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.
AFP/Getty Images/MARCO LONGARI
President Mohamed Morsi and his advisors cannot have expected that his November 22 constitutional declaration would throw Egypt into a renewed state of turmoil. That it has speaks volumes to the immense changes that have occurred in the country during the past two years. Morsi's support for President Barack Obama's truce initiative during the fighting in Gaza clearly reassured the U.S. president that under a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president Egypt would keep the peace with Israel. Because this has been the dominant concern within the U.S. foreign policy elite about the Egyptian revolution, Morsi had good reason to believe that the United States and the Egyptian Armed Forces would not object to his domestic decisions.
That Morsi's move has proven, in a deeply divided country, to have been a serious error of judgment is worth reflection. Early responses, especially in the United States, have either been self-satisfied sighs of recognition that the MB have finally revealed their true nature or, alternatively, sharp criticism of a westernized liberal minority that refused to accept gracefully the verdict of democracy mandating a stronger role for Islam, the MB, and Morsi himself.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has authorized the military to make arrests after the revocation of a constitutional decree on Saturday failed to quell protests. Morsi participated in a national dialogue on Saturday and rescinded the decree issued on November 22, which extended executive powers, and has since sparked unrest. Morsi issued a new decree Saturday night and said that a referendum on the Islamist backed draft constitution will proceed on December 15. Opposition leaders have rejected the move and are calling for fresh protests on Tuesday. They have opposed the constitution, saying it does not represent the Egyptian people. On Sunday, Morsi ordered the Egyptian Armed Forces to maintain security and protect state institutions until the results from the constitutional referendum are announced, allowing them to use force. The army is wary of the authority saying it wants to stay out of the political struggle.
Clashes have continued in the Syrian capital of Damascus and its suburbs, with fighting breaking out less than a mile from President Bashar al-Assad's office. For over a week, the Syrian opposition and government forces have battled over the road to Damascus's international airport, with the opposition trying to close off the capital. The radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States has been considering declaring a terrorist group, seized a regimental command center in the northern Aleppo province. Meanwhile, nine Syrian judges and prosecutors have defected, announced in a video posted on YouTube Sunday. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the judges came from the northern city of Adlib. Meanwhile, after meetings last week, the United States and Russia have committed to a political solution for Syria, according to U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. However, Russia maintained that it is not aiming for the replacement of Assad, despite speculations it is softening. Amid escalating concerns that the Syrian regime is planning to use chemical weapons, the United States and some European allies have been funding training for Syrian opposition forces on how to secure chemical weapons stockpiles.
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Amidst intense public controversy, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is moving to ban the widely popular television series Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Magnificent Century). Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government have been expecting, with a fair dose of cynicism, such a move ever since he denounced the series as an inappropriate characterization of Turkey's ancestry. The series has already been removed from the inflight entertainment system of Turkey's national air carrier; yesterday a Turkish Airlines official cited Erdogan's remarks as the reason for this removal.
Muhtesem Yuzyil, now in its third season and watched by nearly 150 million viewers in Turkey and its neighbors, takes inspiration from the life and adventures of Sulieman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire's longest ruling sultan (1520-1566). While Sulieman is lauded in history textbooks for his many battlefield conquests that led to the great expansion of Ottoman-controlled territory and for being the architect of the empire's "Golden Age" of military, legal, and cultural development, the majority of the dramatic content of the series consists of palace intrigues involving assassination plots and competition among women in the palace harem.
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Egypt braces for more protests on Friday after a public address by President Mohamed Morsi angered the opposition. After days of demonstrations and violent protest, Morsi appeared in a televised speech inviting all major political factions to a meeting on Saturday. Morsi vowed to proceed with a referendum, scheduled for December 15, on a controversial Islamist-backed draft constitution. The opposition National Salvation Front movement felt Morsi didn't make sufficient concessions, and many opposition members say they will not enter into talks until Morsi rescinds his new powers declared on November 22 exempting him from judicial review. Violent protests outside the presidential palace were broken up by Egypt's Republican Guard on Thursday, and Morsi supporters withdrew. However, the number of opposition protesters has grown, and Morsi's speech was quickly followed by violence. Late Thursday night the Cairo offices of the Muslim Brotherhood were attacked and set on fire. In his speech, Morsi blamed "hidden hands" for recent unrest, accusing remnants from the Hosni Mubarak regime and outside infiltrators for driving violence. According to Elijah Zarwan, a fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, "The really unfortunate side effect of the last two weeks is the political atmosphere has become really toxic. I fear that could endure long past the current crisis."
