The Middle East has experienced the worst storm to hit the region in 10 years, according to meteorological officials. After days of heavy rains and high winds, the region has been covered in snow taking at least eight lives, causing millions of dollars in damage, and leaving parts of Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories without power, and paralyzing the Turkish city of Istanbul. The heavy rains damaged crops, properties, and electricity infrastructure in Lebanon. Rare snowfall closed roads throughout the region, and flooding caused several deaths. Strong winds and rain disrupted operations at Egypt's Suez Canal and forced the closure of several ports. More than 500 Palestinians in the West Bank have been injured and over 400 homes have been flooded. The severe conditions have hit vulnerable populations in war torn Syria particularly hard as well as the conflict's refugees, specifically the 50,000 living in the Zaatari tent camp in northern Jordan.
Syrian opposition fighters have reportedly overtaken the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib province after weeks of fighting. The jihadi groups al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic Vanguard led the opposition forces. Taftanaz is the largest airbase to be seized by the opposition since the beginning of the uprising. Helicopters based there have been used in government air campaigns. However, the military had removed all of its functioning helicopters and government fighter jets have reportedly been bombing the base in apparent efforts to destroy it. Meanwhile, the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lahkdar Brahimi is in Geneva meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to discuss a political solution to the nearing two-year conflict in Syria. According to a U.S. official, the talks would focus on "creating the conditions to advance a political solution -- specifically a transitional governing body" as was proposed by the Action Group for Syria in June. However, there continues to exist a wide divide between the positions of the United States and Russia, with the United States asserting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down while Russia insists that his resignation not be a precondition for negotiations, and that Assad cannot be pushed from power by external forces.
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According to an Egyptian official, leaders of the Palestinian rival groups Hamas and Fatah agreed to implement a unity deal in talks in Cairo on Wednesday. Palestinian Authority President and Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal met separately with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and later met directly for the first time in over a year. Hamas politburo member Izzat al-Rishq said, "The two parties agreed to call on all Palestinian factions to implement the reconciliation agreement." The unity agreement, brokered by Egypt, was signed in May 2011, but the main provisions have not been enacted. Violence exploded between the rival nationalist groups in June 2007 when Hamas forces took control of Gaza a year after an unrecognized landslide victory in parliamentary elections. The factions have remained at odds over the recognition of Israel, use of violence, and arrests of members. A meeting for the groups to establish a timeline for implementation of the agreement is reportedly scheduled for the first week of February.
NATO has reported that the Syrian military fired a ballistic missile on Wednesday, the third in recent days fired in the direction of Aleppo and Idlib. The targets appeared to be strategic road intersections and military bases seized by opposition forces. A NATO official condemned the missile launches saying, "The use of such indiscriminate weapons shows utter disregard for the lives of the Syrian people." While the Syrian government has denied the use of ballistic missiles, their use could be seen as further justification for NATO Patriot missile batteries put in place to defend the Turkish border. The U.S. batteries could be operational within days, however the Dutch and German systems may not be ready for weeks. Meanwhile, Syria's pro-regime media has criticized comments made by U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi on Wednesday in which he questioned President Bashar al-Assad's commitment to a political transition and suggested he resign. British Foreign Minister William Hague said he is unsure if Brahimi will succeed in brokering an end to violence in Syria and he wants Britain to have the flexibility to arm opposition fighters if conditions continue to deteriorate. Fighting has continued between opposition fighters and government forces over the Taftanaz air base in northern Idlib province into Thursday with reports of regime air strikes. Additionally, air strikes were reported on opposition strongholds around Damascus.
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Syrian opposition forces released 48 Iranian prisoners on Wednesday. According to Iran's Press TV, the "Iranian pilgrims" were released in a deal between "the government and armed militants." Syrian opposition forces claim the hostages were members of Iran's Revolution Guards Corps and were carrying out a mission for the Syrian government. According to the Turkish Islamic aid organization, Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the Iranians were released in exchange for 2,130 civilian prisoners, mostly Syrian citizens, but also four Turks and one Palestinian. The exchange, the first major prisoner swap since the uprising began in March 2011, was brokered by Turkey, including the IHH, and Qatar after months of diplomatic efforts. Meanwhile, Britain is holding a two-day meeting beginning Wednesday for academics and the leadership of the opposition Syrian National Coalition to discuss a political transition from President Bashar al-Assad.
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Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, the Assad regime has transformed into a ruthless militia fighting a desperate battle against the Syrian people. The regime hasn't just murdered thousands of Syrians, but also wasted their wealth and, most significantly, destroyed the very fabric of Syrian society. The longer Assad stays in power, the harder and more painful the transitional period will be. Before it is too late, Syrians must form, and the international community must support, a Syrian transitional government based on liberated Syrian soil.
