The Middle East Channel

Arab League Summit Opens in Kuwait Amid Tensions

The Arab League began a two-day annual summit in Kuwait Tuesday amid tensions over Syria and divisions between Gulf states. In the opening session, Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, called for Arab states to resolve rifts saying "The dangers around us are enormous and we will not move towards joint Arab action without our unity and without casting aside our difference." The summit is following a rare dispute within the Gulf states over Qatar's perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood and interference in regional affairs, which sparked a move by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to recall their ambassadors from Qatar. The dispute, however, is not expected to be on the agenda for the summit. The meeting is expected to cover regional challenges including Iran and Syria. Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition addressed the summit appealing for heavy weapons from the international community for rebel fighters and lobbying for Syria's vacant seat in the Arab League. Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria expressed reservations over granting the seat to the SNC, while Saudi Arabia questioned why the seat was not given to Syria's main opposition bloc. Saudi Arabia stressed the need for more support to opposition fighters and called for "changing the balance of forces" on the ground in Syria's conflict.

Syria

Reporting to the U.N. Security Council Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed the Syrian government and opposition for escalating violence and failing to implement a Security Council resolution passed in February demanding immediate access for humanitarian aid deliveries. Ban said that 9.3 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance, 3.5 million of whom are in hard to reach areas. Clashes have spread in Syria's coastal region along the border with Turkey a day after rebel fighters seized the down of Kasab and a border crossing. According to an opposition activist, several Islamist rebel groups were fighting Tuesday with government forces in the seaside village of Samra. If rebel forces take the town, it would be the first time they would gain access to the sea since the conflict began in March 2011.

Headlines

  • A day after sentencing 529 people to death, Egypt has opened a trial of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 682 others facing charges including murder and inciting violence.
  • Libya is holding three militia members found aboard an oil tanker seized by the U.S. Navy, and rebels who are in control of three oil ports refuse to enter talks with the government until they and the vessel are returned.
  • Israel's Finance Ministry is threatening to file charges against Foreign Ministry staff and diplomats whose strike has closed the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and embassies around the world.
  • The trial of three Al Jazeera journalists held on terror charges in Egypt has been adjourned until March 31 after Monday's proceedings focused on seized footage and equipment.

Arguments and Analysis

'Status Anxiety: How the Jaafari Personal Status Law Could Set Iraqi Women Back Decades' (Isobel Coleman, Foreign Affairs)

"Last October, Hassan al-Shimari, Iraq's minister of justice, quietly submitted a draft law to the Council of Ministers for review. If implemented, the Jaafari Personal Status Law (so named because it is based on the Jaafari school of Shia jurisprudence) will fulfill a longtime goal of the country's conservative Shia leaders: to exert religious control over critical family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance for the country's Shia -- some 60-65 percent of the population. Shia advocates of the law, noting the decades of oppression they suffered under a harsh Baathist Sunni minority, contend that the bill would expand their freedom to practice their faith. Although that might be true for some Shia, for others it would drastically curtail their civil rights in the name of religion, and deepen sectarian tensions in society. It would also seriously undermine the rights of women and children by permitting unfettered polygamy, a Taliban-like restriction on women's movement, child marriage for girls as young as nine, unequal divorce and custody, and an end to interreligious marriage.

Iraq's existing personal status law dates to 1959. It includes several progressive provisions loosely based on various schools of Islamic law. It sets the marriage age at 18 for both boys and girls; prohibits arbitrary divorce; significantly restricts polygamy (including by requiring a judge's permission and proof that the husband can treat both wives equally); and guarantees equal inheritance for men and women. Together, these provisions marked a considerable legal step forward for Iraqi women who went on to make notable educational, economic, and political strides under the secular Baathists. Religious leaders, however, resented the code from the outset because it forced religious conformity. Shia leaders, in particular, viewed it as yet another example of Sunni oppression."

'Letter from Iraq' (Nabeel Khoury, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"In a recent contract, the U.S. Air Force signed off $838 million to Michael Baker International, a U.S. defense giant, to build an airbase in Iraq that would provide maintenance, spare parts and personnel training for the eventual stationing of a large F-16 sale to Iraq's air force. Pending final approval in Congress, a small arms package, hellfire missiles and Apache helicopters, among other sundry ammunition and ordinance are on their way to Baghdad. The near $1 billion USAF contract, in other words, is but the tip of the iceberg in terms of Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to Iraq, a country clearly destined to become one of America's most important arms clients. 