The Syrian army has reinforced its position outside Damascus in efforts to counter recent opposition gains, as opposition fighters warn travelers that the Damascus International Airport is a "fair target." Fighting around Syria's capital has intensified over the past week, and human rights organizations say the death toll in the 20-month conflict has reached 42,000. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad is increasing, and that events on the ground are accelerating. Rami Abdelrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces are withdrawing from a variety of areas, but maintained that talk of an endgame is premature. The Syrian army has been bringing in reinforcements to strengthen positions in two southwestern suburbs close to the Mezzeh military airport. Troops are concentrated at the Damascus international airport as opposition fighters have been battling for the surrounding area. The opposition warned civilians and airlines that they would be approaching the airport "at their own risk," thereby declaring it a battle zone. Foreign airlines have suspended all flights to Damascus, and only some Syrian Air flights have gone in and out of the airport in the past few days. Meanwhile, Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and U.N. and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met on Thursday to discuss a political transition for Syria. The Russians have backed Assad as concerns escalate over the prospect of chemical weapons use by the regime. However, they have agreed to pursue "some new, fresh ideas."
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With the violence that broke out in front of the presidential palace in Egypt yesterday, one can no longer describe the constitutional draft produced under the Mohamed Morsi government, as just "flawed." In process, the draft is abysmal. In context, it revises history. In content, it is silent, vague, and problematic. In consequence, it is bloody. It isn't just that Egypt can do better. Ratifying this constitution would reward, and deepen, polarization -- and the goals of the January 25 revolution would be that much further away from being achieved.
The most obvious problems with the constitutional draft are procedural. The process was supposed to deliver a representative constituent assembly, which would produce a consensus-based document that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians would sign up to, and feel invested in. The first assembly was dismissed in April, after the supreme administrative court pointed out members of parliament could not elect themselves onto the assembly, and that the assembly involved too few women, young people, and representatives of minority groups.
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The Egyptian army deployed tanks to the presidential palace overnight to break up protests after violent clashes between supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and opponents killed an estimated five people and injured about 450 others. Egypt's Republican Guard deployed tanks and armored vehicles on Thursday ordering tens of thousands of demonstrators to disperse. The Commander of the Guard, General Mohamed Zaki, said that the forces were deployed to separate rival protesters, not repress the demonstrators. After clashes throughout the night, conditions calmed considerably during the morning, other than a short period of rock throwing between the hundreds of Islamists and dozens of Morsi opponents who remained in front of the palace. Unrest in Egypt was sparked by a November 22 presidential decree expanding Morsi's powers as well as a controversial draft constitution set to come to a referendum on December 15. Clashes also erupted Wednesday in other cities across Egypt; Muslim Brotherhood offices were attacked in Ismailia, Suez, Mahalla, and Cairo. Three of Morsi's advisors resigned on Wednesday over the controversy. Morsi, who has remained relatively silent throughout the recent unrest, is scheduled to address the country on Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the U.N. and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi are meeting in Dublin, Ireland on Thursday to discuss the conflict in Syria as concerns heighten over chemical weapons. The unscheduled meeting is taking place on the sidelines of a human rights conference. Russia and the United States have bitterly disagreed on courses of action in Syria. Russia has blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions and accuses the United States of interfering in Syrian internal affairs. But the meeting suggests a possible opening for compromise. The meeting comes as concerns increase over the potential use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. U.S. intelligence officials have reportedly discovered that Syrian forces have mixed together precursor chemicals for the deadly nerve agent Sarin in small quantities at one or two storage sites. The Syrian government has repeatedly asserted it will not resort to using chemical weapons, blaming Western countries for drumming up fears as a "pretext for intervention." Fighting continued on Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus, as well as at the Aqraba air base near the Damascus airport, which has remained effectively closed over the past six days. Meanwhile, Germany agreed on Thursday to deploy up to 400 troops and Patriot missiles to the Turkish border in efforts to protect Turkey from a spillover of the conflict.
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Despite the estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in the Syrian conflict, the United States has shown little appetite for a Libya-style intervention, this time without United Nations Security Council approval. The Obama administration has been candid, however, about what might change its mind. In August, President Barack Obama first asserted that Syria's use, or movement, of chemical or biological weapons (CBW) would be a "red line" that would result in "enormous consequences." The British and French quickly followed suit. Just this week, the significance of these red lines was reiterated in view of intelligence reports that the Assad regime is weaponizing Sarin nerve gas.
