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 Tatters, Former Israeli Security Officials Speak out on Iran

by Robert M. Danin
May 3, 2012

Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak sits across from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 29, 2012 (Ronen Zvulun/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. The United Nations announced today that the three-week old truce in Syria “is not holding.” Major General Robert Mood, chief of the UN Supervision Mission to Syria, told Britain’s Sky News that “This is not easy and we are seeing–by the action, by explosions, by firing–that the cease-fire is really a shaky one.” He went on to say that “what we are also seeing on the ground is that where we have observers present, they have a calming effect and we’re also seeing that those operating on the ground, they take advice from our observers.” His remarks follow UN under secretary for peacekeeping operations Herve Ladsous’s statement on Tuesday that Syrian forces have kept heavy weapons in cities and that both the Syrian military and rebel forces have violated the truce. He also said the UN had recruited only about half the number of the three hundred monitors it had hoped for in Syria but that commitments were still coming in. Meanwhile, a protest on a university campus turned deadly when Syrian security forces stormed a dormitory at Aleppo University last night. Syrian activists report that security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse students gathered in protest; at least four have been killed and more than fifty students were arrested. Aleppo province saw further violence yesterday when rebel forces ambushed Syrian soldiers in the village of Al-Rai, killing fifteen troops. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report on Wednesday which accuses the Syrian military of committing war crimes in Syria’s northern Idlib province just before a ceasefire went into effect on April 12.

Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has come under unusual criticism of his handling of Iran by a number of former intelligence and security officials. Yuval Diskin, who recently retired as head of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, said on Friday that he had “no trust in the current Israeli leadership” and condemned the “messianic leadership” of Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak, saying they were “presenting the public with a mirage” concerning the policy options on Iran’s nuclearization. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan echoed these statements at a conference in New York on Sunday saying that Diskin had “spoke his truth” when he attacked Netanyahu’s leadership. Dagan has also declared that “an aerial attack against Iran’s nuclear reactor would be foolish.” Gabi Ashkenazi, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces, called Dagan and Diskin his partners in “stopping Bibi and Barak” from setting out on “any dangerous adventure.” Current IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz told Haaretz last week “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily ‘go, no-go,’” a statement that notably contrasts with Netanyahu’s stated timeline. The wave of criticism comes at a crucial time as Israel’s Knesset appears poised to call for new elections. A Likud official said this week that Netanyahu will announce on Sunday that national elections will be moved up to September 4. Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced yesterday that the prospect of imminent elections would not affect Israel’s strategy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. All this falls against the backdrop of personal grief for the prime minister; Netanyahu’s father, the renowned historian Benzion Netanyahu, passed away on Monday at the age of 102.

Egypt. Egypt’s campaign for the presidential election officially began on Monday with the news that the Salafi party al-Nour had endorsed Abdul Muniem Abul Fotouh. The former Muslim Brother Fotouh was also endorsed by Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who became famous during the uprising last year. Al-Nour’s announcement is an apparent setback to Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi’s campaign. Meanwhile protesters camped out in Abbasseya Square were attacked Saturday night by an unknown group who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails into the crowd, killing one and injuring one hundred and nineteen. Violence has flared every night since then with twenty people killed in clashes Tuesday night and at least another eleven Wednesday night. Both Abdul Muniem Abul Fotouh and Mohammed Mursi called off campaign events on Wednesday in protest of the authorities’ handling of the events. Meanwhile the Freedom and Justice party called for a cabinet reshuffle within forty-eight hours on Sunday and then suspended all sessions of parliament for a week. SCAF members responded on Monday by denying any intention of a cabinet reshuffle, but did announce on Wednesday that the military may hand over power on May 24 if the president wins in the first round.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

The UAE. U.S. officials announced on Monday that the United States had deployed a number of highly advanced F-22 fighter jets to the Al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates amid deepening tensions between the UAE and Iran. Air force major Mary Danner-Jones said in a statement: “The United States Air Force has deployed F-22s to Southwest Asia. Such deployments strengthen military-to-military relationships, promote sovereign and regional security, improve combined tactical air operations, and enhance interoperability of forces, equipment and procedures.” Iran criticized the move saying that it will “endanger the region’s security.” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast continued saying: “We do not in any way approve the presence of foreign forces in the region. We advise the regional countries against providing a basis for their presence.”

Syria and Iran. The U.S. Treasury Department announced today that Daniel Glaser, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing, will visit Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates during a ten-day visit to discuss the threat of terrorist financing and efforts to implement sanctions against Iran and Syria. A Treasury Department statement announced that Glaser will “highlight the need for governments and financial sectors to remain vigilant against attempts by the Syrian and Iranian regimes to evade multilateral sanctions.”

