Geopolitics

Doha-Riyadh-Ankara, New Sunni Axis In Syria Turns Tables Against Assad

Led by new Saudi King Salman, an alliance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey is aiding rebels, including jihadists, in new victories against Syrian President Assad's regime.

Erdogan and Salman in Riyadh in March
Erdogan and Salman in Riyadh in March
Benjamin Barthe and Marie Jégo

ISTANBUL — In the Syrian war of attrition, the rebels once again have the advantage. After leaning towards the regime for more than a year and a half, the balance of forces is now shifting in the other direction.

The changing fortunes have been attributed to a new military alliance, Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), that has been gathering jihadists, Salafist fighters and others close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The rebel forces have recently taken possession of the major part of the Idlib Governorate, in northern Syria, along the border with Turkey.

Several Syrian war experts say this resurgence of the rebellion is a result of a pact between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, at the instigation of new Saudi King Salman, who took power in January. After years of mutual distrust, these three regional powers, fiercely hostile towards the Syrian regime, started joining efforts.

This rapprochement, which led to a new but limited round of weapon deliveries, is part of a much more active diplomacy Salman initiated to counter Iran's growing influence in the Middle East. In the same way that he's leading the Arab coalition against pro-Iranian Houthi militias in Yemen, the Saudi monarch seems eager to strengthen the rebels, to hasten the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran's key regional ally.

"There's a very clear Salman effect," says Ahmed Tomeh, prime minister of Syria's interim government formed by the opposition, which indirectly controls parts of the country. "The coordination between Riyadh, Ankara and Doha has improved. The Saudi intervention in Yemen restored hope for Syrian rebels. They sense that important change is coming."

Jordanian security analyst Fayez al-Doueiri, who is in regular contact with the rebels, agrees. "The Doha-Riyadh-Ankara triangle has started working. Salman's positioning as new commander of the Arab world is pushing the brigades to reorganize themselves."

These two sources, along with a third one who works closely with Qatar's authorities, say that anti-Assad forces are now in possession of anti-tank weapons, including Tow missiles. But none of these sources reports any mass arrivals. Osama Abu Zayed, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the moderate branch of the rebellion, says it hasn't "received anything in five months." But he acknowledges that this could change very soon. "Saudi, Turkish and Qatari friends are considering supporting us."

As a sign of this renewed rebel confidence, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main opposition political group, announced it would not send an emissary to Geneva, where special Syrian UN envoy Staffan de Mistura wishes to consult separately with each player in the crisis. "Assad is retreating," SNC President Khaled Khodja, recently told the Turkish press.

Tipping point

The first signs of the turnaround began on Dec. 15, 2014. That's when the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and the Islamist movement Ahrar ash-Sham — the two formations at the origin of Jaish al-Fatah — took control of the northern Wadi Deif military base, a critical cornerstone of Assad's regime.

The turnaround was confirmed during the winter, when fighters of the al-Shamia Front, Aleppo's main rebel force with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, fought off the loyalist attack aiming to surround the eastern part of the city. And it accelerated at the end of March, with the collapses, one after the other, of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and the nearby al-Qarmeed military camp.

This change in dynamic coincided with the emergence of a new regional order. Initiated by Salman, who was convinced the Brotherhood represented a far less urgent danger for Saudi Arabia than Iran, Saudi Arabia reached its hand out to both Qatar and Turkey.

The mended ties with the two countries came at the expense of Saudi Arabia's relationships with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, on which Saudi Arabia had relied until then. "The Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Cairo axis gave way to the Riyadh-Ankara-Doha axis, which is a lot more favorable to the anti-Assad forces," explains Qatar professor and defense expert Andreas Krieg. "Qatar Emir Tamim once again has significant leeway in Syria, whereas in 2014, by fear of displeasing King Abdullah, he had to revise downwards all his ambitions in the country."

During the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, held in Riyadh last week, Tamim was photographed chatting with Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who is said to be very fond of Qatar. The logical approach would be for the city-state to increase its aid to Ahrar ash-Sham and the al-Shamia Front, while Saudi Arabia increases support towards the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) Salafists, its main clients in Syria, ubiquitous in the outskirts of Damascus.

As for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is expected to arrive in the Saudi capital soon for his third visit this year. The left-wing opposition accuses him of providing logistical support to the al-Nusra Front, which he unconvincingly denies. According to the Turkish press, the Saudi monarch promised to support the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, a measure that Turkey has been demanding for a long time.

The new Saudi-Qatar-Turkey alignment doesn't necessarily guarantee that the collapse of Assad's regime is near. In the short term, it is bound to lead to an escalation of clashes in the coming weeks. Determined to avenge the insult that was the loss of Jisr al-Shughur, an access point to the coastal zone, Damascus has launched an attack to retake control of the city.

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never.

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet and Jane Herbelin

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