The Middle East Channel

Bahrain court rejects appeals for activists in 2011 protests

Bahrain's highest appeals court has upheld sentences for 13 activists for their roles in the February 2011 anti-government protests. The sentences, originally delivered by a military court in June 2011, and upheld in an appeals court in September 2012, range from five years to life imprisonment. One of the eight activists receiving life sentences (25 years in Bahrain) was opposition leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who ended a 110-day hunger strike last June in protest of the ruling. This decision will be final, with no further venues for the activists to get the verdicts overturned. Twenty people were originally tried, however seven were tried in absentia and have left the country or remain in hiding. One of the main charges against the activists was "forming a terrorist group with intent to overthrow the system of government." However, the activists maintained they were only seeking democratic reform in Bahrain. Opposition and human rights groups have condemned the sentences. The United States was pushing for acquittals in efforts to avoid further political unrest in the Gulf country in which the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based. An estimated 60 people have died in unrest in Bahrain since February 2011.

Syria

The Syrian opposition and western countries have rejected a peace plan proposed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In his first televised speech since June 2012, Assad remained defiant saying his military would continue to fight rebels, deemed as foreign funded "terrorists." He insisted he will not step down, but presented his peace plan including reforms that would replace the cabinet and constitution. He called for a national dialogue, but maintained he would not negotiate with people with "terrorist" ideas. He condemned opponents as "enemies of God and puppets of the West." The United States rejected Assad's address as "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power." U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Assad's peace initiative "is detached from reality." Foreign ministers from Turkey, Britain, and the European Union maintained their positions that Assad must resign and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said he would endorse an International Criminal Court tribunal against Assad for war crimes. The Syrian National Coalition said Assad has made negotiations impossible by ruling out talks with the rebels. Only Syrian ally Iran backed Assad's plan rejecting "foreign interference." Meanwhile, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, clashes continued around the capital of Damascus, in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, and on the road connecting Damascus to Aleppo. Violence was reported in the district of Arqaba, just three miles from the Damascus Opera House, from which Assad addressed regime loyalists.

Headlines  

  • Amid increased economic concerns, President Mohamed Morsi replaced Egypt's finance and interior ministers a day ahead of a meeting with the IMF over a $4.8 billion loan.
  • Israel announced it is building a fence along the border with Syria, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu to "defend this border against both infiltration and terrorism."
  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has ordered "State of Palestine" to be used on public documents which were previously stamped with "Palestinian Authority." 

Articles & Analysis

The case for ending U.S. military aid to the Mideast (Corinne Sauer, Robert Sauer, JPost)

"Approximately $3b. was designated as military financing for Israel, while over $4b. was earmarked as economic and military financing for Arab countries - countries whose military programs are in large part designed to prepare for potential hostilities with Israel. 

Egypt, now under the authority of an Islamic government whose assurances it will maintain the peace with Israel are viewed as highly suspect, is the single largest beneficiary among Arab countries, having been allocated $1.58b. last year alone.

The conventional wisdom in US foreign policy circles is that these massive financial gifts are beneficial to both the United States and the recipient countries. In fact, the policy is deemed so important that advocates contend it must be maintained even in the face of a $16 trillion national debt, a $1t. yearly budget deficit and a fast-approaching fiscal cliff. 

But as is often the case with government funding programs, US financial aid to the Middle East has good intentions with bad results.

Most fundamentally, US military aid to the Middle East harms Israeli and regional interests by fueling an arms race that threatens to spiral out of control.

Recent Israeli-produced estimates reveal that for every dollar in US aid received by Egypt, Israel must spend between $1.60 and $2.10 to maintain its qualitative military edge.

Since Israel is usually granted $1.50 for every $1 in aid to Egypt, each American dollar given to Egypt costs Israel between 10 and 64 cents out of its own pocket."

No Jobs and Bad Jobs (Ghada Barsoum, The Cairo Review)

"Productive employment for young people will require long-term, determined and concerted action spanning a wide range of policies and programs. International experience points to three areas of focus that are central for policy interventions to address youth employment issues. First, there is a need for an economic environment conducive for job creation and sustained growth to meet the growing need for jobs. Second, interventions are needed to enhance the skill level of youth, smoothen their transition to the labor market, and encourage entrepreneurship. These are often described as active labor market policies. Third, measures must be pursued to extend social protection to workers within the informal economy. Effective support to youth employment requires an unwavering political commitment and a strong partnership with the private sector, civil society and youth as key partners in the process, according to the ILO. This three-pronged approach places youth employment issues at the heart of economic and social policies.

Job creation is central to any meaningful discussion of youth employment issues. While the government can no longer be the main employer of youth in Egypt, it is the role of the government to enable an environment in which the private sector can develop to its full potential and play a role in generating employment and decent jobs. Forging partnerships with the private sector and civil society organizations would improve youth employment outcomes." 

A weak prime minister (Aluf Benn, Haaretz)

"What happened to him? Is it possible that a successful campaigner like Netanyahu is having trouble - of all the campaigns - with this one, the one in which his victory was a forgone conclusion, the one in which he alone was vying for leadership of the state?

