In a press conference on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he is considering sending weapons and ammunition to Syrian opposition forces. This would be a policy shift for the administration, which has up until now provided only non-lethal and humanitarian assistance. The statement came just days after U.S. intelligence reports suggested that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Obama has said the use of such weapons would be a "game changer," but he has maintained that there needs to be "hard, effective evidence" before considering military action against Syria. He said there are a number of options that have been prepared for him, which have not been deployed. According to anonymous officials, these include a "no-fly zone" over Syria and targeted missile strikes. Additionally, the president insinuated that the United States would not act unilaterally. On Monday, Obama met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to convince Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, that the likely use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government should lead Putin to end his support for the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, in a televised speech Tuesday, the leader of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said the group is ready to protect the Syrian regime. Nasrallah said, "Syria has true friends in the region and the world that won't permit Syria to fall in the hands of America, Israel, and [extremist] groups." He stated that members of Hezbollah were "providing appropriate aid" to Syrian government forces. The opposition Syrian National Coalition denounced the "threats" from Hezbollah, and accused the group of backing government fighters in Shiite villages along the border between Syria and Lebanon.
Life rarely gives you second chances. But if handled deftly, the Arab Peace Initiative (API), discussed yesterday at a Blair House meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and an assembled group of Arab foreign ministers, could help form the basis of a serious reconstituted peace process. The delegation came to Washington under the guise of the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee -- a group charged with securing acceptance of the API by Israel and others.
The API was proposed over a decade ago by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at a 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut that convened amidst raging Israeli-Palestinian violence. Endorsed by the Arab League, the proposal offered Israel the prospect of peace, security, and normal relations -- a goal Israel has sought since its independence in 1948. In return, the Arabs called on Israel to agree to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
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A powerful explosion hit the Marjeh district of central Damascus Tuesday, killing at least 13 people and injuring 70 others, according to Syrian state TV. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that nine civilians and three security men were killed and stated that the death toll is likely to rise. The blast hit near a hotel, shopping center, and a former interior ministry building and was followed by sporadic gunfire. The explosion came from a booby-trapped car. It is not clear who was behind the attack, or what was the intended target. The attack came a day after a car bombing in the Damascus neighborhood of Mezze, which targeted Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halki, who survived the attack. Opposition fighters have increased attacks on Syria's capital, but neither rebels nor the government forces have made significant gains.
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Mounting anti-Ikhwan sentiment inside and outside Egypt has become indisputable. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government's poor performance coupled with its political arrogance and immaturity have irritated many Egyptians and alarmed western policymakers. However, the crucial question is: Does it really matter? Does the MB take their critics seriously? More importantly, how will this anti-Ikhwanism play out with the internal politics of the MB?
The MB doesn't seem to be much concerned with the growing resentment against its rule. The movement is chiefly preoccupied by grabbing as much power as it can and its leaders don't give much attention to the allegation that their popularity is waning.
Moreover, President Mohamed Morsi tends to ignore, disdain, or threaten the opposition's leaders, which he believes are attempting to undermine his rule. For him, as long as MB support is secure, nothing should be worrying. Not surprisingly, since taking power, Morsi has shown no sign of disentanglement between the presidency and the MB. His discourse and policy are still much attached to the MB's ideology and leadership.
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The bloody struggle playing out in Syria has taken on increasingly sectarian tones, with dangerous implications for the future of this important country and the region. Protests originally focused on governance, political rights, and human freedoms. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime responded with violence, torture, and abuse, labeling opponents as "terrorists" and emphasizing sectarian differences. Two plus years into this increasingly protracted struggle, Assad's actions have helped create what he feared -- armed anti-government elements seeking his overthrow, with violent foreign religious extremists importing their dangerous worldview and political agenda.
Considering the diverse set of actors fighting the Assad regime, there will be another war for control of Syria once he leaves the scene. It will pit onetime rebel allies against each other, with alignments along sectarian lines or divides over secular versus religious governance. These cleavages are already starting to show, such as with the recent announcement by al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra of the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria.
Therefore, for the future of Syria, the fight after the fight may be as important as the first.
