Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

LDESP Middle East News Update – 29 August 2012

 

LDESP MIDDLE EAST NEWS UPDATE: 29 August 2012

Note: The bimonthly LDESP Iraq News Update has transitioned to the monthly LDESP News Update From the Middle East. The Middle East update will include news coverage from Iran to Egypt. As with all LDESP news briefs, the information contained within the Middle East News update is to increase situational awareness concerning events that may affect your mission. The Middle East update will focus on issues concerning the Gulf and the Levant, including articles central to transatlantic security and stability as well as cultural and economic issues that may impact the region and U.S national interests in the region.

Disclaimer: Articles are taken from established and diverse professional periodicals, news articles, and editorial commentaries from different countries, reflecting a range of political views/biases, that are intended to provide readers with a better understanding of various interests and perspectives regarding the situation in the region. External links may expire at any time depending on the archiving policy of the particular news agency. News summaries may highlight only a portion of an article that is relevant to the readers and may not necessarily be the focus of the entire article or the headline. Opinions expressed in the articles, commentaries and features do not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense, the US Navy, or the LDESP staff.

Syrian fighter planes made rare sorties on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, killing at least 60 people in its eastern suburbs, the same day a Syrian military helicopter crashed while under rebel fire, activists said. They said aerial attacks by at least two fighter planes late on 27 August had targeted the neighborhood of Zemalka and the more easterly suburb of Saqba where Free Syrian Army fighters had attacked and overrun several army roadblocks earlier in the day. Both suburbs are poor and inhabited predominantly by Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Syria’s population and have been at the forefront of fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. Video footage seen by a Reuters reporter of the aftermath of an attack by one of the planes firing rockets at an apartment building showed people running away with their children and the six-storey building collapsed like an accordion. (Reuters)
As fighting intensifies in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus, the Syrian government has withdrawn its troops from several Kurdish areas in northern Syria.  Kurdish leaders there have set up their own security force and say they intend to maintain control of their areas no matter what happens in Syria’s conflict. Some Kurds see this as a step toward fulfilling the dream of having their own homeland. When Syrian government forces withdrew recently, the Kurdish city of Afrin came under the control of the Kurd’s Democratic Union Party, known as the P.Y.D.  Afrin has its own checkpoints and flies its own flag. Hundreds gathered in the nearby village of Jolbul to bury a local son who died fighting in the 28 year-old struggle by separatist Kurds in Turkey against the Turkish government. Most Syrian Kurds support this struggle and privately many say they aspire to the same goal: a Kurdish homeland in their region. Kurds make up 10 percent of Syria’s population but have never been officially recognized by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic. The PYD commander in this region, who goes by the name Hassan, says the Kurds now control about half of the Kurdish areas along Syria’s border with Turkey.  But he notes the region also has non-Kurdish communities. (…) The Kurds are not taking sides in the 17-month conflict between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Commander Hassan says neither side is willing to acknowledge the Kurds’ identity or demands and so their struggle will continue. (…) Altogether the Kurds number about 30 million, spread across parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Their aspirations trouble the central governments of those countries.  Syria’s Kurds, surrounded by conflict, are in a delicate position. But the war has given them a new freedom that they vow never to surrender. (Voice of America)
Syrian government forces and allied militia have committed war crimes including murder and torture of civilians in what appears to be state-directed policy, U.N. investigators said on 15 August. Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad had also committed war crimes, including executions, but on a smaller scale than those by the army and security forces. The report called for the U.N. Security Council to take “appropriate action” given the gravity of documented violations by all sides in a 17-month conflict that investigators said had become a civil war. (…) The Security Council can refer a case to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the U.N. war crimes tribunal, but Russia and China – which have veto power – have been loath to condemn Syria. (Reuters)
Syrian opposition fighters battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad managed to shoot down a military helicopter on 27 August in a neighborhood in the north of the capital Damascus. In a short video clip posted by activists online, a helicopter is seen flying over the al-Qaboon neighborhood on fire, a trail of smoke behind it. Rounds from what sounds like an anti-aircraft gun are fired and cheers of “God is great” erupt as the helicopter plummets towards the ground. The video could not be independently verified. Syrian state television confirmed in a bulletin that the helicopter had come down, but did not say it had been shot down. Opposition activists said the helicopter had been attacking the neighborhood of Jobar. (…)This follows a crash by a fighter jet in eastern Syria in mid-August. Rebels claimed to have downed a low-flying Mig-23 with a heavy machine gun and then released a video with a man they said was the captured pilot. The Syrian state news agency blamed a technical failure that “caused the command devices to break down, and the pilot to leave the plane by the ejection seat.” There was no sign in either incident of Stinger missiles the opposition Free Syrian Army is reported to have acquired. Opposition forces have long begged the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. Helicopter gunships and, more recently, jets have been widely used against the rebels in this 18-month conflict. The helicopter crash comes a day after mass burials were held for victims of what activists are calling a massacre in the town of Daraya, southwest of Damascus. More than 200 bodies were said to have been found on 25 August, most of them killed execution-style with a bullet in the head. (ABC News)
President Obama warned Syria on 20 August that it would face American military intervention if there were signs that its arsenal of unconventional weapons was being moved or prepared for use. It was Mr. Obama’s first direct threat of force against Syria, as he has resisted being drawn into the bloody 18-month rebellion. The president’s warning raises the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, whom Mr. Obama again called on to relinquish power. And it underscores the deepening alarm among American officials that, as Syria sinks further into civil war, its unconventional weapons could be seized by radical forces tied to terrorist groups like Hezbollah or Al Qaeda. The warning brings Mr. Obama, who has brushed aside calls to impose a no-fly zone or to arm the Syrian rebels, a step closer to direct American engagement. The specter of unconventional weapons being loosed in the heart of the Arab world, he said, would upend his calculation that military intervention would only worsen the situation. “We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Mr. Obama said in response to questions at an impromptu news conference at the White House. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” “That would change my calculus,” he added. “That would change my equation.” Western authorities say that Syria’s arsenal includes chemical weapons but that they are uncertain whether the country has stockpiled biological weapons. (New York Times)
Armed Shiite clansmen in Lebanon said on 15 August they had captured more than 20 Syrians and will hold them until one of their relatives seized by rebels inside Syria is freed. The tensions were a stark reminder of how easily Syria’s civil war could spill over to neighboring states. In Geneva, a U.N. investigation said Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and pro-government militiamen were responsible for war crimes during a May bloodbath in the village of Houla that killed more than 100 civilians, nearly half of them children. It also said rebels were blamed for war crimes in at least three other killings. The report by the U.N. Human Rights Council said the scale of the Houla carnage indicated “involvement at the highest levels” of Syria’s military and government. It is first time the U.N. has described events in Syria’s civil war as war crimes and could be used in possible future prosecution against Assad or others. The council also said the conflict is moving in increasingly “brutal” directions on both sides. As the fighting deepens, so do the fears of it triggering unrest in fragile Lebanon, which is deeply divided between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime. The country, which was devastated by its own 15-year civil war that Syria was deeply involved in, has witnessed clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups over the past months, mostly in the northern city of Tripoli. (Fox News, Associated Press)
Staking out a new leadership role for Egypt in the shaken landscape of the Arab uprisings, President Mohamed Morsi is reaching out to Iran and other regional powers in an initiative to halt the escalating violence in Syria. The initiative, centered on a committee of four that also includes Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is the first foreign policy priority taken up by Mr. Morsi, the Islamist who became Egypt’s first elected leader two months ago. Following failed efforts by the Arab League and United Nations to stop Syria’s descent into civil war, Mr. Morsi’s plan sets a notably assertive and independent course for an Egypt that is still sorting out its own transition. (…) But although it involves collaboration with American rivals, Mr. Morsi’s specific initiative, in particular, also appears largely harmonious with the stated Western objective of ending the Syrian bloodshed. (…) Despite the failure of the Arab League and United Nations initiatives in Syria, some analysts argued that Mr. Morsi’s regional approach may have a better chance to broker a peace, in part because of the mutual hostility between Iran and the West. (…) Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been fierce rivals of Iran. And while Iran has provided military and logistics support to the Assad government, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have helped arm the rebels trying to bring it down. Mr. Morsi, though, may be well positioned to bring together the working group, analysts said. Egypt has credibility as “an emerging player in the Arab world and a somewhat successful model of a democratic transition in the Arab Spring,” said Mr. Harling of the International Crisis Group. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, New York Times)
Iran is sending commanders from its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and hundreds of foot soldiers to Syria, according to current and former members of the corps. The personnel moves come on top of what these people say are Tehran’s stepped-up efforts to aid the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with cash and arms. That would indicate that regional capitals are being drawn deeper into Syria’s conflict—and undergird a growing perception among Mr. Assad’s opponents that the regime’s military is increasingly strained. A commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, appeared to offer Iran’s first open acknowledgment of its military involvement in Syria. “Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well,” Gen. Salar Abnoush, commander of IRGC’s Saheb al-Amr unit, told volunteer trainees in a speech on 27 August. The comments, reported by the Daneshjoo news agency, which is run by regime-aligned students, couldn’t be independently verified. Top Iranian officials had previously said the country isn’t involved in the conflict. (…) Syria’s uprising has placed Iran in a foreign-policy predicament. As the Arab Spring unfolded in countries including Libya, Egypt and Bahrain, the Islamic Republic cast its own revolution as an inspiration for the uprisings. But Tehran didn’t support the protesters in Syria—its closest ally in the region, the conduit between it and the Lebanese Shiite militant and political group Hezbollah, and a gateway for Iranian influence in the Arab world. Iran’s most influential voices, including its supreme leader and the political and military power structures, have steadfastly supported Syria’s president and, like Mr. Assad, have blamed the country’s violence on foreign meddling and terrorists. (Wall Street Journal)
A group of Syrian rebels took responsibility on 5 August for the kidnapping of 48 Iranians in Damascus a day earlier, but the rebels insisted that their captives were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, not religious pilgrims as Iran’s official news agency had reported. “They are Iranian thugs who were in Damascus for a field reconnaissance mission,” said a rebel leader, in a video that the rebels said showed the captives sitting calmly behind armed Syrian fighters. In the video, the rebels flipped through what they said were Iranian identification cards and certificates for carrying weapons, proving, the rebels said, that the hostages were not religious pilgrims. The identities and motives of the captives could not be independently verified, and some rebel groups have not embraced the kidnapping or the theory laid out by the fighters in the video. Col. Malik al-Kurdi, a deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army — one of several competing umbrella groups involved in the fighting — said the brigade taking responsibility for the kidnapping appeared to have been acting on its own and did not tell the Free Syrian Army about the operation. Iranian officials said the kidnapped Iranians were pilgrims, denying that any of them were members of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s Arabic-language channel Al Alam reported on 5 August, quoting an unnamed government spokesman. On 4 August, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, contacted the Syrian and Turkish foreign ministries, asking them to secure the release of the 48 Iranians. (New York Times)
There is no better lesson about the perils of setting up a safe zone in a country in conflict than Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs killed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 in what had been declared a U.N.-protected enclave. Now Turkey is pressing the United Nations to set up a safe haven inside Syria to protect thousands of people fleeing the country’s civil war as it strains to shelter an increasing flow of refugees. Mindful of that bloody episode in the Balkans — Europe’s worst massacre since World War II — Turkey and its allies, particularly the United States, have conducted detailed planning and extensive diplomacy ahead of a possible occupation of some territory in Syria, where activists say more than 20,000 people have died since an uprising began in March 2011 — many of them civilians killed by regime forces. Yet the idea of a buffer zone, or no-fly zone — or more likely a combination of the two — still poses complex legal and logistical challenges, as well as fears that intervention could trigger reprisal attacks and end up widening the conflict in an already combustible region. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on 29 August that he would press the U.N. Security Council on 30 August at a high-level meeting in New York to set up the safe zone, reflecting frustration at the failure of rhetoric, diplomacy, economic pressure and aid for the Syrian opposition to stop the bloodshed. However, such action amounts to military intervention because a security force would have to guard civilians, and Russia, an ally of Syria that has a military base there, and China have used their council votes to block action against Syrian President Bashar Assad.(ABC news, Associated Press)
The tents are still in Change Square. So is the large billboard declaring “Get Out.” Portraits of young activists killed in protests still grace the walls, an inspiration to many here who say their job is unfinished. “We didn’t come here to fight against one person,” said Ibrahim al-Khatab, 20, a student who has lived in his tent for nearly 17 months. “The goals of the revolution have not all been achieved.” It’s been six months since a populist revolt ended President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. But here in Change Square — the nexus of the uprising, where tens of thousands once gathered — the revolution continues, in a different shape and form. Some tents are empty. Others have vanished as the crowds have thinned. The protests are smaller; less boisterous. The activists are divided. “We want to fight the corruption,” declared Isham Abdu Saleh, 33, a laborer. “The government has stopped my pension,” said Abdullah al-Shwaibi, 44, a retired soldier. “We have no rights.” “The Houthis and the Hirak are excluded from the government,” said Walid al-Qudami, 22, referring to a northern rebel movement and southern secessionists, respectively. “We want this to change.” Still, the activists at Change Square expressed a shared core goal: to oust Saleh’s relatives and loyalists of his regime, who continue to wield clout in the government and military. In particular, they say, Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali, who commands the nation’s elite Republican Guard soldiers, must be reined in. In mid-August, some of his forces clashed with government troops (Washington Post) at the Defense Ministry after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered the transfer of some units that had been under Ahmed Ali’s command. The former president has remained in Sanaa, casting his shadow across a large swath of society. He has no shortage of supporters. His party, now a part of a coalition government, has its own television station, which helps Saleh remain visible and burnish his legacy. He continues to meet with influential Yemenis and Arabs. (Washington Post)
Bahraini opposition parties should denounce violence to demonstrate their desire for political progress, a government minister said on 9 August after rare meetings with opponents linked to more than a year of street protests. Justice Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa has met several opposition leaders recently, according to state news agency BNA. Among the groups represented was the leftist party Waad, whose leader is among 13 men held for leading last year’s uprising by demonstrators demanding more democracy. (…) The justice minister also urged political groups to play a role in “calming the air to realize common understandings on political action”. Bahrain has been in turmoil since protests erupted in February 2011 after revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. Although the authorities have prevented further mass protests in the capital, unrest has continued as majority Shi’ite Muslims often clash with police in Shi’ite districts. The royal court minister, seen as a powerful player within the Sunni monarchy, held talks with Wefaq, the main Shi’ite party, earlier this year on ending the conflict, but Wefaq says contacts ended in March. Opposition groups draw support mainly from among Shi’ites demanding reforms to lessen Al Khalifa domination of political life and end what they say is Shi’ite political and economic marginalization. The government denies the charges. Each side blames the other for the months of violence. (Chicago Tribune, Reuters)
OPEC may have to reduce its forecast for growth in world oil demand in 2013 by 20 percent, the exporter group said, citing a vague and turbulent outlook for the global economy. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries left its forecast unchanged on 9 August from its estimate last month, however. Demand will expand by 810,000 barrels per day (bpd) next year, although the odds suggest oil use could undershoot that figure, it said. “The downward risk potential has greater probability in the forecast than the upward risk one,” OPEC said in its monthly report. “Therefore, the gloomy picture could reduce the world oil demand growth forecast by 20 percent next year.” OPEC, source of more than a third of the world’s oil, expects world economic growth to slow to 3.2 percent next year from 3.3 percent in 2012, hindered by a slightly slower expansion in the United States and China, the world’s two largest oil consumers, and weakness in the euro zone. (…) OPEC trimmed the forecast of demand for its own oil this year and in 2013 by 80,000 bpd and 100,000 bpd, respectively, due to higher supply from producers outside the 12-member group. The United States, Canada and South Sudan are among the non-OPEC producers expected to provide more oil than previously expected this year. South Sudan said in early August it hoped to resume production in September after ending a dispute with Sudan. OPEC now expects demand for its crude to average 29.9 million bpd in 2012 – significantly less than it is pumping at present even after a drop in output last month due to sanctions on Iran and a cutback by Saudi Arabia. (Reuters)
Four Arab states have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon amid signs that the conflict in Syria is spilling over into its western neighbour. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Kuwait urged immediate action after a string of kidnappings of Sunni Muslims by a powerful Shia clan. They were retaliating for the abduction of a clan member by rebels in Damascus. Meanwhile, a summit of Islamic countries meeting in Mecca has suspended Syria’s membership. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation’s secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, said the body had no room for a regime that kills its own people. Correspondents say the move further isolates President Bashar al-Assad after the Arab League suspended Syria last November. (…) The al-Meqdad clan said it had abducted more than 20 people it claimed were connected to Syrian rebels. A video broadcast by a pro-Syrian TV channel showed what it said were two of the men, apparently including a Free Syrian Army captain. Although most of the men abducted were Syrians, a Turkish businessman and a Saudi national were also reported to be among those seized. Syrian rebels say the man they seized in Damascus was fighting for the Syrian government on behalf of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement. (BBC)
Kuwait will not take part in the forum to be hosted by Iran on the developments in Syria. There is no need for a conference that is counter to the international community and the Arab League, a Kuwaiti official said. “We have informed the Iranians officially about not attending the conference,” Khalid Al Jarallah, the foreign ministry undersecretary, said, quoted by local Arabic daily Al Seyassah. The Kuwaiti decision not to attend was based on a thorough study of the Iranian invitation and of the objectives of the forum to be held as the Syrian crisis deepens with the regime continuing to kill its people and bombing cities, sources told the newspaper. (…) According to Kuwaiti daily Alem Al Yawm, Iran sent out invitations to just three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Kuwait, Oman and the UAE — while it ignored Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Quoting government sources, the paper said that Iran was also seeking to divert attention from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit to be held at the end of Ramadan in Saudi Arabia. The sources said that they expected a low representation by the countries that agreed to take part in the conference. (Gulf News)
