The Middle East Channel

Syrian opposition fighters capture airbase and push for Deir al-Zour

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, opposition fighters overtook the Al-Jarrah military airbase near the northern city of Aleppo after days of fighting. While this is not the first airbase captured by opposition forces, it is reportedly the first time they have seized useable MiG fighter jets. Other bases had only contained damaged aircraft. Meanwhile, opposition fighters, including Al-Qadisiyah Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra, have launched an offensive on the city of Deir al-Zour. According to the leader of Al-Qadisiyah, Ibrahim Abu Baker, opposition fighters have already taken control of the countryside, and are now surrounding the city. If they succeed in overtaking Deir al-Zour, it will be the first time opposition forces will be in control of an entire province. On Monday, a minibus exploded at the Cilvegozu border crossing between Syria and Turkey killing at least 12 people and injuring dozens of others. According to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, "A vehicle loaded with bombs was able to reach our customs gate because the customs gate on the Syrian side is not working and is not being controlled." No one has taken responsibility for the attack, but some activists say it might have targeted George Sabra, vice president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, who crossed the border just minutes prior.

Headlines

  • Iran has reported it is converting some of its enriched uranium into reactor fuel, which could reduce stockpiles for potential weaponization, ahead of meetings on the country's contentious nuclear development program.
  • Clashes erupted between police and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt during a rally marking the second anniversary of the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
  • Yemenis gathered to celebrate the second anniversary of protests that led to the ouster of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with two people killed in the southern city of Aden.
  • Tunisia's secular Ettakatol party has backed Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's proposal to set up a cabinet of technocrats, following the killing of opposition leader Chokri Belaid. 

Arguments and Analysis

Iran's Global Business Is Murder Inc. (Michael Oren, Wall Street Journal)

"A bomb explodes in Burgas, Bulgaria, leaving five Israeli tourists and a local driver dead. Mysteriously marked ammunition kills countless Africans in civil wars. Conspirators plot to blow up a crowded cafe and an embassy in Washington, D.C. A popular prime minister is assassinated, and a despised dictator stays in power by massacring his people by the tens of thousands.

Apart from their ruthlessness, these events might appear unrelated. And yet the dots are inextricably linked. The connection is Iran.

In 25 cities across five continents, community centers, consulates, army barracks and houses of worship have been targeted for destruction. Thousands have been killed. The perpetrators are agents of Hezbollah and the Quds Force, sometimes operating separately and occasionally in unison. All take their orders from Tehran."

Obsessive Are the Peacemakers (Steven Cook, Council on Foreign Relations)

"Lost in all the reporting and blogging about President Obama's planned March visit to Israel were the first phone calls his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, made even before entering office.  Even before figuring out how to use his new email, learning the way to the cafeteria, and filling out "Emergency Contact" forms, Secretary Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.  Perhaps America's new chief diplomat was merely extending a courtesy to important Middle East allies or maybe he was giving them a heads-up that the White House was going to announce the president's visit to Israel and the West Bank or perchance Secretary Kerry wants to have a go at making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Of these three possibilities, the second seems most likely, but word on the street is that the United States or at least the State Department is about to get back into the peace process game.  As one diplomat related, "Well, it is better than doing nothing.  Maybe Kerry will get lucky. You never know."  Yes, indeed, you never know, but there are a few things the secretary of state should keep in mind as he declares that peace is possible within two years, begins his shuttle diplomacy, offers bridging proposals, admonishes the parties against unilateral actions, calls for a summit, builds confidence, secludes himself and negotiators at Wye River/Shepherdstown/Camp David, writes a road map, and declares his optimism that the parties are ready for a breakthrough:"

America in Strategic Retreat from the Middle East (Riad Kahwaji & Theodore Karasik, INEGMA)

"Clearly, America is in strategic retreat in the region, and the lack of will for Washington to involve itself in future Greater Middle East contingencies is growing stronger. Sequestration, if fully implemented, will kill America's key tools for power projection-Air power, navy and special operations-if they are required. And the impact of sequestration will be global, not regional. Providing intelligence to allies and using drones from behind will only weaken America's voice when Washington needs to be heard during a crisis or a conflict. In the Greater Middle East, Washington will only be interested in keeping mil-mil relations healthy despite reductions, tolerate disruption in pol-pol discussions, and concentrate on developing a ballistic missile shield against Iranian or other missiles. Clearly, technology and robots-from afar-- is now America's weapons of choice.

Consequently, we need to ask ourselves: What will happen to the U.S. military presence in the Middle East if the sequestration is implemented? How much will the effect be on the Arab-Iranian balance of power? What will happen to NATO? How will NATO be perceived in the region taking into consideration that most Arab officials believe the U.S. is NATO? So there are many questions regarding sequestration's impact on U.S. foreign policy and Washington's international priorities that need to be addressed by the current Obama Administration. It is true that aggressive and unilateral actions often lead to troubles and wars, but also indifference and over caution sometimes leads to inviting undesired troubles and wars. A middle ground must be sought."

---Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

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