The Obama administration has been silent about its rationales for these red lines. But reasons matter. As with any use of force in international relations, the legitimacy of an intervention in Syria would hinge on the strength of its moral and legal justifications. Are the Obama administration's red lines primarily designed to protect civilians? Or, are they intended to warn President Bashar al-Assad not to let CBW fall into the hands of terrorists? As it stands, the motivations for the red lines are unclear. Ironically, however, the Obama administration risks resurrecting the much-maligned Bush Doctrine of preemptive self-defense.
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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi retreated from the presidential palace Tuesday night as protesters clashed with security forces. Tens of thousands of people were demonstrating outside the palace, located in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, against Morsi's power grab and the new draft constitution, calling for him to resign. Police forces fired tear gas as protesters overtook barricades trying to reach the palace walls. 35 protesters were injured and 40 policemen were wounded, but none of the injuries were serious. Morsi returned to the palace on Wednesday morning, after riot police departed. Only 200 demonstrators remained. Meanwhile, other protests have continued in Cairo's Tahrir Square and Alexandria. Eleven newspapers suspended printing in protest over lack of press freedom in the draft constitution and three private television networks agreed to pause broadcasts on Wednesday. The Muslim Brotherhood said it is planning counter-protests for Wednesday and Friday. Dozens of Morsi supporters demonstrated outside the Supreme Constitutional Court.
NATO approved the deployment of Patriot anti-missile systems on Turkey's border with Syria, as violent clashes continue. According to a NATO statement, the agreement was "in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey and to contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along the alliance's border." The Patriot batteries and troops will come from the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands, and will likely take weeks to deploy. NATO foreign ministers also expressed deep concerns over reports that the Syrian government may use chemical weapons, saying their use would be a breach of international law. Syria, along with its allies Russia and Iran, have opposed the NATO deployment saying it increases regional instability. Meanwhile, a bombing on Tuesday at a school inside the Wafideen refugee camp in the town of Bteeha near Damascus killed up to 28 students and a teacher. Syria's state news agency, SANA, said that 10 people were killed at the school, claiming it was hit by mortar shell fired by "terrorists." Opposition fighters said they have surrounded the Aqraba air base outside of Damascus. A spokesman for the Habib al-Mustafa brigade said they did not yet control the base, but "the fighters are choking it off." Further demonstrating the deteriorating conditions in Syria, the United Nations World Food Program, which is currently supplying food for 1.5 million people in Syria, released a report warning of intensifying food shortages. They said distributing food is becoming more difficult with increased attacks on United Nations vehicles. The report came a day after the United Nations and European Union announced they are curtailing their missions and removing employees from Syria. The conflict has again spilled over into neighboring Lebanon, with clashes in the northern city of Tripoli. After two days of fighting, five people have been reported killed and 45 injured.
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The United States quickly denied claims by Iran that its Revolutionary Guards Corps naval forces had captured an unmanned U.S. drone. According to Iranian state television, the aircraft is a Boeing built ScanEagle, which it captured after entering Iranian airspace over the Persian Gulf. It is unclear how or when it was brought down. State television displayed images of what appeared to be an undamaged ScanEagle drone with the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps naval forces Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, and a message in Persian and English saying, "We will trample the U.S. under our feet." Commander Jason Salata, a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, countered the Iranian claims saying no U.S. drones operating in the Middle East region are missing. Other countries in the Gulf region have ScanEagle drones, including the United Arab Emirates. Iran's claims have come about two weeks after U.S. Pentagon officials reported that Iranian warplanes had fired upon a U.S. Predator drone which they said was flying in international airspace over the Gulf two weeks prior. About a year ago, Iran claimed to have forced down another unmanned U.S. drone, an RQ-170 Sentinel, by hacking into its controls. However, U.S. officials said the drone crashed in Iranian territory. Tensions between Iran and the United States have been increasingly heightened over Iran's disputed nuclear program. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the vital Gulf waterway through which approximately 40 percent of the world's crude oil is shipped.
NATO joined the United States in warning the Syrian regime against the use of chemical weapons and will decide today whether it will deploy Patriot missiles to protect Turkey's border with Syria. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasumssen said the use of chemical weapons would be "completely unacceptable" after warnings by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He added that if they were to be used, he "would expect an immediate reaction from the international community." The Syrian government has maintained it will not resort to chemical weapons. However there have been recent reports that chemical weapons stockpiles have been moved and could be prepared for use. Intelligence that Syria was considering using ballistic missiles, which could be armed with chemical warheads, is what initially sparked a request from Turkey for NATO anti-missile systems to be stationed along its border with Syria. NATO is expected to approve the request in meetings today in Brussels. Fierce clashes have continued between Syrian forces and opposition fighters around Damascus and along the road that connects the capital with its international airport. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 200 people were killed across the country on Monday, 60 of them around Damascus. Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi has reportedly left Syrian and defected. Lebanese officials have confirmed that he was in Beirut for several days, and he is believed to have departed for London, although there has been no confirmation of his destination.
