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: Damascene Violence, Israeli Settlements, Egyptian protests, and Iranian Talks About Talks

by Robert M. Danin
August 8, 2013

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad (C) chats with military personnel (SANA/Courtesy Reuters). Syria's president Bashar al-Assad (C) chats with military personnel (SANA/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. Syrian officials denied rebel claims that they hit part of President Bashar al-Assad’s motorcade with artillery shells near his home in Damascus today. The president appeared on national television later in the day. If confirmed, today’s attack would be one of the most direct against Assad in two years of fighting. At least 4,420 people, most of them fighters, were killed during the month of Ramadan, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman reported today. The Syrian army killed more than sixty insurgents near Damascus yesterday while rebels reportedly gained control of a government air base on Tuesday and captured four villages in Latakia on Monday.  Meanwhile, Assad banned on Sunday the use of foreign currencies for business transactions in an effort to strengthen the Syrian pound. Violators could be fined or sentenced to up to six months in jail.

Israel-Palestine. Israel’s military-run Civil Administration announced that initial plans were approved yesterday for eight hundred new homes in the West Bank that the government has yet to okay. The Israeli cabinet on Sunday added several Israeli West Bank settlements to a “national priority list,” making those settlements eligible for extra subsidies and infrastructure projects. These moves could complicate the ongoing Israeli-Palestine peace negotiations. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli minister leading the negotiations, abstained on the vote approving the national priority list. Meanwhile, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas canceled a meeting with Fatah and PLO leaders and instead traveled to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday where he met with Saudi king Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz. Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are set to begin next week in Jerusalem.

Egypt. Naglaa Mahmoud, the wife of former president Mohammad Morsi, addressed thousands of supporters today in her first public appearance since the July 3 coup.  She spoke at a protest camp in Cairo and vowed that Morsi would return to office. Interim president Adly Mansour yesterday declared international efforts to resolve the political crisis a failure. Mansour said that he “holds the Muslim Brotherhood completely responsible for the failure of these efforts, and for consequent events and developments relating to violations of the law and endangering public safety.” Prime Minister Al-Beblawi also said that the military would begin clearing pro-Morsi sit-ins, and he warned against resistance to those efforts. A Cairo court ruled on Sunday that three top Muslim Brotherhood officials will go to trial on August 25 over charges of inciting Brotherhood members to kill rioters. The Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie; his deputy, Khairat el-Shater; and another official, Mohamed Bayoumi, stand accused of incitement to murder.

Meanwhile, an unknown gunman shot and killed Abdel Hamid al-Salami, a former parliamentarian, in El Arish, North Sinai yesterday. The Sinai Peninsula has seen an uptick in violence over the last month, and the Egyptian military yesterday announced that it had killed sixty Sinai militants since Morsi’s ouster on July 3.

Iran. Recently inaugurated president Hassan Rouhani declared on Tuesday that he was “seriously determined” to resolve the ongoing nuclear dispute and was prepared to enter “serious and substantive” negotiations. The last high-level round of international negotiations was held in April and failed to break the deadlock. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Monday appointed former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Expediency Council, Iran’s top supervisory body.  Iranian authorities have arrested a man on charges of spying for Israel, the Mehr news agency reported on Monday. The man will face trial, and espionage is punishable by death under Iranian law.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Egypt. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham traveled to Cairo this week at President Barack Obama’s request. In Egypt, they warned on Tuesday that the U.S. government would cut off aid if the interim government failed to transition toward democracy. “We are hoping and begging and pleading with the people of Egypt that they will look forward and not backward; that means releasing people so that they can negotiate,” Graham said. “It is impossible to talk to somebody who’s in jail.” Their visit came after deputy secretary of state Bill Burns, European Union envoy Bernardino Leon, and an official from the African Union visited Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater in prison on Sunday.  Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday recommended Robert Ford, the current ambassador to Syria, to become the next U.S. ambassador to Egypt. Ford must still be approved by the White House and confirmed by the Senate, although no major opposition is expected.  Ford was recalled from Syria in February 2012 and now serves as the chief American envoy to the Syrian opposition.

Closing of Embassies. Reports from Yemen of a potential al-Qaeda terrorist attack prompted the closure of nineteen U.S. embassies and consulates in sixteen countries across the Middle East and Africa. Britain and France extended the closure of their Yemeni embassies after the State Department announced on Sunday that U.S. diplomatic outposts will remain closed until Saturday.

Syria. The United States will provide Syria with an additional $195 million in food and humanitarian aid, President Barack Obama announced yesterday. This aid brings the total U.S. humanitarian contribution to more than $1 billion since the Syrian crisis began.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. Security officials in Sana claimed yesterday that they had foiled an al-Qaeda plot to seize an important port and kill or kidnap foreigners working there, though the claims could not be confirmed. It was unclear whether the alleged plot was disrupted by recent U.S. drone attacks. Drone strikes have killed at least fourteen people in Yemen the last three days.

Tunisia.  The leading Islamist party yesterday agreed to suspend the National Constitution Assembly and urged talks to form a national unity party. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the Ennahda government in Tunis on Tuesday after weeks of unrest sparked by the July 25 killing of an opposition member.

Turkey. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said today that Turkey’s parliament may reconvene early from summer recess to pass laws that would expand Kurdish rights. Kurds are calling for legislative reforms to address long-standing grievances, such as Kurdish language education and expansion of local governance.

More than seventy-five people, including Turkey’s former military chief, were convicted Monday of plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government in 2002. Some 250 people are facing verdicts in this landmark five-year-trial, and defendants are expected to appeal Monday’s sentences.

Iraq. A two-pronged attack on a policeman’s home killed the policeman and twelve others in central Iraq, police officials said today. Bombings killed six people yesterday and at least fifty-one people on Tuesday, part of a surge of violence in recent months.

Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have reportedly offered Russia a range of economic incentives, including a major arms deal, in exchange for scaled back Russian support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, news sources reported yesterday.  The deal was supposedly proposed by Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan at a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week.

This Week in History

This Saturday marks the ninety-third anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres, the post-World War I agreement that partitioned the defeated Ottoman Empire. On August 10, 1920, the victorious Allied powers, led by Great Britain and France, forced representatives of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed VI to sign the treaty. The terms left Turkey with a small state in Anatolia while dismembering the rest of the former empire. The treaty placed Mesopotamia and Palestine under British mandatory rule, while Syria was placed under a French mandate, the Kingdom of Hejaz was granted independence in the Arabian Peninsula, an autonomous Kurdish zone was created, and Armenia was granted independence.

However, a rival nationalist government in Turkey that came to power under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejected the treaty that was signed by the sultan. Ataturk’s triumph in the Greco-Turkish war and the formation of the modern state of Turkey led to the negotiation of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which superseded the never implemented Treaty of Sèvres. The new treaty defined the boundaries of the Turkish Republic, and notably did not include either Kurdish autonomy or Armenian independence.

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