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: Syrian Chemical Weapons, Iraqi Violence, and U.S. Regional Engagement

by Robert M. Danin
April 26, 2013

Residents wear masks as they search for bodies in Aleppo (Salman/Courtesy Reuters). Residents wear masks as they search for bodies in Aleppo (Salman/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. Syrian officials today denied international allegations that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons in Syria. Yesterday, the White House sent a letter to Congressional leaders stating that U.S.  intelligence agencies assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that Assad’s government had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale. Israel’s senior most military intelligence analyst, Brigadier General Itai Brun, said on Tuesday that the Syrian government had repeatedly used chemical weapons last month. The British and French governments told the United Nations last week that they have “credible evidence,” based on soil samples and witness testimony, that Assad’s government has used small amounts of chemical weapons against its own people.

Iraq. Bombings at multiple Sunni mosques in and around Baghdad today killed four people and wounded fifty more in the latest of a string of attacks that have killed more than one hundred and fifty people in the past four days. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared on national television yesterday to appeal for calm and blamed Baath party remnants for the attacks. The latest violence began on Tuesday when security forces clashed with anti-government protesters in Hawijah, leaving fifty-three people dead. The escalating violence came as the preliminary results were announced for provincial elections held on Saturday. Al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc was set to win the most votes in eight of the twelve participating provinces with 87 percent of the vote counted.

U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Jordan and Qatar. President Obama hosted Jordan’s king Abdullah at the White House today, one month after Obama had visited the Hashemite kingdom. Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, the president met Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Regional security and the situation in Syria dominated both visits.

Hagel to the Middle East. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrapped up his first visit to the Middle East and the Gulf as the Pentagon’s top official yesterday. Hagel visited Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE in an attempt to reach out to U.S. partners in the region and discuss regional threats. He also sought to finalize an arms deal to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE worth ten billion dollars. During his two-day stop in Israel, Hagel asserted that there is “no daylight” between the United States and Israel on the goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, but that “there may well be some differences” in the specific approaches.

Palestine-Turkey. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to the region this weekend and met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Istanbul. Kerry and Abbas discussed ways to improve Palestinian living conditions as part of an attempt to restart peace talks with Israel. Kerry also met with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss “the importance of completing the task with respect to the renewal of relations between Turkey and Israel.” Kerry was in Istanbul to attend an international conference on how best to aid rebels in Syria. He announced that the United States would double its nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition with an additional $123 million.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Turkey. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) announced on Thursday that it will begin withdrawing all of its forces from Turkey on May 8. Murat Karayilan, the current commander of the PKK, announced in a news conference that the guerilla fighters will move to bases in northern Iraq as part of peace efforts. Karayilan also called on the Turkish government to take specific measures including enacting a new constitution and releasing Kurdish prisoners. The Kurdish withdrawal is a major step forward in peace talks that began in January between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Libya. A car bomb heavily damaged the French embassy in Tripoli on Tuesday, wounding two French guards in the first major attack against a western target in Libya since the killing of American ambassador Chris Stevens last September. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, although both the French and Libyan governments labeled it as an act of terrorism and pledged to “find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”

Israel. The Israeli military shot down an unmanned aerial drone approaching Israel from the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday. A spokesman for the Israeli military said that it was unclear who was behind the drone, but confirmed that it flew down from the Lebanese coast. This is the second drone in the past seven months that has entered Israeli territory; in October 2012, Israel shot down a drone that had intruded thirty-five miles across its southern border. Hezbollah denied responsibility for this week’s drone, though its leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed responsibility for last year’s drone incursion, pledging that it “was not the first time, and it will not be the last.”

Bahrain. Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, said Wednesday that Bahrain “postponed indefinitely” his visit scheduled for May. Mendez warned that the Bahraini move could be “perceived as if there is something to hide.” This is the second time Bahrain has put off at short notice a scheduled visit by Mendez. The announcement coincided with the Bahraini government’s expression of dismay over a recent U.S. State Department assessment of human rights in the country. The State Department annual report said that the Bahraini government had failed to implement the most important recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.

 

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