Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

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

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Middle East Matters This Week: Palestinian Unity and Syria’s Disunity

by Robert M. Danin
February 10, 2012

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal walk with Qatar's emir sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani as they arrive to sign an agreement in Doha on February 6, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. Russia and China vetoed an Arab and Western-backed resolution at the UN Security Council last Saturday following a flurry of negotiations. Russia succeeded in watering down the text of the resolution, only to then vote against it. (I offer a proposal for engaging the Russians in a ‘grand bargain’ as the international community considers more robust means to halt the bloodshed in Syria, which is available here.) Syria’s army unleashed a torrent of violence against the city of Homs that continues until now. The regime’s violent escalation has provoked international outrage, with the normally taciturn United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon linking the escalation to events at the UN, saying that the veto “has encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people.” Meanwhile, the United States closed its embassy. France, Italy, and other countries, including the GCC states, recalled their envoys. Ankara announced its intentions to host an international conference on Syria, and the United States announced the formation of a “friends of Syria” group to organize humanitarian assistance for the Syrian opposition. Other steps are no doubt in the works. Violence intensified further today with twenty-five killed in twin bombings in the northern city of Aleppo. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay repeated the call for Syrian officials to be referred to the International Criminal Court. The UN has ceased issuing a death toll for Syria given the impossibility of cross-checking records in the besieged country.

Palestinians. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal met in Doha on Monday and announced their intention to form a unity government and hold new Palestinian elections (see my analysis of this development here). The two agreed that PA president Abbas would also serve as prime minister of an interim government, with its composition to be announced in a follow-up meeting on February 18 in Cairo. The announcement provoked mixed Palestinian reactions, with many Fatah and Hamas members noting that the Palestinian Basic Law prevents Abbas from serving as prime minister in addition to president. The move, if implemented, would consolidate executive power in a way unseen since Yasser Arafat. Abbas is scheduled to meet in Cairo this Saturday for talks with Egyptian and Arab League officials to discuss recent Palestinian developments.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Egypt. Egyptian judicial sources announced on Sunday that forty-three NGO workers, nineteen of them Americans, will be sent to trial for illegally using foreign funding. The announcement followed U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s warning the previous day that if the dispute is not resolved, the United States will “have to closely review these matters as it comes time for us to certify whether or not any of these funds from our government can be made available under these circumstances.” The NGO staffers who are currently in Egypt are being prevented from leaving the country. On Wednesday, Egyptian prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri declared that the courts would follow the law and will not back down because of aid. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Cairo this week to meet with the top Egyptian military leaders. He reportedly conveyed a message of Congressional resolve to suspend U.S. assistance to Egypt should the Egyptians continue to prosecute the NGOs.

Iran. President Obama signed an executive order imposing further sanctions on Iran’s central bank on Monday saying: “I have determined that additional sanctions are warranted, particularly in light of the deceptive practices of the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian banks to conceal transactions of sanctioned parties.”

Quotes of the Week

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. Yemen’s outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, declared on Tuesday his intention to return to Yemen this month to vote in the presidential election scheduled for February 21. Saleh finally left the country last month after accepting the terms of the GCC-brokered plan in November to transfer power to his deputy in return for full immunity. Saleh’s deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is set to be rubber-stamped as the impoverished Arabian peninsula nation’s new leader in the February elections. Under a U.S.-backed plan brokered by Yemen’s powerful neighbors, Hadi is to be the only candidate. However, the election’s legitimacy has already been threatened by southern separatists and northern rebels who have announced boycotts. Human Rights Watch called on the United States and the EU to reject the Yemeni parliament’s decision to grant Saleh immunity, claiming that “no one responsible for grave international crimes should get a free pass.”

Saudi Arabia. In unusually blunt terms, Saudi king Abdullah slammed the Russian and Chinese veto of a UN resolution on Syria as an “unfavorable” move in a broadcast on Saudi state TV on Friday. He went on to say: “There is no doubt that the confidence of the world in the United Nations has been shaken.”

Bahrain. Bahraini authorities rejected a visa request from AFP reporters in the lead-up to the one year anniversary of the protests on February 14. Unrest has escalated in the last few months with at least ten deaths reported. A loose coalition of youth activists, called the February 14 Youth Coalition, issued a charter this week that declared “the aim of this revolution has become to bring down the regime and decide our own fate after it became clear that trying to live with it and reform it has become impossible.” Activists plan to march to Manama Square next Tuesday.

Jordan and Libya. Libyan prime minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib told Jordanian prime minister Awn Khasawneh that Libya is counting on Jordanian help in fighting pro-Qaddafi elements in Jordan on Tuesday. Ties between Libya and Jordan have grown closer since Qaddafi’s ouster. Jordan has agreed to train ten thousand former rebels to help them integrate into Libya’s Interior Ministry, and is also treating twenty thousand injured Libyans in Jordanian hospitals.

This Week in History

Wednesday marked the thirteenth anniversary of Jordanian king Hussein’s death. The Jordanian monarch died of cancer at the age of sixty-three after reigning for forty years. At the time of his death, he had served as the Middle East’s longest-reigning ruler, despite Western predictions over the years of his reign’s imminent collapse. King Hussein’s legacies are many, most notably his peace treaty with Israel and establishment of Jordan as a permanent and mediating presence in the region. Hussein survived a number of assassination attempts and a violent Palestinian insurrection in 1970 that came to be known as “Black September.” King Hussein maintained close ties with Israel and the United States until his death and was an indefatigable advocate of peace in the Middle East, a role his son, current Jordanian king Abdullah, has adopted.

Statistic of the Week 

Seven in ten Egyptians oppose U.S. economic aid, a new poll by Gallup conducted in December 2011 reveals. A similar percentage opposes U.S. aid to civil society organizations.

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