This Week in Middle Eastern Conflict… February 10th-17th, 2012.

  • A new report in the Atlantic this week suggests that a barely perceptible shift occurred in recent months that make the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear sites more possible, as the benefits outweigh the costs. NBC reported last week that Israel used an Iranian opposition group, designated as terrorist group by the United States, to carry out much-publicized assassinations of Iranian scientists. On Friday, China announced it would be sending a senior official to the country for talks on their nuclear program; ; while the PM of the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip arrived in Tehran for a three day visit to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. On Saturday, President Ahmadinejad addressed tens of thousands of supporters in Freedom Square, saying that the country will soon announce “very important” achievements in the nuclear field. On Sunday, a Palestinian prisoner being held without charge who has been on a hunger strike for more than 8 weeks is reportedly being kept shackled to a hospital bed, despite warnings that he may be close to death. On Monday, Israeli PM Netanyahu accused Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah of being behind twin attacks on Israeli targets in India and Georgia that injured four people; the Iranian media reported that President Ahmadinejad’s press advisor was sentenced to six months in jail for insulting Supreme Leader Khamenei; China urged authorities to do more to end the standoff over its disputed nuclear program; while the international community accused authorities of misleading them with their claims to have abandoned the death penalty for juvenile offenders and execution by stoning of those convicted of adultery. On Tuesday, Israel again accused Iran of being behind three blasts in Bangkok, Thailand that injured some five people. On Wednesday, authorities unveiled their nuclear progress, claiming their success in manufacturing fuel rods and advanced centrifuges and also indicated that they were on the verge of imposing an oil embargo on European countries in retaliation for their sanctions; Thailand arrested two Iranians charging them with plotting the recent bomb attack in Bangkok and linking them to recent attacks in India and Georgia; while Israeli PM Netanyahu said that Iranian “terror activities” must be halted. On Wednesday, Russia said global powers must work harder to win concessions from Iran over its nuclear programme; Iranian authorities denied any role in Tuesday’s bomb blasts in Thailand, while Thai police held three Iranian nationals in connection; Iranian authorities also told world powers they were ready to resume stalled nuclear talks at the “earliest” opportunity; the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Iran’s main intelligence organization, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups, committing human rights abuses and backing the Syrian government’s crackdown on citizens; Israel’s defense minister dismissed Iran’s announcements of major nuclear advancements as exaggerations; and Iranian censors allegedly blocked access to a number of news websites sympathetic to President Ahmadinejad ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in March.
  • State-run media in Syria reported that at least 28 people were killed on Friday and 200 others injured in two car-bomb explosions perpetrated by “armed terrorist gangs” in Aleppo; Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister said that Assad’s assurance to Russian officials that he will hold a constitutional referendum means that the opposition now “bears full responsibility” for ending the violence there; a firefight broke out in a poor district of Damascus between loyalist forces and rebels; and the EU foreign policy chief called on Russia to reconsider its position on Syria after last week’s veto on Syrian violence. A video uploaded to YouTube on Saturday allegedly shows an anti-aircraft tank firing directly into an urban neighbourhood in the city of Douma; Syrian forces reportedly continued their bombardment of districts of the city of Homs, killing some 10 people; security forces entered the besieged town of Zabandani near the Lebanese border after agreeing to a ceasefire with rebels; authorities told Libya and Tunisia to close their embassies in Damascus within 72 hours; while the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported that gunmen had assassinated an army general in Damascus.  Security forces reportedly eased their week-long bombardment of Homs with only sporadic shelling on Sunday and let a few families leave opposition districts while thousands of protesters crowded the streets overnight; Tunisia announced it would host a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” which seeks to build an international agreement on how to end violence in the country on February 24th; the Arab League reportedly wants the UN to form a joint peacekeeping force and appoint a special Arab envoy to try and end the violence, a move Russia made clear it would not support; al-Qaeda’s leader called for the ousting of Assad and urged all Muslims to help the rebels; while the head of the Arab League’s observer mission to Syria resigned during a meeting of ministers in Cairo. On Monday, authorities flatly rejected the call by the Arab League to deploy peacekeepers in the country, while Britain said no western troops could be involved in such a mission; British PM Cameron and French President Sarkozy announced that they will be meeting in Paris on Friday to discuss a possible increase in help to the rebels, including giving them military advice; Russia allegedly signaled a new-found willingness to consider international intervention when it abandoned its absolute defence of the Syrian regime and announced that it does not rule out its participation in a potential UN peacekeeping mission as long as there was a ceasefire between government and opposition forces first; security forces reportedly resumed their offensive by shelling areas of Homs and Rastan and storming areas near Damascus; and the UN human rights chief warned that failure by the UN to take action has emboldened the Assad regime to mount an all-out assault on his opponents and accused the government of an “indiscriminate attack” on civilians and other grave human rights violations.  On Tuesday, government forces again clashed with protesters across the country, with some 20 people killed; and government troops shelled the city of Homs for a 10th day, killing at least 7 people and wounding more than 20; Arab officials confirmed that regional governments would be ready to arm the resistance if bloodshed did not cease; while France announced it had created an emergency fund for aid agencies helping the Syrian people. On Wednesday, President Assad ordered a referendum on a new constitution to be held on February 26th with a parliamentary election to be held within 90 days of the constitution’s approval; Syrian forces reportedly launched an offensive on the city of Hama, bombarding residential neighbourhoods with armoured reinforcements; Egypt called for change in the country that met the demands of the people, but ruled out supporting a military intervention into Syrian territory; an Arab delegation dismissed Russian amendments aimed at weakening a draft UN General Assembly resolution plan to get President Assad to step down as unacceptable;   while Libya invited the Syrian opposition National Council to open an office in Tripoli. On Thursday, the UN General Assembly strongly condemned the continued “widespread and systematic” human rights violations by the Syrian authorities and demanded that the government immediately cease all violence and protect its people; at least 22 people were reportedly killed in a military assault on opposition strongholds and several activists were arrested; the American embassy in Damascus posted a supposed satellite image of an oil pipeline fire in Homs to make a statement on China and Russia’s vetoes of a UN resolution demanding Assad step down; while the Director of American National Intelligence blamed the Iraqi al-Qaeda for a series of recent bombings against Syrian government targets.