The UAE is committed to all principles on which the Non-Aligned Movement was established, particularly respecting the sovereignty of states, settlement of conflicts through peaceful means as well as the rejection of foreign occupation, Minister of State for Foreign Affair Dr Anwar Mohammad Gargash said. Based on these principals, the UAE urged Iran to respond to its calls to find a peaceful and just solution to the issue of the UAE’s islands of Abu Mousa, Greater and Lesser Tunbs which are currently occupied by the Islamic Republic of Iran, either through bilateral negotiations or by referring the case to the International Court of Justice. (Gulf News)
Iraq’s communications minister has resigned, accusing Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of refusing to stop “political interference” in his ministry. Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiyya bloc, said he had submitted his resignation a month ago, but that it had only now been accepted. (…) Mr Allawi is thought to be the first member of the national unity government to resign since it was formed in 2010. Last year, Electricity Minister Raad Shallal al-Ani, an independent who was nominated by Iraqiyya, was sacked after allegedly authorising £1.1bn ($1.7bn) of improper contracts for power stations with foreign companies. Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s most senior Sunni Arab politician and a leading member of Iraqiyya, is meanwhile on trial in absentia, accused of financing a sectarian death squad targeting Shia officials. (…) Mr Maliki’s support of the prosecution led Iraqiyya to boycott cabinet meetings for more than a month, bringing the government to a standstill. They accused the prime minister, who is a Shia, of trying to marginalise the country’s minority Sunni community and cement his grip on power. (BBC)
Iraq’s military is trying to staunch spillover from Syria’s crisis, tightening border controls as its troops exchange fire with gunmen, rockets hit a frontier patrol and Syrian army shells land on an Iraqi border town. Iraq’s army in late August took over frontier operations. A border crossing to Syria’s Albu Kamal is temporarily closed as Syrian forces backed by aircraft and rebels fight to control the town, which sits on key supply routes from Iraq. Spillover from Syria worries an Iraqi government struggling to overcome its own insurgency and legacy of sectarian violence. Baghdad acknowledges that Sunni Islamist fighters are crossing the porous border to fight against President Bashar al-Assad. (…) Iraqi troops protecting the porous border were targeted by two rockets near al-Qaim border crossing in late August, but there were no injuries, authorities. Iraqi forces came under fire again early on 26 August. It was not clear who shot at them. Also in late August, a stray Syrian army shell landed in al-Qaim, damaging a building, but causing no casualties. (…) An Iraqi army battalion has taken over control of the frontier from regular border forces as a precautionary measure, said Mohammed Fathi, spokesman for the governor of Anbar province, Iraq’s western desert region straddling the Euphrates. (Reuters)
With Sunni Muslim militants trickling into neighboring Syria to battle President Bashar al-Assad, security experts say al Qaeda is reaping funds, recruits and better morale on both sides of the border, reinvigorating it after years of losses against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. Islamic State of Iraq and other Sunni militant groups hate Assad’s minority Alawite sect, a distant offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, which they see as a heretical oppressor of Sunnis. Hostile to Shi’ites in general, they also oppose the Shi’ite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Iran, the major Shi’ite power in the region, is a firm ally of Assad and wields great influence in Baghdad. Al Qaeda appears to be exploiting Sunni-Shi’ite tensions fuelled by the increasingly sectarian conflict in Syria. Many Sunnis in Iraq are already disgruntled with what they see as Maliki’s determination to minimize their share in power. “The Syrian crisis is a venue in which an Iraqi-dominated al Qaeda branch is better able to attract fighters and resources to its cause,” said Ramzi Mardini, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “This may be a revival of confidence on the part of Sunni extremists.” (Reuters)
Iraq on 20 August said its trade and financial ties with Iran were in compliance with international law, rejecting a report it was helping its neighbor get around U.S. and European sanctions imposed because of Tehran’s nuclear program. The U.S. government in December signed a law imposing sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran’s central bank, the main channel for its oil revenues and the European Union has also announced a ban on Iranian oil shipments. The New York Times reported in mid-August that Iraq has helped Iran skirt sanctions on Tehran, using financial institutions and oil-smuggling operations that are providing Iran with a crucial flow of dollars. (…) “Iraq is not involved in any practices violating international laws,” said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s media advisor Ali al-Moussawi. “Iraq has been allowed to deal with Iran as have many other countries.” Moussawi said Iraq did not have a formal waiver from Washington on sanctions on Iran – something Baghdad considered earlier this year because of its high trade with Iran and to protect its foreign reserves from penalties – but he said its current economic ties were not in violation of sanctions. (Reuters)
Iraq on 2 August accused Turkey of interfering in its internal affairs after Turkey’s foreign minister paid a surprise visit to a northern Iraqi city seen as a testing ground for whether Iraq’s sectarian leaders can ever reach reconciliation. Ahmet Davutoglu visited the city of Kirkuk, where an estimated 850,000 Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs uneasily co-exist—and that Iraqi Kurds hope to annex into their autonomous region. Turkey, Iran and Syria have long feared that Kurdish rule of Kirkuk would encourage separatist sentiment within their Kurdish minorities. Davutoglu said on his Twitter account on 2 August that he was “proud to be the first Turkish FM to visit Kirkuk in 75 years,” adding that “Kirkuk will be a city where our Arab, Kurd and Turkomen brothers live in peace forever.” Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website that Davutoglu’s visit to Kirkuk was “not appropriate” and an “interference in the internal affairs of Iraq.” It warned that Turkey would “bear the consequences,” which would negatively affect relations between the two neighbors. (Mercury News, Associated Press)
Top U.S. military officer General Martin Dempsey insisted on 21 August during a quick trip to Iraq that Washington was still playing an important role there, eight months after the last American troops departed. Dempsey met with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and army chief of staff Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari during a six-hour stop, becoming the highest-ranking American to visit Iraq since the December 2011 pullout. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said in an interview with AFP that Iraq was now a sovereign state, on an equal footing with the United States, a remark completely removed from the 2003 American-led invasion. “We still retain significant investment and significant influence. But now it’s on the basis of a partnership and not on the basis of ownership,” Dempsey, who served in Iraq as a commander during the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, said before landing in Baghdad. (The Daily Star)
An Iraqi court has rejected a request to send a Hezbollah commander to the United States for trial, a decision that apparently ends the Obama administration’s efforts to prosecute the Lebanese militant figure held in Iraq for the 2007 killings of five American soldiers. The U.S. believes Ali Mussa Daqduq is a top threat to Americans in the Middle East, and had asked Baghdad to extradite him even before two Iraqi courts found him not guilty of masterminding the 2007 raid on an American military base in the holy Shiite city of Karbala. But the 30 July decision by the Iraqi central criminal court, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, ordered that Daqduq be freed immediately. It also makes it clear that Iraq believes the legal case against him is over. (Fox News, Associated Press)
Iraq has overtaken Iran as the second-largest OPEC oil producer for the first time since the late 1980s, a symbolic shift that signals the huge impact of Western sanctions on Tehran and the steady recovery of Baghdad’s energy industry. The International Energy Agency, the Western countries’ oil watchdog, said on 10 August that Iraq last month produced more than 3 million barrels a day, the highest output since the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago. At the same time, Iranian oil output fell below the 3 million-barrel-a-day level for the first time in more than 20 years, dropping to 2.9 million a day in July. Last month was the first that saw the combined impact of U.S. sanctions against Tehran, a full E.U. embargo on the country’s crude exports and a de facto global ban on maritime insurance for Iranian oil supertankers. “The different [production] paths show the huge impact of politics in oil and the Middle East,” Manouchehr Takin, an oil analyst at the Center for Global Energy Studies, said. Industry executives, analysts and policymakers said that although Iraq had made strong progress boosting its output, the drop in Iranian production was the main factor behind the switch in the production ranking. (Washington Post)
Iraq’s minority Kurds are upping the ante with their go-it-alone oil policy, luring some of Big Oil’s biggest players and again challenging Iraq’s central government to a showdown over a shared export route. It’s a risky gamble. The Kurds’ handling of the crude beneath their self-ruled territory is deepening a longstanding rift with Baghdad. It also threatens to drive a wedge between Iraq and neighboring Turkey, even as Syria’s nearby civil war challenges old regional alliances. The Kurdistan Regional Government in early August restarted oil exports through a pipeline controlled by Baghdad after halting them for months over a payment dispute. Some oil industry observers see it as a sign of goodwill by the Kurds. Given current oil prices, it’s also a $9 million a day trial balloon to see how far they can press their luck. “The Kurds are … once again showing that they can use oil to pressure Baghdad,” said Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo. (…) The Kurds stopped shipments in April, claiming Baghdad failed to hand over their share of the sales. Baghdad in turn accused the Kurds of withholding billions of dollars in unreported oil payments and of smuggling oil out of the country. (…) Oil companies are willing to gamble on the Kurdish region, which holds up to 45 billion barrels in reserves, because the terms there are more generous than Baghdad’s. Far better security and rapidly improving infrastructure are other draws. (Bloomberg Businessweek, Associated Press)
Iraq is fast becoming an oil producing powerhouse, but you’d never know that by looking at the faded Unknown Soldier gas station in downtown Baghdad. There’s no repair garage or mini-mart, just a cramped office with tattered vinyl couches. Horns blare as a string of waiting cars backs up into busy Sadoun Street, slowing traffic. Electricity from the power grid is available only for a few hours a day, so a noisy generator burns through 200 liters (53 gallons) of fuel daily just to keep the lights on and pumps running. That eats into what little profit is left over after government-imposed price caps, says manager Anmar Abdul-Sattar. Like many Iraqis, he sees little reason to celebrate the postwar petroleum gains that have turned Iraq into a leading oil producer. “The country is increasing its oil revenues, but we’re not feeling it on the ground,” he said. It’s a widely shared sentiment. Frequent power cuts, the state’s inability to prevent near-daily bloodshed and yawning gaps in basic services have left ordinary Iraqis convinced they are sharing little in the country’s growing oil wealth. Insurgent attacks have killed more than 200 people just since the start of this month. (Washington Post, Associated Press)

