from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Syria at Center Stage as Iran Talks Drag On

May 16, 2013

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Significant Developments

Syria. Israel publicly warned Syrian president Bashar Assad to stop transferring advanced weapons to Hezbollah yesterday. In an unusual move, a senior Israeli official contacted the New York Times on Wednesday and was then quoted by the paper saying that “Israel is determined to continue to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah,” arguing that such a move would destabilize the region. The Israeli official warned further: “If Syrian president Assad reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through his terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution yesterday condemning Syrian authorities and calling for a “political transition” to end the violence in Syria. The resolution passed by a vote of 107-12 with 59 abstentions, less than the 133 votes a similar resolution received last August. In introducing the debate, Vuk Jeremic, president of the General Assembly, raised the official UN death toll to more than eighty thousand people.

Iran. European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met Iranian envoy and presidential candidate Saeed Jalili in Istanbul last night. Ashton called the dinner meeting “useful” but announced no plans for a new round of negotiations. Earlier in the day, a senior UN official announced that talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency had failed to break ground on resuming an investigation into “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile two big-name candidates registered as candidates for Iran’s presidential elections just before the deadline on Saturday: former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is close to President Ahmadinejad.

Turkey-Syria. The Turkish government blamed Syria earlier in the week for two car bomb explosions that killed at least forty-six people in Reyhanli, a border town in Turkey. It was one of the deadliest terror attacks on Turkish soil. Officials in Turkey announced that they had arrested nine people on Sunday; all the detainees were Turkish citizens and a number of them confessed to links to Syrian intelligence services.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Talking Syria. President Barack Obama met with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House today to discuss Syria. In a joint press conference, Obama said that there is no “magic formula” for the situation in Syria. Earlier in the week, the president hosted British prime minister David Cameron who visited the White House to discuss Syria and the upcoming G8. Both leaders emphasized, in press conference remarks, the urgency of ending the fighting in Syria; Cameron noted that “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” Acknowledging the difficulty of finding a diplomatic solution, Obama said that “It’s going to be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.” Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry sounded cautiously optimistic about plans for an international peace conference to bring together figures from the Syrian opposition and regime. At a press conference in Stockholm on Tuesday, Kerry said that “progress is being made” and the Syrian government had given names of officials who would attend to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Egypt. Gaza’s interior ministry announced a state of alert along its border with Egypt after unidentified gunmen abducted seven Egyptian security officers in the Sinai Peninsula early today. The seven security personnel were in taxis outside of the city of El Arish when masked gunmen ambushed them. Egyptian security officials said that they had been in contact with the kidnappers and that the abduction may have been related to anger over claims that an imprisoned militant had been tortured.

Libya. Libyan officials claimed that a bomb blast in Benghazi that killed three people on Monday could have been an accident instead of a deliberate car bombing. Libyan interior minister Ashur Shwayel said that “all signs point to an accidental explosion.” The car was transporting explosives used to make anti-tank mines when it exploded outside of a hospital.

Yemen. Three kidnapped Red Cross employees were released yesterday by Yemeni tribesmen in the southern province of Abyan. The three men were abducted on Monday. Two Egyptian technicians who had been abducted last week by the same tribe were also released.

Iraq. Bombings in Baghdad and attacks in northern Iraq killed at least seventeen people today, in the latest surge of violence in the past several weeks. More than thirty-five people were killed yesterday as a result of bombings in Baghdad and Kirkuk that seemingly targeted Iraq’s Shiite population.

Bahrain. A court in Bahrain sentenced six people to jail for insulting King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on Twitter. The six were convicted for the “misuse of freedom of expression.” One of those convicted was Mahdi al-Basri, who did not send any tweets, but served as a lawyer for a community account that wrote the offending tweets.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of a short-lived U.S.-mediated Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement. On May 17, 1983, Lebanon and Israel signed a peace accord ending the state of war between the two countries since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The 1983 agreement, coming on the heels of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon the previous year, called for a phased Israeli withdrawal from the country and was a product of negotiations held over thirty-five sessions between December 1982 and May 1983. Israel’s withdrawal was contingent on a Syrian withdrawal; however, Syria refused to recognize the agreement and nearly forty thousand Syrian troops remained in northern Lebanon. In March 1984, under pressure from Syria, the Lebanese government cancelled the peace agreement with Israel.