from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: ISIS struck in Syria and Iraq as the Middle East takes center stage at the UN

September 26, 2014

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Significant Developments

Syria. The United States conducted its first ever military strikes against ISIS in Syria this week, targeting primarily oil refineries and infrastructure used for command and control in Raqqa. U. S. military and intelligence officials said on Tuesday that the airstrikes had also targeted an al-Qaeda affiliate called Khorasan. The group had reportedly been organizing an “imminent” attack from Syria against the United States or Europe. According to press reports, U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power informed her Syrian counterpart in advance of the airstrikes in Syria. Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed U.S. officials passed a message to the Assad government via Baghdad that the United States was not targeting his regime. A Syrian diplomat was quoted yesterday in a pro-regime newspaper saying, “the U.S. military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals.”

Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi expressed tentative support for U.S. airstrikes in Syria after being reassured that ISIS is the target. Abadi noted that, “as a neighbor, I don’t want to be party to the disintegration of Syria or to have diminished sovereignty of Syria.” France conducted its first airstrikes in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS on Monday. In retaliation to France’s attacks, a militant group affiliated with ISIS, Jund al-Khilafa, kidnapped and beheaded French national Hervé Gourdel in Algeria. President Francois Hollande declared at the United Nations that France will continue to provide military support to the coalition against ISIS. Meanwhile, the British parliament voted today to approve the United Kingdom’s participation in U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.

Iran. President Hassan Rouhani blamed the West and Arab regimes for creating ISIS at the UN General Assembly yesterday. Rouhani also suggested that Iran would not cooperate in U.S.-led efforts to combat ISIS until a deal is reached on Iran’s nuclear program. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Rouhani met in New York on Wednesday morning in the first summit meeting of the two countries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Meanwhile, a P5+1 meeting with Iranian officials scheduled for today in New York was cancelled at the last minute. French Foreign Minister Fabius told reporters, “We were due to have a meeting this morning of the P5+1 on one side and the Iranians on the other but because of a lack of progress, this meeting (had) to be called off.”

U.S. Foreign Policy

ISIS. President Barack Obama, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, focused primarily on the threat posed by ISIS and Islamist radicals. Obama reaffirmed the need to establish a strong coalition against ISIS stating that “the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death, [as] the only language understood by killers like this [ISIS] is the language of force.” Later that day, Obama led a session of the United Nations Security Council which unanimously passed a resolution to calling upon states to adopt legislation to stop their citizens from travelling to join terrorist groups and from providing financial aid to them.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Arab Bank. On Monday, a federal jury in Brooklyn found the Amman-based Arab Bank, the largest financial institution in Jordan, liable for facilitating twenty-four terrorist attacks by Hamas between 2001 and 2004. It was the first jury verdict of a U.S. anti-terrorism statute passed in 1990. The lawyers of the plaintiffs, family members of victims of Hamas’ attacks, argued that the Arab Bank knowingly handled transfers and payments for members of the terrorist organization. The decision is being watched closely by banks throughout the Middle East.

Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested on Tuesday that the forty-nine hostages who were captured in Iraq and held for over three months by ISIS were released as a result of the Turkish government agreeing to a non-monetary deal with the group. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Erdogan refuted claims that a ransom was paid, but did not explicitly deny the possibility of a prisoner swap with ISIS, stating that “such a thing is possible.” Meanwhile, over 140,000 Syrian Kurds have sought refuge in Turkey since the ISIS attack on Kurdish town of Ayn al-Arab late last week. Turkey is currently hosting an estimated 1.6 million Syrian refugees. The United Nations has further warned that the numbers of Syrian Kurdish refugees could exceed 400,000 in the near future.

Palestine. President Mahmoud Abbas, accusing Israel of conducting a “war of genocide” in Gaza, refrained from saying he will pursue war crimes against the Jewish state at the International Criminal Court. Abbas also said he would seek a UN resolution setting a deadline for Israel’s withdrawal from territories it captured in 1967, though he did not include a three-year target as other Palestinian officials said he would. Meanwhile, Hamas and Fatah officials reportedly made progress in talks yesterday about implementing the national reconciliation agreement that was first agreed upon last April. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas official, declared that the national unity government, which was sworn in on June 2, would take over government institutions and border crossings in Gaza. However, PLO officials cautioned that Thursday’s progress lacked substance and many of the areas of dispute, including payment of public employees in Gaza, have yet to be resolved.

Yemen. Houthi rebels and the Yemeni transitional government agreed Sunday night to an immediately effective ceasefire and to form a new “technocratic national government” following the rebels’ successful assault on Sana’a. On Wednesday, the Yemeni state oil company announced a cut in fuel prices, which was one of the key demands of Houthi rebels, while Yemeni authorities freed two Hezbollah members with ties to the Houthis on Wednesday. Houthi fighters have thus far ignored the part of Sunday’s peace deal that called for them to withdraw from Sana’a.

EU. Belgian authorities tightened security around the European Commission buildings on Monday following reports of a planned terrorist attack related to ISIS. Belgian authorities also confirmed that they had detained a couple on their return to Brussels from Syria under the country’s anti-terrorism laws. They were suspected of plotting an attack on the Commission buildings.

Israel-Palestine. Two suspects in the June killing of the three Yeshiva students, which sparked the latest round of fighting in Gaza, were shot dead by the Israeli military on Tuesday. According to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, the suspects were shot by the IDF after they “came out shooting” from the building they had been hiding in for a week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed his cabinet on Tuesday that “there [has been] accounting of justice” despite the ongoing suffering of the boys’ parents. Conversely, several Palestinians have denounced the killing as extrajudicial. Hamas, who had previously confirmed the suspects were affiliated with the group, praised them as heroes and led a large-scale funeral procession in their honor.

Israel-Syria. The Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter plane on Tuesday when it crossed into Israeli-controlled air space over the Golan Heights. A spokesperson for the Israeli Air Force said that the pilots had ejected from the aircraft safely into Syrian controlled territory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the downing of the aircraft, expressing security concerns over the potential for Islamist militants to strike Israel.

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