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: A Syrian Peace Plan, An Arab Summit in Baghdad, and Iran Prepares for Nuclear Talks

by Robert M. Danin
March 29, 2012

Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari meets with his Kuwaiti counterpart sheikh Sabah Khalid Al-Hamad Al-Sabah upon his arrival for the Arab foreign ministers meeting as part of the Arab League Summit in Baghdad on March 28, 2012 (Mohammed Ameen/Courtesy Reuters). Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari meets with his Kuwaiti counterpart sheikh Sabah Khalid Al-Hamad Al-Sabah upon his arrival for the Arab foreign ministers meeting as part of the Arab League Summit in Baghdad on March 28, 2012 (Mohammed Ameen/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. A spokesman for UN special envoy Kofi Annan announced on Tuesday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad accepted Annan’s six-point peace plan. Iran also announced its support for the plan. Western diplomats expressed doubts over Assad’s intention to implement it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “We will judge Assad’s sincerity and seriousness by what he does, not by what he says.” Clinton said the Syrian leader could prove himself “by immediately ordering regime forces to stop firing and begin withdrawing from populated areas.” On Wednesday, despite Annan’s announcement, the violence in Syria continued unabated. Syrian government forces entered the town of Qalaat al-Madiq following seventeen straight days of bombardment. In Baghdad, Arab League foreign ministers agreed to back Annan’s proposal, but a Syrian official announced that the regime would reject any initiatives that came out of the Arab League summit. Meanwhile on Tuesday, Syrian opposition groups gathered in Istanbul in an attempt to unite. That effort was marred when both a veteran dissident and the Kurdish community’s representative walked out. Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus on Monday and is preparing to host the second Friends of Syria meeting on Sunday.

Iraq. Three rockets exploded in Baghdad on Thursday as Arab leaders met for the first Arab League summit in Iraq in twenty-two years. The summit was dominated by the violence in Syria. The Arab leaders issued a declaration calling on the Syrian government and opposition to implement UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad al-Sabah attended the summit in a symbolic expression of his country’s reconciliation with Baghdad and the ending of claims outstanding against Iraq since Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait in 1990. Qatar was represented by its ambassador to the Arab League. Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani said that the lower level of representation was an intentional message to Baghdad protesting its treatment of Sunnis.

Iran. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi announced on Tuesday that nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries would begin on April 13. Salehi expressed his hoped that they would take place in Istanbul. Turkish prime minister Erdogan in Tehran today voiced strong support for Tehran’s nuclear efforts. Erdogan has been in Iran on a two-day visit during which he said:  “The government and nation of Turkey has always clearly supported the nuclear positions of the Islamic republic of Iran, and will continue to firmly follow the same policy in the future.”

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Syria. On Wednesday John McCain and five other lawmakers sponsored a non-binding Senate resolution calling for the establishment of safe zones inside Syria. It does not call for direct U.S. military intervention, something McCain supports, but aims at forging a consensus for U.S. support to the Syrian opposition. The resolution “supports calls by Arab leaders to provide the people of Syria with the means to defend themselves against Bashar al-Assad and his forces, including through the provision of weapons and other material support, and calls on the president to work closely with regional partners to implement these efforts effectively.”

Israel. Pentagon spokesman George Little announced on Tuesday that the U.S. Defense Department would ask Congress for more funding to support additional “Iron Dome” short-range missile shields for Israel. The system proved to be effective during the recent missile fire from Gaza, intercepting 80 percent of over three hundred missiles launched against Israel. Congress approved $205 million in funding for the Iron Dome project during fiscal year 2011, and the Obama administration is asking for further funds to support the project this year.

Quotes of the Week

  • “Assad has not taken the necessary steps despite his promises of democratic steps… The international community does not believe anymore that he will take those steps. We expect you to see that as well… It is time you saw that Syria will not be convinced. It is time you saw things will not go on with Assad,” – Turkish prime minister Erdogan told Russian president Medvedev in a meeting on Tuesday
  • “To think that Assad’s departure would mean the removal of all the problems is a very short-sighted position and everyone understands that if this happened the conflict would most likely continue,”- Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was quoted by the ITAR-TASS news agency on Tuesday
  • “They’ve gone for the children… in large numbers, hundreds detained and tortured, it’s just horrendous.” – UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Wednesday regarding Syria’s security forces targeting of children
  • “There is one thing to say: there is a partner. Abu Mazen never said he supports terror, not even when (former Palestinian president Yasser) Arafat was in charge. Don’t tell me there is no partner. There is a partner. Abu Mazen wants peace with Israel. It may not be the same peace we want, but that’s why we negotiate. And I don’t need Abu Mazen to make declarations on the nature of the State of Israel. When there will be a Palestinian state, there will be a Jewish democratic state of Israel, and that’s it.” – Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said on Monday before J Street in Washington

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Egypt. Liberal and leftist members of parliament announced on Tuesday that they were withdrawing from the constituent assembly, the panel tasked to draft Egypt’s new constitution. This leaves the task solely in the hands of Islamist members. Liberal parties alleged that the hundred-member body that was selected this past weekend is unfairly dominated by Islamists. The dissenting parties want the constitution to be representative of all Egyptians and to be based on principles unrelated to election results. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi met with party leaders on Tuesday to try to find a consensus about the assembly, but has yet to find a solution. Other institutions tasked to participate, such as Al Azhar’s Islamic Research Center, announced its intentions to follow suit on Thursday, declaring that it was also not fairly represented in the constituent assembly. The Coptic Church is reportedly considering pulling out as well. Further threatening the legitimacy of the constituent assembly is a set of lawsuits challenging its validity, about which the State Council’s Administrative Court announced it would rule on April 10.

Libya. After days of bloody fighting in southern Libya, the Tabu tribe threatened on Wednesday to break away from Libya’s central government and form an autonomous state in the south. This is the second recent threat of secession, following eastern tribal leaders’ announcement earlier this month of their intention to form a semi-autonomous state with its capitol in Benghazi. The Tabu tribe is an African tribe that has been fighting with a rival Arab tribe and has accused the National Transition Council of allowing a genocide to occur without any indication of intervention.

UAE. Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan accused the Muslim Brotherhood on Tuesday of using twitter to undermine the political elite. Restrictions have been placed on Egyptians coming to the UAE for work since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in the Egyptian parliament last year out of concern that they might stir unrest in the Gulf. Khalfan said “Western intelligence services leaked to me a piece of information that says that between 2012 and 2016 the (Muslim Brotherhood) aims at creating governments in the Gulf that pay allegiance to them.”

This Week in History

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the Arab League’s unanimous endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative. During the Arab League summit in Beirut on March 27, 2002, the leaders of the Arab world agreed to a comprehensive peace initiative proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The initiative offered full Arab recognition and normalization of relations to Israel by the Arab states in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in the 1967 war, a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, and acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. On the same day that the Arab League adopted the initiative, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated explosives at a Passover seder in a Netanya hotel, killing twenty people and injuring 170 others. The initiative was adopted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in April 2002, and was reaffirmed at the Arab League’s 2007 summit in Riyadh. Successive Israeli governments have failed to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative, citing concerns about the millions of Palestinian refugees who would seek to return to Israel, and alleging that the initiative prejudges the outcome of negotiations.

Poll of the Week

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, 53.9 percent of Turks believe that they should have a nuclear arsenal if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. The support for a Turkish arsenal reveals the lack of confidence in NATO’s ability to protect Turkey from an Iranian nuclear threat, with only 8 percent of those polled convinced that NATO’s security umbrella would be sufficient deterrence. Thirty-two percent of those polled said that Turkey should not develop nuclear weapons in any situation.

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