The Middle East Channel

Israel Announces Plans for 1,400 New Settlement Homes

Israel published tenders Friday for the construction of over 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The plan includes building 801 housing units in the West Bank, and 600 in East Jerusalem. Israel's housing ministry additionally re-issued tenders for 582 units in East Jerusalem that did not previously receive bids from contractors. According to the anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, Israel has announced plans for the construction of an estimated 5,349 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since peace talks resumed in the summer of 2013. Concerned that new settlements could jeopardize negotiations, European and U.S. officials have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to move forward with construction. The Israeli government delayed the announcement until after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's recent trip to the region working on establishing a framework for a peace agreement. The announcement also came after Israel's release in late December of 26 Palestinian prisoners in part of a deal brokered by the United States for the resumption of peace talks.

Syria

Forces loyal to the Syrian government have reportedly killed dozens of opposition fighters attempting to break an army siege of parts of the central city of Homs. According to the Syrian news agency SANA, regime troops "confronted armed terrorist groups," killing 37 rebels in one operation, and several more in other attacks. SANA did not give a casualty figure for government forces. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 45 rebel fighters were ambushed and killed in the regime controlled Khaldiya neighborhood of Homs's Old City. Meanwhile, the Observatory reported that 482 people, including 85 civilians, were killed in a week of fierce clashes between rebel factions and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Free Syrian Army (FSA) officials have accused ISIL of forwarding the Assad regime's agenda by attacking rebel forces that were fighting to gain control of government-held territory or helping Assad's forces to target FSA fighters. U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say al Qaeda-linked extremist groups in Syria are working to identify, recruit, and train Westerners who have traveled to fight in the region to carry out attacks when they return home. According to officials, at least 70 Americans have traveled to Syria, or attempted to, since the conflict began in March 2011.

Headlines  

  • Iran and Russia are negotiating an oil-for-goods deal for Iran to exchange 500,000 barrels a day of oil for Russian equipment and goods, despite Western sanctions.
  • Tunisia's Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has resigned, ending the rule of the Islamist Ennahda party in line with a transition agreement, and will be replaced by Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa.
  • A standoff between Iraqi troops and militants in Anbar province has entered its second week, meanwhile the U.S. military is pushing to resume training Iraqi commandos in efforts to fight extremism.
  • Hospital officials said Thursday former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in "grave" condition.
  • Three Al Jazeera journalists held in Egypt's Tora prison will remain in custody for 15 additional days awaiting sentencing, which was postponed until February 2.   

Arguments and Analysis

'Winning the Peace by Failing in Geneva: How to Work the Syria Negotiations' (Jeremy Shapiro and Samuel Charap, Foreign Affairs)

"If the United States recognizes that Russia's objectives are about the process, not the outcomes of a settlement, and acts that way, the negotiations could produce closer U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria. Washington needs to let the talks unfold in a way that demonstrates to Moscow that Assad and his cronies -- rather than the opposition, U.S. policy, or other states in the region -- are the main obstacle to peace and stability.

That might not be too difficult to manage. Assad seems to have no intention of negotiating a deal or countenancing any kind of power-sharing. But the Kremlin has been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Until Assad demonstrates his bad faith by publicly rejecting a settlement that Russia accepts, Moscow will continue to regard him as a part of the solution, not the source of the problem.

There is some precedent for such a change in Russian policy. In 2009, Tehran publicly rejected a Russian offer to store Iran's enriched uranium -- a deal that Iran had accepted days earlier. Angered by Iran's betrayal, Russia supported tough new UN sanctions against Iran in June 2010.

Similarly, if Geneva II fails because Assad rejects a reasonable deal that all the other parties endorse, Moscow will begin to see that its desire for both stability in the region and avoiding coercive regime change requires working more closely with the United States. It might then pressure Assad to accept a transition. It could also work with the United States and the rest of the UN Security Council to address the humanitarian situation in Syria, particularly by seeking approval for UN agencies to enter Syria through border crossings not controlled by Damascus, which could bring desperately needed help to hundreds of thousands of people in opposition-held areas."

'Khaled Dawoud: Point of no return' (The Arabist)

"The current struggle between those who cling to the 'Islamic identity' of Egypt and those who believe that Egypt has one of the most ancient identities in the world, while striving to build a modern state, has been going on for more than two hundred years and will not die out anytime soon. I was one of those who said that the Brotherhood's arrival in power was a chance to prove that their abuse of religion does not mean that they have preternatural abilities to solve Egypt's accumulated and intractable problems. Egyptians discovered this quickly and hit the streets in the millions on June 30 to call for an end to Morsi's failed rule. I had hoped that the integration of the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process would help put an end to their insularity and their claims that they are a 'Godly organization' that does not err because God is helping them, and that they would acknowledge that they are a political organization that can co-exist with others if they would only give up their claim to possess absolute truth.