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With his decision to oppose the U.N. General Assembly's granting Palestine non-member state observer status, U.S. President Barack Obama leaves no doubt he is not modifying his pre-election position that "There is no daylight between Israel and the United States," and that no matter how deeply Israeli behavior violates international norms and existing agreements, U.S. support for Israel remains "rock solid." This continuity of U.S. Middle East peace policy was promptly reinforced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she assured Israel that despite her condemnation of its decision to proceed with new construction in the E1 corridor of the West Bank that will doom the two-state solution, this administration will continue to "have Israel's back."
The decision confirms America's irrelevance not only to a possible resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict but to the emerging political architecture of the entire region, the shape and direction of which will increasingly be determined by popular Arab opinion, not autocratic regimes dependent on the United States for their survival.
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The political crisis between Egypt's judges and President Mohamed Morsi worsens as the Judge's Club said on Sunday it will not supervise a December 15 referendum on a constitution draft passed by the Islamist dominated Constituent Assembly on Thursday. The decision, however, is not binding for individual judges. Additionally, the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) said it will suspend its work indefinitely after about 2,000 pro-Morsi protesters blocked judges from reaching the SCC's building this weekend. The SCC was set to vote on the legality of the Egyptian parliament's upper house as well as the Constituent Assembly, after having dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood controlled lower house of parliament in June and the previous constitution drafting assembly. Meanwhile, at least 200,000 Morsi supporters rallied at Cairo University on Saturday, in efforts to counter protests in Tahrir Square against Morsi's November 22 presidential decree expanding executive powers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on Monday to discuss the escalating crisis in Syria as violence flares on the border. Relations between Turkey and Russia have been tense over contrasting views on how to deal with the 20-month conflict in Syria, particularly stoked in October when Turkey forced down a Syrian aircraft en route from Damascus to Russia on suspicions it carried military cargo. Additionally, Russia, a key ally to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has opposed a request by Turkey to install NATO patriot missiles along its border with Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hopes NATO will agree this week to stationing the missiles. The group is scheduled to meet in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday. Just hours before Putin's landmark visit, Turkey deployed F-16 fighter jets after two Syrian jet strikes along the border. Syrian warplanes have repeatedly bombarded the Syria town of Ras al-Ain, across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar. Meanwhile, the Syrian military has recently moved some of its chemical weapons stores prompting repeated warnings from the United States and several allies against their use. Clinton warned that the United States is planning to take action in the event the Syria regime uses chemical weapons. Syria's foreign ministry responded saying, "Syria has stressed repeatedly that it will not use these types of weapons, if they were available, under any circumstances against its people." Fighting has continued between Syrian forces and opposition fighters in the suburbs surrounding Damascus, and on the road linking the capital to its international airport.
-- The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog --
There are plenty of strong reasons for the United States and the international community to remain deeply cautious about taking a deeper role in Syria's internal war. Concerns about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the unintended effects of arming them, fears of a slippery slope from limited to direct military involvement, and questions about international legitimacy remain as urgent as ever. But what could possibly justify the failure to adequately address the humanitarian needs of the expanding Syrian refugee population?
Nobody can seriously question the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are now more than 465,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. By past experience, this likely dramatically undercounts the real number as many refugees shy away from registering with official organizations. That does not count the internally displaced, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. Most of the refugees are living in harsh conditions, inside or outside of camps.
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The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a vote Thursday recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state on the 65th anniversary of the U.N. resolution partitioning Palestine, which led to the establishment of Israel. Out of the 193-member assembly, 138 members voted in favor and 41 abstained. Nine members, including the United States, Israel, and Canada, voted against the upgrade in Palestinian status, which has highlighted a division in European Union and NATO states over U.S. policy in the Middle East. The United States and Israel have criticized the vote saying it has jeopardized the peace process. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the move "unfortunate and counter-productive" and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote it off as "meaningless." While the vote did little to forward a two-state solution, the stated goal of the Israelis and Palestinians, it did bolster the Palestinian Authority and will equip the Palestinians will legal tools for recourse against Israel, including access to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Fierce clashes have erupted between Syrian forces and opposition fighters near the Damascus airport. The road to the airport has been closed, international flights have been canceled, and internet service and most telephone systems have been down for the second day. Clashes were reported in the districts of Aqraba and Babilla, on the road to the Damascus airport, and opposition fighters said at least one mortar round was fired at the airport. Opposition spokesman Musaab Abu Qitada said they wanted to "liberate the airport" claiming they have information that the regime has been receiving weapons via civilian flights. Syrian State TV reported that the road to the airport has been "secured" but there are conflicting reports as to whether it has been reopened. Meanwhile, the government and opposition are exchanging blame over the source of the unprecedented communications outage. The cutoff has raised concerns that the Syrian government is planning a major strike to counter significant recent gains made by the Syrian opposition. Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials have reported that the Syrian opposition has recently attained up to 40 shoulder-fired missile systems. Meanwhile, the United States is expected to officially recognize the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole representative of the Syrian people at a conference in Morocco on December 12.
