Officials from the Syrian government are saying that they have begun to draw-down its troops in advance of the April 10th deadline coordinated by U.N. international envoy Kofi Annan. The truce requires that Syrian forces withdraw from cities and towns and observe a cease-fire. Rebels would also put down their arms and hopes are high that this will lead to talks on a political solution.
According to Reuters, hardline Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are maneuvering for influence over Syrians across the border who have spent the last year fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad. As opposition groups abroad squabble over politics and Assad’s army pounds rebellious cities, Muslim hardliners want to make religion the unifying basis of the revolt.
Across the Arab world, Islamist parties are taking power. After last year’s pan-Arab wave of revolutions, Islamists swept elections is Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. They’re expected to win again if there are votes in Libya, Yemen and Syria. Islamists already dominate politics in Lebanon, control the Gaza strip and rule Iran. But do Islamists want to be dictators or democratizers? What does their new authority mean for the the future of the Middle East? Read more on America Abroad’sRise of the Islamists »
According to The New York Times, senior American officials are confirming that Iran is supplying arms shipments to Yemen as part of a widening effort to extend its influence in the Middle East.
“Iranian smugglers backed by the Quds Force, an elite international operations unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, are using small boats to ship AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other arms to replace older weapons used by the rebels, a senior American official said. Using intercepted cellphone conversations between the smugglers and Quds Force operatives provided by the Americans, the Yemeni and Indian coastal authorities have seized some shipments, according to the American official and a senior Indian official.”
Last week in the Washington Post, the US Justice Department charged two Iranians with conspiring to murder the Saudi ambassador to the US. The murder-for-hire plot included hiring individuals from the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, to carry out the assassination. One of the captured Iranian conspirators implicated Iranian officials and the Quds Force, a division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp. The US is suggesting that this is an “aggressive focus by the Iranian government on terrorist activity against diplomats from certain countries.” From the Washington Post:
“Hell will break loose,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “Don’t expect war to break out tomorrow, but if there was any hope that Saudi-Iranian relations would improve, this will be the end of it.”
The rivalry between Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia is fueled by history, sectarian tension and political ambition. Each seeks to expand its political and economic influence in the Middle East. This conflict was most recently played-out when Saudis sent troops to neighboring Bahrain to prop-up the Sunni monarchy while the Shiite majority population demanded more political freedom. Riyadh blames Tehran for much of the political instability on its borders in Bahrain and Yemen. The Wall Street Journal reports that a proxy war could develop in Iraq, a border state for both Saudi Arabia and Iran, is a likely new location for such a confrontation given the two powers’ recent history in supporting sectarian warfare in that country and their current drive to shore up their political and military might at a time when each feel vulnerable, say Iranian and Arab analysts.
Iran has solid footholds in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza. And it’s eyeing potential openings across the Arab world. From Riyadh to Washington, alarms are sounding. Listen to Tehran Rising from America Abroad.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is prompting Israel to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians and ease tensions with its Middle East neighbors, or risk further isolation on the region. From USA Today/AP:
“It’s pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that’s what’s happening,” he said.
International pressure is mounting since the Palestinian bid to the UN Security Council to recognize the Palestinian state. The so-called “Quartet” – US, EU, UN and Russia – have urged both sides to produce outlines on territory and security issues.
The American story in the Arab-Israeli conflict began in 1947 with the creation and then recognition of the Jewish state. Since then, the United States has been in some way involved in helping to resolve the conflicts between Israel and Palestine in hopes that it would help stabilize the region. Listen to Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Stability of the Middle East for background on this issue.
Saturday morning, our translators arrived and said that the night before a training center had been attacked by Qaddafi loyalists. That was big news considering that the rebels had taken Benghazi more than a week ago. They said that 23 people died when an explosive went off at a camp where rebel forces were training to go fight.
We decided to stop off at one of the main hospitals in Benghazi to see if there were survivors to talk to about what happened.
At Benghazi Medical Center, staff and volunteers outside the hospital rushed in and told us there were both bodies of those killed and survivors. Several young men wearing ID cards joined us and escorted us down the hall. They didn’t ask us to check in or show ID of any kind – our handmade press badges from the volunteer-staffed media center in Benghazi were enough to get us access to anything we wanted. Read more »
Tahrir Square has been the hub of protest in Cairo for a month running. And while it has ramped down from its peak before Mubarak “stepped down” (there are people here who are not entirely convinced he has cut all ties and is not running the show by phone), the tempo has picked up again in the square. Protesters are not satisfied with the level of change so far, and pretty much unanimously argue that the government needs surgery and chemotherapy to rid it of any remaining cancerous cells of the Mubarak regime. So, they remain in the square and are trying to keep the heat on. Read more »
As international condemnation of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi increases, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks offer insight into the rampant corruption and nepotism stirring the rebellion that threatens to topple the Libyan leader.
The cables, written by the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and first published by the whistleblowing WikiLeaks website in December 2010, highlight policies and actions of a regime that has governed the North African nation for more than 40 years.
