The Middle East Channel

Fighting continues in Damascus as opposition forces capture Syria’s largest dam

Fighting continued in Damascus on Monday with no response from President Bashar al-Assad to the opposition's offer for talks. The Syrian army has reportedly sent reinforcements to the Jobar district of the capital, east of the city center, where opposition forces were said to have overtaken the landmark Abassiyeen Square. The government deployed tanks and fighter jets struck the district over the weekend. According to an opposition activist, regime forces have continued to remain strongly rooted in the city center, but opposition fighters have pushed farther into the capital than they have since July 2012, when they temporarily held a southern neighborhood. Additionally, opposition forces captured Syria's largest dam Monday, the al-Furat dam in the northeastern province of Raqqa, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The organization's director Abdel Rahman said, "This is the biggest economic loss for the regime since the start of the revolution." Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Coalition's leader Moaz al-Khatib made a statement on his Facebook page in which he wrote that the Assad regime had "lost a chance to engage in a dialogue" to end the nearing two year conflict. Khatib had made an offer for talks with the government, but the government did not issue an official response. On Friday, Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said the government was open to holding talks, but without preconditions. Khatib had called for the release of 160,000 political prisoners, beginning with women whom he pushed to be released by Sunday.

Headlines

  • Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki's secular CPR party has decided to stay in the government for another week for further discussions, reversing a decision to withdraw.
  • Iranian authorities have arrested two daughters of opposition Green Movement leader and previous presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for nearly two years.
  • Shelling killed six people and wounded over 50 others in an Iraqi camp, formerly the U.S. military base Camp Liberty, housing Iranian exiles from the militant group, Mujahedeen Khalq (M.E.K.).
  • Israel gave final approval Sunday for the construction of 90 new West Bank homes in the Beit El settlement near Ramallah, and building could begin within days.

Arguments and Analysis

Saudi Money Shaping U.S. Research (Susan Schmidt, The National Interest)

"Saudi Arabia's oil reserves are expected to run dry in fifty years. This prospect has encouraged the Saudis to go shopping for cutting-edge science that can secure the kingdom's future-at elite American research universities.

...Many American universities and their scientists, lured by research grants of as much as $25 million, have jumped at the chance to partner with KAUST. Some of those scientists do research at their universities here and spend a small part of their time in Saudi Arabia creating "mirror" labs.

The arrangement with KAUST raises novel and largely unaddressed issues for American universities. With the United States determined to become energy self-sufficient, what are the ramifications of having scientists at top university labs-many of them recipients of U.S. government research dollars-devoting their efforts to energy pursuits selected by Saudi Arabia?"

Creeping radicalisation has led to Tunisia's current crisis (Anne Wolf, The National)

"The first political assassination in Tunisia following its revolution more than two years ago has severely shaken the image of a country hitherto hailed as a model for democratic transition in the Arab world. Chokri Belaid, the head of the leftist opposition Unified Democratic Nationalist party, was assassinated on February 6 by four bullets in the head and chest outside his home in Tunis, by a man on a motorcycle whose identity is still unknown

...Yet, what makes this cowardly and cruel assassination for many a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Ennahda - whose leaders are currently discussing the possibility of redistributing power within the government - is Belaid's outspoken criticism of the ruling Islamists, as well as his vocal suspicion that some of its members, in particular those belonging to the League for the Protection of the Revolution, were behind some of the recent resurgence of violence in Tunisia."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/ AAMIR QURESHI

The Middle East Channel

Tunisians gather for the funeral of slain opposition leader amid a general strike

Tens of thousands of people have gathered in the Tunisian capital of Tunis for the funeral of opposition leader Chokri Belaid who was killed on Wednesday outside his home by an unknown gunman. Belaid was a popular human rights activist and a staunch critic of the government which is led by the Islamist Ennahda party. Tunisia's unions have blamed the government, but Ennahda has denied accusations and condemned the killing. Protests and clashes have broken out across Tunisia. One police officer has been killed and another is in a coma. According to Tunisian media, over a dozen Ennahda offices were attacked overnight. Unions have called a general strike  to coincide with Belaid's burial. A number of flights have been canceled, and some universities and schools will be closed through the weekend. Adding to tensions and highlighting divisions within the ruling party, Ennahda rejected a proposal on Thursday by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to form a national unity government, saying the prime minister had not consulted with the party prior to making the announcement.

