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 Friends, Libya’s Military, and Iran’s Negotiations

by Robert M. Danin
May 16, 2014

UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi pauses during a news conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva January 27, 2014 (Balibouse/Courtesy Reuters). UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi pauses during a news conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva January 27, 2014 (Balibouse/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Syria. The Friends of Syria group met in London yesterday and issued a communique that denounced Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s plan to hold elections on June 3 and agreed to increase support to the moderate opposition. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed frustration about the Syrian regime’s control over access to international humanitarian aid and said he had seen data indicating the Syrian government recent use of chlorine as a chemical weapon. He warned that “there will be consequences” if the chemical attacks are confirmed, but then added, “We’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

On Tuesday, Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy for Syria, announced that he will resign at the end of May. Brahimi told a press conference that “we haven’t been able to help [the Syrian people] as much as they deserve, as much as we should have.” Meanwhile, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the spokesperson for ISIS, released a recording on Sunday that rejected al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s call to leave Syria. Al-Adnani also accused Zawahiri of dividing the mujahedeen that Osama bin Laden had united.

Libya. Military forces led by General Khalifa Hifter, a retired general who fought Qaddafi in 2011, launched an offensive against two Islamist militias earlier today. Libya’s army chief of staff, Mohamed al-Hejazi, said that the action had not been officially sanctioned, but army helicopters and jets reportedly participated in the operation. The Libyan government has threatened legal action against Hifter, who appeared in an online video in February calling on the military to overthrow the Libyan government in order “rescue” the country.

Meanwhile, Jordanian ambassador to Libya, Fawaz al-Itan, was released and returned to Amman on Tuesday after being abducted in Tripoli last month by armed assailants. The AFP reported that Al-Itan was released in exchange for Mohammed Saeed al-Darsi, who was jailed for life in 2007 for plotting to blow up the Jordanian airport.

Iran. American officials expressed concern today about the slow pace in the fourth round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which began on Wednesday in Vienna. Iranian foreign minister and EU foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton reportedly began trying to write a draft final agreement, but have not made significant progress. Meanwhile, according to a Reuters report, a recent confidential UN report says that Iran has continued its development of ballistic missiles. Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that Western expectations that Iran would stop its missile program are “stupid and idiotic.”

U.S. Foreign Policy

Saudi Arabia-Gulf. U.S. secretary of defense Chuck Hagel met with defense ministers of the GCC in Jeddah on Wednesday to discuss P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. Hagel called on the GCC to demonstrate unity, saying that “cooperation among friends is vital to their survival.” Hagel’s meeting coincides with the beginning of the fourth round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Meanwhile, King Abdullah announced a reshuffle of the top Saudi defense positions shortly after Hagel spoke. Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who reportedly had a good relationship with Hagel, was removed and replaced by Prince Khaled bin Bandar bin Abdul Aziz, the governor of Riyadh.

Israel. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel wrapped up his four day Middle East visit today in Jerusalem, where he met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Following their meeting,  Hagel told a joint press conference, “I want to assure you of the United States’ commitment to ensuring Iran does not get a nuclear weapon — and that America will do what we must to live up to that commitment.” Netanyahu, in turn, warned that, “Iran is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community.”

Israel-Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry met separately with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, this week in London in his first meetings with the negotiators since the breakdown of talks last month. According to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki, Kerry told both Abbas and Livni that the “door remains open to peace.”

Libya. Pentagon spokesperson Colonel Steve Warren said on Wednesday that nearly two hundred Marines backed with six aircraft have been temporarily moved to Sicily from Spain amidst concern over growing unrest in Libya. Warren said that the deployment follows a State Department request and is “unquestionably” focused on embassy protection.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Israel-Palestine. Violent protests erupted today in the West Bank following the funeral of two Palestinian youths who were killed yesterday in clashes with Israeli security forces during demonstrations for Nakba Day. A senior Palestinian source told an Israeli newspaper that Palestinian Authority officials are considering halting security cooperation with Israel in response. Meanwhile, Israeli construction and housing minister Uri Ariel told a Tel Aviv radio station today that he thinks the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank could grow by 50 percent by 2019.

Turkey. Mass burials were held again today as more bodies were recovered from the coal mine in Soma, while protests broke out across the country against work conditions and the prime minister’s perceived indifference. Greeted by cries of “murderer” in Soma on Wednesday, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan allegedly punched a protestor while one of his aides kicked another protestor held down by police, an act photographed and published in Turkish newspapers yesterday. The explosion at the mine on Tuesday has resulted in the deaths of at least 284 miners confirmed so far.

Egypt. The trial of three Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo was adjourned yesterday until May 22. Before adjourning, the court was told by the defendants’ lawyers that they had been asked to pay $170,000 by the prosecution in order to view five CDs that allegedly prove the journalists guilt. The three journalists have been jailed since December 29 on charges of fomenting unrest.

Meanwhile, former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called on President Barack Obama to support Egypt’s fight against terrorism on Wednesday in his first international media interview. Pointing to growing unrest in Libya and the Egyptian military’s operations against militants in the Sinai, el-Sisi declared that, “The West has to pay attention to what’s going on in the world – the map of extremism and its expansion. This map will reach you inevitably.”

Saudi Arabia-Iran. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia is willing to host Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif anytime he “sees fit.” Al-Faisal stressed that the kingdom hopes Iran can help to make the region “as safe as possible.” Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian responded on Wednesday, noting that while an official invitation has yet to be extended, a meeting is expected.

Kuwait. According to the Kuwaiti state news agency KUNA, Justice and Islamic Affairs Minister Nayef al-Ajmi resigned on Monday after accusations that he promoted terrorism in Syria. In March, U.S. Treasury undersecretary David Cohen said that Ajmi “has a history of promoting jihad” and pointed out that al-Nusra Front in Syria features him on their fundraising posters.

Lebanon. Trade and Economy Minister Alain Hakim said yesterday a ministerial committee for Syrian refugees agreed this week that Lebanon will set a limit on the number of Syrian refugees in the country and will establish official refugee camps. There are currently over one thousand informal settlements and over a million Syrian refugees scattered across Lebanon.

Palestine. Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh announced last night that Hamas had agreed to all the details of security reintegration with Fatah, thereby removing a key obstacle in political reconciliation plan. Haniyeh noted that Hamas would not give up the “weapons of resistance” nor “forsake resistance.” Officials from Hamas and Fatah met in Gaza on Wednesday and reportedly agreed to form a fifteen-member interim government.

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  • Posted by Omerli

    The less Kerry says about Syria the better if he wants to retain any semblance of dignity. Gone are the Vietnam days, gone even his mismanaged but gallant effort to unseat Bush. All we have now is his oversight of a disastrous and utterly immoral policy on Syria. What a waste, what a shame…

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