Members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) met at The Hague on Friday to discuss a plan to destroy Syrian chemical munitions. Syria and the OPCW agreed that the deadly nerve agents should be destroyed outside Syria, and on Thursday the United States requested that Albania host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in its domestic facilities. The 41-member Executive Council of the OPCW adjourned its deliberations while the Albanian government considers the plan, which will rid of 1,300 tons of sarin and other nerve agents confiscated from Syrian weapons facilities. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama is expected to announce whether his government will agree to the U.S. request later on Friday, but some Albanian lawmakers have raised objections over the plan's environmental and political risks. On Thursday, hundreds of Albanian citizens protested outside the parliament chanting "no to chemical weapons." Last week, international inspectors confirmed that they secured 22 of 23 chemical weapons sites inside Syria and that the Syrian government met the November 1 deadline to eliminate or "render inoperable" all chemical weapons facilities.
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Russian and Egyptian officials have opened up talks on defense cooperation, coming amid tensions in U.S. and Egyptian relations. Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and interim President Adly Mansour in the highest-level Russian visit to Egypt in years. Lavrov expressed his support for a democratic transformation in Egypt and said, "We are quite confident that Egypt will overcome its current crises and put into consideration the interests of all political, ethnic, and religious blocs within society." Russian officials say the talks are focusing on military and technical cooperation, which could mean an arms deal. Beyond that, the Egyptian government hopes to broaden economic relations with Russia. In October, the United States announced a suspension of a large portion of its $1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt. Russian and Egyptian officials however have downplayed strains with the United States. A spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said, "Our strategy is to expand, not to replace one party with another."
Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, addressing tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims commemorating Ashura in southern Beirut, said the group's forces will remain in Syria fighting alongside Assad's forces as long as necessary. He stated, "Our fighters are present on Syrian soil ... to confront all the dangers it faces from the international, regional, and takfiri attack(s) on this country and region." Syrian forces conducted air raids in a residential area on the outskirts of the northeast Lebanese town of Arsal. The air raids came after a series of rockets were fired from Syria into the Nabi Sheet valley in eastern Lebanon. Meanwhile, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has issued a call for mass mobilization in Aleppo, urging "all brigades and Muslims to face off against the enemy," joining six other Islamist rebel groups calling for people to stave off the "fierce offensive to reoccupy Aleppo." The statements came after a government advance, with the army overtaking a strategic base near Aleppo and securing territory around the city's airport. In Damascus Thursday, two bombs reportedly exploded near the old city's bazaar killing at least one person.
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Tunisia's now suspended national dialogue talks have thus far failed to end the country's political impasse triggered by the July 25 political assassination of leftist Popular Front Member of Parliament (MP) Mohamed Brahimi. The Ennahda led government had agreed to a conditional resignation and to sit with the opposition to arrive at a consensus candidate for yet another care-taker prime minister. Ennahda, however, is keen to demonstrate what its leader Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi has reassured his followers: they are only giving up the government and not power. This has only precipitated the latest round of political squabbling and as the November 15 deadline for the resignation of the Ennahda government looms, the opposition is threatening a return to street protests.
It is unclear if the ruling Troika and the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) will agree on a consensus prime minister in time after weeks of deadlock. In light of the recent suspension of the talks, the certainty of Tunisia's future political stability remains uncertain, and Ennahda's place in it is an even more complicated question. The heated and fluid political environment can either be viewed as healthy dynamism unseen elsewhere in the region or rather a slow and painful road toward an inevitable outcome of confrontation like that of Egypt's.
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The Egyptian government said it is lifting a nearly three-month state of emergency and curfew. The emergency law was put into place on August 14 after security forces broke up sit-ins in support of former President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the military on July 3. It allowed for security officials to search homes and make arrests without warrants. The statement has come after an Egyptian court ruled that the emergency decree had expired. However, late Tuesday, the military-led interim government said the state of emergency and curfew would remain in place until it receives formal notification with the text of the ruling. Meanwhile, in a statement read by defense lawyers, Morsi said he intends to sue authorities over his removal. He claimed he was kidnapped the day before the military takeover, held by the Republican Guard, and then detained at a naval base.
Syrian government forces seized the Damascus suburb of Hejeira Wednesday, adding to recent gains in an area that had been an opposition stronghold. According to Syrian state media, the army took control of the town, but fighting continued in the outskirts. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces were in control of most of Hejeira, but there remain small areas of resistance. Meanwhile, Kurdish militias have overtaken seven additional villages in northeastern Syria, pushing back Islamist rebel groups. The military advances have come a day after the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced a plan to form a transitional administration to rule over Kurdish-majority areas. A PYD official said the group intends to develop a constitution and regional parliament, however maintained the area would remain part of Syria.
