The Middle East Channel

Obama Requests $500 Million to Train and Equip Syrian Rebels

U.S. President Barack Obama requested $500 million from Congress to train and equip "moderate" and "appropriately vetted" members of the Syrian opposition as concerns grow over the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Iraq. According to Obama, arming the opposition would "help defend the Syrian people, stabilize areas under opposition control, facilitate the provision of essential services, counter terrorist threats, and promote conditions for a negotiated settlement." Previous U.S. assistance to the Syrian rebels has been focused on non-lethal aid. Though, Obama suggested a plan to increase help for the opposition in May during a speech at the West Point military academy. The request for funding has come as the head of the opposition government, Ahmad Tohme, disbanded the Supreme Military Council over allegations of corruption within the ranks of the Western and Arab supported Free Syrian Army.

Iraq

Iraq's top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on political blocs to reach a deal on the country's next prime minister before the new parliament convenes on July 1. Prominent Shiite leaders are considering alternatives to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki due to growing concerns that he cannot lead an inclusive government. Iraqi forces have launched an attack on the city of Tikrit attempting to regain control from ISIL-led militants. Helicopters fired on a university campus, where one was reportedly downed after coming under fire. Human Rights Watch reported it has evidence from satellite images and photos from militants that ISIL fighters executed up to 190 captive soldiers after seizing Tikrit on June 11. Meanwhile, U.S. officials are continuing to evaluate intelligence on the ISIL offensive in Iraq from up to 35 surveillance planes and drones. Noting that it could take weeks to get a detailed picture of the situation, officials said that U.S. airstrikes do not appear imminent.

Headlines  

  • Israel has named two members of Hamas as suspects in the alleged kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers.
  • Libya's new parliament will convene in the eastern city of Benghazi in efforts to rebuild state authority where institutions have largely collapsed under increasing insecurity.
  • Saudi Arabian authorities have reported over 100 more MERS cases dating back to February after analyzing hospital records.
  • The Turkish government has submitted a reform package to parliament to revive stalled peace negotiations with Kurdish militants ahead of the August presidential election.

Arguments and Analysis

'Syria Faces an Imminent Food and Water Crisis' (Nouar Shamout, Chatham House)

"The deliberate targeting of water supply networks and related structures is now a daily occurrence in the conflict. The water pumping station in Al-Khafsah, Aleppo stopped working on 10 May, cutting off water supply to half of the city. It is unclear who was responsible; both the regime and opposition forces blame each other, but unsurprisingly in a city home to almost three million people the incident caused panic and chaos. Some people even resorted to drinking from puddles in the streets. 

Attacks and counter-attacks have destroyed several waste water treatment and sewage facilities in the country. Damage to the sewage system in Aleppo, for example, has resulted in the contamination of drinking water. Warnings to citizens to boil all tap water were issued in the city this month. But, with the rising prices of black-market fuel, boiled water is itself a luxury that most of the besieged population cannot afford. Disinfection of the water supply system now needs a two-day fresh water flush, during which time the water supply would be inaccessible - making it a an unpalatable action, given the current water shortage."

'Maliki has only himself to blame for Iraq's crisis' (Zaid Al-Ali, The Washington Post)

"The second issue is that Iraq's system of government is parliamentary and not presidential. Personal popularity of specific politicians is in fact totally irrelevant to the question of who should become prime minister. The only legitimate criterion in parliamentary systems is in fact the ability to obtain parliament's confidence. In other words, the parliament and the entire political system must have sufficient trust in the prime minister to allow him to negotiate agreements and offer concessions. Without that reservoir of trust, a parliamentary system cannot function.

Based on that criterion (which is the only one that is applicable), Maliki is perhaps the worst candidate possible to occupy the prime minister's position, precisely because he will not be able to successfully negotiate any further agreements or convince anyone of his good faith. He only has himself to blame: In November 2010, Maliki entered into the Irbil Agreement, which allowed him to start a new term in office in exchange for a number of concessions and reforms, none of which he delivered. His unending series of broken promises have transformed him into the lamest of ducks, unable to convince anyone of his good intentions, even when he genuinely does promise reform. The hostility that he has engendered from those who do not support him will make it impossible for him to lead an effective administration."

