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 Damascus, Egypt Reshuffles Government, and World Powers Scramble

by Robert M. Danin
May 10, 2013

An explosion in Damascus (SANA/Courtesy Reuters). An explosion in Damascus (SANA/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. Hassan Nasrallah announced yesterday that Syria would transfer strategic “game-changing” weapons to the Lebanese group Hezbollah. The televised speech was a response to Israel’s alleged airstrikes near Damascus last Friday and Sunday that reportedly targeted Fateh-110 missiles transiting to Hezbollah from Iran. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the attacks, but a senior Israeli defense official said that the airstrikes were intended to prevent weapon transfers to Hezbollah and stressed that Israel was not taking sides in Syria’s civil war.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Israel warned the United States about an imminent Russian deal to sell advanced ground-to-air missile systems to Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s government has long been trying to buy S-300 missile batteries, which are capable of intercepting both manned aircraft and guided missiles. Western nations have repeatedly asked Russia not to make the sale, which would complicate any potential international intervention in Syria.

Egypt. President Mohammed Morsi swore in nine new cabinet ministers on Tuesday following a major reshuffle that overhauled the government. Morsi replaced the ministers of finance, planning, investment and petroleum in the second reshuffle since he took office last June. Samir Radwan, a former finance minister, warned that the changes could adversely affect Egypt’s negotiation with the IMF over a $4.8 billion loan, saying “IMF officials have told me that each time they get used to a minister, he disappears…We know have our fifth finance minister since the revolution; this is a sign of instability.”

U.S. Foreign Policy

Syria. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry told reporters in Rome yesterday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad would not be a component of a transitional government. His comments came two days after Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced in Moscow that they would seek to hold an international conference within the coming month focusing on finding a political solution to the civil war in Syria. Kerry and Lavrov told reporters that they would push to have both Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Syrian opposition attend. Lavrov told reporters that Russia is not interested “in the fate of certain persons…We are interested in the fate of the Syria people.”

Israel-Palestine. Secretary Kerry told reporters in Rome that he would travel to the Middle East in two weeks. Kerry made the announcement following his meeting with Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, saying he intended to meet with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. “We are working through threshold questions and we are doing it with a seriousness of purpose that I think Minister Livni would agree with me has not been present in a while,” Kerry said at the U.S. ambassador to Italy’s residence before meeting with Livni in private. His trip to the region will be his fourth since becoming Secretary of State.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Turkey. Kurdish militants began to withdraw their forces from Turkey to their stronghold in Iraq on Wednesday, the latest step in a peace process meant to end a three-decade long conflict. The withdrawal process is expected to be mostly complete by the end of June. Turkey’s deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc cautiously asserted that “we feel that we are nearing the conclusion,” but would not confirm the beginning of the withdrawal.

Iran. Former parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a close adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, joined the presidential race today. Haddad Adel is part of the Coalition of Three that includes two other Khamenei loyalists who have declared their candidacies: former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and Tehran mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf. Iranian media has speculated that two of the three will step aside in favor of whomever appears to be in the strongest position as the race heats up. Meanwhile, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of Iran from 1989 until 1997, told his students at Tehran University on Sunday that he would run if convinced that his presence would be beneficial to the country. Registration for candidates began on Tuesday morning and will continue until tomorrow. The election is slated for June 14.

Libya. Two police stations in Benghazi were hit by bombs early this morning. It is the fourth time in the past month that police stations in the city have been attacked with explosives. Meanwhile, Libya’s General National Congress passed the Political Isolation Law on Sunday excluding former officials from the Qaddafi era from public office. The law’s passage comes after heavily armed militiamen blockaded the foreign and interior ministries from April 28 to May 5 demanding legislators back the bill. Proponents of the law have made clear their intention to specifically exclude from public office former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril.

Israel. Israeli security forces detained Mohammed Ahmad Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, on Wednesday and held him for questioning on suspicion of involvement in the latest disturbance at al-Aqsa Mosque. Following six hours of questioning, the grand mufti was released without charges. His detention sparked small demonstrations against Israel in Jordan and Egypt.

This Week in History

This week marks the fifty-second anniversary of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi dissolution of Iran’s parliament, paving the way for his modernization agenda and the “White Revolution.” On May 5, 1961, Iranian prime minister Jafar Sharif Imami and his cabinet resigned a day after fifty thousand demonstrators clashed with security forces during a teacher’s strike. The following day, the shah appointed Ali Amini as prime minister. On May 9 he dissolved both houses of parliament, receiving a mandate to rule for six months by cabinet decree. Under Amini, the cabinet adopted a land reform law, which redistributed land from the minority to small-scale cultivators. The land reform law was a prelude to the shah’s “White Revolution,” a more ambitious package of social, political, and economic reforms that were approved by popular referendum in 1963.

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