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In October, Saudi Arabia secured its first-ever election to a seat on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC). The same day, even as gift bags were sent to thank countries that had voted for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom then created another "first" as it became the first country to reject its own election to the UNSC. The objection appeared, at least at face value, to be a matter of principle. The Saudi government declined the seat, citing the Security Council's failures in ending conflicts from Syria to Israel and Palestine. Just as importantly, however, Saudi Arabia may have wanted to avoid going on record in two years' worth of repeated votes on controversial issues in international relations and international security. That pressure may now fall to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as Jordan appeared poised to take the UNSC seat originally offered to Saudi Arabia.
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The United States and Iran traded blame on Monday over responsibility for the failure of the latest round of talks on Iran's nuclear development program. While some reports faulted France for pushing for tight restriction on a heavy-water reactor being constructed in Arak, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Iran was not able to accept the deal "at that particular moment." Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejected Kerry's comments, claiming that delays were predominantly caused by divisions between the six world powers involved in negotiating with Iran -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany. Zarif claimed France "gutted over half" of the U.S. draft proposal on Thursday night. Despite the exchange of accusations, both Kerry and Zarif insisted they were nearing a deal. Zarif said the "outlines and framework" of a deal could be negotiated within a year. However, he asserted that blaming Iran would only serve to undermine confidence, continuing, "The main point is that the West side should build up the trust of the Iranian nation."
The Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition named nine ministers for an interim government in rebel-held territory in Syria Tuesday. While the coalition noted the cabinet was unlikely to gain international recognition, some western countries said they would be willing to use it as a channel for humanitarian aid, and France and Britain said forming the cabinet was an important step. However, the United States appears to have reservations. According to an opposition official, "The United States is against the provisional government because it thinks it will undermine the Geneva talks." The coalition noted that even if the sides convene the proposed peace conference, "it will be a long process and we cannot continue to leave the liberated areas prey to chaos in the meantime." The interim government will likely operate from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, along the border north of Aleppo, rather than from within Syria as security concerns persist. Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes between government troops, backed by Hezbollah and Iraqi fighters, and opposition forces in the southern Damascus suburb of Hejeira. Syrian forces have made gains recently overtaking at least four rebel strongholds in Aleppo, as well as areas south of Damascus. Additionally, a cease-fire deal was reportedly struck on Tuesday in the Palestinian neighborhood of Yarmouk, although there were some reports of continued fighting.
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After years of intermittent violence in the northern provinces of Yemen, political machinations are outpacing the state countermeasures that are mired in indifference and complacency. While the capital, Sanaa, claims to make headway through the National Dialogue, brutal attacks in Sadaa governorate between the Salafis and Houthis have left a significant death toll. The Yemeni government has chosen its usual modus operandi response to the protracted conflict through actively playing a part in the acrimonious disputes over territory and sphere of influence.
Sadaa has been an arena for political gamesmanship and power control since the Houthi rebellion started in 2004. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent the military to fight the Houthis while equipping them with artillery in order to prolong the conflict and weaken the forces of General Ali Mohsen in the Yemeni army. After the Arab Spring, the Houthi movement evolved from a rebellion against the former regime, into a conflict with political parties that are increasingly marred by sectarian divisions, regional meddling, and a complex tribal dimension. The intentions of all factions are clearer now than they have ever been. Political alliances are forming in a way that is increasing the onslaught on the Houthis in order to curb their expanding political influence in Yemen.
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Fully engaged in U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel, the Palestinians have sidelined alternative strategies to achieve their rights, including their right to self-determination. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has recently affirmed, Palestinian negotiators have pledged not to contest the Israeli occupation through the United Nations during the period of negotiations. However, not all roads are blocked. By leveraging Palestine's existing, hard-won membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Palestinians could take action to combat the Israeli occupation and expanding settlement enterprise. Their task may be facilitated by the United States and Israel's recent loss of voting rights in the UNESCO General Conference -- a development stemming from the two countries' refusal to pay membership dues since Palestine became a member in October 2011.
The question, then, is to what extent does UNESCO offer a strategic platform for Palestinians especially as international law has proved toothless on the question of Palestine? On numerous occasions in the past, states have successfully leveraged UNESCO memberships to assert their sovereignty and defend their territorial rights. Now, the Palestinians can do the same.
