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’s Cease-fire, Iran’s Negotiations, and Egypt’s New Presidential Candidate

by Robert M. Danin
April 12, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. An uneasy UN-brokered ceasefire went into effect at dawn in Syria this morning. Activists report relative quiet throughout the country though Syrian forces have not returned to barracks. UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said in a statement this morning that he was encouraged that “the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding.” Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi welcomed the development and urged Annan to send observers to Syria to monitor the ceasefire. Annan reportedly told the UN Security Council in a closed-door briefing today that the Syrian regime has failed to implement the full troop pullback. UNSC secretary general Ban Ki-Moon echoed Annan’s call for the Syrian regime to keep its promises and implement Annan’s six-point plan, saying: “As of this moment the situation looks calmer. We are following it very closely.” The cease-fire comes after a tumultuous week in Syria with over one thousand deaths reported by the Syrian National Council, and violence spilling over into Turkey and Lebanon on Monday, with a Lebanese journalist killed inside his country by shots across the border from Syria. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch issued a report on Monday that documented at least one hundred extrajudicial executions by the regime and called for a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Iran. White House spokesperson Jay Carney, speaking prior to this weekend’s P5+1 nuclear talks, suggested that while time is not infinite, there is enough of it to pursue a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s atomic nuclear organization, suggested on Monday that the Islamic republic might consider stopping enrichment of uranium at 20 percent. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, confirmed Wednesday that Iran would offer “new initiatives” to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany when they meet Saturday in Istanbul. Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced the deployment of a second U.S. aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, only the fourth time in the past decade that the United States has had two aircraft carriers operating at the same time in the region. The commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain called the deployment “routine and not specific to any threat.”

Egypt. Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s former spy chief under deposed president Mubarak, announced his candidacy for president last Friday. His announcement, published on the website of state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, caught many Egyptians by surprise. Suleiman claimed he was running in response to Egypt’s desire for “security, stability and prosperity.” Suleiman, who served briefly as Mubarak’s vice president in the waning days of his rule, has been largely absent from public life following the toppling of the Egyptian government. Muslim Brotherhood secretary general Mahmoud Hussein, in comments published on the movement’s website on Wednesday, called the Suleiman candidacy “an attempt by the remnants of the regime to try to bring back the fallen era. It is seeking to thwart the revolution and return to the era before January 25.”

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

G8. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the Group of 8 foreign ministers on Wednesday and Thursday in Washington where they discussed a range of regional issues. Clinton reportedly discussed Syria again with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, following up on their March 12 meeting in which Lavrov said “ultimatums would not work.” On Monday, in the run-up to the ministerial meeting, Clinton told an audience at the U.S. Naval Academy that she expected a “very rough couple of days” while trying to determine whether a Syrian resolution should be brought back to the UN Security Council in the face of Russian resistance. She also blamed Russia’s refusal to support constructive action for keeping Assad in power. Following the G8 meetings, Clinton expressed cautious hope for today’s calm in Syria, noting, “The Annan plan is not a menu of options. It is a set of obligations. The burden of fully and visibly meeting all of these obligations continues to rest with the regime. They cannot pick and choose. For it to be meaningful, this apparent halt in violence must lead to a credible political process and a peaceful, inclusive, democratic transition.”

Israel/Palestine. The Middle East Quartet–comprised of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States–met on Wednesday and welcomed plans for upcoming dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian officials while discussing ways to support these efforts. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Secretary of State Clinton, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, High Commissioner Catherine Ashton, and Quartet Representative Tony Blair were briefed by Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, about his country’s Israeli-Palestinian engagement. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority president Abbas told an Israeli delegation on Sunday that he would continue his efforts to win recognition for Palestinian statehood at the UN if Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to respond to Palestinian positions to be laid out in a letter to be delivered by the Palestinians next Wednesday, April 17. According to Netanyahu’s aides yesterday, the Israeli leader seeks to upgrade peace talks to direct talks between himself and Abbas. PA spokesperson Nabil Abu Rdeneh said today that Abbas was ready for talks only if Israel halts settlement construction and accepts the 1967 green line as the basis for negotiations. Otherwise, he said, negotiations would be a “waste of time.”

