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 and Spillover Into Lebanon and Jordan

by Robert M. Danin
April 17, 2014

Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who stepped down this week (Bourg/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who stepped down this week (Bourg/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. Regime fighters reportedly made significant progress against opposition forces in Homs this week, as Syrian military forces began entering rebel districts on Monday, stepping up one of the strongest bombardments in months. Homs is considered the last main opposition stronghold in central Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and opposition representatives traded new accusations of using chemical weapons in an attack on the village of Kfar Zeita last Friday. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, responded to reports of a chlorine gas attack on Sunday, saying, “So far it’s unsubstantiated…we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response.”

According to the Syrian daily Al-Watan, a date for Syria’s upcoming presidential election will be announced next week by Mohamed Jihad Lahham, the speaker of the parliament. The vote is expected to be held before President Bashar Assad’s current term expires on July 17. On Monday, EU foreign ministers issued a statement calling the electoral process in Syria a “parody of democracy.” Plans to go through with elections were also criticized by U.N.-Arab League negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi, who stated that such a vote would push the opposition away from the negotiating table. A new law requires candidates to have lived in Syria for the previous ten years and hold no other nationality, thus excluding opposition figures in exile.

Lebanon. Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri announced that parliamentary elections will take place next Wednesday, April 23. The new parliament will then be tasked to elect Lebanon’s new president on May 25 upon the completion of President Michel Sleiman’s term.  Meanwhile, Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk announced Tuesday that the government will limit the entry of further Syrian refugees into Lebanon. “Syrian refugees are our guests, but the Lebanese government does not have the resources and infrastructure to endure their number,” Machnouk said as he announced that plans are being prepared to reduce the number of future Syrian refugees. According to the minister, 27 percent of the current total population in Lebanon is Syrian.

Jordan. Jordanian warplanes destroyed three vehicles yesterday attempting to cross into the country from Syria. The Jordanian military did not provide specifics about the targeted vehicles, although the Syrian government released a statement saying that the vehicles did not belong to the Syrian military. The strike was the first open Jordanian use of military aircraft along its northern border since the Syrian conflict erupted.

Saudi Arabia. The official Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday that Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan stepped down from his post, a move that has been rumored for weeks. The decision was announced in a royal decree that also named General Youssef al-Idrissi Saudi Arabia’s new acting Intelligence chief. Bandar had been appointed to the position in July 2012 and ran Saudi Arabia’s Syria policy until Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Nayef al-Saud took it over earlier this year in February.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Iran. The IAEA reported in its monthly update released today that Iran is complying with the interim nuclear deal struck by Iran and the P5+1 countries last November. Tehran expects to receive a fifth tranche of funds that were previously frozen overseas by the end of this week. Iranian President Rouhani said on Tuesday, “If it goes on with the same trend, the final agreement could be reached within six months.”  However, General Hossein Dehghan on Wednesday said that Iran’s ballistic missiles are not open to discussion , rebuffing earlier comments by State Department nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman, who has said Iran’s missile program should be addressed as part of an agreement with Iran.

Meanwhile, Tehran formally protested the U.S. refusal to grant Iran’s proposed new UN ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, a visa to enter the United States. Washington had officially declined the visa request since Aboutalebi worked as a translator for the group responsible for the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran. The Iranians claim that the United States has breached the U.S.-UN Host Country Agreement by denying the visa.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Israel-Palestine. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are scheduled to meet today with U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, after their most recent scheduled meeting was postponed. Israeli sources claimed the meeting was postponed after an Israeli officer was killed near Hebron on Monday while driving with his family; Palestinian sources said the meeting was delayed so that Indyk could participate. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the Palestinian leadership for the killing, stating that, “assassination is the result of the incitement to hatred by Palestinian Authority leaders who continue to peddle hate-filled material against Israel.”

Earlier this week, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that secret talks were being held between Israel and “moderate” Arab states. In his announcement on Monday, Lieberman argued that the Iranian regional threat had mitigated anti-Israeli sentiment and stated that, “We will have a situation in which we have full diplomatic relations with most of the moderate Arab states…and you can count on my word.”

GCC. A Jordanian official announced on Tuesday that Morocco and Jordan had been formally invited by the Gulf Cooperation Council to create a military alliance in late March. The agreement, which is currently under consideration by the two governments, aims to address the shortage of manpower in the GCC; Morocco and Jordan would bring 300,000 troops in exchange for financial aid from the Gulf countries. The GCC and Jordan and Morocco reportedly agreed to a framework for a strategic partnership over a year ago.

Algeria. More than twenty-two million Algerians will head to the polls today to choose the next Algerian head of state. While incumbent President Bouteflika seeks a fourth term and is widely expected to win the upcoming elections while the leading opponent, former prime minister Ali Benflis, hopes for an unlikely last-minute comeback. Campaigning ended last Sunday after Bouteflika accused Benflis of “terrorism through television” for making statements about possible electoral frauds.

Libya. Jordan’s ambassador to Libya, Fawaz al-Aitan, was kidnapped by gunmen on Tuesday, according to an announcement made by Libya’s foreign ministry. The kidnappers called the ambassador’s wife following the abduction and told her that al-Aitan was in good health. Al-Aitan was the first Arab ambassador to be posted in Libya after the revolution.

Turkey. A delegation of Twitter executives met with government representatives this week to discuss the future of social media access in the country after Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dubbed it “the worst menace to society.” While the government presented a long list of demands, including the establishment of a Turkish company office and the company’s revelation of certain users. Twitter reportedly agreed to make certain posts invisible to domestic Turkish audiences.

Bahrain. Eleven Shiite demonstrators were sentenced to five years in jail following a clash with police forces last year near the capital. This is the last case in a long series of arrests of Shiites following the February 2011 unrest.

Kuwait. According to speaker of the parliament Marzouk al-Ghanem, Kuwaiti prime minister al-Sabah said videotapes showing alleged senior former officials organizing a coup were “tampered with.” Kuwait’s information ministry announced a gag order this week barring any statements to the media regarding an ongoing investigation into the existence of a videotape that allegedly contains sensitive information about former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammed Al Ahmad Al Sabah and Jasem Al Khorafi, the former speaker of the parliament.

Egypt. Egypt’s former defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi submitted eight times the amount of signatures required to the election commission on Monday, finalizing his presidential candidacy. Al-Sisi’s likely rival is Hamdeen Sabahi, who came in third during the first round of 2012 elections eventually won by Morsi.

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