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.


  • 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


The Middle East Channel

Egyptian police clash with Al-Azhar protesters meanwhile gunmen fire on Coptic Christian wedding

Thousands of students have gathered at Egypt's Al-Azhar University Monday calling for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. The protests have continued a day after Egyptian riot police clashed with students, some of whom were reportedly throwing stones, firing tear gas as the demonstrations spread outside of the campus. The protests have come amid a debate over a draft law aimed at severely restricting demonstrations. Meanwhile, up to four people, including an eight-year-old girl, were killed when one or two armed men on motorcycles opened fire on a wedding party outside a Coptic Christian church in the Giza district of Cairo. Egypt's Christian minority has been increasingly targeted since the overthrow of Morsi in July, however this appeared to be the deadliest attack in months. Egypt's Interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi condemned the attack and said security forces are looking for those responsible.


A suicide truck bombing targeting a military checkpoint killed over 30 people, mainly civilians, in the central Syrian city of Hama Sunday. The explosion reportedly ignited dozens of cars as well as a nearby oil tanker. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the al Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front carried out the attack. The suicide bombing came a day after a similar attack killed 16 Syrian forces east of Damascus. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Arab League head Nabil Elaraby announced the long delayed Geneva II peace conference aimed at ending the two and a half year civil war would begin November 23. However, U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi denied the date had been finalized. Turkey has announced that the number of Syrians taking refuge in the country has exceeded 600,000, with 400,000 living outside of refugee camps. Health conditions within Syria have been rapidly deteriorating, and the World Health Organization has recorded a suspected polio outbreak in Deir al-Zour province, which would be the first case reported in 14 years.


  • A seemingly coordinated attack killed five Iraqi security forces outside a police headquarters in Fallujah a day after a suicide bombing killed dozens of people outside a Baghdad café.
  • Nine Lebanese citizens held captive by Syrian rebels for over a year and two Turkish pilots abducted by Lebanese militants were released in a prisoner swap brokered by Lebanese, Turkish, Qatari, and Palestinian officials.
  • The U.N. Human Rights Council is discussing human rights conditions in Saudi Arabia as an Amnesty International report released Monday claims the kingdom has failed to address concerns and is increasing repression.

Arguments and Analysis

'The Last of the Sheikhs?' (Christopher Davidson, The New York Times)

"This summer, disgruntled Saudis took their grievances online in droves, complaining of ever-growing inequality, rising poverty, corruption and unemployment. Their Twitter campaign became one of the world's highest trending topics. It caused great alarm within elite circles in Saudi Arabia and sent ripples throughout the region. The rallying cry that 'salaries are not enough' helped to prove that the monarchy's social contract with its people is now publicly coming unstuck, and on a significant scale.

Many experts believe that the Gulf states have survived the Arab Spring because they are different. After all, they've weathered numerous past storms -- from the Arab nationalist revolutions of the 1950s and '60s to Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait to an Al Qaeda terror campaign in 2003.

But they are not different in any fundamental way. They have simply bought time with petrodollars. And that time is running out.

The sheiks of the Persian Gulf might not face the fate of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya or Hosni Mubarak of Egypt next year, but the system they have created is untenable in the longer term and it could come apart even sooner than many believe."

'The Dilemma of Syria's Alawites' (Joshua Hirsch, The New Yorker Blog)

"Late last month, I spoke by Skype with Louay, a twenty-five-year-old Alawite from Homs. An engineering student, Louay struck me as urbane and gentle, and no fan of Syria's dictatorship. (His Skype profile picture shows him in an expensive puffy winter coat, delicately smoking a cigarette.) When protests first broke out in the Sunni neighborhood near his home, he said, he felt optimistic. 'We saw Tahrir Square in Egypt. It had a great image in Syria -- it had a great effect on all of us.' But he never crossed town to join in the protests. Instead, he listened to the growing strains of sectarianism in the chants, and absorbed the 'collective feeling' among Alawites that they would be targeted alongside the regime.

Since then, he's heard constantly about the terrors committed by Sunni radicals in the opposition, and he has lost friends to the war (‘Am I better than they are?'). Now, he told me with a soft-spoken certainty, he expects to join the military once he finishes his studies. ‘I can't believe that Alawites are fighting just to defend Bashar,' he said. 'But we've come to a situation where we feel like we have to fight to defend our way of life.'"

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber