MENA Week in Review

Below is a roundup of some of the top articles and news highlights from around the MENA region over the last week:

U.S. policy:

  • Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Jordan on Monday hoping to restart peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders after a 3-year freeze in negotiations. On Friday, Kerry announced that both sides have reached an agreement to resume the talks.
  • While in Jordan, Secretary Kerry noted that the administration is still weighing its response to the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from office two weeks ago, though he indicated that the Egyptian military’s actions may have helped to starve off mass instability. Kerry stated: “you had an extraordinary situation in Egypt of life and death, of the potential of civil war and enormous violence, and you now have a constitutional process proceeding forward very rapidly.”
  • Also on Monday, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns became the first U.S. official to visit Egypt since Morsi’s removal. During his visit, Burns called on the military to refrain from making politically motivated arrests, urged protestors to express themselves peacefully, and pledged that the U.S. does not support particular personalities or parties in Egypt’s transition. Members of Egypt’s anti-Morsi political groups, including the Tamarod campaign and Salafi Nour party, declined to meet with Burns, nor did Burns meet with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood.
  • As troops under the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) withdraw from Afghanistan, officials at CENTCOM say the command is preparing for a “new normal” in its area of operations. This new normal is “a strategic environment that albeit unpredictable, supports long-term stability and ultimately, peace,” according to Defense News. Discussing this new environment, Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the command’s deputy operations director, said, “It’s a strategic environment that will require the United States to remain closely aligned with its regional partners and be ready to respond, as needed.”

Egypt:

  • Egypt continues to deal with the aftermath of Morsi’s removal from office and take steps to begin a transition to a democratically elected government. The new interim cabinet was sworn in this week, which includes multiple female and Christian politicians but no representatives from Islamist parties. On Monday night seven pro-Morsi supporters were killed in clashes with Morsi-opponents and security forces throughout Egypt, and continued protests by government supporters and opponents are planned for Friday. On Thursday, the presidential aide for political affairs, Mostafa Hegazy, announced that parliamentary and presidential elections would take place in approximately 9 months, after a referendum is held on an amended constitution. He also announced that a reconciliation process with all political groups would begin next week.
  • One of the more troubling developments in the last two weeks is the deteriorating security situation in Egypt’s Sinai region. A New York Times analysis blog on the issue notes that tensions in the region are often used as a tool in the power play between the military and its Islamist opponents. The blog quotes a Cairo based reporter, who wrote: “But Islamists interviewed by Mada Masr in Sinai do not rule out that this could be a violent reaction to Morsi’s ouster, out of rage at the military’s eradication of what would have been the beginning of an Islamic project. The scope of this reaction is yet to be seen, but also many in Sinai foresee deliberate exaggerations by the military to justify their consolidated grip on power.”
  • The instability in Sinai, which borders both Israel and the Gaza Strip, also plays into a number of different regional dynamics. For instance, Egypt’s military is allowed only limited operational capacity in Sinai under its peace treaty with Israel and has had to request Israel’s permission to station additional troops in the area, which Israel approved on Monday. Egypt’s relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip and that has ties to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, has also been affected by recent events. A Hamas official accused Egypt’s military of staging an anti-Hamas campaign in Sinai, while some in the Egyptian media have alleged that Hamas is meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs.

Iraq:

  • Even though Iraq “rejects and condemns the transfer of weapons [from Iran to Syria’s government] through our airspace,” the country does not have the ability to stop these transfers, said Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari. The transfer of weapons to the Assad regime through Iraqi airspace is a point of contention between the U.S. and Iraq, and Secretary Kerry raised this issue during his last visit to Iraq in March.
  • Following the foreign minister’s comments, the new Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. suggested that Iraq would be better able to stop these transfers if the U.S. increases its assistance to Iraq’s air defenses. While defense experts quoted in the Foreign Policy story conceded that the ambassador’s argument may be valid, other experts questioned whether Iraq would actually stop Iran from conducting these weapons delivery flights.
  • The UN special representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler, argued that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have merged. He stated in his remarks in front of the UN Security Council (PDF): “As such, the Syrian conflict is no longer spilling over into Iraq. Instead, the conflict has spread to Iraq, as Iraqis are reportedly taking arms against each other in Syria, and in Iraq. This violence could easily spiral out of control if not urgently addressed.”

Yemen:

  • The deputy leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Saeed al-Shihri, was killed in a U.S. drone strike, the group confirmed on Wednesday, though the strike occurred back in November.
  • An interview with the deputy of Educational Affairs in the Policy Academy, Brigadier Dr. Mused Al-Daheri, shed light on the ongoing reform efforts at the Ministry of Interior. Al-Daheri spoke about the need to move away from tribal and partisan loyalties within the ranks of the security forces and to increase cooperation and trust between the forces and the public. He concluded, “The success of any Interior Ministry is gauged by the satisfaction of the population.” He also differentiated between the restructuring of the defense ministry – in which Al-Daheri claimed the U.S. was heavily involved – with the reform efforts at the Interior Ministry, in which local consultants were more heavily relied upon.

Syria:

  • A New York Times article on Thursday examined the recent momentum shift in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The article lists a number of factors working in Assad’s favor, including infighting amongst the rebels, the support Assad receives from allies such as Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, and the reluctance of western countries to provide the rebels with weapons.
  • Clashes that killed 29 people broke out between Kurdish fighters and the Al Qaeda-linked, anti-Assad rebel group, al Nusra Front, near the Turkish-Syrian border, reportedly for control over oilfields. An activist in the area said that these clashes are likely to avenge lost territory and for control of resources in the rebel-held regions. Al Monitor offers additional analysis on the Kurdish-Islamist clashes.

Libya:

  • During a press conference last Sunday, Prime Minister Ali Zidan addressed a number of security issues. For instance, Zidan argued that accepting security-force training from foreign countries is necessary, pointing to other Middle Eastern countries that receive training from the west. Zidan also explained the reversal of a decision to build a National Guard force, arguing that the idea became too controversial. One opponent of the National Guard force was the Army’s chief of staff, who criticized the prime minister this week for attempting to build a parallel security agency rather than strengthening Libya’s army.
  • A U.S. Africa Command sponsored news outlet, Maghrebia, detailed the precarious security situation in Libya, noting some events from the past week such as the bombing of military-police vehicles and the assassination of an air force colonel.

Algeria:

  • Six months after an attack by Islamist militants on the El Amenas gas plant that killed 39 hostages, international oil and gas companies British Petroleum and Statoil have yet to send their employees back to the plant, citing a number of security steps that Algeria must take before the employees return.
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