The Middle East Channel

Syrian offensive on Idlib continues amid diplomatic fervor to end violence

Syrian forces continued a military surge in the northern province of Idlib, killing 45 people and forcing 1,000 refugees to flee to Turkey. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the deaths included five army deserters and 23 people who were found with their hands tied behind their backs. The attacks took place while thousands of Syrians gathered in Damascus, on the year anniversary of the pro-democracy revolt, for a pro-government rally in which supporters of President Bashar al-Assad participated, but which others criticized as "fabricated" and "forced." Syria's opposition has called for mass demonstrations on Friday in efforts to push for international action in Syria, calling the day's protests "the Friday for international military intervention." Meanwhile, United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan will brief the U.N. Security Council today on last weekend's meetings with Assad. According to Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi, "The door of dialogue is still open. We are still engaged with Syrian authorities over Mr. Annan's proposals." The United Nations is set to send a humanitarian mission to Syrian this weekend that will be led by the Syrian government. The group will focus on the most severely afflicted cities of Homs, Hama, and Deraa. The announcement came after 200 human rights and aid groups called on the U.N. Security Council to unite on a resolution to end violence in Syria, specifically targeting Russia and China who have previously blocked action. Elsewhere, the Syrian government is becoming more isolated as the Gulf States announced the closing of their embassies, citing the "Syrian regime's persistence in killing and tormenting the Syrian people."

Headlines  

  • After stalling assistance over a crackdown on NGOs, the United States plans to resume military aid to Egypt despite a new ruling that funding be tied to the provision of basic freedoms.
  • Thousands of Egyptian Ultras and supporters protested a lack of accountability after 75 people were charged for murder and negligence in the February Port Said soccer riots.
  • Security forces and Shiite Muslims clashed in protests across Bahrain on Thursday's anniversary of a government crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising.
  • According to Yemeni officials, a Swiss teacher has been kidnapped and is being held by al Qaeda militants in Shabwa province in southern Yemen.
  • The al Qaeda affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq, took responsibility for a wave of attacks on March 5 that killed 25 police officers in Haditha. 

Arguments & Analysis

'Vladimir Putin, the Syrians have a long memory' (Murhaf Jouejati, The Daily Star)

"With presidential elections behind him, Putin faces less pressure to demonstrate his bravado to his domestic constituency. The hope is that he will shift gears and join the rest of the international community in bringing relief to the Syrian people. The meeting that Russia's foreign minister held with his Arab counterparts last weekend provided such a forum. Even then, however, the long shadow Moscow has cast over future Russian-Syrian relations is there to stay. Syrians have a long memory: They will not forget easily, or soon, that Russia was a willing accomplice in the murder of innocent Syrian civilians." 

'Israel: The Knesset vs. democracy' (Dimi Reider, New York Review of Books)

"Among pending proposals is a bill, already making its way through the Knesset, that would impose a 45 percent income tax on organizations receiving donations from "foreign state entities" but not state sponsorship. This category includes nearly all Israeli civil and human rights organizations, such as Association for Civil Rights Israel, B'tselem, and Physicians for Human Rights, and the proposed tax would effectively cripple their activities. Another bill, already past first reading, is aimed to increase the penalty for defamation from around $12,000 to $80,000, likely to result in a significant chilling effect on Israel's independent press, perhaps most especially on the growing Israeli blogosphere." 

'Morocco's reforms: power to some other people' (The Economist)

"Yet even as the formal opposition has fizzled, an informal one is rising. In the rural areas, where the poorest half of Morocco's 30m people live, discontent periodically boils over. Curfews, water-cannon and arrests have failed to prevent clashes from engulfing two northern towns. Protests over utility prices are acquiring a secessionist edge. A looming drought will only make matters worse. The fiscal situation is also deteriorating. Until now the economy has weathered Europe's doldrums remarkably well. But the previous government drained foreign reserves into salary and subsidy increases, so there is little left to give. The return of thousands of jobless workers from depressed Europe and lawless Libya has further shrunk the cushion."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Syria marks one-year anniversary of revolt with continued violence

Notice: Today from 6:30 p.m. -- 8:30 p.m., a remembrance celebrating the life of Anthony Shadid will be held at The Washington Post -- 1150 15th St. NW, Ground Floor Auditorium. Speakers will include Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, David Hoffman, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Steve Fainaru, Anthony's cousin Ed Shadid, and a reading from House of Stone by his widow, Nada Bakri. Open to public. No need to RSVP. Reception immediately following.

