The demonstrations started in Istanbul a few days ago. The initial objective was to protect the park in Taksim, Istanbul's central square, from being demolished and replaced by a shopping mall. But the police intervened with excessive force against a peaceful assembly, liberally using tear gas to disperse protesters. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the project will go ahead regardless of the "few" people that oppose it. As a result, this local dispute was unexpectedly transformed into a city and then a nation-wide mass demonstration against his polarizing style.
The mass protests should be seen as a reaction against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan's style of majoritarian governance. By cementing a pro-government majority and avoiding consensus on sensitive issues, Erdogan's political strategy has polarized Turkish society. This majoritarian approach to decision-making has worked well for him so far. He not only succeeded in setting the agenda for the country, but he also increased his popular support over three successive elections. But it now seems that this style of governance has reached the limit of Turkish society's tolerance. The recent adoption of a law on alcohol that significantly impedes the marketing, sales, and consumption of alcoholic drinks had already stirred a debate in Turkey about the government's negligence to take into account the sensitivities of Turkey's non-conservatives. Moreover, Erdogan's defense of the law by referencing religious principles only served to provoke the law's secular opponents. Instead the decision to transform a public park in the central square of Istanbul into a shopping mall became the rallying theme for many Turks to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with Erdogan's leadership.
More than 4.5 million Syrians are internally displaced within their own country, and about 1.5 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries. A recent report by Amnesty International accused the international community of a "spectacular failure" in Syria. The report was a broader commentary on refugees around the world, whom Salil Shetty, Amnesty's Secretary General, said face rising threats. He added that "The failure to address conflict situations effectively is creating a global underclass...The rights of those fleeing conflict are unprotected." Many Syrians live in increasingly dire conditions in refugee camps on the Jordanian, Lebanese, and Turkish borders. Furthermore, intensified clashing and shelling in southern Syria has prevented thousands of Syrian refugees from crossing into Jordan by cutting off access routes. While visiting a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, said "The world's facing a catastrophe here, and I think we're coming close to the point where we think anything is better than the humanitarian crisis, especially if the fighting intensifies further." More than 1 million Syrians now live in Lebanon, comprising about 20% of the population. In particular, the large influx of children has greatly strained Lebanon's public education system. According to a UNICEF official, the number of school-aged Syrian children in Lebanon is expected to surpass the number of Lebanese school-aged children currently enrolled in public schools by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department is persuading Gulf states to funnel humanitarian aid directly to the United Nations and other foreign aid agencies instead of funding their own handpicked programs, which can lead to duplicated aid or gaps in aid.
Observing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to restart negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis one can't help but be struck by a sense of déjà vu. Kerry, who visits Israel and the Palestinian territories this week, has launched an initiative to improve the economic conditions of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This proposal might be considered innovative if a plan to "improve the Palestinian quality of life" -- which in practice means improving the conditions of Israel's Palestinian subjects while ignoring their subjugation -- had not been mooted in 1983 by Secretary of State George Shultz. In the intervening decades, Palestinian "quality of life" has worsened considerably.
Similarly, there are reports of Kerry touting an Arab peace plan that would reaffirm the 1967 boundaries as the basis for a settlement. The same plan was originally put forward by Saudi Arabia's then-Crown Prince Abdullah at the 2002 Arab summit meeting and reiterated in 2007, both times to general Israeli and U.S. indifference. The core principles in the original initiative were far from novel: they simply recapitulated the terms of U.N. Security Council resolution 242 of 1967. Like its nearly-identical predecessors, the plan was ignored by the Israeli government, even though it includes explicit reference to the possibility of territorial "swaps" Israel has long insisted on.