Iranian relief workers saved more than 200 people from the rubble of dozens of villages destroyed when two powerful earthquakes struck 12 August in a wide area north of the city of Tabriz, an Iranian official said on 13 August. The official, Hassan Ghadami, Iran’s deputy interior minister, said that “all those under debris have been rescued and those affected are now being provided with their basic needs,” the semiofficial Fars news agency reported. The head of Iran’s Relief and Emergency Organization said that rescue operations were continuing. (…) The quakes struck in quick succession, with the more powerful one measuring a magnitude of 6.4, the United States Geological Survey reported. Iranian news media said that the epicenters were near four smaller cities north of Tabriz: Ahar, Heris, Mehraban and Varzaqan. (…) Helicopters had to suspend rescue operations during the night as Iran — under international sanctions over its nuclear program — is barred from purchasing night-vision materials, which could be used for military purposes as well as civilian missions. (…) Iran lies on several major fault lines, and experts have said that the possibility exists that Tehran, a city of 12 million, could be hit by an earthquake of magnitude 7 or higher. In 2003, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake struck the southern city of Bam, killing about 25,000 people. (…) One Iranian seismologist, Bahram Akasheh, said that the 11 August temblor was relatively mild, and attributed the loss of life to shoddy construction and poor oversight. “Nowhere in the world would a magnitude 6 earthquake kill so many people. There shouldn’t have been more than 10 injured,” he told the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency on 12 August. Mr. Akasheh, who has long predicted millions of deaths if an earthquake were to strike the capital, said Iran needed to prepare for even worse disasters in the future. (New York Times)
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on 21 August announced the issuance of a temporary general license to ease financial transactions related to earthquake relief in Iran. Since the 11 August earthquake that hit northwestern Iran, the United States has made it clear that it would offer assistance to the Iranian people as they recover and rebuild. The Iranian government has not accepted the U.S. offer of assistance, but non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been assisting in the relief efforts. To assist their efforts, OFAC issued a temporary general license on 21 August, which authorizes, for the next 45 days, NGOs with 501(c)(3) status to collect funds to be used in direct support of humanitarian relief and reconstruction activities in response to the earthquake. The general license is a demonstration of the Administration’s commitment to supporting the Iranian people affected by this tragedy, and responds to the American people’s desire to provide immediate assistance. (U.S. Department of Treasury)
Iran indicated on 27 August it might allow diplomats visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit to inspect the Parchin military base, which UN nuclear experts say may have been used for nuclear-related explosives tests.When asked about the possibility, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhoundzadeh said: “Such a visit is not customary in such meetings…. However at the discretion of authorities, Iran would be ready for such a visit,” the Iranian government-linked news agency Young Journalists Club reported. The tentative offer was made just three days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) again requested access to Parchin for its inspectors at a meeting in Vienna. Iran is hosting the NAM summit, which ends on 31 August, at a time when the West is trying to isolate the Islamic Republic over suspicions it is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran says its atomic program has only peaceful aims. Any visit to Parchin by NAM representatives would do little to calm Western concerns or those of the IAEA whose talks with the Iranians ended on 24 August without agreement. (…) Citing satellite pictures, Western diplomats say they believe Iran in recent months has been cleansing the site where the experiments are believed to have taken place of any evidence of illicit nuclear activity. The IAEA is voicing growing concern that this would hamper its investigation if it ever gained access to Parchin. (…) Iran says Parchin, a vast, sprawling complex southeast of Tehran, is a conventional military facility and has dismissed allegations about it as “ridiculous”. (…) “At the discretion of officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is also the possibility of a visit by the UN Secretary General to our country’s nuclear centers,” YJC quoted Akhoundzadeh as saying. (Jerusalem Post, Reuters)
International nuclear inspectors will soon report that Iran has installed hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months and may also be speeding up production of nuclear fuel while negotiations with the United States and its allies have ground to a near halt, according to diplomats and experts briefed on the findings. Almost all of the new equipment is being installed in a deep underground site on a military base near Qum that is considered virtually invulnerable to military attack. It would suggest that a boast by senior Iranian leaders late last month — that the country had added upward of 1,000 new machines to its installation despite Western sabotage — may be true. The report will also indicate, according to the officials familiar with its contents, that Iran is increasingly focused on enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent — a purity that it says it needs for a specialty nuclear reactor that it insists is used only for medical purposes, but that outside experts say gets it most of the way to the level needed to produce a workable nuclear bomb. The report does not attempt to address the question of whether Iran has made a decision to build a nuclear weapon; American intelligence officials believe it has not, and Iran insists it wants to use nuclear power for peaceful ends. (…) Nonetheless, the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s experts, first reported by Reuters, is likely to renew the debate over Iran’s intentions at a time when Israeli officials are stepping up their warnings that the window to conduct a pre-emptive military strike is closing. (New York Times)
Iranian officials have made no secret about their massive ambitions for the recent nonaligned nations’ gathering occuring in late August, with a guest list including leaders such as Egypt’s president and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Tehran seeks to assert itself on a host of issues before the meetings close on 31 August: Syria’s civil war, sidestepping Western sanctions, promoting its nuclear narrative and seeking to ease long-standing Middle East friction with rivals in Cairo and the Gulf. Yet it is likely to face substantial pushback. While the country’s leaders see the weeklong gathering of the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement as a major step toward validating Iran as a rising power, it also could highlight its limits and liabilities in the region and further afield. “Iran sees itself as a cornerstone of nations trying to break free of what they call Western dominance,” said Bruno Tertrais, an Iranian affairs analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “This is good for domestic politics, but Iran confronts some sharp realities outside its borders.’” High among them these days is Tehran’s close bonds with Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria — even as it has been abandoned by nearly every other Mideast nation and the West. Tehran’s unwavering support for Assad could, in fact, ultimately overshadow the landmark visit by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. (…) Tehran is making every effort to portray the gathering as a pivotal moment in its global aspirations. (Washington Post, Associated Press)
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on 14 August accused Iran of training pro-Assad militias in Syria in an increased effort to to prop up the embattled Syrian president. “There’s now an indication that they’re trying to develop – or trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime,” Panetta said during a news briefing at the Pentagon. “We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us that that’s taking place.” U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who briefed the media with Panetta, said this Iranian-trained militia appears to be made up of local civilians, “generally Shia, some Alawite.” (CNN)
