Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei strongly rejected an offer by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden for direct talks over the country's nuclear development program in remarks posted on his website on Thursday. Biden made the offer on Saturday saying the U.S. was ready to hold one-on-one talks with Iran "when the Iranian leadership, supreme leader, is serious." However, Khamenei maintained that talks would not solve the problem. He wrote, "You take up arms against the nation of Iran and say: ‘negotiate or we fire.' But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated into actions." The statement came after the U.S. Treasury Department announced new economic sanctions on Wednesday as sanctions that were enacted in August 2012 took effect. The new sanctions target companies involved in inhibiting the flow of information and cracking down on dissent such as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its director, the Iran Cyber Police, the Communications Regulatory Authority, and Iran Electronics Industries which makes equipment used for jamming and monitoring. The sanctions from last summer will target companies connected with Iran's energy, petrochemical, insurance, financial, and shipping sectors. While one senior U.S. official said the move is "a significant turning of the screw" others are more skeptical. According to another senior U.S. official, "The people may be suffering in Iran, but the supreme leader isn't, and he's the only one who counts."
Heavy fighting has continued for the second day in Damascus, Syria's capital. Violence has mostly been focused on the highly contested eastern district of Jobar and the southern ring road, but other clashes were reported in Zamalka, Hajar al-Aswad, and Qaboun. According to one opposition activist, the aim for the rebel offensive is not to overtake central Damascus, but rather to take out regime sniper positions and fortifications and cut off President Bashar al-Assad's control lines from the center of the city to its outskirts. The Syrian army also said it had launched a "co-ordinated all-out offensive." Both the government and opposition forces reported making gains, and it is unclear if either side had pushed forward as of Thursday. Meanwhile, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, said he would rescind his offer of talks with the Syrian government if women prisoners were not released by Sunday. Islamic leaders urged the Assad regime and opposition forces to enter into negotiations in efforts to resolve the war at a meeting of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo on Thursday.
Arguments and Analysis
Syria Is Not Iraq (Shadi Hamid, The Atlantic)
If I sound defeatist, then it is likely because I am. It is worth speaking frankly, and, unfortunately, this probably requires speaking in the past tense. For Syria, it is likely too late. Notwithstanding something sudden and entirely unexpected, the international community will not intervene. That does not mean that the Syrian people are doomed. They will likely "win" in the end, but their victory, if we can even call it that, will have come at a much greater cost - in the sheer number killed - than was necessary. It will have come at the cost of a country destroyed, of sects polarized beyond any hope of reconciliation, of Salafis and Jihadists ascendant, of a state too torn and divided for real governance. As has been reported elsewhere, the Syrian opposition feels that it has been not just forgotten, but, worse, betrayed. They are unlikely to forget this anytime soon. Anti-Americanism, a given among regime supporters, has slowly taken root among the opposition as well. The Syrian protest movement's Friday theme for October 19, 2012 was"America, has your spite not been sated by our blood?" In due time, the Obama administration's inability or unwillingness to act may be remembered as one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war. I only wish it wasn't too late.
Moving towards Political Participation: The Moderation of Moroccan Salafis since the Beginning of the Arab Spring (Mohammed Masbah, German Institute for International and Security Affairs)
"Salafis, including former "Salafi-Jihadis", have become a presence in the public sphere through their participation in the protests - side-by-side with secular forces - of the so called 20 February Movement. There are also numerous indications that Salafis will play a role in shaping Morocco's future political landscape, albeit while proposing less radical objectives than what they used to profess. The trend is leading towards greater acceptance of political plurality, more cooperation with moderate Islamists, and less aggressive attitudes towards seculars and Western governments. Most importantly, they are explicitly renouncing violent means in the domestic power struggle. Moroccan Salafis have begun aiming at assuming a political role, attempting to influence policy-making, and are increasingly prepared to play by the rules of the democratic game - thus following the example set by their peers in other Arab countries such as Egypt."
--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey
AFP/Getty Images/ ATTA KENARE
Egypt's latest spasm of unrest has stretched from Cairo to the Suez Canal, leaving more than 60 people dead and thousands injured. The police response has been chaotic and often brutal, a stark reminder that Egypt's security services remain unreformed and largely unaccountable two years after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. Although President Mohamed Morsi's early months in power offered cause to believe that systemic change within the interior ministry was a distinct possibility, intransigence from the security services, the presidency, and Egypt's political opposition are now pushing the prospect for reform out of reach.
Popular anger against the brutality of Cairo's police force was catalyzed last week when satellite television broadcast a video of Hamada Saber, a 48-year old laborer, who had been stripped naked, dragged, and beaten by the Central Security Forces near Morsi's Presidential Palace.
Tunisian opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, was shot in the neck and head and killed Wednesday outside his home in Tunis. Belaid, a prominent secular opponent to the Ennahda-led Islamist government, was one of the leaders of the opposition Popular Front and the general secretary of the Democratic Patriotic Party. No one has taken responsibility for the shooting. Tunisia's Interior Ministry has not yet released any details. News of Belaid's death have sparked large protests outside the interior ministry and in Sid Bouzi, the 2010 epicenter of the Arab uprisings. Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said, "The murder of Belaid is a political assassination and the assassination of the Tunisian revolution."
