from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Lebanon Erupts, Syria Boils, and Egypt Builds Up

August 23, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Lebanon. Renewed clashes broke out today in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawites, despite a ceasefire brokered yesterday. Since fighting first erupted four days ago, fifteen people have died and nearly one hundred have been injured. Prime Minister Najib Mikati voiced concern on Wednesday over "efforts to drag Lebanon more and more into the conflict in Syria when what is required is for leaders to cooperate ... to protect Lebanon from the danger.” This week’s clashes follow an outbreak of violence in June that killed fifteen people in addition to a number of retaliatory kidnappings of Lebanese citizens in Syria and Syrians residing in Lebanon.

Syria. Syrian tanks and troops today swept into Daraya, a town near Damascus, after a twenty-four hour assault with artillery and helicopter gunships. Fifteen residents were killed in the attack with over 150 people wounded, bringing the total number of Syrians killed today to over 100. Over 200 people were killed across the country yesterday. This followed Monday and Tuesday’s attacks on the Damascus suburb of Moudamiya in which 86 people were killed. Amidst the violence, the Syrian government announced it was ready to cooperate with the new UN envoy, Lakdhar Brahimi, who took up the post previously held by Kofi Annan. Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad told reporters in Damascus today that “we have informed the United Nations that we accept the appointment of Mr. Brahimi” and hoped the envoy would help pave the way for a “national dialogue.” Meanwhile, Russian media reported Wednesday that Moscow had received guarantees that Syria would not use its chemical weapons. President Obama, along with British prime minister David Cameron, had reiterated their stance that Syria’s use of chemical weapons was “completely unacceptable” and that the United States would be forced to pursue a new course of action if Syria threatened to use them. The UN also pointed its finger at Iran over its arm supplies to Syria with UN undersecretary Jeffrey Feltman telling the Security Council that "The secretary-general has repeatedly expressed his concern about the arms flows to the two parties in Syria, which in some cases appear to violate resolution 1747 passed by this council banning arms exports under Chapter 7 authority." Despite this, reports emerged yesterday that UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon plans to attend a summit meeting of non-aligned developing nations next week in Tehran, defying the wishes of the United States and Israel. Egyptian president Morsi will also attend, making him the first Egyptian head of state to visit Tehran since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Egypt. An Egyptian military source reported yesterday that Israeli and Egyptian officials have been meeting at the Kerem Shalom crossing to discuss Egypt’s military buildup in the Sinai. Israel publicly denies that Egypt has violated the terms of the Camp David agreement, limiting Egyptian military activity on the Sinai, though some Israeli officials accuse Egypt of moving tanks and other equipment without authorization. Israel’s defense ministry and military have sent a number of messages to Cairo in recent days with the a senior defense ministry official, Amos Gilad, saying yesterday that "When the Egyptians introduce weapons that are not included in the agreement we check it and we talk to the Egyptians about it. We have direct communication with the Egyptians and we have made it clear that we demand a complete adherence to the terms of the peace agreement.” The Sinai buildup, taken with President Morsi’s upcoming visit to Iran next week, has raised concern in Israel given the centrality of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt to its regional security. Meanwhile, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde visited Egypt this week to discuss economic cooperation. The Egyptian government has requested a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF in an effort to restore an economy still reeling from the political turmoil that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak last year. Finally, an Egyptian presidential spokesman announced today that President Morsi will visit the United States on September 23. Morsi will reportedly visit New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly and then visit Washington.

U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Syria Planning in Turkey. Turkish and U.S. officials began their first “operational planning” discussions yesterday over the Syrian crisis in Ankara. The United States sent an interagency team with officials from the State Department, Department of Defense, and the intelligence community. This latest round of consultations follows Secretary Hillary Clinton’s announcement on August 11 from Turkey that the United States was adopting a new approach to the Syrian crisis by pursuing joint efforts with Turkish officials. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday: "[R]emember what the secretary committed to when she was in Istanbul, which was an interagency conversation, U.S. and Turkey sitting down together to share operational picture, to talk about the effectiveness of what we’re doing now, and about what more we can do." Nuland added: "We are doing training on free media, countering the government’s circumvention technology, legal and justice and accountability issues, and how to deal with the crimes that have been committed during this conflict, programs for student activists who are encouraging peaceful protest on the university campuses, programs for women."

Regional Naval Buildup. This week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told members of the USS Stennis aircraft carrier crew that they were needed back in the Middle East. The Navy News Service reported that the crew’s home stay was being cut short so as to respond to the increased concerns in Iran and Syria. At a send-off event in Seattle on Wednesday, Panetta highlighted the need to keep Iran’s nuclear program in check as well as its threats to oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Panetta also pointed to the need to keeping an eye on Syria’s chemical and biological weapons and provide non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition.

Quotes of the Week

  • “Egypt is the cornerstone of the region and has a special stature in the Arab and Muslim countries ... and we want relations of friendship and brotherhood with it,” – Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi in an interview published Tuesday
  • "Haniya and (exiled Hamas chief) Khaled Meshal are leading armed terrorism, Abu Mazen leads diplomatic terrorism and I’m not sure which is more dangerous to us," – Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in a letter to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday
  • "We have to demand that all sides in the [Syria] conflict rigorously respect international humanitarian law which as we can see has fallen apart due to the fault of both warring sides," – Vatican envoy to Syria Mario Zenari told Vatican radio on Wednesday
  • "The arrogant powers are pulling their weight to force Iran to back down (on its stances) and the government should invalidate these illusions by using the nation’s full potentials," – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday in response to Western sanctions on Iran when he called for an “economy of resistance”

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Libya. A spokesperson for the prosecution announced today that slain former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, will be put on trial in September in the Libyan town of Zintan. The International Criminal Court had issued a warrant for Seif’s arrest for crimes against humanity committed during the uprising that ousted his father. However, Libyan authorities have insisted that Seif stand trial in Libya. He has been held in Zintan since November.

Bahrain. A judge overturned a conviction against the noted Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab today. Rajab had been convicted of posting alleged anti-government statements on Twitter. Rajab remains in jail, however, as he is currently appealing another three-year prison sentence for allegedly encouraging demonstrators to clash with security forces.

Tunisia. A group of demonstrators, comprised of journalists and opposition activists, gathered in front of government headquarters yesterday to protest the appointment of a former police chief to lead the state-operated Dar Assabah media group. The protesters accused the government of attempting to control the media in order to influence the country’s upcoming elections.

This Week in History

This week marks the two hundredth anniversary of Petra, the wondrous UNESCO World Heritage archeological site in Jordan. The “rose-red city half as old as time” was once the capital of the Nabataeans, who are believed to have built the city in the fourth century BC. Petra was discovered by twenty-seven year-old Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Burckhardt originally sought to uncover the source of the River Niger. To pursue that effort, he secured funding from Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society and studied Arabic. Burckhardt traveled around Syria, Lebanon, and Petra referring to himself as Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn Abdallah. When he heard of ruins in the mountains from locals, he paid a local guide to take him to the ancient site of Petra. Never discovering the River Niger, Burckhardt passed away from dysentery in Cairo in 1817. Today, Petra is Jordan’s most visited tourist site.

Statistic of the Week

Egypt has seen a wave of sexual harassment this week with thirty-two people being arrested over the course of three days. Various activists and anti-harassment campaigns are calling for a greater crackdown on the harassment with enforcement of harsher penalties. This spate of incidents underscores a previous finding from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights which reported that nearly two-thirds of Egyptian men admitted to having sexually harassed women with only 2.4 percent of women reporting incidents to the police.

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