The Middle East Channel

Opposition forces make significant gains in Syria over the past week

Opposition forces have claimed control of the northeast province of Hasaka which produces most of the country's oil. Opposition fighters have reportedly captured the town of Shadadah, near the province's capital, seizing state security and military intelligence compounds as well as the Jbeysa oil fields. The attack was led by the Islamist opposition group al-Nusra front. In three days of fighting, an estimated 100 government soldiers were killed, as well as 30 al-Nusra fighters and dozens of civilian employees of the Syrian Petroleum Company. An estimated 40,000 people have fled the town. This attack has not yet been verified, but if true, it comes amid other recent strategic gains for opposition fighters. Opposition forces captured Syria's largest hydropower dam and a military airbase in the north, along with undamaged aircrafts. Additionally, rebel fighters reported shooting down three government air force warplanes on Thursday. If verified, it could be the largest one-day loss of warplanes for the regime since the beginning of the conflict nearly two years ago. Meanwhile, government forces and opposition fighters have continued battling for Aleppo's international airport, where over 150 regime troops and rebels have been killed.

Headlines

  • In a policy shift, the United States has called for the release of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi from house arrest ahead of Iran's presidential elections.
  • Egypt's main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, and the Salafist al-Nour Party have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Hisham Zandil's cabinet and the formation of a new government.
  • Suspicions are growing over the case of Australian-born suspected Mossad agent Ben Zygier. He was reportedly involved in an Australian investigation into the use of Australian passports by Israeli intelligence.
  • A police officer was killed as protests and violence escalated in Bahrain on Thursday after the death of a teenager. 

Arguments and Analysis

The hawks were wrong: Iraq is worse off now (Mehdi Hasan, The New Statesman)

"The Iraq war was a strategic disaster - or, as the Tory minister Kenneth Clarke put it in a recent BBC radio discussion, "the most disas­trous foreign policy decision of my lifetime . . . worse than Suez". The invasion and occupation of the country undermined the moral standing of the western powers; empowered Iran and its proxies; heightened the threat from al-Qaeda at home and abroad; and sent a clear signal to "rogue" regimes that the best (the only?) means of deterring a pre-emptive, US-led attack was to acquire weapons of mass destruction (see Korea, North).

There may have been a strong moral case for toppling the tyrant and liberating the Iraqi people - but there was a much stronger moral case against doing so. Brutal and vicious as Saddam's reign had been, a "humanitarian intervention" could not just be justified in March 2003, given the complete absence of an ongoing or imminent mass slaughter of Iraqis. Some of us warned that the cost of action, in blood and treasure, would far outweigh the cost of inaction.

And so it came to pass. The greatest weapon of mass destruction turned out to be the invasion itself. Over the past ten years, Iraqis have witnessed the physical, social and economic destruction of their country - the aerial demolition of schools, homes and hospitals; the siege of cities such as Fallujah; US-led massacres at Haditha, Mahmudiyah and Balad; the biggest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948."

Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Israel and the Palestinians (Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic)

"In January, the government of Israel announced that it plans to build a fence along its frontier with Syria, because the Syrian army appears to have receded from the border area and jihadist forces have moved in. It is no wonder that the anarchy and the atrocity in Syria causes consternation in Israel; but this announcement left me with a heavy heart for another reason. With the erection of this northern barrier, Israel will be almost completely fenced in. The fences-in their most prominent locations, the high concrete slabs-that demarcate Israel from the Palestinians to the east are the most famous, or infamous, of these partitions; originally Yitzhak Rabin's idea in the early 1990s, when "separation" was the regnant fantasy of Israel's doves, it was begun in earnest in 2002, and 62 percent of its projected length of 440 miles has been completed. To the south, Israel has constructed a steel and wire barrier that runs the 150-mile length of its border with Sinai, which has now become a perilous and ungovernable waste. As it approaches the Mediterranean, this new fence will meet the old fence that Israel built around Gaza, 32 miles long with a buffer zone. Israel long ago put up a fence along its border with Lebanon. The only open border remaining-aside from the glistening apolitical sea to the west-is with Jordan to the southeast, from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. The state is walled.

There are two ways to understand these comprehensive fortifications. The first is that they make Israel safer. Since the threats encircle Israel, the barriers encircle Israel. Their efficacy from the standpoint of security cannot be denied. The wall that runs north to south through the West Bank has spectacularly reduced Israel's vulnerability to homicidal infiltrations, even if the barrier with Gaza has done nothing to deter the violence of the rockets that fly above it. Physical threats must be countered physically. (Israel is not the only country that has reached such a conclusion: the United States, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and other polities have also resorted to fences and walls.) It was not until Palestinian "resistance" chose to rely on suicide bombers that the big, cold wall was raised. A criticism of Israel's "security fence"-the common Israeli appellation for what Palestinians call a "wall of racial separation"-that does not take seriously its success in thwarting terrorism cannot itself be taken seriously. Of course such criticisms abound: a wall between peoples is an ugly thing, though a massacre-and a strategy of massacre-is even uglier. About the racial character of the wall the Palestinians are wrong, but there is a second way, as I say, to understand the wall, and it has nothing to do with Israeli safety."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Tensions increase in Bahrain after death of teenager

Tensions in Bahrain have increased after the death of a teenage boy during protests marking the second anniversary of Bahrain's uprising. According to the main opposition group, al-Wefaq, the 16-year-old boy was killed by injuries sustained from close range birdshot. The Bahraini government has announced an investigation into the boy's death. Rioters have blocked roads and clashed with security forces, while opposition groups have called for a general strike. The protests could jeopardize reconciliation talks that began Sunday between opposition groups and the government. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has called for the release of 22 activists, including human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who were detained by the government. A government spokesperson responded to Amnesty International's allegations saying "The Government has reiterated several times that there [are] no political prisoners currently in Bahrain. The Government supports the right to express oneself freely, as long as the mode of expression does not violate the freedoms of others as stipulated in Article 29 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights."

