October 28, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

TURKEY

A Genie Is Out

Russian troops in Syria recently moved to the country’s northeastern border with Turkey, occupying territory that American troops left on orders from US President Donald Trump.

The Russian moves were part of a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who launched an invasion of the region after the US withdrawal with plans to establish a “safe zone” for two million Syrian refugees who had been seeking haven in Turkey, the BBC reported.

As Turkish troops entered Syria to confront Kurdish fighters who had been America’s most stalwart allies, Erdogan claimed he was fighting terrorism. That’s only partly true. Kurds across the region have been seeking to establish an independent country for years, and one armed faction in Turkey, the PKK, is widely considered a terrorist group.

But Erdogan’s goals were also domestic. His Justice and Development political party lost local elections in major cities a few months ago as many Turkish voters blamed the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in their midst for their weakening economy. “It is no coincidence that since the party’s rout in the June 23 rerun in Istanbul, government spokesmen have constantly touted the safe zone plan inside Syria as a way to expedite the return of Syrian refugees,” wrote Al-Monitor.

The imperative to retain power domestically through violence abroad was strong enough for Erdogan to anger nearly every other player in the region – and unite them, no mean feat, Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall wrote. Russia and Iran saw the Turkish incursion as a challenge to their influence in Syria. Arab leaders don’t like Erdogan’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aims to increase its power in Gulf capitals, or his “neo-Ottoman” dreams of Turkish power expanding throughout the Middle East.

“The War for Post-U.S. Syria Has Begun,” exclaimed a headline in Foreign Policy magazine, which described the power jockeying in Syria as a “regional free-for-all.”

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post were blunter last week, all with front page stories on how Syria is being carved up between the Turks and the Russians.

What’s more, the power grab, ironically, comes after the US helped everyone in the region defeat the area’s real terrorists, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

However, many Islamic State fighters have reportedly escaped prison camps where they had been locked up in the wake of the Kurds’ retreat, CNBC reported.

The chaos might end badly for everyone who remains in northern Syria. Israeli newspaper Haartez noted that Trump might have handed Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin a “poisoned victory.” Meanwhile, Iran might never achieve victory of any sort, after helping the Syrian regime to fight the rebels. The US president is also planning to keep some troops in southeastern Syria to counter the influence of the mullahs of Tehran, the National Interest wrote, while safeguarding oil fields from terrorists, as well as the Syrians and their Russian allies, the Post wrote.

So the American troops aren’t all leaving. And the drama and violence will not end. In fact, some US troops, once stationed in the region, spoke out – that in itself unusual – and said they believe they will be forced to return.

“I can’t even look at the atrocities,” an Army officer who served in Syria last year told the Washington Post referring to Turkish-backed fighters’ treatment of Kurdish civilians in Syria. “The ISIS mission is going to stop, ISIS is going to have a resurgence, and we’re going to have to go back in five years and do it all again.”

WANT TO KNOW

SYRIA

Death of a Salesman

On Sunday, both the Iraqis and the Kurds jumped to take credit for helping US troops to attack Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who died during a US military operation in northwestern Syria over the weekend, Reuters reported.

“Following extensive work by a dedicated team for over a year, Iraq’s National Intelligence Service was able to accurately pinpoint the hideout of the terrorist…,” the Iraqi government said in a statement. “Subsequently, US forces, in coordination with Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, carried out an operation which led to the elimination of the terrorist al-Baghdadi.”

The Kurds echoed the Iraqis.

“For five months there has been joint intel cooperation on the ground and accurate monitoring, until we achieved a joint operation to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Mazloum Abdi said, according to Al Jazeera.

Al-Baghdadi, who came to prominence in 2014 when he announced the creation of a “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, blew himself up during the operation, US President Donald Trump said Sunday.

Reaction to the announcement in Western countries and from NATO members was cautiously optimistic, with leaders from the UK to Italy to Turkey calling it a ‘major turning point’ in the fight against Islamic State but warning it wasn’t over.

“Al-Baghdadi’s death is a hard blow against Islamic State, but it is just a stage,” said French President Emmanuel Macron on Twitter. “…the fight continues to finally defeat this terrorist organization.”

Still, Russia cast doubt on the demise. “The Russian Ministry of Defense does not have reliable information on the operation by U.S. servicemen… on yet another ‘elimination’ of …Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Major-General Igor Konashenkov according to the RIA news agency.

Meanwhile, Iranian Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted:

“Not a big deal, You just killed your creature,” referring to an Iranian belief that the US created the Islamic State.

ETHIOPIA

Keeping the Peace

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed over the weekend vowed to ensure that the rule of law prevailed following a week of violent unrest that has left 67 dead, Agence France-Presse reported.

“The crisis we have faced will become even more fearsome and difficult if Ethiopians don’t unite and stand as one,” Abiy said Saturday, his first remarks since violence broke out last week.

The young leader, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with neighboring Eritrea and leading internal reforms, also denounced attempts to turn the crisis into a religious and ethnic one.

The recent clashes erupted in the capital and in much of Ethiopia’s Oromia region after Oromo activist and Abiy critic Jawar Mohammed accused police of planning an attack against him.

Mohammed’s Oromo supporters took to the streets to protest Abiy’s government – Abiy is also Oromo.

Mohammed is credited with helping Abiy come to power last year, but has recently become critical of the prime minister’s policies.

The ethnic and religious clashes are a serious challenge to Abiy and his reform program as the country looks ahead to elections in May 2020.

KAZAKHSTAN

No, Thanks

Kazakh police detained more than two dozen people Saturday for participating in protests against the government and China’s increasing influence on the country’s economy, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty reported.

Protesters demanded the release of “political prisoners” by the government, and a halt to neighboring China’s increased involvement in the country through its trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative.

In recent months, the country has been gripped by protests against Chinese investment in the oil-rich country.

Kazakh authorities countered that high-tech joint ventures with China could provide jobs for thousands of people, but some remain opposed to “Sinicization,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Saturday’s demonstrations were organized by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), a political movement that has been labeled an extremist group by authorities.

The group has vowed to overthrow the regime of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned from office in March but still chairs both the country’s ruling party Nur Otan and the powerful national security council.

DISCOVERIES

A Bad Rap

Pontius Pilate is remembered in the Bible as the Roman governor who oversaw Jesus Christ’s trial and crucifixion.

There are few historical records on his governorship but Israeli archaeologists recently uncovered a nearly 2,000-year-old street believed to have been commissioned by the ancient bureaucrat, the Independent reported.

In their study, researchers found more than 100 ancient coins beneath the paving stones dating back to around AD 30, the period Pilate was ruling the province of Judea.

They noted that the grand walkway – nearly 2,000 feet long and 26 feet wide – connected two important monuments in Jewish and Christian traditions: the Pool of Siloam and the Temple Mount.

The team believes that pilgrims used the road to access both sites, and that Pilate built the ornately designed street as a good-will gesture toward the city’s Jewish population.

“Part of it may have been to appease the residents of Jerusalem,” said lead author Nahshon Szanton, “part of it may have been about the way Jerusalem would fit in the Roman world, and part of it may have been to aggrandize his name through major building projects.”

Regardless of his motivations, the street provides more evidence about Pilate’s contributions to the city’s infrastructure. In this area, he’s mostly remembered for building one aqueduct, Discover Magazine reported.