Middle East Matters This Week: Iraq Withdrawal While Russia Gets Tough
from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Iraq Withdrawal While Russia Gets Tough


Soldiers at Fort Bragg take pictures as President Obama speaks during his visit to North Carolina on December 14, 2011. The visit is seen as a symbolic end to the war in Iraq (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Iraq. This week marks the end of the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq. Baghdad is also making news for taking on an increased role in attempting to negotiate an Arab-led solution to the conflict in Syria. On Thursday, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki said that he had informed the Arab League that he will send a delegation to Syria in order to pursue an Iraqi-led initiative to end the unrest. Maliki has warned that should Assad fall, a civil war may break out. Iraq has so far abstained from the Arab League votes suspending and imposing sanctions upon Syria. In late September, Malaki said that he believed “Syria will be able to overcome its crisis through reforms” in a rejection of U.S. calls for Assad to step down.

Syria. In an unexpected move Thursday evening, Russia submitted a new draft resolution to the UN Security Council criticizing the violence in Syria. The move was surprising given Russia’s veto in October of a West European resolution condemning Syrian government violence. Russia previously circulated two draft resolutions, most recently in September. These were rejected as too weak by a number of Western countries. The new Russian draft resolution was deemed by the United States as sufficiently robust for it to serve as the basis for further negotiations, particularly for its reference to the “disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities.” The draft also “urges the Syrian government to put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.” This increased pressure from Russia toward the Assad regime is a significant increase in Syria’s international isolation for Assad’s brutal crackdown which has killed more than five thousand Syrians to date.

Israel. Settler violence against both the Palestinians as well as against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) increased this week. Early Tuesday, some fifty settlers broke into an IDF base in the West Bank, burned tires, spread nails on the roads, and vandalized cars hours after the IDF removed twenty activists from a building they had infiltrated along the Israeli- Jordanian border. In separate incidents, extremists burned and vandalized two mosques on Thursday. In response, Israeli president Shimon Peres said "Israel has always been proud of protecting all of the holy sites. Today, when the Muslim world is where it is, to give them justification to attack Israel is a disaster, it’s crazy and it must stopped." Prime Minister Netanyahu also condemned the actions and called for them to stop immediately.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two new measures to impose tough sanctions on Iran in overwhelming votes, 410-11 and 418-2 respectively. The first measure would punish countries and companies that invest in Iran’s energy sector, provide it with gas, or assist in any way with Tehran’s ability to develop biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons or advanced conventional arms. The second measure targets countries and companies that help Iran, North Korea, or Syria advance their efforts to acquire nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons or to develop their missile programs. The nearly unanimous House votes represent concerns among policymakers that time is running out before Iran successfully develops a nuclear weapon. The Senate is not likely to act on the legislation before the end of the present congressional session.

On Wednesday, President Obama heralded the end of the nearly nine-year war in Iraq by greeting a crowd of veterans at Fort Bragg. The last American combat troops will leave Iraq by December 31, leaving behind just a few hundred personnel to assist in arms sales and training. The Obama administration is highlighting the end of the Iraq war as fulfillment of his 2008 campaign promise.

Quotes of the Week

  • "A long time has passed since the Camp David accord was signed, and like the other agreements it needs to be reviewed, and this is in the hands of the parliament…The brotherhood believes the treaty is of great importance, but it is not on the top of our list. There are other priorities for the time being… Generally, Israel does not honor the agreement.” - Mahmoud Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary general told Asharq al-Awsat on Friday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Israel. Israel’s new ambassador to Egypt, Yaakov Amitai, arrived in Cairo on Monday, three months after the Israeli embassy there was ransacked by a crowd of Egyptian protesters. The Israeli embassy facility has been deemed insufficiently secure for Israeli personnel to return. While the search for a new embassy location is underway, Amitai will work from his residence.

In other news from Israel, the second phase of the Israeli-Hamas prisoner swap will commence shortly. The Israeli prison service notified detainees who will be released that they will be let go on Sunday.

Libya. Nearly two hundred protesters gathered in Benghazi to protest against the National Transitional Council after council head Abdel Jalil appealed to the nation to forgive pro-Qaddafi fighters.

Iran. Iran’s parliament passed a free trade bill with Syria on Tuesday as an emergency reaction to Western-imposed sanctions.

Bahrain. Bahraini security forces employed tear gas and stun grenades to disperse hundreds of anti-government demonstrators who were marching to Manama on Thursday. The protests mark social media activists’ efforts to occupy a highway that connects a number of predominantly Shiite villages west of Manama. A large police presence has been reported in a number of towns.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the extension of Israeli law to the Golan Heights. On December 14, 1981, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin pushed a measure through parliament, the Golan Heights Law, stating that "the law, jurisdiction and administration of the state shall apply to the Golan Heights." Israel had held the 454 square miles of land under military occupation since capturing it from Syria in 1967. The move to extend the law to the Golan was immediately condemned by the UN Security Council. Numerous subsequent Israeli prime ministers have explored returning the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a peace treaty, but Israeli-Syrian negotiations have failed to conclude a deal.

Statistic of the Week

The secretary general of the Council of Arab Economic Unity, Mohamed al-Rabei, announced on Wednesday that financial losses suffered by Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria as a result of the Arab uprisings have thus far totaled 100 billion dollars.