The Middle East Channel

Explosion near Damascus triggers large blackouts for Syria

Much of Syria was hit by a power cut late Wednesday following a blast near Damascus's international airport. Syria's electricity minister said, "A terrorist attack on a gas pipeline that feeds a power station in the south has led to a power outage." According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, rebel fighters fired on a gas pipeline near the airport causing an explosion. Residents and activists reported seeing a large fire, though it is unclear if there have been any casualties. Damascus and southern Syria have seen several blackouts since fighting erupted in 2011, and many rebel-held regions of the country have been without electricity for months. Meanwhile, the Syrian government is expected to deliver its disarmament plan by Thursday to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in accordance with the U.S. and Russian-led deal for the elimination of Syria's chemical arsenal. Additionally, Syrian authorities have released an estimated 61 female prisoners in the past two days in part of a three-way prisoner exchange. On October 18, two Turkish pilots who were abducted in Lebanon in August were released, and Syrian rebels freed nine Lebanese men. The release of additional detainees is expected, however that has not been confirmed.

Headlines

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday to discuss Israeli and Palestinian peace talks and Iran.
  • Egypt's Islamists have called for mass protests on November 4 as deposed President Mohamed Morsi stands trial on charges of "inciting the killing and torture of protesters."
  • Tunisia's opposition has called for more protests demanding the resignation of the Islamist-led government with postponed talks possible for Friday.
  • Gunmen have reportedly shot and killed a Libyan air force colonel in Benghazi, the latest in a series of assassinations in the eastern city blamed on militias.
  • Clashes in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli have continued into a fourth day killing at least six people and wounding 50 others.

Arguments and Analysis

'Obama's Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed' (Mark Mazzetti, Robert Worth, and Michael Gordon, The New York Times)

"A senior White House official said that one reason the president had decided to get Congressional approval was his fear that alienating lawmakers might undermine their support on other tough foreign policy issues, most notably Iran. In early July, Mr. Obama had asked Ms. Rice, who had succeeded Mr. Donilon as national security adviser, to undertake a review of American policy in the Middle East and North Africa, and to make Syria part of a broader strategy involving both Iran and the Middle East peace process.

Two days after his announcement that he would go to Congress for approval of a strike, Mr. Obama met in the Oval Office with Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the two Republicans who are the Senate's most outspoken advocates of military intervention in Syria. Mr. Obama agreed with the senators that American efforts to arm the rebels had been slow, but told them that the first group of 50 Syrian rebels -- trained by the C.I.A. in Jordan -- would soon cross into Syria, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

The goal was for that group to train larger numbers of rebels in Syria -- expanding the impact of the limited C.I.A. training effort in Jordan. But Mr. Obama acknowledged that having the C.I.A. carry out the training covertly had slowed the pace of the program and suggested that he was considering expanding the program and carrying it out publicly, an allusion to having the Pentagon take over."

'Algeria: Bouteflika strikes back' (Hicham Yezza, Open Democracy)

"Since the turn of the year, the question of whether Abdelaziz Bouteflika -- in power since 1999 and already the country's longest-serving president -- would run for a fourth consecutive term has been the central preoccupation of the political class. As the weeks went by, signs that the President's grip on power was open to challenges seemed to proliferate. A corruption scandal involving the country's State Oil company, Sonatrach, featured as its chief villain Chekib Khelil, a former energy minister and close Bouteflika ally. For weeks, the nation was gripped by sordid tales of greed and incompetence. The extensive coverage, as well as the judicial case itself, was seen by many as part of a campaign to weaken the president and his camp by rivals within the country's power system.

Serious health issues seemed to make the president's position even more precarious. On April 27, Bouteflika suffered what official reports confirmed was a mini stroke, and was immediately flown to receive treatment at the Val-de-Grace hospital in Paris. For the following eight weeks, speculation over the extent and seriousness of his condition, further intensified by the quasi-silence from official media, dominated conversations, both off and online. On June 11, in a clear attempt to stem the debilitating tide of rumour and counter-rumour, footage was released of him receiving a visit from the Prime Minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, and the army chief, Ahmed Gaid Saleh. These images were generally considered far from reassuring, but a month later, on July 16, official state media announced the president's return to Algiers. Many predicted an imminent curtain call, declaring the president a spent force and dismissing prospects of a fourth term as an impossibility.

