The Middle East Channel

U.S. says it believes Syria has used chemical weapons

U.S. officials have stated they believe that the Syrian government has used chemicals weapons, which may bring into question President Barack Obama's "red line" on Syria. In a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday, the White House stated that U.S. intelligence agencies assessed "with varying degrees of confidence" that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin gas on a small scale. Several officials went further to say that the intelligence agencies expressed medium to high confidence of their assessment. According to officials, the assessment was based on tests from soil samples and blood drawn from people who had been injured in the attacks in March near Aleppo and Damascus. The White House, however, is treading cautiously and said that "given the stakes involved" it would need "credible and corroborated facts" before Obama would take action. During his visit to Jerusalem last month, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for U.S. involvement. U.S. administration officials said that the Pentagon has prepared a variety of options intended to secure chemical weapons stockpiles. A White House official said, "all options are on the table in terms of our response." The United States is joining Israel, France, and Britain in suggesting that the Assad regime has deployed chemical weapons. British Prime Minister David Cameron said there is "limited but growing evidence" that government forces have used chemical weapons, adding that "It is extremely serious, this is a war crime." 

Headlines  

  • The Israeli military reported Thursday it shot down a drone off its northern coast near the border with Lebanon, bringing suspicions upon Hezbollah, which has denied responsibility.
  • Iraqi soldiers have retaken the Sunni town of Suleiman Beg after gunmen retreated; meanwhile a roadside bomb killed four people outside a Sunni mosque in southern Baghdad, in four days of escalated violence.
  • After nearly three decades of fighting, which has caused the deaths of about 40,000 people, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has said it will withdraw from Turkey beginning May 8.
  • Jerusalem's district court ruled Thursday that women could not be arrested for praying at the Western Wall wearing prayer shawls, a practice Orthodox Jews say is reserved for men.
  • Egypt's Pope Tawdros II, in his first interview since eight people were killed earlier this month in Muslim and Christian sectarian violence, said the Muslim Brotherhood led government is neglecting Christians

Arguments and Analysis

Algeria's big secret (Borzou Daraghi, Gulf News)

"Algerian intellectuals like to spin a narrative in the smokey cafés of the graciously rotting capital. In hushed tones, they tell of the bright, ambitious elites who left the coastal cities for the densely forested mountains to fight against the French occupiers in the 1950s. But the commanders rebuffed the clever young men, dispatching them instead to Paris, Lyon or Lille to finish their studies and prepare for the day when the French would head home and they would run the country.

In Europe, they were recruited into one of several secretive Algerian exile groups that connived against each other and fought bloody internecine wars. Once the French left, the young men returned home trained not to run the country but to build the sophisticated security networks that run Algeria's foreign and domestic affairs and, critics say, prevent it from making progress.

"In Algeria, power likes to hide," says a political scientist in Algiers. "The military and security forces have come to the conviction that they have to work in a hidden way, that they have to practise power but never in the light, and they try to resolve all domestic and international problems using secret services rather than going through public institutions."

The intellectuals' story of the origins of the old men who run Algeria goes some way towards explaining the intensity with which the country's murky elite remain absorbed in their own power games. It also explains why such a wealthy and vast country is unable to break from its history, build on its energy revenues and take a leadership role in the region."

Like Israel, Palestinians must also learn the lessons of South Africa (Gideon Levy, Haaretz)

"PRETORIA - Not only Israelis but Palestinians, too, must learn the lessons of South Africa. The struggle of the black population focused on one issue: universal vote. Nelson Mandela's demand for "one person, one vote" was more than a slogan, it was a strategic goal. It became reality on April 27th, 19 years ago, when the first multiracial elections were held. Ever since, democracy has been safeguarded, elections are held regularly and the new constitution is upheld and guides this state, despite its hardships and complexities.

... Of no less importance was the dissidents' unity. The Palestinians, so far, have failed on that score. But the most important factor in South Africa's success was the agreed-upon goal - one person, one vote. It is about time the Palestinians adopt this goal. It is time for them to understand that the two-state dream is becoming impossible. That the occupation is stronger than them, that the settlements are already too large and that the Palestinian state, even if established, will be no more than a group of Bantustans separated by the "settlement blocs" that grew to monstrous proportions and have won consensus approval from Israelis and the international community.

It is time, dear Palestinians, to change strategy. Not to fight the occupation or the settlements; they're here to stay. It is time to follow the South African example and demand one basic right: one person, one vote. "

--By Jennifer T. Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque destroyed in clashes

The minaret of Syria's famous Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, which was built between the 8th and 12th centuries, has been destroyed during clashes between government troops and opposition forces who have traded blame. The mosque is in Aleppo's Old City, which has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. UNESCO described it as "one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world." The minaret dates back to the 11th century. Syria's state news agency, SANA, reported fighters from the Islamist al-Nusra Front caused the destruction, while an Aleppo-based activist said a Syrian tank shell had "totally destroyed" the minaret. The destruction came just over a week after the minaret from the 7th century Omari Mosque was destroyed in the southern city of Daraa. Heavy fighting was also reported near Aleppo on Tuesday over control of the Minnigh military airbase. According to Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "The rebels, who had laid siege to the airport for months now, entered it for the first time around dawn." Meanwhile, the Syrian government has waged a campaign to convince the United States that it is on the wrong side in supporting the opposition in the Syrian civil war. Regime officials allowed New York Times journalists limited access to Damascus in attempts to convince the West that the opposition is dominated by Islamist extremists. Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi said, "We are partners in fighting terrorism."

