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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Arab Spring and the Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa: A Compendium



Going on two years have passed since Mohammed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit seller, set himself on fire to protest the difficult economic condit ions he faced and the humiliat ion he experienced at the hands of local police. Bouazizi’s protest was personal, but it resonated with millions of people across Tunisia and the Middle East who identified with his suffering and his defiance.

Across the region, people took to the streets, calling for political and economic reform. They expressed frustration with high unemployment, deteriorating living conditions, and a lack of economic opportunity. They called for transparency and accountability from their governments and a greater say in the decisions affecting their lives. They stood up and demanded basic rights in a region long dominated by authoritarian governments.

Nobody could have predicted what the spark for large-scale demonstrations would be or how quickly and widely these demonstrations would spread, but the seeds of discontent were evident across the region in growing labor strikes, protests over socio-economic conditions, and public outcries over regime brutality and corruption. Adding fuel to the fire, citizens feared that shifts in leadership might not lead to real change, as leaders seemed intent on hand-picking their successors.

This Compendium examines in detail so-called “Arab Spring” and other conflict-related developments in the countries of Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.


Date of Report: January 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 647
Order Number: C12001
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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Iraq: Politics, Governance, and Human Rights



Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Accelerating violence and growing political schisms call into question whether the fragile stability left in place in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will collapse. Iraq’s stability is increasingly threatened by a revolt—with both peaceful and violent aspects—by Sunni Arab Muslims who resent Shiite political domination. Sunni Arabs, always fearful that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would seek unchallenged power, accuse him of attempting to marginalize them politically by arresting or attempting to remove key Sunni leaders. Sunni demonstrations have grown since late December 2012 over Maliki’s moves against leading Sunni figures. Iraq’s Kurds are increasingly aligned with the Sunnis, based on their own disputes with Maliki over territorial, political, and economic issues. The Shiite faction of Moqtada Al Sadr has been leaning to the Sunnis and Kurds and could hold the key to Maliki’s political survival. Adding to the schisms is the physical incapacity of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has served as a key mediator, who suffered a stroke in mid-December 2012. The growing rifts raise the potential for early national elections, originally due for 2014 but which could be advanced to coincide with provincial elections in April 2013.

The violent component of revolt is spearheaded by Sunni insurgents linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQ-I), perhaps emboldened by the Sunni-led uprising in Syria. They have conducted numerous complex attacks against Shiite religious pilgrims and neighborhoods and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members. The attacks are intended to reignite all-out sectarian conflict, but have failed to do so to date. There are concerns whether the ISF—which numbers nearly 700,000 members— can counter the violence now that U.S. troops are no longer in Iraq; U.S. forces left in December 2011 in line with a November 2008 bilateral U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement. The Iraqis refused to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, believing Iraq could handle violence on its own and seeking to put behind it the period of U.S. occupation and political and military tutelage.

Since the U.S. pullout, U.S. training for Iraq’s security forces through an Office of Security Cooperation—Iraq (OSC-I) and a State Department police development program have languished. However, the Administration—with increasing Iraqi concurrence—has asserted that the escalating violence necessitates that Iraq rededicate itself to military cooperation with and assistance from the United States. Since August 2012, Iraqi officials have requested expedited delivery of U.S. arms and joint exercises and in December 2012 signed a new defense cooperation agreement with the United States.

Although recognizing that Iraq wants to rebuild its relations in the Arab world and in its immediate neighborhood, the United States is seeking to prevent Iraq from falling under the sway of Iran. The Maliki government is inclined toward close relations with the Islamic Republic, but the legacy of Iran-Iraq hostilities, and Arab and Persian differences, limit Iranian influence. Still, Iraq has aligned with Iran’s support for Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria and may be allowing Iranian arms supply flights to reach Syria by transiting Iraqi airspace. Some see Iraq instead to reestablish its historic role as a major player in the Arab world. Iraq took a large step toward returning to the Arab fold by hosting an Arab League summit on March 27-29, 2012.