AFP/Getty Images/AHMAD GHARABLI
According to a new U.N. atomic agency report, Iran is expanding its nuclear program by accelerating the installment of advanced uranium enrichment equipment at Natanz, a nuclear facility. Iran has installed 700 advanced IR2m centrifuges, an increase from 180 in February, although the new centrifuges are not yet operating. The report said there hasn't been a significant amount of growth of enriched uranium and therefore Tehran has not yet reached a "red line" that might call for military action. Iran also has a new production strategy. In addition to accelerating the installation of equipment, Tehran has started to produce plutonium. The report also elaborates on the heavy water reactor under construction in Arak, which is nearing completion and is expected to have a reactor running by the end of 2014. Iran has not started to operate on new equipment at the Fordo facility, but it has covered much of the Parchin military base with asphalt, restricting the work of nuclear inspectors. Nonetheless, Israeli and American officials have expressed confidence that both countries would have sufficient time to stop the production of a weapon if Iran builds one. The report appears in advance of the country's presidential elections next month and amid a lull in diplomatic efforts to achieve a settlement on Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran insists is exclusively for civilian purposes.
The Syrian National Coalition will gather in Istanbul to discuss whether they will attend a proposed peace conference initiated by Russia and the United States that will bring the Assad regime and opposition to the negotiating table. A member of the coalition reiterated that "The Coalition and (key opposition movement) the Syrian National Council have made clear their condition to any talks is the resignation of Bashar al-Assad." In addition, Salim Idriss, the commander of the opposition group the Supreme Military Council, has said the United States must provide them with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry, in addition to man-portable air-defense systems, as a precondition for attending the peace talks. The United States is pressuring Europe to accept a British plan to amend the EU arms embargo on Syria thereby allowing weapons to be delivered to the opposition. Meanwhile, German's foreign intelligence services reversed its earlier prediction that the Assad regime would fall by early 2013 and instead argues in a new report that the Syrian president's forces have gained strength recently. Assad forces have rebuilt their own supply lines for weapons and for fuel for tanks and airforce jets while cutting off the opposition forces from their resources. Meanwhile, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, has accused Hezbullah, the militant Lebanese Shia Islamist group, of contributing to Assad's "campaign of terror." He added that thousands of Hezbullah fighters have joined the ranks of the Syrian army, both of whom receive support from Iran. Recently, Hezbullah militants have been fighting alongside the Syrian army and pro-regime militants in Qusair, a Syrian town near the Lebanese border.
--By Jennifer T. Parker
Relations between Bahrain and the United States reached a new level of volatility this week as the kingdom's cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to, as Information Minister Samira Rajab said, "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs." The Bahraini cabinet's endorsement of a proposal to stop Krajeski from "interfering in domestic affairs" and meeting government opponents is a significant move that should do more than raise eyebrows in Washington.
While U.S. diplomats have been repeatedly attacked by the pro-government media and by the country's parliament for being too close to the pro-democracy opposition, attacks which included personal threats, this is different. This wasn't a crackpot newspaper or a loose cannon member of parliament saying this, but rather the cabinet, which includes the prime minister and the crown crince. The crown prince was supposed to be Washington's friend -- the young western-educated heir to the throne, the reformer in the family, the guy of the future -- whom the U.S. government had banked on to champion democratic reform in Bahrain.
In the wake of reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used sarin, a chemical weapon, it appears that U.S. President Barack Obama is on the brink of providing the Syrian opposition with lethal weapons. But it certainly does not seem that the Obama administration pursued the full range of nonlethal options available, particularly those involving the international community. Here's an idea: To affect meaningful and decisive change in Syria, which is suffering from a humanitarian catastrophe, the international community should use all available diplomatic and economic leverage to choke off the arms, resources, and money flowing to the regime.
A new Human Rights First report reveals that at least a dozen countries -- including Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Angola, Georgia, Lebanon, Cyprus, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates -- are continuing to provide the Assad regime with weapons, fuel, military technology, and access to financial markets. The paper provides both a unique overview of Assad's third-party supporters and a roadmap the U.S. government can follow to crack down on them. The U.S. government should use diplomacy to try to influence the countries providing these resources as well as the countries allowing these resources to pass through their jurisdiction. In addition, the U.S. Treasury should use existing authority under the Syria sanctions regime to designate those entities continuing to support the Assad regime and block them from the U.S. marketplace.
