from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Torture Report Reactions, Failed Yemen Rescue, and a Deadly Palestinian Protest

December 11, 2014

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United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions


Palestinian Territories


Significant Developments

CIA Torture Report. Official reaction in the Middle East to the release yesterday of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on torture has been muted so far, with protests concentrated primarily on social media. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday said that the report revealed the United States to be a “symbol of tyranny against humanity.” ISIS and al-Qaeda eagerly decreed that the report showed the United States’ hypocrisy, with Dutch jihadist Israfil Yilmaz writing: “They call us monsters? Slap yourself, read some of the @CIA torture reports and wake up.” Yemen’s legal advisor Nazeeh Alemad said the publication of the report “makes no difference” as “people here [in Yemen] are not looking for more proof of torture [...] they deal with it as a fact.” He added, “what makes a difference is what happens here, not some report published over there.” Secretary of State John Kerry had urged Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein to delay the publication of the report, Kerry warning that its release would have adverse foreign policy implications for the United States’ “ongoing efforts aginst ISIL and the safety of Americans being held hostage around the world.”

Yemen. U.S. hostage Luke Somers was killed on Saturday night by militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during a rescue attempt by an American Special Operations team. A South African hostage, Pierre Korkie, was also killed. Nasr bin Ali Al-Ansi, a top AQAP commander in Yemen, blamed President Obama today for the death of the two hostages, describing the rescue attempt as an “execution order” and warning the president that al-Qaeda would “continue to put the lives of all Americans in danger inside and outside of America […].” Earlier in the week, Al-Ansi denounced the act and promotion of beheading prisoners as “barbaric” and “not acceptable whatever the justifications are” in response to a reporter questioning whether al-Qaida was mirroring ISIS’ tactics.

Israel-Palestine. Thousands of Palestinians marched to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s headquarters in Ramallah today as part of the funeral procession of senior Fatah official Ziad Abu Ein. He died yesterday after inhaling tear gas and a violent altercation with Israeli security forces during a protest in the West Bank to mark International Human Rights Day. Abbas called Abu Ein’s death “an intolerable crime in every sense of the word.” However, the autopsy report on the cause of death was interpreted differently by Israeli and Palestinian forensic experts today. According to the Israeli forensic expert today, the cause of death was a stress related heart attack. The Palestinian expert, Dr. Saber al-Aloul, determined that Abu Ein died of violence and not natural causes, due to wounds and bruises on his teeth, neck, tongue and windpipe. A spokesperson for the Palestinian government, Ehab Bessio, stated earlier: “Today, based on the autopsy results, we hold the Israeli government accountable for the murder of Ziad Abu Ein.”

Israel. Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni announced yesterday that they intend to run on a joint ticket in the upcoming March 17 Israeli elections in an effort to deny Benjamin Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister. Herzog leads Israel’s center-left Labor Party, which currently has 15 seats in the 120-member parliament. Livni, who was dismissed as justice minister by Netanyahu last week, leads the centrist Hatnua party, which has six seats in parliament. Livni and Herzog are proposing to rotate in the role of prime minister, with Herzog serving the first two years of the term and Livni taking over for the second two.

U.S. Foreign Policy

ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, where he requested that Congress refrain from banning the use of ground forces to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Kerry stated that “the president has been crystal clear that his policy is that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations […], [but] it doesn’t mean that we should pre-emptively bind the hands of […] our commanders in the field in responding to scenarios […] that are impossible to foresee.”

Iraq. Unspecified allies in the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS pledged on Monday to send 1,500 military troops to support American military advisors in Iraq. American officials declined to identify the countries contributing the additional forces. The United States has already guaranteed to send 3,000 soldiers to train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish troops. The new pledge would bring the total number of military advisors to 4,500. Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi requested that the United States provide additional air power and heavy weaponry during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Tuesday. Hagel was visiting Baghdad to discuss the military progress against ISIS.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Israel-Syria. Syria’s Armed Forces General Command confirmed Sunday that Israeli warplanes earlier in the day struck at least two areas near Damascus, including the international airport. The Syrian Army stated that the attack “proves Israel’s direct involvement in supporting terrorists in Syria,” while Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers called it an act of “aggression.” Israeli officials neither confirmed nor denied reports of the attacks, though Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Tuesday that Israel “will not allow red lines to be crossed that endanger Israel’s security.” Syria did not retaliate, but called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to impose sanctions on Israel.

Iran. A UN Panel of Experts report on Iran alleges that Qassem Soleimani, leader of the military Quds force, has been photographed in Iraq where he is allegedly providing assistance to militants fighting ISIS. The Quds force is the international branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Soleimani’s presence in Iraq is a violation of an international travel ban and asset freeze imposed upon him by the UN Security Council since 2007. Under this resolution, UN member states must prevent blacklisted individuals from entering their state. Iraqi diplomats have not respondent to questions.

Syria. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, announced on Tuesday that the number of Syrian refugees to be resettled in third countries outside the region will double. The pledge comes after twenty-eight countries pledged to accept over 60,000 refugees and eleven more states agreed to investigate the possibility of expanding their current resettlement programs. Meanwhile, the UN World Food Program announced on Monday that it will resume its food voucher program for Syrian refugees after its online campaign raised $80 million. The funds raised will enable the UN to sustain the program from mid-December until January. However, UN emergency aid coordinator Valerie Amos warned on Monday that without further large contributions from donors, the World Food Program would be “lurching from month to month.”

Bahrain. Two deadly bombs exploded in Bahrain in less than twenty-four hours earlier this week. The first explosion killed a policeman in Damistan, a village southwest of Manama, the Bahraini capital on Monday. The second explosion detonated on Tuesday in Karzakan, southwest of Mananma, killing a Bahraini national and injuring another civilian. Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa held Hezbollah responsible for making the bombs used in the attack on Monday, and called the explosions a “terrorist act.” Bahrain’s main Shia opposition group Al-Wefaq publicly distanced itself from the attack.

Libya. UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon announced on Monday that the UN would postpone talks to end the political crisis in Libya until next week. The talks, which were scheduled to begin on Tuesday, have been deferred to give the two rival political factions a longer opportunity to construct a compromise. The internationally recognized government exiled in Tobruq, and Libya Dawn, the armed groups allied with the self-declared Islamist-affiliated authority in Tripoli led by Omar Hassi, refused on Sunday to include the other party in discussions with the UN.

Palestine. The 122 members of the Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court (ICC) awarded the Palestinian delegation “observer status at their annual meeting on Monday. The move is mostly symbolic and gives Palestine the same status as the United States which is not a signatory. Palestinian ambassador Riyad H. Mansour said that the Palestinians “want to strengthen [their] presence in international fora, […] not only in the General Assembly.”

Qatar. High-level officials from the Gulf states arrived in Doha on Tuesday for the start of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in Qatar. The diplomats included Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. This meeting was scheduled after Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reinstated their ambassadors in Qatar last month.

U.A.E. A court sentenced eleven people to prison terms between three years and life for attempting to establish an al-Qaeda affiliate group in the United Arab Emirates. They were also charged for joining al-Qaeda affiliate groups al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham in Syria. Four defendants were acquitted, and the accused denied all charges brought against them.