The actions of the Syrian government have forced the country into a hateful sectarian conflict and a horrifying civil war. The regime (or militia) has repeatedly violated the Geneva conventions and failed to follow any rules of war. For instance, live bullets have claimed the lives of some of Syria's finest young non-violent activists, such as Ghayth Matar, Tamer al-Sharey, and Hamzeh al-Khatib. Additionally, the regime has engaged in the monstrous and inhuman practice of targeting hospitals and bread lines. However, the Syrian people have steadfastly endured this horrible struggle for almost two years not only to protect their movement and determination, but also, and more importantly, to preserve their solidarity against a policy whose sole purpose is to break them apart.
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The resumption of talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan has raised hopes for a solution to the Kurdish issue. An advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a Dec. 31 interview that disarmament negotiations were occurring in Imrali prison, where Ocalan is serving a life sentence. They are the first confirmed state-PKK talks since mid-2011. Nothing is known for certain about their specific content, which only the government has commented on to date. But the fact that Erdogan confirmed and took clear responsibility for the meetings has created hope for a breakthrough. A Jan. 3 visit by Kurdish parliamentarians to Imrali -- the first of its kind in the talks -- was also hailed as a historic.
The Imrali meetings are an important step, but Ankara's repeated failure to follow through on expectations for progress on the conflict counsels against premature optimism. If they are to result in anything more than another wave of disappointment, the AKP must drop its goal of defeating the Kurdish political movement in favor of a genuine, negotiated agreement acceptable to all parties, including the PKK.
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Iran's oil minister, Rostam Qasemi, admitted for the first time on Monday that petroleum exports and sales had dropped by 40 percent in the past nine months because of Western sanctions. Qasemi has consistently denied Iran was having problems selling its oil, its largest source of revenue. Additionally, according to Gholam Reza Kateb, the head of the parliament's budget committee, the decline in oil sales and banking sanctions have caused a 45 percent drop in revenue. OPEC and the International Energy Agency have reported that Iranian crude exports have fallen from 2.4 million barrels a day at the end of 2011 to about a million barrels a day at the end of 2012. Consequently, soaring inflation has caused the value of Iran's currency, the rial, to fall by over 80 percent since 2011. Also on Monday, Iran's oil ministry said it will halt the sale of jet fuel to the country's indebted airlines unless they pay cash, causing several carriers to cancel flights. Western countries have imposed severe sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program, which it maintains is for peaceful purposes. Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama broadened sanctions on Iranian industries to include all energy, shipping, and shipbuilding organizations and restricted outlets for barter transactions.
Syria mixed chemicals at two storage sites at the end of November 2012 and filled dozens of bombs, likely with sarin nerve gas, and loaded them onto vehicles near air bases according to anonymous U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials. A public warning by President Obama, and private messages from Russia, Iraq, Turkey, and possibly Jordan coerced Syria to stop the chemical and bomb preparation. However, officials say the weapons are still in storage near Syrian air bases, and could be deployed in between two and six hours for use by President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, on Tuesday the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) said it is unable to provide assistance to 1 million Syrians who are going hungry due to the 22-month-long conflict. According to spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs, the agency aims to help 1.5 million of the 2.5 million Syrians in need. It is not able to reach all the people requiring help because of continued fighting and the lack of access to the port of Tartus, where it had to remove its staff. The program also had to pull its staff from offices in Homs, Aleppo, and Qamisly. Additionally, the U.N. refugee agency said the number of refugees fleeing the fighting increased by nearly 100,000 in the past month. On Tuesday, a riot reportedly broke out in the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Refugees attacked aid workers after the first winter storm in the camp caused torrential rains and winds that swept away tents. Nearly 50,000 people are housed in the Zaatari camp and they are becoming increasingly frustrated with conditions that one person called "worse than living in Syria."
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When protesters recently erupted into the streets in western Iraq, many quickly hailed them as the beginning of either a Sunni or an Iraqi Spring -- a telling difference in the perceived significance of sectarian identity. The protests were triggered by the arrest of Minister of Finance Rafi'i al Issawi's security detail on terrorism charges but are in fact reflective of much broader and long-standing grievances some of which are Iraq-wide others more specific to Sunni Arabs. After a decade of misery, rare is the Iraqi -- of whatever background -- who is satisfied with the current government; yet despite that, the protests are struggling to escape the confines of Sunni-majority areas.
When the near-obligatory nationalist reference to the rebellion of 1920 came up in a poem at a recent demonstration in Salah al Din I found myself wondering what the odds are on today's movement mirroring the joint Sunni-Shiite demonstrations of May 1920 that so alarmed the British and that Iraqi nationalists never tire of recounting. I was not alone in drawing the parallel: indeed, the poet who referred to 1920 was doing so as part of his plea toward the southern governorates to join their compatriots in protest. Another speaker explicitly called upon the Shiite marji'iya to, "come out of their silence," and support the protesters. In short Shiite symbolism, in a nationalist and religious sense, was deployed firstly to try to dispel accusations that the protests were sectarian and secondly to appeal to Shiite Iraqis to join the demonstrations. The reasons Shiites by and large have not responded to these calls, nor are likely to, are to be found in the paradoxes surrounding Iraqi nationalism, Iraqi sectarian identity, and ultimately views toward the current political order.
