The Middle East Channel

Friends of Syria meet with opposition for talks in London

Arab and Western officials have begun a meeting in London on Tuesday with Syrian opposition representatives in efforts to encourage a "united position" and convince the opposition to participate in Geneva II talks. The U.S. State Department has said the emergence of the al Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is jeopardizing efforts for a negotiated resolution to the Syrian conflict. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "The longer this conflict goes on, the more sectarian it becomes." Additionally, he stressed the importance of a moderate opposition, "because if they don't have a role, then all the Syrian people have got left is a choice between Assad and extremists." The main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is expected to decide on November 1 whether it will attend the proposed Geneva peace conference, although the largest faction within the coalition said it would not participate. The opposition has insisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. In an interview on Monday, Assad said he didn't see any reason why he shouldn't run for a third term in the 2014 elections. Additionally, Assad expressed doubt over the U.S. and Russian peace conference saying the "factors are not yet in place" for the initiative to be successful. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, though Assad had made recent gains, it did not assure him a place in a new Syrian government.

Headlines

  • A report issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claims U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan may have broken international human rights law.
  • Polls opened across Israel Tuesday for municipal elections with races in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Elad, and Tel Aviv gaining attention, though Palestinians are expected to largely boycott.
  • Israeli forces killed Palestinian Islamic Jihad member Mohammed Assi, wanted for suspected involvement in a 2012 Tel Aviv bus bombing.
  • Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief said he plans to reduce cooperation with the United States to arm and train Syrian opposition forces in protest of U.S. Middle East policy.
  • A Qatari court has upheld a 15-year prison sentence for poet Mohammed al-Ajami who was found guilty of insulting the emir and anti-government incitement.
  • The EU has agreed to resume membership talks with Turkey in November after a three-year hiatus.

Arguments and Analysis

'Saudi Arabia and the UN Why the snub?' (The Economist - Pomegranate Blog)

"King Abdullah, now 89, is known for his occasional bursts of frank impatience. Frustration has been building in the kingdom for months, not to say years, over the perceived unreliability of its main ally for the past seven decades, the United States. But two recent straws have broken the camel's back. The Obama administration's sudden rapprochement with Iran -- a country the Saudis see as a hostile Shia power and their historical rival -- risks unravelling years of patient Saudi efforts at sustaining an anti-Iranian front. And America's shying away from military action to punish the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians represents a possibly fatal fumble for the anti-regime team that Saudi Arabia strongly backs. Not only did the pro-rebel allies lose a golden opportunity to deliver a death-blow to Mr Assad, as the Saudis see it. American cowardice has legitimised the narrative of al-Qaeda-style radicals, who now threaten to take over the whole of the armed opposition force whose moderate wing the Saudis have assiduously -- and expensively -- cultivated.

The decision to reject Security Council membership may not simply reflect an angry fit of kingly pique, however. Saudi Arabia has always preferred closed-doors diplomacy to open forums. A seat on the UN council would have risked exposing, repeatedly and in full public view, the widening policy gap between the kingdom and its closest ally. This would not only represent a break with tradition, but could amount to a strategic mistake that could prove difficult to correct. As if the secretive Saudis needed reminding of the perils of greater scrutiny, deliberations at another UN body, the Human Rights Council, on October 21st, singled out the kingdom for criticism. Two leading watchdog groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, submitted excoriating reports, noting the country's failure to address discrimination against women and religious minorities, and persecution of dissidents."

'On the Ground With Syria's News Smugglers' (Matthew Shaer, The New Republic)

"In September, the United Nations released a report confirming that surface-to-surface rockets carrying sarin gas had indeed struck Ghouta. But it was the shaky, fuzzy videos -- carried by almost every Western news channel -- that captured the world's attention. Never before have we been so dependent on courageous citizens, rather than professional journalists, for what we know about a war. The motives of these amateur reporters, though, are varied and complex and often difficult to discern.

Syria is now the most dangerous country in the world for reporters: According to the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, at least 114 journalists have died there since the spring of 2011. Among the dead are seasoned correspondents like the American Marie Colvin, who was killed in Homs in 2012, and freelancers like the Frenchman Olivier Voisin, who was wounded in February near Idlib and later died in Turkey. Meanwhile, 16 foreign journalists are officially missing, along with an untold number of fixers and translators. Because of voluntary media blackouts -- enforced to avoid encouraging would-be kidnappers -- the real number is almost certainly higher.

As the conflict continues, Syria is becoming more dangerous still. By one estimate, there are now more than 1,000 rebel groups operating in the country, some secular and some -- such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS -- decidedly jihadist. Regime forces have pushed back the rebels in key areas, and the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, is often unable to protect reporters as it once did, or ensure safe passage through rebel-held areas."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

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