Significant Middle East Developments
Syria. At least twenty-five people were killed, and dozens more injured, by a bomb attack in Damascus today. It was the second bombing to take place in Syria’s capital in two weeks. The attack came just over a week after a delegation of Arab League observers entered Syria. Human rights organizations claim that at least three hundred people have been killed since the delegation arrived. Syrian activists on the ground have accused the Syrian regime of manipulating and misleading the observer mission. Qatar’s prime minister admitted that the Arab League mission had made mistakes, and said that he was seeking technical assistance from the UN to evaluate and improve the mission. The Arab Parliament, an Arab advisory body, has urged the Arab League to end the monitors’ mission in Syria, saying the mission has failed to end the bloodshed in the country. After losing confidence in the Arab League monitoring effort, the Free Syrian Army announced that it would escalate its military efforts against the regime, ending its previously announced unilateral halt to operations. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition continues to struggle to overcome its internal divisions. Last weekend, the two largest opposition groups, the SNC and the NCB, signed an accord to form a coalition. By Wednesday, the agreement had fallen apart. I discuss the Arab League monitor mission in a radio interview available here.
Iraq. Violence also escalated in Iraq this week. A wave of bombings has swept the country since U.S. troops left on December 18. At least seventy-two people died in coordinated bomb attacks against Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad on Thursday, in what some analysts are calling the most violent day in the country in over a year. Explosions struck two Shiite areas in Baghdad early in the morning and were followed up that afternoon by a suicide attack on pilgrims heading for Karbala, in which forty-five people were killed. The violence continued today with another attack on Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad, which killed two and injured seven.
Israel and Palestine. Jordan hosted Israeli and Palestinian officials in Amman for the first face-to-face meeting of their respective negotiators in sixteen months. The Palestinians declined to call them negotiations, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas warned that he would break off the talks and take "hard measures" unless Israel agreed to freeze settlement construction and accept the 1967 Green Line as the basis for a two-state solution by January 26. While media reports highlighted the fact that there were no breakthroughs, none were expected. The fact that the two sides met at all suggests an interest by each of them in reengaging. The State Department yesterday announced that Jordan would host a second round of Israeli-Palestinian meetings on Monday, January 9.
Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments
In a further escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran, President Obama signed into law on Saturday biting sanctions on the Islamic Republic. These sanctions, targeting Iran’s central bank, suggest the administration is committed to ramping up the pressure against Iran’s nuclear development program. The latest sanctions were part of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act that was passed by Congress in December. As discussed by my colleagues James Lindsay and Bob McMahon in their The World Next Week podcast, Iran has responded to this move with continued threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, calling the sanctions “an economic war.” Though Iran is unlikely to follow through with the threats, such talk is destabilizing to oil and financial markets. Iran has also announced it would conduct another round of military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz.
On Tuesday, the White House slammed the violence in Syria and said that the president has taken “no options off the table.” White House press secretary Jay Carney said that it is “past time for the Security Council to act.” The UN Security Council has been paralyzed thus far in attempts to condemn the violence due to Russia’s threat of a veto. The U.S. call for Security Council action echoes a similar call from France.
Quotes of the Week
- “[Israel] has no choice but to overhaul the rules [now that Sgt. Gilad Schalit has been freed]…We have to get off the slippery slope we ventured on 25 years ago.” – Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday after receiving the recommendations of the committee tasked with setting out guidelines on dealing with abducted soldiers
- “We are determined to prevent a regional Cold War. Sectarian regional tensions would be suicide for the whole region." – Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu to a state-run Anatolian news agency on Wednesday before heading to Iran
- "In my judgment, [Iran] is the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security," - Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper in a Calgary radio station interview
While We Were Looking Elsewhere
Egypt. The trial of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resumed this week. The chief prosecutor accused Mubarak of tyranny and corruption and of spending the last ten years ensuring his son would succeed him. Mubarak was also accused of making an explicit decision for security forces to use live ammunition against protesters on January 27, 2011. On Thursday, in light of these accusations, the chief prosecutor called for the death penalty. My colleague Elliott Abrams recommends against the death penalty for Mubarak in a recent blog post.
Libya. Gun battles raged in Tripoli this week between two former rebel factions, killing four militia members and wounding five others. Disbanding the various armed factions of former revolutionary fighters before the country slides into civil war is one of the most important and immediate concerns for Libya’s interim government, and will be one of the main tasks of Yussef al-Mangush, the newly appointed chief of staff of the Libyan army.
This Week in History
This week marks the sixty-second anniversary of the beginning of negotiations for an armistice agreement between Israel and Egypt. On January 5, 1949, Egypt, whose forces in the Gaza Strip were in danger of being cut off, agreed to conduct negotiations moderated by Dr. Ralph Bunche. The talks between the two countries were held on the island of Rhodes one week later. Israel’s armistice agreement with Egypt was followed by similar agreements in 1949 with Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. At the time, it was expected that peace agreements would soon follow. It took more than thirty years and three more wars for Israel and Egypt to make peace, and almost fifty years before a peace treaty was signed between Israel and Jordan. Israel still maintains armistice agreements with Syria and Lebanon. Despite the durability of these original 1949 armistice agreements, they failed to anticipate the centrality of the Palestinian issue that would come to dominate Israeli-Arab relations in subsequent years.
Statistic of the Week
The UN’s human rights office criticized Saudi Arabia for its sharp rise in executions over the past year. Amnesty International reports that there were 70 executions in the kingdom in 2011.