Week of May 20

Residents gathering amid rubble and damaged vehicles in the town of Kafranbel, Syria, in the rebel-held part of Idlib Province, on May 20. Crediti: Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

On Monday, the Syrian military and its allies continued a campaign to retake the province of Idlib, the last province in Syria to be controlled by the opposition. Throughout Syria’s eight-year civil war, Idlib has become a destination for opposition fighters and supporters fleeing capture in their hometowns. Bombing from Russian planes and other pro-government forces has devastated Idlib, disabling 19 hospitals and medical centers. On the ground, Syrian soldiers have regained control of at least 12 villages. Turkey, which borders Idlib province, may be involved in attempting to keep the area stable in order to prevent more Syrian refugees from fleeing into Turkey.

Fighters from UN-backed government forces distribute food and aid to people trapped near the al-Sawani frontline in Tripoli. Credit: Amru Salahuddien/Xinhua/Bancroft Media

Good news came out of Libya on Tuesday as water supplies to Tripoli and surrounding cities that had been cut off earlier in the week were restored. The water was shut off when an armed group claiming to be loyal to warlord Khalifa Haftar stormed the control room, forcing workers to shut down pipes. Haftar has been leading an assault on the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli since early April. Had the water remained off, the two million people of Tripoli would have been left without water, not to mention citizens in nearby coastal areas. The Libyan agency in charge of the pipelines condemned the attack, stating that “water is God’s gift to all and should not be used to dictate or bargain under any conditions at all.” The brief water shutdown is only the latest incident in the run up to what many Libyans are fearing will be a civil war between the GNA and Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

Backing off of a Tuesday statement the State Department made asserting that the Syrian government may be using chemical weapons again, the Trump administration said on Wednesday it had yet to find evidence proving the use of these weapons. The State Department had previously warned of a suspected chlorine attack in northwest Syria in the conflict-ridden Idlib region. However, James F. Jeffrey, the special representative to Syria, testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that the Syrian military had instead been carrying out “indiscriminate and very vicious bombings,” but did not confirm any use of chemical weapons. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British war monitor, said there had been no chemical attack this week.

While the U.S. and Iran have been increasingly hostile towards each other in recent weeks, Iranian school children enraged their government by dancing to pop music on Wednesday. Iranian pop singer Sasy Mankan has started a “dance challenge,” encouraging children to dance to his song “Gentleman.” Conservatives in Iran fear the dance challenge is a “U.S.-linked cultural attack,” given that Mankan lives in the United States and connects with his fans primarily through Instagram. Pop culture is strictly censored in Iran; in 2014, three un-veiled women and three men were sentenced to jail and flogging for dancing to American singer Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy.” Enforcing decades-old policies on cultural censorship is proving difficult for aged hardliners in the age of social media. 

Omani author Jokha Alharthi became the first Arab writer to win the Man Booker International Prize, an international literary award based in the UK. Alharthi, along with her English translator Marilyn Booth, was awarded the prize for her novel Celestial Bodies, a story about three sisters and their families living through cultural change in the post-colonial period in Oman. Speaking about her win, Alharthi commented that, “I am thrilled that a window has been opened to the rich Arabic culture…Oman inspired me but I think international readers can relate to the human values in the book – freedom and love.” Read an excerpt from their next project together, a novel entitled Bitter Orange, in which an Omani student dredges up her grandmother’s troubled past and grows entangled in the personal dilemmas of her fellow international students.


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#jokhaalharthi and #MarilynBooth spoke to a packed audience @hayfestival with chair of judges @bettany.hughes

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On Friday, the Pentagon confirmed that it would be deploying an additional 1,500 American troops to the Middle East, including missile defense and surveillance units. Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said that the troops were being deployed in order to “improve our force protection and safeguard U.S. forces given the ongoing threat posed by Iranian forces .?.?. and its proxies.” President Trump commented that “We’re going to be sending a relatively small number of troops, mostly protective, and some very talented people are going to the Middle East now, and we’ll see how, we’ll see what happens.” Despite Trump’s statement that the troops were mostly protective, the deployment increased fears about a potential military conflict between Iran and the United States as a result of the economic standoff and increased military posturing.

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