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Talks between Iran and six world powers on Iran's nuclear program ended Saturday without an agreement, but the parties agreed to meet again on November 20. Several reports have emerged over the breakdown of talks on Saturday, some saying France failed to endorse the proposal insisting on restrictions on a heavy-water plant in Arak. However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, "The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal." He continued, "Iran couldn't take it at that particular moment; they weren't able to accept." At a news conference on Monday in the U.A.E., Kerry mentioned that Washington is not in a race to reach a deal, but that he hoped the parties would reach an agreement within months. After the talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, "We are all on the same wavelength, and that gives us the impetus to go forward when we meet again." Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported it signed a joint statement with Iran on a technical agreement for nuclear cooperation. The "roadmap for cooperation" grants broader access for IAEA inspectors to Iran's nuclear sites, particularly the planned reactor at Arak and the Gachin uranium mine.
The main opposition Syrian National Coalition has agreed to participate in proposed international peace talks in Geneva. In a statement Monday, the western-backed umbrella organization outlined conditions for its attendance requiring a guarantee that relief agencies would be given access to deliver humanitarian assistance to areas under siege and that political prisoners, particularly women and children, would be released. Additionally, the statement reiterated demands that President Bashar al-Assad step down in any transitional government. The coalition has called for goodwill measures from the government, and on Sunday a deal was reached to ease a blockade on the rebel-held town of Qudsaya, near Damascus. However, it is unclear if this was a pointed goodwill gesture. Meanwhile, Syrian forces backed by Hezbollah fighters reportedly overtook an army base near Aleppo's airport. Opposition forces have held nearly half of Aleppo since a siege on the city in July 2012, but the base has reportedly exchanged hands three times since Friday. In northeastern Syria, fighters associated with Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) have made a string of military gains, establishing a significant geographic presence.
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From the coast of the Red Sea to the western edges of Oman, Saudi Arabia is constructing a 1,100-mile patchwork of sandbags, fences, and electronic detection systems along its border with Yemen. The kingdom is rightfully concerned about its southern neighbor, which presides over a deteriorating security situation and the world's second-largest stockpile of weapons -- a combustible combination. Thousands of drug smugglers and arms traffickers have slipped across the border into Saudi Arabia, which has witnessed a recent spike in terrorist attacks launched by Yemen-based militants.
By sealing its border with Yemen, Saudi Arabia pursues its immediate security interests but fails to address the root causes of instability in Yemen -- where nearly half the population lives below the poverty line. Rather than inhibiting the cross-border movement of Yemeni citizens and workers, Saudi Arabia should work to better integrate Yemen and its labor force into the region's economy. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states can play a crucial role in stabilizing Yemen, and the Arabian Peninsula more broadly, through increased labor market integration.
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from Britain, France, and Germany are traveling to Geneva on Friday for talks aimed at achieving a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Their impromptu visits have raised expectations that the P5+1 powers and Iran are close to brokering an interim, phased nuclear deal that would freeze Iran's nuclear program and remove Western-backed sanctions. On Friday morning, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton convened a meeting with delegates from the P5+1 countries and Iran to discuss positions prior to drafting an agreement. The deal would likely take place in stages, where the first phase would freeze any advances in Iran's nuclear program and offer Iran limited sanctions relief in return. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed confidence that both sides could issue a joint statement Friday announcing an "end goal" to be reached "hopefully in less than a year" with confidence-building measures that would address immediate concerns. However, both Iran and the United States would face potential sources of opposition at home. Hardline elements within the Iranian regime may scorn an agreement with the West, while some members of the U.S. Congress have called for the expansion of sanctions against Iran, even during negotiations. Additionally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced grave concern regarding the proposed agreement: "This is a very bad deal and Israel utterly rejects it. Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and defend the security of its people." But U.S. President Barack Obama pushed back against criticism Thursday, saying that the U.S. would offer "very modest relief" from sanctions, which could be reversed if Iran fails to comply with the terms of the agreement.
Syrian government forces launched a major military offensive near Aleppo on Friday, recapturing parts of a military stronghold -- "Base 80" -- seized by rebels in February. The fighting resulted in significant casualties on both sides and exposed some Aleppo neighborhoods to heavy bombardment, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Meanwhile, the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition is reportedly considering an invitation for informal talks with Syrian government representatives in Moscow. Though the details are unconfirmed, the meeting would likely discuss the delivery of humanitarian aid and establishment of humanitarian corridors in Syria.
