The Middle East Channel

Critical fight for Aleppo continues, forcing 200,000 people to flee

A massive counteroffensive by the Syrian government over the weekend has forced an estimated 200,000 people to flee Aleppo while the opposition continues what is effectively a guerilla war. Government troops pounded Syria's largest city and commercial capital, claiming they have overtaken Salaheddine, the center of fighting in the southwestern region of the city. Opposition forces dispute the government's statement, retorting they have retained control of the Salehedine quarter despite the bombardment of heavy artillery and helicopter gunships. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Syrian opposition has continued to appeal to the international community for arms. France said it would call for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said of the Syrian regime, "If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's own coffin." Iran expressed its support for the Syrian regime, warning Sunni-led Arab countries that have been backing the opposition that the fall of Assad will destabilize the region. The United Nations' humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said that the International Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have estimated that 200,000 people have fled the fighting in Aleppo over the past two days. She claimed others are trapped in the midst of the fighting or are taking refuge in schools or other public buildings. Iraq, concerned over domestic instability, has  resisted receiving Syrian refugees. The Iraqi border was closed until last week to those fleeing the conflict. Syrians who have crossed over are being imprisoned. According to the United Nations, Iraq has received 8,445 refugees while Turkey has registered 88,000. Jordan claims to have taken in 140,000 people. Meanwhile, a Turkish official reported that the deputy police chief of the predominantly Alawite port city of Latakia defected overnight, along with 12 Syrian officers.

Headlines  

  • An Italian embassy guard was abducted in Yemen. Meanwhile, armed tribesmen loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh are occupying the interior ministry after they briefly held employees hostage.
  • U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney's comments on his visit to Israel angered Palestinians as he insisted Jerusalem is Israel's capital and that Israel's economic success is due to culture and "the hand of providence."
  • U.S. auditors released a report Monday concluding over $200 million was wasted on an Iraqi police training program that never got Baghdad's buy-in.
  • Despite lack of progress in previous rounds of negotiations, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said there should be more talks with world powers on its nuclear program.

Arguments & Analysis 

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Iraq's Escalating Political Crisis' (International Crisis Group)

"At first glance, the current Iraqi political crisis looks like just one more predictable bump in the long road from dictatorship to democracy. Every two years or so, the political class experiences a prolonged stalemate; just as regularly, it is overcome. So, one might think, it will be this time around. But look closer and the picture changes. The tug of war over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's second term suggests something far worse: that a badly conceived, deeply flawed political process has turned into a chronic crisis that could bring down the existing political structure. To avoid this outcome, both Maliki and his opponents need to make painful compromises: the prime minister should implement the power-sharing deal negotiated in 2010 and pledge to step down at the end of his term; in turn, his rivals should call off efforts to unseat him and instead use their parliamentary strength to build strong state institutions, such as an independent electoral commission, and ensure free and fair elections in two years' time."

Syria: Guests of the Warlord' (Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker)

"Abu Ibrahim is a big bear of a man in his early forties. He wears flip-flops and a T-shirt and tracksuit pants, and shuffles because of a sniper bullet in his left leg, fired by Syrian government forces; another bullet went through his right foot not long ago, and his face is scarred from an explosion caused when an assailant tried to kill him with a grenade. He keeps a pistol tucked into the waistband of his tracksuit pants. His men are loyal and watchful and one of them never leaves his side. He told me that he used to be a "fruit merchant." Now, Abu Ibrahim is one of the chieftains of the war in Syria's strategic northern Aleppo province, where a decisive military confrontation seems to be beginning."