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Bahrain's highest appeals court has upheld sentences for 13 activists for their roles in the February 2011 anti-government protests. The sentences, originally delivered by a military court in June 2011, and upheld in an appeals court in September 2012, range from five years to life imprisonment. One of the eight activists receiving life sentences (25 years in Bahrain) was opposition leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who ended a 110-day hunger strike last June in protest of the ruling. This decision will be final, with no further venues for the activists to get the verdicts overturned. Twenty people were originally tried, however seven were tried in absentia and have left the country or remain in hiding. One of the main charges against the activists was "forming a terrorist group with intent to overthrow the system of government." However, the activists maintained they were only seeking democratic reform in Bahrain. Opposition and human rights groups have condemned the sentences. The United States was pushing for acquittals in efforts to avoid further political unrest in the Gulf country in which the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based. An estimated 60 people have died in unrest in Bahrain since February 2011.
The Syrian opposition and western countries have rejected a peace plan proposed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In his first televised speech since June 2012, Assad remained defiant saying his military would continue to fight rebels, deemed as foreign funded "terrorists." He insisted he will not step down, but presented his peace plan including reforms that would replace the cabinet and constitution. He called for a national dialogue, but maintained he would not negotiate with people with "terrorist" ideas. He condemned opponents as "enemies of God and puppets of the West." The United States rejected Assad's address as "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power." U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Assad's peace initiative "is detached from reality." Foreign ministers from Turkey, Britain, and the European Union maintained their positions that Assad must resign and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said he would endorse an International Criminal Court tribunal against Assad for war crimes. The Syrian National Coalition said Assad has made negotiations impossible by ruling out talks with the rebels. Only Syrian ally Iran backed Assad's plan rejecting "foreign interference." Meanwhile, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, clashes continued around the capital of Damascus, in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, and on the road connecting Damascus to Aleppo. Violence was reported in the district of Arqaba, just three miles from the Damascus Opera House, from which Assad addressed regime loyalists.
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Many analyses have been made about Iran's strategic and geopolitical role in the Syrian regime, but not enough attention has been paid to the crucial and changing economic relations between the two countries. By analyzing Iran-Syria relations through this prism, one can shed light on the more nuanced, unconventional, and complicated aspects of Iran's role in Syria.
Iran has historically invested a considerable amount of money, resources, skilled forces, and labor in Syria. These investments were ratcheted up, particularly, in the last few years before uprisings began erupting in March 2011 across Syria. Although large sums of money and resources were allocated to investments in Syrian transportation and infrastructure, Iranian and Syrian economic ties are not limited to these spheres. A few months before the popular uprisings were ignited, Iranian authorities signed a $10 billion natural gas agreement with Syria and Iraq for the construction of gas pipeline that would start in Iran, run through Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean, and reach several Western countries. According to the agreement, Iraq and Syria would receive a specified amount of cubic meters of natural gas per day. This proposal was endorsed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who also supported the allocation of $5.8 billion in aid to Syria by Iran's Center for Strategic Research (CSR), which concentrates on the Islamic Republic of Iran's strategies in six different arenas including Foreign Policy Research, Middle East and Persian Gulf research, and International political economy research.
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An estimated 32 Shiite pilgrims were killed in bombings in Iraq on Thursday. One of the bombs killed up to 28 people and wounded 60 others close to a bus stop in the town of Musayyib. The bombings were seemingly targeting pilgrims returning from Karbala at the end of a Shiite festival of Arbaeen. Additionally, a roadside bomb in southeast Baghdad exploded, killing four people and wounding 15 in a passing minibus carrying Shiite pilgrims. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Sectarian tensions have increased in Iraq in the past weeks as Sunnis protest against the Shiite dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Demonstrators are accusing Maliki of attempting to monopolize power and marginalize Sunni political representatives before provincial elections scheduled for spring. Protests were sparked by a raid last month on the home and office of Sunni Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, and the arrest of 10 bodyguards. In attempts to quell protests, the Iraqi government released 11 female prisoners and two teenagers on Thursday.
A car bombing killed at least 11 people and injured 40 at a crowded petrol station in the Barzeh al-Balad district of Damascus on Thursday. The bombing hit as people were waiting in line for fuel, which has been increasingly scarce since the uprisings began in Syria in March 2011. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was the second on a petrol station in Damascus this week. Opposition forces have continued fighting for a third day for the Taftanaz air base, on the road linking Damascus to Aleppo, which is reportedly still under the control of government forces. Meanwhile, U.S. troops arrived in Turkey in part of a NATO mission to protect the border with Syria. The troops will man the recently deployed NATO Patriot missile batteries. In Lebanon, Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah called for Lebanon to take a more active role in working toward a political solution to the conflict in Syria. Additionally, he urged the government to open up its border to Syrian refugees. Lebanon said it will keep the border open, but will request additional aid from Arab states and the international community.
