Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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This Week: Syria Destroys CW Facilities, Egypt Continues Crackdown, and Washington Hosts Maliki

by Robert M. Danin
October 31, 2013

Workers dressed in protective clothes during a chemical weapons demonstration (Bimmer/Courtesy Reuters). Workers dressed in protective clothes during a chemical weapons demonstration (Bimmer/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced today that Syria had “completed rendering inoperable its chemical weapons production and assembly installations,” ahead of schedule. Late last night, a Syrian government airbase in Latakia was destroyed in a missile attack of unknown national origin launched from the Mediterranean. The airbase housed Russian surface to air missiles and a radar center. Also yesterday, President Assad’s forces launched a “Starvation Until Submission Campaign,” tightening blockades around Damascus neighborhoods and preventing the flow of food, medicine, and people in a purported effort to starve out rebel forces. Aid organizations and local medical staff have already reported an increase in water-borne illnesses and cases of severe malnutrition. The WHO reported a polio outbreak in Syria after ten cases of the disease were confirmed. Despite largely being eradicated in Syria since 1999, the easily communicable disease has undergone a recent resurgence as inoculation rates among children and general health and cleanliness standards for food and water have declined as a result of the civil war.

Assad met with UN-Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi yesterday to discuss possible negotiations with Syria’s opposition in Geneva later next month. Assad said that any negotiated solution would be predicated on an immediate end to foreign intervention and support for the opposition.

Egypt. Police raided al-Azhar University yesterday, firing tear gas at students following protests in which students stormed and vandalized administrative buildings. The protests were sparked in part by yesterday’s arrest of Essam el-Errian, one of the last remaining senior members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. On Tuesday, three judges presiding over the trial of Mohammed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, stepped down citing “reasons of conscience,” bringing the trial to an unexpected halt. Meanwhile, the military raided multiple sites in northern Sinai on Tuesday, arresting fifty-four militants as well as the confiscation of a cache of weapons and explosives. On Monday, Egypt’s Interior Ministry announced that it had arrested twenty-seven assailants responsible for the Warraq Church

Iraq. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is slated to meet President Obama at the White House tomorrow to discuss the rising tide of violence across Iraq. In advance of the meeting, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sharply criticized al-Maliki’s leadership in a letter to the president alleging that “Prime Minister Maliki’s mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence.” The Senators also expressed concerns about the spillover effects of Syria’s civil war, the marginalization of the Sunni minority in Iraq, and the potential for civil war in Iraq. The expressions of concern come amidst daily car and suicide bombs in Iraq that killed more than thirty people this week. The United Nations estimates that seven thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed this year alone.

U.S. Foreign Policy

New Middle East Strategy. The New York Times reported on Sunday that National Security Adviser Susan Rice led a White House Middle East policy review this summer to reassess the nature of U.S. commitments in the Middle East. The review process, which did not include either the secretary of state or secretary of defense, reportedly redefined the administration’s goal as preventing the Middle East from overwhelming the president’s second term agenda. Notably absent from the administration’s new priorities is Egypt; the review also marks the administration’s abandonment of Middle East democracy promotion, as spelled out by the president in his May 19, 2011, major address on the Arab uprisings at the State Department. Instead, U.S. priorities reportedly now center on negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, brokering peace between Israelis and the Palestinians, and “mitigating strife in Syria.”

Kerry to the Region. The State Department announced today that Secretary of State John Kerry will be traveling to the Middle East from November 3-11. Secretary Kerry will visit Riyadh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Algiers, and Rabat to discuss a range of issues, including Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Saudi ire with Washington, and final status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Egypt. A number of members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called on Tuesday for a re-evaluation of the Obama administration’s recent aid cuts to Egypt. Representative Eliot Engel expressed concerns that the recent decision to halt shipments of advanced military equipment, such as the F-16 and Apache Helicopters, has only harmed relations with a long-term ally. Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet told the committee this week that the United States wants “to see Egypt succeed in moving toward an inclusive, democratically-elected civilian government.” Acting Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones told the same committee that the reduced aid package has not impeded the ability of the Egyptian military to secure its borders or combat domestic militants but instead made a strong U.S. statement admonishing the overthrow of the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi and the ensuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere.

Lebanon. President Michel Sleiman announced that calm had been restored to Tripoli yesterday following Tuesday’s army deployment there to quell weeklong clashes between pro and anti-Syrian factions that left sixteen dead and more than eighty wounded. On Monday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of working to derail the Geneva II talks between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime. Nasrallah claimed that there is no chance for a battlefield victory, and argued instead that a negotiated political solution is the only route to peace.

Iran. Nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi refuted claims yesterday that Iran had temporarily halted twenty percent uranium enrichment. Sanctions and technical experts began meetings yesterday to prepare for next week’s nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna. On Monday, Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi met with International Atomic Energy Association director general Yukiya Amano and offered suggestions for breaking the impasse between the UN nuclear watchdog and the isolated Islamic Republic.

Tunisia. Security forces arrested five suspects last night following a suicide bombing at a Tunisian resort that coincided with several other attempted bombings yesterday. Authorities announced that the men being held were tied to Ansar al-Sharia, an increasingly active Salafist group operating in Tunisia. On Monday, twenty-one party leaders continued talks that began last week aimed at transitioning power from the ruling Ennahda party, setting new elections, and revising the constitution. According to Rashid Ghannouchi, chairman of Ennahda, “the train out of this crisis is on the tracks, and we are now on the way to finishing our transition to elections.”

Israel. The Israeli government yesterday released twenty-six Palestinian prisoners convicted of killing Israelis, the second group of one hundred and four prisoners set to be released by the Netanyahu government as a good will gesture to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Israel, however, drew international criticism for simultaneously announcing plans for an additional fifteen hundred homes in areas of East Jerusalem occupied in the 1967 war. On Monday, two rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel; one was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and the other landed in an uninhabited area with no injuries. In response, the Israeli military destroyed two launch sites in Gaza.

This Week in History.

This week marks the ninetieth anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, following more than six hundred years of Ottoman rule. Defeat by the Allied powers in World War I dealt a fatal blow to the “Sick Man of Europe,” reducing the Ottoman Empire to a small state in Anatolia with the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Unwilling to capitulate to Allied will, Turkish nationalists fought to depose the Sultan and forge a new, more favorable agreement which came with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The election of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a hero of both World War I and the resistance, as the first president brought about drastic social, political and religious changes in Turkey. The fez was banned, Latin script replaced Arabic, and by 1928, Turkey had officially gone from Caliphate to secular Republic. Ataturk moved quickly to repress opposition and consolidate power and won re-election in 1927, 1931 and 1935 until his death in 1938.

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