Quotes of the Week

  • “We stress that Saudi Arabia and the rest of the council countries are standing in a unified line with Bahrain and the UAE to protect sovereignty and stability, considering their security a part of the council’s security as a whole.” – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Nayef in a speech at a meeting of GCC interior ministers in Riyadh on Wednesday
  • “The Persian Gulf region is the home of all of us, and the nations on its southern and northern shores are permanent inhabitants and inevitable neighbors, and should accept that facts of geography and proximity are unchangeable and that peaceful and brotherly coexistence is an undeniable necessity.” – Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi wrote in a message to the National Persian Gulf day celebration in Bushehr on Sunday
  • “The cease-fire, announced on the basis of Kofi Annan’s plan and supported by the UN Security Council, is not being stable yet, mostly because the armed opposition groups are trying to stage provocations, explosions, terror attacks and shootings,” – Russian foreign minister Lavrov told the Rossiya-24 TV channel last Friday
  • “The (Egyptian ) army is weakening, losing its autonomy to the benefit of the government. That is bad for us. It is vital that we maintain the relationship with Egypt at any price.” – former Israeli defense minister and national infrastructures minister, and current Labor Party MK, Benjamin “Fouad” Ben-Eliezer said in an interview with Haaretz

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Jordan. King Abdullah swore in a new thirty-member cabinet on Wednesday following the resignation of his prime minister Awn Khasawneh last week. The new prime minister, Fayez Tarawneh, has been tasked with preparing for parliamentary elections at the end of the year. His appointment has been met with criticism. Jamil Abu Baker, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, called it “a set-back for reforms. It entrenches a pre-Arab Spring mentality… The prime minister is conservative and his views and position on reform are well-known.”

Bahrain. A Bahraini appeals court on Monday approved a retrial for twenty-one opposition activists, including hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. Eight of the activists, including Khawaja, were given life sentences in June by military courts for their roles in last year’s uprising. The judge ruled that those currently in prison will remain there until a verdict in a new trial. No date has been announced for the retrial. On Wednesday, King Hamad accused foreign media of exaggerating the unrest in Bahrain and inciting violence.

Libya. The head of the electoral committee, Nuri Abbar, announced the opening of voter and candidate registration centers on Tuesday. He said that there are over 1,350 centers spread across the country. Elections for a constituent assembly that will choose a panel of experts to draft a constitution are scheduled for June. Libyan authorities also passed a law on Thursday that granted immunity to former revolutionaries for any act “made necessary by the February 17 revolution.” Meanwhile, on Monday Libya formally requested the ICC to declare the case of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam’s case inadmissible and quash the surrender request so that he may be tried in country. Libya and the International Criminal Court have been at odds over who has the right to try Seif since his apprehension in November.

Hamas. A meeting in Cairo between Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed in Cairo failed to make any progress toward a unity deal, according to Palestinian officials. One negotiator, speaking anonymously, said that two hours of talks Wednesday night, a bid following up on the unity agreement reached in Doha on February 6, produced “nothing new.”

This Week in History

This week marks Iran’s celebration of National Persian Gulf Day, commemorating the expulsion of the Portuguese from the Strait of Hormuz in 1622 under the Safavid king Shah Abbas I. The holiday also celebrates the “Persian” aspect of the Gulf’s name, in response to perceived attempts to erode its ancient imperial history by neighboring Arab states and their Western allies through attempts to change the name to either the “Arabian Gulf” or simply “the Gulf.” In 2004, Iran banned the sale of the National Geographic’s Eighth Edition Atlas of the World because it included “Arabian Gulf” as an alternate name in parenthesis underneath “Persian Gulf” on a map. Iranian newspapers note that the “Persian Gulf” has been thus named since the Achaemenid Empire and is the waterway’s only legitimate name. This year’s celebration of National Persian Gulf Day comes amidst a diplomatic row with the states of the Arabian Peninsula over territorial rights to the islands of Abu Musa, the Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb. A ceremony was held in the coastal town of Bushehr complete with a parade of naval warships and vessels.

Statistic of the Week

According to the 2012 ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, being paid a fair wage and owning a home have supplanted living in a democratic country as the top two priorities for young people living in the Middle East. Eighty-two percent of respondents chose being paid a far wage as very important followed by 65 percent that chose owning their own home. In 2011, nearly 70 percent of respondents selected living in a democratic state as one of their top priorities, but this year the number dropped to 58 percent. The poll also found that 40 percent picked the UAE as the preferred role model for their own country, compared to 28 percent that chose Turkey and 18 percent that chose Saudi Arabia.


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