Damascus, the capital of Syria, has seen the worst violence in weeks as opposition fighters launched a major offensive. According to an activist, clashes erupted in the districts of Jobar, Zamalka, al-Zablatani, and parts of Qaboun, as well as the ring road. Damascus authorities have closed down the main Abbasid Square and the Fares al-Khoury thoroughfare. Fighting was also reported in the central province of Homs. Blasts in the city of Palmyra drew conflicting reports. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, two car bombs exploded near a compound hosing a military intelligence facility and a state security agency. The Observatory reported at least 12 Syrian security forces killed and 20 people wounded, including eight children. Conversely, Syrian state news, SANA, said two suicide car bombings killed and injured an unknown number of people and caused significant damage. The blasts sparked clashes between Syrian government and opposition forces.
AFP/Getty Images/FETHI BELAID
Iranian police have arrested former Tehran prosecutor and ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Saeed Mortazavi. Mortazavi was the head of Iran's Social Welfare Organization until he was removed in January due to pressure from Iran's parliament, the Majlis. In a controversial move, Ahmadinejad rehired Mortazavi as the official caretaker of the organization. No official reason was given for Motazavi's arrest. Iran's semi-official news agency, Fars, said Mortazavi may have been arrested due to accusations of torture and murder of anti-government protesters after the controversial 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad. Mortazavi was placed under sanctions by the United States in 2010, and has been described by Human Rights Watch as a "serial human rights abuser." However, analysts say the arrest was likely tied to the escalating feud between Ahmadinejad and the parliament. The arrest came a day after Ahmadinejad released a secret video in parliament where Mortazavi allegedly discussed a fraudulent business deal, implicating Iran's highly influential Larijani family. The move was unprecedented, as allegations of corruption are not often aired in a public forum. The parliament became chaotic and protested of the video. Ahmadinejad was kicked out by Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker. Before his arrest on Monday, Mortazavi said, "A person was attempting to do trades that seem illegal. I merely reported this case to the government."
The National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces gave support Monday to last week's surprise offer by its leader for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, and added that the president could avoid trial by resigning and leaving Syria. To step up pressure on Assad, al-Khatib said he was willing to meet with Vice President Farouq al-Shara. In the offer, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib said he would engage in dialogue with Assad if the government released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed all expired passports of Syrian diaspora members. The statement was initially met by criticism within the coalition, which had maintained that Assad step down as a precondition for talks. Assad has yet to officially respond to the invitation, but on Sunday, an aide to the president, Ali Haidar, said the government is open to talks with opposition members who reject violence. He added that the government was open to address the passport issue, but not necessarily the release of prisoners. Syria's pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said the statements from the opposition are "two years late." A prominent lawmaker from Assad's ruling party, Fayez Sayegh, said that the opposition should enter into dialogue with the government without preconditions. The United States has expressed strong backing of talks between the opposition and Assad in hopes of ending the nearly two year conflict that has killed over 60,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Four months before the next presidential election, Iran's conservative establishment is facing a security threat: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Four years ago, a controversial election that reinstated President Ahmadinejad brought millions of Iranians into a face-to-face confrontation with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now, it is Ahmadinejad who is coming face-to-face with the very man who lifted him out of obscurity and granted him worldwide fame and unparalleled support against all pillars of the Islamic Republic.
During an unprecedented debate at the parliament, which ended in mayhem and the dismissal of the labor minister, Ahmadinejad played a video that implicated the powerful Larijani brothers, two of whom head the judiciary and legislative bodies, of corruption and nepotism. Sunday's impeachment put Ahmadinejad's remaining presidency in danger since many of his allies in the cabinet have had similar fates. At this fiery session that was being broadcast live on state radio, he threatened and eventually played the video to prove a backroom deal that involved the Larijani family. In response, the speaker of the parliament accused Ahmadinejad of mafia type activities and did not allow him to continue. Ahmadinejad angrily left the parliament and moments later 192 out of 272 members of parliament voted in favor of the impeachment.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran welcomes a renewed offer from the United States for direct talks on its nuclear program. Salehi's statement came on Sunday at the Munich Security Conference a day after Vice President Joe Biden said the United States is ready to hold bilateral talks "when the Iranian leadership, Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is serious." Salehi said that the United States should show an "authentic, fair and real intention to resolve the issue" and should stop making threats against Iran while offering negotiations. As foreign minister, Salehi does not have the authority to commit to talks with the United States, which is a decision made by the supreme leader, and western officials remain skeptical. Iran has repeatedly backed out of talks, and while Salehi said Iran looks favorably upon a proposal for another round of talks with the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany on February 25 and 26 in Kazakhstan, it has not yet committed to sending a delegation. If talks do resume at the end of February, it would mean the end to eight months of stalled diplomacy.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Israel of trying to "destabilize" Syria while Iran said Israel will regret its "latest aggression." Assad spoke on Syrian TV on Sunday, for the first time commenting on last Wednesday's reported Israeli attack. Syrian media claimed an Israeli strike hit a military research facility, while anonymous U.S. officials said an airstrike hit a military weapons convoy headed to supply arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Also on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak alluded to his country's responsibility for the airstrike saying while he cannot add to anything stated in the news about the attack in Syria, that it is "proof when we said something we mean it." Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili said Israel "will regret this recent aggression" at a news conference in Damascus a day after a meeting with Assad. Jalili did not specify as to whether Syria or Iran have planned a military response. Jalili also said that Iran supports talks in Damascus between Assad and the Syrian opposition. Iran participated along with Russia and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in talks with the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Moaz Alkhatib, on Saturday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "This is an important step" as previously the coalition rejected any talks with the Syrian regime. However, Walid al-Bunni, a member of the opposition coalition, said the meeting "was unsuccessful."
CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images
At a press conference following the emergency national dialogue meeting held between members of the opposition and Islamist parties, prominent activist and revolutionary figure, Wael Ghonim said, "The aim of this meeting is not political, but rather to launch an initiative to stop the violence. It's a moral initiative aimed at stopping the bloodshed. That is why the Egyptian April 6 youth movement called on Al-Azhar to hold this meeting and gather together all Egypt's political forces and parties." Despite the positive first step in political reconciliation and Ghonim's encouraging words, an unspoken (yet glaring) gap stands out in this meeting: the absence of government or any other representative of the security apparatus. Although representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) attended the dialogue, no formal authority from the most significant party to the "bloodshed" -- the ministry of interior -- to which Ghonim refers could be found. Sadly, the discrepancy renders the resulting signed document committing the parties to nonviolence moot.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, Syria made a formal complaint to the United Nations and declared its right to self defense after Wednesday's Israeli strike on Syrian territory. Russia, Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Arab League also condemned the attack. Syria's ambassador to Lebanon said that Syria had "the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation." However, many analysts believe the Syrian military is too taxed by internal fighting to retaliate. The details of the attack are still unclear, and it is uncertain if there was one strike or two. Anonymous U.S. officials reported a warplane hit a military convoy carrying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Conversely, Syria claimed the strike targeted a scientific research facility. Israel has continued to refrain from comment, which some say is strategic. Lebanon reported more Israeli warplanes have flown over southern Lebanon on Friday. Departing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her final press interview in the position, warned that Iran has increased military and financial aid to the Syrian government and said the administration believes that Russia has continued to supply funding and military assistance. For the first time, Russian and U.S. officials along with U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are all set to meet together with opposition Syrian National Coalition officials on the sidelines of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Munich on Saturday. However, Russia has not yet confirmed the meeting.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Egypt approved a new constitution in a popular referendum on December 22, 2012, by a 63.8 percent vote. The establishment of the new legal framework for the post-Mubarak political order came after weeks of political turmoil, which pitted an Islamist current against a fragmented camp of liberals, leftists, and assorted non-Islamists. This diverse opposition responded to President Mohamed Morsi's fait-accompli with a return to street protests and an angry outcry against the procedures through which the constitution was introduced.
The exchange of reasoned arguments may have been a somewhat naïve aspiration prior to the popular referendum given the poisoned political climate. But it is still striking that the text of the constitutional draft received so little attention in the shrill accusations exchanged by intransigent political opponents. There may yet be time to rectify this failing, however. Representatives of the Morsi government, its opposition, and the judiciary have recently shown signs of willingness to renegotiate bits and pieces of the constitution as well as the by-laws governing the vague provisions in the document. If they do, there will be a wide range of articles to reconsider.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
In a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency on January 23, Iran set out a plan to upgrade uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz plant. Iran plans to upgrade from the IR1 centrifuge models developed in the 1970s into the IR2m which could accelerate enrichment by two to five times at Iran's main facility. The number of new machines to be used is unclear, but it could be over 3,000, and the letter did not give a timeframe. Iran's nuclear development program has long been contested -- the United States and other western countries have been concerned Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capabilities. Iran maintains its program is for civilian and peaceful purposes. The IAEA has asked Iran for more technical and other information about the plans. The announcement came as nuclear talks have been delayed because Iran and six world powers (the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China) have been unable to agree to a location.
Israeli warplanes struck Syrian territory on Wednesday, raising concerns of regional spillover of the Syrian war. However, there have been contrasting reports of the target, and both Israel and the United States have refrained from comment. Anonymous U.S. officials said they believed that the strike hit a government military convoy carrying Russian-made antiaircraft weaponry in the border area west of Damascus, which could have been a shipment to Lebanon's Hezbollah. Israel has recently expressed fears that the lack of government control in Syria could allow for Syrian missiles and chemical weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah or other militant groups. The Syrian military denied that a convoy was hit, and made a statement on state media saying that Israeli fighter jets hit a scientific research center in Jamraya, near Damascus, killing two people and wounding five others. Russia, a long time ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, expressed concern over the alleged Israeli attack saying such an act would be a violation of the U.N. Charter.