One cable, written in 2006, calls the close-knit circle of the Libyan leader’s family and advisors “Qadhafi Incorporated,” referring to the elite group that benefits from “direct access to lucrative business deals.” The cable further explains, “All of the Qaddafi children and favorites are supposed to have income streams from the National Oil Company and oil services subsidiaries.”
The same 2006 Tripoli cable reveals profits and benefits from oil and gas revenues, telecommunication control, and the distribution of consumer goods. “Food distribution is also reportedly controlled by only four or five politically-connected families. There are no large western-style food markets in Libya,” the classified cable reports.
Details of lavish spending in a country with rising corruption are also exposed in the WikiLeaks cache. A document from 2009 reports that Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the son and potential heir of the Libyan leader, paid Mariah Carey $1 million to sing four songs at a celebration on the Caribbean island of St. Barts. Read more »
Israeli envoys are in Washington for talks with US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell on restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and steps to move forward. Palestinians will meet separately with Mitchell on Friday and have lowered any expectations for the latest US attempt to restart peace talks. Abbas has repeatedly said he would not return to talks without a freeze in Israeli settlements, which is mandated by a US-backed peace plan. Israel refuses to comply, offering at best to slow construction for a limited period.
Last week at the United Nations General Assembly, Obama made clear the imperative of a sustainable Middle East peace, including a two-state solution, not only to Israelis, Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors, but to the international community as well. Obama urged the sides to move beyond the two main sticking points — continued Israeli settlement construction and the framework for resuming talks. From the BBC:
Last week’s three-way talks appeared to make little headway on the obstacles between the two sides – Israel’s rejection of US and Palestinian demands that it put a total stop to settlements. Disagreements over the settlements issue have blocked all attempts to restart peace talks since they were suspended last December.
Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) is a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, a Member of the Middle East Subcommittee and a leading congressional voice on Middle East issues. He recently spoke at the Center for American Progress and suggested that the best way forward might be to lead with the issue of borders. The continued emphasis on Israeli settlements, Wexler argues, has stymied talks so far. He suggests that a new focus on the definition of Palestinian borders would open the door for negotiation by providing a concrete – albeit contentious – issue for both sides to debate.
The US has been in some way involved in helping to resolve the conflicts between Israel and Palestine since the creation and recognition of the Jewish state in the hopes that it would help stabilize the region. Listen to a history of America’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Lebanese voters went to the polls on Sunday in an election that will determine if the country maintains its pro-Western government or votes for an alliance backed by the militant group Hezbollah. A win by Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, could bring added conflict with Israel and set back US Mideast policy since the US considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. At stake are 128 seats in the parliament which will determine the majority. From Al Jazeera:
Lebanon’s interior ministry said turnout was more than 52 per cent, exceeding the 45 per cent total recorded in the 2005 election. “Since 1990, and possibly even before, we have not seen such turnout,” Ziad Baroud, Lebanon’s interior minister, said. “The election was a challenge that many doubted would take place. But Lebanon’s political factions and the Lebanese met the challenge.”
Listen to a breakdown of the electoral process from Battleground Lebanon with Hilal Khasan, Professor of Political Studies at the American University of Beirut and Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center:
I will admit that I am endlessly fascinated Lebanese politics. The confessionally-based “democracy” there frequently teeters on the brink of implosion (often quite literally), yet manages to endure one way or another. As we explored in our “Battleground Lebanon” program last summer, the political system is a compromise forged at the time of independence, and while it made sense then, the country has chaffed against the rigid constraints of the system.
I bring this up because of Robert Worth’s article in today’s New York Times exploring the scramble to influence Lebanon’s parliamentary elections this June. Because Lebanon is a weak state, it is subject to external influence, and again as we explored in our program, it is a sandbox for regional disputes. So, various conflicts and tensions play out in Lebanon, and currently, a host of nations are trying to influence the elections.
Lebanon has long been seen as a battleground for regional influence, and now, with no more foreign armies on the ground, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are arming their allies here with campaign money in place of weapons. The result is a race that is widely seen as the freest and most competitive to be held here in decades, with a record number of candidates taking part. But it may also be the most corrupt.
…“We are putting a lot into this,” said one adviser to the Saudi government, who added that the Saudi contribution was likely to reach hundreds of millions of dollars in a country of only four million people. “We’re supporting candidates running against Hezbollah, and we’re going to make Iran feel the pressure.”
To be clear, all of this foreign investment in Lebanon’s elections, and the payments by candidates to voters – it’s all illegal, but goes on nonetheless. I remember people in Lebanon telling me last summer that they vote for people who pave their roads and provide services – or cash. And ultimately, the politics are essentially parochial and “tribal” with no real unifying national political interests or candidates. Hence, a perpetually unstable country subject to the power politics of the region.
The memorial of assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri
A common site in Lebanon: a Church next to a mosque
Burned buildings in Tripoli–scene of frequent sectarian violence
Hezbollah supporters watch the return of Lebanese remains from Israel