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The Takeaway: October 30, 2019

Highlights: ‘Kick queen’ brings spotlight to women in Lebanon protests; Putin keeps Erdogan on road to Damascus; GCC official says attack on Saudi Arabia “like our Pearl Harbor”; Kim Kardashian — Armenia’s secret weapon … and more!
Women gesture and chant slogans during a protest over deteriorating economic situation, in Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir - RC1F1358A730
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Big powers move to consolidate positions in Syria; Iraqi finance minister: Syrian Kurds have no choice except to deal with Assad; Can Imran Khan deliver an Iran-Saudi rapprochement (Take II)?
Three quick takes:

1. Kick queen inspires Lebanese demonstrators


Lebanese women are partners in arms, and sometimes in legs, with their male counterparts among the demonstrators in Lebanon.


Last week, a Lebanese woman kicking the bodyguard of Education Minister Akram Chehayeb went viral.


The “kick queen” sensation is a welcome signpost of the leading role that women are playing, and have played, in protest movements in Lebanon and throughout the region.


‘Always been on the front’:

  • A male demonstrator told Al-Monitor that women have “always been on the front in Lebanon, and that is what the West gets wrong. Our women are some of the leading women in the world. Not just the Middle East. … The stereotypes about Eastern women don’t apply to Lebanese women.”

‘Still so much work to be done’:

  • A female protester in Tripoli said, “I used to walk those same streets afraid of being catcalled or being judged for what I was wearing … I wore a T-shirt that was a bit see-through yesterday to Tripoli and I didn’t even realize it till I got back home … I was pleasantly surprised to see so many women there, it felt so empowering. Per usual, I expected to be mocked by guys. I wasn’t. It was all different all of a sudden. I definitely think this is a huge push forward for us women. But there’s still so much work to be done.”

Our take: The waves of protests in the region this year — in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere – are distinguished by their youth, their bravery, their exuberant patriotism and by their inclusiveness — disregarding traditional fault lines like sect and gender.


We are also reminded of Alaa Salah, also known as “Kandaka” or “the Nubian queen,” who led crowds of singing and dancing protesters against former President Omar al-Bashir’s role in Sudan in April. What happened in Sudan last spring may have foreshadowed the latest wave of demonstrations in the region.


Read more: Nicholas Frakes and other contributors to Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse have provided a street-level view of the demonstrations.


Alaa Salah, a Sudanese woman propelled to internet fame after clips went viral of her leading powerful protest chants against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, addresses protesters during a demonstration in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan, April 10, 2019 (AFP/Getty Images)


2. Erdogan’s slow road to Damascus continues


Turkish military and proxy groups have reportedly killed seven Syrian soldiers in heavy fighting this week in northeastern Syria.


The skirmishes could slow, but won’t halt, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to broker a cease-fire and border agreement between Turkey and Syria.


These are the benchmarks this week:

  • Russian Defense Minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu said that the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the northeast security zone, as called for in the Russia-Turkey MOU Oct. 22, was completed “ahead of schedule.”
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday: “We are not there [in northeast Syria] to stay. We have but one objective: We are there to clear the area of terrorist organizations.”
  • The foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran — the Astana group — issued a joint statement Oct. 29 at the UN-sponsored Geneva talks of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which stressed the “importance of the broader settlement process … to facilitate safe and voluntary return of refugees and [internally displaced people (IDPs)] to their original places of residence in Syria.” (Emphasis is ours.)

And US-Turkey relations are a bonfire: The US House of Representatives hammered Turkey this week with legislation calling for sanctions for its invasion of northeast Syria, while passing a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide (more below), eliciting powerful condemnations from the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The prospect of a meeting between President Donald Trump and Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazlum Kobane has enraged Ankara.


Our take: Given the downward spiral in US-Turkey ties, Putin, more than ever, has Erdogan’s ear. A Turkish withdrawal from Syria in the context of a Turkey-Syria cease-fire could eventually lead to the resettlement of Syrian refugees to their original homes— not just in a “safe zone” — as we have noted here previously. All this actually gets us closer to the endgame of the Syria war, which will also include a day of reckoning for the tens of thousands terrorists in and around Idlib, which is where former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding. Perhaps only Donald Trump, based on his strong personal connection with Erdogan, can save US-Turkey relations from a complete implosion and keep the United States at the forefront of Syria diplomacy. The United States might also test Russian intentions about targeting terrorists in and around Idlib.


3. GCC official: Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia was ‘like our Pearl Harbor’


Dr. Abdel-Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, assistant secretary-general for political and negotiation affairs for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), told Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet that the Iranian attack on the Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia Sept. 14 has made the GCC countries “more aware now of the need to project American power.”


Speaking on the sidelines of the National Council on US-Arab Relations’ annual Policymakers Conference in Washington DC, Aluwaisheg added:


Re: The Russian Gulf Security proposal:

  • “Why the United States has succeeded is it actually leverages what exists, bilaterally with each member and collectively with the GCC. So they do not ignore it, they use it, while the Russians have ignored it completely and all they want is to have an international body whereby Russia and the United States and the Gulf 6 are the key components, and other countries can be added like Iraq and Iran.”
  • “I think some ideas in the Russian proposal are good, like political dialogue, getting to understand each other, getting over the suspicions. You can’t really jump into a security arrangement with a country that you don’t know very well …We’re happy to discuss further … We can fine tune it, we can change it, and the Russians are very open.”

Re: The US withdrawal from northeast Syria:

  • You don’t criticize your ally publicly. But obviously the pull-out from Syria — just like the pull-out from Iraq a while ago, it’s not just this the administration, the previous administration made I think a hasty decision to pull out troops without replacing them with something. So I think now what we have in northeast Syria is I think Russia and Turkey have carved out that region, which used to be part of the United States’ zone of influence.”

Re: The Sept. 14 attack on Aramco and sending more US troops to the region:

  • “I think [the GCC states] are more aware now of the need to project American power. The attack on Sept. 14 was like our Pearl Harbor. Both we and the United States and all our friends … became aware of the gaps and the need to address those.”
One other cool thing:

Kim Kardashian — not-so-secret weapon for Armenia


The House of Representatives voted 405-11 this week to pass a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide — the orchestrated killing of more than 1 million Christian Armenians after World War I.


While we could go on about the many players in this action — including House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a longtime advocate for genocide recognition — the spotlight has also turned to celebrity Kim Kardashian West, who is a powerful advocate for Armenia and has close ties to both Democratic members of Congress and Donald Trump.


Aaron Schaffer has the full scoop here.

What we're reading ... and why:
How much more maximum pressure can Iran take?

The latest International Monetary Fund report on the Middle East and Central Asia has some alarming numbers for Iran: a decline of 9.5% gross domestic product growth this year following 4.8% in 2018; oil and natural gas exports falling from 2.15 million barrels per day in 2016 and 2017 to just 600,000 this year; and inflation in the range of 35.7%. Check out the report and statistical tables here.


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