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: Israel Strikes Syria, Egypt Seeks Unity, and Iran Upgrades Enrichment

by Robert M. Danin
January 31, 2013

A protester opposing Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi holds a homemade gun during clashes with riot police, along Qasr Al Nil bridge in Cairo on January 27, 2013 (Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A protester opposing Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi holds a homemade gun during clashes with riot police, along Qasr Al Nil bridge in Cairo on January 27, 2013 (Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. Israel reportedly conducted an airstrike inside Syria on Wednesday for the first time since 2007, igniting protests from the Assad regime as well as Syria’s allies Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. Conflicting reports have emerged about the target; U.S., Israeli, and Lebanese sources have been quoted claiming Israel struck a convoy carrying advanced SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons heading into Lebanon. Syrian sources claim that Israeli jets had bombed a defense research center near Damascus. Israel has declined to make any official comment on the strike. Syria’s ambassador in Beirut said that Damascus could take a “surprise decision” in response to the attack.

Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, Syria’s opposition leader, suggested on Wednesday that he is willing to negotiate with Syrian president Bashar Assad’s regime to end the civil war. Al-Khatib’s unprecedented compromise proposal, conditioned on the release of thousands of prisoners, provoked outrage from some factions of the Syrian opposition. This led Al-Khatib to qualify that he was only expressing his own personal opinion, not that of the Syrian National Council.  Meanwhile, the United Nations reported on Wednesday that donor countries had pledged about $1.5 billion this week to help Syrian refugees. The amount exceeded the UN’s target, though the agency has yet to receive previously pledged funds. The UN also claims that if the humanitarian situation inside of Syria continues to deteriorate, the new funding would only sustain operations for several additional months.

Egypt. Rival political groups held talks today under the auspices of Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Al Azhar. The unique meeting addressed Egypt’s recent political violence that has killed nearly sixty people. Secular opposition figures Mohammed ElBaradei and Amre Moussa of the recently formed National Salvation Front attended along with Saad Katatni, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The talks came a day after the National Salvation Front and the Islamist Nour Party called on Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi to form a national unity government. Morsi rejected the idea, however, saying a new government would only be formed in April after new parliamentary elections. Morsi said “there is a stable government working day and night in the interest of all Egyptians.”

On Tuesday, Egypt’s top general, Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, warned that Egypt’s political fractures could lead to the “collapse of the state.” His dire warning followed widespread violence that broke out last week in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. Ensuing riots that erupted in the city left at least thirty-nine civilians and two police officers dead. On Sunday, Morsi declared a month-long state of emergency in the three towns of Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia, leading to charges of Mubarak-like actions.

Iran. Non-proliferation officials believe Iran intends to upgrade its nuclear enrichment equipment at Natanz, the main Iranian nuclear enrichment plant. Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reportedly circulated a letter through the agency from Iranian officials on January 24 that stated that Iran was going to upgrade its centrifuge machines from IR1 models to the more reliable IR2M. The move would allow Iran to greatly accelerate its ability to enrich uranium. Meanwhile a spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, expressed frustration and disappointment over Iran’s rejection of proposed negotiations on January 28 and 29 in Istanbul. EU officials have continuously proposed dates for negotiations since December, but Iran has yet to agree to new talks.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. The Yemeni army suspended a military offensive against an al Qaeda-linked stronghold yesterday in order to pursue negotiations to secure the release of three kidnapped Westerners. Eight thousand soldiers were engaged in the assault which began on Monday following the breakdown of initial efforts to free the hostages. Meanwhile, Yemeni authorities seized a boat in its territorial waters carrying a large amount of explosives and money that American officials claimed was sent from Iran for insurgents inside Yemen.

Bahrain. Human Rights Watch accused Bahrain’s ruling family of prioritizing “repression over reform” in its World Report 2013 released today. The ruling family called for a national dialogue, which Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the main opposition party Al Wefaq, has reportedly welcomed. Meanwhile, a home-made remote-detonated bomb exploded in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, yesterday, wounding at least three police officers.

Iraq. Gunmen killed two Iraqi soldiers and kidnapped three others in a series of attacks in Fallujah on Saturday after troops fired on a crowd of anti-government protesters killing seven people one day earlier. Friday’s deaths were the first in weeks of increasingly angry and volatile demonstrations calling for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s resignation. A curfew was imposed in Fallujah Friday evening.

Palestine. Hamas officials in Gaza decided yesterday to allow the Central Elections Commission (CEC) to begin voter registration in partial fulfillment of the much-delayed reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah. CEC chief Hanna Nasser said that he hopes efforts to begin registering new voters will begin in a week to ten days. Meanwhile, Israel announced yesterday that it will make a one-time payment of $100 million to the Palestinian Authority in response to the PA’s cash-strapped financial situation. Israel stopped delivering the monthly tax revenues to the PA after Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas went to the UN to upgrade Palestine to “observer state status” in October.

 

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