  • Police in Bahrain reportedly used force to break up a peaceful anti-government march in the capital on Saturday, using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse hundreds of protesters and arresting two American rights activists. On Sunday, King Hamad dismissed the country’s opposition movement as disunited and said the threat of Iran had compelled him to call in foreign troops to crush last year’s uprising. On Monday, security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters trying to occupy a landmark roundabout in the capital ahead of the one-year anniversary of the uprising. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that Britain has continued to sell arms worth more than 1 million pounds to the country despite continuing political unrest, including gun silencers, weapons sights, rifles, artillery and components for military training aircraft; while a massive police presence in the capital kept protesters from gathering in Pearl Roundabout to mark the one-year anniversary, arresting at least 30 people. On Wednesday, more than 120 protesters were reportedly wounded in clashes with police.
  • Security forces in Saudi Arabia reportedly shot one person dead and injured three others during an anti-government demonstration in the Eastern Province on Friday.
  • Thousands of people rallied in the capital Sanaa in Yemen on Friday to back a single-candidate Presidential election planned later this month. On Sunday, militants in the south said they had executed three men for giving the US information used to carry out drone strikes in the area; while southern separatists set fire to a tent camp housing anti-government protesters in Aden in opposition to an election this month to replace outgoing President Saleh. On Tuesday, the Nation ran an article on how American plans in Yemen are backfiring. On Thursday, security officials announced that a leading al-Qaeda operative had been killed in a family dispute that left at least 16 other tribesmen dead; while militants reportedly shot dead five people, including a military officer and regional head of the country’s election committee in al-Baydah province.
  • A roadside bomb targeted an army patrol, wounding three soldiers on Friday night in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. On Saturday, a car bomb went off targeting a police convoy, wounding the police station chief and at least three other policemen in Mahaweel; while gunmen shot dead a teacher in front of his house northeast of Baghdad. On Sunday, Turkish warplanes carried out air strikes on suspected Kurdish militant targets in the north; a sticky bomb killed a gas station manager and his driver in Baiji; a roadside bomb went off and wounded two soldiers in Baquba; a roadside bomb wounded three people in central Baghdad; and another roadside bomb blew up and wounded six people, including three policemen in northern Baghdad. On Monday, a sticky bomb attack wounded a teacher and two other passengers in his car in Kirkuk; another sticky bomb wounded a police captain in Kirkuk; and a sticky bomb attack wounded a government-backed Sahwa militiaman in Muqdadiya. On Tuesday, a car bomb explosion killed two people, including one soldier and wounded 14 others in Mosul; gunmen opened fire from a car, wounding an off-duty security officer in Kirkuk; a roadside bomb near a police patrol killed one civilian and wounded six others, including three policemen in eastern Baghdad; police found the body of a strangled woman in Baquba; and police said they found the decayed bodies of two men buried in 2006 near Baquba after an insurgent confessed to the killing and revealed the burial place. On Wednesday, gunmen wearing army uniforms attacked a policeman’s house using grenades and machineguns, killing his wife and two daughters and wounding him seriously in Jurf al-Sakhar; while a roadside bomb wounded two people in Baquba. On Thursday, an investigation panel said that death squads under the command of the Sunni Vice President were behind years of fatal attacks on security officials and Shi’ite pilgrims, a claim the VP denied as a smear campaign to consolidate power; while the leader of the exiled Iranian opposition group called the Mujahedin-e Khalq agreed to start relocating residents of the long disputed dissident camp Ashraf after receiving assurances from the US about their safety.
  • The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process called upon Israel to do everything in its power to preserve the health of a Palestinian detainee reportedly close to death on a hunger strike on Friday. Hundreds of other Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails reportedly joined in on the hunger strike, and Human Rights Watch called upon Israel to “immediately charge or release him” on Saturday; while a Palestinian in Gaza died after being wounded during a series of Israeli airstrikes. On Monday, Israel rejected an appeal by the prisoner on a hunger strike, prompting a furious reaction from the Issa Qaraqa, the Palestinian Authority’s prisoner affairs minister, who said the rejection was tantamount to murder; while Israeli embassies in Georgia and India were targeted by bomb strikes that Israel is blaming on Iran, who has denied any involvement. On Tuesday, the Gaza Strip’s only power station has reportedly been shut down, cutting already problematic electricity flows in the area by almost two-thirds, allowing each household only six hours of electricity at a time.
  • Two people were reportedly killed and several soldiers and others wounded in Tripoli, Lebanon on Saturday as supporters and opponents of Syria’s al-Assad fought in the street.

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