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Even though the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has experienced long periods of stalemate over the past 20 years, a majority of Palestinians and Israelis never ceased to support its final goals. They disagreed about the contours of negotiations, preconditions, and timing, but they consistently agreed about the most important things: the viability of a two-state solution and the acceptance of mutual recognition of each other's right to self-determination. Israeli and Palestinian opinion polls since the signing of the Oslo Agreement have shown this again and again. However, recent polls indicate that 2013 could be the year when this all changes.
The latest joint Israeli-Palestinian poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) from December 2012 shows that a majority among Israelis (65 percent) and Palestinians (62 percent) now believe the chances for a final agreement are low to non-existent. In Israel, unlike the 2009 election in which the center-left and the right blocs were approximately tied, the election planned for January 2013 is likely to generate an easy victory for the hawkish Netanyahu and Lieberman coalition. The two main players in this coalition -- the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parties (which have merged into one list) -- are dominated by politicians who adamantly reject the two-state paradigm, some of whom even advocate for an Israeli annexation of the West Bank.
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According to a United Nations study, more than 60,000 people have been killed since Syria's uprising began in March 2011. The previous estimate by the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was 45,000. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, "The number of causalities is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking." The UN estimate includes Syrian soldiers, opposition fighters, or civilians. Adding to the death toll Wednesday was a government strike on a petrol station in the opposition held Damascus suburb of Muleiha. At least 30 civilians were incinerated while waiting in line for the rare chance to fill up their tanks. Activists said rockets were fired at the petrol station from a nearby Syrian air base. Other government strikes were reported in several Damascus suburbs as well as in Homs and Hama. Also on Wednesday, the family of James Foley, an American freelance reporter, announced that he has been missing since he was abducted on November 22 in northwest Syria. Meanwhile, fighting continued into Thursday at Taftanaz air base in the northwestern Idlib province as well as at the Aleppo international airport. However, unverified reports said Syrian forces pushed the opposition fighters out of Taftanaz.
Egyptian prosecutors opened an investigation on Tuesday against Bassem Youssef, a popular political satirist accused of insulting President Mohamed Morsi. An Islamist lawyer issued a formal complaint against Yousef for his television show in which he has portrayed Morsi as a pharaoh, criticizing his seizure of executive and legislative powers. The investigation has come amid growing fears that Egypt's new constitution fails to protect freedom of expression. On Saturday, Egyptian prosecutors questioned a reporter from the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm news on accusations of "circulating false news likely to disturb public peace and public security and affect the administration." The story under question stated that Morsi was visiting the hospital where former President Hosni Mubarak is being treated. It was, however, updated to state that Morsi's visit was canceled, and only his wife was there to visit a relative. Egypt's director of Human Rights Watch, Heba Morayef, said there has been a rise in the past four months of criminal defamation cases. Morayef added: "The problem is now we are likely to see an increase in this because criminal defamation is now embedded in the constitution."
Syrian opposition forces have attacked the Afis military airport near Taftanaz in the northwestern province of Idlib on the road connecting Aleppo with Damascus. The Islamist groups al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham Brigade were among the units active in the assault. Al-Nusra Front, which is believed to have ties to al Qaeda, has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States. Opposition forces have attacked several military installations in recent months as President Bashar al-Assad's air power continues to be a major threat. Additionally, clashes were reported near Aleppo's international airport, reportedly closing the airport. Meanwhile, government forces hit several eastern districts of Damascus where opposition forces have gained territory including Douma, Harasta, Irbin, and Zamlaka as well as the southwestern suburb of Daraya. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights over 110 people were killed in fighting in Syria on January 1, including at least 31 pro-government forces. Up to 45,000 people are estimated killed since the conflict began in March 2011. On Tuesday, a Syrian general defected from the army along with 20 soldiers who fled to Turkey.
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In recent years Kuwait seems to have descended into a never-ending succession of elections, government reshufflings, protests, and grillings of ministers. This often baffles outside observers, and in Kuwait it gives rise to a sense of chronic crisis and dysfunction. Up until recently, however, it has also been possible to make out an underlying story in Kuwaiti politics, a story of the rise of the political influence of the National Assembly. Thus in 2006 the opposition forced through an electoral redistricting over the opposition of the government; in 2009 the prime minister submitted to a parliamentary vote of confidence for the first time in Kuwaiti history; in late 2011 the opposition in the National Assembly forced out the sitting prime minister; in February, following a major bribery scandal implicating pro-government members of parliament (MPs), the opposition won a resounding 34 seat majority in the 50 member National Assembly. Not long ago, few Kuwaitis took seriously the idea of a "popular government" with a prime minister from outside the family; today many expect that it will happen, with the main question being how long it will take.
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NATO officials said the Syrian government fired more Scud-type missiles at opposition targets in Syria on Thursday, about a week after their use was first detected. NATO Secretary Genera Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was the "act of a desperate regime approaching collapse." NATO and the United States reported that over six Scud missiles were fired last week from Damascus into opposition held areas of northern Syria. Rasmussen said this further justified the deployment of Patriot missile systems to protect the Turkish border. Meanwhile, opposition fighters are pushing into Morek, a strategic town on the highway from Damascus to Aleppo in Hama province. Additionally opposition fighters are surrounding al-Tleisia, a town dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, as the conflict becomes increasing more sectarian in nature. According to activists, the Syrian regime has been shelling the town of Halfaya, which was overtaken by opposition forces two days prior. Government forces also continued shelling the Damascus suburb in efforts to stem opposition gains near the capital. Fighting in the Damascus Palestinian camp of Yarmouk began to subside on Thursday, and some of the over 100,000 residents who fled have started to return.
The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left many analysts and policymakers in the United States and other western countries scrambling to think of ways our governments could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to "do something" has led a growing number of people to advocate for increased military aid to armed insurgents or even direct military intervention, as the French government has said it will consider doing unilaterally.
While understandable, to support the armed opposition would likely exacerbate the Syrian people's suffering and appear to validate the tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency.
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Four U.S. State Department officials have been disciplined after a report cited failures in the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attacks. According to State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, "The Accountability Review Board identified the performance of four officials, three in the Bureau of the Diplomatic Security and one in the Bureau of Near East Asia Affairs." Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell, Charlene Lamb and Raymond Maxwell, both deputy assistant secretaries, and one other unnamed official in the diplomatic security bureau resigned on Wednesday. According to the inquiry panel, the officials were responsible for "grossly inadequate" security at the Benghazi consulate and lacked "leadership and management ability." The report also cited a lack of coordination between the State Department's Diplomatic Security and Near East Affairs bureaus. The inquiry could prompt debate on the military's role in protecting U.S. diplomats abroad.
A United Nations panel has said that the conflict in Syria has become "overtly sectarian." The panel provided an interim report on developments in the conflict in the past two months to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The panel said feeling at risk, communities are arming themselves and "ethnic and religious minority groups have increasingly aligned themselves with parties to the conflict, deepening sectarian divides." The most severe division is between Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim minority. However other sects are increasing getting pulled into the conflict. Many opposition fighters interviewed in the inquiry were aligned with Islamist militias rather than the Free Syrian Army. Additionally, al Qaeda is capitalizing on deteriorating conditions in Syria and is building its presence. The al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, recently designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, is exploiting divisions and recruiting Sunnis. The Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. Meanwhile, after days of fighting in the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, the Free Syrian Army has reported it has taken the camp from government forces, and it is back under Palestinian control. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates about 100,000 Palestinians fled the camp due to the fierce clashes, but was called by the FSA to return on Thursday.
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The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime's onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict's most decisive battle. But are we really witnessing the beginning of the end? Or is this just another phase in what may prove to be an endless Afghan-style quagmire?
To answer this question, we should look to Libya rather than Afghanistan. NATO's intervention, following U.N. Resolution 1973, made all the difference in this conflict: by strengthening the rebels' hand and severely weakening Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, it turned military defeat into rapid victory, against all prognostications of protracted war. However, to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper.
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The U.S. State Department's Accountability Review Board (ARB) for Benghazi released a report citing failures of the State Department in the September 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya. The report by the independent panel, convened by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and headed by Admiral Mike Mullen, said security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was "grossly inadequate" to deal with the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The review found "systematic failures" within the State Department, citing "leadership and management" deficiencies at two department bureaus -- Diplomatic Security and Near Eastern Affairs. It said no official ignored his or her duties or "engaged in misconduct," but cited poor coordination among officials, and "real confusion" over who had the responsibility and power to make policy and security decisions. Backlash over the attack turned political ahead of the November 6 presidential elections and Republicans have attacked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for comments she made after the assault, leading her to withdraw from consideration to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State next year. Although no one was singled out in the review, the report is likely to tarnish the tenure of Clinton. She said she has accepted and will adopt all of the 29 recommendations made in the report.
The United Nations has appealed for about $1.5 billion for humanitarian assistance to deal with the Syrian crisis. The U.N. request was for $519.6 million to help the estimated four million people in need in Syria, two million who have been internally displaced, and $1 billion to go toward aid for the estimated 1 million refugees who fled the conflict and are living in five countries. The United Nations' statement said this is the "largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever" estimating that 25 percent of Syria's population is in need of humanitarian relief. Russia's Defense Ministry has announced it is sending a flotilla of five ships from the Baltic Sea port of Baltiysk to relieve ships near Syria, set to arrive in the beginning of January. A Russian naval official said the ships were "on their way to the coast of Syria for possible participation in the evacuation of Russian citizens." Russia has been a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, but in recent days has signaled it sees the government forces losing ground. Russia has insisted, however, that it has not changed position on Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appealed to Russia to begin cooperating with the growing international community supporting the opposition coalition working to remove Assad. The statements came after parts for NATO Patriot missiles began arriving in Turkey which will protect the border with Syria. Meanwhile, fierce clashes have continued near the capital of Damascus. According to Syrian state television, Syrian government forces are conducting a broad offensive against opposition fighters in the suburbs of Damascus, where the rebels have made significant gains capturing air bases and military installations. Fighting has continued in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk with government airstrikes on Tuesday.
