Week of September 30

Anti-government protesters set fires and close a street during a demonstration in Baghdad on Sunday after nearly a week of unrest throughout Iraq. Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP

From Morocco to Turkey, rap music is a popular method of protest among the young generation of activists in the Middle East. Most recently, Amir al-Muarri, a 20-year-old Syrian rapper from Idlib, has been making headlines for his powerful, politically-charged single On All Fronts, which targets all actors in the Syrian conflict, but most notably the Syrian regime and its Russian supporters. Al-Muarri’s hometown Idlib is one of the most dangerous regions in Syria today, as the battle between Syrian government forces and the opposition fighters has been in full swing since 2015, taking the lives of hundreds of civilians. In his music video, al-Muarri is seen rapping in front of the dilapidated buildings of Idlib, which, after years of fighting, have become the city’s natural architecture. Filmed in August and September, the video also features 62 locals from the area, including children, youth, women, shopkeepers, a doctor and barber. According to al-Muarri, the video production and sound engineering was modest and basic, and though he has only been rapping for a little over a year; yet, his music video been received rather positively by the near 35,000 who have viewed it. Among al-Muarri’s musical influences are a wide span of rappers, such as Tupac Shakur, Wu-Tang Clan and Anas Arabi Katbi, the effect of which is palpable in his music, which combines Western rhythms with Middle Eastern instrumentation. Al-Muarri explains that his single was a necessary reaction to ‘’what’s happening in the liberated northwest Syria,’’ and he hopes that ‘’the song will reach all the actors who are in control of the security, military and political situation in the northwest, especially those who have the power to halt the attacks targeting us [them].’’ 

Days of deadly anti-government protests in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities have brought few real concessions from the authorities, but after bloodshed spread to the poor, restive Baghdad district of Sadr City on Sunday, they responded differently. When several protesters were killed there, the military ordered an army withdrawal from the area and security forces for the first time admitted using excessive force, promising to hold those involved in violence against civilians to account. More money has also been promised to help the poor. Signs of an escalation in the sprawling residential district, from where Shiiite insurgents once attacked U.S. forces after the 2003 U.S. invasion, scared the government because it could signal more serious trouble for Iraq and much bloodier unrest, security forces, local leaders, lawmakers and analysts say.  “There will be angry people who have lost a brother or a relative — they’ll want to seek revenge through tribes,” said Sheikh Shiyaa al-Bahadli, a local tribal leader. He warned, however, that the government must take steps to enact real reform, blaming corrupt authorities for the unrest, or the protests would continue. Thus far, over 100 people have been killed and thousands injured in the protests, which have demanded better basic public services like electricity and water, and renounced corruption.

Israel is quietly allowing thousands of Palestinians to enter from the Gaza Strip to conduct business and work menial jobs, apparently as part of understandings with the ruling Hamas militant group aimed at preventing a fourth war in the blockaded territory.  Israel effectively revoked thousands of work permits when it joined Egypt in imposing a crippling blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. The blockade, along with three wars between Hamas and Israel, has devastated the economy in Gaza, where unemployment is over 50%. But the Associated Press reported that Israel has expanded a program in which it had long provided hundreds of permits to business owners to travel to Israel and the West Bank for commerce. Palestinian officials say it is now providing some 5,000 so-called merchant permits and awarding them to Palestinians working as laborers in construction, agriculture and manufacturing.

The international medical humanitarian aid group, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders released a report on Friday that massive violence suffered by the Yazidi religious minority in northwestern Iraq has led to a severe and debilitating mental health crisis, including many suicide attempts, which they say highlights the need for mental health services in Iraq’s conflict-affected communities. When the Islamic State group attacked the Yazidi community in the Sinjar district in August 2014, extremist network conducted a sustained campaign of killing, rape, abduction and enslavement, and caused a mass migration to camps in the adjacent Kurdish region. The United Nations has acknowledged this as a genocide. Although Sinjar was retaken in 2015, many Yazidi families have not returned, not only because of the destruction of their homes and villages, but because of the trauma they now associate with their ancestral homelands.  MSF says that those who remain in Sinjar district experience a high level of mental health needs: between April and August 2019, 24 patients arrived in the emergency room of Sinuni General Hospital following suicide attempts. Of those 24, six did not survive; eleven of the patients were under 18 years old.

On Sunday night, in a phone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump gave Turkey a green light to invade northeast Syria. Trump’s decision marks a major shift in the administration’s policy on Syria, as the U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey deems as a terrorist organization, has been at the center of U.S. strategy in fighting the Islamic State since 2014. Now that Turkey will carry out its long-planned operation into northeast Syria, the Syrian Kurds will need a Turkish offensive that they hoped the United States would deter; the Kurds have indicated that may even seek help from Bashar Al-Assad as a last resort. Trump’s apparent blessing of the Turkish invasion indicates an a withdrawal from the contentious safe-zone negotiations by both sides. Since August, the U.S. and Turkey had been attempting to negotiate the means of a mutually-administered buffer in northeast Syria as a way to address both countries’ security interests, and deter Erdogan from the carrying out threats to attack the region. Yet, surprisingly, it seems that Erdogan and Trump have reached a new deal satisfying the interests of both sides as the recent phone call suggests that they are on good terms. What explains the sudden shift in policy seems to be that Turkey has agreed to take custody of the captured ISIS fighters the YPG has been responsible for holding until now. According to Trump, ISIS has been entirely defeated in Syria and the only remaining point of concern for the his administration is the management of the 60,000 ISIS detainees, which he believes Turkey will be able to handle. Thus, he ordered all American troops to withdraw from the region, signaling to both the Kurds and Turkey that the United States will not intervene in the likelihood of the Turkey incursion. Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds came as an unpleasant surprise to much of his administration, who view Trump’s isolationism as a premature move that will threaten U.S. interests by strengthening the position of ISIS. James Jeffrey, the special envoy to Syria, and Brett McGurk, the former special envoy for the fight against ISIS, have openly criticized Trump for his erratic decision, and it is likely that more will express concern. 

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