The Middle East Channel

Mortar Strike Hits Pro-Assad Rally in Southern Syria

A mortar attack on a pro-Assad election rally in the southern Syrian city of Daraa Thursday evening killed at least 20 people, according to opposition activists and state media. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, however the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an Islamist rebel brigade carried out the strike. The pro-opposition group said 11 civilians were among those killed and at least 30 people were injured. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not at the rally, and has not been seen campaigning ahead of the June 3 presidential election. Meanwhile, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution to refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged war crimes. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was appalled by the veto and the French ambassador to the United Nations, Gérard Araud, said the move was akin to "vetoing justice."


  • The head of the Sinai Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, Shadi al-Menei, was killed in a firefight Friday, in what may have been an Egyptian army operation.
  • Three bombings in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad killed an estimated 35 Shiite pilgrims traveling to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a revered imam.
  • Pope Francis is making his first visit to the Middle East this weekend, where he will find a dwindling number of Christians, to push a mission of inter-religious dialogue.
  • Libya's cabinet has urged all militias to leave Tripoli after the parliament summoned the Central Shield militia to the capital to protect it.
  • The Kurdish Ministry of Natural Resources announced it has shipped over 1 million barrels of oil concluding its first sale in the international market, bypassing the Iraqi central government.

Arguments and Analysis

'One Year after Morsi's Ouster, Divides Persist on El-Sisi, Muslim Brotherhood' (Pew Research Center)

"Nearly a year of tumult and violence has drained Egyptians of their optimism and battered the images of key players in the post-Mubarak era, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. As a controversial presidential election approaches, 72% of Egyptians are dissatisfied with their country's direction, and although most still want democratic rights and institutions, confidence in democracy is slipping. In a shift from previous years, Egyptians are now more likely to say that having a stable government (54%) is more important than having a democratic one (44%).

Last July's military takeover wins support from a slender majority: 54% favor it; 43% oppose. And while the next president is almost certain to be Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former general who has been the most powerful figure in the country since last year's overthrow of the government, the new poll finds that his popularity is limited. Sisi receives a favorable rating from 54% of Egyptians, while 45% view him unfavorably, a more mixed review than many media reports from Egypt over the last year might suggest."

'Elusive Equilibrium: America, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in a Changing Middle East' (Frederic Wehrey and Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

"Since the 1979 Iranian revolution replaced a U.S.-allied monarchy with a bitterly anti-American theocracy, Washington's foreign policy in the oil-rich Persian Gulf has rested on two strategic pillars: enmity with Iran and amity with Saudi Arabia. In recent months, however, this thirty-five-year status quo has been called into question by a rapidly changing Arab political order and the promise of a U.S.-Iran nuclear détente.

The combination of the interim nuclear deal with Iran, U.S.-Saudi regional disagreements, and America's newfound shale wealth has prompted predictions of a fundamental realignment of the geopolitical chessboard, with Tehran supplanting Riyadh as Washington's chief regional ally. Rather than swap one ally for another, however, U.S. President Barack Obama has articulated a revised approach to the Middle East. The United States will no longer seek to isolate Iran but will instead attempt to 'get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion' to foster a 'new equilibrium' between Iran and Saudi Arabia that will be marked by 'competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.'"

'Forced to Flee Syria, Young Adult Refugees Stall Out' (Elizabeth Dickinson, The Christian Science Monitor)

"A government-employed technician building his fiancé her dream home now volunteers with an NGO for a food stipend. A master's student in English documents medical needs in Syria, her studies abandoned. A factory worker who lost his leg in a car accident amid a firefight struggles to support his young family.

When Syria's conflict eventually ends, this generation of young adults will be called upon to rebuild. But they have lost critical years. Their careers were put on hold and their educations ended early when they fled Syria with 2 million other refugees."

-- Mary Casey


The Middle East Channel

Retired Libyan General Calls for Emergency Cabinet

Retired Libyan General Khalifa Heftar, who has launched attacks on Islamist militias in Benghazi and on the Libyan government, has called on the judiciary to appoint an emergency cabinet and oversee parliamentary elections. Heftar called the country a "terrorist hub" and claimed the government had "fostered terrorism" and failed Libyans. Heftar's campaign, named "Libya's dignity" by supporters, got a boost when the country's top air defense commander, Juma al-Abani, and Culture Minister Habib Amin declared their support. The government said the operation was an attempted coup and Libya's new prime minister, Ahmed Maitiq, called for negotiations to end the political crisis.


Pro-government troops, backed by the air force, have entered the grounds of Aleppo's central prison, breaking a year-long rebel siege, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and two pro-Syrian regime Lebanese television stations. Opposition fighters have launched repeated attacks in efforts to free the estimated 4,000 inmates held there. Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported it has been able to deliver food to more than 60,000 displaced persons in Aleppo province who had not received humanitarian aid in nine months. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution that would refer the Syrian crisis to the International Criminal Court for an investigation into alleged war crimes. Dozens of countries have signed on to the measure, however Russia vowed to veto the resolution with U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin calling it a "publicity stunt."


  • A man has been wounded in clashes between Turkish police and protesters in Istanbul Thursday meanwhile opposition lawmakers are accusing the government of permitting lax safety standards after the Soma mine disaster.
  • Tunisian police have arrested eight people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks who were trained in explosives and weapons in Libya.
  • The U.S. House of Representatives minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, has named five Democrats to serve on a panel investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
  • Lebanese parliamentarians again failed to hold a vote Thursday to elect a new president two days ahead of the expiration of President Michel Suleiman's term.

Arguments and Analysis

'Why Are the Irish Increasingly Siding With Palestine Over Israel?' (Jason Walsh, New Republic)

"Palestine activism is extremely visible on the Irish left, often managing to marshall more people than domestic campaigns. Left-wing activism of all kinds has become increasingly shrill since the 2008 economic meltdown, the main legacy of which seems to have been not the much predicted rebirth of Marxism but an intensification of identity politics. Beyond that, though, even relatively unpolitical Irish people seem to view Israel with deep suspicion, at the very least.

Israel's history of fighting Britain for independence could have made the Irish more sympathetic to the country, but Israel's treatment of Palestinians has sown a dark seed in the Irish anti-colonial mindset. More important, as Israel has become more successful, potential Irish support for it has waned. In the Irish psyche, Israel functions as a surrogate for Britain: imperial and imperious and, above all, modern."

'Syria's Upcoming Elections...And the President Laughed' (Peter Hill, Muftah)

"This is the essential point to grasp about the upcoming Syrian election: it is not designed as a response to the recent uprisings and civil war. Rather, it is a pointed non-response. It is taking place because Assad has come to the end of his latest presidential term, and the constitutional niceties must be observed."

'Simmering discontent' (Pomegranate, The Economist)

"The anniversary of Yemeni unity on May 22nd usually passes quietly in Sana'a, the capital. But this year the government Abd Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, the president, is keen to build on patriotic sentiment fired up by a recent military campaign against al-Qaeda. Fairy lights adorn the central bank and roads are lined with bunting in the red, black and white of the Yemeni flag. The celebrations are due to culminate in a fireworks display.

The sentiment is not shared across Yemen. A day earlier, on May 21st, thousands of people took to the streets in Aden, a port town that was once the capital of the separate southern state, to demand independence. 'Twenty years of repression and resistance,' they chanted."

* An incorrect photo was included with the 5.21.14 Middle East Daily Brief. Please see the revised brief here.

-- Mary Casey