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On Saturday, Egyptians voted in a national referendum on the country's new constitution, drafted over the course of six months by a largely Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. Opponents of the new document say it restricts freedoms, inflates the powers of the presidency, and makes second-class citizens out of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a loose coalition of opposition figures, including former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, declared that the constitution did not represent a majority of Egyptians, and urged his followers (after some dithering about a boycott) to vote no.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the results of the first phase of the referendum (conducted in 10 of Egypt's most populous governorates, with the remaining 17 to vote on December 22) were a blow to ElBaradei's narrative. The new constitution passed comfortably, with an estimated 57 percent voting yes. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has "hailed" the poll, describing the result as a rebuke to "politicians and collaborators who ignored the will of the people."
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What happened to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood? Variants of this question have consumed the international media, academics, and policymaking circles over the last few weeks. Many Egyptians have equally given voice to unprecedented rage against the MB during the crisis sparked by President Mohamed Morsi's moves to push through a controversial new constitution. Bloody clashes between the MB followers and protesters in front of the presidential palace and the provocative discourse of some of the MB leaders took many by surprise, as did the outrageous actions of the MB and what is said to be torture chambers that were allegedly run by some of the MB members against peaceful protesters who were beaten and terrified at Morsi's presidential palace.
The Brotherhood's behavior seems bewildering to many observers who have followed the organization for many years. The recent crisis seems a profound setback and a retreat from its "moderate" character and longstanding "reformist" agenda. Some Egyptian politicians now accuse the MB of adopting a "fascist" propensity in dealing with its opponents. Many western commentators go farther, using the crisis as an excuse to cast profound doubts on the MB ideology and to question its democratic credentials. What does this crisis really say about the "nature" and the true "color" of the MB? Has it changed its ideology after taking power, or revealed its reformist rhetoric as a lie?
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Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is declaring a narrow victory in the first round of a polarizing constitutional referendum, while opposition members are complaining of polling violations. Unofficial results from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party show 56.5 percent approval for the new draft constitution with 43 percent of Egyptians' voting against it. However, voter turnout was low, estimated at between 31 and 33 percent. Egyptian human rights groups reported widespread irregularities at polling stations, including preventing some women and Christians from voting, early closure of some polling centers, and incidences of people misrepresenting themselves as judges. Egypt's main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, has called for massive protests Tuesday against "large scale fraud" in the referendum. There were some instances of violence over the weekend, however, not nearing the degree of clashes leading up to the contentious referendum. Voting was held in Cairo, Alexandria, and eight other Egyptian provinces on Saturday. Results will not be released until after the rest of the country votes on December 22.
In a rare interview, Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said that neither the government nor the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad would win the war in Syria. Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim, has rarely been seen since the uprising began in March 2011, and is not part of the Alawite president's inner circle. Nonetheless, he is the highest official to publically state that Assad will not win. In the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, Sharaa appealed for a "historic settlement" involving the U.N. Security Council and the formation of a national unity government. Additionally, the foreign ministry of Iran, Assad's closest Ally, has indicated that support for Assad is not unconditional, calling for an end to violence as well as parliamentary and presidential elections. In past weeks the conflict has hit the capital city of Damascus with the opposition making territorial gains in an arc around the capital. In part of a campaign to rid the area of opposition forces, government warplanes bombed the Damascus Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on Sunday. According to opposition activists, rocket fire killed at least 25 people sheltering in a mosque. The bombings sparked clashes within the camp between opposition fighters including some Palestinians and pro-Assad fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Five other attacks were reported in the embattled districts of southern Damascus on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Islamist Tawheed Brigade reported it seized a military installation near the northern city of Aleppo, taking "at least" 100 prisoners. If confirmed, the capture would add to several bases recently overtaken by opposition forces in a set back to the Syrian regime.
It has been widely noted that monarchies have done better at surviving the Arab uprisings that began two years ago. Three Presidents (Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh) have fallen, along with Muammar al-Qaddafi's unique Jamahiriaya, while Bashar al-Assad's Baathist presidential regime faces a mortal threat. No Arab monarch has yet lost his throne. For some analysts and academics, this pattern suggests a fairly obvious "monarchical exception" which demands explanation.
In August, I launched a debate on Foreign Policy about whether and how monarchy matters in explaining the resilience of Arab regimes. I was not impressed. Against arguments that monarchies possess some kind of unique legitimacy commanding the loyalty of their people, I noted that Arab monarchies have in fact faced significant popular mobilization over the last two years: Bahrain has had one of the most intense and protracted uprisings anywhere; Kuwait is facing the deepest political crisis in its post-occupation history; Jordan experienced unprecedented protests; Saudi Arabia has had a protracted challenge in its Eastern Province; Oman experienced unusual levels of protest; Morocco's protest movement drove the king to adopt a significant (if underwhelming) constitutional initiative. I concluded, "the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths."