Syria

Fierce clashes have been reported as opposition forces work to overtake Aleppo international airport. Fighting has been occurring at the airfield for weeks and on Wednesday opposition fighters took control of most of the "Brigade 80" military base protecting it. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, regime warplanes have bombarded rebel positions near the airport with airstrikes. If opposition fighters overtake the airport, it will be a major setback for the regime, cutting off supply lines to Aleppo. Beginning his term as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry said he will utilize his past relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a strategy to get the ruler to leave power. Kerry said he understands the "calculations" that drive Assad and believes there are methods that can change them. He said, "Right now President Assad doesn't think he's losing -- and the opposition thinks it's winning." Additionally he reaffirmed that the U.S. administration is seeking a political solution to the Syrian conflict rather than arming opposition forces. Meanwhile, U.N. special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi's deputy Mokhtar Lamani traveled to the country for the first visit of the team in months, meeting with the leader of the opposition Revolutionary Military Council as well as civilian and Christian leaders. They all expressed support for the recent initiative by the head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, to hold direct talks with the government.

Headlines

  • Israel has released some details on "Prisoner X" believed to be Australian born Ben Zygier, saying a dual nationality citizen had been imprisoned under a pseudonym for "security reasons."
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency said it did not reach a deal with Iran in talks on Wednesday on its nuclear development program, with Iran continuing to block access to its Parchin military complex.

Arguments and Analysis

Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge (International Crisis Group)

"The assassination of Chokri Belaïd, a prominent opposition politician, has thrown Tunisia into its worst crisis since the January 2011 ouster of President Ben Ali. Although culprits have yet to be identified, suspicions swiftly turned to individuals with ties to the Salafi movements. Founded or not, such beliefs once again have brought this issue to the fore. Many non-Islamists see ample evidence of the dangers Salafis embody; worse, they suspect that, behind their ostensible differences, Salafis and An-Nahda, the ruling Islamist party, share similar designs. At a time when the country increasingly is polarised and the situation in the Maghreb increasingly shaky, Tunisia must provide differentiated social, ideological and political answers to three distinct problems: the marginalisation of young citizens for whom Salafism - and, occasionally, violence - is an easy way out; the haziness that surrounds both An-Nahda's views and the country's religious identity; and the jihadi threat that ought to be neither ignored, nor exaggerated.

As elsewhere throughout the region, the Salafi phenomenon has been steadily growing - both its so-called scientific component, a quietist type of Islamism that promotes immersion in sacred texts, and its jihadi component, which typically advocates armed resistance against impious forces. It made initial inroads under Ben Ali's authoritarian regime, a response to the repression inflicted on Islamists in general and An-Nahda in particular. A new generation of young Islamists, relatively unfamiliar with An-Nahda, has become fascinated by stories of the Chechen, Iraqi and Afghan resistance."

Toward a New American Policy (Daniel C. Kurtzer, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"The United States has invested heavily in Middle East peacemaking for decades. While the strategic goal has been to achieve a peace settlement, the United States has tended to focus on the essentially tactical objective of bringing about face-to-face negotiations between the parties. With some exceptions-for example, the Clinton Parameters in 2000 and the George W. Bush letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004-administrations have eschewed articulating positions on the substantive outcome the United States seeks. Because of the serious problems confronting the region and the peace process today, it is time for the United States to adopt a new policy, a new strategy, and new tactics.

Why Tilt at Middle East Windmills?

This essay argues for the development of a new, comprehensive American policy and a sustained strategy for advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It advocates for American creativity, flexibility, and initiative in crafting the tactics required to engage the parties and help them approach the required mutual concessions. This argument does not rest on either the inevitability or even the likelihood of early success, nor on the readiness of the parties to overcome legitimate concerns and powerful internal opposition to confront the tough decisions required to make peace. Indeed, there are strong reasons to avoid working on the peace process at all.

However, doing nothing or continuing down the same path that the United States has traveled before-simply trying to get to negotiations-not only will not succeed, it will deepen the challenges the United States faces in the Middle East and it will exacerbate the very conflict that the United States has tried to resolve over many decades. There are hard realities in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that some try to ignore or argue away. It is time to confront those realities and develop a reasonable but also bold policy and diplomatic strategy worthy of American values and interests. Developing a sound policy, a sophisticated strategy, and appropriate tactics to advance the peace process is not tilting at windmills. It is doing what the United States has shown itself capable of doing in the past to advance prospects for peace."

 --By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images