Gulf states pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria aid as the Syrian government and opposition forces traded blame over mass killings in Aleppo. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia each pledged $300 million at the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait on Wednesday. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon addressed the group:"I appeal to all sides, and particularly the Syrian government to stop the killing" and called for more humanitarian aid. The United Nations was seeking $1.5 billion total in pledges and $1 billion for humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. The remaining money would go to the 4 million Syrians who are still inside the country and need assistance. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and opposition forces are accusing one another of what appeared to be summary executions of dozens of people, almost all men in their 20s and 30s, whose bodies were found along a river in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo. At least 50 bodies were found, but estimates of the number killed reach over 100. Syrian state media, SANA, reported that the victims' families "have identified a number of the killed, stressing that the Nusra Front abducted them because of their refusal to cooperate with this terrorist group." The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist group, said 80 bodies were found and blamed the government for the mass killings. About half of the victims identified by Tuesday night were from opposition controlled districts, and some local residents blamed government checkpoints on the opposite side of the river.
Arguments and Analysis
Does Jordan's election change anything? (Julien Barnes-Dacey, The European Council on Foreign Relations)
"Last week's parliamentary elections in Jordan have been widely hailed as a success. Domestic and international observers have praised the integrity of the vote and the turnout figure of 56.5 percent has been taken, by some, as a popular endorsement of King Abdullah's reform track. The Royal Palace is likely enjoying a moment of renewed confidence following a difficult year, particularly as fears about the spread of instability from Syria are also dampening opposition activism. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the King hailed a "wonderful election outcome."
Yet while the general integrity of the electoral process was a positive improvement on past elections, in and of itself, the vote may not actually mean that much. Following two years of low level - but nationwide - protests provoked by a lack of substantial political reform or the tackling of state corruption, the country remains in a precarious position. Much will now depend on the King's willingness to push through bolder measures aimed at cementing a more inclusive order if further unrest is to be avoided."
Why Palestine Should Take Israel to Court in The Hague (George Bisharat, The New York Times)
"If Palestinians succeed in getting the I.C.C. to examine their grievances, Israel's campaign to bend international law to its advantage would finally be subjected to international judicial review and, one hopes, curbed. Israel's dangerous legal innovations, if accepted, would expand the scope of permissible violence to previously protected persons and places, and turn international humanitarian law on its head. We do not want a world in which journalists become fair game because of their employers' ideas.
If the choice is between a Palestinian legal intifada, in which arguments are hashed out in court, and an actual intifada, in which blood flows in the streets, the global community should encourage the former.
Indeed, Palestinians would be doing themselves, Israelis and the global community a favor by invoking I.C.C. jurisdiction. Ending Israel's impunity for its clear violations of legal norms would both promote peace in the Middle East and help uphold the integrity of international law."
Only a few years back, the idea of an independent Kurdistan bordering Turkey would have had Ankara up in arms. Not anymore. Past tensions have been supplanted by a new energy partnership and Turkey seems far less worried about the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. In May 2012, Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cut a deal to build one gas and two oil pipelines directly from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to Turkey without the approval of Baghdad, taking the rapprochement started between the two in 2009 one step further. If realized, the Kurdish pipelines will for the first time provide the Kurds direct access to world markets, bypassing the Baghdad controlled Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline bringing the KRG one step closer to the long-held dream of Kurdish independence.
Some pundits have argued that for this very reason Turkish approval of a Kurdish pipeline is a long shot. But the construction seems to be underway. According to Turkish press, the KRG has already begun construction on the oil and gas pipelines which are due to be operational by early 2014.
Egypt's Minister of Defense General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, who is also head of the armed forces, said the current political crisis "could lead to a collapse of the state" which could "threaten future generations." His comments were posted on the military's Facebook page after five days of protests and violence have killed an estimated 52 people. Most of the violence has been in Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez, which President Mohamed Morsi declared under emergency law. Thousands of people took to the streets Monday night, ignoring the curfew in the provinces along the Suez Canal. Chaos has been particularly bad in Port Said with deadly clashes between security forces and protesters, who have declared the city independent from the rest of Egypt. Most of the violence had subsided on Tuesday. But, Sisi's statement, coming from the biggest institution in Egypt with a major economic and security role, sent a powerful message. Morsi invited political leaders for a national dialogue on Monday, but the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) did not participate, citing "unfilled demands." NSF also said talks would be "useless under the status quo."
The bodies of at least 65 people apparently summarily executed were found in the Bustan al-Qasr district of Syria's northern city of Aleppo. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the people were found mostly with their hands tied behind their backs and with bullet wounds to the head, and they believe the death toll might reach 80. It is unclear who carried out the killings, but both government forces and opposition fighters have been accused of employing such tactics over the course of the two year conflict. Control of Aleppo is roughly split between the Syrian army and the opposition forces, and Bustan al-Qasr has been hotly contested. Additionally, after five days of clashes outside a government intelligence complex in Deir el-Zour, opposition fighters overran the facility, freeing at least 11 people held in a prison there. Meanwhile, the United Nations reported the number of registered refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria has reached about 712,000. The estimate surpassed 500,000 on December 11; more than 200,000 people have fled Syria in the last seven weeks. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is struggling to keep up with the dramatic increase of people mostly entering Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and North Africa.