The Obama administration's opposition to yesterday's United Nations General Assembly vote on the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) bid for non-member observer state status once again places the United States outside the consensus of the vast majority of the international community. While the merits and usefulness of such a move by the PLO can be debated, the United States has once again made it clear that it lacks any new ideas as to how to move toward a just and lasting peace in the region and suggests that the administration is likely to continue to support blindly whatever the current Israeli government wants.
However, looking forward to his second term, President Barack Obama faces three basic options for dealing with the Palestine issue. Their outlines have not really changed since the most recent Israeli attacks on Gaza. The first is the tried and true method of simply ignoring Palestine and the Palestinians, while paying lip service to the "peace process" and attempting to extract unreciprocated Palestinian concessions to Israel. This approach was practiced during most of the administration of George W. Bush, and over the last two years by that of Obama. There are many pretexts for following this course of action today. These range from the persistent political divisions in Palestinian ranks and the feebleness of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, to the supposedly "terrorist" nature of the Hamas leadership in Gaza. They include as well the stubborn unwillingness of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to engage in serious negotiations to change the intolerable status quo of never-ending settlement growth and strict Israeli control over the millions of Palestinians who have lived under Israel military occupation for over 45 years. If, as clearly seems to be the case, the Israeli government is not fully willing to allow unfettered Palestinian self-determination, terminate its occupation, and remove its settlers, what is the point of "negotiations" for the Palestinians? Another reason for doing nothing is the unbroken record of failure of every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter in trying to stop the inexorable expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise. This vast endeavor now comprises nearly 600,000 colonists -- or about one in every 10 Israeli Jews, who live on stolen Palestinian land in a far-flung archipelago explicitly intended to make the creation of a contiguous, viable Palestinian state physically impossible, with majestic success thus far.
While the gradual meltdown of the Egyptian constitution-drafting process has been at center stage in Cairo over the past few months, the negotiations between the Egyptian government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $4.8 billion loan have rapidly become central to political conversations in Egypt. Egypt has a checkered past with the IMF. While it views Egypt as a success story for structural adjustment and privatization during the infitah, Anwar Sadat's economic liberalization, and the Hosni Mubarak-era transition away from state ownership, the Egyptian public associates the IMF with the human downside of structural adjustment policies: unemployment, rising prices, and increasing poverty. Even the IMF's own policy papers on Egypt now admit that the "social outcomes were unsatisfactory" during the 1990s and early 2000s.
President Mohamed Morsi's government has a real economic problem: a budget deficit around 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), falling tourism revenue, and difficulty encouraging international investment. Bilateral financial support has been forthcoming over the past few months, particularly from the Gulf states, but the IMF loan would be a key international indicator of approval for the regime, and would provide critical support for Egypt's position in the world market. In fact, the loan has been supported by both the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafi leaders, despite concern among other Islamists that the interest on the loan counts as usury and that the loan has been rendered haram. (The counterargument is that the low interest rate counts as a fee, and that no profit is being made; this is less than convincing to Islamist opponents, but serves as effective ideological cover for the Brotherhood.) The IMF had expressed a willingness to offer a loan package, provided that the Egyptian government drafted an economic plan that met with its approval.