The responses I got over email, over Twitter, across blogs, and at various academic conferences convinced me that the monarchy question remains an open one, however. It is an important debate for political scientists and analysts, with a wide range of arguments and evidence to consider. Over the last few months, I have reached out to a number of leading scholars to weigh in on the question of Arab monarchy. I asked them to move beyond simple binaries ("monarchy does or doesn't matter") to explore the specific mechanisms by which it might matter, to weigh them against competing explanations, and to show how monarchy operated in particular cases which they knew well. Those articles, along with some particularly relevant older Middle East Channel essays, are now collected in today's new POMEPS Brief, "The Arab Monarchy Debate."
Almost two years into the so-called "Arab spring," the record of revolutionary success is mixed. Whereas Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are engaged in their own post-revolutionary institutional experiments, Syria has descended into civil war, in a sure sign that the outcome will irrevocably undermine the Assad regime. In the midst of all of the revolutionary tumult, monarchical regimes, in the Gulf, Jordan, and Morocco, have for the most part withstood the tempest of the protests. This imposes imminent theoretical and empirical questions about the variation in the outcome of the Arab revolt.
So far, monarchies have been the exception and far from engaging in semantic exercises, this regime-type is indeed an empirical reality pointing to what I call an "advantage" that they possess over republican states in the Middle East and North Africa. After all, the Arab authoritarian states all used, in one way or another, similar strategies from the same menu of autocratic manipulation to deal with their respective uprisings.
If a student of constitutional texts sat down to read the draft Egyptian constitution from beginning to end, he or she would find much of it familiar -- the language, structure, and institutions would seem to bear resemblances to constitutions in many other countries, even if the particular choices made or terms used were products of domestic political debates. He or she might pause at Article 4, promising that al-Ahzar will be consulted in matters of Islamic law. But the observer would likely be totally flummoxed upon arriving at Article 219, defining the principles of the Islamic sharia in technical terms from the Islamic legal tradition not used outside of scholarly circles: there has been nothing quite like this language adopted anywhere else. What does this mysterious clause say? How did it get there? And what impact would it have? These are three important questions, but each is more difficult to answer than the previous one.
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U.S. officials have confirmed that the Syrian government has fired at least six scud missiles this week at opposition held targets in northern Syria, in a possible escalation of the 21-month long conflict. There have been no confirmed casualties from the strikes, and U.S. officials are unclear as to President Bashar al-Assad's intentions for using scuds, which are not known for their precision. Chemical weapons could be loaded onto scud missiles, but there is no evidence they were used for that purpose. U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "As the regime becomes more and more desperate, we see it resorting to increased lethality and more vicious weapons." Additionally, Human Rights Watch accused Syrian forces of dropping incendiary bombs on opposition held residential areas. For the first time, a Russian official admitted Assad may be losing control, signaling a change of course from a major Syrian ally. Russia's special envoy for Middle East affairs, Mikhail Bogdanov, said, "Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out." Opposition forces now control significant territory to the east and southeast of Damascus. Meanwhile, a car bomb in the town of Qatana, about 15 miles southwest of Damascus killed at least 16 people, including women and children. The blast hit near a school in a residential area for Syrian soldiers near several army bases. On Wednesday evening, three bombs hit the interior ministry killing five people, according to Syria's state news agency, SANA. Syrian parliament member Abdullah Qairouz was among those reported killed.
The Arab League Ministerial Council that convened in Doha Sunday to review the Arab Peace Initiative and reevaluate the peace process concluded without any decisive action. Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani maintained that the initiative would "not be on offer for ever." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas objected saying, "It is not permissible to talk about sidelining the Arab Peace Initiative. It should stay." Abbas went on to warn that withdrawal of the initiative could lead to regional war. From press reports, there is no sign that the ministers undertook an in-depth evaluation of the initiative itself to better understand why it has not been successful, or to consider how to revitalize it.
The initiative, adopted by the League of Arab States in March 2002, was an historic opening that could have made a major contribution toward resolving the Israeli- Palestinian as well as the Israeli-Arab conflicts. When the initiative was put forward, Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel, and there was no likelihood that the architect of Israel's settlement policy would agree to the withdrawal to the 1967 lines called for by the Arab states. The primary audience for the initiative was not the Israeli government, but the Israeli people. The message to Israelis essentially was: In the context of a comprehensive peace, with your neighbors and the Palestinians, the entire Arab world will "consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended" and "establish normal relations with Israel."
Egyptian expatriates have begun voting in embassies around the world on a referendum pushed by President Mohamed Morsi on a disputed draft constitution. Voting in Egypt will be held over two days, December 15 and 22. At the same time, the Egyptian army is planning to hold "unity" talks with rival factions in Cairo, deeply divided over the referendum. Egypt's Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi invited Morsi, political leaders, and government officials to participate in the dialogue. Opponents of the largely Islamist drafted constitution have called for the referendum to be postponed. However, Morsi has remained steadfast, despite mass protests, that a new constitution must be passed before national elections can be held. Meanwhile, Finance Minster Mumtaz al-Said announced on Tuesday that a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt would be delayed for a month due to the political crisis which has dampened Morsi's ability to push through necessary economic reforms. On Sunday, the government issued a variety of new taxes, only to reverse the decision hours later due to backlash from the opposition as well as from within the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's economy is verging on collapse, and the British-based banking giant HSBC warned that further delay could seriously jeopardize Egypt's recovery.