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Iraq is Disintegrating... Again!
Iraqi nationalism, Iraqi social cohesion - "Iraqiness" -- is in disarray if not completely dead and buried. It is all too easy to mention that, after 10 years, the new Iraq lacks a unifying flag, a national anthem, internal sovereignty, external sovereignty, or a functioning central government. Indeed it often seems as if the national football team might be the last surviving vestige of Iraqi nationalism. Iraqis kill other Iraqis by the hundreds every month and the murderers are callously cheered on by some Iraqi demographic or another in the name of retributive violence.
Meanwhile the voices calling for the division of Iraq into almost always absurdly named entities seem to be on firmer ground than ever -- their arguments taking on a "we told you so" tone. The survival of the Iraqi nation-state, even without the Kurdish north whose independence seems to be an inevitability constrained by time alone, is once again being debated. In short, many may conclude that, as 2013 draws to a close, the only thing more baffling than the levels of violence and cruelty is the fact that, 10 years on, Iraq still exists at all. Yet, as intuitive as such conclusions may seem, they remain fundamentally flawed in that they allow the violence and the profound social and political divisions of Iraq to obscure Arab Iraqis' tenacious belief in "Iraq."
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Iran and world powers began a new round of talks in Geneva Thursday over Tehran's contentious nuclear development program, with both sides expressing cautious optimism. Ahead of the meeting, a U.S. official said the United States is looking to agree on a "first step" deal with Iran, in which Tehran would temporarily halt its nuclear program and reverse a portion of it, in exchange for a modest suspension of sanctions. U.S. officials said many aspects of the deal had already been discussed with Iranian officials and implied the parties could come to an agreement this week. On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated that Tehran's policy is to "refrain from seeking nuclear weapons," continuing that a deal was within reach. However, there are concerns Iran is advancing a nuclear weapons program. Former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Olli Heinonen said Iran has the expertise and sufficient quantities of enriched uranium to produce a crude nuclear explosive within two to three months, though it would take much longer to reach the capacity for weaponization. The concerns are creating a greater impetus for dialogue between the United States and Iran, which current and former U.S., Middle Eastern, and European officials say well preceded the historic phone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. U.S. National Security Council officials reportedly had been holding secret meetings and telephone calls for months in efforts to advance a thaw in U.S. and Iranian relations.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been able to verify a previously inaccessible Syrian chemical weapons site, leaving one of the country's 23 declared sites remaining. The site in northern Aleppo province, as declared by Syria "was confirmed as dismantled and long abandoned with the building showing extensive battle damage." According to the inspectors, the findings were based on photographs and footage from "sealed cameras used by Syrian personnel." Syrian officials began talks at the OPCW headquarters in The Haque on Wednesday aiming to finalize a detailed destruction plan by November 15. The talks have come a day after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power suggested the Syrian government might not have declared its entire chemical weapons program to the OPCW. Meanwhile, Syrian state television and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the Syrian army backed by Hezbollah fighters and other militias overtook Sbeineh, a major rebel enclave south of Damascus, after a year-long siege. The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) also made gains, seizing parts of a large arms depot in Homs after over two weeks of clashes with government forces.
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With the start of the trial of Egypt's deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters are intent on pursuing a strategy of defiance and protest. Facing a wave of multifaceted and, at times, brutal repression, the leadership has determined that the protest movement is its only tool of leverage to cope with the unprecedented challenge from the military-led political order. But this strategy is, in the end, myopic and counterproductive. While it might help preserve the integrity of the Brotherhood as an organization, it will not produce significant results beyond the Brotherhood's committed and resilient base of support.
The Brotherhood may have embarked on its current strategy out of instinct, a pure reaction to the military crackdown that began in July. Months later, however, with the implications of their choices clear, the Brothers have stayed the course; we now must interpret their maneuvers as the result of a conscious choice rather than the fog of coup and transition. Two telling implications cause the most alarm. First, by focusing on protests that alienate most Egyptians, the Brotherhood has clearly chosen to concentrate on its zealous inner circle of membership and committed core of support, rather than attempt to contest Egyptian public opinion in any broad manner -- suggesting an organization that prefers to return underground rather than evolve into a diverse, constituent-based political movement. Second, by sticking with their call for a full restoration despite the widespread rejection of the Brotherhood's term in power, the Brothers are knowingly empowering the radicals who have already begun a campaign of intimidation, violence, and assassination. Perhaps these radicals are fellow travelers rather than Brotherhood members, as the organization says, but the Brotherhood has actively justified rather than condemned the nascent insurgency. This soft embrace of a violent fringe will tar the Brotherhood for years to come.
