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: Syria’s Negotiations, Egypt’s Violence, and Turkey’s Politics

by Robert M. Danin
October 4, 2013

UN vehicles transporting a team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are pictured as they return to their hotel in Damascus October 3, 2013 (al-Hariri/Courtesy Reuters). UN vehicles transporting a team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are pictured as they return to their hotel in Damascus October 3, 2013 (al-Hariri/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. The Assad regime provided documents yesterday about its chemical weapons stockpile in the first day of Damascus meetings with the nineteen member advance team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The team called the Syrian government’s move “promising,” and said it hopes to begin onsite inspections and dismantling efforts next week. Initial timetables aim to destroy production equipment by November and eliminate stock piles in mid-2014. While President Assad pledged to comply with last week’s UN Resolution in an interview on Sunday, saying that “we don’t have any reservation,” Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem addressed the UN General Assembly on Monday, claiming that the Syrian regime forces were “the ones who were targeted by poisonous gases in Khan A1-Assal, near Aleppo.”

Meanwhile, six powerful rebel brigades in Syria released a statement late Wednesday calling for a cease-fire. The cease-fire proposal comes amidst an armed standoff between two armed opposition groups: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)—an affiliate of al-Qaeda operating in Syria—and the Northern Storm Brigade based near the Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey. ISIS has been advancing on the Northern Storm Brigade’s positions at the border crossing, a valuable arms supply route to rebel groups, after pushing them out of Azaz two weeks ago. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia helped fifty armed opposition groups around Damascus consolidate on Sunday under a new umbrella coalition called the Army of Islam, a move designed to counter the strength of ISIS.

Egypt. Unidentified militants fired on a military vehicle outside the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya today, killing two soldiers and wounding an officer. The attack followed a Tuesday bombing in the Sinai Peninsula that left three soldiers dead and an attack on Monday in el-Arish that killed three soldiers. Increasing violence across the country has killed over one thousand people since August. Meanwhile, an Egyptian court announced on Tuesday that it will hear an appeal on October 22 against its recent ban of the Muslim Brotherhood. A delegation of former Egyptian parliamentarians met with EU officials in Belgium earlier this week in an attempt to resolve the growing political crisis in Egypt. While members of the Egyptian delegation condemned the military’s recent crackdown, EU officials pushed for negotiation and acceptance of the interim military government.

Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan told a Turkish broadcaster last night that if his party asked, he would run for president next year in the country’s first popular presidential election. Under the rules of the AK Party, Erdogan cannot run again for prime minister in 2015. The Turkish parliament voted yesterday to extend legislation to send troops into Syria for another year, one day before their mandate was set to expire. The government proposed the extension citing a “serious and imminent” threat posed by the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. On Monday, Erdogan announced new initiatives aimed at revitalizing the peace process with Kurdish rebels. Some components of the broad reform package still must be approved by Parliament, but if passed they would lift prohibitions on the use of Kurdish language and lower electoral barriers that limit Kurdish representation. Despite the serious criticism Erdogan has drawn from domestic opponents for being too conciliatory, some Kurdish parties have already rejected the reform package as inadequate.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Israel-Iran. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry said yesterday that failure to take Iran’s diplomatic overtures seriously would be tantamount to “diplomatic malpractice.” Kerry expressed hope for a deal in as little as six months, but added that “nothing we do is going to be based on trust.” President Obama hosted Israeli prime minister Netanyahu at the White House on Monday, where the two primarily discussed Iran’s nuclear program. In an Oval Office photo spray following their meeting, Obama declared that a military strike was still on the table and that his administration is leaving current sanctions in place. The following day, Netanyahu spoke before the United Nations General Assembly and urged the world not to be fooled by “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials cancelled their country’s address scheduled for Tuesday before the United Nations General Assembly. Declining to even issue a written statement, Saudi diplomats gave no explanation for the dramatic move. However, press reports indicated that the Saudis were upset both about the international reaction to the war in Syria as well as the potential warming of relations between Iran and the West.

Lebanon. Caretaker interior minister Marwan Charbel met with top security officials on Tuesday to draw up a security plan for Tripoli after Hezbollah ceded control of checkpoints to the national security forces. Charbel declared that “there are no more Hezbollah checkpoints on Lebanese territory.” Hezbollah handed over civilian-manned over security checkpoints in Baalbek and Nabatieh to the Lebanese military following clashes on Saturday that left four dead. The increased security measures come in the wake of several bombings in predominately Hezbollah areas aimed at forcing the group to withdraw its forces from Syria and support for the embattled al-Assad regime.

Libya. Russia evacuated its embassy in Tripoli on Thursday following an attack the previous day. While no Russian personnel were injured, two attackers were killed by security forces. According to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry, the attack was carried out by friends and family of a Libyan pilot recently murdered by a Russian citizen. In an unrelated attack, gunmen assassinated a Libyan colonel in Benghazi on Wednesday, the second shooting in the eastern city in recent days.

Iraq. A wave of bombings left as many as fifty-five people dead in Iraq on Monday in an ever escalating spate of sectarian violence. Recent figures from the United Nations show that 979 people were killed in Iraq last month alone and approximately five thousand since April of this year.  While the semi-autonomous Kurdish north has largely avoided the violence of recent years, bombings on Sunday evening in the capital of Erbil have led to questions about the stability of Iraq and spillover from the crisis in Syria.

Bahrain. A Bahraini court sentenced four Shiites to life imprisonment on Thursday for detonating a roadside bomb that targeted a police officer. The move comes amidst an ongoing crackdown against the February 14th Movement in Bahrain. Ninety-one other Shiites have been given jail terms this week of up to fifteen years for crimes including detonating bombs, “terrorist crimes,” and forming a “clandestine opposition group.” The Sunni monarchy has faced increased opposition from its Shiite majority since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Yemen. Alleged al-Qaeda militants disguised as soldiers attacked a military compound in al-Mukalla on Monday, taking control of the facility and an undetermined number of soldiers. This brazen attack comes in the wake of a recent surge in violence in Yemen as the government faces a serious challenge from domestic terrorist and separatist movements.

Jordan. A Jordanian official announced on Tuesday that three men were recently arrested after displaying posters voicing their support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the recently deposed president, Mohammed Morsi. The three suspects were charged with “acts the government does not approve that would harm Jordan’s relations with a brotherly Arab country,” according to a Jordanian judicial official.

This Week In History

This week marks the forty-third anniversary of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s funeral in Cairo. Nasser passed away on September 28, 1970,shortly after returning from Jordan where he had helped mediate an end to fighting between Jordanian forces and Palestinian militants. Nasser played a leading role in the Free Officer Movement that deposed King Farouk in 1952. After seizing power two years later, he enacted a broad domestic agenda focused on land redistribution, the nationalization of a large number of industries, as well as the Suez Canal and, the termination of British influence in Egypt. Internationally, Nasser became a lead figure in the non-aligned movement and attempted to unite Egypt and Syria in the ultimately failed United Arab Republic. His funeral was marked by millions of Egyptians pouring into the streets to pay their respects for the first native Egyptian leader in nearly two millennia.

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