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 Constitutional Referendum, Syria’s Peace Conference, and Iraq’s Unity Setback

by Robert M. Danin
January 16, 2014

Officials count ballots after polls closed in Cairo, January 15, 2014 (El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Developments

Egypt. Egyptian state media reported today that over 95 percent of those who participated in the two-day constitutional referendum voted in favor of the new charter. Estimated turnout rates fluctuate wildly, ranging from an Interior Ministry official’s report of more than 55 percent to state media reports of just over 36 percent. The turnout for the previous constitutional referendum held a year ago under then-president Mohammed Morsi was 33 percent. Egypt’s spokesman for the presidency, Ehab Badawy, said that, “This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability.” The Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the vote. Final results are expected to be announced in a few days.

Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry today urged the National Syrian Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group, to decide to attend next week’s Geneva II peace talks tomorrow. Earlier today, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem confirmed the Assad regime’s participation in a letter to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon; the National Coordination Body, a centrist opposition group in Syria, announced that it would not attend. Speaking at a news conference after meeting with Muallem and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that, “Iran must be and inevitably will become part of complex efforts to settle the Syrian problem.”

Meanwhile, Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said today that the full removal and destruction of mustard gas and the components of Sarin and VX will likely be delayed until the end of June. The agreed upon deadline was the end of March. At a donors conference in Kuwait yesterday, Kerry pledged an extra $380 million in U.S. aid for Syrian civilians.

Iraq. Members of an Al Qaeda affiliate have passed out pamphlets in Fallujah over the last two days urging residents to join the fight against the Iraqi government. Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki said today that he has given a list to the United States detailing the weapons necessary to take back Anbar province from Al Qaeda militants. Maliki also said he plans to request counterterrorism training from the United States and noted that the situation in Iraq is connected to the conflict in Syria: “The whole region’s events are connected…to solve the problem in Iraq we cannot look at it in isolation from the other events in the region.” Meanwhile, more devastating car bombings struck Baghdad yesterday, killing at least sixty-four people.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Benghazi Report. The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report yesterday on the September 11, 2012 attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, concluding that the attack could have been prevented. The report faulted the State Department for not increasing security at its mission despite intelligence warnings of terrorist activities. It also criticized the intelligence community for not sharing information about the existence of the CIA annex at the compound with the U.S. military.

Israel. Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon apologized on Tuesday after being quoted earlier in the day describing U.S. secretary of state John Kerry acting on the peace process “out of an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling.” U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf had called Yaalon’s comments “offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States has done to support Israel’s security needs and will continue to do.” The latest episode came one day after Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel to attend the funeral of former prime minister Ariel Sharon.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Lebanon. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon opened its trial into the February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri today. Former prime minister Saad Hariri, speaking about the trial of his father’s murder, “From now on, any attempt to try to disrupt this path will be in vain.” Nonetheless, none of the four defendants in the trial, all of them members of Hezbollah, have been apprehended. Meanwhile, a suicide car bomb killed four people and wounded at least twenty-six more today in Harmel, near the Syrian border. On Tuesday, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an Al Qaeda-linked group, vowed on Twitter to continue attacking Iran and Hezbollah, after the killing of its leader.

Libya. Deputy Minister for Oil and Gas Omar Chakma announced today that oil revenues were about 20 percent less than had been projected for 2013. Chakma noted that the drop off came mostly in the second half of the year when a militia in eastern Libya declared itself an autonomous government and shut down oil terminals. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan told a press conference that the Libyan government would work with mediators to try to end the dispute with the militia, saying that, “We have two solutions: Through force or peaceful means. We preferred the peaceful way.” Meanwhile, Hassan al-Droui, Libya’s deputy industry minister, was assassinated while visiting his hometown of Sirte on Saturday. It was the first assassination of a senior member of Libya’s transitional government.

Bahrain. Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa met with leaders of the main opposition group, Al Wefaq, yesterday to discuss the resumption of reconciliation talks. It was the first high-level meeting since 2011, when Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to restore order after protests broke out demanding political reforms. Al Wefaq released a statement calling the meeting “especially frank and very transparent.” The National Dialogue talks were suspended last week.

Yemen. Suspected Al Qaeda militants attacked Raada, a Yemeni military camp today, killing at least eight soldiers and wounding ten more. Meanwhile, a farmer was killed yesterday by a U.S. drone strike that was reportedly targeting Islamist militants.

Turkey. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s largest opposition group, rejected the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) proposal to amend Turkey’s top judicial body today. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the CHP, claimed yesterday that Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan is trying to establish a “one-man rule” and “concentrate all state power to himself.”

Jordan-Israel-Palestine. Jordan’s Royal Palace confirmed that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Amman today for closed door talks with King Abdullah about “developments in the peace process.” Meanwhile, Israel’s Army Radio reported today that Netanyahu has added the Beit El settlement to the list of blocs Israel intends to keep in a final status agreement. An anonymous source claiming familiarity with the U.S.-brokered negotiations said that Netanyahu cited a biblical link to Beit El.


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