Date of Report: January 15, 2013
Number of Pages: 57
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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians



Jim Zanotti
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Since the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government has committed over $4 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, who are among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid. Successive Administrations have requested aid for the Palestinians to support at least three major U.S. policy priorities of interest to Congress:


  • Preventing terrorism against Israel from Hamas and other militant organizations. 
  • Fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank that inclines Palestinians toward peaceful coexistence with Israel and a “two-state solution”. 
  • Meeting humanitarian needs. 

Since June 2007, these U.S. policy priorities have crystallized around the factional and geographical split between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Informal congressional holds delayed disbursement of various portions of FY2011 aid to the Palestinians, until the Obama Administration obligated this assistance despite a reportedly remaining hold. Holds reportedly remain attached to already-appropriated FY2012 U.S. aid. The holds appear to be largely a response to and anticipation of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) initiatives in the United Nations and other international forums aimed at increasing international recognition of Palestinian statehood outside of negotiations with Israel. The holds occur at a time of ongoing structural budgetary crisis in the Palestinian Authority (PA)— exacerbated by a number of factors—that could threaten stability, especially in the West Bank. Additionally, some Members of Congress remain concerned about a possible “consensus” PA government whose composition would require Hamas approval. New conditions on aid from FY2012 relating both to potential U.N.-related initiatives and a potential consensus PA government have carried over into FY2013. Some Members of Congress have proposed additional conditions in anticipation of possible future steps by the PLO to make legal action possible—including at the International Criminal Court (ICC)—against perceived Israeli violations of various international laws and norms.

From FY2008 to the present, annual regular-year U.S. bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has averaged around $500 million, including annual averages of approximately $200 million in direct budgetary assistance and $100 million in non-lethal security assistance for the PA in the West Bank. Additionally, the United States is the largest single-state donor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). However, whether UNRWA’s role productively addresses the refugee issue in the context of efforts to mitigate or resolve the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a polarizing question.

Because of congressional concerns that, among other things, funds might be diverted to Palestinian terrorist groups, U.S. aid is subject to a host of vetting and oversight requirements and legislative restrictions. U.S. assistance to the Palestinians is given alongside assistance from other international donors, and U.S. policymakers routinely call for greater or more timely assistance from Arab governments in line with pledges those governments make. Even if the immediate objectives of U.S. assistance programs for the Palestinians are met, lack of progress toward a politically legitimate and peaceful two-state solution could undermine the utility of U.S. aid in helping the Palestinians become more cohesive, stable, and self-reliant over the long term.



Date of Report: January 18, 2013
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: RS22967
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Friday, January 25, 2013

Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Response



Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Christopher M. Blanchard
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs


Syria is mired in an armed conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar al Asad and rebel fighters opposed to his rule. The conflict is creating a regional humanitarian emergency as well as risks of violent spillover that appear to be growing as the fighting intensifies. Various reports suggest that as many as 50,000 Syrians have been killed since major political unrest began in March 2011, including more than 10,000 security personnel. As of December 19, more than 533,000 refugees had fled the country, over 300,000 of them since September 2012. According to the Syrian Red Crescent, as many as 2.5 million Syrians may be internally displaced, and the United Nations (U.N.) is seeking $1.5 billion to aid Syrians in need of assistance.

U.S. officials and many analysts believe that Asad and his supporters will ultimately be forced from power, but few offer specific, credible timetables for a resolution to Syria’s ongoing crisis. Reports of recent rebel military gains suggest that opposition forces are becoming more formidable, but government forces continue to resist, using air strikes and artillery in punishing counterattacks. Extensive damage is being done to major urban areas and national infrastructure. These factors, and the resulting polarization of various political, ethnic, and sectarian factions, all but guarantee that political, security, humanitarian, and economic challenges will outlast Asad and may keep Syria on the agenda of Congress for years to come.

President Obama and his Administration have been calling for Asad’s resignation since August 2011, and have been vocal advocates for United Nations Security Council action to condemn the Syrian government and end the bloodshed. U.S. officials have supported efforts to improve international policy coordination on Syria and to build consensus among Syrian opposition groups. The Administration has given no indication that it intends to pursue any form of direct military intervention, unless Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons are used or transferred. U.S. officials and some Members of Congress continue to debate various proposals for ending the violence and accelerating Asad’s departure. Nevertheless, the Syria that emerges from the current conflict is likely to pose its own unique challenges for U.S. policy in the region and may require significant international support to rebuild and maintain stability.