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U.S. officials have stated they believe that the Syrian government has used chemicals weapons, which may bring into question President Barack Obama's "red line" on Syria. In a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday, the White House stated that U.S. intelligence agencies assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin gas on a small scale. Several officials went further to say that the intelligence agencies expressed medium to high confidence of their assessment. According to officials, the assessment was based on tests from soil samples and blood drawn from people who had been injured in the attacks in March near Aleppo and Damascus. The White House, however, is treading cautiously and said that "given the stakes involved" it would need "credible and corroborated facts" before Obama would take action. During his visit to Jerusalem last month, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for U.S. involvement. U.S. administration officials said that the Pentagon has prepared a variety of options intended to secure chemical weapons stockpiles. A White House official said, "all options are on the table in terms of our response." The United States is joining Israel, France, and Britain in suggesting that the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons. British Prime Minister David Cameron said there is "limited but growing evidence" that government forces have used chemical weapons, adding that "It is extremely serious, this is a war crime."
The minaret of Syria's famous Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, which was built between the 8th and 12th centuries, has been destroyed during clashes between government troops and opposition forces who have traded blame. The mosque is in Aleppo's Old City, which has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. UNESCO described it as "one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world." The minaret dates back to the 11th century. Syria's state news agency, SANA, reported fighters from the Islamist al-Nusra Front caused the destruction, while an Aleppo-based activist said a Syrian tank shell had "totally destroyed" the minaret. The destruction came just over a week after the minaret from the 7th century Omari Mosque was destroyed in the southern city of Daraa. Heavy fighting was also reported near Aleppo on Tuesday over control of the Minnigh military airbase. According to Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "The rebels, who had laid siege to the airport for months now, entered it for the first time around dawn." Meanwhile, the Syrian government has waged a campaign to convince the United States that it is on the wrong side in supporting the opposition in the Syrian civil war. Regime officials allowed New York Times journalists limited access to Damascus in attempts to convince the West that the opposition is dominated by Islamist extremists. Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi said, "We are partners in fighting terrorism."
Church sources in Aleppo and Damascus said the two bishops abducted on Monday remain missing, despite reports they had been freed. Armed militants reportedly seized Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo and Boulou Yaziji, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, in a contested area of northern Aleppo. Syrian officials have blamed a "terrorist group" while opposition fighters have denied any involvement, claiming they are working to find the bishops who are the most senior Christian figures yet to be caught up in the Syrian war. A Christian advocacy group and Al Jazeera reported Ibrahim and Yaziji were released on Tuesday, however later on, Abdel-Ahad Steifo, a Syriac member of the Syrian opposition, told Al Jazeera the bishops were still being held by their abductors. A source from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus also said there was no indication of their release. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said that investigations have yet to produce conclusive evidence to confirm Israel's claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, Israel's senior military intelligence analyst, has cited photographic and other forms of evidence of the use of chemical weapons. However, White House spokesman Jay Carney stated, "We have not come to the conclusion that there has been that use." The Syrian regime has prevented a U.N. investigation into the alleged chemical weapons use. Soil samples were reportedly smuggled into Britain and suggested "some use of chemical weapons," however there was no evidence of who might have employed them.
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Anniversaries of invasions, occupations, and cease-fires are reminders that wars never end. The 10th anniversary of the U.S. led-invasion of Iraq prompted discussions about the damage that long-term occupation and violent conflict cause. Yet with few exceptions, these debates lack a willingness to engage with the psychological afterlife of wars for Iraqi civilians or recognition of international responsibility toward the psychological burden that awaits Iraqi society. When the subject of mental health is part of the debate, it is mostly from the military perspective: the mental wellbeing of veterans and soldiers has been a focus of media, academic, and governmental attention, whether noting increases in violent behavior among soldiers or rising rates of suicide (with 349 active member suicides in 2012, a 16 percent increase since 2011), depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But, as with estimates of more easily quantifiable physical casualties, journalists, researchers, and policymakers do not seem to have a reliable estimate of civilians' and displaced persons' psychological state.
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France's embassy in Tripoli, Libya's capital, was hit Tuesday by what appeared to be a car bomb, wounding two French guards and several residents. The explosion destroyed the reception area of the embassy on the ground-floor and the perimeter wall, as well as nearby homes and shops. A French embassy official said, "We think it was a booby trapped car." French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said deaths and greater injury were avoided because the explosion occurred before embassy staff would have been arriving for work in the morning. French President Francois Hollande condemned the attack and said, "France expects the Libyan authorities to shed light on this unacceptable act so that the authors are identified and brought to justice." No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was the first on a diplomatic mission in the city since the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Other similar attacks have been primarily in the eastern city of Benghazi, such as the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate.
