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 Machinations, Egypt’s Presidency, and Iran’s Bravado

by Robert M. Danin
February 13, 2014

Syria's UN ambassador Bashar Ja'afari (R) talks with Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin before members of the United Nations Security Council take part in a vote on a resolution eradicating Syria's chemical arsenal during a Security Council meeting during the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York September 27, 2013 (Bedford/Courtesy Reuters). Syria's UN ambassador Bashar Ja'afari (R) talks with Russian ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin before members of the United Nations Security Council take part in a vote on a resolution eradicating Syria's chemical arsenal during a Security Council meeting during the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York September 27, 2013 (Bedford/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. Russia today presented a draft resolution on Syrian humanitarian aid access that includes a condemnation of “terrorism” to the UN Security Council. Yesterday, Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov rejected a proposed resolution on humanitarian aid access drafted by Australia, Jordan, and Luxembourg that demanded “all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, immediately end the sieges of the Old City of Homs.” Gatilov denounced the Western-backed resolution as an attempt to lay the groundwork for a military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s government if its demands are not met. Meanwhile, the humanitarian ceasefire in Homs was extended for an additional three days today. Over 1400 men, women, and children have been evacuated from besieged parts of Homs since the ceasefire first took effect last Friday.

The Syrian opposition presented a plan for a post-war Syria yesterday in Geneva, calling for a transitional governing body that would oversee a total ceasefire under UN monitoring. All foreign fighters would be driven out of Syria under the plan. The opposition’s confidential draft, shown to international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, made no mention of the fate of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government delegation has not officially responded to the proposal yet, although it has suggested that negotiations need to focus first on fighting terrorism. Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said that, “We are not closed to discussing any issue. But we have to discuss them one by one.” The exchange came after a discouraging beginning to the second round of talks on Monday. International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is scheduled to meet with Russian and U.S. officials today in an effort to give new momentum to the talks.

Meanwhile, Sigrid Kaag, head of the UN-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission overseeing the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal, has urged the Assad regime to speed up operations. This happened after the government missed two important deadlines in December and early February, leading to western concerns of a deliberate slow-down by the regime.

Egypt. Russian president Vladimir Putin today endorsed field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to become Egypt’s next president. In his first visit outside of Egypt since coming to power in early July, Sisi is visitng Moscow to negotiate a $2 billion arms deal with Russia. According to state-owned al-Ahram, Russia would be the tentative broker of a deal funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, the State Department disclosed yesterday that Egyptian authorities have detained a local U.S. embassy employee for almost three weeks without any official charges. American officials say that Ahmed Aleiba, an Egyptian citizen who works for the American embassy was arrested on January 25. According to military-aligned newspaper al-Watan, Aleiba had arranged meetings between U.S. government officials and Muslim Brotherhood deputy head Khairat el-Shater last July.

Iran. Iran celebrated the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution on Tuesday. President Hassan Rouhani told a crowd of tens of thousans of Iranians gathered for celebrations that “Iran will maintain a permanent nuclear program.” Throughout his remarks, Rouhani emphasized a purported absence of a military option against Iran by any western country and called for Iran to move past the internal divisions that emerged following Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection in 2009. His statements came shortly after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors signaled on Monday their determination to get to the bottom of allegations that Iran may have worked on a nuclear bomb design. Meanwhile, Iranian defense minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan announced on Monday the successful test launch of two new missiles, including a long-range missile capable of evading radar.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan will meet President Obama in California tomorrow. Abdullah met yesterday with Vice President Joe Biden and Congressional leaders during his visit to Washington. According to the White House, Abdullah and Biden discussed achieving a sustainable political solution in Syria. The Jordanian monarch stressed the need for emergency humanitarian access following his meeting with Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday. The bilateral discussions are part of an administration outreach effort to Arab allies that also includes a visit by President Obama to Saudi Arabia in late March. See my take on this outreach here.

Israel-Palestine. The White House announced yesterday that President Obama will host Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 3. Netanyahu is scheduled to address the 2014 AIPAC conference on March 4 in Washington. Meanwhile, Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh stated on Tuesday that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be “useless” if the two parties were allowed to express reservations.  Abu Rudeineh said that the “use of the word ‘reservations’ bogs down the peace process and the use of this concept in the past has got the process stuck.” On Saturday, U.S. secretary of State John Kerry said Israeli and Palestinian leaders needed “to have the right to be able to have some objection.”

While We Are Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. President Abed Rabbou Mansur Hadi on Monday formally approved turning the country into a six-region federation. While the move was intended to grant the south more autonomy, it was immediately rejected by southerners pushing for secession. Opposition also came from northern Shia Houthi rebels on Tuesday, who said that the division of the republic does not distribute wealth evenly. Meanwhile, the Yemeni government handed twenty-nine al-Qaeda militants to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. According to the Yemeni defense ministry website, the fighters were Saudi nationals.

Iraq. An instructor for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that had been teaching militant recruits to make a car bomb accidentally set one off on Monday, killing twenty-one of the recruits in a blast. The blast brought the training camp’s exisitence to the attention of Iraqi authorities, who then arrested over twenty operatives. The late instructor may become a nominee for a posthumous Darwin Award.

Kuwait. Following in Saudi footsteps, a member of Kuwait’s parliament, Nabil al-Fadl, proposed a law that would make Kuwaitis participating or instigating participation in conflicts abroad face up to thirty years in jail. The law would penalize members of the National Guard or police more heavily than civilians. In order to pass, the law will need to be approved by the emir, the government, and the parliament.

Libya. The headquarters of Tripoli-based Libyan television channel al-Assema were rocked by three blasts yesterday morning. Al-Assema, known for its anti-Islamists stance, has been accused by Islamist groups of instigating demonstrations against the General National Congress. The attack comes after six journalists have been kidnapped in recent days in Tripoli.

Israel-Palestine. A municipal planning committee gave preliminary approaval for a plan to build a Yeshiva in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The news of the municipality’s action led Palestinian officials to accuse the Israeli government of efforts to undermines Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts.

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