- Critics: White House Middle East approach torn between inaction and de facto Iran alignment
- Turkish political warfare expands with anti-terror raids targeting Erdogan-linked group
- Voters signal overwhelming support for new, relatively secular Egyptian constitution
- WaPo: Syria on brink of humanitarian catastrophe, pictures show starving children and elderly people
What we’re watching today:
- The erosion of American influence in the Middle East has created power vacuums which are being filled by geopolitical rivals from across the region, forcing Washington’s allies to "take matters into their own hands," according to analysis published Wednesday in the New York Times. Michael Doran and Max Boot - senior fellows at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations respectively - described Sunni-Shiite polarization in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq as a function of the U.S. "refraining from countering Iranian machinations" in those countries. Fighting from Syria's nearly three year old conflict has spilled over into the neighboring two countries, with Sunni elements - ranging from secularists to Salafists - aligning themselves against Iran and its proxies. Lebanon in particular has been destabilized by Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian conflict, which has in turn generated blowback in the form of jihadist retaliation on Lebanese soil. The Iran-backed terror group has also been central in preventing the formation of a Lebanese cabinet, leaving the country to be run by a weakened interim government. Meanwhile critics of the Obama administration's approach to the region have also been growing more vocal in characterizing the White House's approach - when it does orient itself robustly - as one of de facto alignment with Iran. Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, last week blasted the administration for what he described as "increasingly obvious" partnership with Tehran and Hezbollah. Badran outlined a messaging campaign being conducted by the Iranians designed to "isolate Riyadh while playing up the emerging US alignment with Iran across the region," and worried that the "proposition... seems to enjoy support in the US media and policy circles."
- A now-familiar pattern of judiciary action followed by anti-judiciary purges - which has in recent weeks marked the open political warfare being waged by rival Islamist camps inside Turkey - expanded this week as police forces raided the headquarters of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), a group with close ties to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The moves were the latest in a series of attacks and counterattacks, pitting figures linked to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen on one side and the AKP and its supporters on the other. Last December Gulenist officials inside Turkey's judiciary launched and then widened a series of anti-corruption probes targeting AKP elites, and the AKP subsequently responded with mass purges of police officers involved in those probes. Turkish media reported that, true to form, two anti-terror police unit chiefs involved in this week's anti-terror raids on the IHH and on the Al Qaeda-linked groups were dismissed in the raids' aftermath. The incident is, however, already being read beyond the political battles between the AKP and the Gulenist movement. The IHH’s close ties to Ankara’s AKP government have the potential to deepen growing concerns that AKP figures are permitting Turkish territory and even assets to be used to promote terrorism. The IHH, which has been designated as a terrorist entity by Amsterdam and Berlin, was the central player in the 2010 naval "flotilla" effort to break Israel's naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israeli commandos intercepted a vessel sailed by IHH members and were attacked by those on board. Nine people died in the ensuing fighting, which escalated into an international incident and largely collapsed already-fraying Israeli-Turkish ties. The Israelis claimed that the IHH is entangled in terror activities, and that the flotilla was not meant to be peaceful. Turkish officials and some analysts abroad argued the opposite.
- A referendum asking Egyptians to approve the country's new constitution has passed overwhelmingly, with Reuters reporting late on Wednesday that official figures had roughly ninety percent of voters pulling the lever in favor. Though exact figures regarding the turnout and the integrity of the balloting were disputed, the vote was widely seen as Egypt's latest step along a path that seeks to eventually have the country returned to democratic governance. In July 2013 the Egyptian military responded to massive anti-government protests by removing from power the Muslim Brotherhood linked government of then-president Mohammed Morsi, and a subsequent army-backed interim government has been ruling since. Morsi's Brotherhood-linked government had during its one-year tenure secured the drafting and passage of a controversial constitution that was criticized both domestically and internationally for prioritizing Islamic law at the expense of protections for women, religious minorities, and others. English-language Egyptian media outlet Al Arabiya pointedly quoted a Coptic Christian contrasting Brotherhood rule, which had the Islamist organization seeking to "divide" Egyptians, with the new post-Brotherhood constitution, which "clearly states that Christians and Muslims are equal, and so are men and women." The Brotherhood officially boycotted this week’s referendum and outbreaks of violence - including what appeared to be the systematic intimidation of Christians - undermined turnout.
- The Washington Post reported earlier this week that images smuggled out of a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria show "disturbing images of emaciated children and elderly people" and indicate that there are thousands of residents in the Yarmouk camp at risk of starvation, the result of a siege being maintained by Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime and its Iranian backers. The Post outlined sieges being conducted against "numerous rebel-held neighborhoods, notably in the suburbs of Damascus," with forces loyal to the regime - drawn from the Syrian army, from Iran, and from Iran’s Lebanese terror proxy Hezbollah – refusing to allow food or medicine to reach residents. The tactic is also being used elsewhere in the country against areas controlled by regime opponents. Last week, dozens of men attempting to break the siege of Homs were attacked and killed. The United Nations had already reported weeks ago that it has literally stopped trying to count how many people have died in the nearly three year conflict, though the organization's secretary general Ban Ki-moon added this week that an estimated 9.3 million people - half of Syria's population - are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. The Geneva II peace talks scheduled to start in Switzerland on January 22nd will seek to at least dampen the violence, though efforts to secure a lull in the fighting as the conference approaches have had little effect. Fighting between the government and the rebels are ongoing, as is fighting between various opposition factions. Earlier this month fighting between rebel groups killed roughly 500 people in one week.
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