Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Jordan’s Unusual Palestinian Diplomacy

by Robert M. Danin Monday, November 21, 2011
King Abdullah of Jordan (L) speaks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a welcoming ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah November 21, 2011. Abdullah arrived in Ramallah on Monday for a rare visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as the Palestinians pursue statehood in a region riveted by the slide towards civil war in Syria and mounting unrest in Egypt (Mohamad Torokman/Courtesy Reuters).

King Abdullah of Jordan speaks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas during a welcoming ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah November 21, 2011 (Mohamad Torokman/Courtesy Reuters).

Jordan’s king Abdullah made an unusual foray today into the West Bank to meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Given that Jordan’s capital is a ten minute helicopter flight from Ramallah, it is remarkable that the monarch’s last visit there was over a decade ago. But Abbas also has a home in the Jordanian capital, largely obviating the need for—and making all the more unusual—Abdullah’s visit to Ramallah. Read more »

Sadat’s Legacy and Egypt Today

by Robert M. Danin Friday, November 18, 2011

Late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat seen announcing to the Egyptian parliament his venture to visit Israel, Egypt's enemy at the time, on November 9, 1977. Pledging to go to the end of the world in search of peace, Sadat boarded a plane to Israel on November 19, 1977 to shake hands with his foes after four devastating Arab-Israeli wars (Courtesy Reuters).

This Sunday, November 20, marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel and address to the Knesset. The visit, the first of any Arab leader to the Jewish state, paved the way for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Sadat’s taboo-breaking act resulted in Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League. Until this year, it had been the only instance of the pan-Arab organization expelling one of its members. Egypt’s membership was reinstated in 1989 and its treaty with Israel remains intact. Read more »

Syria’s Conflict Enters a More Dangerous Phase

by Robert M. Danin Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Syrian soldiers deploy in the Syrian village of Arida, as seen from the northern Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled near the Lebanese-Syrian border, May 20, 2011 (Omar Ibrahim/Courtesy Reuters).

Today’s Arab League decision to suspend Syria from the organization and impose economic sanctions if the violence against Syrian citizens does not end within three days is a huge blow to Syria’s standing and self-image as the vanguard of Arab nationalism. Assad refused to even send a delegate to Rabat, preferring instead to boycott the forum. Indeed, Assad has met the Arab League’s calls to ratchet down the repression with defiance. Monday marked what al-Jazeera has dubbed Syria’s “bloodiest day,” with at least seventy people killed across the country. This is in line with my prediction from my last post that the period ahead will be even more brutal and violent than ever. Assad cannot accept the terms of the Arab League agreement as he knows no other way to maintain his iron-fisted rule than by digging in and cracking down with ever-increasing brutality.

Rather than represent Arab resistance, Assad now stands as the target of resistance. Today’s attacks by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a dramatic escalation by the opposition. Soldiers who had defected from the Syrian army attacked military facilities in multiple locations throughout the country. Such actions make the military look weak and vulnerable, and may give encouragement to further military defections. The rebel Free Syrian Army also announced today the creation of a temporary military council with the aim of ousting the regime of President Assad and protecting civilians from his forces. We are clearly witnessing the militarization of the conflict that so many observers have feared. It will surely trigger a brutal response by the regime and many more deaths. Read more »

Accelerate Assad’s Departure

by Robert M. Danin Monday, November 14, 2011

Demonstrators protesting against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad march through the streets after Friday prayers in Amude on November 11. A poster depicting President Assad dumped in a litter bin reads "Keep it clean," (Courtesy Reuters).

Today’s conventional wisdom in Washington is that Bashar al-Assad’s departure is “inevitable.” Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman used that phrase when testifying last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To be sure, the Arab League’s vote to suspend Syria clearly isolates Damascus regionally, and that should not be discounted. But it is not going to lead Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately. To the contrary, expect even greater regime brutality in the period ahead.

Still, there are a number of steps the United States and the international community can take to raise the probability of Assad’s departure from Syria. On the diplomatic front, a contact or “friends of Syria” group should be established to help bring together the now anti-Assad Arab League with other concerned countries, including Turkey, Europe, and the United States. Read more »

Remembering Hafez al-Assad

by Robert M. Danin Friday, November 11, 2011

Syrian president Hafez al-Assad celebrates his 28th anniversary in power in November 1998 (Khaled Al Hariri/Courtesy Reuters).

Sunday, November 13, marks the 41st anniversary of Hafez al-Assad’s seizure of power in Syria. Since then, Syria has known only one name at the top: Assad. MEM looks back at Assad’s rise and consolidation of power—a story that sheds light on the current unrest in Syria.

