This Week in Middle Eastern Conflict… March 2nd-March 9th, 2012.

  • At least 35 soldiers and some 14 suspected militants were reportedly killed in twin suicide bombings and ensuing clashes with al-Qaeda militants in southern Abyan Province in Yemen on Sunday, part of an upsurge of attacks since the Presidential election last month. On Monday, officials raised the death toll to at least 139 people, as clashes continued; and the new President vowed to pursue the militants to their last hiding place. By Tuesday, the death toll had risen to over 180 soldiers and at least 25 militants dead; with some 70 soldiers captured by militants. On Tuesday, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda announced that it attacked a US intelligence officer due to an increasing American military presence. On Thursday, an army officer and six of his bodyguards were reportedly killed in a shootout with rebels in the north of the country, where insurgents have snatched territory during anti-government protests. On Friday, the UN refugee agency reported that the country is facing a new wave of internal displacement, with tens of thousands of civilians fleeing tribal clashes in the north and fresh fighting between government troops and militants in the south; while air strikes on suspected positions of al Qaeda linked fighters in the south killed several militants.
  • Police in the United Arab Emirates reportedly arrested an activist after he criticized the security services for interfering with the lives of citizens, the latest step to limit political dissent in the country.
  • Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Bahrain on Friday to demand democratic reforms in the biggest protest yet. Riot police reportedly blocked the road and fired tear gas at rock-throwing protesters.
  • Around 8,000 students at a women’s university in Saudi Arabia demonstrated on Wednesday against a move by the university to keep cleaning crews away after accusing students of not doing enough to keep their areas tidy, resulting in the injuries of some 53 students after security forces dispersed them. The students declared on Friday they were planning to boycott classes the following day in response to the intervention by security forces.
  • Chatter on potential Israeli strikes on nuclear targets on Iran have reportedly never been higher, but some suggest it is all smoke-and-mirrors being used as a diplomatic weapon. AlertNet ran a report claiming that any strike on Iran would lead to an unleashing of horrible consequences, an opinion I strongly agree with. On Friday, Israeli PM Netanyahu announced once again that Israel reserved the right to defend itself against Iran and that global powers would be falling into a trap if they pursued talks with the country; while American President Obama said he would not hesitate to use military force against Iran if necessary to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weaponry and also admonished Israel for “too much loose talk of war”. On Monday, PM Netanyahu responded for American President Obama’s call for an end to “loose talk of war” by reiterating Israel’s “right to defend itself” during a meeting between the two at the White House and Obama reassured the PM that the US “will always have Israel’s back”; while a young Palestinian man throwing rocks at soldiers in the West Bank reportedly had his skull smashed by a tear gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier. On Tuesday, the Atlantic ran an interesting article comparing the nuclear developments of both Israel and Iran over different time periods; while Hamas ruled out military support for Iran in any war with Israel; while two Palestinian children were reportedly killed when an abandoned ordnance exploded in the West Bank. On Wednesday, Israel reportedly cautiously welcomed the possible resumption of international talks on Iran’s nuclear program, but announced it will not abandon other options. On Thursday, Israel reportedly asked the US for advanced “bunker buster” bombs and refueling planes that could improve its ability to attack Iran’s alleged underground nuclear sites, something that White House press secretary denied was discussed; an Israeli soldier reportedly shot dead a Palestinian and wounded another who stabbed him, as troops carried out an arrest in West Bank; Israel announced it is training its troops to hunt below ground with robot probes and sniffer dogs fearing a surge in tunnel and bunker construction by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian militants; while PM Netanyahu announced that Israel will give sanctions on Iran a chance to work and will not attack the country in the coming days or weeks. On Friday, Israeli air strikes reportedly killed 10 militants in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian gunmen fired more than two dozen rockets at the Jewish state, in the worst violent flare up in months; while a vehicle exploded in Gaza, killing at least two people.
