The Middle East Channel

Deadly clashes erupt in Lebanon’s port city of Sidon

An estimated 17 Lebanese soldiers have been killed and 35 others wounded in clashes in the port city of Sidon, about 28 miles south of Beirut. At least two gunmen, and possibly up to 25, were also killed, and fighting has spread to the northern city of Tripoli. Clashes reportedly broke out Sunday after Lebanese police arrested a follower of hardline Sunni cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir at a checkpoint. Supporters of Assir reportedly opened fire on the checkpoint. Assir is known for his criticism of the Syrian regime and for his public calls for disarming the Shiite group Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Assad's forces in Syria. In a video posted online, Assir accused the army of association with Hezbollah and Iran. On Monday, the Lebanese army reportedly seized a complex belonging to Assir. According to a judicial source, Lebanon's military prosecutor has issued arrest warrants for the cleric and 123 of his followers. The renewed violence has come after fighting last week in Sidon between Assir's supporters and Hezbollah supporters sparked by the Syrian conflict. However, this is the first instance of direct fighting between the Lebanese army and a domestic faction since the beginning of the Syrian uprising.

Syria

Foreign ministers from the international "Friends of Syria" group have pledged urgent support to Syrian opposition forces. Ministers from the 11 core members, which include the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, released a statement after meeting in Qatar Saturday agreeing "to provide urgently all the necessary material and equipment to the opposition on the ground." However, it is unclear what each country will deliver. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the decision was "not to seek a military solution" but to balance power for a political solution to the conflict. Syria's foreign ministry criticized the decision saying arming rebel groups would be "very dangerous" and will prolong violence. At a news conference in Damascus Monday, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem additionally said Syria would attend peace talks that the United States and Russia are working to plan in Geneva, but "not to hand over power to the other side." Meanwhile, Syrian forces have reportedly increased attacks on opposition position in the suburbs north of Damascus. Additionally, rebel fighters stepped up attacks in the northern city of Aleppo in efforts to reverse recent gains by government forces.

Headlines

  • Israeli warplanes reportedly struck two weapons storage facilities and a rocket launch site in the Gaza Strip Monday after several rockets were fired into southern Israel from Gaza.
  • A crowd of about 3,000 people led by Salafist sheikhs attacked the homes of Shiites in a village in Giza Sunday killing four people, including a prominent Shiite figure, and injuring many others.
  • Palestinian President Abbas accepted the resignation of Prime Minster Rami Hamdallah after just over two weeks in office, and days before a scheduled trip by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry to the region.
  • Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is meeting with ruling family members and societal elites Monday amid reports he intends to transfer power to his son, Sheikh Tamim.
  • Egypt's defense minister said the army would intervene to prevent the country from descending into "uncontrollable conflict" ahead of massive anti-Morsi protests planned for June 30. 

Arguments and Analysis

Iran's Man in the Middle' (Haleh Esfandiari, The New York Review of Books)

"While he is considered a moderate, Rouhani comes to office as an insider. For sixteen years he was head of Iran's National Security Council (NSC) and for two years Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. Even today, he sits on the NSC as the personal representative of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He served five terms in the Majlis, or parliament. He sits on two major state councils, one of which, the Assembly of Experts, will elect Khamenei's successor whenever he passes away. In holding high office, Rouhani was more a team player than a maverick and continues to support many existing Iranian policies. On Syria, since his election he has offered only the formulaic non-answer that the Syrian people should decide their own future through elections.

Critics have noted that Rouhani spoke in support of the harsh crackdown on student protesters at Tehran University in 1999 -- he later explained he was in the government at the time and could have not done otherwise. He also was silent when security forces brutally crushed protests following the contested 2009 presidential elections, and his explanation for that silence remains unconvincing: he was not then in the government, he said, the nature of the protests had changed, and the protesters were obligated to act within the laws."

What Next for the Gulf's Rulers-for-Life?' (Jane Kinninmont, The Guardian)

"There are increasingly credible reports suggesting that the 61-year-old emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is preparing to hand power over to his 33-year old son, Sheikh Tamim. This would be a dramatic move in an Arab region accustomed to rulers-for-life, but where the underlying drivers of the recent unrest have included the youth-ward shift in demographics and the increasing age difference between the rulers and the ruled.

Western diplomats say this handover has been under discussion for at least a year. Different observers will tell you about different scenarios: by some accounts, the crown prince could be enthroned in the summer; others say the emir will name him prime minister and empower him gradually over several years.

