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: Violence, Demonstrations, Evacuations, and Conciliation

by Robert M. Danin
September 20, 2012

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters during a public appearance at an anti-U.S. protest in Beirut's southern suburbs on September 17, 2012 (Hasan Shaaban/Courtesy Reuters). Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters during a public appearance at an anti-U.S. protest in Beirut's southern suburbs on September 17, 2012 (Hasan Shaaban/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Libya. U.S. deputy secretary of state William Burns flew into Tripoli today to meet with Libyan officials and to attend a ceremony in honor of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other Americans killed last week in Benghazi. Burns met with Foreign Minister Ashur Ben Khayal, Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur and Mohammed al-Megaryef, head of the national assembly. Foreign Minister Kayal apologized for the violence and called Stevens a “friend of Libya.” Libyan authorities have arrested fifty suspects and blamed foreigners for the attack on the U.S. consulate. Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, called last week’s assault on the U.S. consulate a “terrorist attack” and said that there is evidence of the involvement of extremists from eastern Libya and Al Qaeda affiliates. A team of FBI agents arrived in Libya on Tuesday to investigate.

Syria.  Violence escalated further in Syria this week, capped by the army’s bombing today of a gas station outside of Ain Issa that killed at least fifty people and wounded dozens more. The attack followed the downing of a helicopter earlier in the day by the opposition and a recent surge of violence in Damascus and along the Syrian-Turkish border. Syrian rebels seized control of a key border crossing with Turkey yesterday.  On the diplomatic front, the ‘Friends of Syria’ met today in the Netherlands to call on the UN Security Council to deny the Assad regime the resources “for its campaign against its own people.”  Yesterday, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi met with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Salehi was in Cairo earlier in the week for the first meeting of the “Islamic Quartet,” consisting of Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Meanwhile the German publication Der Spiegel reported Monday that the Syrian army had tested delivery mechanisms for chemical weapons in August.

Egypt. President Morsi issued a decree today laying down the authorities of his recently appointed vice-president Mahmoud Mekki. On Wednesday, Morsi has appointed Mohammed Raafat Abdel Wahed as the new intelligence chief. Wahed was instrumental in negotiating last year’s deal between Hamas and Israel freeing Israel’s Corporal Gilad Schalit.  Last Saturday, after days of inactivity, Morsi’s government finally deployed Egyptian security forces to clear Tahrir Square and arrest hundreds of protesters around the U.S. embassy. Meanwhile, U.S. ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson denied rumors that an aid package promised by Obama had been withdrawn and stated that the United States understands the importance of relations with Egypt.

Iran. Saed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, met with the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Tuesday in their first face-to-face meeting since June. Ashton called the lengthy dinner meeting “constructive” and said that they had agreed to talk again after she meets counterparts of the P5+1 group at the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly next week. Iran and the IAEA are also looking to resume talks in mid-October, despite accusations by Iran’s chief atomic scientist, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davan, that the IAEA is infiltrated by “terrorists and saboteurs.” Abbasi also revealed that explosions had targeted power supplies to Iran’s two main uranium enrichment facilities on August 17.

Lebanon. Thousands of Hezbollah supporters marched in Tyre on Wednesday just hours after gunmen fired at a KFC, the second branch of the restaurant targeted in the past week. The protest followed Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s call for massive demonstrations at a rare public speech attended by tens of thousands in Beirut’s southern suburbs on Monday. Nasrallah warned the United States against broadcasting the full version of the film, Innocence of Muslims.  Meanwhile, a Sunni cleric, Ahmed al-Assir, has called for further protests in Beirut on Friday. The U.S. embassy in Beirut has reportedly begun destroying classified materials as a precautionary measure.

Tunisia. The State Department ordered the evacuation of all non-essential U.S. government personnel from Tunisia on Saturday. The evacuation order followed an eruption of violence last Friday night when protesters attacked the U.S. embassy and torched the American school in Tunis. At least three Tunisians were killed and twenty-eight injured.

Quotes of the Week

  • “We are against the killing of the ambassador as he has not committed a crime to be killed for but if America uses this as an excuse, Libya will be an inferno for U.S. troops.” – Yousef Jehani, a senior member of Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan militant Islamist group, said on Tuesday
  • “It’s a bigger group than the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s much bigger…If we have access to 5 million members, they probably have access to 30 million people. The difference is huge.” – a Freedom and Justice Party official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss party strategy regarding Salafist groups in Egypt
  • “America, which uses the pretext of freedom of expression … needs to understand that putting out the whole film will have very grave consequences around the world.”  – Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in an address to tens of thousands in Beirut on Monday
  • “Terrorists and saboteurs might have intruded the agency and might be making decisions covertly.” – Iranian nuclear energy chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davan said at the annual member state gathering of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday
  • “There has been no strategy in place to remove the weapons from the streets…There has been no strategy to contain these [militias] and to move them into either the police or the army.” – Hussein Abu Hameida, the head of security in Libya’s second-largest city, said on Wednesday after he was sacked

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan endorsed a controversial new media law on Monday that restricts online media. Four hundred news websites operated by Jordanians will be required to register and obtain licenses from the government. Editors will also be held accountable for anything published on their websites. Meanwhile, Abdullah also issued a royal decree this week suspending Parliament week amidst rumors that a new prime minster and government, the fifth since the Arab uprising began, may be announced soon.

Iraq. Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested on Wednesday that U.S. aid to Iraq may become contingent on cutting off Iranian over-flights carrying military supplies to the Assad regime. The administration has protested such flights that pass through Iraqi airspace without inspection. Kerry spoke during the confirmation hearing for Robert Stephen Beecroft, the U.S. ambassador designate for Iraq. Kerry said that “It just seems completely inappropriate that we’re trying to help build their democracy, support them, put American lives on the line, money into the country, and they’re working against our interest so overtly.”

Palestine. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said today that the Palestinian Authority is preparing its bid for nonmember observer state status in the UN General Assembly but added that the PA was unlikely to press ahead until after the U.S. presidential elections in November.  Over the weekend, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas mentioned the possibility of abrogating the Oslo Accords and its associated economic and security arrangements, according to PLO Executive Committee member Wassel Abu Yusef. The Palestinians will reportedly discuss such a measure after Abbas returns from the UN General Assembly meetings slated for next week.  Both President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu are slated to address the assembly on Thursday, September 27.

Bahrain. Bahrain’s government pledged to uphold human rights yesterday as Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa told the United Nations Human Rights Council that Bahrain will implement one hundred and fifty-eight out of one hundred and seventy-six of the measures proposed by the international body.  Khalifa went on to say that “Our actions, more than our words, should dispel any doubts regarding my government’s commitment to upholding human rights through the rule of law…Let us follow the path of dialogue, not propaganda.” Bahrain rejected the call for it to abolish capital punishment.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Camp David accords, which led to the peace treaty signed the following year between Egypt and Israel. On September 17, 1978, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” at the White House following nearly two weeks of non-stop negotiations at the Camp David presidential retreat.  The agreement, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, laid out a framework for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, called for a process for Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and peace treaties between Israel and its other neighbors. The resulting peace treaty has come to form a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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