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Meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was "concerned" about negotiations with the Palestinians and hoped that Kerry could help get the peace process back on track. Netanyahu claimed, "I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace." Palestinians have also suggested no progress had been made in negotiations and have raised concerns after Israel announced plans for the construction of thousands of additional settlement homes in the West Bank. Despite the divides, Kerry said he is confident that with "real compromise and hard decisions" the parties can reach a peace deal. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and then again with Netanyahu.
U.N. and Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi announced a further delay for a Geneva peace conference after U.S. and Russian officials failed to agree on a date. After meetings Tuesday, Brahimi said, "We were hoping we'd be in a position to announce a date today, unfortunately we're not." He continued that they hope to hold the conference by the end of the year. The parties remain split over Iranian participation in peace talks, the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and who would represent the opposition. Brahimi mentioned that the opposition is divided, saying, "They are facing all types of problems and they are not ready." Meanwhile, an explosion Wednesday in the center of the Syrian capital of Damascus killed up to eight people and injured 50 others. Reports are conflicting over whether the explosion was caused by a bomb -- an improvised explosive device planted at an office entrance -- or a mortar shell. On Tuesday, a mortar shell hit the Vatican Embassy in Damascus, however no casualties were reported.
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U.S. and Russian officials have met in Geneva with U.N. and Arab League Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for talks aimed at paving the way for the long-delayed Geneva II peace conference on Syria. They will be joined by the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, France, and China -- as well as Syria's neighboring countries -- Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. Brahimi said he hopes to convene the conference "in the next few weeks, not next year." However, the meetings have come just after Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi reasserted President Bashar al-Assad's commitment to remain in office, saying "we will not go to Geneva to hand over power." Syria's main opposition coalition maintains it would only participate in the conference if the aim is a political transition away from Assad. Additionally the parties are divided over Iran's involvement in the proposed talks. Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told the Security Council Monday that about 40 percent of the Syrian population, 9.3 million people, need humanitarian assistance due to the two and half year civil war. The Syrian government committed Monday to deliver humanitarian aid and vaccinations across the country, as concerns increase over a polio outbreak in the northeast. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, tasked with overseeing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, has reported it only has sufficient funding to maintain operations through November. The organization will need to raise tens to hundreds of millions of dollars for the destruction of Syria's chemical stockpile slated for 2014.
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Cognizant of developments in the United States in Colorado and Washington state, Moroccan social media has been abuzz this summer with a seemingly unlikely possibility: the legalization of cannabis. Activists and politicians in Morocco are close to firming up a date later this month for the parliament to host a seminar on the economic implications of legalization. The powerful Party of Authenticity and Modernity will chair the daylong seminar. This has led some commentators to speculate that the move may even have the blessing of the monarchy.
Morocco regularly vies with Afghanistan for the title of the world's biggest producer of cannabis -- its output was recently estimated at nearly 40,000 tons annually -- yet open debate on the role of the plant in the country's economy remains infrequent. In recent years, despite improvements in production, both small farmers and big producers have seen their cannabis-related income plummet.
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Egypt's trial of former President Mohamed Morsi was adjourned until January 8, just hours after it began Monday. Morsi appeared in public for the first time since he was deposed on July 3 by the Egyptian military in a courtroom at the police academy. He is being tried on charges of incitement in the killing of protesters along with 14 other Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Morsi interrupted the proceedings repeatedly, calling the trial illegitimate. He addressed the court saying, "I am Dr. Mohamed Morsi, the president of the republic. I am Egypt's legitimate president. I refuse to be tried by this court." The Muslim Brotherhood called for mass protests on Monday, and authorities have tightened security in response, deploying an estimated 20,000 security personnel. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Egypt for the first time since Morsi's ouster. On Sunday, Kerry met with Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour and Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and stressed the leaders should stick to their "road map" for restoring democracy. Kerry said, "The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception." He maintained that the government should be inclusive and avoid politically motivated arrests. However, he did not bring up Morsi's trial.