What is clear is that the crown prince is positioning his close allies, including several who work on strategic economic and resource issues, to take on a greater role; and the position of the current prime minister and foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, one of the richest and most powerful men in the Arab world, is now being questioned. Balancing these powerful interests will not be easy. If the country has a new leader, he will inherit not only the world's richest (per capita) country, but a host of increasingly complex foreign policy problems -- above all in Syria, where Qatar's foreign-policy activism has over-reached itself."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

 

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Palestinian Authority prime minister submits resignation after two weeks in office

Palestinian Premier Rami Hamdallah submitted his resignation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after serving only two weeks in office, citing a "conflict over authority" with other Palestinian officials. Alternatively, Hamdallah's resignation offer may have represented a "tactical move" to rid of cabinet deputies and forge a compromise with the Palestinian president. Though not yet accepted by Abbas, the resignation underscores the confusion within the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) and projects an image of political disarray in the PA-dominated West Bank. The resignation, if accepted, could further undermine international and investor confidence in the PA, already enduring serious financial difficulties. Moreover, the move threatens to disrupt the peace efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is expected to visit the region next week.

Syria

Foreign ministers of the eleven countries forming the "Friends of Syria" group will meet in Doha, Qatar on Saturday to discuss military and humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition. The talks will address rebel leaders' requests for more advanced military equipment, including anti-tank and anti-air weaponry, and will also discuss the proposed peace conference between rebel forces and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The meeting will take place amidst growing rebel losses at the hands of regime forces, which continue to prosecute military offensives against rebel positions in Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo. On Friday, Syrian forces shelled the Damascus neighborhood of Qabun in an attempt to expel opposition fighters. Given the conflict's rising humanitarian toll, the United Nations is considering supporting the cross-border transportation of supplies into Syria. The United Nations estimates that the Syria crisis could produce up to three million refugees by the end of the year. Meanwhile, four U.S. senators announced legislation that would prevent U.S. government agencies from providing military support to Syrian rebel groups.

Headlines

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began an overseas trip in which he will participate in the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Qatar and attempt to advance his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
  • A 46 year-old Jewish Israeli man suspected of being a Palestinian militant was shot and killed by a security guard at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
  • Spanish authorities arrested eight people suspected of recruiting militants for al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria.
  • Egyptian Islamists gathered in Cairo in support of President Mohamed Morsi ahead of the opposition protests scheduled for June 30. 

Articles & Analysis

‘The Price of Loyalty in Syria' (Robert F. Worth, New York Times)

"No one in the room would say it, but there was an unspoken sense that they, too, were victims of the regime. After two years of bloody insurrection, Syria's small Alawite community remains the war's opaque protagonist, a core of loyalists whose fate is now irrevocably tied to Assad's. Alawite officers commanded the regime's shock troops when the first protests broke out in March 2011 - jailing, torturing and killing demonstrators and setting Syria on a different path from all the other Arab uprisings. Assad's intelligence apparatus did everything it could to stoke sectarian fears and blunt the protesters' message of peaceful change.

Yet the past two years have made clear that those fears were not completely unfounded, and it did not take much to provoke them. Syria's Sunnis and Alawites were at odds for hundreds of years, and the current war has revived the worst of that history. Radical jihadis among the rebels now openly call for the extermination or exile of Syria's religious minorities. Most outsiders agree that Assad cynically manipulated the fears of his kinsmen for political survival, but few have asked - or had the opportunity to ask - how the Alawites themselves feel about Assad, and what kind of future they imagine now that the Sunni Arab world has effectively declared war on them.

‘What is horrible is that everyone is now protecting his existence,' Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, a prominent cleric in Damascus, told me. "For all of the minorities, it is as if we have entered a long corridor with no light.'"

‘Turkey: Confrontational Politics is No Panacea' (Fadi Hakura, Chatham House

"Turkey's MetroPOLL 3-12 June survey of 2,818 respondents across Turkey suggests that Erdogan's broad attractiveness to voters has started to fracture. It found that 54% believed the government was interfering with their lifestyles, 49.6% view Erdogan's handling of the unrest as 'confrontational and provocative', and nearly 50% accept that Turkey is moving toward an 'authoritarian and repressive style of governance'. 

If this survey is any guide, Erdogan's assertive socially conservative agenda, which has recently included efforts to restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol, limit women's access to contraception and increase religious content in the school curriculum, is not popular with the majority of Turks. His approval rating has declined by a statistically significant 7% to a still robust 53% over the last two months; arguably, it is higher than expected due to the absence of a credible political opposition."

-- Joshua Haber & Mary Casey

Joshua Haber