Instead, the three months since his comeback have witnessed a spectacular turn of events. In the past few weeks, Bouteflika has overseen a series of unprecedented changes at the heart of the country's ruling apparatus, whose scale and unceremonious brutality took the most seasoned of observers by surprise."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Wave of attacks targets security forces in Iraq’s Anbar province

A series of seemingly coordinated attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers killed up to 25 police officers and three civilians in Iraq's western Anbar province late Tuesday night. Up to 35 people were also injured in the assaults. Four of the attacks targeted a police station and checkpoints in the town of Rutba, about 70 miles from the Syrian border. Gunmen also hit a checkpoint in Ramadi, killing three security forces and injuring a fourth. No one has taken responsibility for the attacks, although al Qaeda linked militants have frequently targeted Iraq's security forces. Iraqi forces have stepped up a campaign, called "revenge for the Martyrs," in the past two months in Baghdad arresting hundreds of suspected al Qaeda members. The measures, which have targeted mainly Sunni neighborhoods, have angered the Sunni community and failed to quell violence. Over 520 people have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of October, and the United Nations reported 979 people were killed in September attacks.

Syria

Syrian authorities have released up to 14 women in part of a three-way prisoner exchange. On October 18, Syrian rebels released nine Lebanese men detained for 17 months and Lebanese gunmen freed two Turkish pilots that were abducted in August. According to activists, there are 128 additional women who are expected to be released. Meanwhile, meeting with Western and Arab foreign ministers in London, the opposition Syrian National Coalition laid out demands for its participation in proposed peace talks in Geneva. Making prospects for the conference increasingly dim, Coalition President Ahmad al-Jarba said the group would not take part unless the objective of the talks is the removal from power of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Additionally, Jarba said it would be difficult for opposition representatives to attend the Geneva conference unless the Syrian government releases detained women and children, and ends the siege of opposition-held territory around Damascus and Homs. Jarba stated the SNC will make a final decision on participation in 10 days, but continued that there will be "no negotiations or reconciliation with the Syrian regime."

Headlines

  • Jerusalem's secular Mayor Nir Barkat has been reelected for a second term, defeating his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox backed opponent, Moshe Lion.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is working to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia, holding meetings with Prince Saud al-Faisal, acknowledging disappointment with U.S. policy on Syria.
  • Renewed clashes in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli between residents of the Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhoods killed a 13-year-old boy and injured an estimated 14 people.
  • A Bahraini teenager, who was wanted for "criminal offenses," was killed when a bomb exploded in his hands, according to police.

Arguments and Analysis

'Beauty of the Pleiades' (Turki Al-Faisal, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"The Iranian leadership has the opportunity to share so much of Iran's heritage and wisdom with other Muslims. But if they wish to gain the respect of other countries, they must first show respect to the traditions, heritage, and political identity of their peers. The election of Hassan Rowhani, who does not claim Arab lineage, may be an opportunity for Iran to trim its sails and steer a new course in the turbulent waters of the Middle East; or it may not. After all, Rafsanjani and Khatami came to office with progressive ambitions only to be stymied by Khamenei. The 2009 election upheaval was a sign that things are not as usual; nor is the tranquility of the 2013 election. Rowhani will have to deliver before others take him seriously. King Abdullah welcomed Rowhani's election and wished him well, the King also invited the new President to perform Hajj this year, which unfortunately, he has declined to accept. Saudi Arabia favors engagement with Iran, and President Obama's overture to Rowhani will hopefully lead to Iran's return to the International community as a contributor to peace and stability. Rowhani's sensible discourse is in distinct contrast to Ahmedinejad's bluster and bombast. With the world community opening its arms to embrace Rowhani, his major obstacle lies in the forces of darkness in Qum and Tehran. He has to shed Khomeini's interventionist legacy and, like his own discourse, adopt sensible policies."

'Sinai Security: Opportunities for Unlikely Cooperation Among Egypt, Israel, and Hamas' (Zach Gold, Brookings Institution)

"Despite all the changes taking place in Egypt and the broader Middle East following the Arab uprisings, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship remains surprisingly strong. There is a shared understanding of interests and threats, as well as a high degree of communication between the two sides. The biggest problem is not disagreement about threats but disagreement over how to address them. In many ways, addressing these threats in concert will involve an increased capability on the Egyptian side.

A better understanding of the Egypt-Israel-Hamas relationship on the part of Washington would assuage concerns of Egyptian instability or Israeli security. Congress and the administration can help strengthen this cooperation by providing Egypt with the tools and training necessary for counterterrorism and counter-smuggling operations. The Obama administration should also give the Egyptian government the space to engage with Hamas -- which, at times, will be more cooperative than current U.S. policy supports -- while continuing to push the Egyptian government to meet its own security needs: needs that, more often than not, align with Israeli and U.S. interests as well."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images