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: Egypt, Syria, and Iran

by Robert M. Danin
April 11, 2013

Coptic Christians run inside the main cathedral in Cairo as police fire tear gas and Muslims throw rocks and firebombs April 7, 2013 (Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).. Coptic Christians run inside the main cathedral in Cairo as police fire tear gas and Muslims throw rocks and firebombs April 7, 2013 (Waguih/Courtesy Reuters)..

Significant Developments

Egypt. An Egyptian Coptic Christian died today from injuries sustained during sectarian violence over the past week, bringing the total number of deaths to eight. Violence erupted outside Egypt’s main Coptic Christian Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday after street battles between Christians and Muslims in the town of Khosoos left five people dead on Saturday. Christian mourners leaving a funeral service clashed with local residents, who threw rocks and firebombs. Riot police seemingly joined in against the Christians, raining tear gas canisters inside the compound of the cathedral. At least ninety people were injured. An angry Pope Tawadros II announced that he had cancelled his weekly sermon and postponed the mourning period for those killed in protest over the authorities’ handling of events.

Syria. Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the leader of the Syrian Islamic opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra, confirmed for the first time yesterday his group’s ties to al-Qaeda. In an audio message, al-Golani pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. The announcement came a day after a merger between al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra was announced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Golani denied that he had been consulted on the merger, but did not deny the action itself.

Meanwhile, UN officials reported their discussions with the Syrian government over a possible investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons are at an impasse. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime rejected entry into the country of a UN chemical weapons inspection team waiting to deploy from Cyprus on Monday. Syria has asked the UN to investigate what it claims to have been a rebel chemical weapons attack in Aleppo in March, while the UN also wants to investigate two other alleged attacks—one near Damascus in March, and one in Homs in December.

Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Iran’s expansion of uranium production capabilities on Tuesday during a ceremony for National Nuclear Technology Day, a holiday he created in 2006. Secretary of State Kerry responded by saying that “the clock that is ticking on Iran’s program has a stop moment and it does not tick interminably.” The announcement came just days after negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Almaty, Kazakhstan ended without a deal or plans for another round of discussions.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Israel-Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Israel and the West Bank Sunday and Monday to explore the possibility of renewing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Kerry met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, prime minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli president Shimon Peres, and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While Kerry has not discussed details of the discussions, he has referenced an economic initiative to supplement a political track.

Syria. Citing U.S. officials, the New York Times reported that President Obama is nearing final approval of battlefield aid for Syria’s opposition, including body armor and night-vision goggles. Meanwhile, Secretary Kerry, along with British foreign minister William Hague and other foreign ministers from the Group of Eight, met with representatives from the Syrian opposition on Wednesday, and promised to meet again on April 20 in Turkey.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Libya. Mohamed Ali Ghatous, Libyan prime minister Ali Zidan’s chief of staff, was released Tuesday after being held captive for eight days by militiamen. Libya’s parliament passed a law that criminalizes torture and abduction, imposing penalties of up to ten years. It remains unclear how the law will be enforced, given the state’s reliance on militias for security.

Jordan. Jordan opened a second camp for Syrian refugees yesterday in Mrajeeb al-Fhood, approximately twenty-three miles from the Syrian border. The UAE-funded camp welcomed its first 110 refugees the same day. Jordan is currently hosting nearly half a million refugees, but the number is expected to more than double in the next six months.

Bahrain. Human Rights Watch reported yesterday that Bahraini police arrested twenty opposition figures in anticipation of Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix, scheduled for April 21. Last year’s race was marred by violent clashes between protesters and riot police. Bahraini information minister Sameera Rajab denied the report.

Yemen. Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi announced a major military purge yesterday, aimed at allies of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi removed Saleh’s son Ahmed from his post as chief of the Republican Guard by appointing him ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Two of Saleh’s nephews were also removed from their posts as deputy intelligence chief and head of the Presidential Guard.

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