On the one-year anniversary of Syria's uprising, supporters of President Bashar al-Assad rallied to back the regime as security forces intensified the offensive in the northern province of Idlib and southern city of Deraa, where the revolt began. The Syrian government orchestrated a march in Damascus to protest a "year-old conspiracy" against the country, which according to the Washington Post, was "apparently an attempt to overshadow the anniversary." Activists claim the regime has intensified the crackdown due to fears of anniversary protests. An activist in Deraa said that "there are more troops at the checkpoints and they are arresting lots of people," while another witness in Deraa noted that "houses are being hit with random bombardment from gunfire, RPGs, and anti-aircraft missiles." This comes as the government has been making gains with the recent takeover of control in Homs, and has pushed opposition forces from Idlib. In the past day, moreover, Turkey recorded the inflow of 1,000 refugees, which an official said was expected to continue. Diplomatic efforts meanwhile have thus far failed to quell fighting despite last weekend's meetings between U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and Assad. Annan is set to discuss Assad's response to proposals on Friday. On another front, 200 aid organizations from 27 countries called on the U.N. Security Council to unite on a resolution to end violence, particularly appealing to Russia and China who have blocked previous draft resolutions. Finally, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported it has obtained thousands of emails written and received by Assad and his wife, Asma. The correspondence was reportedly intercepted by the opposition Supreme Council of the Revolution between June 2011 and February. The emails describe the Assads living an isolated and lavish lifestyle, making light of promised reforms, and taking advice from Iran.

Headlines  

  • Egypt has charged 75 people including nine police officers with murder and negligence for the deaths that occurred during the February 1 Port Said football riots.
  • The Israeli air force and Palestinian militants in Gaza exchanged limited fire overnight, but the recently brokered truce that ended four days of fighting has largely held.
  • The New Delhi police and intelligence agencies have issued warrants for three Iranians in association with the attack on an Israeli diplomat in February.
  • Yemen's Salafis have established their first political body, to be called Rashad Union, and called for talks with Sunni Islamists and northern Shiite militants.
  • Iran appears to be increasing its political outreach in the Middle East, escalating weapons shipments to Yemen.

Arguments & Analysis

'Syrian rebels will have to deal with Assad' (Julien Barnes-Dacey, Financial Times)

"For Russia -- as well as China and even Iran -- to change tack and to press Mr Assad to implement a ceasefire, the opposition will have to consent to direct talks with the regime, not preconditioned on Mr Assad's immediate departure or on that of regime forces from urban centres. In effect, the initial price will be an outcome that favours the regime's position on the ground. Distasteful as this will be, there is no other way to end the bloodshed. However, if Mr Assad was to agree a ceasefire, even if he remains in power, he will be far more marginalised internationally and under severe pressure to comply. Such an outcome could ease the entry of humanitarian aid and of a new, enhanced team of monitors. More positively, such a deal could prepare the ground for a political process, however difficult, that could swing the balance in the opposition's favour." 

'Back to basics: Israel's Arab minority and the Israeli-Palestinian confliclt' (International Crisis Group)

"Since 2000, a series of dramatic events have both poisoned Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and reinvigorated its Palestinian minority. The collapse of the peace process and ensuing intifada harmed Israel's relations with not only Palestinians in the occupied territories but also its own Palestinian minority. As Palestinians in Israel organised rallies in solidarity with Gazans and West Bankers, Israeli Jews grew ever more suspicious of their loyalty. Palestinian citizens' trust in the state plummeted after Israeli security forces killed thirteen of their own during protests in October 2000. A rapid succession of confrontations - the 2006 war in Lebanon; 2008-2009 Gaza war; and 2010 bloody Israeli raid on the aid flotilla to Gaza -- further deepened mistrust, galvanising the perception among Israeli Jews that Palestinian citizens had embraced their sworn adversaries. Among Arabs, it reinforced the sense that they had no place in Israel. Several have been arrested on charges of abetting terrorist activity. Meanwhile, the crisis of the Palestinian national movement -- divided, adrift and in search of a new strategy -- has opened up political space for Israel's Arab minority."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images