Iran’s president unveiled an upgraded version of one of its short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles on 21 August, amid a report that a top Israeli national security adviser met with a prominent rabbi hoping to persuade him in favor of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. The upgraded version of the missile was revealed just weeks after it was test-fired, the country’s state-media reported. At the ceremony for Fateh-110, or Conqueror, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a group of defense officials that Iran wants to advance its defense technology “not in an aggressive context, but as a deterrence.” (…) An Israeli Shas Party official said Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ 92-year-old spiritual leader, met with national security adviser Yaakov Amidror in mid-August to discuss the possibility of a strike. The official spoke on 21 August on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. He said he did not know the rabbi’s response. Israeli leaders have consulted with Yosef, who has hundreds of thousands of followers, about weighty military decisions in the past. The meeting came at a time of concern about a possible Israeli strike against Iran to stop its nuclear program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened military action, though officials stress no final decision has been made. (Fox News)
With international sanctions squeezing Iran, the Islamic Republic is seeking to expand its banking foothold in the Caucasus nation of Armenia to make up for difficulties in countries it used to rely on to do business, according to diplomats and documents. (…) The most recent example is British bank Standard Chartered (STAN.L), which has been in the spotlight due to U.S. charges that it hid from U.S. regulators and shareholders some $250 billion of transactions tied to Iran. An expanded local-currency foothold in a neighbor like Armenia, a former Soviet republic which has close trade ties to Iran and is working hard to forge closer links to the European Union, could make it easier for Tehran to obfuscate payments to and from foreign clients and deceive Western intelligence agencies trying to prevent it from expanding its nuclear and missile programs. Armenian officials denied illicit banking links to Iran. The country’s central bank issued a press release in response to this article, stating that it requires all banks to scrutinize their transactions to avoid dubious financial exchanges. (Reuters)
As Tehran tries to offset the squeeze from Western oil sanctions, there is no greater priority than courting energy-hungry Asian markets. The visit by Manmohan Singh, the first by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade, puts into sharp relief the sanctions-easing strategies by Iran — and the political complexities for Washington that limit its pressure on Asian powers needing Tehran’s oil. Oil purchases by India, China and South Korea — which decided in August to resume Iranian imports — have not covered Tehran’s losses after it was tossed out of the European market in July. But they have given Iran a critical cushion that brings in tens of millions of dollars in revenue a day and means that Iran has dropped only one ranking, to stand as OPEC’s third-largest producer. The U.S. has pressed hard for Iran’s top customers — China, India, Japan and South Korea — to scale back on crude imports, with some success, offering in return exemptions from possible American penalties. But Washington cannot push its key Asian trading partners too fast or too aggressively and risk economic rifts. (Bloomberg Businessweek, Associated Press)
Federal authorities in the US are investigating Royal Bank of Scotland for possible breaches of Iran sanctions in a probe that has already led to the departure of a senior risk manager. The UK bank is being probed by the Federal Reserve and Department of Justice after volunteering information to them and UK regulators about 18 months ago, several people close to the situation said. The bank uncovered the alleged failings after chief executive Stephen Hester initiated an internal review not long after his arrival three years ago. The case adds to a series of UK, European and Japanese banks coming under scrutiny by regulators over allegations of illicit dollar transactions with Iran before tighter rules were introduced in the US in 2008. (Financial Times)
Iran is trying to find new flags of convenience for its fleet of oil tankers after Tanzania and Tuvalu announced plans to deregister the vessels owned by Tehran, hitting Iran’s ambitions to use the tankers to supply its Asian oil clients. Iran has over the past three months renamed and replaced the flags of more than half of its fleet of very large crude oil carriers – each capable of transporting roughly 2m barrels, equivalent to the daily consumption of France – in an apparent attempt to bypass US and European sanctions on its crude oil exports. High quality global journalism requires investment. Iranian oil production has already fallen to a 22-year low of less than 3m barrels a day due to the combined impact of US and EU sanctions, which aim to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme. (Financial Times)
Excluding women from major fields of study at 36 Iranian universities represents a major failure by school officials, the U.S. State Department said. “We have seen reports that 36 Iranian universities have banned women from 77 critical fields of study including engineering, education and counseling,” State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said on 21 August in a statement issued from Washington. “This decision represents a significant regression for women in Iran, who have outnumbered men in universities for over a decade, and will further restrict the ability of Iranian women to find employment.” Nuland said justifications such as certain courses were manlier or that segregation was necessary to protect morality “undermine the efforts of Iranian women to freely determine their futures and diminish the potential of the Iranian workforce.” The United States was calling on Tehran to protect women’s rights and to uphold Iranian and international obligations guaranteeing non-discrimination in all areas of life, including access to education, she said. (UPI)
It was over in little more than a minute, but it will go down as one of the most memorable moments of the London Games. A young Saudi judo fighter’s decisive defeat on the mat on 3 August is being hailed as a victory for women in the conservative Gulf kingdom, a step that would have seemed unimaginable if thousands of fans at the sprawling ExCel Center and millions at home hadn’t seen it with their own eyes. Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani was one of just two women competing for Saudi Arabia at the games, the first time the Gulf state has sent female athletes at all. And she was only able to compete in judo after a compromise between Olympic organizers, the international judo federation and Saudi officials that cleared the way for her to wear a modified hijab. Even that was unacceptable to hard-liners, who said she was dishonoring herself by fighting in front of men, including the male referee and judges. The crowd roared as Shahrkhani stepped onto the mat for her fight against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Mojica wearing judo dress and what appeared to be a tight-fitting black cap. (…) Back home, some hard-liners have urged her not to jeopardize her place in the afterlife for a fleeting bit of fame on Earth. Others have warned that she and her family could face ostracism when she goes home. (…) Saudi women face widespread restrictions in nearly all aspects of public and private life, particularly under guardianship laws that require them to have a male relative’s permission before they can travel abroad, work, marry, get divorced or even be treated at some hospitals. It is also the only country in the world that forbids women – both Saudi and foreign – from driving. Some women who have challenged the driving ban have even been detained. Recently, King Abdullah has pushed for some limited reforms in the face of opposition from the country’s ultraconservative clerics. Women have been promised the ability to run and vote in municipal elections in 2015, and a new university near Jiddah allows men and women to study together in contrast to the strict general separation of the sexes across the kingdom. The decision to allow Shahrkhani and another U.S.-based Saudi woman to compete in the games is an extension of those reforms. (NBC Sports)
Saudi Arabia warned it will intercept Israeli fighter jets that enter its airspace en route to an attack on Iran, the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth says. The warning was relayed via Washington and raised by top U.S. administration officials who recently visited Jerusalem. The Hebrew language daily reported on 9 August sources in Jerusalem said it appeared the Obama administration was “leveraging the Saudi threat in an attempt to dissuade Israel from launching a unilateral offensive on Iran’s nuclear facilities,” the newspaper said. Other sources said they believe Riyadh would permit Israeli jets to enter its airspace if Israel coordinates the military strike with Washington and doesn’t carry out a military operation unilaterally. In the event of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, Israel has three route options: a northern route, which requires flying over Turkey and Syria; a southern route over Saudi Arabia; or a central route over Jordan and Iraq. (UPI)
