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: Libyan Abductions, Egyptian Aid Suspension, and Syrian Culpability

by Robert M. Danin
October 10, 2013

Libya's prime minister Ali Zeidan places his hand on his forehead as he addresses a news conference after his release and arrival at the headquarters of the prime minister's Office in Tripoli October 10, 2013 (Zitouny/Courtesy Reuters). Libya's prime minister Ali Zeidan places his hand on his forehead as he addresses a news conference after his release and arrival at the headquarters of the prime minister's Office in Tripoli October 10, 2013 (Zitouny/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Libya. Prime minister Ali Zeidan was abducted today and held for at least six hours by the Revolutionary Operations Chamber, a militia assigned to protect Libya’s parliament. The group, which subsequently released Zeidan, claimed it arrested the prime minister for his role in a U.S. raid on Saturday in which Abu Anas al-Libi, a suspect in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, was captured. The New York Times reported yesterday that the Libyan government “tacitly” approved the U.S. raid, though Zeidan had claimed that his government had not been informed of the operation in advance. Libya’s parliament issued a statement, supported by Zeidan prior to his kidnapping, condemning the U.S. raid and calling for the return of the abducted Libyan, currently being held and interrogated aboard the U.S.S. San Antonio located in the Mediterranean.

Secretary of State Kerry issued a statement this afternoon condemning the abduction of Libya’s prime minister, saying that, “Libyans did not risk their lives in their 2011 revolution to tolerate a return to thuggery.” Earlier in the week, Kerry defended accusations that the U.S. raid had breached Libyan sovereignty, calling the action “legal and appropriate.”

Egypt. The United States announced on Wednesday that it will suspend some military equipment, loan guarantees, and cash payments earmarked for Egypt “pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections.” U.S. officials nonetheless declined to call the military’s July 3 seizure of power a coup—an act that would have led to the cutoff of all military assistance to Egypt. U.S. officials went to great lengths to stress that Egypt will continue to receive military spare parts and training. The Administration also said that it would continue to assist Egypt in securing its borders, proliferation, and counter-terrorism. Gulf officials reportedly reacted quite negatively to the news of Washington’s partial military aid suspension. On Sunday, President Adly Mansour met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in appreciation for the kingdom’s dramatically increased support to Egypt. For my take on the administration’s move, check out my previous blog post.

Meanwhile, the Cairo Appeals Court announced yesterday that ousted president Mohammed Morsi’s trial for his role in the death of protesters will begin early next month. Violence has continued to wrack Egypt this week with three soldiers were killed today in a suicide bombing attack. Five soldiers were killed on Monday outside Ismailiya. These attacks followed a violent weekend where clashes between pro-military groups and Morsi supporters left fifty-three people dead across the country. Security forces also arrested twenty-five alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood at a Cairo metro stop on Sunday, accusing them of attempting to plant fifty-one explosive devices in the station.

Syria. For the first time since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, President Assad accepted some government responsibility for the current state of chaos on Monday, saying, “You can’t just absolutely say they carry 100 percent of the blame and we carry zero…Reality is not black and white, there are also shades of grey.” One Syrian deputy prime minister acknowledged that the government failed to respond adequately to early demands and incorrectly opted for the “repression of the popular movement.”

A second team of disarmament experts arrived in Syria as the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) ramp up their presence in the country. Ahmet Uzumcu, the director of the OPCW, called the Assad regime’s behavior so far “constructive” and “cooperative.” He also said that the team of fifteen inspectors began destroying some of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles over the weekend, and said that a temporary cease-fire would help the inspectors implement the UN resolution. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also urged a cease-fire between the Syrian government and the opposition for the Eid al-Adha holiday next week. UN secretary General Ban Ki-moon submitted a report to the UNSC on Monday saying that the inspectors will face their greatest challenges in November when they have to cross rebel-held territory to reach some of the designated stockpile sites.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Syria. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met briefly in Bali on Monday and commended recent cooperation between the Assad regime and weapons inspectors in Syria. In addition, both officials expressed support for a Geneva II peace talks currently slated for mid-November between members of the Syrian opposition and officials in the al-Assad government.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Turkey. The Turkish government announced on Monday that it had begun building a wall along the border with Syria near the town of Qamishli, an area of frequent violence and illegal border crossings.  Although the two meter high wall would cover only a small portion of the extensive border with Syria, Turkish officials have expressed concern regarding the ease with which crossings occur at this site.

Lebanon. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted a fifth suspect today in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The indictment named Hassan Habib Merhi, a Hezbollah supporter whom authorities have been unable to previously locate. In addition, a Lebanese court issued a warrant today for the arrest of a defected Syrian colonel who confessed to planning to form a rebel force in northern Lebanon to fight the Assad regime.

Iraq.  Several bombings struck Baghdad on Monday leaving at least thirty-seven people dead. This comes in the wake of a deadly truck bombing on Sunday at an elementary school in Qabak where thirteen students and their headmaster were killed and another eighty wounded. Shortly thereafter, another truck bomb was detonated at a police station in Qabak, killing three police officers.

Iran. On Sunday, Iranian authorities announced the arrest of four people suspected of plotting to sabotage a nuclear facility. Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed that the suspects had been known to authorities from the start and accused unnamed foreign powers for their actions.

Kuwait. On Tuesday, Kuwait’s new finance minister, Sheikh Salem Abdulaziz al-Sabah, sharply criticized the Kuwaiti government for the “oversized growth of its administrative sector.” He called on the government to reduce reliance on non-renewable resources while promoting sustainable private-sector growth and warned that state expenditures may surpass oil revenue as early as 2017 or 2018.

Israel-Palestine. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met on Monday for their eighth round of talks. The two sides reportedly agreed to increase the frequency and duration of their meetings at the behest of the United States.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirty-second anniversary of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s assassination. Sadat gained prominence with the Free Officer Movement and became Egypt’s president when Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970. Under Sadat, Egypt joined forces with Syria to launch the 1973 War against Israel, scoring an important psychological victory for Egypt with the crossing of the Suez Canal. Sadat boldly broke with many of his predecessor’s policies, decentralizing and liberalizing the economy, throwing Soviet advisers out of the county, and engaging the United States. In 1977, Sadat made an unprecedented trip to Jerusalem, speaking in front of the Israeli Knesset and setting into motion talks that culminated in the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.  Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981as the president was reviewing the troops during an Armed Forces Day Parade commemorating the 1973 War.

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