Syria

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta acknowledged for the first time he backed arming the Syrian opposition. His remarks while testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committed showed divisions within the U.S. administration over Syria policy. Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the plan developed by former C.I.A director David Petraeus to arm carefully vetted Syrian opposition fighters. However, the White House vetoed it. The U.S. officials who supported the plan have either left the administration or are about to depart, other than General Dempsey. Meanwhile, clashes have continued on Friday in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Heavy clashes were reported at the Hermalleh junction of the ring road south of Jobar as government forces are fighting for areas overtaken by opposition fighters. Government air strikes were reported around the districts of Jobar, Qaboun, and Barzeh. According to activists, 46 people were killed on Thursday. Additionally, after 16 days of fighting, regime forces took back the town of Karnaz, on the strategic highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo.

Headlines

  • Four car bombings in two outdoor markets in Shiite regions of Iraq have killed an estimated 31 people and wounded dozens more amid rising sectarian tensions.
  • Yemeni President Hadi called on Iran to stop arming militant groups in Yemen and requested that the U.N. Security Council investigate a ship seized by authorities with alleged Iranian-made weapons.
  • The International Criminal Court has ordered Libya to hand over former Qaddafi spy chief Abdullah Senussi for trial at The Hague.

Arguments and Analysis

Soviet lessons for the Arab world (Anne Applebaum, The National Post)

"Much has changed in North Africa since the winter of 2011. But a lot more has not. To understand this, it's worth looking at other countries that have undergone similarly radical changes. In post-communist Europe, for example, countries that faced similar problems took very different paths after they elected democratic governments in 1990. Yet some fell into economic stagnation or political turmoil while others thrived.

Neither politics nor economics alone explains the differences. On the contrary, the factor most closely linked to stability and growth is human: Those countries that had an "alternative elite" - a cadre of people who had worked together in the past, who had thought about government and who were at some level prepared to take it over - were far more likely both to carry out radical reforms and to persuade the population to accept them. Hungary, Poland - and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states - all benefited from the presence of people who had been thinking about change, and organizing to carry it out, for a long time. The Polish opposition had created the Solidarity trade union in the early 1980s. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel had been advocating and promoting democratic values since the '70s. Hungarian and Polish economists had spent a decade discussing how it might be possible to decentralize a centrally planned economy."

Egypt's incompetent politics turn citizens against the state (Issandr El Amrani, The National)

"By focusing so much on tactical advantages and deal-making, Egypt's politicians forgot about the revolutionaries. The Brotherhood only cares about securing its recently acquired power, and is willing to give up almost everything to do so: give the army autonomy (even though the Brotherhood joined forces with others against this in 2011), reconcile with a police force that continues to act with total impunity (even though the primary victim of this unreformed force under Mubarak was the Brotherhood), negotiate deals for corrupt businessmen to return to the country (even though fighting corruption was the Brotherhood's battle cry for years), and so on.

The opposition, rather than positioning itself against the Brotherhood's dealmaking and providing leadership to the many Egyptians who feel they are unrepresented, pushes the military to rein in the Brotherhood and focuses on narrow gains: a chance to rewrite the constitution and a place in a national-unity government. What is worse, some of these demands are completely out of touch with reality: some speak of early presidential elections, others of banning the Brotherhood. Yet no one has proposed a comprehensive plan for transitional justice, or reform of the security services, or a policy to address the needs of the majority of Egyptians that live under or barely above the poverty line.

The disconnect between Egypt's political class and ordinary people is staggering. This is not just the protesters who, fed up with two years of broken promises and self-interested leaders, are turning increasingly militant and unruly. It is also the ordinary citizen who, while often opposing the disruptive protests, has lost all confidence in the political class's ability to manage the country and rise to the historic challenge of the 2011 uprising."

---By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/FETHI BELAID