This section serves as a list of brief and important updates related to the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Content is collected via open sources, cross-checked and subsequently re-shared here. All content is handpicked by the EastMed & MidEast Observatory Team.
After years of tensions and proxy conflicts, Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic relations. The agreement was announced on March 10, 2023, and is considered a significant breakthrough in the long-standing conflict between the two regional powers. The restoration of diplomatic relations could have major implications for the Middle East, particularly in Yemen and Syria, where Iran and Saudi Arabia have been supporting opposing sides. The agreement also reflects a growing trend of countries in the region seeking to reduce tensions and promote stability. The move was facilitated by the governments of Pakistan and Kuwait, who played a key role in brokering the agreement. The two countries have long-standing relationships with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and were able to facilitate communication and negotiations between the two nations. While the agreement marks a positive step towards reducing tensions, it remains to be seen how it will be received by other countries in the region, particularly Israel and the United States, who view Iran as a threat. Hardline factions in both Iran and Saudi Arabia may also oppose the agreement, making its implementation a potential challenge. The restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a positive development that could lead to greater stability in the Middle East. It is important, however, to monitor how the situation develops and whether the two nations can work towards a more cooperative relationship in the future.
At least 11 Palestinians were killed and more than 80 wounded during an Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. Israeli forces entered the old city of Nablus, sparking clashes with Palestinian gunmen, and killed three militants holed up inside a house who refused to surrender. Among those killed outside were civilians, including two elderly men. The number of dead was one more than that of an Israeli military raid last month in Jenin, which was the deadliest in the West Bank since 2005. Palestinian health officials described the incident as a “massacre” and a dangerous escalation that was pushing the region towards tension and an explosion. The militant group Hamas warned that it was “running out of patience”. The raid lasted four hours and took place in the middle of the morning, when the narrow streets of the old city are often packed with families and people shopping. The raid came after an apparent understanding was reached between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities that Israel would lower the intensity of its raids into Palestinian cities.
A new chapter in Tunisian President Kais Saied's battle with a dispersed but emboldened opposition has emerged with the coordinated arrests of political and media personalities, raising concerns about a broader effort to stifle dissent. Security forces have only occasionally intervened against Saied's critics since he shut down parliament 18 months ago, attempting to rule by decree before revising the constitution. His detractors accuse him of staging an undemocratic coup.
Saied has denied leading a coup, claiming that his actions were legitimate and essential to keeping Tunisia out of anarchy. He pledged to protect the liberties and rights gained during the 2011 uprising that delivered democracy. The surge of arrests that have taken place since Saturday, 11 February, however, signify a strong new move against his detractors and an intensification of the pressure campaign that has been building over previous months with travel bans and investigations. Two judges, a representative of the prominent labor union, a powerful businessman, the head of Tunisia's most significant independent news outlet, and opposition politicians have all been held by police. Attorneys for some of those imprisoned claim they were accused of conspiring against state security, despite the fact that the authorities have not yet commented on the arrests. The chief of Tunisia's leading independent news organization, Mosaique FM, Noureddine Boutar, was questioned about his radio station's funding and editorial guidelines, including how it selected guests, according to his lawyer. "What transpired is risky. The message from the government to journalists who refuse to join a state of servitude is that you will suffer this destiny, "said the leader of the Tunisian journalists' syndicate, Mahdi Jlassi.
Rescuers rushed to find survivors from the earthquake wreckage on Wednesday, 7 February, as the dead toll in war-torn northern Syria and southern Turkey reached 11,000. 11,236 deaths have been reported overall, with 8,574 in Turkey and 2,662 in Syria, according to officials and medical personnel. But if the worst worries of experts come to pass, that may still rise sharply.
As more time passes after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Turkey early on Monday, 6 February, the deadliest since 1939 and which left around 33,000 people dead in the eastern province of Erzincan, the prospect of finding additional survivors trapped beneath the rubble is diminishing. More than 100 aftershocks have struck the area since, including a second earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6.
In Syria, according to the volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets, at least 2,662 people have been killed and more than 2,300 have been injured in opposition-held northwest Syria. An additional 1,250 fatalities have been recorded by the Syrian government. The rescue team, also known as the Syria Civil Defence, stated on Twitter that it was anticipated that there would be a major increase in casualties "due to the existence of hundreds of families under the wreckage, more than 50 hours after the earthquake."
