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: Iran’s President, Turkey’s Protests, Syria’s Opponents, and Palestine’s Prime Minister

by Robert M. Danin
June 20, 2013

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rohani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013 (Courtesy Reuters). Iranian president-elect Hassan Rohani gestures to the media during a news conference in Tehran June 17, 2013 (Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Iran. President Obama reacted cautiously to the election of former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani to become Iran’s new president. In an interview with Charlie Rose broadcast Monday night, Obama said, “Clearly, you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way…And so we’re going to have to continue to see how this develops and how this evolves over the next several weeks, months, years.” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concern, however, cautioning Israel’s Western allies that the election of Rohani did not signal a change in Iran’s nuclear policy. Netanyahu dismissed the role and authority of the president in determining Iran’s nuclear policy, saying, “He doesn’t count. He doesn’t call the shots.”

Turkey. Protesters turned to silent demonstrations and passive resistance in Turkish streets and squares yesterday, following the violent clearing of Istanbul’s Gezi Park last weekend. Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc said on Monday that police would “use all their powers” to end anti-government protests and threatened the use of military force, though he acknowledged the peaceful nature of yesterday’s protests, saying, “We cannot condemn it.” Human rights groups say more than three thousand people were detained since anti-government demonstrations began May 31 with dozens currently remaining in custody. Meanwhile, Germany has blocked the start of new EU talks with Turkey following Ankara’s violent crackdown. German chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “shocked” by the Turkish government’s reaction to the demonstrations.

Syria. Free Syrian Army spokesperson Louay Meqdad appealed to Western and Arab leaders today to provide heavy weapons and impose a no-fly zone ahead of Saturday’s “Friends of Syria” meeting. G-8 leaders met in Northern Ireland earlier this week and called for a “political solution” to Syria’s conflict in a final communique issued on Tuesday. The G-8 leaders endorsed holding a Geneva peace conference “as soon as possible” and condemned chemical weapons use in Syria without identifying perpetrators. The G-8 leaders did not call for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s departure, due to pressure from Russia.

Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report yesterday that the number of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide has reached an eighteen-year high of 45.2 million people. The report notes that the Syrian conflict has contributed to the highest numbers of refugees since the brutal wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Most of today’s refugees come from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan.

Palestine. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah submitted his resignation today after only two weeks since entering office. Hamdallah reportedly resigned over a dispute with his two new deputies. President Abbas has neither accepted nor rejected the resignation. Abbas aides met with Hamdallah for three hours this evening in an effort to convince Hamdallah to reconsider his move. The meeting ended with both sides declining to comment.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Syria. Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey argued over the wisdom of strikes against regime controlled airfields in Syria during a senior White House meeting last week. According to the report, Kerry advocated immediate U.S. strikes against airfields used to launch chemical weapons attacks against the Syrian opposition. Dempsey reportedly pushed back, explaining that such a course of action would likely require the air force to conduct seven hundred or more sorties to take out Syria’s air-defense systems. The meeting reportedly formalized President Obama’s decision to supply small arms to the Syrian rebels after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons against the opposition forces.

Jordan. The U.S. military exercise in Jordan dubbed “Eager Lion” concluded today after twelve days of drills focused on potential spillover scenarios from the Syrian conflict. An estimated eight thousand personnel from nineteen countries, including the United States, Jordan, Britain, France, Italy, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, participated. The United States announced on Saturday that a Patriot antimissile battery and F-16 warplanes that were deployed to Jordan to take place in the war games will remain in the kingdom.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Egypt. Tourism Minister Hesham Zazou resigned Wednesday in protest over the appointment of Adel al-Khayat, a member of the Islamist group Gamaa al-Islamiyya, to become governor of Luxor. Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi appointed al-Khayat to the post on Sunday. Members of Gamaa Islamiya killed sixty-two people, mostly tourists, in a terrorist attack in Luxor in 1997.

Meanwhile, Egyptian foreign minister Kamel Amr and Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom met on Tuesday to discuss the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and agreed on further dialogue to resolve the dispute. The two ministers agreed that further studies should be conducted, and Adhanom said consultations would take place without halting dam construction.

Iraq. Voting began today in elections for provincial councils in Anbar and Nineveh. The elections were delayed two months after the other twelve provinces voted due to security concerns. Despite heavy security, mortar attacks on polling stations left two policemen dead, and a suicide bombing killed a Sunni Muslim political leader and some family members yesterday.

Kuwait. Kuwait’s cabinet announced today that parliamentary elections will be held July 25 following the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of parliament on Sunday. The voting will take place under a new system of one person, one vote. Kuwait’s opposition has rejected the new system, preferring the old system that had allowed voters to cast ballots for up to four candidates, thereby making possible alliances in a country that bans political parties.

This Week in History

This week marks the twelfth anniversary of the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut and their redeployment to the Bekaa valley. On June 20, 2001, Lebanese officials announced that Syria had completed its six-day withdrawal of an estimated six to ten thousand troops from primarily Christian suburbs of Beirut. The withdrawal from sensitive neighborhoods followed a campaign against the presence of Syrian troops led by Nasrallah Sfeir, the Maronite Christian patriarch. Syria sent military forces to Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war in the mid-1970s and did not fully withdraw from the country until April 2005. The redeployment of Syrian forces by 1992 had been required by the 1989 Taif Accord, the agreement reached to broker the end of the Lebanese civil war.

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