  • A prominent human rights lawyer in Iran was sentenced to 18 years in prison by a revolutionary court for spreading anti-government propaganda, endangering national security and accepting an “illegal” human rights price that critics are saying is politically motivated, his daughter said on Sunday; while conservative rivals of President Ahmadinejad appeared to have extended their lead in the parliamentary election that reportedly had more than 64% turnout after nearly 90% of ballot boxes counted. On Monday, the head of the IAEA highlighted the ongoing serious concerns about a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme, adding that the country has tripled its monthly production of enriched uranium; while the Washington Post suggested that international sanctions on the country are starting to really hurt Iran (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg responded with an interesting point that’s worth mentioning—that sanctions that harm civilians may be less humane than other military options). On Tuesday, Iran announced it will allow UN inspectors access to a secret military complex where the IAEA suspects secret atomic work has been carried out and the EU foreign policy chief wrote to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator to accept an offer to meet to discuss the country’s nuclear programme. On Wednesday, a post on Supreme Leader Khamenei’s Twitter account said that he had signed an executive order establishing the Cyberspace Council, appointing the President as its chair; while satellite images of a military facility reportedly show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at the site, which some are calling an indication of an attempted cleanup of radioactive traces possibly left by tests of a nuclear-weapons trigger. On Thursday, Supreme Leader Khamenei welcomed recent comments by American President Obama emphasizing diplomacy in regards to the country’s nuclear program; an American Air Force General discussed the use of a 30,000 pound bunker buster bomb designed to smash through 200 feet of concrete before exploding in possible clashes with Iran; while world powers said in a joint statement that proposed talks with Iran on the nuclear program must be “serious”, without preconditions, and should produce “concrete results”. On Friday, six world powers reportedly demanded Iran keep its promise to let international inspectors visit a military installation where the IAEA believes explosives tests geared to developing atomic bombs may have taken place, not ruling out that Iran may be trying to remove evidence from the site; American Secretary of State Clinton announced the US and South Korea were making progress in discussions on the implementation of new American sanctions on Iran, but stopped short of announcing any deal on a potential waiver; while the chairman of the American Senate Armed Services Committee called for a naval blockade of Iranian oil exports to be considered before resorting to air strikes against country for its nuclear program. An interesting article was released in this month’s Washington Monthly suggesting that “an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine”; while another article in the American Prospect discussed ways to keep the peace without regime change in the country. The Atlantic ran two articles discussing the chances of an American or Israeli war with Iran.
  • The Interior Ministry of Iraq asked authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region to arrest VP al-Hashimi and hand him over for a trial on Sunday on charges he was running death squads. On Monday, at least 27 people were reportedly killed in a wave of attacks in the western province of Anbar. On Tuesday, at least 13 people were reportedly killed and nearly two dozen others wounded in dual car-bomb and suicide attack in the northern town of Tal Afar.
  • Refugees International announced on Friday that desperate people fleeing the besieged city of Homs in Syria were being shot at as they tried to escape over the border into Lebanon, including shooting at children as young as 10 or 12 years old; while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 10 people were killed when security forces fired a mortar on an anti-government protest in the town of Rastan. On Saturday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm at report suggesting government forces are arbitrarily executing, imprisoning and torturing people in Homs; Turkey’s Foreign Minister accused the Assad regime of committing “war crimes”; Syrian army tanks deployed in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor to support forces and militiamen loyal to Assad who reportedly came under rebel attack after three pro-democracy demonstrators were killed; an explosion killed seven people and wounded several others in the southern town of Deraa; armed forces bombarded parts of Homs and allegedly blocked the Red Cross aid for a second day; while China urged the government and rebels to immediately end all acts of violence, especially against civilians and to start a dialogue.  