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Afghanistan: US to groom Taliban to fight ISIS?

Taliban leaders confirmed that long-planned direct talks with the US took place in Doha, capital of Qatar, Oct. 12. The Taliban said in a statement (PDF)  that their delegation met with US special adviser for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. The statement said the two sides discussed the prospects for an end to the presence of the foreign forces in Afghanistan, and the return of "true peace" to the country. (Khaama Press, Long War Journal, Oct. 13) These overtures come as the US is stepping up operations against ISIS in Afghanistan. In an Aug. 25 air-strike in Nangarhar province, the US claimed to have killed Abu Sayed Orakzai, top ISIS commander in Afghanistan. (CNN, Sept. 3) Earlier in August, more than 200 ISIS fighters and their two top commanders surrendered to Afghan government forces in Jowzjan province to avoid capture by Taliban insurgents, after a two-day battle that was a decisive victory for the Taliban. (NYT, Aug. 1)

Saudi regime pressured over missing journalist

The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Saudi Arabia to immediately account for the whereabouts of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Multiple news outlets reported Oct. 6 that Turkish authorities, who have been investigating his disappearance, believe that Khashoggi is dead and was killed inside the consulate. "CPJ is alarmed by media reports that Jamal Khashoggi may have been killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul," said CPJ Deputy executive director Robert Mahoney. "The Saudi authorities must immediately give a full and credible accounting of what happened to Khashoggi inside its diplomatic mission. The country has stepped up its repression of critical journalists in the past year at home. We hope this has not now spread abroad."

Somaliland at issue in UAE-Mogadishu rift

The United Arab Emirates announced April 16 that it is ending its military training program in Somalia, as the governments of Abu Dhabi and Mogadishu trade charges back and forth. Ostensibly the move comes in response to the seizure of millions of dollars from a UAE plane by Somali security forces last week. But tensions between the two governments have been on the rise over Emirati plans to build a military base in Somaliland, the self-declared republic that is effectively independent from Mogadishu. The UAE has trained hundreds of troops since 2014 for the weak and fractious Mogadishu government. But Mogadishu sees establishment of a foreign base at Somaliland's port of Berbera as a move toward recognition of the breakaway republic, calling it a "clear violation of international law."

Oil prices surge: vindication is tedious

Well, we hate to say "We told you so," but... We told you so. We've been told for the past several years now that the depressed oil prices were permanent, that thanks to fracking and the surge in US domestic production, the price was now immune to Middle East instability, dramatic spikes and "oil shocks" forever banished. Well, futures for Brent crude just hit $63.37 per barrel, with the spot price for West Texas Intermediate at $57.34. (Panorama.am, Investing.com) Creeping toward the $100 per barrel we were so recently assured was a thing of the past. OilPrice.com blames Trump's announcement that the US will move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which has of course unleashed unrest in the Palestinian territories and instability fears across the Middle East. But the jump really began almost exactly a month ago, seemingly prompted by the leadership purge in Saudi Arabia. That brought the Brent crude price up to $62, its highest level since July 2015. (The Guardian, Nov. 6)

Bolivia hosts 'Gas OPEC' summit —amid dissension

The four-day summit of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) opened Nov. 21 in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra—central hub of the country's hydrocarbon-rich eastern lowlands. President Evo Morales took the opportunity to boast of his "nationalization" of Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources. But the summit comes as member nations are bitterly divided by diplomatic tensions. Established in Iran in 2001, the GECF consists of 12 members: Algeria, Bolivia, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United Arab Emirates. An additional seven observer nations are Azerbaijan, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Norway, Oman and Peru. The UAE and other Gulf States are currently at odds with Qatar, with diplomatic relations suspended since June.

Syria slides closer to Arab-Kurdish ethnic war

Fierce clashes broke out between Syrian rebel factions and Kurdish fighters in Aleppo province this week, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle ISIS in Raqqa. Fighting erupted in Derat Ezza in the western Aleppo countryside on June 13, after Kurdish fighters attempted to take a rebel base in the area, opposition media reported. The assault was thwarted after the rebels regained the positions with support from Turkish artillery. At least 32 fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups were reported killed in the clashes, as well as dozens of Kurdish militants. (The New Arab, June 14)

Qatar crisis places US regional policing in pickle

In a strange imbroglio, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives on June 5 all announced that they are breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism. All but Egypt also cut off all travel links with the country. The Saudi statement accused Qatar of "adopting various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region including the Muslim Brotherhood Group, Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda, " and of "supporting the activities of Iranian-backed terrorist groups" in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Days earlier, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain all blocked Al Jazeera and other Qatar-based news websites after Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani was quoted as saying "There is no reason behind Arabs' hostility to Iran"—an obvious reference to the Saudis and Bahrain. Qatar quickly responded that the comment had been "fabricated" when hackers took control of the official Qatar News Agency website (which appears to still be down, although the QNA Twitter account is up). (BBC NewsAl Jazeera, May 5; BBC News, Al Jazeera, May 25)

Egypt: court strikes down Morsi's life term

Egypt's Court of Cassation on Nov. 22 overturned the life sentences of former president Mohamed Morsi and 16 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi had been convicted of conspiring with the Palestinian Hamas and other foreign militant groups. The court ordered a retrial in the matter, though a new hearing date is yet to be scheduled. The court also performed the same for Brotherhood spiritual leader Mohammed Badei and fellow members accused of spying for Hamas and Iran. Last week the court had overturned Morsi's death sentence in the matter of his prison break during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. Morsi still faces numerous other sentences including 20 years for violence against protestors and 40 years for leaking state secrets to Qatar.

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