MENA Week in Review – November 15, 2013

Below is a roundup of some of the top articles and news highlights from around the Middle East and North Africa over the last week:

Egypt:

  • Russia’s foreign and defense ministers visited Egypt on Thursday in the Russian government’s highest-level trip to Egypt in years, with the last defense minister visit to Egypt coming in 1971. Prior to the visit, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy stated that Egypt is seeking a more “independent” foreign policy course, though he also noted that Egypt’s relationship with the United States improved since Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit last week. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Egypt and Russia are discussing a possible arm sales deal, which different reports state is valued at 2 USD billion and could include fighter planes, helicopters, an air defense system, anti-tank missiles, and other military equipment.
  • In an interview with the Washington Post, the director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Gen. Mohammed Farid el-Tohamy, said that cooperation between Egyptian and U.S. intelligence agencies has not diminished, despite recent diplomatic disagreements between the two countries.
  • Egypt ended its 3-month long state of emergency this week, which had allowed security services to make arrests and searches without obtaining a warrant. As part of the repeal, police began replacing armed forces in civilian areas.

Libya:

  • Prime Minister Ali Zeidan addressed Libya’s security situation during his weekly Sunday press conference, highlighting a number of initiatives: Zeidan confirmed the government’s plan to stop paying militia fighters by December 31 if they don’t join the official security forces; he promised to send additional vehicles, weapons, ammunition and equipment to security forces in the restive city of Benghazi; and he proposed that the government – with international assistance – buy illegal weapons from the militias. Zeidan also warned that the international community could send an occupying force to Libya because of Libya’s chaotic state and called on the Libyan people to support the construction of a national army and police.

Iraq:

  • The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing pertaining to U.S. policy in Iraq. Some of the topics addressed included the violent attacks at Camp Ashraf, which ended with the death of 52 people, the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraq’s oil prospects, and state of U.S. policy in Iraq. Subcommittee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) expressed her opposition to providing Iraq with security assistance until “they are serious about combating the terrorist threat.” Several members of the committee voiced their agreement with this position. The witness, Brett McGurk, U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq and Iran, refuted Ros-Lehitnen’s position, stating, “We believe that it is in America’s strategic interests to supply military systems to Iraq.”

Lebanon:

  • In two rare public appearances this week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed that Hezbollah fighters would continue to fight alongside Bashar al Assad’s forces in Syria “as long as reasons [to do so] remain.” The United States, United Nations, and Lebanon’s president have long condemned Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Nasrallah also addressed Hezbollah’s role in domestic politics and warned that if negotiations between western powers and Iran don’t lead to a rapprochement, a conflict could ensue in the region.

Iran:

  • Last weekend’s P5+1 negotiations with Iran concluded without a reaching an interim deal on the Iranian nuclear program. Secretary Kerry appeared hopeful that a deal could be struck soon, but the U.S. and Iran also blamed each other for the failure of the talks. Secretary Kerry and other administration officials spent the rest of the week trying to win support from allies in the Middle East and members of Congress for the administration’s diplomatic efforts, though the White House also firmly stated that Congress would put the U.S. on a “march to war” if it adds additional sanctions on Iran.
  • The United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran has significantly slowed work on its nuclear program since August, noting a sharp drop of activity in many nuclear sites. On Monday, the IAEA and Iran agreed to a “roadmap for cooperation” that will grant the international watchdog additional access into some of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Tunisia:

  • Tunisian security officials continued the state’s counterterrorism campaign by conducting a major security operation in the southern province of Kebili on Tuesday. Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui reported that one terrorist was killed, eight were arrested and two National Guard troops were wounded.

Syria: 

  • As part of a major military offensive, pro-Assad forces captured four opposition strongholds in the southern part of Damascus. Reuters quoted a Damascus based expert who stated that Damascus’ southern districts are slowly falling into government control. Furthermore, pro-Assad forces retook a strategically vital airport and base close to Aleppo. In response to these recent government gains, various rebel groups called for a united front to push back government forces.
  • Kurdish militias gained control of several villages in Syria’s northeastern Kurdish region. In light of these recent military gains, the political wing representing Syrian Kurds declared the creation of a self-governing Syrian Kurdish region. The U.S. government expressed concern towards this development, with State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki stating, “Our policy has always been to support Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.”

This post was co-written with Transparency and Accountability Intern Eddie Bejarano.

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