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: Palestine’s Political Shake-up, Syria’s Opposition Gains, and Mubarak’s Re-Trial

by Robert M. Danin
April 18, 2013

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas stands beside Salam Fayyad (L) during a swearing-in ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah May 19,2009 (Arouri/Courtesy Reuters). Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas stands beside Salam Fayyad (L) during a swearing-in ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah May 19,2009 (Arouri/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Palestine. Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad’s resignation was accepted over the weekend by President Mahmoud Abbas. Fayyad will reportedly remain in the post until Abbas names a replacement. Political tensions rose between the two Palestinian leaders in early March when Finance Minister Nabil Qassis announced he was quitting. Fayyad accepted the resignation, but was overruled by Abbas, in contravention of the Palestinian Basic Law–in effect challenging the prime minister’s authority to hire and fire cabinet ministers and sparking a constitutional crisis.

Syria. Opposition forces seized a military base in Homs today after weeks of fighting for control of the facility. The opposition had been trying to make gains in strategically located areas near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, European Union members reached preliminary agreement yesterday to relax sanctions against Syria’s oil sector in a bid to provide an economic boost to oil-rich regions in opposition strongholds. EU foreign ministers are likely to endorse the agreement next Monday.

In Damascus, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad issued a new amnesty on Tuesday that reduces death sentences for all crimes except those of “treason, espionage, and terrorism.” Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, said that Assad would need to release over 160,000 prisoners, mostly women and children, before the amnesty could be considered meaningful.

Egypt. Former president Hosni Mubarak was moved back to prison from an army hospital today after he appeared in good health in court on Saturday for the opening of his retrial. The judge, however, recused himself from the trial. The next session is scheduled for May 11 with a new judge. Meanwhile, a team from the International Monetary Fund left Egypt without securing a deal for an aid package after nearly two weeks of talks.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Syria. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the Armed Services Committee yesterday that the Pentagon is sending approximately two hundred soldiers to Jordan. The troops will assist efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and in planning for any necessary contingencies involving chemical weapons. The new troops, all hailing from the 1st Armored Division, are replacing a similar number of U.S. forces currently stationed in Jordan, who came from various units, in an effort to increase teamwork. An unnamed U.S. official reportedly said that the number of troops in Jordan could expand to some 20,000 in certain contingencies. Hagel’s announcement comes ahead of his trip to the region beginning this weekend that will take him to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates primarily to discuss Syria and Iran.

General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same Armed Services Committee hearing that he no longer thinks the United States can clearly identify the right people to arm amongst Syria’s opposition. According to Dempsey, “It’s actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago.” In contrast, Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that the Syrian opposition has a clear ability to “make sure what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition, is in fact, getting to them.” Kerry also said that the United States is coordinating “very, very closely” with those providing lethal aid to the Syrian opposition.

Israel-Palestine. Secretary of State Kerry warned the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that he believes that the window for a two-state solution is closing. He said that “we have some period of time, a year, a year-and-a-half, or two years or it’s over.” Kerry pledged to honor the urgency and “see what we can do to move forward.”

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Iraq. Separate attacks in Mosul and Baghdad killed four people and wounded eight more today in the latest of spate of violence in the run-up to Saturday’s provincial elections. The local elections will be the first since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. Attacks have occurred every day this week, leaving at least seventy-two dead. Meanwhile, Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region decided today to set September 21 as the date for new parliamentary and presidential elections.

Iran. General Majid Bokaei, Iran’s deputy defense minister, declared on Tuesday that Iran had test-fired a new land-to-sea ballistic missile in the Gulf. The announcement came two days before Iran’s commemoration of National Army Day today, an occasion often marked by the unveiling of military technological advances.

Kuwait. Kuwaiti police fired teargas yesterday to disperse thousands of protesters demonstrating against the conviction of prominent opposition leader and former MP Mussallam al-Barrack. A Kuwaiti court sentenced al-Barrack on Monday to five years in prison for insulting the country’s emir. The protesters marched to the central prison chanting “We will not let you,” a phrase taken from al-Barrack’s fiery speech at a political rally in October.

Tunisia. Amine Mati, head of the International Monetary Fund mission to Tunisia, said on Tuesday that the IMF and Tunisia are “very close” to concluding a $1.75 billion loan agreement. The loan was delayed amidst the turmoil surrounding the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid in February. However, the restoration of calm has facilitated the return of the IMF, and Mati suggested that a deal may be signed in May.

This Week in History

Yesterday marked the sixty-seventh anniversary of Syria’s independence from France. Celebrated as “Evacuation Day,” the national holiday commemorates the departure of the last French soldier from Syria on April 17, 1946, marking the end of the French Mandate. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gave a rare interview to Syrian state television channel al-Ikhbariya in commemoration of Evacuation Day yesterday claiming that Western nations would suffer for funding al-Qaeda in Syria, as they did in Afghanistan. The state television channel previewed Assad’s interview with footage from the French Mandatory era, drawing parallels between “the heroes of independence” and today’s Syrian army. Earlier in the day, Syria’s foreign ministry warned France to not interfere in Syria’s domestic affairs and said that “the Syrian people will not allow France to return to their country through its support for armed terrorist groups, and by conspiring to cause Syrian bloodshed.”

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