Gunmen in an opposition held area of northern Syria have abducted two Christian bishops. Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo and Boulou Yaziji, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, were reportedly kidnapped when they were doing "humanitarian work in Aleppo countryside," according to Syrian State TV. A member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Abdulahad Steifo, said the two men were abducted on the road to Aleppo from the opposition held Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. While several prestigious Muslim clerics have been killed since the uprising in Syria began over two years ago, these are the most senior Christian leaders to be caught up in the conflict. Meanwhile, Israel's senior military intelligence analyst, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, made a statement Tuesday that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons. Brun's comments came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, while visiting Israel, said U.S. intelligence agencies were still investigating suspected chemical weapons use in attacks on March 19 near Damascus and Aleppo. Brun said, "To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin." On Monday, Hagel said the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces would be a "game changer."
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As Iran's economy continues to deteriorate, the labor movement is a key player to watch because of its ability to pressure the Islamic Republic through protests and strikes. Iranian labor, encompassing unskilled workers from rural areas and lower-class urban laborers is not a homogenous group. And thus far, Iranian laborers have not joined the opposition Green Movement en masse. But the economic pains caused by the Iranian regime's mismanagement, corruption, and international sanctions have dealt serious blows to worker wages, benefits, and job security -- enough reason for Iranian laborers to organize and oppose the regime. Parallels can be drawn between the Islamic Republic's treatment of the labor movement today and the Shah's treatment of Iranian workers before his overthrow, particularly in the regime's denial of the right to organize, the quashing of protests and strikes, and its refusal to address worker's rights.
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Iraqis voted Saturday in provincial elections in the first polling since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011. While violence has increased since the beginning of the year and over a dozen candidates (mostly Sunnis) were killed prior to the election, polling went without any major incidents. However, turnout was low with only about 50 percent of Iraqis coming out to cast their ballots, and many Iraqis expressed frustration, apathy, or disgust toward the emerging political elite. About 8,138 candidates are competing for 447 provincial council seats. However, not all of Iraq's provinces planned on participating in Saturday's election, and two largely Sunni provinces were prevented from voting due to a security risk posed by anti-Maliki protesters, according to the Shiite-led cabinet. According to Iraqi officials, preliminary results from the election may be released Wednesday. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition is expected to perform well.
Syrian opposition activists reported a "massacre" in a Damascus suburb on Sunday. After five days of fierce fighting in Jdaidet al-Fadl, a strategic town near a Syrian military base between Daraa and Damascus, at least 80 people were estimated killed, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, including three children and six women. However, the death toll is expected to be much higher as bodies were difficult to identify. According to the opposition Local Coordination Committees (LCC) at least 450 bodies were found in the town, about 300 of whom were civilians and 150 members of the Free Syrian Army. Syria's state news agency SANA said government forces "inflicted big losses on terrorists in Jdaidet al Fadl and destroyed weapons and ammunition and killed and wounded members of the terrorist groups." On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced $123 million in U.S. assistance to Syrian opposition forces, including non-lethal military equipment.
Over the past year a steady stream of youth activists and political critics has filled the dockets of Kuwait's courts. Charged for their actions during street protests or for tweets deemed insulting to the emir, their presence attests to both the emergent confrontational ethos among the younger generation and the erosion of Kuwait's standing as the Gulf's most free political society. But the latest Kuwaiti to appear before the judiciary on the charges of challenging the country's ruler is no ordinary citizen. Musallam al-Barrak is Kuwait's most popular politician, and for some, the conscience of the nation.
His sentencing on Monday to five years of hard labor for a speech he gave in October 2012 has deepened Kuwait's political crisis. For two nights the opposition has gathered by the tens of thousands in solidarity, many defiantly reprising the famous lines directly challenging the emir that led to his conviction. On Wednesday the political standoff turned violent as special forces raided one of his homes in an attempt to arrest him, and allegedly mistreated some of his relatives. That night after Barrak gave a speech punctuated by celebratory gunfire, thousands of his supporters marched on a local police station. Security forces met them with tear gas and stun grenades resulting in many injuries.
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Heavy clashes have continued across Bahrain between anti-government protesters and security forces ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix set for Sunday. Bahrain's main opposition society al-Wefaq has called for major protests to be held Friday. Pro-democracy groups have demanded the race be canceled over the kingdom's poor human rights record and slow pace of reform. Bahrain's crown prince, Prince Salman bin Hamad Isa Al Khalifa, has admitted his country is "not perfect" but insists progress is being made, and that "we are in a much better position than last year." He urged Bahrainis not to politicize the race. F1A President Jean Todt, said in an email, it is "our firm belief that sports, and the F1 Grand Prix, can have a positive and healing effect in situations where conflict, social unrest and tensions are causing distress." On Friday in a joint statement, F1's chief executive and commercial-rights holder, Bernie Ecclestone maintained that Bahrain is a safe place to race and said the event will go on as scheduled.
