The Middle East Channel

Yemeni warplane crashes in Sanaa killing at least 12 people

A Yemeni fighter plane crashed in the capital Sanaa on Tuesday, killing an estimated 12 people, and injuring at least 11 others. The aircraft, a Russian SU-22, was on a training mission, according to Yemeni officials. It crashed into a residential area near Change Square, the site of anti-government protests during the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to one security official, the pilot ejected from the plane. Rescue efforts are ongoing and Yemen's interior minister said the cause of the crash is under investigation.

Syria

A rocket attack hit an opposition held district of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, killing at least 20 people, according to activists. The missile was reportedly a Scud-type rocket increasingly used by the Syrian government. The blast hit three adjacent buildings. An estimated 25 people remain missing and are expected to be under the rubble. On Monday, United Nations investigators called for Syria to be referred the International Criminal Court (ICC). The panel released a 131-page report which finds that the two year conflict in Syria has become "increasingly sectarian," militarized, and radicalized by the growing presence of foreign fighters. Human rights investigator Carla del Ponte said, "We are pressuring the international community to act because it's time to act." Although all sides in the conflict are accused of committing war crimes, the report lays heavy blame on the Assad regime for perpetrating war crimes. Earlier calls for referring Syria to the Hague were ignored because five members of the U.N. Security Council were split on the issue. Meanwhile, the European Union renewed sanctions on Syria, including a blanket arms embargo, but agreed to provide additional non-lethal aid for the opposition "for the protection of civilians."

Headlines  

  • Turkey has released 10 Kurds, including six former mayors, with alleged links to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), thereby forwarding the peace process.
  • Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said talks to form a new technocrat government have failed, but he noted progress in dialogue and will meet with President Moncef Marzouki on Tuesday.
  • Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli soldiers on Tuesday as hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have gone on a hunger strike.
  • Protests and a general strike have continued for the third day in the Egyptian city Port Said over the deaths of about 50 people in demonstrations last month. 

Arguments and Analysis

Egypt's Opposition Needs Unity-and Leadership (Seifeldin Fawzy, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"Where is the Giuseppe Garibaldi, Simón Bolívar, or Mustapha Kamel of the January 25 revolution? The lack of an outright leader has badly harmed the opposition movement's ability to impact politics. In the last two years, Egyptian liberals and leftists have stumbled ten steps back for every single step forward.

The general air of uncertainty and confusion was highlighted in an episode in May 2012; Egypt made history when the first ever televised American-style presidential debate took place, pitting former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa against ex-Brotherhood politician Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Both failed to impress. Despite predictions that they were the front-runners in a field of thirteen candidates, Aboul Fotouh and Moussa ended up fourth and fifth, respectively. Given both candidates' poor performance, the question lingers: where are the liberals in democratic Egypt?

The centrist and liberal opposition, a fractured, disoriented bloc, features big names but not much in terms of influence. Instead of establishing a union of leftist and centrist players to create a credible movement, there is simply a void filled with independently inefficient parties, hesitant to merge and unable to have a significant effect on the political scene whilst acting alone."

Clueless in Gaza: The ongoing blowback from George W. Bush's secret war on Hamas (John B. Judis, The New Republic)

"While Obama sought initially to press Israel to conclude an agreement with the Palestinians, he continued to harbor the illusion that it could be done while pretending that Hamas does not exist. Obama also followed the Bush administration in rejecting the idea of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah when the two parties again agreed to reconcile early last year. The agreement fell apart-and not least because of an absence of American support. Will Obama change course in his second term and attempt to deal with Hamas and Fatah? In Obama's State of the Union address, he managed to mention Israel's security, but not the peace process or the Palestinians. Evidently, the administration is now denying the existence not only of Hamas, but of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. That suggests that the lessons of Bush's disaster in Gaza have still not sunk in."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/MOHAMMED HUWAIS

Marc Lynch

Debating Jordan's Challenges


"375,000 Syrians have come to Jordan since March 2011, which is 6-7% of our population. In American numbers, at that rate, this is 17-18 million people."  The spillover effects of the Syria conflict were very much on the mind of Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh during a wide-ranging conversation over coffee in Washington last week.  His government's focus for Syria was very much on finding a political transition which, he said, "everybody realizes at this stage is the only game in town."  His other primary preoccupation was to advance a narrative of successful reform following Parliamentary elections against my more cynical perspective.

On the problem of Syrian refugees, Judeh and I had little about which to disagree. Jordan has good reason to be concerned about the impact of Syrian refugees on the Kingdom. The flow from Syria has been more intense than the wave of Iraqi refugees during the last decade:  faster, more concentrated, and with no end in sight.  The early accommodations for a much smaller refugee flow have struggled to keep pace, and Jordanians are feeling the strain from hosting this massive influx (things have only gotten worse since this sharply reported FP account by Nicholas Seeley a few months ago).  