On Sunday, the Red Cross again said it had been prevented from entering Baba Amr in Homs, but was instead delivering aid to a village near Homs where refuges were sheltering; armed forces allegedly renewed their assault on Homs, bombarding more areas and killing at least seven, including four children; Israel offered to assist international efforts to provide humanitarian aid to Syria without intervening directly; a senior Republican American Senator called for the arming of Syrian rebels through the Arab League and suggested the imposition of “no drive” and “no fly” zones against Syrian military forces; while reports suggested that Lebanon was bracing itself for the new influx of thousands of Syrian refugees crossed their border, claiming they  feared they would be slaughtered in their own homes as the government forces hunted down opponents in Homs. On Monday, the Saudi foreign minister asserted that Syrians have a right to take up arms and defend themselves in a rare news conference; China announced it will send an envoy to help ease the crisis; Canada announced it has closed its embassy in Syria and expanded its economic sanctions against the country; heavy fighting allegedly broke out between government and rebel forces in Deraa on the border with Jordan; Ban Ki-moon announced that relief chief Valerie Amos is set to arrive in the country for Wednesday to urge parties to the conflict to allow in humanitarian assistance; teams of Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent reportedly reached two neighbourhoods of Homs where they distributed food and blankets to civilians; secretly shot video footage was released by a British television station that allegedly shows Syrian patients being tortured by medical staff at a state-run hospital in Homs; while the International Crisis Group released a new report suggesting a plan for a negotiated transition in the country and the Center for American Progress released a new report discussing the challenges to ending the violence  in the country. On Tuesday, Assad again refused to allow aid into the destroyed suburb of Homs and reiterated his determination to fight “foreign-backed terrorism”; the UN announced it has footage similar to that aired by Britain’s Channel 4 television station purporting to show Syrian patients being tortured in hospital; while American President Obama said it was only a matter of time before Assad will leave office, but added that it was a mistake to think the US could take unilateral action there. On Wednesday, the UN humanitarian affairs chief visited parts of the neighbourhood of Baba Amr in Homs, finding it largely deserted and completely devastated.  On Thursday, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Morocco met behind closed doors to discuss a US drafted resolution urging an end to the crackdown on demonstrators; former UN Secretary-General Annan called for diplomatic solutions to the continued bloodshed, warning against arming the opposition; Lebanon’s foreign minister rebuffed a call by the American ambassador for their government to protect all Syrians who have fled across the border into Lebanese territory; Tunisia and Turkey announced that they are opposed to using outside military force to intervene in the country; the UN announced that it is readying food stocks for 1.5 million people in Syria as part of a 90 day emergency contingency plan to help civilians; the bodies of 18 Baba Amr residents were reportedly found stabbed to death after security forces raided homes; security forces reportedly shot and wounded three mourners at a Damascus funeral for an army defector that turned into an anti-government protest; Assad reaffirmed his determination to go on fighting what he called “foreign-backed terrorism”; Russia accused Libya of running a training centre for Syrian rebels; the UN cultural agency UNESCO condemned Syria for its crackdown on protesters but did not expel Damascus from its human rights committee as some countries had demanded; a Russian diplomat said that Assad is battling al-Qaeda-backed “terrorists” including at least 15,000 foreign fighters who will seize towns across the country if government troops withdraw; Libya’s PM denied Russian accusations that his country was running camps to train and arm Syrian rebels, but expressed strong support for them; while US officials are reportedly finalizing plans to aid the internal and external opposition, stopping short of direct military assistance until the opposition unites but not removing the possibility of potentially military options. On Friday, five members of the Syrian armed forces, including at least two generals and a colonel, reportedly defected to Turkey; Syrian forces reportedly killed at least 54 people as they sought to quell anti-government demonstrations; tanks shelled on opposition districts in Homs, killing four and wounding scores more; security forces reportedly killed one civilian in a residential neighbourhood in Damascus as they tried to put down an act of civil disobedience; Germany urged Russia to change its policy towards Syria and back a UN resolution condemning Damascus; France announced it cannot accept a UN Security Council resolution that would assign responsibility for the violence equally to the government and its opponents; UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos arrived in Turkey following her trip to Syria to visit the camps for Syrian refugees; China said it will send another envoy to the Middle East and France to discuss the Syrian crisis; while an UN-Arab League envoy with Koffi Annan prepared to meet with President Assad the following day.

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