Great Decisions 2012 Spring Update: Middle East Realignment

Great Decisions Updates are issued seasonally and provide groups with the latest news and analysis on topics. The Spring 2012 Update is current as of May, 2012. Download the Spring 2012 Update as a PDF here.

by Leslie Huang, assistant editor


 SYRIA. The situation in Syria has continued to worsen. An international response has been delayed significantly, however, by Russia and China, which remain allies of President Bashar al-Assad. On February 4, Russia and China both vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for Assad to step down. As violence continued, the Arab League proposed a joint peacekeeping mission with the UN, but Syria rejected the resolution. Earlier in February, the Arab League’s own observer mission had been suspended after it was criticized for being ineffectual.

In February, a UN panel released a report accusing Assad’s regime of committing crimes against humanity, including “gross human rights violations.” The report acknowledged that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), comprised mostly of defecting soldiers and rebels, has also committed violations, but emphasized that the authorities’ abuses were organized and widespread. In March, the regime also came under fire for blocking the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from bringing humanitarian aid into Homs, an epicenter of the rebellion. Assad’s government has continued to claim that it is fighting armed terrorists and extremists, but the regime has grown increasingly isolated. Former allies, such as Turkey, have closed their embassies, and rhetoric from even Russia and China has begun to turn. (The U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew its diplomatic staff on February 6.)

A breakthrough came in March when former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, now the special envoy of the UN to Syria, visited Damascus for talks with Assad’s government. Though violence continued to intensify—in April, the overall death toll surpassed 11,000, according to some estimates—Assad agreed to a six-part cease-fire framework agreement, which included a provision calling for the military to withdraw from cities.

In the days leading up to the April 12 cease-fire deadline, regime violence intensified, and a week later, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared that Syria had failed to implement the peace plan. Brutal government crackdowns—including a raid on Aleppo University that resulted in the deaths of four students—have continued since the cease-fire deadline, despite the arrival of UN monitors on April 16. More observers are expected to deploy in Syria through the month of May.

Western observers have widely acknowledged the failure of the cease-fire, but remain divided about the alternatives. On April 19, the same day as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for “humanitarian corridors” in Syria to alleviate the crisis. The international community is also waiting to see the effects of an oil embargo and sanctions on the central bank  that are aimed at isolating the regime.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the “Friends of Syria” conference in Paris in April, where such strategies were discussed. The U.S. is averse to the idea of any military intervention in Syria, and so far officials have also rejected the possibility of providing arms to the Syrian resistance, out of fear that weapons could push the country into a sectarian civil war. The opposition has reported that Islamist extremists are attempting to exploit the situation, and Sunni refugees have suggested that Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, is exploiting sectarian divisions.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime has made several efforts to demonstrate to the world that it is enacting reforms. On February 27, the government announced that over 89 percent of voters had cast their ballots in favor of a new constitution. The referendum, which was condemned by the West as a sham, reported turnout of nearly 60 percent on the same day that the government shelled Homs. On May 7, the government held parliamentary elections that were also dismissed as a farce.

EGYPT. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has promised to end military rule of Egypt after presidential elections are held in June, is resisting calls to hand over power to a civilian government earlier. Parliament, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, demanded in February that the military step down immediately. Liberals and Islamists alike have criticized the government for failing to address Egypt’s economic problems and for security forces’ crackdowns on protesters, as well as the crisis in U.S.-Egyptian relations that jeopardized over $1 billion in aid (detailed below in “Promoting democracy”). A bloody soccer riot in early February seemed to demonstrate that the military government was unable to handle security.

Contributing to the political turmoil are developments in the run-up to the presidential election. On April 15, the High Election Commission barred 10 candidates from running in the election, including Khairat el-Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood and Omar Suleiman, spy chief of Hosni Mubarak, the former president. Protests over the ruling began in late April, just days before Parliament suspended its operations in protest against the military government. On April 29, the military government promised to reshuffle the ruling cabinet, and has reiterated its promise to hand over power to the president-elect this summer. The military, however, has been blamed for violence at demonstrations protesting the disqualification of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, another would-be presidential candidate. On May 2, at least 11 people were killed in a protest near the Ministry of Defense that turned violent, and two days later protesters clashed with security forces again.

In February, the military government announced that it would accept a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Last year, the government had rejected a similar agreement. The loan, in addition to a $1 billion loan Egypt is seeking from the World Bank, will infuse the ailing economy with cash. Increasing inflation and low foreign reserves have plagued the country since the ouster of Mubarak.

TUNISIA. Ennahda, the Islamist party in control of the Parliament of Tunisia, announced on March 26 that the new constitution would not base legislation on Islamic law, but would instead carry over a portion of the current constitution, which identifies Islam as the state religion. This move was interpreted as a pushback against conservative Salafis, whose calls for the creation of a religious state have concerned leftists and secular members of parliament.

