The Middle East Channel

Apparent U.S. Drone Strike Hits Wedding Convoy in Yemen

Air strikes hit a wedding convoy on Thursday in the remote Yemeni town of Radda, an al Qaeda stronghold in the southern al-Bayda province, killing around 13 people and injuring an estimated 22 others. Local residents said the air strikes came from a drone, which appeared to be the second U.S. drone strike within a week. According to one report, local tribal leaders said most of the people killed were suspected al Qaeda linked militants. However there were additional reports of several civilian causalities, and others saying a U.S. drone targeted the wedding convoy after intelligence reports mistakenly identified it as an al Qaeda convoy. According to one anonymous Yemeni national security official, "This was a tragic mistake ... None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government." With the increasing al Qaeda presence in Yemen and growing insecurity, the United States has stepped up its drone campaign targeting militants. However, some critics are saying the strikes and resulting civilian casualties are generating greater sympathy for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and increasing anti-Americanism.

Syria

The United Nations has released a report concluding that chemical weapons were used in five of seven attacks investigated by U.N. experts in Syria, including the well-documented attack on August 21 near Damascus. The report indicates chemical weapons were used in the Syrian areas of Ghouta, Khan al-Assal, Jobar, Saraqeb, and Ashrafiah Sahnaya. The investigators found that sarin gas was likely used in four cases, one on a large scale. The investigation did not determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons, but found that in two incidents, the weapons affected government soldiers, and in a third, both soldiers and civilians were harmed. The report was compiled by chemical weapons experts and doctors after they conducted interviews and collected samples in Syria. Meanwhile, the United States has altered its account of events after saying that the Islamic Front's seizure of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) headquarters in northern Syria forced FSA commander General Salim Idris to flee the country. The United States said on Thursday it obtained information that Idris was in Turkey throughout the takeover. Idris denies he abandoned his post and claims he is in northern Syria overseeing military operations.

Headlines  

  • Iranian negotiators halted nuclear talks in Vienna after the Obama administration blacklisted about a dozen companies and individuals for violating sanctions on Iran.
  • After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected a U.S. plan for Israeli troops to remain in a future Palestinian state.
  • An estimated 25 Iraqi terrorism suspects escaped from a Baghdad prison Friday, after killing two security guards, and several of the inmates remain at large. 
  • An explosion, seemingly coming from a car bomb, hit outside a security forces camp in Egypt's Suez Canal city of Ismailia killing one policeman and injuring an estimated 18 people.
  • Israel has shelved a $2 billion plan to resettle 30,000 Bedouins in the Negev desert amid international outcry. 

Arguments and Analysis

'What's next for Bedouin in a post-Prawer Israel?' (Haggai Matar, +972 Magazine)

"Broadly speaking there are three possible outcomes to the end of Prawer. First, and in my mind most likely, the government may completely retreat from its visions of ‘cleansing' the Negev and settle for a continuation of the current state of affairs (with a possibility of yet another committee that could take years to reach any kind of decision). This is definitely better for Bedouin than the Prawer Plan itself, but it still means a life of poverty and fear, demolition orders, court appeals and the occasional destruction of homes -- as is the case in Al-Araqib and now Umm al-Hiran.

The second option is that the extreme hawks in power, rather than the Bedouin and leftists, will take credit for scrapping Prawer, and will try to push forward a new, more radical plan of uprooting with little or no compensation. However, such an initiative might be harder to promote among the more pragmatic people in the government, and would be much harder to explain to the High Court (which would already be aware of concessions made as part of Prawer). One can even imagine the media, now awake to the entire issue, being more critical of such a move.

The third and least likely option is for the government to start a process of dialogue with the Bedouin, review the plans made by local leaders and NGOs and consider recognizing villages and developing the Negev for all its inhabitants. While unrealistic under the current administration, this is what Bedouin and left-wing activists will continue fighting for. Maybe in the future it will not seem as absurd as it does now. After all, just two weeks ago no one would have believed Prawer would be scrapped."

'American and British aid to Syria's rebels: No more, for now' (Pomegranate Blog - Economist)

"The pickle policymakers now find themselves in was nothing short of predictable. For months Syrians, fighters and civilians, have been warning that the moderate rebels were being pushed aside. Gulf countries have sent arms to some rebel -- which ones remains unclear -- and Western backers have sent non-lethal assistance as well as helped to coordinate occasional weapons shipments and training. But the aid has been ill coordinated and too scattered, inconsistent and low-calibred to make a decisive impact. Syrian fighters have not helped themselves, either, by remaining fragmented and increasingly prone to internecine fights. 

The growing strength of extremist rebels has perversely reinforced the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Ryan Crocker, a veteran American diplomat, told the New York Times on December 3rd that 'We need to start talking to the Assad regime again', despite the fact that it has used fighter jets, ballistic missiles and sarin against civilians in order to stay in power. The imbalance of power, coupled with the regime's intransigence and continued backing by Iran and Russia, bodes badly for peace talks in Geneva, scheduled to start on January 22nd. 