Palestine is likely to win "non-member state" status today in a vote by the United Nations General Assembly. The Palestinian Liberation Organization believes it has support of 130 members of the 193-member body, and the bid only needs a simple majority to pass. If successful, the Palestinian status will be elevated from observer entity to observer state, equal to that of the Vatican. The bid has been strongly opposed by the Israel and the United States. The United States has stressed that Palestinian statehood should be achieved through negotiations with Israel, not unilateral actions, and has threatened to reduce U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians. Israel has warned it might take significant deductions from duty transfers to the Palestinians. The European Union is split with France, Spain, Greece, and Ireland in support, and Germany likely to abstain. The Czech Republic is expected to vote against the bid. Britain said it will back the resolution, but only if given assurances that the Palestinians will participate in negotiations with Israel "without preconditions." While the move is largely symbolic, it will have some practical implications including allowing Palestinian membership in U.N. bodies such as the International Criminal Court, where it could pursue Israel for war crimes. Last year, the Palestinian Authority applied for full state status, a move also strongly opposed by the United States, but the bid stalled in the U.N. Security Council.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a Syrian opposition body, began talks in Egypt on Wednesday in efforts to form an alternate government to that of President Bashar al-Assad. The group spent the day discussing the structure of the government and how leadership candidates would be chosen. The talks have not yet broached the election of a transitional government. Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council have officially recognized the opposition coalition, and formation of a transitional government could pave the way for greater international acceptance and financial support. The European Union said it will reduce the renewal term for sanctions on Syria to make it easier in the future to equip opposition forces fighting against Assad. Opposition forces have reportedly used surface-to-air missiles to shoot down two Syrian aircraft in northern Syria in less than 24 hours, including a helicopter on Tuesday and a warplane on Wednesday. If opposition fighters have increased capability to counter the government's air campaign, it could mark a turning point for the insurgents.
While few noticed in the midst of an intense political crisis, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi issued another controversial decree recently: Decree no. 97 of 2012, introducing a few important amendments to Egypt's long-standing 1976 labor law. The highly controversial law has already garnered significant opposition from a wide array of labor activists especially as it threatens to extend a long history of state control over labor affairs. While this may not be directly linked to the battle over Morsi's decree claiming unlimited Presidential power, many Egyptians see it as part of a broader bid for executive and partisan power.
The most controversial amendments include a provision to remove any Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) union board member who is over 60 years of age. The ETUF has been historically close to Egypt's rulers and most of its current top leadership is comprised of loyalists to the Mubarak regime. The current leadership was elected in 2006, a year that many activists claim was particularly marred with state intervention to prevent reformist candidates from running and ensure the success of loyalist candidates. According to the law, removed unionists would be replaced by candidates who had received the second largest number of votes in the last union elections (2006). Importantly, however, the law authorizes the highest authority (in this case the minister of manpower -- currently also a member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaled al-Azhari) to fill any remaining posts that could not be filled for whatever legal reason. Another amendment entails extending the current electoral term for ETUF leaders for an additional six months or until a new trade union law is enacted, whichever comes first.
These amendments raise two key questions: what implications does the content have for the future of state-labor relations in Egypt; and what is the significance of the timing of these amendments?
Tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square late Tuesday afternoon to denounce new claims to power by President Mohamed Morsi and the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics. Hundreds still remain in the Square on Wednesday. Morsi's efforts to backpedal from his assertion of power over judicial review did little to curb the influx of protesters. The rally is believed to be one of the largest protests since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and many considered the demonstrations a referendum on Morsi's governance. The protests were comprised of disparate members of the opposition who temporarily united with each other against Morsi's decree. Clashes erupted between police and protesters on streets near the Square in the ninth day of street battles. Protests also occurred throughout most of Egypt's 27 provinces, most notably in Mahalla el-Kubra in the Nile Delta, Suez, Mahalla, Port Said, and in Alexandria, where protesters allegedly attacked the local office of the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Syrian state media, twin car bombs planted in Jaramana, a suburb just outside of Damascus, killed at least 34 people. Many Druze and Christian minorities live in that neighborhood. Meanwhile, witnesses claim that insurgents downed a government aircraft that was bombing the town of Daret Azzeh, west of Aleppo and near the Turkish border, although it's still unclear exactly how they did so. "We watched a Syrian plane being shot down as it was flying low to drop bombs," said Ugur Cuneydioglu. This comes just a day after the opposition recorded another major tactical success. On Tuesday, the opposition shot down a military helicopter outside Aleppo with surface-to-air missiles. As of now, it's unclear if these gains are long-term and thus able to present a challenge to Assad's air-power. In another tactical gain, members of the opposition have overtaken two military bases, both of which were used by the Syrian air force. The opposition has gained control of about six bases in just a week. Valerie Amos, the United Nation's humanitarian chief, accused Syria of bombing refugees near the Jordanian border who are trying to flee the country.
Yasir Arafat had a canny knack for ensuring that Palestine never strayed too far from the world's headlines. His ghost may turn out to be no less resourceful. Today, a multinational team of medical and forensic experts exhumed the late Palestinian president's remains, as part of an investigation to determine whether he was poisoned. And, Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly, Arafat's favorite international forum, appears poised to confer the status of "non-member observer state" upon Palestine. The timing of these two developments appears coincidental, but what happens next may determine the fate of another apparent victim of foul play: the Middle East peace process.