After an emergency meeting Sunday, the Arab League formally backed proposed peace talks planned for Geneva. The Arab foreign ministers called for the Syrian opposition to form a delegation under the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition to attend the conference. However, head of the coalition, Ahmad Jarba, said he would not participate if Iran attends, and additionally insisted on a specific time frame for President Bashar al-Assad's transition from power. On Sunday, the Free Syrian Army's Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi resigned saying infighting within the opposition and failures of the international community were undermining military efforts. Okaidi, a member of the western-backed Supreme Military Council, was one of the opposition's main recipients of U.S. aid. With the deepening divisions among the opposition, Syrian government forces have made advances in rebel held territory in northern Syria.
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Those interested in following every word of the work of the Committee of 50 drafting comprehensive revisions to Egypt's constitution now have a variety of sources to follow: one "official" twitter feed; an "unofficial" one; and the latest addition, an "official" Facebook page. But the most important word governing Egypt's future constitutional order will not be mentioned in any of those places. Indeed, it will not even be placed in the final text scheduled to be submitted to voters next month. That fateful word will be spoken only by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and it will be a simple "yes" or "no" concerning his candidacy for the presidency of the Egyptian republic.
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With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now visiting Washington, most of the criticism directed at him has related to the allegation he has "marginalized Sunnis" and created the atmosphere leading to the current increase in sectarian violence. Among those following this line have been a group of U.S. Senators who sent a letter to President Barack Obama preceding Maliki's visit. But they are missing the point. Maliki is actually more inclusive of Sunnis than his Shiite rivals, and only one Sunni minister, former Finance Minister Rafia al-Isawi, has resigned permanently. Sunnis control most of the economic ministries as well as all the provincial governments where they are a majority. The most anti-Maliki provinces, Anbar and Ninawa, have renewed security coordination with Baghdad.
The real problem with the legacy Maliki and his cohorts are creating lies elsewhere, and is symbolized in the current stalemate over a bill for a new election law which is based entirely around strengthening the oligopolistic nature of the current system. The law is necessary for the parliamentary elections due by the end of April 2014, and since the electoral commission says it needs six months to make preparations, parliament is cutting it close. But with the Kurds and the Arab parties deadlocked, and Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani threatening to boycott the elections, Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi has repeatedly postponed the vote.
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Notwithstanding some speculation, Syria has become an intensely complex conflict. Militarily, the opposition currently consists of more than 1,000 armed opposition groups as well as dozens of alliances, fronts, and joint operations rooms and pro-government forces are similarly multidimensional. The battle itself is divided into countless kinetic theaters, each of which maintains its own unique characteristics and few of which can be neatly replicated elsewhere. The ideological spectrum on both sides of the conflict has broadened and simultaneously intensified. Additionally, the increasingly prominent role of external backers -- interested countries, private individuals, and non-state interest groups -- has introduced often mutually exclusive interests into the already existing amalgam of conflicting ideological, political, economic, and military objectives.
Despite this, journalists, analysts, and activists alike often seek to ascertain the "next big front" in Syria, particularly through the widely accepted paradigm of rebel forces versus the Assad regime. Unfortunately, complexity often gets lost amid a popular desire for more simple and digestible macro frameworks. Utilizing such perspectives in the Syrian framework regularly results in considerable hype, but little movement and unpredictable flare-ups.
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Syria has destroyed or rendered inoperable all of its equipment for producing, mixing, and filling chemical weapons ahead of the November 1 deadline. Jerry Smith, from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said, "We have personally observed all of the destruction activities." The next deadline is November 15, at which point the OPCW and Syrian government must have agreed to a plan for the destruction of its chemical agents and munitions. Syria will have until mid-2014 to eliminate its entire chemical weapons arsenal. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told U.N. and Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi that no political solution to the Syrian conflict could be reached without an end to foreign support for the opposition. Brahimi met in Damascus with Assad for the first time in 10 months in order to lay the groundwork for a planned international peace conference in Geneva. Assad said, "Only the Syrian people are authorized to shape the future of Syria." Yet the parties remain deeply divided with the main opposition group refusing to attend talks unless they are framed around Assad's resignation, while Assad insists he will not participate unless opposition fighters lay down their arms. As fighting continues, hundreds of people fleeing the civil war are being "denied entry into Jordan" according to Amnesty International. Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who have been living in Syria and others without official identity documents, as well as unaccompanied men without family ties in Jordan, are being denied entry into the neighboring country.
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Syria is in dire straits, the international community remains fractured, and the "friends of Syria" -- which have lately been acting more like "frenemies" -- have elevated their own national interests over the needs of the Syrian people. Turkey is no exception.