The United Nations Security Council has reached agreement on a non-binding statement on the Syrian conflict, after the prodding of U.N. humanitarian officials who have said the war has sparked a humanitarian catastrophe. In a U.N. Security Council briefing, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, said 25 percent of Syria's population of 22 million people is internally displaced, and 1.3 million people have fled the country. Amos appealed to the U.N. Security Council to approve cross-border relief operations to address humanitarian needs inside Syria. The security council has been deadlocked since the beginning of Syria's uprising in March 2011, but reached a rare consensus issuing the statement saying, "The escalating violence is completely unacceptable and must end immediately," continuing that it "urged all parties to ensure safe and unimpeded access for aid organizations to those in need in all areas of Syria." Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating what some U.S. officials believe to be the first credible indications that chemical weapons have been used in fighting in Syria. According to four senior U.S. officials, witness accounts and preliminary testing of samples from Syria have increased suspicions that Syrian forces have used chemical agents. However, other U.S. officials are skeptical, concerned that Syrian opposition forces could have tainted the samples.
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared in a rare television interview Wednesday, accusing the West of attempting to colonize his country. He said the West will pay a high price for what he claimed was support for al Qaeda in Syria's conflict. The Assad interview was broadcast by pro-government al-Ikhbariya TV, on Syria's Independence Day, which commemorates the end of the French occupation in 1946. Assad seemed to have hardened his stance on the war saying, "There is no option but victory," and maintained that he will not step down, asserting "no to surrender, no to submission." Additionally, he rejected claims of a sectarian element in the conflict stating, "I can say, without exaggeration, that sectarianism is less pronounced in Syria now than at the beginning of this conflict." Assad also criticized Jordan for allowing rebel fighters to move freely across the border. His comments came as the United States and Jordan announced that 200 U.S. Army specialists in intelligence, logistics, and operations are being sent to Jordan to work with Jordanian forces to mitigate border violence. Meanwhile tensions are increasing along Syria's ceasefire line with Israel over concerns that violence will escalate along the border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his growing fears of weapons falling into the wrong hands in Syria, and stressed "we are prepared to defend ourselves if the need arises."
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Sudan and South Sudan reached a deal in the early hours of March 12, after a week of negotiations in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, which should spark the beginning of exports of South Sudanese oil from Sudan's Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast, for the first time in more than 15 months. Companies are already gearing up for production from the oil-rich states of Unity and Upper Nile in the north of South Sudan, and the first shipments of oil are due to be made by the end of May. Yet although the resumption of oil will bring the first meaningful income to South Sudan since early 2012, as well as help ease a severe economic crisis north of the border, there is still a feeling that what has been left undone by the deal is just as significant as what has been achieved.
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Two rockets fired from the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt hit the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat on Wednesday morning. Israeli media reported that a third missile possibly landed on the outskirts of the city, and two others might have hit the neighboring Jordanian resort city of Aqaba. However, Jordanian authorities said that no rockets had hit the city. The small militant Salafi group Magles Shura al-Mujahdin claimed responsibility for the attack, and some Egyptian security sources said the rockets had likely been launched from Egyptian territory. Another Egyptian security source said, "There is not yet any evidence indicating these rockets were fired from Egypt." According to the Israeli military, the rockets, which hit a construction site and an open area, did not cause any casualties or damage. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) deployed its Iron Dome missile defense system to the city two weeks ago, but while it tracked the incoming rockets, it did not intercept them "for operational reasons," according to an Israeli military spokeswoman. There has been increased concern over the insecurity in the Sinai since the Egyptian revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, and Eilat was targeted by three rocket attacks in 2012, although there were no injuries.
