from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Syria’s Regime Advances, Israel and Gaza Clash

March 15, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. As Syrians marked the one-year anniversary of the outbreak of protests in their country, Bashar al-Assad’s forces appeared to be gaining momentum. Over the course of the week, regime forces went on the offensive into Idlib and Dara’a. On Thursday, nearly one thousand Syrian refugees poured into Turkey. Ankara has announced plans to build a new refugee camp to house up to twenty thousand people. In addition to the estimated eight thousand Syrians who have died since the unrest began, around 1.4 million more are at risk of going hungry according to the UN World Food Program.

On the diplomatic front, UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan presented a proposal to Bashar al-Assad last weekend to halt the unrest, to which Assad reportedly asked for clarifications and raised conditions for his accession to any arrangement that includes an opposition ceasefire and an explicit halt to outside arming and funding of the Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the Netherlands, and Italy all closed their embassies in Damascus this week joining the United States, Britain, France, and Spain in withdrawing their diplomatic staff. At the same time, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov received a testy reception when he visited Arab League headquarters last Saturday in Cairo. He nonetheless succeeded in convincing the Arab League to agree to five principles for a Syrian settlement: an end to all violence, an impartial monitoring mechanism, no outside interference, unimpeded humanitarian access into Syria, and support for Kofi Annan’s diplomatic efforts. In agreeing to these principles, the Arab League has dropped its collective insistence that Bashar al-Assad step down as part of a settlement. He also discussed Syria in his meeting with Secretary of State Clinton (see Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy developments below).

Israel. Gaza militants and the Israeli air force continued to exchange fire today, despite an Egyptian-mediated truce announced on Tuesday. Israel struck two militant sites in response to rocket fire on southern Israel, and militants retaliated by firing two rockets into Israel. Violence erupted last Friday after Israel killed two senior militants from the Popular Resistance Committees. Israel claimed the militants were en route to conduct a terrorist attack. Over the ensuing four days, Islamic Jihad launched at least two hundred rockets into southern Israel, wounding three. Israel forces conducted thirty air strikes, killing twenty-three Palestinians. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system successfully shot down 77 percent of the incoming rockets it perceived as a threat. An Israeli official suggested the Iron Dome’s performance over the last week could be seen as a “mini-drill” for how Israel’s Arrow II defense system might handle an Iranian attack.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

UNSC. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday on the margins of the Security Council debate over the Arab Spring. It was the second time the two foreign ministers have met since February 3, when Clinton failed to dissuade Russia from vetoing a second draft resolution condemning Syrian president Assad. On Monday, Lavrov criticized what he termed the “risky recipes of geopolitical engineering” proposed by the UN as solutions for Syria. He spoke disapprovingly of those “making hasty demands for regime change, imposing unilateral sanctions designed to trigger economic difficulties and social tensions in the country.” Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Clinton pushed back, saying: “The alternative to our unity on these points will be bloody internal conflict with dangerous consequences for the whole region.” Lavrov then countered by saying that “ultimatums would not work.” He added that, “it is not honest when people say everything depends on Russia. I would also like to hope that the U.S. can resolve the Middle East crisis. Today’s problems of the world cannot be resolved by the desire or efforts by one country alone.”

Egypt. U.S. congressional minority leader Nancy Pelosi met with Egyptian military leader Field Marshal Tantawi in Cairo today. Pelosi also met with the Islamist speaker of the parliament, Saad al-Katatni. Her visit follows the recent U.S.-Egyptian contretemps over Cairo’s charging of sixteen U.S. NGO officials with illegal activity and subsequent refusal to let them return to the United States. The travel ban was finally lifted on March 1. Today, Pelosi announced that despite these developments, relations between the two countries would remain strong: “The NGOs was a bump in the road. We don’t intend to have it stand in the way.”  The trials of the NGO officials are still slated to proceed.

