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’s Fighting, Iran’s Windfall, and Iraq’s Violence

by Robert M. Danin
February 6, 2014

A member of Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra mans a checkpoint on the border crossing between Syria and Jordan, which they claim to have taken control of, in Daraa December 26, 2013 (Khassawneh/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Developments

Syria. The United Nations and Syria agreed today to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged old city of Homs, and to allow women and children safe passage out. The agreement came just hours after Syrian rebels announced a new campaign in Aleppo against government forces which escalated its air assault earlier this week. On Sunday, al-Qaeda’s central leadership officially cut its ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a major insurgent group that operates in Syria and Iraq and has caused widespread conflict among rebel factions fighting against Bashar al-Assad. Divisions between the two groups began emerging last year when al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri ordered ISIS to withdraw from Syria in order for the rebellion to be led by their official affiliate, the Nusra Front.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government yesterday missed another deadline in its chemical weapon destruction plan. According to a timetable issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Syria was supposed to have given up its entire chemical stockpile by February 5. Even though the Syrian government says it will still meet the final deadline of June 30, U.S. officials claim Syria had only removed 4 percent of its most toxic chemicals thus far.

Iran. On Monday, the United States confirmed that Iran received its first $550 million installment of assets resulting from the sanctions relief agreed to in the November interim deal. According to Iran’s official IRNA news agency, the funds went into an Iranian Central Bank account in Switzerland. In the interim deal, six major powers agreed to grant Iran access to $4.2 billion in its oil revenues frozen abroad in exchange for nuclear disengagement. Also on Monday, the Iranian government began handing out food packages for millions of Iranians. While meant to ease the pressure on Iranian citizens, the poor implementation of the food distribution program—at least three people died while waiting in the cold to receive handouts—led some Iranian parliamentarians to criticize Iranian president Rouhani

U.S. Foreign Policy

Syria. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham told reporters that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to a bipartisan congressional delegation that President Obama needs a new, more assertive Syria policy. The conversation reportedly took place on Sunday in Munich, one day after Kerry joined Defense Secretary Hagel to give an uncompromising defense of the administration’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said the Department of State’s Syria point man, Ambassador Robert Ford, plans to retire from his post by the end of the month. A longtime Middle East expert, Ford was instrumental in efforts to bring together different factions of the fragmented Syrian opposition in order for them to enter negotiations in Geneva. Ford was reportedly tapped by the Obama Administration to become the next U.S. ambassador to Egypt, but the appointment was rejected by the Cairo government.

Saudi Arabia. The White House announced that President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March. The visit will be the first to the kingdom since popular uprisings across the Middle East began in 2011. “Saudi Arabia is a close partner of the United States, and we have a bilateral relationship that is broad and deep and covers a range of areas,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. The visit appears designed to patch up differences between Washington and Riyadh that have spilled over into the public over the United States’ handling of Syria’s civil war.

Israel-Palestine. Israeli politicians continued to criticize Secretary of State Kerry this week, accusing him of manipulating the threat of an economic boycott against Israel to pressure the government into peace concessions. U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki rebuked the criticisms, emphasizing Kerry’s demonstration of “staunch opposition to boycotts.” Kerry yesterday also brushed off the criticisms, telling CNN that, “I’ve been, quote, ‘attacked’ before by people using real bullets, not words. And I am not going to be intimidated.” Israel’s chief peace negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, rebuked fellow government ministers over their criticisms of Secretary Kerry.

While We Are Looking Elsewhere

Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah issued a royal decree on Monday punishing citizens who fight in conflicts outside Saudi Arabia. Regional civil wars such as Syria’s have been attracting a large flow of Saudi fighters, worrying the monarchy that the fighters could return radicalized and threaten their own government. The royal decree comes just one day after the implementation of a bold counterterrorism law that criminalizes virtually any criticism of the government.

Algeria. The head of Algeria’s ruling party, Amar Saidani, called on powerful intelligence chief General Mohamed “Tewfiq” Mediene to resign in an interview published on Monday. Saidani blamed Mediene for failures of the DRS military intelligence agency, and declared that, “The presence of internal security in every institution gives the impression that power in Algeria is not in civilian hands.” Meanwhile, long-time Algerian president Abd el-Aziz Bouteflika was backed by a large majority of political forces for the upcoming presidential elections. The elections are currently scheduled for April 17.

Yemen. A ceasefire was restored today between Sunni tribesmen and northern Houthi rebels after fighting broke out just north of Sana’a last night. The fledgling truce was agreed to on Tuesday to end fighting that had killed nearly 150 people in the past week.

Egypt. A video of the arrest of two Al Jazeera journalists was leaked on Monday in Egypt and broadcasted on a pro-government private channel. The two journalists, Egyptian-Canadian television producer Mohamed Fahmy and Australian correspondent Peter Greste, have been detained since their arrest on December 29 and were among twenty Al Jazeera journalists charged with broadcasting false reports to help the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey. The Israeli government offered Turkey $20 million on Monday in compensation to the families of those killed or wounded during the 2010 raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized over a phone call last March.

Iraq. Seven car bombs exploded across Baghdad today, killing at least thirteen people in the latest of a series of explosions that have wracked the Iraqi capital. Yesterday, a wave of bombings included blasts in the city’s “Green Zone” and a busy square in the city center. While no group has claimed responsibility for the killings, the bombings followed a long series of attacks blamed by the government on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS).

Israel-Palestine. Abbas proposed that a NATO deployment could play a role in maintaining security as part of a peace agreement with Israel. “The third party can stay,” Abbas said. “They can stay to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us.” Meanwhile, Jerusalem municipality’s planning committee gave final approval for 558 apartments in East Jerusalem yesterday.

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