AFP/Getty Images/LOUAI BESHARA
A car bomb exploded in a bustling area of central Damascus, killing 15 people and wounding at least 53, according to Syrian state news. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) attributed the blast to a booby-trapped car located near Sabaa Bahrat Square and Shahbander street, both of which are residential and commercial areas. The blast caused extensive damage, blowing out windows from nearby buildings and setting several cars on fire. AFP reports that gunfire was exchanged shortly after the explosion. In mid-February, a car bomb exploded in Damascus near the Baath party headquarters and the Russian embassy. Meanwhile, the government launched several attacks on opposition-held positions throughout the country in attempts to regain lost territory. They reclaimed control of Aziza, a town near the city's military airport. Syrian warplanes attacked Alepoo, Latakia, Deir Ezzor, in addition to other locations. An airstrike on Sunday in Aleppo killed at least 12 civilians. SOHR reported that the opposition fighters helping to control these areas withdrew after they ran out of ammunition. Meanwhile, the United Nations continues to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use. "The use of chemical weapons by any side, under any circumstances, would constitute an outrageous crime with dire consequences and constitute a crime against humanity," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. He added that an inspection team is waiting in Cyprus for permission to enter Syria and begin their investigation.
--By Jennifer Parker
Thousands of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron. The protesters were mourning the deaths of two teenagers, Amer Nassar and his cousin, Naji Balbisy, who were killed by Israeli soldiers during protests ignited by the death of a 64 year-old Palestinian prisoner who had cancer. Palestinians accuse Israel of delaying Maissara Abu Hamdiyeh's diagnosis and treatment; but Israel maintains its medical care for Abu Hamdiyeh was forthcoming. Many of the protesters called for a third intifada and twenty-one Palestinians were injured by rubber bullets and tear gas during the clashes. According to Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, "It seems that Israel wants to spark chaos in the Palestinian territories...Israel, on every occasion, is using lethal force against peaceful young protesters, and peaceful demonstrations are being suppressed with the power of weapons. This is not acceptable at all." Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, replied that "We are concerned that there are elements in the P.A. that seem to refuse to jettison the harsh language of confrontation, and try to exploit different incidents to stir up trouble." The protests come days before Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to the region. Meanwhile, the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid for 800,000 Gazans, has suspended its food distribution services in Gaza after protesters stormed its compound in anger over aid cutbacks.
The Syrian government verbally attacked Jordan and Turkey for their roles in the country's civil war. Broadcast via the state news media, Syria accused the Turkish prime minister of lying and warned Jordan they were "playing with fire" by providing the opposition with arms and training. In an interview to be broadcast on Friday, Bashar al-Assad lashed out at the Arab League, saying the group "lacks legitimacy." "Real legitimacy is not accorded by organizations or foreign officials...legitimacy is that which is granted by the people," Assad added. Meanwhile, Filippo Grandi, commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said that refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war are inadequately provided for and on the verge of overwhelming the resources of the United Nations and their host countries. "This is the type of crisis that humanitarian agencies at some point cannot handle any more," he said. "It's unmanageable and dangerous." Meanwhile, a slew of rockets hit Barzeh district, a neighborhood in northeast Damascus. At least five people died and many others were buried under the debris. According to the Local Coordination Committees, there were fierce clashes in Zabadany and Abadeh, both suburbs of Damascus. Opposition groups have reported that at least 132 people were killed yesterday.
Iran and world powers resumed nuclear talks in Kazakhstan. Iran announced that it will present a new proposal for its nuclear program.
A fight between Muslim and Buddhist detainees at an immigration center in Indonesia killed eight people and wounded 15 others.
Saudi Arabia has sentenced a man to paralysis for the stabbing and paralysis of his childhood friend ten years ago. According to Saudi media, the perpetrator could be paralyzed if he is not able to pay the victim adequate compensation.
--By Jennifer Parker
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