Quotes of the Week

  • "Russia enjoys good and strong military technical cooperation with Syria, and we see no reason today to reconsider it.” – Russian deputy defense minister Anatoly Antonov said on Tuesday
  • "This is the beginning of a process and the joint special envoy feels the process is on the right track." – UN envoy Kofi Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said on Monday regarding Annan’s mediation mission to Syria
  • "We believe that the demand for democracy by the Arab people must be respected and truly responded to, and I believe this trend toward democracy cannot be held back by any force." -- Chinese premier Wen Jiabao told reporters on Wednesday
  • “With our international partners, we’ll continue to tighten the noose around Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts, and we’ll work with the opposition and the United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to plan for the transition that will follow Assad’s departure from power.” – U.S. president Barack Obama and UK prime minister David Cameron wrote in a joint op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh appears determined to prove that the country cannot function without him by setting up a parallel government designed to undermine newly elected president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. On Saturday, Saleh declared that “Our people will remain present in every institution… Two months have passed since this creation of this weak government, which doesn’t know the ABCs of politics. It won’t be able to build a thing or put one brick on top of another." This week tribal fighters attempted to storm the Finance Ministry because they were no longer receiving the funds that Saleh used to funnel to them. Traffic police barricaded their headquarters to prevent the new chief of traffic police appointed by Hadi from entering his office. The fracturing of authority within an already extremely divided country has been devastating for Yemen’s economy.  The World Food Program announced on Wednesday that nearly one quarter of Yemen’s population of twenty two million are in need of emergency food assistance.

Egypt. The Egyptian parliament voted unanimously to expel the Israeli ambassador on Monday. The vote was symbolic, as only the SCAF holds the power to make such decisions. It nonetheless reflects strong anti-Israeli sentiments within the post-Mubarak parliament. The deliberative body also voted to cut gas exports to Israel in another symbolic vote. It then issued a statement claiming, “Revolutionary Egypt will never be a friend, partner or ally of the Zionist entity (Israel), which we consider to be the number one enemy of Egypt and the Arab nation.”

Libya. Libya’s government announced on Wednesday that it would take control of the airports, border crossing points, and seaports that have until now remained under militia control. Despite the central government’s struggles to consolidate power, Libya’s stock market re-opened on Thursday for the first time since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime. Ahmed Karoud, general manager of the stock market, said that “We still don’t have a government but we have the capacity and infrastructure necessary to become the financial hub of North Africa.”

Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi assured participants at the thirteenth International Energy Forum in Kuwait on Wednesday that the Kingdom is ready to pump more oil to cover any potential shortfalls that might occur as a result of new sanctions on Iran. Speaking to the same forum, Iran’s oil minister Rostam Qasemi warned that “exerting unilateral economic constraints” jeopardizes “continuity of oil supply in the world.” The comments came as the International Energy Agency announced on Wednesday that oil exports from Iran are expected to fall by eight hundred thousand barrels per day by mid-year.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirty-fourth anniversary of the Israelis’ launch of Operation Litani in southern Lebanon. At the time, Palestinian groups led by the PLO had established bases in southern Lebanon from which they launched raids on Israeli civilian targets. On March 14, 1978, Israeli troops crossed into Lebanon and began a push up to the Litani River. Some 250,000 inhabitants of Southern Lebanon fled their homes while the PLO retreated north of the Litani River. Twenty Israeli and well over a thousand Palestinian fighters were killed in the ensuing fighting. The Israeli incursion followed a March 11 Palestinian attack in which terrorists infiltrated Israel by sea and killed thirty-five Israelis traveling by bus along the coastal road. The international community condemned the operation for the damage and loss of life inflicted on southern Lebanon. Soon after, the UN Security Council passed resolutions 425 and 426, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. To enforce the resolutions, the UN created the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) which arrived in Lebanon on March 23. While Israel withdrew soon after (only to return four years later in greater force), UNIFIL remained and still maintains a presence in southern Lebanon to this day.

Poll of the Week

According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, a majority (56 percent) of Americans would support military action against Iran given evidence of a nuclear weapons program, while 39 percent would oppose it. Fifty-three percent said they would still support U.S. military action even if it led to higher gasoline prices, and 62 percent said they would support an Israeli strike against Iran.