American and British officials say non-lethal assistance could flow again once they have determined the circumstances of last week's events. But few Syrians are holding their breath. Most accuse the West of offering too little, too late, abandoning them to a war that gets nastier by the day."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

-/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Britain Joins U.S. in Suspending Non-Lethal Syria Aid Meanwhile FSA Commander Flees

Britain has joined the United States in suspending non-lethal aid to Syria. The U.S. announcement came on Wednesday after fighters from the Islamic Front, a recent coalition of six Islamist groups, overtook a base and warehouse belonging to the western-backed Supreme Military Council over the weekend. A British Foreign Office spokesman said they would not make any equipment deliveries while they are investigating events that occurred over the weekend. A Free Syrian Army (FSA) spokesman, Loay al-Mikdad, said he hoped the United States and Britain would reconsider the decision, saying FSA commanders would contact them to clear up the "misunderstanding." U.S. officials have reported that the Islamic Front's seizure of the headquarters forced FSA commander General Salim Idris to flee Syria. He reportedly traveled to Turkey and then flew to the Qatari capital of Doha. Meanwhile, 13 international news organizations have written a letter urging Syrian opposition fighters to stop kidnapping journalists, and release those currently held. The organizations included the BBC, New York Times, and Associated Press. An estimated 30 journalists are currently being detained, with seven abductions in the past two months. The letter warned, "As long as kidnappings are permitted to continue unabated, journalists will not be willing to undertake assignments inside Syria, and they will no longer be able to serve as witnesses to the events taking place within Syria's borders."

Headlines  

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will return to the Middle East Thursday in shuttle diplomacy efforts to push the peace process forward, with this trip focusing on Palestinian security arrangements.
  • EU auditors have said the European Union should stop paying salaries of thousands of Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip who have not worked for up to six years.
  • In a trip aimed at proving to Gulf partners that the United States remains engaged in the region, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel lifted a gag rule on the highly classified Combined Air and Space Operations Center in Qatar. 
  • Egyptian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters near the defense ministry, meanwhile 29 pro-Muslim Brotherhood students were referred to the Cairo Criminal Court.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a rare phone conversation with Gaza's Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and called for a "speedy removal" of Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Turkey: "Surreal, Menacing...Pompous"' (Christopher de Bellaigue, New York Review of Books)

"A vindictive authoritarianism is taking hold of Turkey. To the prime minister's supporters this is regrettable but necessary; many I have spoken to think that the protest at Gezi Square was organized by foreign agitators, and that the protesters should have been crushed more harshly than they were. In a democracy, these people believe, the will of the majority is determined at the ballot box and then carried out. This, they say, is what had been happening quite successfully until the liberals, realizing they were too few to win an election, turned to seditious activities instead. The idea that the beliefs of liberal minorities should be legally protected and might actually have an influence on policymaking has not been accepted by the government, which claims to speak for the majority.

But the architect of Turkey's polarization isn't the liberals; it's Erdogan. He has read into successive election victories a license to involve himself in every aspect of the nation. His abrasive, physical style of oratory betrays no self-doubt. Opening his arms to his audience, bringing his hand over his heart, he criticizes the lives of his subjects, and his views are rarely less than vigorous. All drinkers are alcoholics; every family should have three children; wholemeal flour is best ('our children will be stronger ... the bonds of trust between us will increase'); abortion is murder and Caesarean sections should be avoided. Twitter is a 'menace' and those opposed to road-building should go and live in a forest. The prime minister appears to dislike expertise when it disagrees with him. 'You have nothing to teach us about sociology,' he told a politely dissenting social scientist.

As much as the tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets, it was Erdogan's contemptuous way of addressing the Gezi demonstrators that hardened feelings against him. Liberals are skeptical of a leader who commands slavish adulation from his followers -- a former adviser to the prime minister told me there is no 'mechanism of self-criticism' in Erdogan's entourage. The government is touched by paranoia; Erdogan's chief adviser has accused foreign powers of using telekinesis to try to kill his boss. The government creates an aura that is surreal, menacing, and insufferably pompous."

'Leftist reservations' (Akram Ismail and Elham Eidarous, Mada Masr)

"Prior to January 25, Egyptians had been living under emergency law, unable to express their dissent except through fragmented cases of disturbance. There was also no single movement that was able to translate this societal dissent into a project capable of lobbying for the people's collective will. The revolution came as a conscious adventure by the people to change their miserable reality, impose their will, and produce an alternative scenario for their future.

The revolution was also not a conspiracy as some claim, even if its demands matched the interests of some regressive forces, including the military, which joined the revolutionary chorus twice. The first was after January 25 to end the expected inheritance of the presidency by Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, and the second was following the June 30 popular uprising to end the Brotherhood's senseless rule.

Other foreign interests have at times coincided with the revolution's demands. This was the case with the United States and Qatar in the case of January 25, and Russia and Saudi Arabia, who supported the ousting of Mohamed Morsi following June 30. We have to acknowledge the fact that it is not totally abnormal for such interests to coincide, in order to be able to curb the side effects of such incidences on the revolution, instead of making naive romantic claims about how the revolution is being 'hijacked.'

The revolution was not able to achieve formal power. It succeeded, however, in opening a different political space by disrupting the state and opening the doors for the reforming of the state-societal relationship. Society was able to recreate itself in this highly critical moment amid revolution. The doors were also opened to the creation of a political sphere that reflects the people's diverse political inclinations. However, this sphere is still young and rather conservative, confined to urban centers and restricted primarily to the middle classes."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

MEDO HALAB/AFP/Getty Images