AFP/Getty Images/KHALED DESOUKI
Egypt's cataclysmic courtroom battles seem to be giving way to prolonged guerilla warfare over the judiciary. Attention-getting lawsuits will continue -- Egyptian judges simply see their courtrooms as places that should welcome calls for justice; Egyptians outraged by their government or their fellow citizens will continue to seek to cast their anger in legal form. Judicial anger over recent presidential actions will still simmer (indeed, I cannot remember a time when I have heard so many judges express themselves so ... well, so injudiciously). But the likelihood of a repeat of 2012's string of startling rulings is receding. That development may cause some relief to those struggling to master Egyptian law on the quick, but Egyptian politics, law, and courts are paying a price for those battles and their resolution.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Against all expectations, Jordan's parliamentary election this week seems to have generated some optimism. The big questions had little to do with the appeal of specific political platforms or even the candidates themselves, but rather with process and turnout. Would the newly-established Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) reverse Jordan's infamous track record of electoral fraud and pull off a transparent and credible election? Would voter participation exceed levels from previous elections or would citizen apathy and Muslim Brotherhood calls for a boycott take hold? Would the next parliament reflect the same tribal voting patterns and return familiar faces to parliament or inject some new blood into the mix? Final results of the Jordanian election have yet to be announced, but early indicators answer some of these questions and paint a far more interesting picture than anticipated.
Clashes have been reported in Cairo as crowds have begun massing for rallies marking January 25, the second anniversary of Egypt's revolution. Opponents of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have begun gathering for protests in Tahrir Square, accusing the Islamists of betraying the revolution and blaming the government for declining economic conditions. Police have clashed with some protesters who were throwing Molotov cocktails and firecrackers approaching walls protecting government buildings. Additional clashes have been reported outside the interior ministry. According to the health ministry 25 people have been injured since Thursday. Other small demonstrations are taking place across Egypt, and clashes have been reported in Alexandria. The Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not participate in rallies on Friday, but instead is holding a day of community service dubbed, "Together we build Egypt."
According to Syrian state media, SANA, Syria's interior minister has called for all citizens who have fled the country "because of events" to return home for a national dialogue. In an interview with CNN on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said President Bashar al-Assad's mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has left the country for the United Arab Emirates, while his sister Burha has been living in Dubai. Ford said the core of Assad's regime is gradually weakening. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR reported the number of refugees from the Syrian conflict has exceeded 678,000. Jordan's government has said there has been a dramatic spike in refugees crossing into Jordan. The UNHCR said they are seeing refugee numbers quadruple those from two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Syrian ground troops have moved into the central city of Homs, stepping up an offensive against opposition strongholds in the majority Sunni city, according to opposition activists. An estimated 15,000 civilians were reportedly trapped on Friday on the southern and western edges of Homs, near the strategic intersection of Syria's north to south and east to west highways. According to activists, rockets and bombings have killed at least 120 civilians and 30 opposition forces since Sunday. Additionally, two car bombs reportedly exploded on Friday near a military intelligence building in the Syrian-controlled region of the Golan Heights, killing an estimated eight people, mostly Syrian soldiers.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
After nearly two years of political unrest, this week Bahrain's King Hamad called for renewed national dialogue. And while it appears some groups have agreed to talks, the major sticking point remains: the state will merely serve as the "moderator," and not participate directly, according to official statements. Although the crisis in Bahrain did result in a deepening sectarian conflict that requires national reconciliation, the demands of the Sunnis and Shiites are for social and political reforms, which can only be enacted by the government.
Al-Wefaq, the main Shiite political society, accepted the king's call on Wednesday. But its leaders remain deeply skeptical over whether the government is serious this time around.
MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday and defended how she handled the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Clinton accepted responsibility for the security lapses in Benghazi, saying she feels "responsible for the nearly 70,000 people who work for the State Department," but would not accept the blame. She said she did not personally see the security requests for Benghazi, which were handled by security professionals within the department. Accusations over the initial Obama administration response to the attack came into question by Republicans prior to the November 2012 presidential elections, and compelled Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to remove herself from consideration to succeed Clinton as Secretary of State. Clinton asserted there was too much focus on the characterization of the attack rather than efforts to prevent a reoccurrence. Critics said Clinton's testimony failed to bring any more clarity to the attacks. Republican Senator John McCain said her answers were "not satisfactory" and Republican Senator Rand Paul said Clinton should have resigned after the attack.
Syrian warplanes hit opposition held areas around Damascus on Thursday after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the enemies' of President Bashar al-Assad insistence on overthrowing the government is an obstacle to peace. Lavrov's comments came Wednesday after suggestions that Russia might change its stance on Assad after it began evacuating some of its citizens. Lavrov maintained that no large-scale evacuation is necessary. He accused Western and Arab countries that have recognized the opposition Syrian National Coalition for undermining political efforts to attain a peaceful solution to the conflict that began in March 2011. Meanwhile, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government fighter jets hit the Damascus suburb of Daraya with eight airstrikes Thursday near a military air base. Additionally, government forces reportedly shelled the town of Aqraba in a battle over a strategic road connecting the capital with the Damascus International Airport.
