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 II Launched, Iran Sanctions Eased, and Turkey’s Judiciary Purged

by Robert M. Danin
January 23, 2014

Senior Syrian opposition member Haitham al-Maleh sits alone during the second session of the Geneva-2 peace conference in Montreux January 22, 2014 (Saidi/Courtesy Reuters). Senior Syrian opposition member Haitham al-Maleh sits alone during the second session of the Geneva-2 peace conference in Montreux January 22, 2014 (Saidi/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met separately today with delegations from Syria’s government and opposition today to prepare for face-to-face talks slated for tomorrow. The Geneva II peace conference got off to a rocky start yesterday when Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem and UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon clashed during their opening remarks. Ban several times urged Muallem to close his remarks when the Syrian official went over his allotted ten minutes; Muallem instead continued on for thirty-five minutes during which he dismissed calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down and said, “diplomacy and terrorism cannot go in parallel. Diplomacy must succeed by fighting terrorism.” Ahmad Jarba, the leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, in turn called for an investigation into recent reports of torture of prisoners held by the government.

The conference was mired in uncertainty earlier this week when Ban suddenly invited Iranian officials to participate, only to withdraw the invitation soon after when Iran reportedly refused to publicly affirm the principles of the Geneva I peace plan, as called for by the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that Iran can still play a helpful role and said he hopes “they will want to join in a constructive solution.” Meanwhile, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri released a recording today calling on Islamists in Syria to unite after weeks of deadly fighting between al-Qaeda-linked militants and rival insurgents.

Iran. The United States and the European Union announced on Monday the lifting of some economic sanctions immediately after Iran suspended high-level uranium enrichment. White House spokesperson Jay Carney called Iran’s compliance “the first time in nearly a decade that Iran has verifiably enacted measures to halt progress on its nuclear program, and roll it back in key respects.” The easing of sanctions is part of six-month phase called for in the interim deal that was struck in November. It will release some $4.2 billion of blocked Iranian assets. Carney stressed, however, that the United States will continue “aggressive enforcement” of the sanctions that are not being lifted in the six-month phase.

Turkey. More than 160 police officers were removed from their posts in the city of Bursa today in the government’s latest purge of the Turkish judicial and law enforcement establishments. Yesterday, hundreds of police officers were removed from posts in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir following Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for “reform” of Turkey’s Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors to “come into force as quickly as possible.” A pending measure would legislate a mass purge of the Turkish judiciary, giving parliament the power to appoint members of the top judicial committee based on parties’ representation. European Union Council president Von Rompuy urged Erdogan “not to backtrack” and warned that “progress in accession negotiations and progress in political reforms in Turkey are the two sides of the same coin.”

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. Protests erupted in Sana’a today over the killing of Ahmed Sharafeddin, a representative of the Houthi rebels participating in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Sharafeddin was shot dead by gunmen on Tuesday, the second assassination of a Houthi representative in the past three months. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon called Sharafeddin’s killing “a stark reminder of the challenges Yemen faces” as he congratulated Yemen on the conclusion of the reconciliation launched talks last March. The NDC concluded on Tuesday with a decision to extend Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s term another year, and to approve a new federal system designed to accommodate southern separatist demands for increased autonomy.

Egypt. Interim prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi endorsed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, for president today while in Davos for the World Economic Forum. Beblawi described the public demand for Sisi’s candidacy as “like De Gaulle, like Eisenhower.” However, Yasser Borhami, a leading cleric connected to the Salafist al-Nour party, expressed concerns over the possibility of Sisi’s presidential bid, saying that “General Sisi has problems among many in the Islamic movement: it is the case of Rabaa and the bloodshed that followed.”

Libya. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused the Justice and Construction Party of trying to destabilize the government after it announced the resignation of the party’s five ministers on Tuesday. The resignations, including that of Libya’s oil minister, came in protest of the government’s handling of recent unrest. The Justice and Construction Party, the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Libya and the second largest presence in the interim government, had been trying for weeks to pass a vote of no confidence in Zeidan.

Iraq. According to Iraqi defense ministry figures, at least fifty militants were killed during airstrikes in Anbar Province on Tuesday. The strikes were the latest in a series of security efforts directed against militant groups in the area. Anbar, a key battlefield during the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, has witnessed significant rebel gains and loss of government control in recent months.

Israel. The Israeli air force killed two alleged militants in a targeted missile strike in Gaza yesterday. The operatives were members of two different militant organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened yesterday to teach Hamas a lesson if it proves to be incapable of containing attacks on Israel. Another Israeli targeted killing on Sunday killed Ahmad Saad, described by the Israeli army as a “key Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative in the Gaza Strip specializing in rocket launching.”

UAE. A group of thirty Emiratis and Egyptians were convicted on Tuesday of setting up a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE. The ten Emirati defendants were among a group convicted of plotting to overthrow the government last July.

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