Time is running out for the thousands of injured people and others who are still believed to be trapped, according to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization. More than 24,000 Turkish emergency workers joined search teams from more than 20 other nations, and donations flooded in. Help has, however, been arriving far too slowly for many whose relatives were still buried under the debris. An emergency state has been proclaimed in 10 provinces, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who claimed 13 million of the 85 million citizens were impacted. Desperation was rising among those still waiting for assistance in Syria, where a battle that started in 2011 is still ongoing. The ongoing conflict and the isolation of the opposition-held border region, which is ringed by government forces with support from Russia, have made aid attempts difficult. The lone border, known as Bab al-Hawa, in southern Turkey has been damaged, making it impossible for aid to reach northern Syria. The future appears bleak, even for those who survive. Many people have sought safety from the constant earthquakes, the icy rain and snow, and even the burning debris in mosques, schools, and even bus shelters. Shops are closed, there is no heat because gas lines were shut down to prevent explosions, and obtaining petrol is difficult in Gaziantep where the strong aftershocks continue. Only bakeries are still open, and they are very busy. In the province named after Gaziantep, some of the heaviest destruction occurred in the most distant areas, where hundreds of structures have collapsed.
After days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged restraint while in Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As the rioting in the area grew increasingly violent, a Palestinian man died on 30 January during an argument with Israeli soldiers. Blinken reiterated pleas for restraint and restated that the US considers the stalled peace process aimed at a two-state solution to be the "only road forward" in a press conference following his meeting with Netanyahu.
He added that "anything that pulls us away from a two-state solution is damaging to Israel's long-term security," stressing how crucial it is for the Israeli people to understand that America's commitment to their security is unwavering. He stated that the United States "continues to support sustaining the status quo at Jerusalem's holy places." Blinken also encouraged Israel's new far-right administration to ensure it has widespread popular support for its ambitious agenda, which includes reforming the nation's court system, a move that has been met with significant protests in Israeli cities.
Blinken reaffirmed his support for the "fundamental democratic ideals," adding that "creating consensus around new initiatives is the most effective approach to guarantee they are welcomed and that they endure." He also backed Netanyahu's resolve to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The secretary of state's long-planned three-day journey to the Middle East, however, has been dominated by efforts to defuse the current security situation. Blinken landed in Cairo early on Monday to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who is still an important US ally despite a dismal track record on human rights. The state department reported that developments in Egypt's neighbors, Libya, Sudan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, were discussed.
After only three weeks in office, the new Israeli administration intends to further oppress Palestinians and plans to reform the legal system. After taking office on December 29, the new Israeli administration, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has already started to push through its far-right objectives. The suggested changes would have a significant impact on Israeli internal politics as well as Israeli policy toward Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
After Netanyahu's Likud and affiliated far-right parties won the most seats in the parliamentary elections on November 1, a nationalist-religious administration that is thought to be the most right-wing in Israel's history took office. Israelis are divided on a number of issues high on the agenda of the new government, with thousands protesting a proposal to overhaul the legal system and undermine the Supreme Court. Annexing the occupied West Bank, where things are already heated, is one of the other ambitions. Early in January, the controversial far-right minister of national security Itamar Ben-Gvir entered the flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in a provocative manner, raising fears that violence at the occupied East Jerusalem holy site would erupt. Despite Palestinian resentment, the incident ended without any further escalation.
The principal changes that have occurred since the new Israeli government assumed office include, plans to reform the judicial system, the prohibition of Palestinian flags in public places, pledging to absorb the West Bank under occupation and the Palestinian Authority being constrained.
On Turkey's end, the meeting was attended by Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and the head of its National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), Hakan Fidan. On Syria's side, Defence Minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas and Syrian Intelligence Chief Ali Mamlouk attended. Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu represented Russia on his end. Various other unnamed officials were also present in Moscow.
This was the first ministerial meeting taking place since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. The meeting was particularly important for the three counterparts, as it enabled discussion on disputes, such as the presence of Turkish troops within Syrian territory and the Syrian refugee crisis.
Addressing these issues could lead to further normalisation of relations and ease of tension in the region. This is further hinted by Erdogan's proposal to Russia's Vladimir Putin to engage in trilateral ministerial meetings among Russian, Syrian and Turkish officials, which could culminate in a summit with the three countries’ leaders. Such a move would also help Erdogan regain additional publicity, seeing a potential rise in opinion polls on the lead up to the June 2023 elections.
29 December 2022
The decision also includes a 29-month ban from politics, due to "insulting a public official" back in 2019, during a speech following his election victory. While Imamoglu is allowed to retain his status, the timing is unfortunate due to the upcoming presidential elections of June 2023, where he was a likely candidate to challenge and potentially defeat Erdogan.
