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: Egypt’s Brutal Crackdown, Syrian-Related Diplomacy, and Israelis and Palestinians Negotiate

by Robert M. Danin
August 15, 2013

Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi carry a man who was wounded by rubber bullets and affected by tear gas during clashes with riot police on the Sixth of October Bridge over the Ramsis square area in central Cairo July 15, 2013 (Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Developments

Egypt. President Barack Obama today strongly condemned the Egyptian military’s use of force and announced the cancellation of next month’s joint U.S.-Egyptian “Bright Star” military exercise. Obama was reacting to Egypt’s crackdown on supporters of deposed president Mohammad Morsi last night that left over five hundred people dead and thousands injured. The assault on the protest encampments prompted retaliatory attacks against government buildings.  Interim vice president Mohammad ElBaradei resigned last night over the continuing violence. Secretary of State John Kerry last night called the events “deplorable” and “counter to Egyptian aspirations for peace, inclusion, and genuine democracy.” The Morsi supporters had been camped out since the Egyptian military removed President Morsi from power on July 3.

Syria. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced today that a team of UN chemical weapons experts will depart for Syria imminently. The team is set to inspect three sites of possible chemical weapons use. Meanwhile, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad exempted thousands of army reservists yesterday from paying debt installments and late fees in a move meant to boost morale. Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said on Tuesday that a Syria peace conference will not be held before October. The New York Times reported on Monday that Sudan is providing the weapons that Qatar is shipping to the Syrian rebels.

Israel-Palestine. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Jerusalem yesterday as direct negotiations resumed. The Israeli team is led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s special advisor Isaac Molcho. Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh lead the Palestinian team. Israel released twenty-six Palestinian prisoners yesterday as part of the deal to resume negotiations, but also announced it would be building over one thousand new apartments in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Jordan. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of American troops on the outskirts of Amman today that the U.S. presence in Jordan would likely last several years.  Dempsey then clarified: “We haven’t actually put an end-date on it for that very reason – because it will depend how the situation evolves in Syria.” He met with Jordanian king Abdullah yesterday and agreed to bring back a request to Washington for manned U.S. surveillance aircraft to monitor the border with Syria.

Israel. General Dempsey was in Israel from Monday until Wednesday, where he met Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. At a photo op with Dempsey, Netanyahu said that the threat from Iran dwarfs all other threats in the region. Regarding Iran, Dempsey said, “We have better military options than we did a year ago.”

Reopening of Embassies. Eighteen of nineteen closed U.S. embassies reopened on Sunday after being closed for a week. The embassy in Yemen remains closed after the United States intercepted a message from al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Turkey-Lebanon. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the recent kidnapping of two Turkish pilots in Beirut “a clear act of terror” today. Inan Ozyildiz, Turkish ambassador to Lebanon reportedly met with representatives from Hezbollah yesterday to discuss the release of the pilots. A group called “Zuwar Al Rida” claimed responsibility for the kidnappings which occurred last Friday on the road between Beirut and the airport. Zuwar Al Rida demanded that Turkey pressure the Syrian opposition to release nine Lebanese pilgrims who were kidnapped in May 2012.

Bahrain. Pro-democracy protestors clashed with Bahraini riot police yesterday, exchanging tear gas and firebombs. The main opposition group, Al Wefaq claimed that sixty demonstrations occurred around Bahrain.

Kuwait. Information Minister Salman al-Homood announced the cancellation of prominent Sunni cleric Shafi al-Ajmi’s new television show on Tuesday. Al-Ajmi’s show, “Follow the Path of the Prophet,” had premiered on Monday and only aired one episode before its cancellation. Al-Ajmi writes anti-Shiite rhetoric in online forums and actively fundraises for Syrian rebels, including al-Qaeda-linked Jubhat al-Nusra. “The ministry of information does not approve of airing episodes for any individuals who instigates hatred and promotes such rhetoric,” said al-Homood.

Tunisia. Tunisia’s opposition threatened to step up its pressure on the government after Rachid Ghannouchi, the chairman of Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda party, dismissed demands for a technocratic government today. Ghannouchi said that he could accept a national unity government, but felt that technocrats could not “manage the delicate situation in the country.”

This Week in History

Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the beginning of the U.S.-backed coup that removed Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. On August 15, 1953, Colonel Nematollah Nassiri attempted to arrest Mosaddeq, bearing royal decrees signed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Word was leaked to Mosaddeq about the plot and he was able to arrest Colonel Nassiri instead. The coup was believed to be a failure, and the shah fled to Baghdad. However, the coup succeeded on August 19 and General Fazlollah Zahedi replaced Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister.

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  • Posted by Robert Bushey

    It seems to me in these increasingly troubled times that US foreign policy in the Middle East could stand a little more realpolitik and a lot less hand wringing.

    On Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood protesters who were camped out and forcibly ejected by the military knew exactly what risks they were running and what outcome they faced. The Egyptian Army is known to brook no bona fide challenge to authority, and if the protestors wanted to become martyrs, then fine, their wish came true. But that doesn’t mean we should turn on the Army. The Muslim Brotherhood is an implacable terrorist enemy of pluralism and the West, and we should be standing up for the right of our culture to continue to exist over there, not hand wringing about a clearly telegraphed move to eject protestors, violently as it turned out. The majority of Egyptians feel this way, too. Sharia law, indeed.

    On Syria: Up until now, there has been no good solution to this civil war, but perhaps the use of nerve gas presents a fortuitous if tragic new opening for the US in his morass. Perhaps we could take out Assad in Navy air sorties characterized as punishment for the use of chemical arms, but the sorties should not be so punishing as to allow the Taliban oriented rebels to overrun Damascus. In the shocking aftermath of this air assault, perhaps a new Alawite government could arise and settle the strife in such a way as to allow Sunni participation in a new government short of dominant victory. Nothing else appears even remotely promising over there. This could be an opening to some kind of favorable resolution we hope for. Anyone else have any better ideas?

    On Iran: The theocracy seated in Tehran is our enemy, no matter what the tenor of their current president. He has straight out declared in recent days that the goals remain the same but the language is now different under his administration. Hello?? These people actively practice cyber warfare against us and want nuclear weaponry to use against us and our allies and God knows who else. They must be stopped. Period. They are more dangerous than Hitler to life and death on the planet. The nuclear facilities must be taken out before any weapons are produced.

    On Israel/Palestine: The Israelis must be persuaded to stop building settlements before the tipping point of not returning them to a future Palestine is passed. But I don’t think we ought to be leaning on them to seek a so-called peace now. It is too volatile and frought with great long term uncertainty. From our ally Israel’s point of view, the “correlation of forces” are not favorable for peace at this time, especially in light of the need for likely military action in Iran. John Kerry should leave them alone.

    And the same goes for negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Negotiate with the Taliban? Are you kidding me?

    It is an ugly, ugly world out there, and the US needs to start standing up for our friends and start calling our enemies for exactly what they are, our nation’s and our culture’s enemies.

    Speak softly but carry (and use when necessary) a big stick should be the order of the day.

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