A women-only industrial city dedicated to female workers is to be constructed in Saudi Arabia to provide a working environment that is in line with the kingdom’s strict customs. The city, to be built in the Eastern Province city of Hofuf, is set to be the first of several planned for the Gulf kingdom. The aim is to allow more women to work and achieve greater financial independence, but to maintain the gender segregation, according to reports. Proposals have also been submitted for four similar industrial cities exclusively for women entrepreneurs, employers and employees in Riyadh. Segregation of the sexes is applied in Saudi Arabia, where Wahabi sharia law and tribal customs combine to create an ultra-conservative society that still does not allow women to drive. Saudi women are said to make up about 15% of the workforce, with most in female-only work places. Although the number of mixed gender workplaces has increased these are still few. The proposals follow government instructions to create more job openings for women to enable them to have a more important role in the country’s development. (Guardian)
Saudi authorities arrested a group of suspected al Qaeda-linked militants in Riyadh, the Interior Ministry said in a statement on state news agency SPA on 26 August. “After intense surveillance of the cell it was revealed that they have reached an advanced stage in their plan to implement their goals, which include preparing and setting explosives and testing them outside of Riyadh,” the ministry said. Security forces arrested six members of the cell – all Yemeni nationals – after arresting their leader, a Saudi, and questioning him, the statement said. The ministry has worked with Western intelligence agencies to foil al Qaeda attacks planned in Yemen, and although a 2003-2006 al Qaeda campaign inside Saudi Arabia was suppressed, the group’s regional wing based in Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has sworn to bring down the ruling al-Saud family. (…) The latest arrests and investigation had also revealed a connection with a militant cell in Jeddah and led to the arrest of one of its members, a Saudi, who is accused of preparing chemicals to be used in explosive devices, the ministry said. The last attempted attack in Saudi Arabia that was made public was a 2010 attempt to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the assistant Interior Minister and head of the security service. (Reuters)
Overcome by the suffering of Syrian civilians, a professor in Saudi Arabia’s capital strips off his watch on live television to give as aid. A Saudi bride on her wedding night offers up her entire dowry of $13,000. Parents bring their children to donation centers set up around the Saudi kingdom, watching proudly as their boys and girls slip riyal notes into Syria pledge boxes. In an unprecedented recent telethon and other fundraising effort launched by King Abdullah, Saudis during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends within days, have so far given $134 million in cash for the victims of Syria’s conflict. Saudi state media show the country’s aid convoys rumbling into camps set up for Syrian refugees in countries bordering Syria. “The situation worsens day after day, with suffering increasing, and abuses escalating,” declared Abdulrahman al-Swailem, a member of the government’s Shoura advisory council, in one of the broadcasts that stretched overnight. (…) The kingdom also is openly supporting the arming of Syria’s rebels, though it hasn’t confirmed widespread news accounts that it is giving them money for arms. But the monarchy has also drawn a crucial line. Saudi’s rulers are signaling to its people that the government, not the country’s fundamentalist religious clerics, has the monopoly on aid. The kingdom, which sees Islamist extremism as one of its biggest threats, has kept an increasingly tight grip on charitable fundraising since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks—which were carried out predominantly by Saudis—to prevent religious movements from using donations to build their influence and to curb the flow of cash to extremist groups, U.S. and Saudi officials say. (…) Up until late in the past decade, when Saudi government counterterror campaigns prevailed, bombs and gunbattles resounded in the kingdom’s cities, as al Qaeda forces targeted Saudi security forces and Westerners. This time around, unlike in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia’s rulers appear to be discouraging Saudi men from going to fight in Syria, Saudi and international analysts say. (Wall Street Journal)
Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy watched the demise of its close ally, President Hosni Mubarak, with alarm. The Al Sauds had sought to avoid this dramatic moment of change in the Arab world, even pleading with their American friends to save the Egyptian despot’s regime. Eighteen months on, however, the conservative rulers of the world’s largest oil producer and the biggest Arab economy are learning to adapt. (…) Driven by its customary pragmatism – and the need to keep Egypt on its side in the multiple crises facing the region – Saudi Arabia appears to be coming to terms with the new realities. (…) A similar approach characterises its policy towards Syria. Riyadh fears the civil war could lead to the replacement of President Bashar al-Assad with an Islamist – yet for almost a year it has been among the most vocal advocates of the opposition, and one of the few countries believed to be supplying rebels with money and weapons. It sees the toppling of Mr Assad as a way of weakening Iran, an ambitious regional rival with whom Mr Assad is allied. Meanwhile the most urgent regional crisis – Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear programme and its perceived desire to dominate the Gulf – has intensified. (…) As a result, Saudi Arabia today faces one of its most difficult periods since it was founded 80 years ago. The domestic situation compounds the problems. An ageing monarchy resistant to political change must focus on appeasing a young population – increasingly connected to the outside world – concerned about transparency in government decision-making; the distribution of the country’s resources, including oil wealth and land; and a dearth of jobs. (Financial Times)
Saudi Arabia’s government is spending more than it should do if it wants to preserve the country’s oil wealth for future generations, the International Monetary Fund said in a report released on 7 August. “While the government has built significant policy buffers, fiscal spending is above the level consistent with an intergenerationally equitable drawdown of oil wealth,” the Fund said in an annual assessment of the Saudi economy. The IMF did not specify an appropriate level of spending, but said the government should be flexible in providing social welfare benefits, broaden its tax base and ensure its expenditure was efficient. Partly in response to unrest in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia boosted spending to a record 804 billion riyals ($214 billion) in 2011, 39 percent more than initially planned and 23 percent higher than in 2010, its fastest growth in a decade. (…) Due to heavy spending, the Gulf country’s dependency on oil has risen notably. The price of crude that is needed to balance the government budget is projected to rise to $98 per barrel by 2016 from an estimated $80 in 2011, the IMF said in April. (Reuters)
The United States is increasing its dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia, raising its imports from the kingdom by more than 20 percent this year, even as fears of military conflict in the tinderbox Persian Gulf region grow. The increase in Saudi oil exports to the United States began slowly last summer and has picked up pace this year. Until then, the United States had decreased its dependence on foreign oil and from the Gulf in particular. This reversal is driven in part by the battle over Iran’s nuclear program. The United States tightened sanctions that hampered Iran’s ability to sell crude, the lifeline of its troubled economy, and Saudi Arabia agreed to increase production to help guarantee that the price did not skyrocket. While prices have remained relatively stable, and Tehran’s treasury has been squeezed, the United States is left increasingly vulnerable to a region in turmoil. The jump in Saudi oil production has been welcomed by Washington and European governments, but Saudi society faces its own challenges, with the recent deaths of senior members of the royal family and sectarian strife in the eastern part of the country, making the stability of Saudi energy and political policies uncertain. The United States has had a political alliance with the Saudi leadership that has lasted for decades, one that has become even more pivotal to Washington during the turmoil of the Arab spring and rising hostilities with Iran over that nation’s nuclear program. (Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter regional rivals.) (New York Times)