Fighting has paused in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and one of the main battlegrounds in the civil war. The temporary truce, the first in the area in months, is to allow for Red Crescent workers to collect 31 bodies, mainly civilians killed by government snipers, which have been decomposing amid the rubble of the al-Sakhour district in north Aleppo. According to activists, heavy fighting continues in other neighborhoods and near Aleppo International Airport. Additionally, a government rocket reportedly killed an estimated 12 people in the Syrian village of Eastern Buwaydah, between Homs and the Lebanese border, on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Belgian police raided 48 homes and arrested six people suspected of recruiting jihadist fighters to join the conflict in Syria. The presence of foreign fighters in Syria has been increasing. Most of the fighters are believed to come from Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and North Africa. However, According to the British based International Center for the Study of Radicalization, between 140 and 600 Europeans are suspected to have gone to Syria since early 2011, which is estimated to be between seven and 11 percent of the total number of foreign fighters. U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi plans to sever his ties with the Arab League, according to anonymous diplomats. The diplomats said that the Arab League's recognition of the Syrian opposition have jeopardized the envoy's neutrality. Brahimi is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on Friday on the situation in Syria, which is expected to be "another bleak report."
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Since its first running in 2004, the Bahrain Grand Prix has been a mainstay of the country's complex political calendar. Indeed, controversy brewed well before a single race could take place, with critics decrying the expense of constructing the vast Bahrain International Circuit even as many citizens struggled to find jobs, housing, and affordable land. At the same time, the track's isolation in the far south of the island -- well, as far south as one can go before hitting military fences -- fed the notion that the race, hosted not far from Sakhir Palace, was conceived mostly as a diversion for society's elite, and aptly demonstrated the misplaced social and economic priorities of the ruling family.
As such, the Formula One event consistently has been the occasion for popular protest and violence, giving the impression that the event is but a microcosm of Bahrain's larger opposition-government divide, with the latter pursuing self-serving policies while ordinary Bahrainis try in vain to effect meaningful change.
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Iranian officials are expecting hundreds of deaths after a major earthquake on Tuesday hit Iran near the border with Pakistan. Reports of the magnitude of the quake have ranged from 7.3 to 7.8 on the Richter scale, but it has consistently been cited as the worst in Iran in 40 years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey the epicenter was in southeastern Iran about 53 miles from the city of Khash, and it had a rare depth of nearly 9.7 miles. It was felt as far as Islamabad and Karachi in Pakistan; New Delhi, India; and in the Persian Gulf states. Causalities are expected to be high as the most severely hit area is home to nearly 2 million people, living mostly within the cities of Zahaedan, Saravan, and Khash. Tuesday's earthquake came just days after a 6.3 magnitude quake struck southwest Iran near the Bushehr nuclear power station killing at least 37 people and wounding 850 others. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake is extremely powerful, on par with the 2008 quake in China's Sichuan province that killed an estimated 68,000 people.
The heads of five U.N. agencies have made a joint call to the international community to take action to end the "cruelty and carnage" in Syria. In an article in the New York Times as well as a video, leaders from the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), as well as the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, said their agencies are working overcapacity to assist those affected by the conflict in Syria but insisted on the need for a political solution to end fighting. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has issued a general amnesty for "crimes committed before April 16, 2013" according to state news agency, SANA. With the decree, "the death penalty will be replaced with a life sentence of hard labor." People convicted of joining the rebellion will receive a lighter sentence, however the amnesty does not apply to those who avoided conscription. It also does not apply to people convicted of smuggling weapons or drug related crimes. Syria's pro-regime al-Ikhbariya television announced it conducted an interview with Assad, which it will broadcast on Wednesday night. Assad has issued multiple amnesty decrees during the past two years of conflict, but has failed to appease the opposition. Opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib said, "We want an amnesty on crimes and the release of all innocents of which there are more than 160,000. Most importantly among them are women and children. If this happens we will say it is a token of a Syrian solution."
Commentators have offered numerous theories for what caused the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and who participated in them. They range from youth and their chronic unemployment, to liberal activists and their demands for civil rights, to workers and absolute levels of material deprivation. Stories of individual participants and analyses of specific groups taking part in the uprisings have provided much insight into this question, but only a representative sample of participants can help weigh the importance of different factors driving protesters. The latest wave of the Arab Barometer, a nationally representative survey administered in the wake of the protests, provides some answers.
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A series of seemingly coordinated attacks across Iraq early Monday have killed an estimated 32 people and wounded 200 others, just days in advance of provincial elections. Most of the attacks were car bombings that occurred during the morning rush hour and were unusually broad in scope, hitting several cities from the north to the south including Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Khurmato, Nasariya, Samarra, and Hilla. The most deadly of the attacks were in Baghdad -- they targeted both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods, and included a car bombing at a bus stop and two explosions at a checkpoint outside Baghdad's international airport. There was also a wave of attacks on Sunday which killed 10 people, including a Sunni candidate running in the upcoming elections. Violence has escalated ahead of elections which are scheduled for Saturday. The elections will be the first voting since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011. There is considerable skepticism over the credibility of the elections, however, as 14 candidates have been killed, and only 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces will be participating.
