from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Annan’s Resignation, Syria’s Escalation, and Egypt’s Plodding Government Formation

August 02, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Annan Resignation. Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy for Syria, tendered his resignation today, having served in the position since late February. In a statement announcing that Annan was stepping down at the end of the month when his mandate expires, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon said: “The hand extended to turn away from violence in favor of dialogue and diplomacy—as spelled out in the Six-Point Plan—has not been taken, even though it still remains the best hope for the people of Syria.” Ban announced that he was already working with the Arab League to find a successor to Annan, though it is hard to see who would undertake that mission without some fundamental change in either its mandate or the circumstances on the ground. Ban blamed both the Syrian government, the opposition, and the security council itself for Annan’s lack of success: “Both the government and the opposition forces continue to demonstrate their determination to rely on ever-increasing violence. In addition, the persistent divisions within the Security Council have themselves become an obstacle to diplomacy, making the work of any mediator vastly more difficult.” Annan himself, speaking to reporters, expressed expaspiration, saying, “You have to understand: as an envoy, I can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council, or the international community for that matter.” Annan pointed to the core weakness of his mission by saying that “without serious, purposeful, and united international pressure, including from the powers of the region, it is impossible for me or anyone to compel the Syrian government in the first place, and also the opposition, to take the steps necessary to begin a political process."

Syria. Fighting continued to escalate in Aleppo, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting today that mobile phone and internet service have been cut off. Syria’s military has reportedly used fighter jets to fire on Syria’s largest city. In a development that could fundamentally alter the course of future fighting, NBC News reported on Tuesday that the rebel Free Syrian Army had acquired nearly two dozen surface-to-air missiles or, MANPADs--man-portable air-defense systems--delivered via Turkey. The United States has denied providing the weapons. Meanwhile, a UN spokesperson announced yesterday that opposition forces have for the first time acquired “tanks” and “heavy weapons.” Violence raged elsewhere in Syria, including near Damascus and on the Turkish border. The daily average number of Syrians killed in the last week was 208. For a statistical breakdown of Syria’s bloodshed over the past seventeen months, see my previous blog, “Syria By the Numbers.” Meanwhile, France’s efforts to organize a ministerial-level Security Council meeting on Syria at the UN were delayed to avoid clashing with the Arab League’s efforts in the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution calling upon Assad to hand over power to a transitional government.

Egypt. Egypt’s prime minister Hisham Qandil formally announced a new cabinet today as part of Egypt’s slow effort to shape a new government under President Mohammad Morsi. The announced cabinet includes more technocrats than Islamists, and retains at least six ministers from ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s regime, including Defense Minister General Mohamad Hussen Tantawi. The struggle over Egypt’s constitution was temporarily suspended on Monday when a court deferred until September the next step in a legal row that had threatened to dissolve the body tasked with writing it. Plaintiffs opposed to what they see as the Islamists’ overwhelming influence in the 100-person constitutional assembly had brought the case, demanding the body be dissolved on the grounds it had been formed illegally. Despite the allegations, the constituent assembly has resolved to continue writing the constitution between now and September 24 when the case is slated to be heard. Meanwhile, Israel released a copy of a letter on Tuesday sent to President Shimon Peres via Egypt’s embassy in Tel Aviv from President Morsi in which the Egyptian leader wrote, “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people.” Soon after the letter appeared in the Israeli press, presidential spokesman for President Morsi, Yasser Ali, denied the reports, claiming, “There is no truth to these (reports). President Morsi did not send an letter to the Israeli president.”

U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Panetta visits the region. U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta traveled to the Middle East this week, the latest in a series of recent visits by senior administration officials. Panetta arrived in Jordan today where he met with King Abdullah and reportedly discussed “a post-Bashar al-Assad Syria.” Pentagon spokesperson George Little said in a statement that "the United States will work with Jordan to explore ways to continue to provide humanitarian aid to those affected by violence in Syria.” Yesterday, Panetta met with Israeli officials and reportedly stressed that if economic sanctions do not work to compel Iran to end its nuclear program, the United States would consider military options. Panetta described the most recent round of Iran sanctions as the “toughest Iran has ever faced” and said  “the most effective way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is for the international community to be united, proving to Iran that it will only make itself less secure if it continues to try to pursue a nuclear weapon.” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that "America and Israel have also made clear that all options are on the table. You yourself said a few months ago that when all else fails, America will act. But these declarations have also not yet convinced the Iranians to stop their program." Panetta then responded: "We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period. We will not allow them to develop a nuclear weapon, and we will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen." Earlier in the week, Panetta visited Egypt and met president Morsi and Field Marshall Tantawi, praising Egypt’s commitment to democratic reforms.