Headlines

  • At least 19 people, including Iraqi police and Sunni militants, were killed in an attack by gunmen in Mosul, and gunmen have overtaken Suleiman Beg, a Sunni town north of Baghdad, in increased violence sparked by a raid Tuesday on a Sunni protest camp.
  • The British government has signed a treaty with Jordan, which, if ratified, will permit Britain to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada and will ensure Jordan will provide him with a fair trial.
  • One of two suspects in an alleged plot to derail a passenger train in Canada, Chiheb Esseghairer, rejected Canada's authority to judge him in court on Wednesday saying the criminal code is not a "holy book." 

Arguments and Analysis

Is Iraq next? (The Daily Star)

"...But the horrific violence that has erupted over the past few days in several Iraqi cities should serve as a reminder that the Arab world isn't the same place as it was at the beginning of 2011. The sectarian and other fault lines were there before, but when Iraqi government forces respond to public protests by using bullets and helicopters, they have acted in the same, inflexible and violent way that has been used by authoritarian Arab regimes.

There are now fears that the repression in Iraq, which has unfortunately targeted a single community, could degenerate into all-out civil strife. Iraqi politicians must remember that their country continues to be ravaged by the scourge of Al-Qaeda militants. Also, Iraq's massive oil reserves set it apart from the countries that have experienced the so-called "Arab Spring." The stakes are much higher in Iraq, which is already being tested by the bloody unrest next door in Syria.

The Syria conflict has long been seen as a potential source of tension and violence in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, but the events in Iraq, whose Sunni community is already incensed at the perceived bias of the central government, should provide everyone with plenty to worry about."

A closer military union is key to Gulf security (The National)

"The GCC was born out of the chaos of the Iran-Iraq war, a recognition, made in Abu Dhabi in 1981, that Gulf states are stronger standing together. Yet in many ways, the evolution of the security bloc stalled once the war ended. Inter-operability of military hardware and technology are keys to mutual defence, but in past decades Gulf neighbours have established much of their military hardware, software and strategies unilaterally.

American military officials have been touring the region in recent weeks making these points. There's a reason for that: selling such sophisticated weaponry to close allies bolsters a recovering US economy. But more importantly locally, it gives Arab allies the ability to offer a counterweight to regional threats. If conducted in a coordinated fashion, the goals of collective security would be more easily reached.

Nato, the military union that emerged after the Second World War, is one example of how the GCC could organise. That alliance ensures that mutual and collective security comes first, with the caveat that there should not be military dominance by any one member. Indeed, the GCC could consider some form of Nato model or even Nato representation as part of its security pact. Moreover, cooperation between the GCC states on military matters would have knock-on effects in other areas, such as the fight against human trafficking and drugs smuggling. Even today Nato considers itself both a military and political bloc of states."

Syria's civil war: The most brutal of them all (Pomegranate Blog, The Economist)

"ANTONIO GUTERRES is a man of experience. A former prime minister of Portugal, he has run the UN's High Commission for Refugees since 2005, dealing with crises from Afghanistan to Congo and Iraq. But of all the humanitarian catastrophes he has witnessed, nothing has proven as appalling or as dangerous as what is happening in Syria.

"This is the most brutal, even with very brutal conflicts elsewhere," Mr Guterres has said. "If one looks at the impact on the population, or the percentage of the total population in need, I have no doubt that since the end of the Cold War it is the worst," he told the Guardian, a British newspaper. "And it will become even worse still if there is no solution. My belief is that if we take all of these elements, then this is the most dramatic humanitarian crisis that we have ever faced. Then if we look at the geopolitical implications, I have no doubt that this is the most serious that we have ever dealt with."

...The degeneration of what started as a peaceful, broad-based popular uprising into a vicious sectarian war continues apace. A recent declaration of allegiance to al-Qaeda by one of the most disciplined and successful rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, confirms a tilt towards Islamist extremism among Syria's Sunnis, who make up three-quarters of the population and have borne a disproportionate toll of the fighting. The danger of the country's misery infecting the wider region was also highlighted when several prominent Sunni religious leaders in neighbouring Lebanon issued a joint fatwa calling for jihad in Syria. This came in response to the growing involvement of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia, in fighting on the side of the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, unidentified gunmen abducted two senior Christian clerics on April 22nd, the Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo."

--By Jennifer T. Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images