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: Hamas, “Friends” Line up Against Syria’s Assad

by Robert M. Danin
February 24, 2012

Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu confers with United Arab Emirates' foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis on February 24, 2012 (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Middle East Developments

Hamas. Hamas officials announced today a break with long-time ally Syrian president Assad. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told a crowd of thousands at Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque: “I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy, and reform.” The announcement indicates a dramatic shift in alignment for the organization that until recently had been headquartered in Damascus. Worshipers responded to Haniyeh’s remarks by chanting, “No Hizballah and no Iran. The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.” Hamas’ policy shift was simultaneously announced at a rally in the Gaza Strip and further isolates Assad in the region, leaving Iran and Hizballah as the Syrian leader’s only Middle East allies.

Syria. The “Friends of Syria” group  met today in Tunis at the end of yet another violent week in Syria that witnessed the continued siege of Homs and the killing of hundreds, including two Western journalists (my pre-meeting analysis available here). More than sixty Western and Arab countries sent high level envoys to the meeting. Russia, China, and Lebanon all declined to attend. The group demanded that President Assad end government violence and open humanitarian corridors within 48 hours. Al Arabiya TV reported that the Saudi delegation walked out of the meeting as an act of protest, saying that giving humanitarian aid is not enough. Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal bin Abdel Aziz called for arming the Syrian opposition and said: “Humanitarian aid is not enough and the only solution is a consensual or forced transition of power.” Today’s meeting follows the appointment yesterday of former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to serve as the joint UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria. Annan has been tasked to find an “inclusive political solution” to the deadly crisis in Syria. My broader take on how the United States should handle Syria is available here.

Yemen. For the first time in thirty-three years, Yemenis went to polling booths and did not find Ali Abdullah Saleh’s name on the ballot. Instead they found only one name–Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi–Saleh’s long-time vice president who will assume the presidency as part of a GCC-brokered deal to usher Saleh out of power. After Hadi is sworn in as president, ruling and opposition parties will begin to draw up a new constitution. Saleh’s exit does not mean the end of Yemen’s unrest, however; Houthi rebels in the north and separatists in the south continue to present serious challenges to government authority.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

The Obama administration stepped up its Syria rhetoric this week in the lead-up to the first meeting of the “Friends of Syria” on Friday. On Tuesday, both White House and State Department spokespeople hinted at possible support for lethal force, noted publicly that the United States could not rule out “additional measures” if the violence did not abate without specifying what those steps might be. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton moved closer to recognition of the Syrian opposition on Thursday saying that there is an international consensus that the Syrian National Council is a credible representative and an alternative to Bashar al-Assad.

Quotes of the Week

  • “Our strategy now is that if we feel our enemies want to endanger Iran’s national interests, and want to decide to do that, we will act without waiting for their actions.” – Mohammad Hejazi, the deputy head of Iran’s armed forced, to the Fars news agency on Tuesday
  • “What Qaddafi left for us in Libya after forty years is a very, very heavy heritage… It is very heavy and will be hard to get over it in one or two years or even five years.” – Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Trasition Council in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday
  • “The attempt to topple the Syrian government will not become reality and the front line of confrontation with the Zionist regime [Israel] will not disappear.” – Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,  on Thursday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Libya. A Libyan military court that was about to try some fifty Qaddafi loyalists announced on Wednesday that most of the defendents should instead be tried in a civilian court; “We feel this court is under pressure and… does not have the necessary judicial independence,” said Saleh Omran, a defense lawyer for seventeen of the accused. Human rights activists have been worried that the lack of central authority in Libya may prevent former loyalists from receiving a fair trial. Some of these Qaddafi supporters have reportedly received abusive and sometimes lethal treatment at the hands of former rebels.

Bahrain. Over twenty thousand Sunni Bahrainis rallied in Manama on Tuesday night to warn the government against opening a dialogue with the Shiite opposition. A representative of a Sunni youth group read a statement that asked “How can there be a dialogue at this time? The majority of citizens ask, is this the time for dialogue and a political solution? Security is the priority!” The previous day, Bahraini security forces had used water cannons and tear gas to break up an anti-government march following the funeral of a protester.

Saudi Arabia. Riyadh named its first ambassador to Iraq since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Saudi Arabia does not intend to reopen its embassy in Baghdad, however.  Instead, it plans to appoint Fahd al-Zaid, the Saudi ambassador to Jordan, to serve as the new “nonresident” ambassador to Iraq. An announcement that a delegation of senior Iraqi officials had visited Saudi Arabia followed, pointing toward signs of warming ties between the two states. Meanwhile, tensions continued in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. On Monday, Saudi’s interior ministry defended its tactics against unrest and vowed to crack down further with an “iron fist.” A statement released on Wednesday and signed by forty-one Shiite dignitaries in the province denounced Saudi Arabia’s use of violence and called for a “serious investigation.”

Palestinians. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal met again in Cairo to finalize the line-up of a new unity Palestinian government as agreed to in Doha  earlier this month. Instead, the two leaders failed to reach agreement and announced that their talks have been postponed. No new date for further Fatah-Hamas talks has been announced.

This Week in History

Tuesday marked the fifty-fourth anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Republic. On February 21, 1958, simultaneous referendums in Syria and Egypt overwhelmingly approved the formation of  the United Arab Republic–a political union between Syria and Egypt. The union was largely catalyzed by a strong sense of Arab nationalism and the desire to overcome the “artificial” borders created by the European colonial powers. The union collapsed after a mere three years, however, due to the widely-held view in Syria that it was being used as a tool to further Egyptian hegemony under President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Statistic of the Week 

Russian officials announced on Tuesday that two-way trade between Syria and Russia jumped 58 percent last year—bringing the total up to $1.97 billion, with the balance heavily in favor of Moscow.

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