from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Violence in Jerusalem, Nusra gains in Syria, and U.S. Policy Shift on Isis

November 6, 2014

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Significant Developments

Jordan-Israel-Palestine. The Jordanian Minister of Islamic Affairs, Hayel Dawood, accused Israel yesterday of attacking the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and of causing fire damage “tantamount to state terrorism” and “a violation of Jordan’s peace treaty.” Israeli special forces had stormed the mosque compound firing tear gas, and sparking fires that damaged the building. The accusations follow an earlier decision by Jordan to withdraw its ambassador to Israel for “consultations.”  The Palestinian ambassador to the UN, Riad Mansur, called on the UN Security Council to hold Israel accountable for damage to the Al Aqsa mosque. Meanwhile, tensions continue to rise in Jerusalem and surrounding areas; one police officer was killed and three soldiers and a dozen civilians injured in two separate attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank involving Palestinians deliberately driving vehicles into crowds. For more on these rising tensions, you can read my interview with CFR.org here.

Syria. U.S.-led coalition air strikes targeted Jabhat al-Nusra last night in Syria. The move comes after the al-Qaeda affiliate pushed U.S.-backed moderate opposition groups, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the Hazm movement, out of Idlib province on Sunday. The groups have received backing from the United States and Western allies, raising suspicions that artillery and heavy weaponry provided by the West may have fallen in the hands of Nusra fighters. Al-Nusra has made a concerted effort to conquer most of Idlib in the past week. Its recent victories will render more difficult U.S.-led efforts to arm and train rebels in Syria.

Meanwhile, Hasan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, and Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani, leader of the Nusra Front, exchanged harsh words this week. In a speech in south Beirut on Monday, Nasrallah said that he was proud the “Tafkiris have not yet been able to control Syria.” Joulani responded on Tuesday threatening Nasrallah with “hidden surprises” and tweeted “Hasan Nasrallah will bite his fingers in regret.”

ISIS. President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he would seek Congressional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) for U.S.-led military operation against ISIS. The move marks a dramatic shift from the president’s previous reliance on the 2001 AUMF to combat al-Qaeda as sufficient to justify current military strikes. Meanwhile, Iraqi peshmerga fighters reported on Tuesday that they were heavily shelling ISIS militant strongholds in Kobani. Also on Tuesday, ISIS released ninety-three Kurds captured in February in Northern Syria for allegedly being members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. This release comes after ISIS militants killed at least two hundred members of the Abu Nimr tribe for agreeing to take up arms.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Iran. The Wall Street Journal reported this afternoon that President Obama sent a letter last month to Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Obama reportedly urged the Iranians to cooperate on both combatting ISIS and on coming to a nuclear deal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated during a meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris on Wednesday that Iran “ha[s] a right to a peaceful [nuclear] program, but not a track to a bomb.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reported on Monday that American negotiator’s have hinted at a potential Iran-Russia side agreement as a possible solution to the currently deadlocked negotiations. The purported arrangement, which Iran has reportedly tentatively agreed to, would transport most of Iran’s stockpile of uranium to Russia, which would convert the uranium into fuel rods for Iran’s only commercial nuclear power plant. In theory, keeping the uranium in the form of these rods would make it difficult for Iran to use the uranium to create a nuclear weapon. According to one American official involved in the negotiations, “if the Iran-Russia deal works, it could be the cornerstone of something much larger.” However, neither the existence of the deal nor Iran’s acceptance has been confirmed by either side.

Syria. The U.S. State Department reportedly intends to cut next year’s funding of $500,000 for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). The CIJA was formed by international war crime prosecutors to send lawyers and researchers on missions to Syria to collect evidence of the use of chemical weapons and other illegal military tactics used by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Human rights advocates fear that the decision by the Obama administration marks a shift in funding priorities in the wake of ISIS’ rise.

Jerusalem. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over the status of Jerusalem on Monday in a case about listing birthplaces in U.S. passports. The United States does not officially recognize any country as having sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem; however, the Congress enacted a law in 2002 that ordered the State Department to list Israel on passports of children born in Jerusalem. The Supreme Court has been tasked with determining whether the power to recognize Jerusalem as Israel is under the purview of Congress or that of the Executive branch. Justice Elena Kagan alluded to the diplomatic relevance and timing of this case in light of the volatile situation in Jerusalem in recent weeks, noting that “passports are diplomatic communications,” and “history suggests that everything is a big deal with respect to the status of Jerusalem. And right now Jerusalem is a tinderbox.”