Two deadly attacks rocked Yemen’s restive south within 24 hours in mid-August, demonstrating the resilience of local militants and the continued challenges facing the Yemeni government as it aims to restore stability to this conflict-wracked nation. At least 20 people were killed in the 19 August attack on the Intelligence Headquarters of the southern port of Aden, as masked fighters suspected to be affiliated with Al Qaeda opened fire on soldiers guarding the compound while accomplices detonated a car bomb nearby. A suicide attack on 20 August in the neighboring province of Abyan killed a local commander of an anti-Al Qaeda militia. Al Qaeda-linked militants took large swathes of territory in Abyan last year as the government’s grasp on the country weakened during an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The militants, fighting under the banner of Ansar al-Shariah, managed to maintain their hold on much of the province for more than a year, before they were finally pushed out following a U.S.-backed offensive by Yemeni forces and allied tribal fighters this June. But while Ansar al-Shariah has abandoned control of towns held since last spring, there was little sign that they had given up the fight. The bulk of the fighters, military officials acknowledged, were able to flee to hideouts elsewhere – or, in some other cases, reintegrate into normal society. (Christian Science Monitor)
he United Arab Emirates (UAE) is on track to expand its crude oil production capacity to 3 million barrels per day (bpd) by the end of the year, two industry sources said on 28 August. The UAE, one of the world’s top oil exporters, increased its production capacity from 2.7 million bpd to around 2.8 million bpd earlier this year and expects to add another 200,000 bpd of capacity over the next few months. “Oil production capacity in the UAE should reach 3 million bpd by the end of this year, and already the current capacity is around 2.8 million bpd,” said an industry source familiar with the projects. (Reuters)
The Kuwaiti government asked the country’s top court on 15 August to rule on a law that divides the Gulf Arab U.S. ally into five constituencies, setting the stage for a showdown with opposition politicians. Kuwait’s opposition accuses the government of wanting to gerrymander electoral districts so as to prevent another opposition majority in the next parliamentary election. Kuwait has been mired in a political impasse caused by a ruling in June by the Constitutional Court that effectively annulled February elections which gave mainly Islamist lawmakers a majority in parliament and reinstated the previous, more government-friendly, assembly. (…) Analysts said any elections were likely to be delayed until after the Constitutional Court rules on the government’s petition. Kuwait changed its election law in 2006, reducing the number of constituencies to five from 25 as part of efforts to reduce the possibility of buying votes and to cut tribal influence in the polls. Opposition politicians, who won an outright majority in the February election, have criticised the government’s move and some warned they would boycott any future election. (…) Kuwait has long prided itself on having a fully elected legislature and lively debate – unique in a region governed by autocrats who tolerate little dissent – but the ruling family still holds a firm grip on state affairs. The most important cabinet posts are held by al-Sabah family members and the 83-year-old emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who has the last say in politics, reserves the right to dissolve parliament at will. (…) Kuwait has not experienced the kind of mass popular uprisings that have swept the Arab region since last year, but tensions have grown between the cabinet and opposition lawmakers pushing for a say in government. The country has seen eight governments come and go in just six years due to bickering between the parliament and cabinet. (Reuters)
Kuwait posted a record budget surplus of 13.2 billion dinars (Dh171.8 billion) in the fiscal year that ended March 31 as oil prices and output rose. Government revenue was 30.2 billion dinars, including oil revenue of 28.6 billion dinars, according to data posted on the Finance Ministry’s website on 27 August. Spending was 17 billion dinars, 12.5 per cent below budget, the data showed. Ten per cent of revenue is saved in the Reserve Fund for Future Generations. “It’s a record surplus because oil production was high and average oil prices were over $100 in the last fiscal year,” Jasem Al Saadoun, head of Kuwait-based Al Shall Economic Consultants, said by phone on 27 August from Kuwait City. Government investments haven’t kept pace with the growth in salaries. Progress on a four-year development plan to modernise infrastructure and diversify the economy, in which private investors were due to contribute almost half of the $111 billion tab, has been set back by recurring political tensions. (Gulf News)
In the wake of the attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border with Israel on 5 August, the United States and Egypt are negotiating a package of assistance to address what administration officials described as a worsening security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula. (…) Egypt appears to have overcome its sensitivities about sovereignty and accelerated talks over the details of new American assistance, which would include military equipment, police training, and electronic and aerial surveillance, the officials said. The attack — in which at least 35 masked gunmen raided an Egyptian border post and commandeered two military vehicles they used to try to storm the border with Israel — has deeply shaken Mr. Morsi’s government. It led to the dismissal of the country’s intelligence chief and a retaliatory military operation that included the first helicopter airstrikes in Sinai since Israel ended its occupation in 1982. American and Israeli officials now see Egypt’s response to the attack as an important test of Mr. Morsi’s nascent presidency and, more broadly, the country’s commitment to security after the uprising in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. While the American military has long had ties to its Egyptian counterpart, the deeper, more direct effort now under discussion could bind the United States and Egypt more closely against the shared threat of extremism. It could also overcome reservations among some in Washington about Mr. Morsi’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization long reviled by American officials for its anti-Western views and Islamist politics. The Pentagon is discussing a variety of options for sharing intelligence with Egypt’s military and police in Sinai. They include intercepts of cellphone or radio conversations of militants suspected of plotting attacks and overhead imagery provided by aircraft — both piloted and drones — or satellites, the officials said. (New York Times)
The US had expected Egypt to reshuffle the military, the Pentagon has said, a day after President Mohammed Mursi dismissed the head of the army in mid-August. Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who had worked closely the US army chiefs for decades, was ordered to go into retirement on 12 August. The move came after weeks of tension between Mr Mursi and the military. The Pentagon, a large aid donor to Egypt’s army, said it expected to maintain close ties with the military. (…) The new Egyptian defence team is made of up officials who have trained in the US and are known to the Pentagon, our correspondent adds. “We had expected President Mursi at some point to co-ordinate changes in the military leadership, to name a new team,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters. “The United States and the Department of Defence in particular look forward to continuing a very close relationship with the Scaf (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces).” (…) “The new defence minister is someone who is known to us, he comes from within the ranks of the Scaf and we believe we’ll be able to continue the strong partnership that we have with Egypt,” Mr Little said. (…) Also on 12 August, Mr Mursi annulled a key constitutional declaration issued in June which gave the military legislative powers and budgetary controls as well as the right to oversee the process of drawing up a new permanent constitution. It is not clear how the Supreme Constitutional Court will react to Mr Mursi’s move to nullify the decree. The military council has in the past appeared to be at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood which now dominates parliament with its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). (BBC)
A group of armed men shot dead a tribal leader and his son on 12 August in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula on the border with Israel, a security source said, as violence escalated on the sixth day of a military crackdown on militants in the area. “Tribal leader Khalaf Al-Menahy and his son were shot dead by militants on their way back from a conference organized by tribal leaders to denounce militancy,” said the security source in Sinai. The attack occurred during a security sweep that began on 8 August after the killing of 16 Egyptian border guards on 5 August, which Egypt blamed on militants. The military operation is the biggest in the region since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. Lawlessness has been growing in Sinai, a region awash with guns and bristling with resentment against Cairo, since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in an uprising last year. Parts of northern Sinai have been controlled by Bedouin tribes since police deserted the area during the uprising. Another source close to militants in Sinai said hundreds of them had organized a secret meeting to discuss their response to the killing of five Islamist militants by Egyptian soldiers earlier on 12 August. (Yahoo News, Reuters)
Egypt will have a new constitution drafted by the end of September and ready to be submitted to a nationwide referendum, the country’s prime minister said on 25 August. Hisham Kandil did not specify a date for the referendum, though, according to Egypt’s MENA state news agency. The drafting of a new constitution has been a highly divisive issue in Egypt since last year’s uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak. The new charter is expected to define limits on the president’s powers and the role of Islamic law. Liberals walked out twice from the panel tasked with writing the constitution in the past, complaining that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political group, was trying to monopolize its drafting. The panel was appointed by members of the Brotherhood-led parliament. After the legislature was dissolved, the country’s military generals gave themselves the right to oversee the drafting process. However, in a bold political move, President Mohammed Morsi, who is a member of the Brotherhood, forced the top generals into early retirement this month and seized back control of the constitution writing process. Morsi has said that if the 100-member panel currently drafting the document does not finish its work for whatever reason, he will appoint a new one within 15 days and give it three weeks to finish its work. The draft will then be put to a vote in a national referendum within 30 days. Separately, Morsi’s spokesman announced on 25 August a number of presidential advisors from the around 15 that will be appointed by the president. The president has yet to name a vice president, but has promised to be inclusive. (…) Despite attempts to bring various groups into the fold, average Egyptians continue to stage daily protests against poverty, social inequality and injustice. (ABC News, Associated Press)
Egypt’s new Islamist president said on 27 August he would pursue a “balanced” foreign policy, reassuring Israel its peace treaty was safe, hinting at a new approach to Iran and calling on Bashar Assad’s allies to help lever the Syrian leader out. Mohammed Morsi, who was elected in June and consolidated his power this month by dismissing top military leaders, is seeking to introduce himself to a wider world ahead of a trip to Iran – the first by an Egyptian leader in three decades – and China. “Egypt is now a civilian state … a national, democratic, constitutional, modern state,” he told Reuters in his first interview with an international news organization since taking office as the candidate of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood. (…) The first leader Egyptians have elected in a 5,000-year history dating back to the pharaohs, he spoke in a room for visiting dignitaries surrounded by monarchy-era furniture, oil paintings and a grand tapestry on the wall. (…) His emphasis on balance suggests he is seeking a less explicitly pro-American role in the region, but he has also been at pains to reassure traditional allies. Morsi’s Brotherhood describes Israel as a racist and expansionist state, but he resigned from it on taking power and has avoided inflammatory language. He repeated his position that Egypt will continue to abide by international treaties, including its 1979 peace deal. Without mentioning Israel by name, he indicated Egypt’s neighbor had nothing to fear from a new military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula, which he ordered after gunmen attacked an Egyptian border post, killed 16 guards and tried to burst across the frontier into Israel. (Haaretz)
International investors see Egypt’s request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund as a major step to attracting money back into the country, but may want more progress before they commit their own funds. Once a darling of frontier market investors, Egypt has lost appeal since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak 18 months ago. Worries about instability have combined with concern over a declining currency and dwindling foreign exchange reserves. But Egypt’s official request in August for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, announced during a visit to Cairo by IMF President Christine Lagarde, may help. It is likely to avert a currency or debt crisis, investors say. “An IMF loan will be seen as positive,” said Daniel Broby, chief investment officer at Silk Invest. “Although a further (currency) depreciation is on the cards, a loan will help shore up the pound against a worse outcome.” Silk Invest holds Egyptian corporate debt and has recently added to its holdings of bank EFG-Hermes, Broby said, bringing the frontier fund manager’s Egyptian exposure to nearly 10 percent of its assets. The Egyptian pound hit fresh seven-year lows after the loan was announced because investors expect the IMF to encourage the central bank to allow the currency to weaken more rapidly. (…) Reflecting the positive sentiment towards the loan talks, Egyptian stocks are trading at five-month highs, while the country’s debt insurance costs have fallen by 50 basis points to around 500 bps in mid-August in the five-year credit default swap market, according to Markit. (…) The loan talks also reflect a more secure political situation, investors say, after Egypt’s military-appointed interim government handed power to President Muhamed Mursi on June 30. The military government had been negotiating a $3.2 billion package with the IMF before it handed over, but the deal was not finalized. (Reuters)

