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: Syria Besieges, Egypt Relents, and Iran War-Talk

by Robert M. Danin
March 2, 2012

Some of the fourteen Egyptian activists who were accused of working for unlicensed non-governmental organizations and receiving illegal foreign funds, stand in a cage during the opening of their trial in Cairo on February 26, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. Developments shifted back this week to the intense fighting in Syria, especially the siege of Homs. On Thursday, Syrian rebels announced their retreat from their Bab Amr stronghold in Homs, a day after Assad’s troops escalated their 26-day siege of the city and deployed elite troops of the Fourth Armored Division under the command of Bashar’s brother Maher to the city. In a rare move that was supported by both Russia and China, the UN Security Council issued a unanimous presidential statement “deploring” the humanitarian crisis. The statement also urged Syria to allow UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, who had been refused entry into the country, to be allowed to visit. The UN Human Rights Council also met on Thursday and adopted a resolution condemning Syria’s human rights violations, including the use of force against civilians and arbitrary executions. Only China, Russia, and Cuba voted against the resolution. Syria subsequently announced that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would be permitted to deliver humanitarian aid to Homs/Syria. The Qatari prime minister said on Thursday that the time had come to “study all options to save the Syrian people.” Earlier in the week, President Moncef Marzouki said that Tunisia would offer Bashar al-Assad asylum as part of a negotiated settlement. The UN estimates that “well over 7,500 people” have been killed in Syria to date.

Egypt. A group of foreign pro-democracy workers accused of fomenting unrest in Egypt that had been prevented from leaving the country were finally allowed to depart on Thursday, but only after nearly $5 million was posted in bail on their behalf. The group included over a dozen Americans, amongst them Sam LaHood, director of Egypt operations for the International Republican Institute and son of U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood. The Americans, who departed on a U.S. military jet, promised to return for trial. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that “We’ve had a lot of very tough conversations and I think we are moving toward a resolution… But I don’t want to discuss it in great detail because it’s important that they know that we are continuing to push them but that we don’t necessarily put it out into the public arena yet.” Egypt also announced that the presidential elections will be held May 23-May 24. Absentee ballots will be accepted between May 11 and May 17 and the results will be announced on June 21.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

In the run-up to separate visits to Washington early next week by both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, U.S. officials spoke widely about Iran and various aspects of a possible military strike against the country’s nuclear facilities. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney warned about the dangers of military action: “It is certainly the case–and I think we have been clear about this–that any military action in that region threatens greater instability in the region, threatens–as you point out, because Iran borders both Afghanistan and Iraq–we have civilian personnel in Iraq, we have military personnel as well as civilians in Afghanistan. There are all sorts of potential consequences to more military activity in that region and in Iran specifically.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to clairify Washington’s position in testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In response to a question about America’s response to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state rather than actually possessing nuclear weapons, Clinton said: “It’s absolutely clear that the president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability.”  U.S. Air Force chief  Norton Schwartz pointed to the U.S. ability to act decisively against Iran, saying, “We have an operational capability and you wouldn’t want to be there when we used it,” when asked about the MOP (“bunker buster”) bomb. In an apparent attempt to bolster the sense that the U.S. was best positioned to handle the Iranian threat, U.S. officials told the Washington Post that Iran’s purportedly “impregnable” underground nuclear sites were indeed vulnerable to repeated aerial bombardment.

Quotes of the Week

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. Where do former dictators go when they are exiled? Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is still deciding. On Monday, aides to Saleh said that he plans to go into exile in Ethiopia. Saleh’s aides had originally expressed his desire to reside in Oman after he stopped there in January en route to New York but he has reportedly not received an answer yet. Saleh is under great pressure to leave Yemen after returning for the inauguration of his former deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Jordan. King Abdullah on Wednesday pardoned a political activist who had been arrested last month for setting fire to a picture of the monarch. On Thursday, Ahmad Abbadi, a controversial former member of Parliament, who had been arrested in January for urging a revolt, was released on bail. Human Rights Watch had called for his charges to be dropped on Tuesday calling them a violation of freedom of expression.

Kuwait. A number of Kuwaiti youth activist groups have merged into a single political movement, called the Democratic Civil Movement (DCM), in an effort to intensify reform campaigns. One of the group’s founders announced that the aim of DCM “is to press for fundamental democratic reforms to achieve a full parliamentary system in Kuwait.”

Israel. Israel unveiled a new underground bomb shelter in Tel Aviv with the capacity to hold two thousand people. Israeli officials have been bolstering shelters and emergency services in recent months.

Oman. Oman’s state news agency reported the country’s second major cabinet reshuffle in a year on Wednesday. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos sacked and replaced the information and justice ministers.

This Week in History

This week marks the fifty-sixth year of Morocco’s independence from France. On March 2, 1956, French and Moroccan officials signed the provisional Franco-Moroccan Agreement in Paris, thereby granting the North African country its full independence. Morocco had been under French control since 1912, although certain areas in the “Spanish Sahara” had been treated as a Spanish protectorate. Spain quickly followed France’s example and reached a corresponding agreement with Morocco on April 7, 1956, bringing an end to the Spanish protectorate as well. In the months following Morocco’s independence, Sultan Muhammad V oversaw the transition to a constitutional monarchy with a Consultative Assembly. The sultan adopted the title of king in August of 1957.

Poll of the Week

According to a University of Maryland and Israeli Dahaf Institute opinion poll, a majority of Israelis oppose an Israeli strike on Iran carried out unilaterally and without U.S. backing.  The poll suggested that 34 percent of five hundred Israelis surveyed believed that Israel should not strike Iran. Forty-two percent said an attack should only be carried out if the United States supported the decision, and only 19 percent believed Israel should attack Iran without U.S. support.

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