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: Lebanon’s Sectarian Violence, Qatar’s New Emir, and Egypt’s President Ruminates

by Robert M. Danin
June 27, 2013

A Lebanese army soldier stands atop of an armoured personnel carrier as he patrols the area near the mosque complex where hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir was believed to be sheltering with his supporters, in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon June 25, 2013 (Hashisho/Courtesy Reuters). A Lebanese army soldier stands atop of an armoured personnel carrier as he patrols the area near the mosque complex where hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir was believed to be sheltering with his supporters, in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon June 25, 2013 (Hashisho/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Lebanon. The Lebanese army defeated the militant followers of radical Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir in Sidon on Tuesday after a violent two-day battle. The clashes ended with military forces storming al-Assir’s mosque complex, where they found a large stockpile of weapons, but were unable to apprehend al-Assir. The violence began when al-Assir’s supporters fired on an army checkpoint on Sunday, killing over a dozen soldiers. The army said that it was targeted in “cold-blood,” but al-Assir claimed that the soldiers had beaten two of his supporters first. At least sixteen soldiers were killed and fifty others wounded in the fighting, with more than twenty of al-Assir’s supporters killed.

Qatar. Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani announced on Tuesday that he would transfer power to his fourth son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Hamad, who is stepping down after eighteen years of rule, said that this decision marks the “beginning of a new era in which a young leadership will hold the banner.” Tamim said yesterday that he would follow in the path of his father, supporting the Palestinian cause against Israel and seeking to diversify the economy. Tamim unveiled a new cabinet later in the day, with Abdallah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al Thani replacing Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani as prime minister and also filling the post of interior minister; Hamad Atieh becoming defense minister; Khalid al-Atiyah becoming foreign minister; Ali Sherif al-Emadi becoming finance minister; and Mohammed Saleh al-Sada keeping his post as energy and industry minister. Tamim, who is thirty-three, is now the youngest ruler of any of the Arab Gulf states.

Egypt. President Mohammad Morsi delivered a nearly three-hour speech yesterday, acknowledging some “mistakes” and blaming opponents for the majority of Egypt’s problems. “I was right in some cases, and wrong in other cases,” he said. “I have discovered after a year in charge that for the revolution to achieve its goals, it needs radical measures.” Clashes broke out in the town of Mansoura between Morsi’s supporters and opponents yesterday, leaving two people dead and hundreds injured. Large anti-government protests are scheduled for Sunday, marking Morsi’s first year in office.

Meanwhile, police arrested eight suspects on Tuesday in connection with the Sunday killing of four Shia worshippers, including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Hassan Shehata. The worshippers had gathered in Shehata’s home in Giza to commemorate a Shia religious festival when the house was attacked by a hostile crowd. President Morsi and Prime Minister Hesham Qandil denounced the killings and called for an expedited investigation on Monday.

Syria. Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom met today with Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara to discuss Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Sellstrom is the head of a UN investigation team in Turkey this week to conduct interviews and take blood samples from witnesses and victims of the alleged chemical weapon attacks; the UN team has been denied entry to Syria to conduct soil samples. More than one hundred thousand people have been killed during the last twenty-seven months of the Syrian conflict, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced yesterday. Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry confirmed yesterday that all of its military personnel have been evacuated from the country, including its base at Tartus.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Israel-Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Amman earlier today to begin a series of meetings with Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian leaders in an attempt to restart peace talks. Kerry said yesterday that, “Time is the enemy of a peace process,” and that progress needs to be made before the UN General Assembly meets in September. Kerry met King Abdullah of Jordan this afternoon before meeting this evening in Jerusalem with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is slated to return to Amman for talks Friday with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It is Kerry’s fifth trip to the region since assuming office in February.

Gulf-Syria. Secretary Kerry also visited the Gulf this week. He met with senior Kuwaiti officials in Kuwait City to discuss bilateral and regional issues yesterday, met with senior Saudi officials in Jeddah on Tuesday, and traveled to Doha to discuss regional issues and the situation in Syria on Saturday. Kerry has also added a stop in the UAE this coming Saturday to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahayan.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Palestine. President Mahmoud Abbas accepted the resignation of Palestinian Authority prime minister Rami Hamdallah on Sunday. Abbas initially asked Hamdallah to reconsider but ultimately accepted the resignation, requesting that he remain in a caretaker role until a replacement could be found. Hamdallah was in office just over two weeks before he resigned.

Turkey. Turkish riot police fired tear gas and water cannons yesterday to disperse two thousand demonstrators in Ankara while arresting sixteen people. The protestors gathered to express their anger over the release of a police officer accused of fatally wounding a protestor during earlier demonstrations to save Gezi Park. Turkish police arrested an additional twenty people on Tuesday for links to “terror” groups and involvement in attacks on security forces during the recent unrest.

Libya. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced today that Defense Minister Mohammed al- Barghathi will be replaced. The announcement comes a day after deadly clashes in Tripoli between rival militia groups left ten people dead and more than one hundred wounded.

This Week in History

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of U.S. retaliatory bombing against Baghdad for an alleged Iraqi plot to kill former President George H.W. Bush. On June 26, 1993, President Bill Clinton ordered U.S. warships to fire cruise missiles at Iraqi intelligence headquarters in downtown Baghdad. Clinton cited “compelling evidence” of the direct involvement of Iraqi intelligence in a plot to assassinate President Bush on his April 1993 trip to Kuwait. “What we’re doing is sending a message against the people who were responsible for planning this operation,” then Defense Secretary Les Aspin said. “[If] anybody asks the same people to do it again, they will remember this message.”

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