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: Egypt’s Constitution, Iran’s Diplomacy, and Syria’s War Crimes

by Robert M. Danin
December 5, 2013

Amr Moussa, head of the assembly writing Egypt's new constitution,speaks after they finished their vote at the Shura Council in Cairo December 1, 2013 (Courtesy Reuters). Amr Moussa, head of the assembly writing Egypt's new constitution,speaks after they finished their vote at the Shura Council in Cairo December 1, 2013 (Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Egypt. Egypt’s Salafist Islamist party, al-Nour, announced its support today for the just completed draft constitution, despite an amendment that bans religiously based political parties. The draft constitution would remove most opposition to the current state of military rule, and has been condemned both by supporters of deposed president Mohammed Morsi as well as human rights activitists who fear that it unduly enshrines the military’s predominant position in Egyptian politics. The draft was given to interim president Adly Mansour on Tuesday by Amr Mousa, the head of the Committee of Fifty. Mousa called on the Egyptian people to approve the revised constitution in an upcoming referendum, possibly in January, to prevent further unrest and violence in Egypt. The Committee completed the draft on Sunday, approving a total of 245 articles. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Egyptian government delayed on a decision to accept a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF that would require economic reforms. A recent influx of $8 billion in aid from Gulf countries has allowed Cairo to take time to weigh its options.

Iran. Iranian foreign minister Mohamed Javad Zarif arrived in the United Arab Emirates yesterday and met with Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. Zarif invited UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan to visit Tehran as part of Iran’s new charm offensive towards the Gulf, launched in the wake of the interim nuclear agreement with the west. Zarif visited Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman earlier in the week. On Sunday, Zarif expressed hopes of improving ties with Saudi Arabia but said that there is no visit currently planned. The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday that talks on the country’s disputed nuclear program will continue in Vienna on December 9 and 10. The next round of talks will include the P5+1 countries and representatives from the IAEA, the organization responsible for overseeing the enforcement of last month’s interim deal.

Syria. Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad announced on Monday that all Geneva II negotiations next month, slated to begin on January 22, will be run by President Assad and that the Syrian leader has no intention of turning over power. UN under secretary general and relief coordinator Valerie Amos told the Security Council on Tuesday that both rebel and regime forces have impeded aid shipments and that there has been no progress in protecting civilians or improving access to the most difficult to reach areas. Updated estimates from the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights indicate that 126,000 people have been killed in the nearly three year-old Syrian conflict. On Monday, UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay linked Assad to war crimes and crimes against humanity, indicatingthat the UN has “massive evidence,” which “indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state.” UN investigators have also found opposition groups responsible for abuses, although to a lesser extent.

U.S. Foreign Policy

United States-Israel-Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem today to brief him on the recent interim deal with Iran. Kerry assured Netanyahu that core sanctions against Iran would remain in place and that “Israel’s security in this negotiation is at the top of our agenda and the United States will do everything in its power to make certain that Iran’s nuclear program, the program’s weaponization possibilities, is terminated.” In his meeting with Netanyahu, Kerry discussed the Palesitnian track, and had retired General John Allen present security “thoughts” for the West Bank to Netanyahu.

From Jerusalem, Secretary Kerry travelled to Ramallah where he met Palestinian president Abbas. Kerry reportedly discussed  security ideas with the Palestinians. Following their talks, Kerry commended Abbas for his commitment to negotiations “despite difficulties that he and the Palestinians have perceived in the process.” According to press reports, Palestinian officials rejected the security “ideas” claiming that they “would only lead to prolonging, maintaining the occupation.” Kerry announced that he would return for further talks, perhaps next week, and that he believed progress had been made.

Syrian Chemical Weapons. The United States on Saturday offered to destroy the weapons on board a retrofitted U.S. naval vessel specially equipped for the mission in order to help rid Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal. The ship would handle five hundred tons of the chemicals weapons considered to be too dangerous for commercial destruction or transportation to another country. Ridding Syria of its chemical weapons has posed a challenge to the United Nations due to the country’s ongoing civil war.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Libya. Unidentified gunmen shot and killed an American school teacher, Ronnie Smith, in Benghazi today. Smith, a young chemistry teacher at the International School, was attacked while jogging in an upscale neighborhood near the U.S. consulate. No group has claimed responsibility.

Iraq-Iran. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Tehran yesterday to begin two days of talks about security and the civil war in Syria. This is al-Maliki’s first visit to Iran since Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in August.

Lebanon. A senior Hezbollah officer, Hassan Laqees, was assassinated yesterday by an unidentified gunmen while exiting his car south of Beirut. Laqees had been with Hezbollah since its founding three decades ago; and was responsible for the development and procurement of weapons. Meanwhile, clashes again erupted in Tripoli between Sunni and Alawite districts on Tuesday, leading to the arrest of twenty-one fighters. Tripoli was placed under a six-month period of military rule on Monday in an effort to quell sectarian violence spilling over from the civil war in Syria that has left more than one hundred dead this year alone. This is the first time that the army has been given control of a city since the Lebanese civil war.

Yemen. A suicide bomber struck the Yemeni defense ministry in Sana’a today, followed immediately by a second attack by armed gunmen. The explosion and gun battle left at least fifty-two people dead, according to a ministry spokesman. The explosion badly damaged a hospital in the compound and killed several members of the medical staff, including foreigners. Thus far no one has claimed responsibility.

This Week in History

This week marks the forty-second anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates. The small emirates of the Gulf were known as the Trucial States, following a series of agreements with the British Empire in the nineteenth century that relinquished control of foreign policy matters to the British. The discovery of oil in the twentieth century began to revolutionize the Trucial States economically, and a Trucial Council was established in 1952 to handle the administration of the growing emirates. A 1968 attempt at unification failed following the exit of Bahrain and Qatar. However, in 1971, with Britain’s departure from the Gulf, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Dubai, and Umm al-Quwain successfully established the United Arab Emirates. A year later they were joined by Ras al-Khaymah. The UAE soon after joined the Arab League and becoming a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The UAE is presently home to a sizeable contingent of U.S. forces at the port of Jebel Ali and al-Dhafra Air Base.

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