U.S. President Barack Obama has formally recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people, paving the way for greater U.S. support for to the opposition. The United States joins Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf states, which recognized the National Coalition shortly after it was formed in November. The announcement came ahead of a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" -- foreign ministers from more than 70 countries gathering in Morocco to discuss the conflict in Syria and options for a political transition. The group includes representatives from many western and Arab countries who have opposed Assad, but excludes Assad's allies Russia and Iran, as well as China, which has joined Russia to block U.N. resolutions on Syria. The "Friends of Syria" also formally recognized the opposition council and called for President Bashar al-Assad's resignation. The group will create a relief fund "to support the Syrian people" but there was no commitment for supplying arms to the opposition fighters, although that was not ruled out for the future. The National Council said recognition is nice, but called for "real support" including humanitarian assistance and military equipment. Meanwhile, between 125 and 300 people were killed in bombings and gunfire in Hama province in the predominantly Alawite village of Aqrab, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to opposition activists, the civilians were being held hostage by Shabiha, pro-government militiamen, in a building that was bombed by government warplanes. Activists said the Free Syria Army was making a siege on the building. These accounts cannot be verified as there have been conflicting reports, and the Syrian government has not made any statements on the incident.
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Just over a year since Tunisia's October 23, 2011 Constituent Assembly elections, long lines of patient citizens who emerged beaming from polls last October have given way to new demonstrations and general strikes -- this time against the Ennahda-led troika. In the cradle of the Arab uprising, Tunisians are deeply frustrated with the economic and political failure of the government. Today, nearly half of Tunisians feel they are worse off than they were before the revolution, and only 26 percent believe their situation has improved. Despite this, however, our original survey of 1,200 Tunisians conducted between October 10 and November 20 finds reason for optimism.
Tunisia's problems run deep. A December 1 New York Times article, written in the wake of uprisings in the Tunisian town of Siliana in November that led to a five-day stand-off with the government, chronicles the problems: unemployment is up from 13 to 18 percent since the fall of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, youth increasingly flow out of universities to find themselves without work, a constitution is yet to be written, elections are postponed, and local governments remain appointed. Tunisians talk about the disconnect between the government and the people -- grumbling that it is no more concerned with daily needs than Ben Ali's before it. People say that the current government and police are as corrupt as in the past, and express a general sense of insecurity.
Egyptian security officials have reported that masked gunmen attacked a camp of opposition protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square before dawn Tuesday ahead of scheduled rival protests. Officials are unsure who was behind the assault in which nine people were injured from birdshot. Opponents of President Mohamed Morsi hope mass demonstrations, to be held outside the presidential palace, pressure Morsi to cancel a referendum set for December 15 on a disputed draft constitution. If held, opposition groups are undecided on whether to boycott the referendum, or campaign for a "no" vote. They oppose the constitution saying the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly was not representative of the Egyptian people and the document restricts freedoms. Several hundred Islamist Morsi supporters have camped out in front of a media complex in Cairo, accusing several independent television networks there of being critical of Moris and the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi has ignited fears that Egypt is returning to martial law with an announcement Sunday that the Egyptian army is responsible for the security of state facilities, and is entitled to arrest civilians. A spokesman for Morsi tried to clarify the order on Monday, saying the president has empowered the military only to secure polling stations on Saturday, and that all civilians arrested by the military will be referred to a civilian court rather than military tribunals for trial.
After weeks of fighting, Syrian opposition forces reportedly overtook large parts of the military base, Base 111, at Sheikh Suleiman about 15 miles form Aleppo on Sunday. According to the BBC, the base was the last remaining government installation in the countryside west of Aleppo. The attack was believed to have been led by Islamist militants, and according to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Free Syrian Army was not involved. The United States has formally designated the Syrian militant group Al Nusra Front as a foreign terrorist organization. The move has come due to concerns that arms and funding to the Syrian opposition is in part going to militant Islamist groups. The decision was made prior to a meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Morocco on options for a political transition from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during which the United States is expected to formally recognize the new Syrian opposition council. United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he had "constructive" talks with U.S. and Russian officials over the weekend on avenues toward attaining a political solution to the Syrian conflict, however there was no major breakthrough. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters the Syrian government seems to have slowed preparations for the use of chemical weapons, after concerns were heightened last week by reports from U.S. officials. The Syrian opposition is hoping to receive greater support from the Gulf states after forming a new command structure over the weekend in Turkey. The Islamist dominated group brings together most opposition entities including Islamist brigades and "provincial military councils" fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. The body has excluded Al Nusra Front.
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