Week of June 22

A boat removes Eichhornia crassipes, commonly known as water hyacinth, from the surface of the Euphrates river. Credit: Phys.org

Because of the Syrian economy’s steady collapse over the last several months, the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad is becoming increasingly precarious. The United States slapped a new set of sanctions, the Caesar Act, on Syria this past week, the purpose of which is to further the economic discord in Syria and force Assad to more compromise with rebels. The U.S. has not barred any sort of humanitarian aid from entering the country but the economic situation calls into question Assad’s ability to reassert control over the rebel-controlled areas of the country. Assad depends on the monetary assistance of Iran and Russia; however, both of these countries are struggling with their own set of sanctions as well as the adverse economic impact of the global pandemic. Neither ally is in a position to help Assad out. In addition, neighboring Lebanon has been experiencing a protracted financial crisis due to corruption and governmental mismanagement, which has curbed the the flow revenue from Lebanon to Syria. If the Syrian economic crisis continues and supporters become less reliable, Assad’s political future is less likely.

On June 23rd, Kurdish leaders in northeastern Syria began talks with a U.S.-coalition over exemptions from the recently passed Caesar Act package of sanctions against Assad’s government. Badran Jia Kurd, a vice president of the regional administration in northeastern Syria, said that these sanctions would have a hard-hitting impact on trade in his region. Jia Kurd further said “[the US-coalition] told us the self-administration regions will be exempt from the Caesar sanctions but the mechanisms and means to achieve this exemption are being discussed with the international coalition.” The U.S. has made it clear that these sanctions will not impede humanitarian assistance or hinder regional coalition stabilization in the Kurdish-run region of Syria. 

Also on Tuesday, Chinese pharmaceutical company China National Biotec Group (CNBG) announced approval to test their phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine in the United Arab Emirates. The decision to transfer trials to the Gulf state was primarily based on China’s lack of new cases and an increase in cases in the UAE. Other Chinese biotech firms are also practicing foreign phase 3 testing, with Clover Biopharmaceuticals testing in Australia and Sinovac Biotech beginning testing in Brazil. In a move of regional cooperation, the UAE and Israel announced a formal working relationship focused on improving research in the field of regional public health and safety. Though the two nations do not currently have formal diplomatic relations, the UAE is seemingly willing to work past political differences – even with Israeli plans to annex the West Bank looming – to achieve greater public health advances in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is preparing to annex up to 30% of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, and many European parliamentarians are concerned. On Wednesday, June 24th, more than 1,000 European legislators signed a letter that warned of annexation’s negative consequences. In addition, the organizer of the letter is a former speaker of the Israeli parliament, Avraham Burg. He, along with several other Israeli politicians, advocates for a two-state solution. They fear that the Peace Plan proposed by President Trump severely restricts the opportunities for such a solution. The Israeli government dismissed the letter. Its ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer said that Israel “plans to extend sovereignty to territories that will remain part of Israel in any realistic peace agreement,” dismissing the idea that West Bank annexation was consequential or controversial. In addition, NPR reported that “countries at the UN Security Council have condemned Israeli plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, but the Trump administration says the move is up to Israel. The Israeli parliament will vote on annexation on July 1. 

The water hyacinth—nicknamed the “Nile flower” in Iraq—is an invasive plant native to South America’s Amazon basin that has ravaged ecosystems across the world, from Sri Lanka to Nigeria. Credit: Phys.org.

Lastly, an invasive species is affecting traditional ways of life for people who rely on Iraq’s vital waterways. The broad leaves and delicate purple flowers of the water hyacinth floating on the Euphrates may be pretty to look at but they are suffocating the waterways of Iraq, celebrated as the “land of the two rivers”. The fast-spreading pest poses a special risk in Iraq, one of the world’s hottest countries that is already suffering from regular droughts and shrinking water resources due to overuse, pollution and upstream river dams.

The exotic flower was introduced to Iraq just two decades ago as a decorative plant, but it has quickly spread out of control. Its glossy leaves form a thick cover, absorbing up to five liters (1.3 gallons) of water per plant a day and blocking sunlight and oxygen vital to the aquatic life below. Fisherman have been affected by the infestation; carp are dying and fishing nets get caught in the tangle of flat leaves, roots and flowers that also hampers boat travel. Beyond threats to the ecosystem, other industries like farming have been affected and there are concerns about infrastructural damage to bridges and dams because of the swamp-like conditions the plants create.

The report noted that the “perennial predicament has been made even worse this year because of the coronavirus pandemic [because] under normal conditions, Iraqi villagers along the banks of the Euphrates pluck out the plants by hand instead of using a chemical agent that would destroy the delicate ecosystem.” With families under lockdown, some people have defied “the curfew to fight the parasitic flower which they see as a bigger threat to their livelihoods than the pandemic.”

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