The decision to exhume Arafat's remains, almost eight years after his demise, is itself illuminating. Why, many have asked, wasn't it done earlier, when potential evidence of wrongdoing remained fresh? Although it is tempting to suspect a conspiracy, the reality likely hews closer to Hamlet than Julius Caesar. Just after Arafat's death in 2004, a negotiated settlement of the conflict remained a tantalizing prospect: Israel withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a new Palestinian-Israeli agreement on movement and access was concluded later the same year, and Palestinians returned to the polls in 2006 for the first time in a decade. While many Palestinians suspected from the start that Arafat died from unnatural causes, their leadership, like the court of Denmark in Hamlet, preferred not to be confronted with potentially unpleasant facts about the late patriarch's death. Why inflame the situation just as tempers were cooling? Why risk souring relations with Israel and the United States when progress was close at hand? Wasn't it possible, after all, that Arafat had been the obstacle to peace all along?
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi worked to diffuse a crisis sparked by a decree extending his powers meeting with the Supreme Judicial Council on Monday. In five hours of talks with senior judges, Morsi appeared to pull back from his attempts to assert power beyond judicial review saying he respected judicial independence. He asserted that he would not withdraw the decree, but assured that it would be limited to "sovereign matters." Morsi has maintained that the move was to ensure that the judges, appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak, could not dissolve the constituent assembly. The Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the first constituent assembly as well as the Islamist-dominated parliament. Morsi has failed to appease demonstrators, and opponents have continued protesting in Cairo's Tahrir Square for a fifth day. Clashes have been reported between police and protesters on Tuesday, and the demonstration is expected to grow throughout the day. The Muslim Brotherhood has postponed its counter "million-man" march to avoid increasing "public tension."
A Syrian military air strike on an olive oil press reportedly killed dozens of civilians on Tuesday, according to opposition activists. The strike hit the Abu Hilal oil press about 2 miles west of Idlib city on Tuesday killing an estimated 20 people and wounding 50 others. However, the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it could only currently confirm five deaths. According to activists, it is unclear if there was an opposition target in the area, but there were opposition fighters nearby. The Syrian government has not yet commented on the accusations. Activists claim the attack was in response to recent strategic gains by opposition fighters, including several military bases near Damascus as well as a hydro-electric dam the opposition reportedly seized on Monday. Fighting was also reported on the southern edge of the opposition held Maaret al-Numan, on the highway between Damascus and Aleppo. Meanwhile, the government has been demolishing neighborhoods in Damascus in an apparent strategy to disperse and weaken opposition fighters by destroying the areas from which they operate. Officially, "presidential decree No. 66" was issued to rid Damascus of its illegal slums, however a Syrian official said the move was essential to drive out "terrorists."
The Arab Spring was hard on Arab presidents: most of the personalist presidential autocracies are now gone. But no Arab monarchs fell during the Arab Spring. Why did the monarchs fare so well? The strong correlation between monarchism and survival suggests, of course, that monarchism had something (or everything) to do with it. Some scholars, however, have argued the success of the monarchs does not have much to do with their monarchism, but can be traced to other factors, especially oil and foreign support. These factors are not irrelevant, but monarchism still mattered, and for two reasons. The monarchs benefited, first, from their ability to promise reform and, second, from the sense amongst their citizens that, while not ideal, monarchical rule was better than the republican alternatives. These factors, however, are not permanent, and the ability of the monarchs to weather the recent storms does not mean that they will fare as well the next time unrest sweeps the Arab world.
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The unusually intense protests that swept Jordan two weeks ago in response to the government's decision to raise fuel subsidies focused attention on the kingdom's long-simmering political crisis. The protests shocked many observers not only because of their size and geographical scope, but because of the virtually unprecedented calls for the overthrow of the monarchical regime. The protests tapered off after a few days, partly due to a backlash against these more extreme slogans among a generally reformist opposition. But even if the Jordanian monarchy was not to be quickly swept away, deep and fundamental political problems remain unresolved.
To get a better sense of the meaning of these protests, I sat down with Jillian Schwedler of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for the eighth in our series of POMEPS Conversations with leading Middle East specialists (the full series can be found here, with the latest featured each week in the video box of the Middle East Channel home page). Schwedler, who is completing a book on the politics of popular protest in Jordan, helps to explain why the tens of thousands demonstrating in the downtown al-Hussein mosque which impress the casual observer are less politically significant than a few hundred at the interior ministry. Schwedler had this to say:
The subsiding of the headline-grabbing protests does not mean that Jordan's political crisis is over. Nor is it likely that the crisis will be resolved by elections held under an unpopular election law, boycotted by most opposition parties, and viewed as irrelevant by most activist youth. Popular mobilization is rapidly reshaping the contours of Jordanian political life in ways which the Jordanian regime seems unable or unwilling to recognize. The fading of the most potent protests (for now) should not lead anyone to relax about the country's fate.