Syrian government forces reportedly broke through an opposition blockade held for six months in the northern Idlib province on Sunday. The report from the pro-government al-Baath newspaper said that Syrian troops broke out from the Wadi al-Deif and Hamidiya military bases outside the town of Maarat al-Nuaman and are fighting to recapture the strategic highway connecting Aleppo with Damascus. Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 25 people, including 12 children, were killed in government airstrikes on Sunday. Activists reported at least nine children were killed in Qaboun, an opposition held suburb of Damascus. Additionally, 16 people, including a woman and three children, were killed in an airstrike near the rebel held area of the village of Haddad, in the Kurdish majority Hasaka province. Fighting reportedly crossed the Syrian border Sunday. Artillery fire killed two people and wounded four others in northeastern Lebanon.
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Syrian opposition activists have accused the government of committing a massacre they say was motivated by revenge. The attack was allegedly in Sanamayn, a town on the strategic highway betweenDamascus, Syria's capital, and the southern city of Daraa. According to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian forces began indiscriminately shelling and shooting in the town on Wednesday, destroying at least 20 houses and killing at least 45 people. One activist claimed some victims had been "summarily executed or stabbed or burned." However, the reports have not been verified. Other violence was reported across Syria including in Homs and Damascus, and according to Syrian activists, a regime aid convoy was ambushed near the suburbs of Hama. Between 125 and 149 people are estimated to have been killed Thursday. Meanwhile, a western diplomat said there is "hard evidence" that chemical weapons were used at least once in the Syrian conflict. The Syrian government requested a U.N. investigation into alleged chemical weapons in Aleppo province in March, but the assembled team of inspectors has been denied access.
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Yemen's President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has removed the commander of the elite Republican Guard from his position. Hadi announced that Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, son of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, will become ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Hadi has vowed to unify Yemen's military, which has been fractured since the former President Saleh stepped down in 2012 after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered deal aimed to quell an uprising that began in 2011. Regardless, the Saleh family has retained significant influence, and Hadi's move is seen as an attempt to exert control over the armed forces. Retired Yemeni General Mohammed Sarei Shaye said the order shows the military is under Hadi's control. He continued, "It is a strike by a master. It uprooted all centers of power in the army." The president's long list of decrees issued Wednesday included the removal of dozens of other military officials, including two nephews of the former president.
The Syrian government has been carrying out "indiscriminate and in some cases deliberate airstrikes against civilians" according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday. HRW said it documented 59 unlawful attacks after visiting 52 sites of government airstrikes in opposition held territory in northwestern Syria. The advocacy group reported 152 civilian deaths from these sites, while opposition groups have said that airstrikes have killed 4,300 civilians since July 2012. HRW called for action by the United Nations, including targeted sanctions, an embargo, and to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to authorize additional aid to the Syrian opposition. According to U.S. officials, this will likely include body armor and night-vision goggles for specific opposition groups. The assistance falls short of the weapons supplies opposition forces were looking for, but suggests a move by the United States toward greater direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. According to a senior Obama administration official, "Our assistance has been on an upward trajectory, and the president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can increase assistance." Additionally, in a meeting in London between G8 representatives, it appeared as if Britain and France intend to allow a European Union arms embargo on Syria to expire by the end of May, so they can ramp up assistance.
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A two-day conference at the University of Bahrain in the capital Manama last week was intended to show the United States and the region that the Bahraini government is making progress toward democratic governance and addressing the grievances of the country's majority Shiite population. But the discussions were less than convincing because there was no empirical data or other direct evidence to support the participants' claims.
Many participants -- Bahraini academics, some government officials, and even U.S. congressmen -- declared that there has been real progress in the ongoing national dialogue, which began anew this winter between the government and factions within the opposition. The majority Shiite opposition is demanding political and economic rights. The dialogue first began in the spring of 2011, after an uprising by the Shiite-led dominated opposition erupted, and has come and gone since then. [BREAK]]
At the conference, while participating on a panel about Bahrain's political situation, I asked several participants to describe in detail the progress they were referring to between the government and the opposition. None of them provided any substantive answers. After the conference was over, I checked in with a few opposition leaders who told me that there have been approximately 10 sessions with relatively low-level government participation, but the government has offered no concessions to meet the opposition's demands and the dialogue has been virtually ineffective.