At the outset of the crisis, Ankara prioritized diplomacy over military action. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make top down cosmetic democratic reforms to appease the growing anti-government protest movement. Yet, after repeated trips to Damascus, Turkey gave up on Assad in August 2011. In turn, Turkey adopted a three-pronged policy of conventional deterrence, border defense, and, by August 2011, outright regime change brought about by external intervention via support for proxy groups.
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Israel has released 26 Palestinian prisoners shortly after midnight Wednesday, the second phase of four in part of a U.S. brokered peace plan. Five of the inmates were released to Gaza, and 21 to the West Bank to celebratory crowds. Almost all of the prisoners had been detained over 20 years ago with life sentences on charges of murdering Israelis and some Palestinians. On Tuesday, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a last minute appeal by Israeli terror victims' organizations. In a move believed to be aimed at easing tensions in Israel over the contested prisoner release, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced it would proceed with a plan for the construction of 1,500 additional housing units in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government approval of the housing projects was in "compensation" for the release of the 26 Palestinian prisoners. However, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the move as "destructive for the peace process."
The Syrian regime has fired Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Qadri Jamil shortly after he met with a U.S. official to discuss the proposed Geneva peace conference. Jamil reportedly met with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford over the weekend in Geneva. Jamil has been an outspoken proponent of reform and the planned peace talks. Syrian state news agency SANA said Jamil was dismissed for holding meetings "outside the homeland without coordination with the government and overstepping institutional norms and the state's overall structure." Some Syrian officials said Jabril, who describes himself as a regime opponent, was fired so that he can take a more active role in planning for peace talks as a member of the opposition. Meanwhile, U.N. and Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi met directly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday for the first time in 10 months, in efforts to lay the groundwork for the Geneva conference.
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The United Nation's World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed 10 cases of polio in Syria, the country's first outbreak in 14 years. According to the WHO, the suspected outbreak has been focused in the eastern Deir al-Zour province. There are still 12 other possible cases under investigation. WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer said the majority of the victims have been children under the age of two. The United Nations estimates that 500,000 children have remained unvaccinated since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. With the large population movements caused by fighting, there is concern the highly communicable disease could spread across the region. Syria's Health Ministry has begun an immunization drive, and immunization campaigns have begun in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said inspectors have visited 21 of the 23 sites initially listed by the Syrian government. However, they are concerned they will not be able to reach the final two sites due to security concerns. The next stage of the U.S. and Russian plan is for the destruction of weapons at the facilities, which could nonetheless move ahead at the sites in which inspectors have already gained access.
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A series of bombings killed dozens of people in Iraq on Sunday in a recent campaign of attacks that has brought on the most deadly violence since 2008. Ten car bombs exploded within a span of 30 minutes in markets, bus stations, and police checkpoints in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of the capital of Baghdad. At least 41 people were killed in the attacks and an estimated 120 others were wounded. The most severely hit were the districts of Shaab and Nahrwan. However, other neighborhoods struck by blasts included Bayaa, Baladiyat, Mashtal, Hurriyah, Ur, and Dura, as well as Saba al-Bur outside of Baghdad. In a separate attack, a suicide bomber killed an estimated 14 people in the northern city of Mosul where troops were in line to collect their wages at a bank. Over 30 people were injured. Over 600 people have been killed across Iraq so far in October, mostly in attacks claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Syria has submitted a formal declaration of its chemical weapons program and a plan for the elimination of its arsenal to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), ahead of its deadline. The OPCW said its executive council would review the destruction plan by November 15. The contents of the Syrian document are unclear, and there are concerns that the declaration may not be exhaustive. OPCW inspectors said they have visited 19 of the 23 sites Syria listed in its initial report, and had destroyed production equipment. Meanwhile, after three days of clashes with Islamist militant factions, Kurdish militiamen overtook the Yaroubiyeh border crossing with Iraq on Saturday. On Monday, after a week of clashes with primarily Islamist rebel fighters, Syrian government forces regained control over the predominantly Christian town of Sadad about 75 miles north of Damascus, strategically located on a main highway. The fighting has come as U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other regime figures ahead of peace talks planned to be held in Geneva in November.
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At a meeting between Bashar al-Assad and a Lebanese Hezbollah delegation in Damascus in April 2013, Assad assured his guests that "the Americans are pragmatic" and "won't fully commit" to a policy to put an end to his regime. They will, he claimed, eventually "side with the winner." Policy statements and recent revelations about the Obama administration's deliberative process on Syria raise the question: Is the United States proving Assad correct?