The announcement of the court's decision sparked protests around Istanbul. Thousands took it to the streets on Thursday, 15 December, demonstrating against what appears to have been a "political" attempt by Erdogan to silence a popular candidate. Growing political disputes are becoming more common as the election period draws closer, with Erdogan targeting rivals more systematically amidst uncertainty due to his previously low scores on opinion polls.
The United States, French, and German governments were quick to criticise the decision, calling for a more just and fairer ruling in respect of democracy.
In neighbouring Lebanon, an Irish UN peacekeeper was killed, following an ambush to a UN convoy at the Al-Aqbieh village near the Israeli border. A mob of villagers stopped UNIFIL's convoy that was patrolling around the area. Small arms fire shot down two UNIFIL peacekeepers, out of which one was later pronounced dead and the other was in critical condition.
The UN convoy appeared to take a somewhat different route than what it usually takes, which prompted villagers to react. Hezbollah, which remains highly influential in the south due to the Israeli border, called the incident "unintentional" and that a proper investigation should take place to determine why the UNIFIL convoy followed an "unusual route".
Recent changes to UNIFIL's mandate by the UN Security Council allow the mission to "conduct its operations independently", something which provoked an angry response by Hezbollah's leadership, seeing the changes in the mandate as an act that undermines Lebanese sovereignty. Hezbollah also denied any involvement in the convoy attack.
- France24 - Istanbul Protests and France24 - Irish UN Peacekeeper Killed
- Al Jazeera
- Times of Israel
15 December 2022
Turkey's persistent targeting of the SDF dates back to its initial portrayal as an ally and aide of the Kurdistan's Workers' Party (PKK), a Washington and Ankara terrorist-designated entity. The SDF leadership has denied any involvement with the PKK.
The continuation of the Turkish air raids in Syria also falls in line with the current aggressive narrative in Turkey amidst the election campaign season, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made several provoking and bellicist statements to raise support and legitimise hostile action taken on foreign lands.
While initially avoiding to comment on the continuation of the joint CT front, the US has already begun preparations for "full ground operations" alongside extended patrols. A White House official also stated that while Turkey's security concerns are legitimate, air strikes and destablising violence does not resolve the matter. The US has also expressed concerns over its own troops getting caught in the bombardments.
7 December 2022
The focus of the official UN documentation has been the "peaceful settlement" and resolution of the question of Palestine. Similarly, other resolutions addressed Israeli claims and occupation of other lands such as in the Golan, where Israel has imposed law and jurisdiction. The respective resolution emphasises that Israel should rescind its such impositions.
The resolutions come at a time following the early November elections in Israel that have led to the formation of a more conservative and far-right government. Former US diplomats, including a former US Ambassador to Israel, have also called upon the Biden administration to cease the selling of weapons to Israel, in light of of the constant violations and territorial issues in West Bank.
More specifically, however, Ambassador Kurtzer and former State Department negotiator Miller both stressed that the US should still uphold and support the State of Israel's "legitimate security needs" in the volatile region of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The rise of a more far-right regime is particularly alarming, as it is likely to radically change policy on the issue of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories in the West Bank.
30 November 2022
Following alleged threats of imprisonment and torture to the fans' families in Iran, anti-government protesters were also forced to tone down the demonstrations and to sing the Iranian national anthem during the 25th November match.
Reactions at home in Iran to this incident has also led to more widespread protests. The Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has also highlighted that the situation in Iran is "critical", with more and more arrests and death sentences carried out for people participating in peaceful demonstrations.
Following investigations by different agencies including the FBI, the United States accused FIFA officials of corruption and bribery for awarding the hosting of World Cup 2018 and 2022 to Russia and Qatar respectively.
The World Cup in 2022 is not simply embroiled in the widespread corruption allegations FIFA itself faces, but analysis has also focused on the controversy over human rights violations. Amnesty International has been reporting on the issue since 2016, and has subsequently described it as a "world cup of shame", highlighting the violations throughout and leading up to the event
At the same time, the World Cup has generated very minimal revenue, compared to the outstanding amount of $229 billion the Qatari government has spent, making it the most expensive Cup ever yet. Despite the insignificant monetary gain in the short run, the event is a powerful tool for the government, for at least two reasons:
- It is likely the government is utilising the 'soft power' aspects hosting the World Cup provides, i.e. appearing as an impressive regional player in the political arena.
- In the long run, the economy is likely to grow by 3-4% due to a diversification of other sectors (tourism, hospitality, infrastructure) that have accelerated in growth in preparation for the event