A second topic that dominated the conference involved whether opposition groups, such as al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, has close ties to, or is even manipulated by, Iran. The consensus was that the group takes orders from Iran when organizing demonstrations against the Bahraini government; some participants even accused some Shiite opposition factions of attempting to establish an Iranian-style theocracy in Bahrain with a cleric as the head of state. At least one participant claimed the opposition was collaborating with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards to try to overthrow the Bahraini government.
Congressman Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana, and former diplomat John Bolton chimed in to warn of the Iranian threat. "Iran is trying to undermine the government of Bahrain and we need to make sure Iran's aims are not achieved," Burton said. Bolton warned that the threat from Iran is not only Tehran's potential to develop a nuclear weapon, but "the regime has made it clear it aims for hegemony" in the region. A Bahraini participant said he did not blame al-Wefaq for its actions because it "gets its instructions from Iran."
There is little doubt that for more than 30 years Shiite Iran has tried to assert its influence through military force and soft power throughout the Middle East. And nearly every week, leading figures in Iran, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chastise the Bahraini government for its repression of its Shiite population and call for the regime to be toppled. And true, there were attempted, but failed, coups plotted by Iranian agents in the 1990s against the Bahraini government.
But to date, there is no evidence -- at least based upon public information and my own research of the country -- that Iran is working to topple the Bahraini government, even though Tehran would welcome a change in Manama. A member of the royal family agreed with me that a distinction needs to be made between Iran's direct intervention in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and its indirect influence in Bahrain. For example, Iranian state-owned media broadcasts its programming into Bahrain on an estimated 30 media outlets in Arabic. The message is generally that the Sunni Bahraini government represses the Shiite population, and Iran is the guardian of all Shiites.
A distinction should also be made between Iran's religious influence on the Arab Shiites, not only in Bahrain but across the Arab world, and its political influence. Many Shiites, including some in Bahrain, follow the teachings of clerics in Iran as well as those in Lebanon and Iraq.
In addition, even if Iran were trying to destabilize Bahrain, this has nothing to do with the grievances of the opposition. The Bahraini government should not try to cast aside the legitimate demands of the opposition by playing the card of the Iranian threat. If the Bahraini government wants to convince Washington and the region that reforms are underway, officials should provide details instead of focusing on Iran, which only sidelines this discussion.
As part of an attempt to show the Bahraini government is enacting reforms in order to address the marginalization of the Shiites, conference participants stated that most of the 24 recommendations in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), an over 500-page report authored by the renowned international law expert, Cherif Bassiouni, have been implemented. In fact, Congressman Burton said that 18 of the recommendations have been enforced, but he did not say where he got his information.
The BICI report, issued in November 2011, confirmed that thousands of people were detained and tortured during the heat of the uprising in 2011, and some were killed by government security forces. The report also confirmed that many Shiite had been removed from their jobs for discriminatory reasons. The report called for sweeping reforms, including a restructuring of the police and security forces, an independent media (which in Bahrain is controlled by the state), and an end to repression.
Looking for confirmation on Burton's statement, I asked at the conference if anyone knew which of the BICI recommendations have been implemented. According to U.S.-based human rights organizations -- which have been very vocal about Bahrain's reluctance to take the report seriously -- only a handful of the 24 recommendations have been implemented.
There is much talk these days in Washington of progress between the Bahraini government and opposition groups toward reaching reconciliation. The promotion of the crown prince, considered the reformer in the family, to deputy prime minister has made some in the United States hopeful that the reform process will pick up speed.
Stability in Bahrain is of great importance to the United States. Manama is the home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, whose presence in the Gulf ensures the flow of oil and other energy exports through the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway connecting the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Because of significant U.S. strategic and economic interests in a stable Bahrain, the Obama administration has declined to adopt a hard line on the Bahraini government's human rights abuses and institutionalized discrimination.
If the conference was any guide, the Bahraini political elites do not want to be perceived as presiding over a repressive state. Therefore, the moderates within the Bahrain government -- those in the crown prince's inner circle -- should seize upon the moment and push for reform. This would be far more effective at improving Bahrain's image and showing a commitment to reform than conferences in which there is little or no talk about addressing the grievances of the opposition.
Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of the forthcoming, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide, to be published in April by Brookings.