AFP/Getty Images/MANDEL NGAN
Preliminary results of Israel's election show a weakened Benjamin Netanyahu, who is nonetheless likely to serve a third term as prime minister, and a surprising shift toward the center. Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu bloc came out on top with a predicted 31 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. Coming in second, the new centrist Yesh Atid, There is a Future, led by former television personality Yair Lapid unexpectedly took a projected 19 seats. The center-left Labor party came in third taking an estimated 15 seats. Arab parties are projected to have won 12 seats. Netanyahu, entering the race as an overwhelming favorite, toned down the hawkish rhetoric he used to appeal to the right wing during the campaign, and said he would seek "as broad a government as possible." However, building a coalition could prove to be difficult and might take weeks. According to a senior member of Yesh Atid, whoever wants to include the party in the coalition will have to prioritize the peace process with the Palestinians and ending the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from military conscription. Netanyahu said the first challenge for the new Knesset "was and remains preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons." Turnout for polling was estimated at 66.4 percent, the highest since 1999. Official results are due out on January 30.
About 77 Russian citizens, mostly women and children, flew into Moscow early Wednesday fleeing the nearing two-year conflict in Syria. The move may be a sign of diminishing hopes of the Russians that their ally President Bashar al-Assad will retain power. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted this is not the beginning of a mass evacuation of the country's citizens from Syria. He said about 1,000 out of the estimate 30,000 Russian citizens in the country have expressed an interest in leaving Syria. However, the evacuated Russians commented on the decline in conditions in the warring country. Meanwhile, a United Nation's humanitarian official, John Ging, reiterated concerns after a rare mission to Syria. He said conditions were "appalling" and he was "shocked on so many levels" by the scarcity of humanitarian resources.
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Israelis have begun voting Tuesday in a general election likely to ensure a third term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a coalition leaning further toward the conservative right, and away from peace with the Palestinians. As of 2:00 p.m., 38.3 percent of eligible Israelis had voted, up by four percent from the 2009 elections, but turnout from Arab Israelis is only estimated at about 10 percent. Thirty-two parties are competing for seats in the 120-member Knesset. Final opinion polls show Netanyahu's Likud party alongside Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party leading, taking 32 seats, however Likud has recently lost ground to the far-right party of Naftali Bennett, Habayit Hayehudi, or Jewish Home. Bennett, Netanyahu's former chief of staff, has rejected a two-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, and has been an advocate for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Israel's center and left parties failed to present a unified bloc strong enough to present a challenge to Netanyahu. The Labor party is expected to take about 17 seats in the Knesset, but the party's leader, Shelly Yachimovich, said they would not join Netanyahu's coalition. Campaigns leading up to the election veered from traditional issues such as the peace process with the Palestinians and Iran's nuclear program, toward domestic issues such as the economy and housing prices. Most polls close at 10:00 p.m. and preliminary results are expected as early as two hours later, but the final outcome should be known by Wednesday morning.
Russia has sent two airplanes to Lebanon to evacuate about 100 Russian citizens from warring Syria. It is unclear if the effort signals the beginning of a large scale-evacuation. There are an estimated 30,000 Russians living and working in Syria. Russia has remained an ally to Syria throughout the conflict sparked in March 2011, and has maintained support for President Bashar al-Assad and blocked two U.N. Security Council Resolutions on Syria. According to a Russian diplomat, many areas of Damascus are safe, and this is not an evacuation. He said, "We are simply helping people who have gone to the Russian consulate in Damascus requesting assistance." He continued, however, that these planes would likely not be the last and other officials have attested to contingency plans. Russia has about a dozen naval vessels off the coast of Syria, and they could be used in the event of a large-scale evacuation, according to officials. Meanwhile, an estimated 56 people have been killed in a week of fighting between opposition fighters and Kurdish forces in northeast Syria. The Kurdish minority has used the security vacuum from the nearing two-year conflict to establish greater autonomy, but has remained distant from the increasingly Islamist dominated Sunni opposition. Additionally, an estimated 42 people, including women and children, were killed in a suicide car bombing Monday in the town of Salamiyah in Hama province, apparently targeting pro-government militia.
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On January 23, Jordanians will return to the polls to elect a new parliament. Among the many questions surrounding these polls, of course, is this: Does it matter? Both the 2007 and 2010 elections were marred by extensive charges of rigging, and each produced a lackluster parliament that was disbanded long before its term was up. Many Jordanians complain of economic injustices, corruption in government (especially in terms of business deals connected to privatization), and an electoral and governing system that seems to maintain the status quo. Faith and confidence in the system, in short, are in short supply.
Yet the Jordanian regime has been emphatic that these elections are different. Jordan is different. In my own meetings with King Abdullah, he has consistently argued that Jordan is carving a unique path through the regional Arab Spring: that it is a case of a regime reforming itself. The regime has emphasized that Jordan is at a key turning point, including a shift toward a truer parliamentary system of governance. In an effort to engage public debate and encourage voter participation, the king has even begun publishing a series of brief political treatises. The latest of these, issued this week, addresses the transition to a more parliamentary government.
