After Daesh collapse, Syria government faces US-backed Kurds

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters are seen in Raqqa, Syria, on October 16, 2017. (REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo)
Updated 10 November 2017
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After Daesh collapse, Syria government faces US-backed Kurds

BEIRUT: With the fall of the Daesh group’s last significant stronghold in Syria, Iranian and Russian-backed Syrian troops now turn to face off with their main rival, the US-backed forces holding large oil fields and strategic territory in the country’s north and east.
The complicated map puts US and Iranian forces at close proximity, just across the Euphrates River from each other, amid multiple hotspots that could turn violent, particularly in the absence of a clear American policy.
There are already signs.
Iran threatened last week that Syrian troops will advance toward Raqqa, the former Daesh capital, which fell to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in October, raising the potential for a clash there. The Kurdish-led SDF also controls some of Syria’s largest oil fields, in the oil-rich eastern Deir Ezzor province, an essential resource that the Syrian government also says it will take back.
The question now is whether the United States is willing to confront the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian-backed militiamen. The Kurds are seeking a clear American commitment to help them defend their gains. American officials have said little of their plans and objectives in Syria beyond general statements about continuing to deny Daesh safe havens and continuing to train and equip allies.
Washington seems to be hoping to negotiate a deal for Syria that would protect the Kurds’ ambitions for autonomy while limiting Iran’s ambitions for a presence in Syria. Four US officials said Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin could announce a Russian-US deal on how they hope to Syria’s war after Daesh’s defeat if they meet Friday at a conference in Vietnam. However, prospect of such a meeting uncertain, it was not clear if such a deal had been reached.
But Assad underlined that his government plans to regain all of Syria and will now fight against plans to “partition” Syria, a reference to Kurdish aspirations for a recognized autonomous zone in the north.
Government victories “have foiled all partition plans and the goals of terrorism and the countries sponsoring it,” Assad said during a meeting this week with Ali Akbar Velayati, the adviser of Iran’s supreme leader.
With its collapse in Boukamal on Thursday, the Daesh group has no major territory left in Syria or Iraq. Its militants are believed to have pulled back into the desert, east and west of the Euphrates River. The group has a small presence near the capital, Damascus. Late Thursday, the extremist group carried out a counteroffensive in Boukamal, regaining control of more than 40 percent of the border town.
The Euphrates now stands as the dividing line between Syrian government troops and the SDF in much of Deir Ezzor province.
Government forces and their allies, including Iranian troops and fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, control the western bank. They hold the provincial capital and several small oil fields.
The Kurdish-led force, along with American troops advising them, is on the eastern bank. They hold two of Syria’s largest oil fields, nearly a dozen smaller ones, one of the largest gas fields and large parts of the border with Iraq. They say they are determined to keep the government from crossing the river.
The coalition had said for weeks that the SDF was pushing toward Boukamal. With Assad’s forces taking the town, the coalition said in a statement to the AP on Friday that the SDF is now moving on Baghuz, a village also on the border near Boukamal but on the eastern bank of the Euphrates.
Iran’s Velayati said the US presence aims to divide Syria. “They have not and will not succeed in Iraq and they will also not succeed in Syria,” he said during a visit to Lebanon last weekend. “We will soon see the Syrian government and popular forces in Syria east of the Euphrates and they will liberate the city of Raqqa.”
The US coalition declined to comment on Velayati’s remarks, saying “it would not be appropriate to comment on speculation or rumor by any third party.”
Washington has been wary of Iran’s increasing influence in the area and its attempts to establish a land corridor from Iran across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged this week that allies have pressed for a clearer US policy in Syria. The priority was to get the UN-sponsored peace talks back on track, he said, offering few details.
“We’re trying to get this into the diplomatic mode so we can get things sorted out ... and make certain (that) minorities — whoever they are — are not just subject to more of what we’ve seen” under Assad, he said, apparently referring to ensuring some sort of accommodation to Kurdish ambitions.
The talks, scheduled for Nov. 28, have already been challenged by Russia, which seeks a bigger role. Moscow called for intra-Syrian talks to chart a political process and invited the dominant Kurdish party that forms the backbone of the SDF, the first such international invitation. A date for the Russia talks has not been set.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, predicted the Syrian government will use military pressure to reach a negotiated solution with the Kurds amid lack of evidence that the US has any “commitment to engineering political change in Syria or indeed has a Syria policy at all.” In an article last week in the Al-Hayat newspaper, Sayigh said Russia is the likely arbiter between Kurds and the government.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior politician with the political arm of the SDF, said indirect talks with the government have taken place but there are no signs of a change in their position.
“A clear position from the coalition can prevent confrontation,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led SDF faces the complications of trying to run Arab-dominated areas. With US-backing, the force sought to allay any Arab residents’ fears of Kurdish domination by forming joint local councils and electing Arab and Kurdish officials.
But this week, the SDF-held town of Manbij saw protests by Arab residents against compulsory military conscription imposed by the SDF. Hundreds were briefly detained, according to Mohammed Khaled, with activist-operated Aleppo 24.
Ahmed described the protests as “fabricated” by the government and Turkey, which sees Kurdish aspirations as a threat.
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Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.