Prior to the coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power, Syrian politics was marked by rampant instability, sectarian turmoil, and frequent coups d’etat. After Syria gained independence from French rule in 1946, the urban Sunni dominated the government. The military was designated as the place for minorities and the uneducated. The Sunnis reserved the top military positions for themselves, and then jostled among one another for supremacy. This became the locus of real power. Between 1949 and 1963, these senior officers engaged in countless military coups–there were three alone in 1949. However, each change of government came after damaging power struggles, the result being the weakening of Sunni ranks. Read more »

More Questions Than Answers in Secretary Clinton’s Remarks on the Arab Uprisings

by Robert M. Danin Tuesday, November 8, 2011

U.S. president Barack Obama and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton tour the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo on June 4, 2009 (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters).

Secretary of State Clinton’s speech last night sought to answer questions about U.S. policy toward the Arab uprisings. Clinton posed six questions about developments in the region and U.S. policy, such as whether the United States believes democratic change is a national interest, why the United States promotes democracy inconsistently throughout the region, and how the United States will react to the victory of religious parties. While the speech touched on most of the bases, it left some of the most critical policy questions unanswered. She commented on a number of key issues:

– reaffirmation of the “Freedom Agenda” and America’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East, exclaiming “What a year 2011 has been for freedom in the Middle East”
– a tough love call for Bahrain to adopt forthcoming recommendations by an independent commission of inquiry and to pursue dialogue, reconciliation and concrete reforms
– an explicit call for Saudi Arabia to opt for democratic reform
– a headline grabbing pledge for the United States to work with the Islamist al-Nahda party in Tunisia
– an oblique reference for the need of “unelected officials” (read: the military) in Egypt to relinquish their role as the most powerful political force lest they plant the seeds for future unrest
– the important observation that elections are not the measure of democracy, but rather strong civil societies, respect for the rule of law, and independent institutions are
– a call for terrorist groups to disarm: “Legitimate political parties cannot have a militia wing and a political wing”
– a clear definition of U.S. interests in the Middle East that includes democratic change, defense of allies, and a secure supply of energy Read more »

Will Egypt Opt Out from Peace with Israel?

by Robert M. Danin Friday, November 4, 2011

Egyptian prisoners released from Israeli jails hold the Egyptian flag as they flash the victory sign from a bus at Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel on October 27, 2011 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

King Abdullah of Jordan rang alarm bells when he recently told the Washington Post that the chance of Egypt abrogating its treaty with Israel was “a very strong possibility” and said that “we are the last man standing with our relationship with Israel.”

For over thirty years, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East. With Egyptians going to the polls later this month to elect a parliament that will nominate an assembly to write a new constitution, many in Washington fear that the elections will produce a government hostile to the peace treaty, particularly should Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties fare well at the ballot box.

Such fears are not totally unwarranted. For years, Islamists in Egypt have lambasted Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated for signing the treaty. And following Mubarak’s toppling earlier this year, Egypt’s military leaders pledged to take a tougher stance toward Israel. Several violent incidents since have further strained Israeli-Egyptian ties. In August, in an exchange of fire with Palestinian infiltrators from Sinai, Israeli troops killed five Egyptian soldiers. Then, in early September, Egyptian demonstrators infiltrated the Israeli embassy in Cairo and came perilously close to taking it over entirely. Read more »

Accelerating Palestinian UN Diplomacy and Its Consequences

by Robert M. Danin Thursday, November 3, 2011

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas holds up a letter to United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon requesting Palestinian statehood at the 66th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 23, 2011 (Eric Thayer/Courtesy Reuters).

The United Nations Security Council will soon revisit the Palestinian request for membership. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to discuss this upcoming development and other Palestinian-Israeli issues with consulting editor Bernard Gwertzman. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Bernie is a legendary former New York Times diplomatic correspondent.

In the interview, I discussed the stepped up multitrack Palestinian diplomatic effort at the United Nations and its ramifications for peace efforts. What peace efforts, you might ask? We discussed that too, as well as the rumors swirling through the Israeli press about a purported Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Read more »

UNESCO and After: Multiple Wrongs Won’t Secure Rights

by Robert M. Danin Tuesday, November 1, 2011

General view of the leaders' forum room during the 36th session of UNESCO's General Conference in Paris on October 26, 2011 (Benoit Tessier/Courtesy Reuters).

The vote by UNESCO to admit Palestine as a full member distracts international attention from the only efforts that will make Palestine a genuine reality: negotiations and state-building efforts on the ground. No good has emerged from the past twenty-four hours’ developments, but already we are seeing considerable harm.

First, UNESCO’s vote encourages PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas to pursue a strategy that only harms Palestinian aspirations to statehood, as I argued in Foreign Affairs in September. Yet, having secured the UNESCO membership, Palestinians will accelerate their internationalization efforts. Today, their top UN envoy in Geneva announced that they will seek membership in over a dozen other UN agencies, including the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Health Organization, and the International Labor Organization. This will distract international diplomacy away from resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead politicize many UN agencies that do important work. Read more »