After over 18 months of unrest and violence, dilemmas and contradictions characterize Syria’s crisis. A menu of imperfect choices confronts U.S. policymakers, amid fears of continued violence, evidence of a widening humanitarian crisis, and regional instability. The potential spillover effects of continued fighting raise questions with regard to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. Signs of sectarian and ethnic conflict are emerging in Syria, and the unrest also is creating new opportunities for Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups to operate there. The security of Syrian conventional and chemical weapons stockpiles has become a regional security concern that will grow if a security vacuum emerges. Many observers worry that a further escalation in fighting or swift regime change could jeopardize weapons security, generate new pressures on minority groups, or lead to wider civil or regional conflict. A sudden departure by Asad and key allies would do little to guarantee security or stability in Syria. United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi warned in November 2012 of the danger of “Somalisation” of Syria–“the collapse of the state and the emergence of warlords, militias and fighting groups.” Determining the threshold for such a collapse may prove difficult.

Members of Congress and Obama Administration officials are weighing these issues as they debate U.S. policy and the Syrian crisis.



Date of Report: December 20, 2012
Number of Pages: 47
Order Number: RL33487
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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Israel: 2013 Elections Preview



Jim Zanotti Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Close U.S.-Israel relations drive congressional interest in upcoming elections for Israel’s 120-seat Knesset (parliament), scheduled for January 22, 2013. Israeli leadership decisions may have profound implications for matters of high U.S. priority, including potential threats from Iran and its non-state allies (such as Hezbollah and Hamas), issues of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and political change in neighboring Arab states. The composition of a probable new coalition and government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could significantly influence Israeli decisionmaking, politics, and relations with the outside world, including the United States. In turn, this could affect U.S. popularity, credibility, and—ultimately—national security vis-à-vis the Middle East and more broadly. For more information on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations, see CRS Report RL33476, Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, by Jim Zanotti.

Netanyahu came to power following elections in 2009, and called for the 2013 elections to take place in January, nine months before they were required. Most polls and analyses predict that Netanyahu will win another term as prime minister, but a drop in polling support for his joint Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu list—possibly due in part to the indictment of Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman—could increase his dependence on support from small right-of-center or ultra-Orthodox parties that focus on specific issues and have seen their polling averages rise. If they thus acquire disproportionate influence, such coalition partners—along with other parties, cabinet ministers, and “hardline” elements within Likud—might constrain or otherwise affect Netanyahu as he confronts a range of challenges that include the Iranian nuclear issue, cost-ofliving and other budgetary matters, and the seemingly intractable situation with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s political opponents from the left and center appear thus far to have been unsuccessful in attempts to gather a bloc that represents a viable political alternative.

The likely effects of Israel’s elections and related political developments on its internal cohesion and foreign relations are unclear. Criticism by some U.S. and international observers of Netanyahu’s government since 2009 has targeted expanding Jewish residential settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many of these critics accuse Israel’s leaders of a penchant for short-term thinking, focused on maintaining territory and security control, at the potential expense of a longer-term vision of mutual accommodation with other regional actors. Some Israelis dismiss this criticism by insisting that it does not properly take into account the proximity, multiplicity, and seriousness of the challenges Israel faces, or the concessions that Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have periodically made.

Should his party emerge with the largest Knesset representation, Netanyahu would play the leading role in shaping the new coalition and government, but would need support from outside his political support base. As part of this process, he would weigh various domestic and international considerations—including the lack of a clear rival to his immediate leadership— within an overall political, demographic, and regional security context. The strategic challenge of Iran’s nuclear program and the potential for key short-term decision points on unilateral Israeli military action are paramount among security concerns. However, the concerns also include questions about growing threats in ungoverned spaces at Israel’s borders, increased potential for West Bank instability, and the future nature of Israel’s relations with neighboring countries and concerns about further international isolation. To the extent that Netanyahu’s choice of coalition partners and ministers reveals his priorities and constraints as to policy initiatives, Members of Congress can use this information to assess the status and trajectory of U.S.-Israel relations and evaluate possible political, economic, and military options in the Middle East.



Date of Report: January 8, 2013
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R42888
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