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The period of Arab uprisings that began in winter 2010 to 2011 has brought myriad changes to the region. However, one perennial constant is the willingness of official and semi-official elements in Jordan to manipulate identity issues in order to stymie meaningful reform. Indeed, given the past history of the Jordanian government, the most recent developments could be viewed as simply boring, were they not so deeply cynical and destructive.
The newest chapter in this ongoing saga of who is a Jordanian -- native East Bankers, certainly; Jordanians of Palestinian origin, not so much or perhaps not at all -- has come in response to the upcoming parliamentary elections. With only a few exceptions, most notably in 1956 and 1989, elections in Jordan have been highly controlled affairs, in which the outcomes have been largely cooked beforehand, either through changes in the electoral law (as in 1993), or through outright fraud (most notably, but certainly not exclusively, in 1997 and 2007). On occasion, when it is argued that "regional conditions" are problematic, elections have been postponed, as in the early 2000s, and in many cases some of the most significant opposition forces, most recently the Muslim Brotherhood, have decided to boycott rather than play the palace's or security forces' game.
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A standoff unfolded between Algerian troops and an estimated 20 militants at the Tigantourine gas plant in In Amenas, Algeria. The militants have taken dozens of hostages, including American, European, and Japanese citizens, as well as many Algerians. The gas field is jointly operated by BP, the Norwegian company Statoil, and Algerian state oil Sonatrach. According to Algerian news, 15 foreigners escaped on Thursday and between 30 and 40 Algerian hostages had been released, mostly female translators. But these reports have not been verified. Mokhtar Belmoktar, a top commander for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is believed to be leading the attack. Two groups supposedly reporting to him have taken responsibility: the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion. The attackers are demanding an end to French military operations in Mali. Additionally, they are demanding safe passage out of Algeria with the hostages, but the Algerian government has refused to cooperate.
According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 106 people were killed in government raids in Homs this week. The dead had been shot, stabbed, or possibly burned alive, and many houses were set on fire in the impoverished neighborhood of Basatin al-Hasawiya, on the edge of the city. The district saw clashes earlier this week between regime forces and opposition fighters. Meanwhile, three nearly simultaneous car bombings killed at least 22 people and wounded 30, mostly Syrian government soldiers, in Idlib on Wednesday. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, security vehicles, buildings, and a checkpoint had been targeted. Addressing concerns that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in an attack on Homs on December 23, 2012, the U.S. State Department said its investigation shows that the regime did not use chemical weapons, but rather seemingly misused a riot-control gas. On Tuesday, Foreign Policy's "The Cable" blog reported that a diplomatic cable from Turkey provided a "compelling case" that chemical weapons were used, causing several deaths and severe illnesses.
On the night before Christmas, the streets of downtown Ramallah were relatively tame. A car drove around the traffic circle at Manara Square with a passenger dressed as Santa Claus leaning halfway out the window ringing a bell. It was quiet aside from the occasional car horn, and most shops were closed by 8:00 p.m.
"Normally, it is more crowded for the holiday," said my taxi driver as we passed through the roundabout. Where are all the people? I asked. "The people?" He chuckled sadly. "The people have no money."
A wave of attacks in Iraq Wednesday morning killed nearly 30 people and injured hundreds of people in the bloodiest day in two weeks. Two car bombs exploded in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad, near the local headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. An estimated 19 people were killed and over 200 injured. Also in Kirkuk, a suicide bomber hit a Kurdish security facility killing at least four people. The assault appeared to target a local office of Masoud Bazani, president of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region. Another suicide car bombing hit Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, near the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The bombing killed two people and wounded 26 others. Sectarian tensions have recently increased in the disputed region after Iraqi government troops confronted Kurdish militias as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to consolidate security. The attacks in Kirkuk came a day after Sunni member of parliament, Efan al-Essawi, was killed by a suicide bomber in Anbar Province. The country has recently seen a rise in mass anti-Maliki demonstrations accusing the prime minister of marginalizing Sunnis.
Syrian government forces have stepped up an offensive in the northern city of Aleppo a day after at least two deadly explosions hit Aleppo University as students were taking exams. The Syrian regime and opposition forces have traded blame for the attacks, which killed more than 80 people and wounded over 160. The source of the attacks as well as the target remains unclear. The northern part of the campus is surround by government military intelligence and security buildings. Control in Aleppo is essentially split between government and opposition forces, but the university's campus has largely been spared from the fierce fighting that has engulfed Syria's largest city for months. According to Syria's state news agency, SANA, the "Armed Forces carried out several special operations against mercenary terrorists in Aleppo and its countryside, inflicting heavy losses." SANA added that government forces also killed militants in the al-Laramon area of Aleppo from where it claimed two rockets were fired on Tuesday at the university. Opposition activists and fighters claim Aleppo University was hit by government airstrikes.
