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: Retaliatory Talk Against Syria, Egypt’s Crackdown Intensifies

by Robert M. Danin
August 29, 2013

U.S. president Barack Obama (Downing/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. president Barack Obama (Downing/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. White House officials plan to brief members of Congress this evening on the situation in Syria after more than one hundred U.S. representatives signed a letter yesterday calling for President Obama to put the use of force against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to a vote. Meanwhile, Britain and France called for a delay today in taking military action against the Syrian government until the UN inspectors currently on the ground finish their report. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said today that the team of chemical weapons inspectors in Syria will conclude their investigations tomorrow and leave the country on Saturday, one day ahead of schedule.

In an interview with PBS’ Newshour yesterday, President Obama said that, “We have not yet made a decision…but we do have to make sure that when countries break international norms on chemical weapons that could threaten us, that they are held accountable.” A meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council ended yesterday without taking action on a British resolution authorizing the use of force, due to Russian and Chinese opposition. The Arab League condemned Assad’s government on Tuesday for using chemical weapons but refused to back military action in retaliation.

Egypt. Mohammed el-Beltagy, senior Muslim Brotherhood leader and head of the Freedom and Justice Party, was arrested today as supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi called for renewed protests Friday. More than sixty people connected to the Muslim Brotherhood were detained yesterday by Egyptian security forces in an increasingly widening crackdown on the group. Mohammed Ali Bishr, a senior Muslim Brotherhood figure, reportedly met with representatives of Al Nour party on Wednesday to draft an initiative to the military with solutions to ending the current political crisis. Interim prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi said in a state media interview Tuesday that Egypt should not ban or exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from politics, seemingly backtracking on his proposal two weeks ago to dissolve the group. Meanwhile, a military court in Suez began the trial on Monday of sixty-four members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jama’a Islamiya, and other supporters of Morsi. They were charged with inciting attacks against churches and security forces.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Jordan-Syria. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey co-hosted a two-day meeting of senior army officials from ten countries with Jordan’s chief of staff Meshaal Mohamed al-Zaban in Amman on Monday and Tuesday. The meeting was focused on the regional impact of the war in Syria. Top generals from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Canada were in attendance.

Egypt. U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson will leave Egypt tomorrow, ending her roughly two-year term in Cairo. Yesterday, Patterson wrote a public letter to Abdel Nasser Salama, the editor in chief of state-owned Al Ahram newspaper, denouncing as “absurd and dangerous” an article in the newspaper that alleged that she was involved in a conspiracy to destabilize Egypt. Patterson further wrote that the U.S. embassy will bring the allegations against her to the “highest levels of the government to protest its publication and the irresponsible behavior that led to it.” David Satterfield will reportedly serve as temporary charge d’affaires until the next ambassador can be confirmed. Patterson was nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs last month.

Iran. The State Department released a statement yesterday “respectfully” asking new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to help release three U.S. citizens who have been held in Tehran for at least one year.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Tunisia. Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou told a press conference yesterday that Tunisia’s extremist group Ansar al-Shariah is linked to al Qaeda. Tunisian prime minister Ali Larayedh labeled Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization on Tuesday, blaming the group for the assassination of two opposition figures and multiple attacks on Tunisian security forces this year.

Jordan. Jordan held nation-wide municipal elections Tuesday producing very low turnouts. While the elections were considered free and fair, only 37.3 percent of registered voters participated. The rate was particularly low in Amman, where only 10.5 percent of eligible voters participated.

Israel. The Israeli military mobilized a small number of reservists on Wednesday in preparation for the possibility of retaliation against Israel for a potential Western strike on Syria. While Israelis rushed to collect gas masks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement urging calm but also stating that, “we are prepared for any scenario.”

Libya. Seif al-Islam, the son of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi were charged in a Tripoli court on Tuesday with murder during Libya’s civil war in 2011. Twenty-six former members of Qaddafi’s government were also charged. The trial is set to begin on September 19.

Iran. Marzeih Afkham was announced as the first ever female spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry today. Previously, Afkham had served as director of the Foreign Ministry’s media and public diplomacy department. Iranian president Rouhani reportedly asked officials to appoint women to high posts in the government. Meanwhile, a new IAEA report released yesterday stated that Iran is slowing its accumulation of uranium refined to 20 percent, while simultaneously expanding its installation of new refining equipment. The report revealed that Iran is set to hold a new round of talks with nuclear inspectors in September.

Iraq. More than a dozen coordinated bombs exploded within an hour-long period yesterday in Baghdad. The wave of bombings mostly hit Shiite neighborhoods and killed at least sixty-five people and wounded many more. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court overturned a law passed in January that set a two-term limit for the offices of the prime minister, president, and Parliament speaker.

Lebanon. President Michael Sleiman appealed to all political forces yesterday to avoid regional conflicts and “reconsider the disassociation policy based on the Baabda Declaration,” after calling for a new government and renewed national dialogue over the weekend. A suspect in the devastating car bombing that struck Tripoli last Friday and killed at least forty-seven reportedly told Lebanese security forces on Tuesday that Syrian intelligence directly planned the attack.

West Bank. Protesters and Palestinian security forces clashed on Wednesday in Ramallah as police broke up a small demonstration against the resumption of peace talks with Israel. Ma’an reported on Tuesday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Jericho on Monday, despite an announcement by Palestinian officials that a planned round of talks had been cancelled after Israeli security personnel killed three Palestinians earlier in the day. The two negotiating teams reportedly met at the home of Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.

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