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 Braces for Showdown While Egypt Slowly Forms a Government

by Robert M. Danin
July 26, 2012

A Free Syrian Army soldier steps on portraits of President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab Al-Salam border crossing to Turkey on July 22, 2012 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters). A Free Syrian Army soldier steps on portraits of President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab Al-Salam border crossing to Turkey on July 22, 2012 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. Fighting raged today in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where troops loyal to the regime and rebel fighters prepared for large-scale confrontation. Rebel forces earlier this week announced a major operation to “liberate” the city from government control. The Syrian army responded by sending thousands of reinforcements and special forces toward the city. As the fighting in Aleppo and other parts of the country intensified, Turkey announced yesterday that its border crossings into Syria would be closed to all but refugees. Earlier this week, Syria effectively acknowledged possession of chemical and biological weapons, though the regime attempted to mollify concerns when a foreign ministry representative told a press conference Tuesday that “any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used… during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments.”  The possibility that Syria would employ weapons of mass destruction elicited sharp rebukes from both the United States and even Russia. Meanwhile, a group of Arab states announced plans today to appeal to the UN General Assembly for action toward Syria since Russia and China have repeatedly thwarted movement in the Security Council. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the states leading the effort, reportedly hope that a General Assembly resolution would underline the widespread international support for Bashar al-Assad’s departure. Earlier this week, two more senior Syrian diplomats defected, including the country’s envoy to Cyprus and its ambassador to the UAE.

Egypt. To the surprise of most of the country’s political observers, Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi on Tuesday announced the appointment of Hesham Kandil as prime minister. Kandil, who is not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was relatively unknown until now, having previously served as an irrigation minister. With the military still wielding significant power in a number of key sectors in Egypt, it remains to be seen what role Kandil will play in the period ahead. The Egyptian government is expected to announce further appointments on Friday. Morsi met earlier today with Hamas’ rival Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The meeting follows last week’s announcement that Egypt was easing travel restrictions on Palestinians. Meanwhile, thousands of Egyptians attended the funeral last weekend of Omar Suleiman, the once-powerful head of Egypt’s intelligence service. Suleiman, who had long served as former president Mubarak’s intelligence chief and key adviser, was accorded a military funeral in Cairo, following his death at a U.S. hospital in Cleveland last week.

Iraq. A wave of deadly attacks in at least thirteen Iraqi cities on Monday produced the country’s deadliest day in more than two years, leaving over one hundred dead and hundreds injured. The violence continued throughout the week, with twelve Iraqis reported dead today, including five Iraqi policeman and seven militants in the town of Hadid, a former insurgent stronghold. Iraq’s violent escalation has raised considerable concerns over the Iraqi Security Forces’ capacities to counter the growing strength of al-Qaeda in the country. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for Monday’s attacks. The attacks suggest an escalation of sectarian violence, similar to a spike seen in 2007. Al-Qaeda forces in Iraq have announced their intentions to help the rebels in Syria, though Syrian opposition leaders have denied connection with any extremist groups. As Iraqi security forces struggle to keep the violence at bay, the government in Baghdad has condemned and banned Chevron from bidding for exploration licenses due to the company’s acquisition of oil interests in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of the country last week. The Baghdad government called Chevron’s deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government “illegal and illegitimate.”

U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Wednesday at a conference on genocide held at the United States Holocaust Museum in cooperation with CNN and CFR. There, she told attendees that “We must remain vigilant against [Holocaust] deniers and against anti-Semitism, because when heads of state and religious leaders deny the Holocaust from their bully pulpits, we cannot let their lies go unanswered.” Clinton condemned the Assad regime and singled out Iran, Russia, and China for supporting it. In her remarks, she announced U.S. support for the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centers and its efforts to compile evidence of serious human rights abuses and violations as well as increased efforts to assist the opposition.

John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, held previously unannounced talks in Israel on July 25 with senior government officials. Brennan also met with Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in Jerusalem. Brennan’s visit contributes to a surge of senior U.S. officials visiting Israel this month, including Secretary of State Clinton, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is set to arrive in Israel Saturday night as part of a three-nation swing that takes him to the United Kingdom and Poland.

