Significant Middle East Developments
Syria. President Bashar al-Assad gave a rare and defiant speech on Tuesday in which he once again blamed foreign conspirators, lashed out against other Arab states, and vowed to keep fighting ‘terrorists.’ I analyze his speech in a previous blog post available here. The Syrian National Council responded by pledging to continue the revolution and called for the Arab League to refer their plan to the United Nations Security Council. The Arab League continued to vacillate, deciding in an emergency meeting last Saturday to send more observers to Syria, only to then put off the decision on Wednesday after regime supporters attacked some observers. Two monitors quit this week, one citing gross humanitarian violations by the Syrian government. However, the Arab League itself remains divided. Algeria’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that the Syrian regime has taken measures to defuse the crisis and that it is the arming of the opposition that threatens further violence. Meanwhile, a French journalist, Gilles Jacquier, was killed when a shell exploded among a group of reporters on a government sponsored tour in Homs. He is the first Western reporter to die in Syria during the uprising. France immediately demanded an inquiry into the incident.
Iran. A nuclear scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was killed on Tuesday when a magnetic bomb attached to his car exploded, making him the fourth Iranian nuclear expert to be targeted and the third to be killed in the past two years. Iran immediately blamed Israel and the United States and asked the UN on Wednesday for the killings to be condemned “in the strongest terms” as “inhumane terrorist acts.” The Obama administration strongly condemned the assassination and emphatically denied any U.S. involvement. The Iranian newspaper Kayhan, supervised by the Office of the Supreme Leader, called for retaliation against Israel.
Jordan. King Abdullah is scheduled to meet President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, January 17. Meanwhile, Islamists continue to gain some of their former influence under the new government of Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, the jurist who was appointed to improve the government’s relations with the opposition. This week, control of the charity Islamic Center was ceded back to the Muslim Brotherhood after being taken away in 2006. The center provides assistance to thousands of needy families has been central to the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to build support and image. Also this week in Jordan, a second protester publicly immolated himself to protest financial woes.
Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments
The United States continues attempts to drum up international support for more robust sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports. While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was rebuffed in Beijing, he seems to have met with greater success in Japan, which announced on Thursday that it will scale back its imports of Iranian oil. The EU, a significant importer of Iranian oil, is also likely to pass sanctions on Iran’s oil, with Denmark predicting sanctions by the end of January. The new law that Obama signed on December 31 will punish foreign financial institutions that conduct business with Iran.
The United States held its highest-level talks yet with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on Wednesday, when visiting deputy secretary of state William Burns met with leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party. The meeting represents Washington’s shift in policy toward accommodation of the reality that Islamists are coming to power across the region.
Quotes of the Week
- "We have had contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood over the decades through our embassy in Cairo. " – U.S. deputy secretary of state William Burns in an interview on Wednesday with CBC TV
- “It incites violence and confrontation between the parties. It’s a sort of denial of reality.” – French foreign minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday on Bashar al-Assad’s recent speech
- “I don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I certainly am not shedding a tear.”- Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, the chief military spokesman for the IDF, in a Facebook statement.
- “I withdrew because I found myself serving the (Syrian) regime… I was giving the regime a greater chance to continue its killing and I could not prevent that… I spent more than fifteen days in Homs… I saw scenes of horror, burnt bodies… I cannot leave behind my humanity in this sort of situation.” – Anwar Malek, an Algerian member of the Arab League observer mission on why he chose to quit the mission on Tuesday
While We Were Looking Elsewhere
Yemen. On Sunday, Yemen’s cabinet approved a draft law granting former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and anyone who worked under him immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during his rule. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all called on the Yemeni parliament to reject the law as it allows for the evasion of justice. Thousands of Yemenis protested on Thursday against granting Saleh immunity, however the U.S. State Department defended the law saying it had to be passed as it was a crucial part of the GCC-brokered power transfer agreement.
Libya. The Libyan interim government requested and was granted an extension by the ICC until January 23 to clarify the legal status of Seif al-Islam, Muammar Qaddafi’s notorious son. Libya and the ICC are wrestling over whether Qaddafi will be tried in Libya or at The Hague. The question of how to deal with former leaders of oppressive regimes will continue to be a major issue in the Middle East as Hosni Mubarak’s trial drags on in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh remains evasive about his plans to leave Yemen, and of course Bashar al-Assad clings to power as his troops kill forty Syrians a day.
Gaza. Hamas “prime minister” Ismail Haniyeha returned on Tuesday from his first international trip since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. He visited Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkey, and held meeting with senior officials. He is slated to take a second trip later this month to Iran, Qatar, and other Muslim countries.
This Week in History
January 11 marked the tenth anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp’s opening. The Bush administration established the facility in 2002 to hold what it dubbed “unlawful enemy combatants” from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and later Iraq. Upon its establishment, then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld said: “unlawful combatants do not have rights under the Geneva Convention.” From the 1970s until the mid-1990s, Guantanamo Bay was used exclusively as a naval base to house Cuban and Haitian refugees intercepted on the high seas. On January 22, 2009, President Obama announced that the detention facility would be closed within the year. However, in January of 2011, Obama signed the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill which effectively stopped the closure of the detention facility. British prime minister David Cameron announced on Tuesday that Britain was working “very hard” with the United States to help close Guantanamo Bay, though its actual closure is not within sight.
Statistic of the Week
More than a third (37 percent) of the Palestinian public report that their support for Hamas has increased since the landmark prisoner swap deal last October in which more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners were exchanged for Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit. Only 10 percent of the Palestinian public report that their support for Hamas has fallen. These statistics are taken from a quarterly survey carried out by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research released on Tuesday.