-- Mary Casey

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Jordan Acquits Radical Cleric Abu Qatada of Terror Charges

Jordan's state security court has acquitted radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada of conspiring to carry out terrorist acts in 1998. A Jordanian court previously sentenced the cleric, whose real name is Omar Othman, in absentia to life in prison, though the convictions were dismissed because they were based on evidence that may have been extracted under torture from other defendants. Thursday's session was a retrial, and the court found Abu Qatada not guilty due to insufficient evidence. However, he will remain in prison awaiting a trial set for September when Abu Qatada will face separate charges of involvement in a plot to attack tourists in Jordan during the 2000 New Year's celebrations. The cleric was granted asylum in Britain in 1994, but was extradited to Jordan in July 2013.

Iraq-Syria

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has confirmed that Syrian warplanes had carried out airstrikes against militants near the border town of al-Qaim. Maliki said he did not request the strikes, but welcomed any attack against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Syrian state media denied the government had conducted airstrikes in Iraqi territory. According to U.S. officials, Iran has been secretly sending military equipment and supplies to Iraqi forces, and has been directing surveillance drones over the country. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has traveled to Baghdad to push Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government across sectarian lines. Iraq's parliament is set to meet Monday to work to form a new government.

Headlines  

  • A Saudi suicide bomber blew himself up Wednesday in a Beirut hotel as Lebanese security forces raided the building in a "pre-emptive strike" on a terrorist cell.
  • Libya saw low turnout for its parliamentary elections, which were overshadowed by violence, including the killing of prominent lawyer and human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis.
  • About 40,000 Hamas-hired workers have gone on strike in Gaza over a wage dispute while workers on the Palestinian Authority payroll have continued to receive checks.
  • Yemeni officials reported al Qaeda fighters attacked an airport in the southern Hadramawt province and bombed its air control tower.

Arguments and Analysis

'Libya: the Dangers of Inconclusive Elections' (Mattia Toaldo, Istituto Per Gli Studi Di Politica Internazionale)

"Ultimately, these elections may not solve the crisis of legitimacy affecting Libya's main institutions. Results will be hard to understand immediately for foreigners since the electoral law forbade party lists and candidates formally all independents and elected in single-seat constituencies with a simple majority system. In the absence of clearly defined political blocs, this may result in the elections of notables and local leaders without clear affiliation. Although existing national parties have already fielded their candidates, existing fragmentation coupled with the single-seat constituencies may again produce members of parliament who represent only around 10% of the voters in their district. This could mean an extremely narrow base of support if turnout is low among the already low number of registered voters.

Most factions have guaranteed to international envoys that they will recognize the results but it is hard to say whether elections will put an end to the fighting. The last attempt at reconciliation was organized by the UN Special Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) for June 18 but it was aborted because of opposition from Hiftar's front. The new parliament, which will change its denomination into "House of representatives", will need to elect soon a new Prime Minister if government authority is to be restored. Not an easy task given the fragmentation resulting from the electoral law which will add to the existing territorial rifts between cities that played different roles in the revolution and the ensuing civil war." 

'The Lebanese Army and the Confessional Trap' (Mona Alami, Sada)

"Facing greater threats from the escalating war in neighboring Syria, the army sought aid from Hezbollah, especially over the past few months. By 2013, the Lebanese army was exchanging valuable security information with Hezbollah that allowed it to respond effectively to a number of threats. According to an army source, the shared intelligence contributed to the army's successful dismantling of a terror ring responsible for dozens of attacks in February and March. However, Sunni fears of the LAF's bias toward Hezbollah were made worse by the latter's statement that its involvement in Syria is to protect Lebanon against the takfiri threat from jihadis (a foe that the army had fought for several years). This narrative has allowed both the party and the army to identify Lebanese and Syrian jihadis as a common enemy."

'Sidestepping Sanctions' (Nikolay Kozhanov, Majalla)

"After the implementation of the EU oil embargo in 2012, Iran offered the remaining buyers of its hydrocarbons substantial discounts to guarantee their custom. The counter-measure worked: India's then-oil minister, Veerappa Moily, confessed in June 2013 that cheap prices meant the Indian state-owned oil companies continued to trade with Iran in spite of the sanctions.

In certain cases, the very conditions under which the sanctions can and cannot be applied created a number of opportunities to bypass them: the punitive measures are mostly related to sea and air transport, but road haulage is left unchecked. Iran's impressive road infrastructure, with multiple intersections with the transportation systems of neighboring countries, allowed Tehran to deliver goods to every point in Eurasia without using sea or air routes. Following the sanctions in 2010, there were reports of increased numbers of petrol trucks crossing the Turkish and Iraqi borders with Iran, as well as Iranian hydrocarbons being ferried across the Caspian Sea to some Central Asian countries."

-- Mary Casey

STR/AFP/Getty Images