President Obama spoke out this week about Syrian chemical weapons. On Monday he warned President Assad that the Syrian regime “will be held accountable by the international community and the United States should they make the tragic mistake of using those weapons.”

Quotes of the Week

  • “I don’t want to see any of my successors after twenty years visiting Syria and apologizing for what we could have done now to protect civilians in Syria, which we are not doing,” – UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon speaking today during a visit to Srebrenica
  • “Turkey and Israel are two important, strong and stable states in this region… We must find ways to restore the relations we once had… it is important, particularly now, for stability in the region in these times,” – Israeli prime minister Netanyahu to Turkish journalists in a meeting on Monday
  • “The Palestinian Authority has made steady progress in many years toward establishing the institutions required by a future state but the economy is currently not strong enough to support such a state,” — economist John Nasir said in a statement accompanying a World Bank report released on Wednesday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Iran. Iranian and EU deputy negotiators met in Istanbul on July 24 to try to establish common ground for another round of talks on the country’s atomic program. Further talks are expected soon between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator, Ashton’s office said after the meeting without giving details. Despite this report, U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro commented today that the world powers currently negotiating with Iran have not yet decided how–or even whether–negotiations that began in April should continue. Shapiro emphasized high-level coordination between Israel and the United States on the matter, especially indicated by the arrival for talks of U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta next week.

Jordan. The International Monetary Fund announced on Wednesday that it had reached a preliminary agreement with Jordan for a $2 billion loan to stabilize the country’s economy. Jordan’s economy has suffered recently due to instability in the region, which has hampered natural gas deliveries from Egypt and created an inflow of Syrian refugees. The agreement requires approval by the IMF’s executive board, which said it would consider the deal “in the near future.”

UAE. The United Arab Emirates continued its crackdown on suspected Islamists with eight new arrests, bringing the total number of detainees to 39. The eight men detained were all linked to al-Islah, an outlawed Islamist group in the UAE. Authorities claim the group has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, although the group denies links to any overseas organizations. Despite these arrests, the oil-rich UAE has not witnessed widespread street protests like elsewhere in the region.

This Week in History

This week marks the 214th anniversary of the fall of Cairo during Napoleon’s Mediterranean Campaign, a series of naval engagements that included the capture of Malta. Napoleon lead the French campaign in Egypt and Syria from 1798-1801 aimed at protecting French trade interests and undermining Britain’s access to India. Napoleon landed in Alexandria on July 1 of 1798, and proceeded to occupy Egypt after a decisive French victory in the famous Battle of the Pyramids on July 18, 1798. Shortly after, Napoleon’s forces stormed Cairo on July 24 and gained control of the city. The expedition included 30,000 infantry, 2,500 calvary, and a group of 167 scientific researchers. The scientists’ discoveries included the Rosetta Stone, and their findings were published in the Descriptions de L’Egypte in 1809. The French had hoped to be welcomed by the Egyptians as liberators from Mamluk rule, but Napoleon and the French eventually retreated from Egypt in 1799 after military encounters with British and Ottoman forces across the Mediterranean led them to reconsider their position in Egypt.

Statistic of the Week

A survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project conducted in March-April, following Egypt’s parliamentary elections but prior to the victory of Mohammad Morsi as president, found considerable support for Islam as a guiding force in politics. Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of Egyptians saw Islam playing a big role in national politics, up 19 percentage points from 2010, when just 47 percent said this was the case. Although the survey indicates a broad acknowledgment of Islam’s rising profile in the political arena, the survey suggested greater uneasiness as to whether Islam’s influence will be positive or negative. When asked about their country’s current political life, 64 percent of Egyptians expressed a positive view of Islam’s role in politics, a significant decrease from two years prior. In 2010, 82 percent expressed a positive view of Islam’s role in politics. The percentage of people who held a negative view of Islam playing a role in politics increased 19 percentage points over the same two-year period (20 percent versus 1 percent).

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