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: Iraq’s Morass, Iran’s Talks, and Egypt’s Trials

by Robert M. Danin
June 19, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (L) after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, November 1, 2013 (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. president Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (L) after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, November 1, 2013 (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Developments

Iraq. President Obama told reporters today that the United States will deploy up to 300 military advisors to Iraq to help the country’s security services “take the fight” to the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Obama reiterated his earlier pledge to not send combat troops to Iraq.  ISIL insurgents have captured several cities in northern Iraq and are holding on the outskirts of Baghdad. Obama called the current crisis “Maliki’s test,” but would not speak to the Iraqi prime minister’s competence as a unifier capable of creating an “inclusive agenda.” The New York Times reported today that Iraqi government officials claimed to have the upper hand after two day’s of fighting for control of Iraq’s biggest oil refinery in the city of Baiji, 130 miles north of Baghdad. Eyewitnesses claim, however, that the militants’ flags continue to fly over the facility.

Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed a willingness to share information about the Iraqi insurgency with the Iranian government but not to work with Iran to abet the crisis. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met with his Iranian counterpart briefly on Monday and reportedly discussed the Iraq crisis with Tehran’s envoys. Iranian officials reportedly told the Americans that Iran would only help stabilize Iraq if there is forward progress in P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear program. Those multilateral talks continued last week with Iran allegedly refusing to significantly cut the number of centrifuges it intends to keep to produce nuclear fuel, dampening hopes somewhat for a comprehensive accord next month. Meanwhile, the Iranian government has vowed to protect Shia sites in Iraq and to support those fighting ISIS, including Sunnis, President Rouhani wrote in a tweet published yesterday.

Egypt. An Egyptian court sentenced Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohammad Badie and prominent leaders Safwat Hegazy and Mohamed El-Beltagi along with eleven others to death today on charges over violence that led to ten deaths last summer. The decision follows yesterday’s sentencing to death of twelve supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi on charges of killing a police general last September. Ending ten months of imprisonment without charge, Egypt’s prosecutor general ordered the release of Al-Jazeera journalist Abdullah el-Shamy, who has been on hunger strike for over four months, on Monday, citing health conditions. Shamy’s release brought hope to other Al-Jazeera staff members who await a verdict in their trial this upcoming Monday. These moves came as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi swore in a cabinet of 34 ministers on Tuesday, 13 of whom are new. Changes included the removal of the Ministry of Information and the creation of a Ministry of Urban Development. Egypt regained its membership in the African Union on Tuesday, after almost a year-long freeze that began following the overthrow of President Morsi last July.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Libya.  In a secret nighttime raid Sunday night, United States military officials captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, the most prominent suspect wanted in the attack on the U.S. compounds in Libya in 2012 which led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The Libyan government, which had not been notified of the raid prior to President Obama’s authorization of it, condemned the capture as a breach of sovereignty. Justice Minister Saleh al-Marghani said yesterday that Khatallah—who is currently expected to face trial in the United States—should be returned to Libya and tried there.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Israel. Senior Hamas official Salah Bardawi threatened the start of a third intifada today amid Israel’s crackdown on the group and its arrest of over 280 West Bank Palestinians—many of whom are affiliated with Hamas—in its search for three Yeshiva students kidnapped last Thursday near Hebron. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas condemned the kidnapping on Monday, and also denounced the Israeli military’s response to it.

Syria. Following his statements last week that the West is shifting its position on the conflict in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad said yesterday to a North Korean delegation in Damascus that terrorists will strike back against the countries that supported attacks in Syria and across the Middle East. “The West and countries that support extremism and terrorism in Syria and the region … must realize that this growing threat will strike the whole world, especially the countries that support terrorism and that allowed it to grow.” Meanwhile, fighting in Syria continued Monday when government helicopters dropped barrel bombs on opposition-held districts of Aleppo, reportedly killing at least 60 people.

Turkey. A Turkish court announced life sentences yesterday for ninety-six–year-old former president Kenan Evren and eighty-nine–year-old former air force commander Tahsin Sahinkaya, the only surviving leaders of a 1980 military coup against the then civilian-led government. The officers are the first to be tried for a coup in Turkish history, following a 2010 referendum that overturned a constitutional clause that granted generals immunity.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s two largest opposition parties—the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party—announced on Monday their joint nomination of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, for the upcoming presidential elections in August. The decision came as a surprise to many, given the groups’ secular bent and Ihnsanoglu’s reputation as a conservative. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to contest the elections as well.

Yemen. Yemen’s government began conducting raids on Houthi rebels on Tuesday, following attacks on army members beginning Sunday, which ended an 11-day truce brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar. Although military officials did not provide an estimate, local sources told Agence France-Presse that dozens had been killed on both sides since the fighting began on Sunday. Yemeni troops were also busy in Sanaa over the weekend, as they surrounded and blocked access to a mosque controlled by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in response to concerns that the ousted leader was plotting a coup.

Lebanon. Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri postponed the seventh parliamentary session to elect a new president yesterday after only 63 out of the 128 lawmakers attended the session. Opposition parties have boycotted all seven sessions since April, citing a lack of agreement on a consensus candidate. Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, whose bloc has been boycotting parliamentary sessions, said in a television interview Monday that the current stalemate is incredibly dangerous and unconstitutional: “If we reach parliamentary polls [scheduled for November] before holding the presidential election, then the political situation in Lebanon will explode.”

Tunisia. Tunisia’s election commission announced on Monday dates for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections which it will submit to the parliament for approval. These elections will be the first since those that put the Islamist Ennahda party in power, though it handed power over to the current caretaker government in December 2013. If approved, parliamentary elections will be held on October 26, the first session of the presidential vote on November 23, and the second session on December 26.

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