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International news briefs

Update on Tunisia

Tunisia’s recent implementation of the 2018 Finance Act has sparked intense protests among the country’s youth: the unpopular finance reforms entail a rise in the value-added tax of cars, alcohol, phone calls, internet coverage, and hotel accommodations, among other things, inciting many to take to the streets. Government officials have stated that the tax hike aims to cut down on the country’s deficit in accordance to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditional $2.8 billion loan program tied to the Tunisian government’s implementation of socioeconomic reforms.

The Tunisian economy has been characterized as unsteady since the Arab Spring protests in 2011: nine separate governments have come to power since the toppling of President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, few of which have made concrete improvements to the country’s economy since. Terror attacks in Sousse and Tunis did little to help tourism revenue, and with general inflation in Tunisia averaging 6 per cent a year and youth unemployment sitting at twice that of the general population, the country has seen a rise in youth activism. One of the prominent groups, Fesh Nestannew, which translates to “what are we waiting for?” primarily consists of young citizens from disenfranchised suburban communities, where they struggle to find work. Speaking to Al Jazeera, one 24-year-old man has asserted that “either they employ us or it’s better that they kill us.”

Thus far, around 800 demonstrators have been arrested, most of whom are under twenty years old, and at least one person has been killed. In an effort to appease protesters, the government has announced new social reforms which include free medical aid for unemployed youth, better state pensions, assistance to poor families, as well as housing funds. However, demonstrations have continued throughout the country: last weekend, protesters in the southern town of Metlaoui were hit with tears gas canisters. A resident of the area told Reuters: “There is feeling of injustice and marginalization here. […] We’re only asking for jobs and development.”

Operation Olive Branch

On January 20, 2018, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in the city of Afrin, located in the Western region of Syria, in order to to “destroy all terror nests.” The operation is currently being carried out on the ground by 10,000 Syrian opposition forces.

This campaign is Turkey’s second initiative in Syria, the first of which was in August 2016 following the launch of the Euphrates Shield offensive, also led by the Syrian opposition, to oust ISIS forces in the region.

Turkish officials are currently advising Syria’s opposition forces to wage an armed campaign against the Syrian Kurdish militias, prioritizing this initiative over the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In interviews with the Guardian, Syrian opposition forces stated that they will stand with Turkey, which is the only country providing support and training for their forces. This extensive training provided by the Turkish government garnered hope from some citizens that these actions may lead to a unification of the opposition forces, thereby increasing their chances. As of now, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) controls most of the border between Turkey and Syria, a massive point of concern for Turkish officials. Turkey believes that the YPG is smuggling artillery across the border to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Action has shifted towards the border cities of Afrin and Manbij, as they are both Kurdish enclaves with a strong YPG presence. The Turkish-led Syrian opposition forces currently control the land between the two cities, and Turkey is sending more reinforcements to prevent the YPG from having autonomous control over the entire length of the border between the two countries. The UN estimates that Turkey’s offensive has now displaced 5,000 civilians living in the Afrin region.

Operation Olive Branch was launched in response to the U.S. announcement that it would construct a border of 30,000 forces including the YPG. This force was deployed in order to patrol Syria’s borders and prevent the reemergence of ISIS. However, the Turkish government regards the proposition as a national security threat with potentially severe repercussions for Turkey. This stance is in direct opposition to the US support of the YPG, posing a potential future conflict between Turkey and the U.S., who are currently NATO allies.

This issue has international consequences. In response to the enactment of this operation, Germany has suspended an upgrade of tanks that was previously approved to send to Turkish forces. This suspension came after images surfaced of the tanks that Germany had donated to fend off advances from ISIS instead being used for Operation Olive Branch.

Written with material from the CNN, the Guardian, the Reuters and Aljazeera.