Quotes of the Week

  •  “If the Brotherhood’s candidate wins the presidential election, Egypt will be turned into a religious state. All state institutions will be controlled by the Brotherhood.” Former Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman said in an interview published on Thursday
  •  “The Russians have continuously said they want to avoid civil war, they want to avoid a regional conflict, but their refusal to join with us in some sort of constructive action is keeping Assad in power, well armed, able to ignore the demands of his own people, of his region and the world.” – Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday evening at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis
  • “China calls on the Syrian government to respond to the six-point proposal.” – Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Wednesday of Kofi Annan’s six-point plan for resolving the Syrian crisis
  • “[Western powers] want to impose sanctions on our oil and we must say to them that we have that much saved that even if we didn’t sell oil for two to three years, the country would manage easily.” –Iranian president Ahmadinejad said during a visit to Hormuzgan province on Tuesday
  • “And you know, our bottom line, our position is that Iran must — lived up to its international obligations, including the full suspension of uranium enrichment, as required by multiple UN Security Council resolutions,” – Whitehouse spokesman Jay Carney said in a press briefing on Wednesday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Tunisia. Some of the worst violence since last year’s revolution broke out in Tunisia on Monday. Hundreds of protesters gathering on a main avenue in Tunis in violation of a ban on demonstrations there, were met by tear gas and baton-armed riot police who injured fifteen civilians. President Moncef Marzouki denounced the violence as “unacceptable.” The Tunisian government announced today that it has reversed its ban on demonstrations.

Gaza. Three men were hanged by Hamas in Gaza City on Saturday. Though the names and ages of the men were not released, Gaza authorities issued a statement claiming that one man had helped Israel and the other two were complicit in murder. The executions marked the first time Hamas has carried out an execution of someone accused of aiding Israel this year.

Jordan. The Jordanian government announced on Wednesday that it would revoke Jordanian citizenship of Palestinian Authority and PLO officials, coinciding with a new electoral law in Jordan that will limit Palestinian representation in parliament. The government has defended the move saying it is “preserving the Palestinians’ national identity and paving the way for their return to Palestine.” It is not clear if Palestinian Authority president Abbas will lose his Jordanian citizenship.

Yemen. More than 150 people have been killed since clashes broke out in Yemen on Monday, with at least eight fighters linked to al-Qaeda being killed today. The militant group Ansar al-Sharia attacked a military camp in the Lawdar area on Monday and since then the Yemeni government and armed civilians have launched a retaliatory offensive against the group.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirty-eighth anniversary of Golda Meir’s resignation as Israel’s prime minister. Meir announced her resignation on April 11, 1974, less than six months after the end of the surprise 1973 war that left Israel stunned and deeply wounded. Meir, a signatory of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, served in the Knesset from 1949 until 1974 while holding a variety of ministerial posts including foreign minister. When she replaced Levi Eshkol as prime minister following his death on February 26, 1969, Meir became the world’s third female prime minister at the time. The  combined Egyptian-Syrian attack in 1973 constituted a strategic surprise for Israel, and led to bitter accusations that Meir’s government left Israel unprepared. Though Meir’s Labor Alignment won post-war elections in December 1973, a national commission of inquiry into the war—the Agranat Commission—concluded that Israel was unprepared for the war. Though the commission absolved Meir of responsibility, she resigned days later and decided to withdraw from politics.

Statistic of the Week

The UN special representative to Iraq reported to the UN Security Council on Tuesday that more than 600 civilians had been killed in religion-related violence in Iraq from January 1 through March 31 of this year. “Terrorist attacks have continued to target pilgrims and resulted in the killing and wounding of scores of defenseless people practicing their religion,” Martin Kobler said.

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