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images
Aftershocks have continued in southwest Iran after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday killed an estimated 37 people and injured over 850. There were over 80 aftershocks reported into Wednesday morning and the largest reached a magnitude of 5.4. According to Iran's Fars news agency, over 700 homes were destroyed, and two villages were devastated. Rescue efforts ended Wednesday, and Iran has declared a three-day mourning period. The epicenter of the earthquake was near the town of Kaki and it was felt in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain. It hit just south of the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr, where Iran's only nuclear power plant is located. According to Iranian officials as well as the Russian company that built facility, it has not sustained any damage and "is operating as usual." Iran sits on major faultlines and has been hit by several devastating earthquakes, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 in the southeastern city of Bam that killed over 25,000 people. After Tuesday's quake, Iranian media reported Wednesday that Iran is planning to build additional nuclear power reactors in the southeastern Gulf region.
Syria's opposition Islamist militant group al-Nusra Front has formally pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, a day after the Iraqi al Qaeda wing announced the merger of the two groups. The leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said in an audio tape posted online Wednesday, "The sons of Nusra Front renew their pledge (of allegiance) to the Sheikh of Jihad Ayman al-Zawahri and declare obedience." Golani, however said he was not consulted prior to the announcement by the head of Iraq's Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who said the two groups were joining under the name the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It is unclear, however, if Golani is denying the merger. Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said that Syria will be on the top of the agenda when the G8 foreign ministers gather today in Britain. He said he is pushing for "the urgent need for a political and diplomatic breakthrough on Syria." Hague will additionally hold a lunch meeting with representatives from the Syrian opposition. On the eve of the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is weighing "stepped-up" efforts to aid the opposition forces.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.
But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty?
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Marking 'National Nuclear Technology Day,' Iran announced Tuesday that it has launched a new uranium production facility and that operations have begun at two uranium extraction mines. The statement came just days after the April 5 and 6 talks in Kazakhstan between Iran and six world powers again ended in deadlock. Iran's state news agency IRNA reported the country opened the Saghand 1 and 2 mines as well as the Rezaeinejad yellowcake (an impure state of uranium oxide used in the enrichment process) plant in Ardakan all in the central province of Yazd. On Monday, Iran, which has continuously stressed its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, rejected an appeal by the U.N. Security Council's five permament members and Germany to stop the program in exchange for a modest relaxation of sanctions. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said western countries have "tried their utmost to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but Iran has gone nuclear." However, a report by U.S. think-tanks the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Federation of American Scientists released a report last week saying, "Despite the Iranian leadership's assertions to the contrary, Iran's estimated uranium endowments are nowhere near sufficient to supply its planned nuclear program."
Iraq's al Qaeda wing is reportedly merging with Islamist fighters in Syria. The leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said his group has been funding Syria's al-Nusra Front since the beginning of the country's uprising two years ago. He posted a statement on Islamist websites saying the groups would operate under the title of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Experts have long said al-Nusra Front had been receiving assistance from al Qaeda linked groups, and the United States designated the fighters as a terrorist group in December 2012. Meanwhile, Syria has rejected what it has called an attempt by the United Nations to broaden an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons last month in Aleppo. The Syrian government and opposition have traded blame over the attack in Khan al-Assal, which supposedly included a chemical element, and the government requested a U.N. probe. However, Syrian state media reported that the United Nations now wants "additional investigations which might allow the UN mission to spread all over the Syrian territories." A U.N. inspection team is waiting in Cyprus for permission to enter Syria. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the Syrian government to cooperate with the investigation and has insisted it would not allow the mission to widen in scope.
AFP/Getty Images/BULENT KILIC
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
The growing reports of increased U.S. support for the armed opposition in Syria with the training of Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias in Jordan and the facilitating of arms shipments into the country through Turkey mark an increase in overall U.S. assistance over two years into the conflict. While such actions are tempting in efforts to bring an end to Syria's deepening civil war, a military solution for either side has not been achievable these past two years. What is needed, instead, is to combine military assistance with a coordinated strategy of capacity building within the opposition, which can then have measurable results and reinforce international efforts to find a political solution to the crisis.
A better-trained, organized opposition that is able to make political and military gains could change not only the situation on the ground, but also the perception of the crisis in Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Based on our conversations with former senior members of the Assad regime and individuals in contact with the regime presently, Assad is still confident that he can manage to suppress the uprisings and bring the opposition to the table to negotiate on his terms.
DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images
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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