Judeh presented at length the plight of the Syrian refugees in the Kingdom, who often arrive in desperate conditions, fleeing fighting and needing urgent medical care.  For a long time, he said, 500 to 700 people a night crossed the border.  But now it is up to 3,000 to 5,000 a night.    Jordan never established a refugee camp for Iraqi refugees, preferring that they disperse through the cities, but has already established one for Syrians (and has plans for a second).  Conditions in that camp have been grim during a harsh winter. And while there is a great deal of "goodwill" in the international community, including substantial pledges of humanitarian aid at the recent Kuwait donors crisis, the cold fact is that the international community has failed to deliver needed assistance for these refugees.  Jordanian officials estimate costs of nearly $500 million in 2013 in energy, food, water, education, health and subsidies. They should get it.

The impact of the refugee flow and fears of militarized spillover give some urgency to Jordan's efforts to find some solution.  Foreign Minister Judeh repeatedly emphasized the goal of an inclusive political transition agreement for Syria, and brushed aside questions about possible plans for arming rebels or no-fly zones.  He worried about the potential territorial breakup of Syria, which he described as "a danger that we should avoid at all cost."   He told me the same that he told several other interviewers: "for all intents and purposes this is a civil war of a political nature," but the worst scenario would be that it devolves into a true "ethnic sectarian civil war."  

For Jordan, he insisted, "what is most important to us as a country contiguous to Syria is to preserve the territorial integrity of Syria, to do everything in our power to ensure that whatever transition takes place in Syria is all inclusive." Judeh seemed encouraged by recent signals from Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, of a willingness to engage in talks, and supportive of the ongoing efforts of United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar al-Brahimi.  He couldn't point to signs that the Assad regime was interested, but emphasized again: "I think everybody realizes that at this stage the political transition is the only game in town."

Our conversation ranged over a wide range of issues besides Syria, of course.  He emphasized yet again Jordan's view of the urgency of engaging on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and emphatically dismissed any suggestions that Jordan wanted any role in the West Bank other than one supporting the creation of a sovereign, independent and territorially contiguous Palestinian state. (I joked that I should program my recorder to automatically replay his rejection of Israeli ideas about the "Jordanian Option" every six months.)  He also emphasized the serious economic stakes involved in Jordan's ongoing discussions with Egypt over its failure to provide promised levels of natural gas, upon which the Jordanian economy is highly dependent.

But the lion's share of our conversation following the discussion of Syria focused on Jordan's domestic politics, which turned into a long, interesting and productive (if inconclusive) debate.  As Judeh knew well, I've been publicly and privately skeptical about the extent and implications of Jordan's reforms, after long years of watching royal promises of change fail to materialize.  Why, I asked, should we expect these reforms to be any different from the repeated cycle of past empty promises, to significantly empower the elected Parliament or to meaningfully change the nature of monarchical authority? 

Judeh was keen to convince me that these reforms were different.  He stressed that Jordan had met the benchmarks it laid out for itself in the reform process: revising the constitution, enacting relevant laws, establishing an independent election commission and a constitutional court, and holding elections.  "This marks the end of the constitutional phase of the reforms," he argued, and the beginning of a new phase of consolidating Parliamentary government.  He portrayed the process of government formation now unfolding, in consultation with Parliamentary blocs, as an historic change.  Now, he insisted, we would see the unfolding of a new culture of Parliamentary government and the crystallization of genuine political parties and blocs.  Who could have imagined, he argued, that the King would go before Parliament and demand that it launch a "White Revolution"? 

But why would this be any different than before, I pressed him?  He acknowledged past failures, but argued that this time the reforms were irreversible, fully embedded in the constitution and new institutions and fully supported by the King.  He argued that the new institutions and authorities embedded in the Constitution would prevent any relapse;  I countered that the law hadn't really prevented government by emergency law from 2001-2003.  He pointed to the many new faces in Parliament and the high electoral turnout; I noted that the "new" Parliament selected as Speaker Saad Hayel Srour.. for the sixth time.  He pointed to the high turnout and the genuinely impressive performance of the new Independent Election Commission;  I pointed out the continuing controversy around the election law and gerrymandered districts, and the fragmented and conservative Parliament it produced.  (For more on this, see my conversation with Yale's Ellen Lust, who was in Jordan for the election.) And around it went.

The bottom line is that the Palace is clearly feeling its oats on reform after the election, and thinks it has a positive story to sell at home and abroad. Casual observers will likely be easily convinced by the narrative they are offering. Skeptics like me are going to want to see a lot more: the new institutions actually functioning to constrain executive power, the Parliament actually behaving like a Parliament, and so on.  Judeh's trump card was that after all that had happened in the region, the overthrown regimes and wars and economic crises, "we are still here. We must be doing something right."  Perhaps. 

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images