from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Iraq’s Crisis, Syria’s Gloating, and Israeli-Palestinian Prayers

June 12, 2014

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Significant Developments

Iraq. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki called on parliament today to impose a state of emergency in Iraq, but then failed to convene a quorum needed to approve it. Maliki’s move came as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) threatened to move on Baghdad today after a surprise offense against northern Iraq on Monday in which Isis fighters took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, sending over half a million residents fleeing. According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran deployed Revolutionary Guard forces today to help Maliki’s troops regain control of Tikrit which was lost yesterday. Meanwhile, Kurdish forces took advantage today of fleeing Iraqi troops to take control of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

President Barack Obama expressed concern today about what he called the “emergency situation” in Iraq, and said he is not ruling anything out, but also said that this should be a “wake-up call for the Iraqi government” about the need for political compromise between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. White House spokesperson Jay Carney made it clear, however, that the administration is not contemplating ground troops. The Obama administration reportedly turned down Maliki’s request last month for airstrikes against militant staging areas in Iraq to help combat the rising tide of violence and to prevent ISIS fighters from moving between Syria and Iraq.

Syria. President Bashar al-Assad said today that current and former U.S. officials were trying to contact his government, reflecting a Western shift in position on the Syria conflict  motivated by a fear of terrorism. Assad also ruled out further talks with the Syrian opposition. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime began releasing prisoners held in government jails Tuesday, a day after President Assad’s ambiguous declaration of general amnesty.

Former UN and Arab League special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned in an interview with Der Spiegel earlier this week that there is a “serious risk” that the crisis in Syria will blow up the surrounding region and that Syria will likely become a failed state. Brahimi highlighted the threat to Syria’s neighbors and said, “Your countries are terribly scared that the few Europeans that are there may come back and create all sorts of problems. So just imagine what the feelings are next door!”

Israel-Palestine. Pope Francis gathered Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican on Sunday for a prayer summit, in his words, to “seek the things that unite, so as to overcome the things that divide.” Peres and Abbas talked for fifteen minutes and then embraced. Today, Abbas’s office released a statement condemning Israel for escalating violence with a targeted airstrike on Gaza yesterday that killed a Palestinian militant. The airstrike came in response to the firing of a rocket from Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “Our policy is clear - kill those who rise up to kill us.”

U.S. Foreign Policy

Iran. With the July 20 deadline for reaching an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program looming, a delegation of senior U.S. officials led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Iranian negotiators in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday to try to break the current stalemate. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, called the talks “deadlocked.” Next week, the P5+1 countries and Iran are set to meet to continue negotiating over the program’s parameters. There has been little known progress achieving compromise on the number and condition of the centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Egypt. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi asked Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, who will retain his post under Sisi, to form a committee to develop a national strategy to address sexual assault yesterday. President Sisi also paid a hospital visit to a victim of sexual assault yesterday to apologize in person for her attack during his inauguration celebration last week. A Youtube video of the attack had sparked major shock and outrage in Egypt and abroad. Three days before Sisi’s inauguration, interim president Adly Mansour changed Egypt’s penal code to define sexual harassment as a crime.

Israel. Former Knesset Speaker and Likud Party member Reuven Rivlin was elected on Tuesday to serve as Israel’s tenth president. Rivlin won with 63 of 116 votes in the Knesset runoff vote against Meir Sheetrit of Hatnuah. He will be sworn in on July 24. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who opposed Rivlin’s candidacy and worked to persuade others to run against him—met with and congratulated the president-elect yesterday.

Yemen. President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi replaced five ministers of his cabinet yesterday, a day after attacks on national power lines resulted in a country-wide blackout. Thousands of citizens took to the streets in protest demanding the government’s removal in response to the power outage. State news agency Saba reported that this was the third attack of its kind this month.

Libya. Violence continued in Libya yesterday despite reports of a ceasefire as forces loyal to renegade General Khalifa Hiftar conducted air strikes against three northern areas of Benghazi and shelled residential areas outside the city.