In retrospect it looks like the prime minister was right to put off elections for as long as possible. He apparently understood the mood of the public, which views him as the default choice and not as a desirable leader. Netanyahu, with all his experience, also realized that nothing is certain in an election campaign; they are known to encounter surprises and reversals."

-- By Mary Casey

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iran's economic stake in Syria

Many analyses have been made about Iran's strategic and geopolitical role in the Syrian regime, but not enough attention has been paid to the crucial and changing economic relations between the two countries. By analyzing Iran-Syria relations through this prism, one can shed light on the more nuanced, unconventional, and complicated aspects of Iran's role in Syria.

Iran has historically invested a considerable amount of money, resources, skilled forces, and labor in Syria. These investments were ratcheted up, particularly, in the last few years before uprisings began erupting in March 2011 across Syria. Although large sums of money and resources were allocated to investments in Syrian transportation and infrastructure, Iranian and Syrian economic ties are not limited to these spheres. A few months before the popular uprisings were ignited, Iranian authorities signed a $10 billion natural gas agreement with Syria and Iraq for the construction of gas pipeline that would start in Iran, run through Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean, and reach several Western countries. According to the agreement, Iraq and Syria would receive a specified amount of cubic meters of natural gas per day. This proposal was endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who also supported the allocation of $5.8 billion in aid to Syria by Iran's Center for Strategic Research (CSR), which concentrates on the Islamic Republic of Iran's strategies in six different arenas including Foreign Policy Research, Middle East and Persian Gulf research, and International political economy research. 

Another unique and significant agreement that was signed before the crisis broke out in Syria was a proposal to establish a joint bank in Damascus, 60 percent of which the Iranian government would own. The agreement would have allowed Iran to identify other financial hubs with which to conduct its transactions in Syria. At the time, Syrian banks were allowed to engage in trade and transactions with the West, prior to sanctions imposed after the start of the conflict. Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad discussed an even more comprehensive agreement shortly before the uprisings seeking to establish a regional economic bloc. As a result of this proposal, a 17-article agreement was signed which focused on "trade, investment, planning and statistics, industries, air, naval and rail transportation, communication and information technology, health, agriculture, [and] tourism."

The recent rounds of international sanctions imposed on Syria have led to the suspension of all former agreements that Iran was attempting secure in the region, which has put tremendous pressure on Iran. The Syrian pound (SYR) has lost 25 percent of its spending power falling from 47 SYR to $1 USD to 67 SYR to $1 USD. The Syrian Ministry of Economy has stated that food prices have surged dramatically. The prices of some items have increased by up to 37 percent since the popular uprisings began. Due to increases in military expenditures, public expenditures increased by $19 billion in 2011. Meanwhile, public revenue has decreased by $2.31 billion.

Although Iranian officials have frequently pointed out that their economic alliance would not be shaken by the security issues since the uprisings began, Syrian state companies as and business operators have encountered growing difficulties and obstacles in trading and reaching deals with Iran due to the restrictions on dollar transactions. The Iranian and Syrian economic alliance has operated between multi-level contracts of state and semi-private organizations through the adoption of the dollar for transactions, which were worth billions of dollars. However, regulations imposed by the United States, European Union, and other Arab Gulf states after the start of the conflict have made it difficult to utilize and source foreign currencies through the Syrian Central Bank.

These economic pressures on both countries pushed Iran and Syria to sign a symbolic free trade agreement on December 13, 2011. The move was an attempt to diminish the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the United States, EU, and some members of the Arab League, as well as reduce trade hurdles that have emerged due to the progress of rebels, the kidnapping of some Iranians in Damascus, and continued insecurity. According to the recent agreement, trade will be further liberalized between the state-owned companies and both countries declared that they would decrease custom fees in order to facilitate trading and business. Particularly, Syria has decided to reduce fees on Syrian goods exported to Iran by 60 percent in order to ratchet up the bilateral trade. Minister of Economy and Trade Mohammad Nidal al-Cha'ar pointed out at the Syrian-Iranian committee meeting "The road to Iran has always been paved for the two countries." 

These recent financial agreements are crucial for both countries, but particularly Syria, in order to open up a new market for its products and increase revenue. These agreements are believed to increase Iran and Syria's annual trade volume to $5 billion. Allaedin Boroujerdi stated that the recent agreements were "a firm response" to the United States and its Western allies "investing billions of dollars to change the political structure of the Syrian government." They also are intended to offer the needed moral and economic support for Assad's isolated regime as well as the Iranian government.

Without doubt, Iran has tremendous geopolitical and strategic interests in Syria, but the country has additionally become a crucial economic lifeline for Iran. As both countries become increasingly isolated from the international community their economic ties have become exceedingly more important. However, billions of dollars in Iranian investments have been suspended with the current crisis in Syria. And until there is a resolution to the nearing two-year conflict, with either Assad regaining control or the establishment of a new government, economic conditions will continue to be threatened.

Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syrian, is scholar, policy analyst, and human rights activist. He is president of the International American Council on the Middle East and Muslims. He has taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara on a Fulbright teaching scholarship. Formerly, he conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and participated at the National Council on US-Arab relations. He can be reached at rafizadeh@fas.harvard.edu or follow him at @majidrafizadeh. 

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