from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Syria Stonewalls and Iran Accuses

December 9, 2011

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Anti-government protesters pray next to the bodies of people who were among the Sunni Muslims killed on Wednesday, in Hula near Homs November 2, 2011. Syrian activists said on Wednesday that security forces shot dead at least 11 villagers at a roadblock near Homs (Courtesy Reuters). 

Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. Events in Syria continue to take center stage. While Syrian president Bashar al-Assad proclaimed in a lengthy interview with Barbara Walters (my thoughts on what Bashar revealed in the interview can be found here) that only “crazy leaders” kill their own people, dozens of bodies were dumped into the city square in Homs. At least thirty people were killed in Homs on Monday alone (some estimates are much higher), and estimates put more than sixty people killed this week nationwide. The Syrian National Council also claims that Homs has been encircled by Syrian forces.

Meanwhile, Syria continues to dance around the Arab League’s proposal that calls for international observers. The Arab League’s latest deadline for Syria to accept its plan expired last Sunday. With the threat of additional sanctions looming, Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moallem sent a letter responding positively to the request to send international observers. However, he conditioned Syria’s response on certain amendments, most notably a demand that Arab League sanctions adopted on November 27 be nullified immediately. Arab League secretary general Nabil Al-Araby responded, stating on Thursday “the ball is in the Syrian court…[If] they want to stop the economic sanctions, they sign.”

Iran. Also significant this week was the verbal sparring back and forth between Tehran and Washington following the crash in Iran of a drone that was recovered by the Iranian military on Sunday. While the Iranian military claimed to have brought the drone down, initially the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan suggested that it might have been an unarmed U.S. drone that went missing in western Afghanistan last week. Reports since surfaced that the drone was a part of a covert U.S. surveillance program to keep watch on Iran’s nuclear program. The Foreign Ministry on Thursday submitted a written complaint to the Swiss Tehran embassy, custodian of U.S. interests in the country, in which it held the United States fully responsible and called the act a violation of all international laws and regulations.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with seven representatives of the Syrian National Council (SNC) in Geneva on Tuesday. It was the second meeting Clinton has held with the Syrian opposition since President Obama called on Assad to step down in August. In response to the opposition members’ calls for U.S. recognition of the council, Clinton suggested they focus on outreach to minority groups and protecting universal rights.

“If Syrians unite, they together can succeed in moving their country to that better future,” Clinton said. “We are well aware that there is a lot of hard work to be done. There are many Syrians in exile. We are committed to helping their country make this transition.”

Clinton’s statements and meeting with the opposition leaders ratchet up U.S. support for the opposition movement, which welcomed the nearly simultaneous announcement of the return of U.S. ambassador Robert Ford to Syria. The SNC’s president Burhan Ghalioun pledged to cut ties with Iran once Assad has been deposed. For the time being, the United States has focused its attention primarily on more immediate issues such as protecting civilians and minorities, pushing for unity within the opposition, and trying to deter an ugly sectarian civil war.

Quotes of the Week

  • “What can Iran do with a nuclear weapon? For example, will they hit Israel? How many Palestinians will die? And if you think Iran hits Israel, their cities will be safe? They will be gone the next day.”- Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE to CNN

  • “Our efforts and those of the world have failed to convince Israel to abandon its weapons of mass destruction, as well as Iran... therefore it is our duty toward our nation and people to consider all possible options, including the possession of these weapons.” - Former intelligence chief prince Turki al-Faisal told a security forum in Riyadh on Monday.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Jordan. Nearly seven months after Jordan’s request to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)--the loose economic and political bloc that consists of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE--the Saudi ambassador in Amman reassured the Jordanians that their membership bid is on track. Morocco is also under consideration for this first GCC expansion from its original six founding Gulf states.

The other news from the Hashemite kingdom came with a Foreign Ministry announcement that Jordan’s trade and aviation sectors would be severely harmed by enforcing the recent Arab League sanctions on Syria. Jordan follows Iraq and Lebanon, which both also claim that important trade relations with Syria are vital to their own economies.

Palestine. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas vowed, in a meeting with visiting assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman on Monday, that the Palestinian effort for full membership at the UN would continue. He also reiterated his position that negotiations with Israel could not resume until the Israelis freeze settlement activity.

This Week in History

This week marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the first Palestinian intifada. The first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, lasted from 1987 until 1993. In the twenty years that followed Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the armistice lines between those territories and Israel had been largely erased. Some 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel daily, while Israelis traveled freely and settled throughout the occupied territories. Yet the facade of tranquility masked a festering frustration among Palestinians with the Israeli occupation, which the first intifada revealed. The intifada was marked both by Palestinian nonviolent civil disobedience--boycotts, demonstrations, and graffiti--and more violent acts such as stone-throwing, kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, and Molotov cocktail and grenade attacks. By the end of the six years of unrest, Israelis had killed more than one thousand Palestinians and Palestinians had killed one hundred sixty Israelis. The first Intifada was also marked by significant intra-Palestinian violence; some estimate that Palestinians killed more than 1,100 additional Palestinians—primarily those accused of collaborating with Israelis. Though the first intifada ended in 1993 and helped precipitate the signing of the Oslo Accords, a more lethal and violent form of it erupted with the second intifada, or Al-Aqsa intifada, which broke out in September 2000, after more than two weeks of nonstop negotiations at Camp David failed to produce a peace agreement.

Statistic of the Week

A Rasmussen Report released on Tuesday finds that 55 percent of Americans believe that the United States should never have become involved in Iraq.