from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Syrian War Crimes, Iranian Talks, and Egyptian Acquitals

December 19, 2013

Blog Post

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions



Middle East and North Africa

Significant Developments

Syria. UN investigators reported today that the Assad regime has been conducting extensive and systemic abductions that constitute a war crime and “widespread campaign of terror against the civilian population.” Amnesty International released a separate report alleging widespread torture and executions and documenting secret prisons operated by the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL) throughout rebel-held areas of Syria. A large-scale regime air offensive against the Aleppo area entered its fifth day today with raids against outlying villages. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that makeshift barrel bombs filled with TNT were dropped from helicopters on the city, and had killed as many as one hundred and sixty-one people between Sunday and Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese officials announced today the deployment of ships and material intended to be used in the transport, protection, and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. On Tuesday, the executive council of the OPCW approved an official plan for the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpiles, though it acknowledged that “technical factors” could cause delays in the timeline. Kurdish officials also announced today their desire for a separate Kurdish delegation to January 22 peace talks now slated for Montreux, Switzerland, arguing that the Assad regime and the rebels hold similar views with regards to Syria’s Kurdish population.

Iran. Talks between Iran and the P5+1 representatives resumed today in Geneva after they were cut short last week. This round of talks between both nuclear and sanctions experts aims to translate the November interim accord into an actionable plan. The Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqachi said that while the discussions are slated to last two days, they could extend into next week. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius expressed little confidence in the prospects of success, telling the Wall Street Journal yesterday, “It is unclear if the Iranians will accept to definitively abandon any capacity of getting a weapon or only agree to interrupt the nuclear program.”

Egypt. An Egyptian court acquitted former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq along with Gamal and Alaa Mubarak of corruption charges today, though the Mubarak brothers still face the same charges in additional cases. On Wednesday, ousted president Mohammed Morsi was charged with conspiring with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas and of leaking state secrets to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the “Egypt Assistance Reform Act of 2013” yesterday by a vote of sixteen to one. The act would ease tightened controls on aid to Egypt, which was significantly reduced after the July 3 coup and the subsequent military crackdown. Assistance will now be conditional to Egypt’s adherence to its peace treaty with Israel, counter-terrorism cooperation, and undertaking steps towards political  reform. The law provides the president authority to waive restrictions for 180 days should the administration determine that doing so is in the vital national interest of the United States.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Syria. U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said yesterday that members of the Islamic Front had declined an invitation to meet with U.S. officials. The Assad regime called Washington’s diplomatic overture to the group, which it considers a terrorist organization, “reprehensible.” The Islamic Front is an organization of six major Islamist rebel groups and was responsible for last week’s seizure of a weapons warehouse belonging to the opposition’s Supreme Military Council. The seizure of the warehouse prompted the United States to halt nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels.

Iran Sanctions. Senators Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk introduced a bipartisan bill today that would increase sanctions on Iran should current negotiations fail or if Iran violates the interim agreement. The bill has twenty-six sponsors, thirteen Democrats and thirteen Republicans. The Obama administration had lobbied the Congress not to propose new sanctions lest they threaten last month’s agreement with Iran. However, supporters of the legislation claim that it will strengthen the United States’ negotiating leverage. Menendez defended the bill, saying that, “current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table.” The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in January at the earliest.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Turkey. Five high-ranking Istanbul police department officials were dismissed yesterday following controversy over the widening anti-corruption crack-down throughout Turkey. Several prominent businessmen and the sons of three cabinet ministers were also recently detained. The investigation, which was launched by the chief prosecutor’s office in Istanbul, discovered $4.5 million in shoe boxes in the home of the chief executive of the state-run Halkbank. The raids are believed to be encouraged by powerful members of the Gulen Movement that is working against Erdogan in the run-up to elections next year.

Lebanon. Lebanese and Israeli military officials met on Monday in an effort to reduce tensions along Lebanon’s southern border following several cross border exchanges of gunfire. Two Lebanese soldiers were shot early on Monday by the Israeli army one day after a Lebanese sniper killed an Israeli soldier. Meanwhile, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at a Hezbollah post in Labweh on Tuesday where Hezbollah fighters have been transiting to and from Syria where in support of the Assad regime.

Israel-Palestine. The Israeli military announced today that it had shot and killed a member of the Palestinian security forces, identified as Saleh Yassin during a raid in the West Bank. Yassin was wanted in connection to several recent shooting incidents with the Israeli military and reportedly fired at the Israeli soldiers. Israeli troops also shot and killed a suspected member of Islamic Jihad yesterday in the Jenin refugee camp when shooting began during a raid. Meanwhile on Wednesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israelis “will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing...the settlement enterprise” in remarks to the Likud party.

Iraq. Attacks on Shiite pilgrims killed at least thirty-four people today on the road to Karbala, south of Baghdad. An attack on Wednesday killed five people, though it would likely have been more devastating had a police officer not embraced the bomber, shielding others from the explosion. A total of four attacks near Baghdad on Monday and Tuesday killed thirty-two pilgrims. Estimates by the AFP place the total number of those killed in Iraq at 6,550 this year alone.

This Week in History

This week marks the sixty-seventh anniversary of the collapse of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in northern Iran. While occupying parts of Iran during the second World War, the Soviet Union had built close ties with sympathetic leaders in northern Iran. Both the Azeris and Kurds held long-standing disputes with the Tehran government, and broke away in 1946 with Soviet support and encouragement. The Republic of Mahabad was established on January 22, 1946 by a number of prominent Kurdish tribal leaders, including Mullah Mostafa Barzani, father of Massoud Barzani, the current president of Kurdish northern Iraq.  The republic allowed the Kurds to exercise autonomy and to speak and teach their own language. However, Iranian troops entered Mahabad on December 17, 1946 trying and convicting the Kurdish leadership of treason. They were hanged in Mahabad’s main square in March of 1947.