from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Failed Conciliation in Syria, Gaza, and Bahrain

January 20, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. With scores of Syrians killed daily, the Arab League received its observer mission’s much awaited report on Thursday. Human Rights Watch urged the Arab League to "publicly release the mission’s final report and to specifically report on whether the Syrian government is complying with the protocol and whether and how the Syrian government is interfering with the work of the mission." The report came just four days after Russia presented a new draft resolution to the UN Security Council that Western diplomats called negligibly different from the draft submitted by Russia in December. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that “more work needs to be done from what we’ve seen so far,” while France called the draft “very far from responding to the reality of the situation in Syria.” Germany slammed Russia for making a “deliberate decision” to back the Assad regime. China, on the other hand, expressed its appreciation for Russia’s “constructive efforts to overcome the crisis in Syria, and is willing to continue participating in consultations on the basis of Russia’s draft (resolution).” With the observers’ mandate expired, the Arab League is slated to meet on Sunday to decide whether to renew the mission or move forward with other possible next steps.

Gaza. Hamas “prime minister” Ismail Haniyeh called on Islamic Jihad Tuesday to join in an in-depth dialogue over possibly joining forces. The call for unity came a few days after Hamas militants brutally attacked a gathering of Shi’ite worshippers in Gaza, arresting fourteen of them. Islamic Jihad reportedly now contains a group of converts to Shia Islam. Meanwhile, Hamas officials reported that reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah are stalled and continue to be plagued by mistrust. Rumors continue to swirl over a possible shakeup within Hamas and whether Hamas chief Khaled Mashal will step down in the next few months.

Bahrain. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced constitutional amendments on Sunday providing members of parliament limited powers to question cabinet ministers and protection from royal dismissal. The announcement came less than two months after the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released a report that documented numerous human rights abuses by state security forces in putting down February and March protests. Many opposition figures criticized the king’s move as cosmetic. In a statement, al-Wefaq, the largest legal opposition group, said that the speech was “far from the demands of the Bahraini people who have taken to the streets for months to demand democratic transformation and to reject the dictatorship.” Meanwhile police used stun grenades to disperse anti-government protests in Manama on Wednesday, the day before Bahrain was set to host an international three-day air show, the first large-scale international event the country has hosted since unrest first hit the kingdom last February.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

President Obama hosted Jordan’s king Abdullah at the White House on Tuesday. The meeting reportedly centered on joint efforts to ratchet up the pressure on Syria’s Assad regime. After the meeting, the president said that the United States would work closely with Jordan to “create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourages the current Syrian regime to step aside” and praised Abdullah for being the first Arab leader to call on Assad to step down. The two leaders also reportedly discussed Jordanian-led efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Israeli and Palestinian officials continue to meet in Amman under Jordanian auspices, with Palestinian officials refusing to call the meetings “negotiations.”

Quotes of the Week

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Egypt. On Saturday, former head of the IAEA and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei announced that he will not run for the Egyptian presidency. ElBaradei declared that the SCAF was still running Egypt “as if the revolution did not take place.” ElBaradei’s supporters declared on Thursday that festivities planned by the government to celebrate the new holiday of January 25 are “fake celebrations,” joining the chorus of at least 54 groups calling for massive demonstrations on the anniversary of the revolution’s outbreak to call for a swift transfer of power. Seeking to avoid any potential incidents on the one-year anniversary of the revolution, Israeli ambassador Yaakov Amitai left Cairo for Tel Aviv on Thursday and does not plan to return until after January 25.

Algeria. Members of Al-Qaeda’s North African branch kidnapped an Algerian governor, Mohamed Laid Khelfi, on Monday. The governor was then released on Wednesday. While the circumstances surrounding his abduction remain unclear, the incident will exacerbate existing concerns that the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi has contributed to a more hospitable environment for Islamist insurgents throughout North Africa.

This Week in History

Amidst escalating Iranian-U.S. tensions, today marks the thirty-first anniversary of the end to the Iranian hostage crisis that bedeviled the Carter administration. After being held for 444 days, fifty-two American hostages were finally released to the United States on January 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. The crisis began on November 4, 1979 when a group of Iranian students and militants, expressing solidarity with the revolution, overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took U.S. embassy guards and staff hostage. President Carter called the hostages “victims of terrorism and anarchy.” When initial attempts to negotiate the hostages’ release failed, the United States launched a military rescue operation on April 24, 1980 dubbed “Operation Eagle Claw.” The mission was a complete failure, resulting in the death of eight American servicemen, one Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two U.S. military aircraft. The crisis, concluded with the signing of the Algiers Accord in Algeria on January 19, 1981, was a blow to U.S. influence in the region and U.S. attempts to stymie the Iranian Revolution.

Statistic of the Week

The Egyptian state-run media service, Al-Ahram, quoted Tourism Minister Mounir Abdel Nour saying that the number of tourists traveling to Egypt has dropped 33 percent (from 14.7 million to 9.8 million) since 2010.

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