Jordan Warns Syrian Refugees after Riot that Injured 26 Jordanian Security Officers

Jordan on 29 August warned Syrian refugees in its tent camp near the Syrian border against further rioting after disturbances that injured Jordanians on guard there. About 200 refugees went on a rampage late on 28 August, complaining about conditions at the camp’s services, injuring 26 Jordanian security officers, public security officials said. Jordan’s first tent city at Zaatari houses 21,000 refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The refugees say the environment’s constant dust fills their tents and makes staying clean and healthy virtually impossible. Set on a parched, treeless stretch of land affected by unrelenting dust-filled winds, scorpions and snakes, many of the refugees said they find the harsh environment a struggle. The rioting followed a similar incident in the camp on the night of 25 August, when 200 refugees threw stones at Jordanian security guards, wounding several. The refugees were protesting conditions at the camp then as well. Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said that Jordan “will not tolerate” any such revolts in the future. He did not say how Jordan would respond. On 28 August, dozens of protesters outside the U.N. refugee agency in Amman demanded the closure of the Zaatari tent camp due to its harsh desert conditions. UNHCR representative to Jordan Andrew Harper acknowledged the situation at Zaatari was “difficult and tense” following the riot, but he said it has calmed down. (Washington Post, Associated Press)
Jordan has sharply protested to Syria for artillery shelling that wounded a girl in a border village and panicked other civilians, Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said on 20 August. The Syrian ambassador to Jordan rebuffed a summons to the Foreign Ministry to receive a written protest, sending his deputy instead, officials said. Late on 19 August, four shells landed in Jordan’s north during clashes between the Syrian military and rebel forces on the Syrian side, wounding a 4-year-old girl. She was reported in fair condition on 20 August. Four others were treated briefly after suffering panic attacks, Maaytah said. Maaytah said Jordan denounced the incident and “will ensure this does not happen again.” He did not say how. Last month, Syrian troops killed a 6-year-old Syrian boy fleeing to Jordan with his family. Maaytah said the government summoned Syrian Ambassador Bahjat Suleiman to hand him the letter of protest late on 20 August. (…) The affair underlines growing tensions between the two neighbors against the background of Syria’s civil war. More than 150,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. The presence of thousands in a squalid desert tent camp near the border is seen as an embarrassment to Syrian President Bashar Assad, illustrating that people are fleeing his military’s onslaught against his own people. Jordan tries to avoid angering its more powerful neighbor, but tensions are a constant in the relationship. (Washington Post, Associated Press)
Amid intensifying Israeli news reports saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is close to ordering a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, his deputy foreign minister called on 12 August for an international declaration that the diplomatic effort to halt Tehran’s enrichment of uranium is dead. Referring to the Iran negotiations led by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, the minister, Danny Ayalon, told Israel Radio that those nations should “declare today that the talks have failed.” After such a declaration, if Iran does not halt its nuclear program, “it will be clear that all options are on the table,” Mr. Ayalon said, not only for Israel, but also for the United States and NATO. Asked how long the Iranians should be given to cease all nuclear activity, Mr. Ayalon said “weeks, and not more than that.” The comments came after a frenzy of newspaper articles and television reports in early August in Israel suggesting that Mr. Netanyahu had all but made the decision to attack Iran unilaterally this fall. The reports contained little new information, but the tone was significantly sharper than it had been in recent weeks, with many of Israel’s leading columnists predicting a strike despite the opposition of the Obama administration and many military and security professionals within Israel. Articles in the 12 August newspapers also examined home-front preparedness for what experts expect would be an aggressive response not just from Iran but also its allies, the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. (New York Times)
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, asked diplomats from two dozen countries on 13 August to support the Palestinian Authority’s renewed bid for observer-state status at the United Nations, calling it “a test of the whole rule of law.” Speaking in East Jerusalem to envoys from countries in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, Ms. Ashrawi asked them not only to vote for the future United Nations resolution on observer-state status, possibly this fall, but to provide the Palestinian Authority with a financial “safety net” when, she predicted, “Americans decide to cut off aid” because of the bid. The Palestinians’ plan is to petition the United Nations General Assembly, where passage is all but assured. That would give the Palestinians access to organizations like the International Criminal Court, where they hope to pursue claims against Israel on matters like settlements. (New York Times)
Seven Israeli youths have been arrested on suspicion of assaulting a group of Palestinians in Jerusalem in mid-August. Hundreds of bystanders reportedly failed to intervene as a brawl started after an Israeli girl complained that she had been harassed by an Arab. A 17-year-old Palestinian, Jamal Julani, was left unconscious and is in hospital in a serious condition. Several of the suspects, who include a 13-year-old boy and two teenage girls, appeared in court on 20 August. (…) “For my part he can die,” one of the suspects, who admitted taking part in the assault, was quoted as telling reporters by the New York Times. “He’s an Arab,” he added. “He cursed my mother. If it was up to me, I’d have murdered him.” (…) The Israeli government has condemned the attack.(BBC)
Israel is condemning a new South African regulation requiring that products made in West Bank settlements must be labeled as coming from “occupied Palestinian territory.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Yigal Palmor, called the requirement “totally unacceptable.” He said, “What is totally unacceptable is the use of tools which, by essence, discriminate and single out, fostering a general boycott.” Pro-Palestinian groups have been promoting a campaign to boycott Israeli products and withdraw investments from Israeli companies. The European Union does not grant the same customs concessions to products made in settlements as it does to those made in Israel, a policy that has drawn Israeli protests. (New York Times, Associated Press)

As always, we’re eager to hear feedback on the usefulness of this service as well as your suggestions on improving it.

LDESP Staff 
ldesp_staff@nps.edu

 

 

 

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