Recent appointments in Egypt show rise of women to high political office in Mideast

The appointment of the women ministers may help to assuage disappointment about the make-up of the rest of the — all male — Cabinet.
Updated 21 June 2018
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Recent appointments in Egypt show rise of women to high political office in Mideast

  • Recent appointments in Egypt are the latest example of the rise of women to high political office in the region
  • “The men’s monopoly has been broken,” the Jordanian National Commission for Women declared in a celebratory statement which also praised the prime minister’s “clear position”

CAIRO, LONDON: The appointment of two more female ministers this month to the new Egyptian Cabinet means women now fill eight out of 34 positions, the highest number in the modern history of Egypt.

Hala Zayed is the new health minister while Yasmine Fouad takes over as environment minister. Both women replaced men and join culture minister Inas Abdel-Dayem, tourism minister Rania Al-Mashat, Nabila Makram (immigration minister) Ghada Wali (social solidarity minister), Hala El-Saeed (planning minister) and Sahar Nasr (minister of investment and international cooperation).
The appointments by Egypt’s new Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly have been welcomed as forward thinking by social and political commentators.
Dr. Magda Bagnied, a writer and professor of communication, told Arab News: “I believe whoever planned for those eight effective ministries was looking forward for the future of Egypt since they are all interconnected in some way, and having females leading them is a leap forward.
“A country’s rank and status is measured by the role of women. The higher the number of leadership roles for women, the further the country is considered to be on the road to development.”
Four out of 15 new deputy ministers are also women and women now hold 15 percent of the seats in Parliament.
The rise of women to high political office in the Arab world is by no means restricted to Egypt.
Jordan also has a record number of women ministers after Prime Minister-designate Omar Razzaz appointed seven women to the 29-member Cabinet sworn in last week.
“The men’s monopoly has been broken,” the Jordanian National Commission for Women declared in a celebratory statement which also praised the prime minister’s “clear position.”
The appointment of the women ministers may help to assuage disappointment about the make-up of the rest of the — all male — Cabinet.
Twenty-three members of the new Jordanian Cabinet have been ministers before and 13 were members of the outgoing government that was brought down by popular protest.
Rawan Joyoussi, whose posters became one of the defining images of the protests, said: “I was hoping that women would be empowered and I am happy with that. But as far as the composition of the rest of the government is concerned, I think we have to play our part to create the mechanisms that will hold the government accountable.”
In the UAE, women hold nine out of 31 ministerial positions, and one of them, Minister for Youth Shamma Al-Mazrui, is also the world’s youngest minister, appointed in 2016 when she was only 22.
This makes the UAE Cabinet nearly 30 percent female, which is higher than India, almost equal to the UK and far ahead of the US, where Donald Trump has just four women in his Cabinet.
The general election in Morocco in October 2016 produced 81 women members of Parliament, accounting for 21 percent of the total 395 seats. The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which won the most votes, also ended up with the highest number of women MPs, 18.
Though elections in Saudi Arabia were open to women only in 2015, it ranks 100th out of 193rd in the world league table of women in national governing bodies, slightly above the US at 102nd place.
A policy briefing from the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington says that one of the best ways for a country to ease economic pressure and boost productivity is to increase female participation in the workplace and in political life.
“Introducing diversity through gender parity will benefit economic growth and can help Arab countries to generate prosperity as well as the normative and social imperative of change,” wrote analyst Bessma Momani.
Yet in some parts of the Middle East, female representation seems to be going backward.
In 2009, four of Kuwait’s 65 MPs were women. In 2012 there were three and in 2013 only one. In 2016, 15 women stood for election to the 50 open parliamentary seats (the other 15 are appointed). Only one, Safa Al-Hashem, who was already an MP, was successful.
Qatar has no women MPs or ministers at all.
Egypt’s appointment of two more women ministers does not have the appearance of tokenism. The new Health Minister, Hala Zayed, 51, has a solid background in the field as a former president of the Academy of Health Sciences, a hospital specializing in cancer treatment for children.
She was also government adviser on health, chairwoman of a committee for combating corruption at the ministry she now heads and also has a Ph.d. in project management.
Similarly, Yasmeen Fouad, 43, the new environment minister, has four years’ experience as a former assistant minister in the same department, where she was known as “the lady for difficult missions,” and liaised with the UN. She is also an assistant professor of economics and political science at Cairo University.
Egypt’s first female minister was Hikmat Abu Zaid, appointed minister of social affairs in 1962 by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who dubbed her “the merciful heart of revolution.”
Now there are eight like her, demonstrating that in the Middle East, “girl power” is on the rise.