from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Iran Tensions Mount as Syria’s Regional Isolation Increases

September 06, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency briefed members with a series of satellite images yesterday further suggesting nuclear sanitation at Iran’s Parchin site. One diplomat called the imagery “pretty compelling.” The closed door briefing follows the agency’s release last week of a confidential report suggesting “extensive activities” at Parchin since February. Iran’s nuclear activities were the topic of an Israeli security cabinet meeting that Prime Minister Netanyahu abruptly cancelled on Wednesday after the mass-circulation newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported that a member of the security cabinet claimed that there was no agreement among security officials “about the point at which Israeli’s ability to damage the Iranian nuclear program loses its effectiveness.” Meanwhile, U.S. army deputy chief James Winnefield reportedly paid a “secret trip” to Israel, following last weekend’s comments by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey that he didn’t want to be “complicit” in an Israeli attack on Iran. Winnefield apparently met with Israeli defense minister Barak to discuss Dempsey’s comments. Iran also hosted its third International Conference and Festival of Islamic Resistance in Isfahan. Lebanese and Palestinian representatives from Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, among others gathered to discuss how to thwart U.S. and Israeli threats in the Middle East.

Syria. The Syrian military stormed the village of Tal Shehab near Syria’s border with Jordan in a large-scale effort today to crack down on the uprising seeking to oust President Assad. Aid workers along the Jordanian border report that opposition fighters are working to keep border crossings open as Syrian soldiers shoot at refugees attempting to flee. The UN reported this week that August has been a record month for refugees, with over 100,000 fleeing Syria over the course of that month alone. A number of Middle East countries reiterated their condemnations of the Syrian regime, with Turkey referring to Syria as a “terrorist state,” Egyptian president Morsi warning Assad that his “time won’t be long,” and Arab foreign ministers denouncing Syria’s “crimes against humanity.” China’s position shifted as well, with officials there saying on Wednesday that “We and many countries support a period of political transition in Syria.” International condemnations of Syria came as the Free Syrian Army announced it would reorganize and restructure: “After a long period, we must restructure the army because we fear the proliferation of militias in Syria and want to preserve the country’s future." In an unusual news conference on Monday, Syrian minister of information Omran al-Zoubi announced that refugees were welcome to return “at any time.” Al-Zoubi went on to deride Egypt and Turkey for their condemnations of the Syrian government and called the opposition unfit for negotiations.

U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Iraq. Three U.S. senators, Joseph Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain met privately with Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday to discuss Iranian flights over Iraqi airspace suspected of carrying weapons to the Assad regime in Syria. The flights were reportedly suspended in March, following American objections, but resumed in July. The senators warned that Baghdad risked damaging relations with the United States if it allows Iran to use Iraqi airspace to fly arms to Syria. Iraqi officials claimed that there was no evidence that the flights carried arms and therefore cannot take strict measures.

Quotes of the Week

  • "The massacres in Syria that gain strength from the international community’s indifference are continuing to increase…The regime in Syria has now become a terrorist state." – Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling AK Party on Wednesday
  • “Why should Russia be the only one reassessing its position? Perhaps our negotiating partners should reassess their position…Because if you recall what happened in recent years... you will see that far from all of our partners’ initiatives ended the way they wanted them to.” – Russian president Vladimir Putin told Russia Today television in regards to Syria on Thursday
  • “The clock is ticking at a different pace [for the United States and Israel]." – Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak speaking about differences between the two countries over Iran to a meeting of his Independence party

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

West Bank. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told reporters at the Arab League on Wednesday that he intends to seek a statehood upgrade at the United Nations General Assembly later this month. The announcement was preceded by Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby announcing that the Arab League supports the move, although such status is “not a definitive label” and that hopefully “circumstances will allow Palestine to become a fully-fledged member.” Meanwhile, Abbas said that the "Palestinian Spring" had begun, as Palestinian protests erupted in the West Bank over rising commodity prices.

Libya. Muammar Qaddafi’s former spy chief Abdullah al-Senussi was extradited back to Libya from Mauritania on Wednesday. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Senussi and has been trying to gain custody of him. Libyan officials are determined to see Senussi tried domestically. Libyan prime minister Abdurrahim el-Keib told reporters in Tripoli that Senussi “will have a fair trial according to international standards for human rights, the rights from which Libyans were deprived.”

This Week in History

This week marks the eighth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which aimed to remove all foreign forces from Lebanon and strengthen the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence. The resolution, passed on September 2, 2004, called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon, the disbanding and disarmament of Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, the extension of the control of the government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory, and free and fair presidential elections. Implementation stalled until the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, after which Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon. Presidential elections were held in 2008, leading to the election of General Michael Sleiman. However, the delineation of the Syrian-Lebanese border and the disbanding and disarming of militias has yet to take place.

Statistic of the Week

The Israel Democracy Institute published its annual Democracy Index today of Israel’s population based on a representative sample of 1,025 respondents aged eighteen and older. The survey addressed how Israelis feel about their government, finding that while 59 percent do not think the government is handling the country’s problems well, 75.6 percent are optimistic about Israel’s future. The survey also found just 22.5 percent of Jewish respondents believe a peace deal will be signed with the Palestinians, while 38.7 percent of Israeli Arabs believe a peace deal will be reached.

Postcript. Middle East Matters bids au revoir to Kelley Calkins, who has served the past two years as a CFR Research Associate. Kelley was integral to this blog’s creation and its ongoing publishing. Kelley is headed off for international adventure and will be sorely missed by me and everyone at CFR.