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Middle East Ticker: Syrian Rebels Announce Raqqa Operation, Turkey’s Anti-Democratic Purge, and Egypt’s Economic Turbulence

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, November 8, 2016, 9:10 AM

The Operation to Retake Raqqa Has Begun, But Don’t Expect Too Much Right Away

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly-Kurdish rebel coalition operating in eastern Syria, announced on Sunday that they were beginning a new offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State. The operation, named Euphrates Rage (not to be confused with the Turkish intervention, Operation Euphrates Shield), comes after two weeks of rumors about the timing of a push for the Islamic State’s de facto capital. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said on October 26 that the operation would start “in the next few weeks,” and defense officials subsequently told the New York Times that they wanted to move quickly to break up the terrorist group’s planning for foreign attacks. Although the Pentagon backpedaled and stressed to reporters that the plans—e.g., for identifying the local forces participating in the offensive—were still under development, the initial stages of the operation are now underway.

For now, that means isolating the city and cutting supply lines between Raqqa and Mosul that could allow the Islamic State to reconstitute its forces fleeing the battle to the east in Iraq—operations which, it’s worth noting, Carter said were already underway two weeks ago. Indeed, the SDF’s announcement probably won’t change much on the battlefield and these shaping operations will likely last for months before troops try to enter Raqqa. But the announcement has drawn a response from the Turkish government, which distrusts the SDF because of the participation of local Kurdish militias affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus expressed his concern on Monday, saying that Turkey would not like to see "Raqqa, which is an Arab city in its entirety, to be captured by elements that are not Arabs and to be administered by them." In an unsubtle jab at the SDF’s Kurdish complement, Kurtulmus said that that "legitimacy cannot be obtained through a terror organization brandishing arms" and that the "United States will sooner or later see this reality."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed recently that Turkish forces would make a push for Raqqa after capturing the town of al-Bab. That sets up a potential race for Raqqa between rival Turkish and Kurdish forces that could collide before reaching the city limits and undermine the United States’ best efforts for a coordinated assault. “The worst case for the United States would be a Turkish offensive that takes al-Bab and Tal Abyad but goes no further, since this would leave IS in Raqqa while bringing Turkey and the PYD to blows,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Fabrice Balanche writes. However, Balanche says it’s “unlikely” that either Turkish or SDF forces will concentrate much on Raqqa in the near-term.

 

Turkey’s Post-Coup Purge Comes for the Political Opposition

Turkey has been cracking down on political dissent with ruthless efficiency since the attempted coup on July 15. Last Thursday night, the purge took a dark but long-anticipated turn when authorities arrested 12 members of the Turkish parliament. The legislators were all members of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the country’s second-largest opposition party, and included the party’s two co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the parliamentarians were arrested after they refused to testify in criminal investigations. The HDP is known for its progressive platform and Kurdish representation, but the government has accused it of sympathizing with and spreading propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkish government also arrested the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, just days before, on October 25.

In fact, well before the July coup attempt, the foundations for these arrests were laid. The Turkish government has expressed qualms about the HDP’s pro-Kurdish politics since their surprisingly good performance in June 2015 elections. In May of this year, the Turkish parliament passed a law stripping legislators of some of their legal immunity privileges. The move was aimed squarely at the HDP, and soon after, Turkish authorities began investigations of 50 of the HDP’s 59 legislators. That culminated with the arrests last week, and more may follow.

The Turkish post-coup purge has so far resulted in the arrests of more than 36,000 people and sacking of more than 100,000 government employees. In August, the government released 38,000 prisoners on early parole to make room for the incoming arrests. At least 133 journalists have been imprisoned, most recently 12 reporters and editors at opposition paper Cumhuriyet last week, and dozens of news organizations have been shuttered under the country’s emergency law. The individuals targeted have not been limited to the coup plotters and suspected members of the Gulenist Movement; they also include political dissidents like Zelal Ekinci, a professor of pediatric medicine at Kocaeli University, who was forced from her job because she signed a petition circulated among academics protesting the brutality of the Turkish government’s war against the PKK. The purge has also ravaged the Turkish economy: “Turkish authorities took over 496 companies, some with publicly held units, citing a hunt for coup plotters,” and shut down corporate law firms, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. The intervention in the country’s commercial sector has had a chilling effect on foreign investment.

The arrests are Erdogan’s boldest, most authoritarian move yet. He “has been consistently escalating his actions of late; it seems as if every week he does something that shocks the public and his opponents, from shutting down media outlets to jailing Mayors to confiscating assets—and now jailing opposition leaders,” Henri J. Barkey wrote last week for The American Interest. “The question is what comes next. There is reason to worry for Turkey’s allies abroad.”

 

Egypt Floats Its Currency But There’s More Economic Turbulence Ahead

After weeks of anticipation that saw the black-market value of the Egyptian pound crash precipitously, the Egyptian government devalued the Egyptian pound by nearly 50 percent last week, from nine pounds to the U.S. dollar to thirteen. The devaluation is a necessary prerequisite for the country to receive a $12-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Egypt has also undertaken subsidy reforms and spent months courting other countries to contribute funding to meet the terms of the IMF deal. The currency devaluation prompted an 8.3 percent bump on the Egyptian stock market, but the economy is still struggling. Figures from October showed the Egyptian economy is in its worst shape since July 2013. "We did not have the luxury of postponing" reforms like the currency float and subsidy reductions, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said last week.

Now, hopefully, comes the business of economic recovery. “The success of” the currency devaluation “and whether it is going to affect the economy positively or not is also linked to the stability of the market in Egypt,” Ibrahim El-Ghitany, a senior researcher at the Cairo-based Regional Center for Strategic Studies, told the Washington Post. “Foreign currency reserves have to rise, and tourism has to flourish again for this decision to be more effective. We have to restore confidence in Egypt’s economy.” Mohamed El Dahshan and Allison McManus of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy also warn of market fluctuations as the currency value finds a new equilibrium.

While the currency adjusts, the hardest hit will be the country’s poor. Though Ismail said there would be an effort to control prices, the government announced a 40-percent price hike on fuel accompanying the currency devaluation (which will only be further exacerbated by the now-indefinite freeze on fuel aid from Saudi Arabia). The country’s impoverished are also expected to be severely affected by the newly-introduced value-added tax. “Thus, the country’s most vulnerable will be left in the metaphorical and literal cold, as they are largely alone to face the rising costs of food and fuel, already a greater burden on meager incomes. Beyond these most precarious, many families will find it even more difficult to make ends meet, as we could expect inflation to reach up to 30 percent by the beginning of next year,” El Dahshan and McManus write.

And the backlash is coming. Protests planned for November 11 have been brewing for weeks. (I discussed the popular frustration in connection with Egypt’s sugar shortage here on the Ticker two weeks ago.) If the economy is now as bad as it was in July 2013, that should be setting off alarm bells in the government; the last time the economy was in such dire straits, Egyptians took to the streets until the military removed then-President Mohamed Morsi from office. The government has begun cracking down on support for the protests, but tensions are running high for Friday.