Tunisia's Salafists Come to the Fore' (Aaron Y. Zelin, The Daily Star)

"The legalization and participation of Salafist parties in the democratic process is one of the recent trends to emerge from the Arab uprisings. Like Egypt, which legalized three Salafist parties for its elections, and Yemen, which recently legalized its own Salafist party, Tunisia licensed the Tunisian Islamic Reform Front on March 29, 2012.Previously, the transitional government led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid al-Sebsi twice rejected Jabhat al-Islah's demands for official recognition because of national security concerns. In contrast, the current ruling party, Ennahda, supports the legalization of Salafist groups both because of its own history in the opposition and the practical considerations of governing an ideologically polarized country. Ennahda seems to believe that by bringing groups like Jabhat al-Islah into the system it can send a clear signal: if one wants to take part in shaping the future of Tunisia, one must buy into the democratic process."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

New clashes in Iraq seem to be part of an al Qaeda campaign

Clashes between militants and Iraqi forces killed 19 people, including 11 policemen, and downed an army helicopter. The fighting reportedly began late Tuesday with an attack on a security checkpoint near Hadid, in the predominantly Sunni province of Diyala, and continued through Thursday when militants opened fire on a surveillance helicopter. Blaer Hassan, a Diyala security official, said, "This is a setback because we are worried about the capacity of Iraqi forces in the face of the growing strength of al Qaeda." While the identities of the militants are unknown, the assault appeared to be part of an al Qaeda campaign to reclaim territory lost in the U.S. 2003 invasion. Last week, Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a statement online about the strategy, called "Breaking the Walls." A day after the announcement al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq, unleashed a wave of attacks that killed up to 116 people and wounded hundreds.

Syria

The Syrian regime has renewed attacks on parts of Damascus as clashes continue in several districts of Aleppo. Assad's forces appear to be preparing to invade the city. The United States expressed fears of the possibility of mass casualties with a regime invasion of Aleppo. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there is "concern that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that's what the regime appears to be lining up for." She maintained that there would be no U.S. military intervention saying they didn't want to pour "more fuel onto the fire." However, Reuters learned of a presidential directive that would authorize greater covert assistance for the opposition, but still would not supply them with arms. It is not clear if President Barack Obama has signed the document. Meanwhile, Member of Parliament Iklhas Badawi, elected in May to represent Aleppo in what was considered by many to be a sham election, has defected and reportedly crossed into Turkey. She said she defected "from this tyrannical regime ... because of the repression and savage torture against a nation demanding the minimum of rights." If confirmed, Badawi would be the first parliamentarian to defect.

Headlines  

  • Israel's Supreme Court has extended the deadline for the eviction of Migron, the largest unsanctioned West Bank settlement, over protest concerns during Ramadan and because temporary housing is not completed.
  • Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniya, has met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi days after Egypt eased visa requirements for Gazans under 40 years old.

Arguments & Analysis

A vacuum looms' (The Economist)

"Governments in the West and in the Middle East fear the prospect of a power vacuum if Mr Assad were to go soon. Opponents, including the Syrian National Council, a wobbly coalition of Mr Assad's foes, are trying to draw up a plan for a post-Assad Syria. But Western diplomats are taking the council less seriously, since it lacks credibility in Syria, and are shifting their focus to the FSA and internal groups. The idea of a unity government has yet to gain ground; Mr Assad's opponents are split over whether to seek out any figures from the present government. The French are urging a role for Manas Tlass, a Sunni general and childhood friend of Mr Assad who recently defected. Foreign diplomats and FSA commanders are frantically trying to work out how the security forces might be rearranged in the event of the regime's collapse. The UN and the Arab League are flailing. In other words, hand-wringing and head-scratching all round."

Lara Friedman Responds to Dani Dayan' (Lara Friedman, Open Zion)

"Finally, Dayan's over-arching thesis in this op-ed is that "...our four-decade-long settlement endeavor is both [moral and wise]." The truth is that some of the settlers and their rabbis have twisted the whole concept of morality in order to justify an ideology that values land over human life, over security, and over peace. This is an ideology that can justify stealing landdestroying olive trees, and abusing and even killing children of the "enemy", all for the goal of destroying the modern state of Israel-a state that is an imperfect but nonetheless vibrant democracy, with the rule of law and a healthy civil society-and replacing it with the a religious-fascist state characterized by the tyranny of a Jewish minority. In short, the settlement enterprise is patently immoral and spectacularly unwise, from the point of view of anyone who cares about Israel and its survival as a democracy and a Jewish state."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey