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: Syrian Opposition Woes as Concerns Over Iran Increase

by Robert M. Danin
May 17, 2012

Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, speaks during a news conference with Italy's foreign minister Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata at the end of their meeting in Rome on May 13, 2012 (Alessandro Bianchi/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. Earlier today, Burhan Ghalioun offered to resign as head of the Syrian National Council, the country’s primary opposition group. In making the announcement, Ghalioun called on the Syrian opposition “to break the cycle of conflicts and preserve unity.” Ghalioun’s resignation, just two days after he was reelected to head the SNC, was nonetheless reportedly due to the mounting criticism of Ghalioun’s leadership within the opposition. Some constituents threatened to leave if their concerns were not properly addressed. Meanwhile, violence within Syria continued with reports that fifteen people were killed by army shelling today in Rastan, and dozens more reportedly killed earlier this week. Some twenty-three Syrian soldiers were killed by rebels in Rastan on Monday. Syria’s fighting also spilled over into Lebanon this week with Tripoli in the north the scene of days of bloody clashes between Bashar al-Assad supporters and backers of Syria’s uprising, leaving at least six dead and some one hundred wounded. Despite the violence, President Assad announced in a rare interview on Tuesday with Russian television that Syria faced no real domestic opposition. He attributed recent violence to foreign-backed terrorists saying, “We have an acute problem with terrorism.”

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Israel. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak met with U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta in Washington today and reportedly discussed Iranian developments. The two officials discussed the United States providing $680 million in additional funding over three years for Israel’s Iron Dome missile system. The money would be enough for Israel to buy three or four more batteries and interceptors for the short-range rocket defense program. Barak thanked the United States at the meeting for its “complete commitment to Israel’s security” and said that additional missile defense would provide Israel’s leaders the political and diplomatic leverage to “prevent a significant escalation.”

Yemen. President Obama signed an executive order on Wednesday providing the Treasury Department the authority to freeze the U.S.-based assets of anyone who undermines Yemen’s stability. Obama administration officials explained that the order will help them to sideline and remove relatives and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from positions of power. It is applicable to anyone who has “engaged in acts that directly or indirectly threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen” and reflects concerns that political instability could be taken advantage of by members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Quotes of the Week

  • “Egypt will offer an example to the world of free and fair presidential elections that (reflect) the will of the people.” – Egyptian field marshal Hussein Tantawi on Wednesday
  • “The great dream of the peoples of the region is to see the day when borders disappear with a union that creates one Gulf.” – Bahraini prime minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa on Sunday prior to a meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders
  • “If the world community set the threshold that even if fully accepted, let alone only partially accepted by the Iranians, to keep moving toward nuclear military program, that’s ridiculous, a delusion.” – Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak in a CNN interview on Wednesday
  • “We have seen nothing in the past months except political incompetence in the SNC and a total lack of consensus between its vision and that of the revolutionaries.” – Syria’s Local Coordination Committees in a statement today

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Iran. Iranian officials met with IAEA representatives in Vienna on Monday for the first time in three months. Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, called on the West to end its “pressure strategy” and said the Iranian people await actions to secure their trust. The Vienna talks were in preparation for the resumption of the upcoming P5+1 negotiations next Tuesday (May 23) in Baghdad. Meanwhile, a panel of UN experts submitted a report on Wednesday to the UN Security Council’s Iran sanctions committee detailing illegal Iranian arms shipments, including two seized shipments to Syria in the past year. The report also said that sanctions on Iran are slowing its procurement of essential items for its nuclear program.

GCC. The leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states met on Monday to discuss a Saudi proposal to turn the bloc into a union, a process that would likely begin with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The group did not reach agreement to integrate the six GCC states, with talks on that proposal postponed until the next GCC meeting in December. However, the discussion stirred a public row between Bahrain and Iran as Iranian parliamentarians condemned the potential Saudi-Bahraini union. Officials in Tehran urged Iranians to protest on Friday against “the American plan to annex Bahrain to Saudi Arabia and express their anger against the lackey regimes of Al-Khalifa and Al-Saud.” Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry sent Iran a letter of protest in response.

West Bank. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new cabinet on Wednesday consisting of eleven new officials. The appointment came more than a year after the last cabinet resigned in February 2011. Salam Fayyad retained his role as prime minister, but relinquished his second role as financial minister to Nabil Kassis, a former Bir Zeit University president and political independent. Today, Abbas issued a decree authorizing the new government to hold municipal elections in stages in the West Bank. The last round of local elections was held in 2005. Both moves drew harsh criticism from Hamas, with spokesperson Fawzi Barhum saying that the steps “strengthen the division” and called on Abbas to implement the Doha agreement between Fatah and Hamas calling for a new interim unity government. Abbas replied, “If we have an agreement with Hamas tomorrow or afterwards, this government will not have any role… But I cannot wait forever.”

Egypt. The leader of Egypt’s ruling military council, Field Marshal Tantawi, vowed on Wednesday to secure a fair vote in Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections which begin on May 23. Tantawi said that the military would retain its “duty” to safeguard Egypt from internal disturbances as well as external threats.

This Week in History

This week marks the eighty-ninth anniversary of Britain’s formal recognition of the Emirate of Transjordan as a state under the leadership of Emir Abdullah. The Emirate of Transjordan was established as a British protectorate in April 1921 following the historic Cairo Conference. Transjordan and Palestine were placed under one mandate, although Britain administered the land west of the Jordan River as Palestine and the land east of the river as Transjordan. In May of 1923, Transjordan was formally recognized as an independent mandate under Emir Abdullah. Under this arrangement, the British loosened some of its mandatory control, limiting its role to financial, military, and foreign policy matters. The first Anglo-Transjordan treaty was completed in 1928, which granted Transjordan nominal independence, though Britain maintained a military presence and control of foreign affairs. Transjordan finally became an independent kingdom in 1946, when it was officially established as the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan.

Statistic of the Week

According to a Rasmussen Reports survey, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of U.S. voters polled believe there is a conflict today between Western civilization and Islamic nations. The survey also found that only 27 percent of the respondents believe that it is at least somewhat likely that countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia will become free and democratic over the next few years. Of that group, only 3 percent think it is very likely to occur. Sixty-two percent think such a democratic transformation is not likely.

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