For more on Jordan's troubled politics, see these recent articles from the Middle East Channel:
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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is meeting with top officials from the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) Monday in efforts to calm a crisis sparked by a decree he issued Thursday which extended executive powers. The announcement sparked major demonstrations and a 9 percent plunge in the country's stock market. Clashes between police and protesters have wounded 500 people and killed a 15-year-old Muslim Brotherhood member, who died in an attack on the main Brotherhood office in the town of Damanhour. Protesters criticize the decree for exempting Morsi's decisions from judicial review and the opposition has accused him of behaving like a new dictator equating him to former President Hosni Mubarak. They say they will only be satisfied by a full retraction of the decree, however the SJC has implied it is willing to compromise saying the decree should apply only to "sovereign matters." On Sunday Morsi said the decree is temporary, until a new constitution is approved and parliament instated, and his move was not intended to concentrate power in his hands. Morsi's supporters and opponents are planning large demonstrations for Tuesday and the Muslim Brotherhood has called for a million-man march.
Syrian opposition activists have reported a Syrian government cluster bomb attack has killed 10 children and wounded 15 people. A Syrian MiG fighter jet reportedly dropped multiple bombs Sunday on a playground in the village of Deir al-Asafir, east of Damascus. The Syrian government denied the claims as "baseless" saying the military does not possess such weapons. On Sunday, opposition fighters claimed they seized a military air base at Marj al-Sultan, not far from Damascus. The British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the opposition fighters later pulled out from the base, but the report has not been verified. Additionally, opposition fighters have claimed to have taken the hydroelectric Tishreen dam on the Euphrates river in northern Aleppo province after several days of clashes. Meanwhile, the conflict has again reportedly spilled outside Syria's borders as Turkey fired on Syrian warplanes that appeared to have entered Turkish airspace while attacking opposition fighters in the Syrian town of Atma, along the border. Having requested NATO Patriot missiles, the Turkish military said surface-to-air missiles will be used only to protect the border, not to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. A Turkish and NATO team is set to meet Tuesday to begin assessments on where to station the missiles and to discuss who will operate them.
If Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is ever in the market for a presidential theme song, he should consider, "U Can't Touch This." American rapper M.C. Hammer's infectiously arrogant refrain aptly sums up a stunning power play by the Egyptian president on November 22 -- a unilateral constitutional declaration that immunizes his decisions from judicial oversight and preempts legal challenges to an Islamist-dominated constitutional process. In short, the declaration makes Morsi's decisions legally untouchable. If this were Zimbabwe, we would call it dictatorship. But in Egypt, it's just business as usual in a dysfunctional democratic transition.
Morsi, who was elected Egypt's president in June on a platform pledging to purge remnants of the former regime from state institutions, is now taking cues straight from the playbook of his authoritarian predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. The president has attempted to justify the declaration as a necessary intervention to alleviate political gridlock, with the aim of achieving "revolutionary demands and rooting out remnants of the old regime." A senior advisor in the president's Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing), Gehad El-Haddad, took to his Twitter feed to defend the decision in less tactful terms. "Someone needs to get real," El-Haddad tweeted dismissively to critics who suggested that the president had less radical alternatives at his disposal.
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Egypt has had quite a week, even by its inimitable standards. President Mohamed Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, returning Egypt to the regional political balance and proving to be the pragmatic, realistic leader for which many had hoped. Almost immediately afterward, his government announced a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund for a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan. But then, just as Morsi stood poised to bask in the international acclaim, he suddenly released a presidential decree granting himself extraordinary powers and triggering a surge of popular mobilization protesting his decisions.
Morsi's move should be seen in the context of Cairo's intensely polarized, gridlocked politics rather than as some pure expression of Islamist intent. His power is more impressive on paper than in reality. But there is no real question that Morsi went too far: decrees changing the rules of the game and placing the executive above any appeal were dangerous and wrong when done by the SCAF, would have been dangerous and wrong if done by a President Shafiq, and they are dangerous and wrong when done by Morsi. They should be reversed. But that will no more solve the underlying problems than last week's Israel-Hamas ceasefire will solve the enduring problems of Gaza.
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