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Kofi Annan resigned as the United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria after less than sixth months on the job. Lakhdar Brahimi has been the envoy for less than five. He is unlikely to care if he holds the post for more or less time than his predecessor. Brahimi has admitted that he thinks about resigning daily. He has had a foul few weeks, culminating in a public clash of wills with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. But while his chances of orchestrating a peace deal are now vanishingly small, he should not quit quite yet.
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For almost two years, since February 17, 2011, Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province has seen a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring that called for democracy, dignity, and more rights for Saudi Arabia's disenfranchised Shiite minority. The killing of protesters and the arrest and shooting of key oppositional clerics have spurred three cycles of protests. A renewed wave of protests and funerals was set in motion by the killing of 18-year old Ahmad Al Matar on December 27, 2012 in Qatif. Much of the escalation was blamed on the security forces, and especially on the long-serving governor of the Eastern Province, Muhammad bin Fahd.
And on Monday, January 14, the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz issued a decree relieving the governor of his duties after 28 years "upon his request" and appointing Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as the new governor of the Eastern Province.
On January 25, thousands of Egyptians will gather in Tahrir Square and across Egypt to commemorate the uprising that toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. They will celebrate with good reason. When Mubarak, pressured by millions in the streets and ultimately betrayed by his own top generals, resigned on February 11, 2011, a military-backed dictatorship that had ruled and largely abused Egypt for more than half a century came to an end. Most Egyptians were euphoric, and the world was transfixed by the unexpected power of the Tahrir Square freedom movement.
However, in the two years since, the transition remains fragile, and Egypt's politics remain dangerously polarized. In fact, in addition to celebration, there may also be clashes on January 25. Today Egypt has an elected president, a new constitution, and will soon hold parliamentary elections. But if Egypt has made halting steps toward democracy, worrying signs of illiberalism and poor governance are increasingly apparent. The outcome of the revolution in the Arab world's most populous country remains uncertain, and the threat of violence looms large.
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On Sunday, an Egyptian appeals court ordered a retrial of former President Hosni Mubarak and his Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, indicted in 2011 and sentenced to life in prison for allowing the killing of about 850 protesters during the 18-day uprisings. It is unclear if the appeal, called for by the defendants, is a victory or setback for Mubarak, as the defense and prosecution have both appealed the verdict. Supporters of Mubarak are hoping for his acquittal, as the judge who issued the verdict at the time said there was no evidence to back up a conviction. Rather, he deemed Mubarak and his interior ministry responsible for the deaths of the civilian demonstrators because of their positions. Lawyers under President Mohamed Morsi could introduce new evidence from a presidential fact-finding commission. However, if convicted, Mubarak will receive a life sentence or less as under Egyptian law a defendant cannot receive a harsher sentence in a retrial. El-Adly as well as Mubarak's sons Gamal and Alaa will also be retried along with Mubarak on corruption charges. Additionally, Egyptian prosecutors have begun a new case against Mubarak for allegedly taking over $1 million in gifts from the state news agency Al Ahram.
The Syrian government launched deadly airstrikes on Sunday and Monday as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said the conflict is causing a "staggering humanitarian disaster." According to activists, an airstrike on Moadamiyeh, an opposition held suburb southwest of Damascus, killed at least 13 people, including five women and eight children. On Sunday, activists reported at least 45 people were killed in government airstrikes in the suburbs east of Damascus, as the Syrian regime works to push the opposition away from the capital and the presidential palace. Syria's state news agency, SANA, said government airstrikes had killed scores of "armed terrorists" in the Damascus suburbs. Meanwhile, the New York-based, IRC released a report Monday entitled "Syria: a regional crisis" citing sexual violence as the primary reason for the flight of many Syrian refugees. Over 600,000 people have fled the country since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011 and an estimated 2 million people are believed to be internally displaced. The IRC said international aid is "drastically insufficient" and called for increased funding and planning from the international community to deal what it said is "certain to be a long-term regional crisis."
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Justice comes slowly to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and sometimes not at all. In August 2012, local security officials announced that they were searching for 120 militants wanted on charges of attacking police stations and killing 16 Egyptian soldiers at a military post near the border with Israel. Six months later, they're still looking. Police are few and far between, and those who do patrol the streets are increasingly the victims of the same crimes they are trying to prevent. Police cars are hijacked in broad daylight while officers are gunned down by masked assailants in a climate of brazen banditry and lawlessness that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously described as "a kind of Wild West."
The 23,500 square mile Sinai desert has long been a sanctuary for militant Islamist groups and smugglers operating along Egypt's porous border with the embargoed Gaza Strip. But despite their strategic significance, the two governorates of North and South Sinai are among Egypt's poorest and most politically marginal, accorded a mere four seats each in the 508-member People's Assembly. Decades of neglect and economic discrimination by the central government have fueled resentment among the Bedouin tribes that account for around 70 percent of the Sinai's 500,000 residents. It is estimated that only 10 percent of the Bedouins are formally employed, and one out of every four does not possess a government ID card. Their many grievances -- including legal obstacles to land ownership, lack of basic public services, job discrimination, and systematic exclusion from military and police academies -- have reinforced a climate of mutual distrust between the central government and the Sinai.
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