Other Middle East news from this week

There have been several very important events in the Middle East over the last week that have been overshadowed by the tragedy of the Bulgarian bus bombing. Here is a summary of sorts:

The most important event, with the greatest implications for the future of the region, was a huge suicide bomb in Damascus on Wednesday which killed several Syrian ministers, including the Defence Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law, leaving a hole in the heart of the regime:

The bomber, apparently an insider and possibly a trusted bodyguard, struck at the daily meeting attended by ministers and senior security officials at the National Security building as battles raged inside Damascus, within sight of the nearby presidential palace.

Syria’s Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-inlaw, were killed in the blast.

[...]

Analyst Gala Riani said the suicide bombing was “in some ways the most successful direct attack on the regime we’ve had so far.”

“I think the next few days are going to be crucial in signaling where the conflict goes from here,” said Riani, a Middle East analyst at the Control Risks consultancy.

“At the very least, we can expect the situation to continue to deteriorate. But I think it will take more than this to take the Assad regime down.”

The brazen attack at a meeting of top security officials and ministers in the heart of Damascus will send a message to the top members of the Syrian government that they are vulnerable.

[...]

As news of the day’s began to spread, there were unconfirmed reports that Syrian troops had begun to defect en masse.

Still in Syria, clashes between the regime and rebels continue in Damascus, with rumours that Bashar al-Assad has taken refuge in the resort of Latakia.

Clashes erupted on Thursday near Syrian government headquarters in Damascus after rebels attacked forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, who have deployed armored vehicles and increased roadblocks across the city, activists and residents said.

[...]

Hundreds of families were fleeing the area, located between the districts of Kafar Souseh and Mezze, they said.

“The refugees have nowhere to go. There is fighting across Damascus,” said a housewife watching the fighting from a tower block on Mezze Autostrade near the prime minister’s office.

Fighting has been focused in the southern and north-eastern suburbs of the city, as well as the central areas of Mezze and Kafar Souseh where several security sites are located. Other parts of central Damascus were quiet on Thursday.

Another resident said army snipers were deployed on rooftops in Mezze and Kafar Souseh after rebels attacked armored vehicles stationed near the prime minister’s office and a roadblock erected in the last few days behind the Iranian embassy.

[...]

Hundreds of families were fleeing the area, located between the districts of Kafar Souseh and Mezze, they said.

“The refugees have nowhere to go. There is fighting across Damascus,” said a housewife watching the fighting from a tower block on Mezze Autostrade near the prime minister’s office.

Fighting has been focused in the southern and north-eastern suburbs of the city, as well as the central areas of Mezze and Kafar Souseh where several security sites are located. Other parts of central Damascus were quiet on Thursday.

Another resident said army snipers were deployed on rooftops in Mezze and Kafar Souseh after rebels attacked armored vehicles stationed near the prime minister’s office and a roadblock erected in the last few days behind the Iranian embassy.

Ehud Barak on northern border with Syria

Ehud Barak on northern border with Syria

The fallout from Syria threatens to reach Israel too, with mortar shells from Syria falling not far from the Israeli border where Defence Minsiter Ehud Barak was visiting.

Israel has raised its military alert on the northern border, and cancelled some weekend furloughs, amid fears that the situation in neighboring Syria is rapidly spiraling out of control.

Touring the border area on Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak found himself within earshot of mortar shells fired between Syrian Army and rebel forces, which landed just a few hundred yards away, and he and senior Israeli army officers watched clouds of smoke rising from conflict zones that were being shelled.

[...]

Mortar shells fell about one kilometer (half a mile) from where Barak stood, and bullets flew as rebels and Syrian army forces skirmished, according to a statement his office released.

With fighting licking at the Israeli-held frontier, Barak observed that Syrian refugees, who have already started fleeing to Turkey and Jordan, might also start streaming toward the Golan.

“If we have to stop waves of refugees we will stop them,” he said.

[...]

The deteriorating situation in Syria has become a mounting concern for Israel, which fears that the collapse of a central regime would give Lebanese Hezbollah militants an opportunity to raid Syrian military arsenals for chemical weapons or sophisticated missiles that could strike Israel. The Syrian-backed Hezbollah warred Israel to a draw in the summer of 2006.

While Syria and Israel are bitter enemies, the border has been mostly quiet since 1974. Some Israeli officials worry the departure of the four-decade Assad dynasty could destabilize the region by bringing radicals or Islamists to power, or leaving a vacuum during a long power struggle.

Israeli defense officials also fear that Syrian territory bordering the Golan could become a haven for militant groups, much like Egypt’s Sinai desert has become a launching pad for attacks on southern Israel.

These concerns are echoed in Israel’s business paper Globes, in their article “Assad’s fall would pose a threat to Israel“. (h/t Dad). I don’t necessarily agree with all the sentiments expressed therein but it is an enlightening read nonetheless.

There is also a very good analysis from Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times on Israel’s worries as Syria deteriorates.

Another alarming fallout from the Syrian civil war is the fate of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.  According to this article, the CIA is urgently searching for the weapons before they fall into the wrong hands.

This task has become more urgent in recent days. Last week, The Wall Street Journalreported that the Syrian military was moving its chemical weapons out of storage. On July 17, Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq, told the BBC the regime would not hesitate to use chemical weapons against the rebel fighters. On Wednesday, a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the brother-in-law of President al-Assad in Damascus. The blow to the al-Assad cabinet raised the prospect that the Syrian regime may be on its last legs.

The Daily Telegraph meanwhile posits that Israel is considering a strike at Syria’s chemical weapons stash.

Leaving Syria and moving over to Egypt, the former chief of Intelligence, Omar Suleiman has died.

Former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, one of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s closest associates, died in the United States while undergoing medical tests, a Suleiman aide and a senior security official said. He was 76.

[...]

Suleiman stepped briefly into the limelight last year when he was made Mubarak’s vice president a few days before the unpopular leader was ousted in a street revolt.

The gamble failed when Egyptians massed in the streets to demand Mubarak’s removal rejected the political concessions offered by Suleiman to appease the protests.

A veteran confidant of Mubarak, Suleiman had headed the Egyptian General Intelligence Services (EGIS) since 1993, taking on a prominent diplomatic role in Egypt’s relations with Israel, Palestinian factions and aid donor and ally the United States.

He was quietly touted as a possible successor to Mubarak although many Egyptians believed the autocratic president would serve for life or try to hand power to his son.

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt'l

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt’l

And from one extreme to the other, here in Israel we had yet more very sad news with the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv z”tl, the 102-year old leader of Lithuanian haredi Jewry.

Elyashiv was a highly influential figure in the haredi world and in Israeli politics overall. With a single utterance he could topple governments or seal a coalition deal due to his clout over haredi legislators. His rulings were instrumental in pushing through – or thwarting – legislation and government policy on a wide range of issues.

Read the rest of his biography at the link above, and some more insight into his life and character at the Times of Israel obituary.

ברוך דיין אמת

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3 Responses to Other Middle East news from this week

  1. Philip says:

    One point of correction. It wasn’t a suicide bomb. This is important. The Syrian uprising has become a well-coordinated campaign. It has become hugely impressive. To say that it was a suicide bomb denigrates is unfairly, in my opinion. Nevertheless, great news that Assad seems to be on his way out, and that the assassins of Hariri (Shawkat and co.) have met a sorry end.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thanks for the correction Philip. I had a feeling I had gotten the story wrong, but I was blogging in a hurry.

      Yes, it’s good news if Assad is on the way out, but he seems to be holding on a lot longer than we estimated. And what will come after him? Nature abhors a vacuum so we are in for quite an unstable time in this region.

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