The U.S. State Department is currently grappling with the problem of the Geneva II peace conference scheduled for late November. For Geneva II to succeed, Washington must somehow find a way to make the conference a step toward the exit of Assad and his inner circle, but this intended result makes it highly unlikely Assad will participate to that end. As U.S. officials in Foggy Bottom contemplate this thorny puzzle, their bosses at the White House could help by reconsidering the public messaging of their Syria policy.
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Saudi Arabia has warned it may take action against women who participated in a campaign Saturday to defy a ban on women drivers. Women activists have been posting videos of themselves driving around the kingdom and claim they have an online petition demanding change with 16,600 signatures. This is the third effort of its kind, with others either fizzling out or resulting in arrests of a number of women, or causing some to lose their jobs. However, activists believe the mood is changing, that they have greater support, and that the government is split over whether to lift the ban. However, on Wednesday, Interior Ministry Spokesman General Mansur al-Turki stated, "It is known that women in Saudi are banned from driving and laws will be applied against violators and those who demonstrate support." It was a rare and explicit restating of the ban, which is informal. It is not specifically illegal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, however authorities will not issue women licenses.
Norway has declined a U.S. request to destroy a substantial portion of Syria's chemical weapons. Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende said the government had given "serious and thorough consideration" over whether it could manage destroying 500 tons of chemical components and had reached its decision in partnership with the United States. However, the two countries determined Norway was not best suited "due to time constraints and external factors, such as capacities and regulatory requirements." The countries decided Norway would contribute to the work of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in other areas such as economic, personnel, and inspectors. The OPCW aims to eliminate the Syrian regime's chemical production capabilities by November 1 and is expected to release a plan for the destruction of the government's chemical weapons by next week. Meanwhile, as Syria's civil war has forced over two million people to seek refuge outside the country, concerns are increasing for the over five million people who have been displaced from their homes, yet remain within the country's borders. On Friday, clashes were reported between Kurdish militiamen and several Islamist groups in Yaroubiyeh near the northeastern border with Iraq.
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"No one wants a real state," Dr. Mohammed al-Mutawakel intoned, gathering attention from around the table where his family gathered for lunch on the Eid holiday. The former opposition party leader and elder statesman explained why Yemen has reached a point of crisis that might lead to the failure of the National Dialogue intended to resolve the country's most critical problems: "Each political actor is only looking out for his own interests; none is working to establish a functioning, civil, democratic state for the people." It was hard to argue with this most fundamental point, and nearly everyone I spoke with in my three-day visit to Sanaa agreed that as the dialogue reaches its final stage, the traditional power centers are closing ranks and using every trick in the bag to scuttle its potential success.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored agreement that averted civil war in Yemen and prompted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power in exchange for immunity in November 2011 set forth a carefully scripted process for Yemen's transition: a one-candidate presidential election, formation of a national unity government, a sixth-month national dialogue, constitution-drafting and referendum, development of a new electoral law, and then national elections. The National Dialogue has exceeded its initial six-month mandate, but the 565 delegates representing the primary political parties, Southerners, Houthi movement, civil society, youth, and women have done an admirable job hashing out the most important issues facing the country through nine working groups. After months of deliberations that generated a relatively positive climate of exchange, the workings groups just reached the stage of proposing solutions two months ago, and this is why the process is now breaking down. According to Dr. Badr Basalmah, a National Dialogue delegate representing the Southern Hirak movement, "the real decision-makers are outside the dialogue, and they are not looking for solutions -- they want to hold on to their power and assets. Now that the dialogue has moved into the details, they have realized the dangers of change, and so they are resisting it with full force."
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Much of Syria was hit by a power cut late Wednesday following a blast near Damascus's international airport. Syria's electricity minister said, "A terrorist attack on a gas pipeline that feeds a power station in the south has led to a power outage." According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, rebel fighters fired on a gas pipeline near the airport causing an explosion. Residents and activists reported seeing a large fire, though it is unclear if there have been any casualties. Damascus and southern Syria have seen several blackouts since fighting erupted in 2011, and many rebel-held regions of the country have been without electricity for months. Meanwhile, the Syrian government is expected to deliver its disarmament plan by Thursday to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in accordance with the U.S. and Russian-led deal for the elimination of Syria's chemical arsenal. Additionally, Syrian authorities have released an estimated 61 female prisoners in the past two days in part of a three-way prisoner exchange. On October 18, two Turkish pilots who were abducted in Lebanon in August were released, and Syrian rebels freed nine Lebanese men. The release of additional detainees is expected, however that has not been confirmed.
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