Middle East Ticker

The Middle East Ticker

By Yishai Schwartz, Jennifer R. Williams
Wednesday, March 4, 2015, 5:44 PM

Qatar is reportedly pushing Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official arm in Syria, to break away from Al Qaeda and form an independent entity that would also include some smaller jihadi groups such as Jaish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar and others. The action would remove the legal obstacles preventing Qatar from supporting the group, which has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council and is designated as a terrorist group by the United States. Securing Qatari patronage would provide the struggling Nusra with badly-needed financial support that could help strengthen its ability to confront both the Islamic State and the Assad regime’s military forces. For Qatar, the relationship would offer it increased influence in the Syrian civil war. The loss of Nusra would likely be yet another blow to Al Qaeda, which has labored to remain relevant in the wake of the Islamic State’s stunning rise.

The New York Times is reporting that the Syrian opposition has begun publishing some 4,000 photos of individuals who have died in prisons under Bashar al-Assad so that family members can identify the victims and potentially serve as complainants in war crimes trials that could be filed in Europe and the United States. The pictures, which were smuggled out of Syria by the former Syrian police photographer and famous defector who goes by the pseudonym “Caesar,” are being published on two opposition websites: a Facebook page maintained by Caesar’s supporters and a site that focuses on the plight of political prisoners and missing Syrians.  As reported by the Times, “Russia’s veto power in the United Nations Security Council has posed an obstacle for referring war crimes allegations against Mr. Assad to the International Criminal Court. In providing the photos to the United States, Caesar and his supporters hoped that the Obama administration would help the legal efforts to hold the Assad government accountable.”

Egypt’s Administrative Court issued a ruling delaying indefinitely the parliamentary election process, the first phase of which was scheduled to begin on March 22, after another court ruled that a provision in the election law related to voting districts was unconstitutional. Egypt has been without a parliament since June 2012.

Saudi Arabia and South Korea have signed a memorandum on nuclear cooperation, cementing a partnership on technical cooperation, research and development, and the exchange of personnel in the field of nuclear energy. In 2010, the late King Abdullah established the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy with the goal of developing alternative and renewable energy resources for the country, which is the world’s largest exporter of petroleum and is entirely reliant on oil and gas for its electricity production.

In Lebanon, a draft law creating a mechanism for civil marriage has been submitted to parliament, sparking controversy. The issue of civil marriage is contentious in the country, as almost all marriages are carried out by religious bodies. Serge Torsarkissian, the lawmaker who proposed the bill, said that he hoped the draft law would facilitate more interfaith marriages and improve relations between sects in Lebanon, a country long riven by intense sectarian conflict.

Riyadh has announced a strict new policy to deal with the growing number of foreigners who live and work inside the country: foreigners who break the rules and laws of Saudi Arabia will now promptly be deported to their home countries. This includes “those who come from countries where there are conflicts, including Syria,” according to Sulaiman Yahya, the general director of passports, although he stated that Syrian nationals will not be deported directly to Syria but will instead have the option to choose where they want to go. According to Gulf News, Saudi Arabia is home to around nine million foreigners, mostly unskilled laborers and domestic helpers from Asian countries.

Cairo’s Morality Police have arrested seven men believed to be transsexuals on charges of “debauchery”---a common charge applied to men suspected of being homosexual---claiming that they had formed “a network for practicing debauchery” on social media and explaining that the government had monitored the men and set up fake Web pages to entrap them. The arrest is seen by many as yet another example of the increased persecution of Egypt’s LGBT community by the Egyptian government in recent years. According to the Independent, human rights activists called 2014 “the worst year in a decade for Egypt’s gay community, with at least 150 men arrested or put on trial.”

Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), the international finance free-trade zone in Abu Dhabi, announced that it will adopt stringent new legislation to prevent money laundering and combat terrorism in line with international standards. The ADGM was established to connect the economies of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia with international financial markets and to create a financial hub “that, in time, will rank alongside the world’s leading centres.

Palestinians to formally file ICC complaint against Israel: Although the ICC prosecutor has already opened a preliminary investigation into “the situation in Palestine,” the Palestinian Authority has now decided to officially request an investigation. The complaint, which will be filed on April 1 (the earliest opportunity for the Palestinians who only recently joined the ICC), specifically targets the 2014 Gaza War and Israel’s controversial settlement policies in the West Bank. The Palestinian attempts to pursue statehood status outside of negotiations and to prosecute Israel at the ICC are viewed by the US and Israel as violations of prior commitments. Reportedly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already rebuffed Israeli offers to release frozen funding in exchange for dropping the complaints.

Federal jury finds PLO liable for decade-old terror attacks: after a lengthy road to trial, a federal jury in New York found the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization responsible for a series of terror attacks that killed and maimed American citizens in Israel from 2002 through 2004. The politically-fraught civil judgment in Sokolow vs PLO awards the victims an initial $218.5 million (a sum that may still be tripled) under provisions of an anti-terrorism law. The Palestinians have appealed, and it will likely be very difficult for the victims to collect the damages. However, the judicial finding of fact will likely have significant impact on future litigation. (See Yishai’s separate post for a larger discussion.)

Jerusalem court opens door to Jewish prayer on Temple Mount: A Jerusalem magistrate court judge has slapped the Israeli government with a hefty financial penalty for prohibiting Jewish activist Yehuda Glick from visiting the Temple Mount. Glick, who advocates for the right of Jews to pray on the Muslim-controlled religious site, was nearly shot dead four months ago by East Jerusalem resident Mutaz Hijazi and has become a symbol for a renewed push against an Israeli police policy that prevent Jews from praying while visiting the extremely volatile holy site. The court decision is deeply dismissive of the of the police’s arguments in favor of the ban, and could put pressure on the Israeli government to either formalize the current arrangement, or change it. Any change in the status quo, however, is likely to ignite Arab outrage---both in Jerusalem and worldwide.

Kerry condemns UN Human Rights Council “obsession with Israel”: Ahead of the dueling speeches by National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Iran negotiations this week, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared in Geneva before the UN Human Rights Council. He warned that the group’s “obsession” with Israel undermined the credibility of the organization as a whole. Israel has long complained about the UNHRC’s highly critical and constant focus on Israeli actions, especially in comparison with the world’s major human rights abusers. As the debate over the Iran deal intensifies, the administration is pointing to Kerry’s speech, and frequent American opposition to UN condemnation of Israel, as proof that it is fully committed to Israel’s security and legitimacy.