Since there are no longer any U.S. troops on Iraqi soil, and no plans for stationing any in the foreseeable future, the value to the U.S. of such large sales would have to be seen in commercial terms and in any benefits derived from the use they might be put to by Iraqi forces; and therein lies the rub. Iraq's internal security and general armed forces have been noted abusers of their population's human rights since their reconstruction after the fall of Saddam. More ominously, the ongoing war in Iraq's western region involves not only a legitimate confrontation with Al-Qaeda affiliated forces coming across the borders from Syria, but also Sunni tribal forces defending their homes and cities from central government forces from Baghdad."

-- Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egyptian Court Sentences 529 Muslim Brotherhood Supporters to Death

A court in southern Egyptian city of Minya on Monday sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death on charges including murdering a policeman and attacking other officers in riots after security forces broke up two protest camps on August 14, 2013. The group is among more than 1,200 supporters of Mohamed Morsi on trial since a crackdown on Islamists after the military removed the president in July. In December, the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Only about 147 defendants were present at the unprecedentedly rushed hearings, which began Saturday. Others were released or are on the run being tried in absentia. Sixteen defendants were acquitted. The verdict, the largest capital punishment verdict in the history of the Egyptian judiciary, and the sentences are subject to appeal, and are likely to be overturned, according to lawyers.  

Syria

Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian warplane Sunday after it breached Turkish airspace, according to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Speaking at a campaign rally ahead of March 30 local elections, Erdogan congratulated the air force on its actions, saying, "If you violate our border, our slap will be hard." Syria condemned the strike as an act of "blatant aggression" saying the jet had been over Syrian territory targeting rebel fighters. According to Turkish sources, a control center detected two Syrian jets and warned them four times as they approached the Turkish border. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said initial reports indicated that the plane caught fire and crashed in Syrian territory. Rebel fighters, from mainly Islamist factions, seized the small predominantly Armenian Christian town of Kasab Sunday in northwestern Syrian, near the Turkish border, as well as a border crossing. The advances have come as part of an offensive along the coastal region of Latakia province traditionally a stronghold of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria's state news agency and opposition activists reported that President Assad's cousin, Hilal al-Assad, head of the National Defense paramilitary forces in Latakia, was killed in the fighting.

Headlines

  • Suspected al Qaeda linked militants attacked a military checkpoint in Yemen's eastern Hadramout province Monday killing 20 soldiers.
  • The Lebanese army broke up clashes Sunday in south Beirut that killed at least one person, following a week of violence in the northern city of Tripoli that killed 27 people.
  • Six candidates have begun campaigning ahead of Algeria's April 17 presidential election, after protests opposing President Bouteflika's running for a fourth five-year term.

Arguments and Analysis

'Is Hezbollah Confronting a Crisis of Popular Legitimacy?' (Eric Lob, Middle East Brief)

"In addition, Hezbollah distributed basic services to thousands of Lebanese Shiites, along with Lebanese of other sects, in the form of housing, water, electricity, education, health, vocational training, and agricultural extension; it also repaired infrastructure damaged by Israeli attacks and by warring domestic factions. In sum, Hezbollah filled the void of a Lebanese state mired in internal factionalism and external meddling, and helped to deliver Lebanese Shiites from disenfranchisement and destitution to military empowerment, political relevance, and economic prosperity.

And yet, regardless of all its achievements -- or perhaps because of them -- Hezbollah has recently faced growing discontent and mounting criticism, not only from other Lebanese factions but from its own Shiite constituents. What are the sources of this discontent and criticism? Some experts believe that Hezbollah's erosion of domestic support originated with its recent intervention in Syria. This Brief argues, however, that Hezbollah's involvement in Syria only exacerbated a crisis of popular legitimacy that began in the mid-2000s. In the years since, Hezbollah, in its dual status as both a militia and a political party, both engaged in military confrontation with Israel and entered the Lebanese cabinet."

'65 Experts Call on Secretary Kerry to Bolster U.S. Support for Tunisia' (Project on Middle East Democracy)

"In January 2014, Tunisia passed a landmark constitution and undertook the first peaceful transfer of power in an Arab democracy. Successful consolidation of Tunisia's democratic gains will set an important example in the region, but recent successes will remain at risk unless the country's transition maintains momentum. You recently said, 'We're hopeful that Tunisia is going to succeed, and we're going to help... We're going to try to do all we can in this age of constrained budgets and difficult choices.' As you prepare to launch the Strategic Dialogue with Tunisia, we urge you to follow through on and deepen U.S. commitments to help build an enduring Tunisian democracy by bolstering support for its economic, political, and security needs.

Tunisia faces serious obstacles despite recent successes. Its struggling economy -- a root cause of the revolution -- remains unable to generate jobs for its well-educated population. The country's weak security apparatus has failed to address burgeoning extremist threats and has increasingly targeted human rights and political activists critical of its conduct. To maintain momentum, Tunisian leadership must make important decisions to avoid exacerbating political polarization."

-- Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

-/AFP/Getty Images