Opposing demonstrations by ultraconservatives and liberals led to violent clashes in Tunis on March 30. As protests continued in the capital, beginning on April 7 the government forcefully cracked down on protesters, amid concerns that the unrest might destabilize the nation. Police use of tear gas, batons and beatings recalled the revolution that had ushered in democracy. In response to the public outcry that ensued, the government moved swiftly, opening an investigation on April 11 into the crackdown and lifting a ban on protests on the main thoroughfare of Tunis, the symbolic site of last year’s “Arab Spring” protests.

The case of Nabil Karoui crystallized the concerns of civil liberties advocates. On May 3, Karoui, the head of a private television station that had broadcast the animated Iranian film Persepolis last October, was found guilty of disturbing the public order and insulting Islamic values. The film includes a scene depicting God. The broadcast had prompted violent attacks by Salafis on the television station’s offices and Karoui’s home. Human rights groups reacted strongly to the verdict, describing it as an attack on free speech and free press.

The U.S. will provide Tunisia with $100 million in cash to help pay off its debts to international banks. Announced on March 29, the funding is meant to assist Tunisia’s ailing economy, which is seen as a vulnerability in the country’s democratization process.

LIBYA. The militias that helped topple Muammar Qadhafi last year are organizing and asserting themselves. In western Libya, approximately 100 militias formed a federation on February 13, posing a threat to the legitimacy of the National Transitional Council (NTC), which has struggled to impose its authority on the militias.

Many of the militias have yet to disarm, and many are organized along ethnic or tribal divisions, sparking fears that an ethnic conflict might begin. In February, Amnesty International released a report accusing the militas of human rights abuses against former Qadhafi loyalists, and rampant infighting.

On March 6, tribal and militia leaders gathered near Benghazi to announce plans for regional autonomy. Benghazi, in the oil-rich east, is rife with militias that have yet to disband after the overthrow of Qadhafi. The tribal and militia leaders unilaterally declared the formation of a state that would have its own judiciary, legislature, budget and police force. The state, which would be named Barqa, would be semiautonomous, ceding control of foreign policy, the military and oil to the federal government.

The declaration was apparently prompted by the parliamentary seat allocation announced days earlier by the NTC. Sixty seats in the national assembly would be for the east, and 111 would represent the west, including the area around Tripoli. Elections for the new Parliament, planned for this June, are now in question as the specter of national partition looms. The NTC has appealed to both sides with plans of decentralization, but the acting prime minister, Abdel Rahim el-Keeb, has spoken out against federalism.

The NTC announced in April that Seif al-Islam Qadhafi, one of Muammar Qadhafi’s sons, will be tried in Libya. Currently in custody of rebels near the town of Zintan, Qadhafi is being charged with, inter alia, murder and corruption.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) also has arrest warrants for Qadhafi and Abdulla al-Senussi, the former regime’s intelligence head, but Libya asked the ICC to withdraw its claims on May 1. Human rights groups have called for the transfer of Qadhafi to ICC custody, amid fears that he will not receive a fair trial in Tripoli.

YEMEN. General Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi took power on February 21, after standing as the only candidate in presidential elections. Hadi was the vice president of deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now receiving medical treatment in the U.S. Though the polls were marred by violence, reports showed voter turnout as high as 80 percent. Yemen’s neighbors in the Persian Gulf and the U.S. pushed the power transfer deal that saw the departure of Saleh. The country now faces a crippled economy, a separatist movement in the south and a dire humanitarian crisis.

John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, visited Sana to announce a new counterterrorism partnership between the U.S. and Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is gaining power in the south. Under the new agreement, the U.S. and Yemen will hunt down al-Qaeda operatives, and Yemen’s neighbors and the U.S. will help train Yemen’s military. U.S. security aid to Yemen, totaling nearly $54 million for this year, and drone attacks—such as the one that had killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a top al-Qaeda operative, last year—had been disrupted by the revolution against Saleh. Many of Saleh’s family members however, remain in control of parts of the military, and their participation in the government’s suppression of protesters last year raises difficult questions for the U.S.

BAHRAIN. On March 20, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced that the government had made significant reforms, in response to widespread criticism of its handling of democracy protesters last year. Al-Khalifa cited reforms in the judicial system and security forces, which detained over 1,000 people during the protests. The opposition, however, has dismissed the reforms as superficial, citing the cases of detainees­—many of whom were tortured and some of whom died as a result—and retaliation against those participated in the protests. On April 30, a judge ordered retrials for 21 activists who had been convicted—some sentenced to life imprisonment—for their part in last year’s protests.

Protesters have continued to demonstrate for democratic reforms. On March 9, tens of thousands of protesters in Manama marched, led by Shi‘i clerics. Security forces, reportedly using tear gas, clashed with the protesters. Demonstrations intensified in April prior to the Formula One Grand Prix, a lavish annual event that was cancelled last year as protests raged in the capital. The event, on April 22, was supposed to showcase the regime’s legitimacy to the world, but tens of thousands of protesters marched two days before the race to denounce the government’s failure to enact reform, and clashes between protesters and security forces in the capital continued during the Grand Prix.