The Middle East Channel

Syrian helicopter crashes as a U.S. report finds Iranian shipments enter through Iraq

Syrian authorities reported a government helicopter crashed near a Damascus suburb that has been the location of recent fierce clashes. According to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it was shot down by the opposition, although this has not been verified. A Western intelligence report says that Iran has been using civilian aircraft to fly Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel and tons of arms across Iraqi airspace to Syria to aid government forces and militias against the opposition. The shipments appear to be daily and greater than initially thought. The report also stated Iran is sending truck shipments through Iraq. The Iraqi government has dismissed the claims. U.S. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should make Iraqi aid contingent upon their cooperating with the United States on Syria. At the U.N. Security Council meeting in New York on Wednesday, the new U.N. special representative on children in conflict, Leila Zerrougui, said children are facing a "dire" crisis in Syria. She said U.N. agencies had "documented government attacks on schools, children denied access to hospitals, girls and boys suffering and dying in bombardments of their neighbourhoods and also being subject to torture, including sexual violence." Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, denied the claims calling the UNICEF report hostile propaganda and placing blame on the opposition. According to Zerrougui, the United Nations is investigating "violations" of international law by opposition groups, citing indiscriminate bombings and keeping children associated with their forces.

Headlines  

  • The U.S. National Counterrorism Center said the deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was an "opportunistic attack." Meanwhile evidence has surfaced that Ambassador Chris Stevenson feared he was on an al Qaeda hit list.
  • According to Palestinian authorities, up to three Palestinians were killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes, while Israel maintains they were "terrorists."
  • An actress in the anti-Islam video "Innocence of Muslims" is suing the filmmaker for fraud and slander and has requested YouTube take down video that has caused violent protest.
  • Jordan's King Abdullah continues to speak of political reform as tensions rise. Simultaneously, he has been clamping down on protesters and free speech.

Arguments & Analysis 

The Sources of Salafi Conduct' (William McCants, Foreign Affairs)

"If the Arab Spring uprisings were an earthquake in Middle Eastern politics, last week was a major aftershock. The rumbling began in Cairo, where a satellite TV station run by Salafis played clips of an inflammatory film about the Prophet Muhammad. Soon after, Salafi religious leaders called for protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, blaming Washington for not censoring a film made in the United States. The pattern was repeated in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere. Although much has been made of the riots as a response to the film, they are more fundamentally about the nature of the post-Arab Spring regimes, and specifically about who gets to police public morality. Salafis across the region see themselves as the rightful guardians of the public sphere -- and are acting to ensure that others see them that way, too."

The Agony of Syria' (Max Rodenbeck, The New York Review of Books)

"In the face of the current uprising, now in its eighteenth bloody month, Bashar Assad has ordered a sustained use of heavy weaponry against his own people that may be unmatched by any state in modern times. The gory internecine wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka saw governments behave with similar savagery, but against what they claimed were separatist revolts. In trying to crush an inclusive, nationwide, and initially peaceful pro-democracy movement that from its inception was unquestionably backed by the vast majority of Syrians, the Assads' army has wreaked devastation akin to that in Grozny or Jaffna or Sarajevo, only across swathes of a country with a far larger population, devastating scores of villages, dozens of towns, and all three of Syria's biggest cities."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The EU meets with Iran over nuclear program

European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, met with Iran's head nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, in Istanbul on Wednesday in efforts to end a standoff over Iran's nuclear development program. The meeting came days after the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report expressing "serious concern" that Iran is increasing uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons capability. Iran has consistently maintained its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. After the meeting, an EU spokesman said that it had been "a useful and constructive meeting and an important opportunity to stress once again to Iran the urgent need to make progress." Jaliili said, "We evaluated the common points and what we could do for further cooperation and future meetings." He added the next talks wouldn't be held until after Ashton meets with the six world powers (the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China, and Germany), which is planned during the United Nations General Assembly meetings next week in New York.

Syria

The conflict in Syria has again spilled over the border with opposition fighters reportedly pushing government troops into Turkey in efforts to control the border crossing and supply routes. Opposition forces advanced on the post at Tal Abyad overnight, which is less than a mile from Turkey's Akcakale crossing. Three people in Turkey were reported injured from stray fire. As the opposition took control, Syrians who had until then been trapped by fighting, fled into Turkey, bringing the total refugee count up to an estimated quarter of a million, according to the United Nations. Amnesty International released a report Wednesday saying that indiscriminate air and artillery strikes in the Idlib, Jabal al-Zawiya, and Hama regions are causing a dramatic increase in civilian casualties. According to the report, "Such indiscriminate attacks violate fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law, as they fail to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects." Opposition activists reported the Syrian military attacked several southwestern, northwestern, and southern suburbs of Damascus, forcing opposition forces to pull out of three southern districts. The Syrian army additionally bombarded many central areas around the Old City of Aleppo. Defected ex-head of Syria's chemical arsenal, Major General Adnan Sillu, warned that the Syrian government might use chemical weapons, or transfer them to the Lebanese-based militant group, Hezbollah. He said he had been involved in "serious discussion about the use of chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas." Meanwhile, in further efforts to resolve the deadly civil war, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi traveled to Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after taking part in a meeting in Cairo of the "contact group" on Syria, composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran. Salehi called for an end to violence on all sides of the conflict and proposed sending observers from the four countries.

Headlines  

  • France has amped up security for its embassies after the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad.
  • Egypt has issued arrest warrants for seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a U.S. pastor for alleged ties to an anti-Islamic video produced in the U.S. that sparked violent protests throughout the Muslim world.
  • The World Bank has released a report warning that the Palestinian Authority faces a "deepening fiscal crisis" and appealed to donors to meet their pledges.
  • In a video released by Mother Jones, U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Palestinians do not want peace and are "committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel."

Arguments & Analysis

Managing the Collapse of the Assad Regime' (Ausama Monajed, The Huffington Post)

"The FSA should begin by consolidating its leadership under one commanding general. This would not only address foreign frustrations of not having a central point of contact with the FSA but would also make transferring funds and arms much easier. Moreover, it would increase accountability should outside arms find their way into the hands of extremist groups, who may later use these arms against Western interests, similar to the recent attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi which resulted in the tragic death of four Americans, including the Ambassador. United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last March that "there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognised, appointed, or contacted" in the Syrian opposition. A centralised command with clear leadership for the FSA would close this gap and facilitate greater cooperation with Turkey, Gulf countries, and the West. It would also help the FSA prioritise its operations during the political transition in Syria, from locking down Assad's cache of chemical weapons to securing the country's volatile borders."

The Battle for Syria' (Frontline Documentary, PBS)

The documentary is a "journey inside the heart of the Syrian insurgency with rebels waging a full-scale assault," and an analysis of how Bashar al-Assad has maintained power.

Among the Alawites' (Nir Rosen, The London Review of Books)

"Syria's Alawite heartland is defined by its funerals. In Qirdaha in the mountainous Latakia province, hometown of the Assad dynasty, I watched as two police motorcycles drove up the hill, pictures of Bashar mounted on their windshields. An ambulance followed, carrying the body of a dead lieutenant colonel from state security. As the convoy passed, the men around me let off bursts of automatic fire. My local guides were embarrassed that I had seen this display, and claimed it was the first time it had happened. ‘He is a martyr, so it is considered a wedding.' Schoolchildren and teachers lining the route threw rice and flower petals. ‘There is no god but God and the martyr is the beloved of God!' they chanted. Hundreds of mourners in black walked up through the village streets to the local shrine. ‘Welcome, oh martyr,' they shouted. ‘We want no one but Assad!'"

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

AFP/Getty Images