security of its borders and the stability of its neighbor.

A funeral convoy carrying the bodies of four Egyptian militants killed in an airstrike in Sinai in 2013. The Egyptian government denied reports that they were killed by missiles fired by an Israeli drone. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Their collaboration in the North Sinai is the most dramatic evidence yet of a quiet reconfiguration of the politics of the region. Shared enemies like ISIS, Iran and political Islam have brought the leaders of several Arab states into growing alignment with Israel, though their officials and news media continue to vilify the Jewish state in public for its policies toward the Palestinian population. The two countries have gone to great lengths to conceal the arrangement: the Israeli drones are unmarked, while jets and helicopters cover their markings; military censors restrict public reports of the airstrikes. American officials report that Sisi hides the origin of the strikes from all but a tiny cohort of military and intelligence officers. His government has declared the North Sinai a closed military zone and prevents journalists from gathering information there. This evolving relationship is mutually beneficial for both sides but how will Egypt’s dependence on Israel’s superior military might be affected by Sisi’s anti-Israel rhetoric? Are they just another means to divert attention from the unusual partnership? Will similar accords with Israel arise in other Arab states? How would they affect the notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the preeminent issue in the Middle East?

In other news, last week:

  • On Wednesday, the results of BBC research on the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan were released, and contradicted previous estimates of the territory under their control. Months of research show that the Taliban now control or threaten up to 70% of the country, much more than when foreign combat troops left in 2014. Previous estimates had suggested the Taliban held or threatened closer to 40% of the territory. The Afghan government played down the report, saying it controls most areas, but recent attacks claimed by Taliban and Islamic State group militants have killed scores in Kabul and elsewhere. About 15 million people – half the population – are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks. The hardline Islamic Taliban movement swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996 after the civil war which followed the Soviet-Afghan war, and were ousted by the US-led invasion five years later. The BBC research also suggests that IS is more active in Afghanistan than ever before, although it remains far less powerful than the Taliban.
  • On Thursday, President Trump’s administration granted Syrians with Temporary Protection Status an extension to remain in the United States for an additional 18 months. Their status to remain and work in the country legally was set to expire March 31. As a result of the extension, Syrian immigrants living in the United States under the TPS program will be protected from deportation. In addition to the declaration of the 18 month extension for TPS immigrants and recent military initiatives to be implemented in Syria, the U.S. government should continue to increase humanitarian support for the war torn country. The extension does not apply to any new or recent applicants from Syria.
  • On Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned the Syrian government about using chemical weapons against civilians and raised the possibility of launching another round of airstrikes against the nation. Syrian President Bashar Assad would be “ill-advised” to launch such attacks, Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. Referring to the administration’s missile attack against a Syrian military airbase in April 2017 after confirming nerve gas use was used against Syrians living in Khan Sheikoun, Mattis stated “We’re on the record and you all have seen how we reacted to that,” Mattis said. “So they would be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention.” Syria has denied continued use of chemical weapons but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s forces had launched a new round of attacks in East Ghouta where civilians were reportedly suffocating and dying as a result of military strikes. Chlorine attacks, though less deadly than the sarin nerve gas, have been reported regularly.
  • On Saturday, Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, claimed responsibility for downing a Russian warplane in northern Syria, apparently using a surface-to-air missile to target the aircraft. The pilot was killed after he ejected and exchanged gunfire with militants on the ground, according to the Russian Defense Ministry and a monitoring group said. The incident could raise tensions between Russia and Turkey, which is monitoring a ­“de-escalation zone” in the northern province of Idlib as part of an agreement made during Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana. In the hours after the Russian jet was downed, Moscow also claimed to have killed more than 30 militants in the area.
  • And, last but not least, the Tunisian Minister of Sports and Youth expressed her full support for Morocco’s 2026 World Cup bid on Friday, joining Nigeria in its endorsement. Majdouline Cherni claimed that Morocco has plenty of advantages to host the World Cup, including its infrastructure, and that is time for an Arab country to host the games. The North African country is competing against the three American nations’s joint bid, composed of the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Cover photo credit: Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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