Week of February 24

Credit: CNN

Consistent with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s focus on social reforms, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has launched a national women’s soccer league. This announcement came weeks after the country launched its first female military unit. The league is the latest in a series of measures the kingdom says were taken to empower women. Some of the notable advancements have included: giving women the right to drive, ending gender segregation at restaurants, and allowing Saudi women to hold passports and travel abroad without the consent of a male guardian. However, the country has been criticized for using the social aspects of change to cover up the fact that there has been a lack of political and government reform. 

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump stated that it is time for the United States to pass the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) on to Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and to instead focus on maintaining control of oil resources in the region. At a press conference in New Delhi,  Trump said that “nobody’s done more than I’ve done” to battle ISIS in the Middle East, “but at the same time, Russia should do it, Iran should do it, Iraq should do it, Syria should do it.” He placed particular responsibility on Iran, arguing that the Islamic Republic “hates ISIS and they should do it.” He added that the United States has “done a great job, we’ve taken our soldiers essentially out of Syria except for little hotspots we figure we’ll develop. We’ve taken the oil and the soldiers we have there are the ones guarding the oil, we have the oil, so that’s all we have there.” In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the comments confirmed “what we all knew: US troops in Syria to ‘have the oil.'” Zarif also rejected Trump’s assertion that the U.S. has contributed to the battle against ISIS, tweeting that “… not only did US NOT fight ISIS, it cowardly murdered its #1 enemy—with ONLY Trump cronies & ISIS celebrating,” in reference to the January assassination of Qassem Soleimani.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia closed off the holiest sites in Islam to foreign pilgrims over the  threat of the coronavirus, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage. The unprecedented move, which wasn’t taken even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide, showed the growing worry about the virus across the Middle East, which has more than 360 confirmed cases.

The Washington Post reported that a Neanderthal skeleton unearthed in the Shanidar Cave in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq is providing new evidence that our ancestors buried their dead. Scientists reported last week that new analysis of a well-preserved upper-body skeleton of an adult Neanderthal who lived about 70,000 years ago contradicts offers new insight on prehistoric rituals. Archaeologists in 1960 found the remains of 10 Neanderthals — seven adults and three infants — in the cave. The cave offered insight into the physical characteristics, behavior and diet of this species. At that time,  clusters of flower pollen found in soil samples associated with one of the skeletons prompted scientists to propose that Neanderthals buried their dead and conducted funerary rites with flowers, which challenged prevailing beliefs that Neanderthals lacked intelligence. Debate ensued as some suggested the pollen could have been modern contamination from people working and living in the cave or from burrowing rodents or insects. However, review of the 1960 remains of “Shanidar Z” suggest that the body was “deliberately placed in an intentionally dug depression cut into the subsoil and part of a cluster of four individual remains.” Furthermore, the sediment around the site contained ancient pollen and other mineralized plant remains, reviving the possibility of flower burials. Read more about the skeletons of the Shanidar Cave.

Politico reported that the U.S. signed a historic peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday. Under the deal (read the full agreement here), all U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan in 14 months if the Taliban meet their commitments. The signing between U.S. Special Peace Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban officials will set the stage for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after 19 years of violence that has killed more than 3,500 Americans and coalition troops and tens of thousands of Afghans since the U.S. invasion following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. However, on Sunday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that he will not free thousands of Taliban prisoners ahead of all-Afghan power-sharing talks beginning March 10th in Oslo. The newly-signed deal includes a provision regarding the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government in exchange for the release of up to 1,000 prisoners by the Taliban. At a news conference in Kabul, Ghani said the release wasn’t a promise the United States could make and that the release of any prisoners was a decision for his government to take and that he wasn’t ready to release prisoners before the start of negotiations.

The Atlantic reported on the Turkish government announcement that it was no longer able to support a deal made with the European Union in 2016 to prevent migrants from crossing into Europe. “Shortly after the announcement, thousands of men, women, and children set off for the border with Greece, attempting to leave Turkey by land or by sea, only to meet barbed-wire fences and security forces. Turkey has been hosting several million refugees from Syria, as well as migrants and refugees from Africa and other parts of the Middle East. Turkish officials said they were unable to cope with a recent increase in refugees, following escalations in the fighting in Syria, while others have accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “weaponizing” the migrants, pressuring the EU to support Turkey’s operations in Syria.”

Migrants walk toward Greece along the Turkey-Greece border near Pazarkule. Credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

An invisible border line bisects the skinny Maritsa river, separating Turkey from neighboring Greece. The migrant route to Europe that in 2015 erupted with people desperate to get to a safe haven had long been abandoned. On Thursday, Turkey abruptly announced it was no longer abiding by a 2016 EU deal that included EU funds for Turkey if the latter closed its border with Greece and hosted over 3 million Syrian refugees. The decision followed the death of 33 Turkish soldiers in Syria’s Idlib, where Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups and Turkish armed forces are fighting a major battle against the Russian-backed Syrian army. Over a million civilians have fled the area since December.

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