from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Defeating ISIS, Iran Negotiations, and Rebuilding Gaza

October 16, 2014

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Significant Developments

ISIS. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey told CNN yesterday that the United States has a “winning strategy” to defeat ISIS. Dempsey’s comments came one day after President Barack Obama told reporters that the campaign will see “days of progress” and “periods of setback.” Obama’s remarks followed a meeting with the military chiefs of twenty-one coalition countries at Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday. The focus of the meeting was to discuss strategic issues and resolve disagreements about the current campaign in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been pressing forward in Kobani and has made large strides in Iraq, capturing the third army base in three weeks, detonating cars bombs in Baghdad that killed almost 50 people, and preparing to attack Amariyat al-Falluja, a strategic town near Baghdad.

Iran. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said today that progress had been made following “very difficult” talks over the last two days with senior officials from the P5+1 countries. Secretary of State John Kerry spent six hours of talks in Vienna yesterday with Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Zarif said that none of the negotiators think an extension of the talks past the November 24 deadline is “appropriate,” while Reuters quoted a U.S. official as saying, “You never say never, but today we are focused on November 24, and November 24 only.”

Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Ministry warned Saudi Arabia on Tuesday that remarks accusing the Islamic Republic of being “part of the problem” in the Middle East may harm relations between the two countries. On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said, “In many conflicts, Iran is part of the problem…we can say that Iranian forces in Syria are occupying forces.”

Gaza. International donors pledged $5.4 billion in aid on Sunday for Gaza at a conference in Cairo co-chaired by Egypt and Norway. Only half of the pledged funds are to be used to rebuild Gaza, while the remainder is slated to support the Palestinian Authority’s budget until 2017. The biggest single donor at the conference was Qatar, which pledged $1 billion, while the United States pledged over $200 million. Many attendees expressed fears of another round of violence between Hamas and Israel and the concomitant destruction it would cause.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza on Tuesday, including the destroyed Shejaiya neighborhood and the Jabaliya refugee camp. In Gaza, the UN chief proclaimed: “there can be no peace in the Middle East, no security for Israel while the crisis in Gaza festers.” Also on Tuesday, Israel allowed the first shipment of construction materials into Gaza, described as a “pilot” by the Israeli defense ministry. The initial shipment included 600 tons of cement, 50 trucks of aggregates and 10 trucks of metal.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Turkey. A Turkish official denied on Monday that it had agreed to allow the United States to use its airbases, one day after National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s claimed that Turkey had made a “new commitment.” However, Turkey has confirmed an agreement to train at least 2,000 Syrian moderate opposition fighters, provided that the United States equips them. A team from the Defense Department is schedule to arrive in Turkey this week to continue negotiations. (For more on Turkey see below.)

ISIS. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News most recent poll indicates that American popular support for deploying U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS has increased from 34 percent to 41 percent in the past month. Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they disapprove of how President Barack Obama has handled the situation.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen.A new Yemeni Prime Minister was successfully appointed on Monday after the previous candidate was rejected by Houthi rebels. Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, previously the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, was accepted by the rebel group. Just hours after the appointment, Houthi fighters captured the strategic Red Sea city of Hudeida, taking control of its port and airport. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda militants took control of the town of Udani, in southwest Yemen, in retaliation to Houthis taking control of the nearby town of Ibb after the day before.

Egypt-Libya. Egyptian warplanes bombed Islamist militia positions in Benghazi yesterday. The airstrikes mark the beginning of a three to six month campaign led by Egypt, acting on the request of the internationally recognized Libyan government exiled in Tobruk. The aim of the military movements is to “restore state institutions and combat terrorism,” according to Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni.

Egypt. Egyptian police raided the University of Alexandria on Tuesday, arresting thirty students and injuring at least four. It was the latest in a string of violent crackdowns on university campuses throughout Egypt since last Friday. The students have been demonstrating against the decision by an Egyptian court to overrule an exception to the rule that government authorities may crack down on unauthorized protests. Under the previous ruling, protests organized within university grounds are exempt from the law. Since the court’s decision, which coincided with the start of the school year, the authorities have made pre-emptive arrests and private contractors have been hired by the government to search students on campus.

Turkey-Kurds. The Turkish military bombed Kurdish PKK positions in southeastern Turkey on Tuesday, in response to alleged attacks by the PKK on military bases the day before. The fighting threatens a two-year long cease-fire agreement between the Turkish government and the PKK. To curb dissent within Turkey, the government yesterday proposed a legislative bill giving additional powers to government security forces. The proposal came in response to the violent protests that have taken place in the last couple of weeks against the government’s refusal to provide military support to Kobani.

Britain-Palestine. The UK House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nonbinding parliamentary resolution recognizing the state of Palestine on Monday. British Prime Minister David Cameron abstained. Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, called the vote a “significant” symbolic representation of shifting British attitudes towards Israel after the latest Gaza war. A spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday warning that the UK vote could “undermine the chances to reach a real peace.” Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Israeli security forces arrested several Palestinian protesters on Wednesday outside Al Aqsa mosque, during clashes with police officers. Competing Palestinian and Israeli worshipers have clashed over the past few days in competing efforts to pray at the site, prompting Israeli security forces to lock a number of allegedly armed Palestinians in the mosque on Monday to prevent a riot during Jewish prayers.

Jordan. A Jordanian court charged twenty-six people on Monday for engaging in “terrorist acts, using weapons and inflammable materials in contravention of anti-terrorism law.” The men were arrested after confrontations in a market in Amman on Friday. Tensions flared up again on Saturday after market stalls were dismantled, prompting the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, to criticize the decision.

Saudi Arabia. A leading cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was sentenced to death yesterday by a Saudi judge for calling for Shiites to enjoy greater rights in the country. He has previously been arrested and is routinely accused by the Saudi government of prompting the violent protests that spread in Shiite dominated parts of the country between 2011 and 2013.

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