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: Modest Security Council Steps on Syria While Copts Mourn in Egypt

by Robert M. Danin
March 22, 2012

Egyptian Coptic priests and Christians carry the coffin of Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, upon its arrival for burial at St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi al-Natrun, on March 20, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Egyptian Coptic priests and Christians carry the coffin of Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, upon its arrival for burial at St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi al-Natrun, on March 20, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt for over forty years, died last Saturday. Thousands of mourners attended his Cairo funeral on Tuesday. Shenouda’s death comes at a time of deepening insecurity among Egypt’s ten million Copts and fears of increasing sectarian strife following a deadly Coptic church bombing in January 2011 that killed twenty-three people, the massacre of twenty-seven mostly Coptic protesters last October, and heightened anti-Christian rhetoric employed by newly empowered Salafists. Shenouda was first selected as pope in 1971, and was seen as a guardian of Egypt’s Coptic community. In 1981, President Anwar Sadat sent Shenouda into internal exile at a desert monastery in response to the pope’s public efforts to highlight Coptic concerns. In the Mubarak era, Pope Shenouda quietly worked closely with the government to gain greater freedoms for the Coptic Church and to help preserve Egyptian stability, a collaboration that angered many of the younger and more secular Copts. The process to select Shenouda’s successor will likely take two to three months, and will run parallel to Egypt’s presidential election. The next pope will play a critical role in helping to shape Coptic-Muslim relations in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Syria. The United Nations Security Council adopted a presidential statement Wednesday outlining its “full support” for UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s plan to bring the year-long violence in Syria to a halt. The statement called for both the opposition and the government “to work in good faith with the envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis.” The statement also called for a daily two-hour humanitarian pause and for a transition to a democratic, pluralist political system. State Department officials called the statement a “modest step” and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said today that “In addition to a common message we also have to develop a joint plan of action” to stop the “human tragedy” in Syria. Indeed, the statement has so far failed to quell any of the violence in Syria. At least fifty-four Syrians were killed today as the regime reportedly employed “Homs tactics” of shelling residential neighborhoods in Al Qaa on the Lebanese border. Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, expressed disappointment with the UNSC’s statement. “Such statements, issued amid continued killings, offer the regime the opportunity to push ahead with its repression in order to crush the revolt by the Syrian people,” said Samir Nashar, member of the executive committee of the Syrian National Council. UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon said that he hoped the UN statement would prove to be a “turning point” in the crisis.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Iran sanctions. The United States granted exemptions to Japan and ten EU countries (Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain) from financial sanctions because they have significantly reduced their purchases of Iranian oil. President Obama invoked a clause in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that allows him to grant exemptions if a given country has “significantly reduced” petroleum purchases. Turkey has also sought an exemption, but was not included on the list released by the administration on Tuesday. Turkish prime minister Erdogan is likely to raise the issue with President Obama when they both attend a nuclear security summit in South Korea later this month.

Palestine. President Obama called Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Monday—the first time the two leaders had spoken in six months. White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement that Obama told Abbas that the United States remained committed to Middle East peace. According to Carney, Obama also praised recent efforts by Jordan’s king Abdullah to return Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. Middle Eastern news sources report that Obama urged Abbas to withdraw or at least soften a letter the Palestinian president plans to send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A Palestinian official subsequently said that Abbas was still determined to send the letter, though he did not specify any timing.

Quotes of the Week

  • “We believe the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and… is making very many mistakes.” – Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian radio station Kommersant-FM on Monday
  • “It is time for these criminals to stop exploiting the name of Palestine through their terrorist actions, and to stop pretending to stand up for Palestinian children, who only seek a decent life for themselves and for all children of the world.” – Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad said on Wednesday, in response to the killing of three children and a rabbi at Toulouse
  • “We have information that Iran paid tens of millions of dollars to Zahar and Haniyeh in their visits to Iran… Reconciliation is in the freezer because Zahar was the one who put it there and he got the price from Iran… Zahar, Haniyeh and Hamas’s Gaza leadership were paid by Iran to freeze reconciliation.” – Ahmed Assaf, a Fatah spokesman, told Reuters on Tuesday
  • “I wish the Iranian people a real, true holiday, in which they may taste freedom, dignity and human honor… It is not too late to replace the corrupt regime and return to your glorious Persian heritage, a heritage of culture and values, not of bombs and missiles.” – Israeli president Shimon Peres sent greetings to the Iranian people for Nowruz, the Persian new year, on Monday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights announced on Sunday that more than two thousand people have been killed in the country’s unrest over the past year. It marked the first casualty figures released by the government, and far exceeds human rights groups’ estimates. Amnesty International had previously estimated that two hundred people had been killed in Yemen’s uprising. The government’s casualty count includes protesters and military defectors. Also on Sunday, al-Qaeda killed Joel Shrum, an American development worker and teacher living in Taiz. Two gunmen riding on a motorbike shot Shrum dead. He was the deputy director of the International Training Development Centre (ITDC).

Iraq. At least forty-nine people were killed throughout Iraq on Tuesday, a week before the much anticipated Arab League summit in Baghdad aimed at demonstrating Iraq’s move toward stability and complete sovereignty. Thousands of soldiers and police have since flooded the streets of Baghdad to secure the city, though terrorist activity is still expected to pick up in the run-up to the summit. Meanwhile, Kurdish regional government president Massoud Barzani threatened on Tuesday to withdraw Kurdish support from Prime Minister Maliki’s ruling coalition, marking a blow to Prime Minister Maliki’s coalition. “It is time to say that enough is enough, because Iraq is headed toward an abyss, and a small group of people are about to pull Iraq into a dictatorship,” Barzani said in a speech. Barzani accused the Baghdad government of pressuring western oil companies from working in Kurdish areas of Iraq.

Bahrain. The country’s main opposition groups issued a joint statement on Monday announcing their willingness to begin talks with Bahrain’s rulers on ending the country’s protests. However, the statement stipulated several preconditions, including a demand that all political prisoners be released before any talks could commence. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, in an apparent rebuff to the opposition, said the following day that Bahrain had enacted real and meaningful reforms and that “the challenge of the coming months will be to translate these into tangible, cultural changes.”

This Week in History

This week marks the seventeenth anniversary of Operation Steel, the Turkish army’s invasion of northern Iraq in an attempt to disassemble the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) infrastructure. On March 20, 1995, Turkey sent some thirty-five thousand troops into the mountains of Iraq. Over five hundred PKK militants were killed; Turkish forces suffering only sixty-four fatalities. The invasion failed to achieve its objectives, however, as PKK forces had observed the Turkish troop build-up and managed to disperse in time. By the end of April, after a month of operations, Turkey pulled out twenty thousand of its troops. Operation Steel officially ended on May 4 after a Kurdistan delegation pledged to halt PKK activities in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK continued its operations, however, and Turkey deployed another thirty thousand soldiers into Iraq in 1997 in Operation Hammer.

Poll of the Week

According to a March opinion poll conducted in the West Bank and Gaza by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have both recently lost popularity among the public. Hamas’ overall approval ratings fell five percentage points in the last three months, dropping to 36 percent, while the Palestinian Authority’s popularity declined even more drastically, dropping ten percentage points to 34 percent. Fifty-five percent of those polled claimed satisfaction with President Abbas’s performance–a five point drop from his standing three months ago. Forty three percent of those polls expressed dissatisfaction with Palestinian leader’s performance.

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