The Middle East Channel

Arab League Leaders Condemn Killing in Syria

The two-day Arab League summit concluded Wednesday in Kuwait with the 22 members stating in a final communique, "We condemn in the strongest terms the massacres and the mass killing committed by the Syrian regime's forces against the unarmed people." Meanwhile, the first Syrian refugees arrived in Britain Tuesday as part of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation program.  It is expected that several hundred Syrian refugees will relocate over the next three years under the new program, which immediately grants the rights and benefits of humanitarian protection status, including access to public funds and the labor market. Approximately 3,800 Syrians have sought asylum in Britain since the conflict began in March 2011. A spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has confirmed that the last trucks of a 78-truck aid convoy crossed the Qamishli border, completing a five-day mission to move humanitarian aid into Syria. In Lebanon, a Syrian mother of four is in critical condition after she set herself on fire Tuesday at a U.N. refugee registration center in Tripoli. Islamist rebel forces have seized control of the seaside village of Samra near the Turkish border, gaining access to the sea for the first time since the conflict began. 

Headlines

  • The trial of 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, including leader Mohamed Badie, was adjourned until April 28 after opening remarks on Tuesday.
  • Members of the board of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission have resigned ahead of elections slated for April 30 in response to conflicting legislative and judicial rulings regarding electoral candidates.
  • Turkish police raided several buildings in Istanbul Tuesday in a search for members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), leaving three policemen and two suspected ISIL militants wounded.
  • The U.S. White House has protested a decision by Saudi Arabia to deny a visa to the Washington bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, the only White House correspondent rejected by the Saudi government ahead of President Barack Obama's scheduled visit to the kingdom March 28 and 29.
  • Israeli naval forces opened fired on two suspected smuggling boats, sinking both vessels off the coast of Gaza Wednesday. 

Arguments and Analysis

'The Next Round in Gaza' (International Crisis Group)

"The ceasefire between Israel and Gaza has eroded during the past several months and recently threatened to come to an abrupt end. The day after three members of Islamic Jihad were killed by Israel in a border clash on 11 March 2014, the group, apparently in coordination with Hamas, launched the largest salvo of rockets toward Israel since the last major escalation (known in Israel as Operation Pillar of Defence), in November 2012. In a little over a day's mediation, Egypt restored quiet. But with Hamas's fortunes declining and Gaza suffering its worst isolation and economic constriction in years, it is likely a matter of time until a flare-up escalates to major conflagration - unless the sides reach an understanding to extend a fragile quiet. Given Hamas's isolation and worsening relations with Cairo, it is hard to imagine full implementation of the ceasefire Egypt brokered to end the 2012 fighting. But a rump deal, comprised of that ceasefire's core elements, still could lessen the chance that Hamas and Israel will be dragged into a conflict neither currently desires, while helping both to secure advantages beyond the Gaza-Israel theatre. 

Periodic escalations between Israel and Gaza militants are the rule, not the exception. Their shared border has witnessed regular, low-scale violence punctuated by short, intense escalations, typically when one or both sides feel the implicit rules of engagement have been undercut. Hamas and Israel have been headed toward such a clash since 3 July 2013, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, and Cairo, as part of its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi-jihadis in Sinai, initiated a push to further isolate Gaza by closing the tunnels under its border with Egypt. Among Hamas's limited tools for dealing with its downward spiral is directly participating in a military escalation in the hope that a new crisis would bring about at least temporary alleviation of the closure; call the world's attention to the resultant economic distress; increase sympathy for the territory in Egypt and elsewhere; and embarrass Egypt's leaders about their role in immiserating Gaza."

'Why do Egyptian courts says the darndest things?' (Nathan Brown, Washington Post)

"I do not mean to imply that journalists have a monopoly on asking the wrong question. In fact, those that I speak with are very happy to try and understand the questions they should be asking. The same is true for academics who keep on honing in on better questions. For a while we have been asking the wrong question: 'Why would an authoritarian regime allow an independent judiciary?' 

I have been part of the effort to answer that question since I began work on judicial politics. But at least in the Egyptian case, I think we may be realizing that the question misdirects our attention. It treats the judiciary as if it is a creature of intelligent design by a masterful authoritarian ruler. It is actually the produce of historical evolution, accretion, large doses of judicial agency, and, of course, even larger doses of regime tinkering. Understanding the judiciary as an evolving institution -- one with a strong corporate identity but also one operating in a thoroughly authoritarian environment -- will help guide our way to a better understanding of the problems."

-- Cortni Kerr

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

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