Romney in Israel. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney visited Israel earlier this week as a part of a three-nation overseas tour, which also took him to Great Britain and Poland. Following meetings with Israel’s leaders, Romney gave a speech in which he said it was a “moving experience to be in Jerusalem,” identifying the city as Israel’s capital. On the United States-Israel relationship, he said "We serve the same cause and we have the same enemies. The security of Israel is a national security interest of the United States." On Monday, Romney sparked Palestinian anger when he compared Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s per capita economic output, saying: “And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality." Romney cited Harvard professor David Landes’ “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” to explain economic history suggesting, in understanding why some civilizations have grown and others declined, that “culture makes all the difference.” In response, Saeb Erekat, aide to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, lashed out, saying: "It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.”

Iran Sanctions. Congress passed a new package of strong sanctions on Iran. The House voted 421-6 to send the measure to the Senate, where the bill received unanimous support. Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the legislation "seeks to tighten the chokehold on the regime beyond anything that has been done before."

Quotes of the Week

  • "I was convinced that President Morsi is his own man and... that he is truly committed to implementing democratic reforms here in Egypt," -- U.S. defense secretary Panetta following his meeting with Egyptian president Morsi on Tuesday
  • "In that case, new arrivals could be housed inside Syria. Imagine 10,000 people are fleeing toward Turkey and tanks open fire on them from the Syrian side. What do you do in that case? Do you remain a spectator?" – Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Sunday
  • "If Aleppo falls, then automatically we are going to establish headquarters at the presidential palace," -- Burhan Ghalioun, member of the Syrian National Council late Wednesday in Paris
  • "There is still no need for Syria’s circle of friends to fully enter the arena, and our assessment is that there will be no need to do so," – Iranian brigadier general Masoud Jazayeri reportedly said on Tuesday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Bahrain. The U.S.-based human rights group Physicians for Human Rights published this week a report entitled “Weaponizing Tear Gas” criticizing the Bahraini monarchy’s use of tear gas. Based on dozens of interviews of victims and evidence gathered by the group in Bahrain in April, the report claims that in the 100-year history of tear gas, “there is no other example where a country has continually assaulted its people with this toxic chemical.”  The report acknowledges that official Bahraini authorities conducted a highly critical inquiry last year on the government’s rampant tear gas use, but it claims that the authorities’ promised improvements were never implemented.

Yemen. Police officers and gunmen loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s ousted leader, stormed the Interior Ministry on Tuesday, killing fifteen and wounding forty-three. The police officers had been demonstrating outside of the building since Sunday, accusing the new government of corruption. The Saleh loyalists remained in control of the building hours after they stormed it, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

Iraq. Twin car bombings in Baghdad claimed nineteen lives and left at least forty-seven people injured on Tuesday. Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attacks. July was the deadliest month in Iraq in almost two years, with 325 people killed in attacks, according to official figures released on Wednesday.

This Week in History

This week in history marks the twenty-second anniversary of Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Although Kuwait had been an ally of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, claiming that Kuwait had been part of Iraq prior to the signing of the Anglo-Ottoman Convention in 1913 and the British occupation. Within two days of intense combat,  the Iraqi Republican Guard overran most of the Kuwaiti Armed Forces, and Saddam Hussein appointed a de facto provisional government in Kuwait.  Iraq subsequently occupied Kuwait for seven months until it was driven out by a United States-led international coalition that liberated the country in what became known as the first Gulf War.

Statistic of the Week

UN agencies announced today that as the Syrian crisis rages on, up to three million Syrians are likely to need food, crop, and livestock aid in the next year given that the violence has prevented farmers from harvesting crops. This includes 1.5 million Syrians who “need urgent and immediate food assistance over the next three to six months, especially in areas that have seen the greatest conflict and population displacement.”