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Saudi Arabia. Security forces in Saudi Arabia arrested fifteen suspects in Riyadh and other eastern cities yesterday for their alleged participation in Monday’s violent attack that left at least five Shiites dead during a religious ceremony to celebrate the start of Ashura. Saudi Arabia blamed the attack on militants affiliated with al-Qaeda yesterday, while the country’s Council of Senior Scholars called the incident a “vicious assault and heinous crime.”

Meanwhile, private sector growth has slowed considerably in Saudi Arabia as part of a trend observed since September. The Financial Times reported Tuesday that the lag is due in part to labor markets increasing wage costs, but most importantly due to lower oil prices. Saudi Arabia cut crude oil prices for U.S. consumers on Tuesday.

Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and France signed an agreement on Tuesday confirming Saudi Arabia’s donation of $3 billion worth of French manufactured weapons to the Lebanese army. The deal was initially offered by Saudi Arabia to Lebanon in December 2013. Meanwhile, Iran pledged a competing package to provide military aid and equipment in September, but the plan has not yet been implemented.

The Lebanese Parliament voted yesterday to extend its term by two years and seven months amidst wide scale protests in Beirut to oppose the move. Prime Minister Tammam Salam justified the extension as “preventing the country from plunging into a power vacuum.” Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai criticized the vote yesterday, calling it “illegal and unconstitutional.” UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Derek Plumbly stated today that he recognized the necessity of the extended Parliamentary mandate to avoid a “serious vacuum” but expressed disappointment in Lebanon’s inability to successfully organize elections at present, despite the country’s “strong democratic tradition.”

Yemen. Members of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s political party claimed the United States ambassador to Yemen had ordered Saleh to leave Yemen by Friday or face sanctions. The sanctions, issued by the UN Security Council, would include an asset freeze and a global travel ban. The sanctions would be imposed on Saleh and two Houthi rebel leaders who have been targeted for “threatening the peace and stability of Yemen and obstructing the political process.” These accusations were immediately refuted by Edgar Vasquez, spokesperson for the State Department, who called the claims “completely false.” However, the United States did not deny supporting the UN Security Council sanctions. Meanwhile, a U.S. drone strike on Tuesday night killed Shawki al-Badani, a senior leader of local al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, along with five other al-Qaeda members.

Egypt. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced yesterday he would appoint Fayza Abul Naga as a national security advisor. Abul Naga led the controversial 2012 criminal case against U.S. nonprofit groups that led to one of the worst recent crises in U.S.-Egyptian relations. Meanwhile, over three hundred and fifty Egyptian journalists signed an online petition on Sunday in a rare protest of a decision by newspaper editors last week to avoid publishing reports critical of the government or state policies.

Shawqi Allam, a Muslim cleric appointed by the Egyptian government, defended on Monday the decision by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to evacuate residents from the Sinai Peninsula in order to counter the militant attacks. The cleric’s ruling is seen as an attempt by Sisi’s government to gain legitimacy for its decision. President Sisi has agreed to provide financial compensation, up to a total of $140 million, to victims of forced evacuations.

Qatar-UK. Qatar and the United Kingdom signed a security cooperation agreement to combat jihadis on Monday, following eight months of negotiations. The deal provides for the two countries to share classified information and to cooperate on areas such as digital defense, cybersecurity, and counter-terrorism. The costs of the arrangement will be paid in full by Qatar. A spokesperson for the UK Home Office confirmed the UK is pleased with the new partnership, and said the agreement would “broaden and deepen the important security relationships between our respective countries.”

Libya. Libya’s Supreme Court invalidated the internationally recognized parliament led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni today. The ruling cannot be appealed. The Supreme Court also nullified a constitutional amendment that led to the elections on June 25, thereby rendering the results of the elections and decisions arising from them invalid. The legislature’s legal committee has since scheduled an emergency meeting to review the court ruling. The court’s decision follows clashes between Islamist militants and pro-government fighters in Benghazi that have killed over thirty people in the last three days.

Gaza. Twenty thousand civil servants went on strike in Gaza on Tuesday to demonstrate against the decision by the Palestinian unity government to withhold pay from military and security workers affiliated with Hamas. Qatar had pledged to donate $30 million last week to pay for the workers’ salaries, and twenty-four thousand workers have already been paid through the fund. Meanwhile, Amnesty International published a report yesterday, accusing Israel of committing war crimes during the latest Gaza conflict over the summer. Amnesty accused Israel of “callous indifference” to civilians during airstrikes that were “grossly disproportionate.” Amnesty also accused “Palestinian armed groups” of violating international law by indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel. The Israeli foreign ministry, in turn, accused Amnesty International of displaying “extreme bias” and of “dismiss[ing] Israeli security challenges.”

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