Now, after the government's announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood is a 'terrorist organization' and the Brotherhood's reciprocal escalation by threatening to 'string up' the 'coup-plotters,' it seems that any talk about national consensus has become a sort of delusion and the upper hand belongs to whichever of the two sides escalates and doesn't blink. The Brotherhood has the chance to reconsider its position and start on the path of reconciliation with the Egyptian people, if it recognizes that what happened on June 30 was an expression of real popular outrage and not just 'Photoshop' and that the end of Morsi's presidency -- even though he was elected -- is not the end of the world. It certainly does not mean that the alternative is to destroy Egypt and burn it to the ground. This is taking into account that we are still making our first steps toward trying to build a democratic system after sixty continuous years of one-man and one-party rule."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Suicide Bomber Kills 13 Iraqi Army Recruits in Baghdad

A suicide bomber killed 13 Iraqi army recruits and injured more than 30 others in Baghdad Thursday. A man detonated an explosive vest as recruits were registering at Muthanna airfield, responding to a government appeal for volunteers to assist in a battle against al Qaeda-linked militants in Anbar province. In a televised address Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to eradicate al Qaeda in Iraq, saying the army was prepared to launch an offensive against militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who have overtaken parts of Fallujah. U.S. officials have urged Maliki to secure the support of Sunni tribal leaders before launching a major attack on Fallujah, but many leaders, angry with the Shiite-run government, have refused. Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses by both government troops and militants since the upsurge in violence over the past week. In a report released Thursday, the human rights organization cited government attacks on residential areas, in some cases where there was no apparent al Qaeda presence. Additionally, the United Nations warned of a "critical humanitarian situation" in Anbar province as thousands of families have fled the area, and food, water, and medical supplies have diminished.

Syria

A car bomb killed an estimated 18 people Thursday in the village of Kafat in the Syrian province of Hama. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, women and children were killed in the explosion as well as members of a pro-government militia. On Wednesday, the Syrian government reported attacks on two of its chemical weapons storage facilities for the first time since the beginning in October of a joint mission with the United Nations to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal. The German government has decided to assist in destroying a portion of Syria's chemical weapons materials. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, "we in the German government have decided not to shirk our responsibility and to make our contribution. That means getting rid of part of the chemical waste," which he said could be done by the German armed forces in Munster. Additionally, the Belgian waste management group Indaver has expressed interest in taking on the destruction of some of Syria's chemical weapons, and said it could submit a bid to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) this month if it gets approval from authorities. Meanwhile, Russia has blocked a U.N. Security Council statement condemning Syrian government air strikes against civilians in Aleppo. The Syrian ally blocked a similar statement drafted by the United States in December, and along with China, has blocked three Security Council resolutions on Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.

Headlines  

  • Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei said nuclear talks show U.S. enmity toward Iran just hours before negotiations were set to resume with world powers on activating a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.
  • Tunisia's Constitutional Assembly has appointed a new nine-member High Electoral Commission to oversee elections in 2014.
  • Bahrain officially suspended its national dialogue after a coalition of political societies pulled out of the reconciliation talks that have been boycotted by the main Shiite opposition since September.
  • Kurdistan plans to sell its first two million barrels of oil by the end of January via its new pipeline to Turkey, despite lack of approval from the Iraqi government. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Al-Maliki's divisive leadership has opened a window for al-Qaida in Iraq' (Fawaz Gerges, The Guardian)

"Iraq's crisis is essentially political -- revolving around power and distribution of resources -- and could be resolved if the ruling elite have the will and wisdom to compromise, both of which have been in short supply.

The war in Syria has poured gasoline on a raging fire in Iraq, and conflicts in both countries feed upon one another and further complicate an already complex struggle. Al-Qaida in Iraq founded both the al-Nusra Front and Isis in Syria. Hundreds of Shia Iraqis have travelled to Syria to fight on the side of the Assad regime. Now the reverberations of the Syrian war are being felt on Arab streets, particularly Iraq and Lebanon, and are aggravating Sunni-Shia tensions across the Arab Middle East.

Sectarianism is poisoning the veins of Arab and Muslim societies and threatening to tear apart their social fabric. It is no wonder then that al-Qaida-linked militants have recently gained strength in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

However, the sectarian faultline masks a bigger geostrategic struggle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, a struggle that is playing out in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Lebanon. The two rival powers vie for mastery in the Gulf and the Levant."

'Egypt's Unsustainable Crackdown' (Anthony Dworkin and Helene Michou, European Council on Foreign Relations)

"The rebirth of electoral politics will introduce a degree of openness and political accountability, but these will operate within strict limits imposed by the security-focused agenda of the army and Egypt's other powerful state institutions. With a background climate of populist intolerance and a media sector that currently functions as a cheerleader for the state, conditions seem set in the coming months for the continued repression of dissent and the absence of institutional reform.

The current interim government is not monolithic; it contains some comparatively liberal ministers who have a vision for political openness and pluralism. At the same time, though, there is little sign that they have been able to exert any influence on significant decisions, and the move to brand the MB as a terrorist organisation is a clear setback for these politicians. The coming series of popular votes also brings with it an element of unpredictability. It is not certain that the authorities will get enough support for the new constitution to make it into the kind of resounding popular endorsement for their ‘road map' that they are seeking. It is also not known whether parliamentary or presidential elections will be held first and whether the leader of the army, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will stand as a presidential candidate or seek to control developments from the wings. The future strategy of the MB in the face of the most serious challenge that it has faced in its history is another factor that is yet to be resolved, as is the strength and durability of secular protests that have flared up sporadically in recent weeks.

Despite these variables, certain fundamental aspects of Egypt's direction appear clear. In the short term, the momentum is towards further confrontation between the state and a majority of the people on the one hand and supporters of the MB on the other, with some revolutionary and political groups also standing in opposition to the regime. A continuation of the recent spate of terrorist attacks seems likely, and it is increasingly evident that the next phase of Egypt's development will play out within a security framework. Looking further ahead, it can also be predicted that the current track of security-led ‘normalisation' will not lead to the stable development and reform that is necessary to meet the needs and aspirations of the Egyptian people. Given the volatility of public opinion in Egypt in recent years, it is also plausible to think that a failure to deliver tangible economic and social benefits will lead to growing popular opposition to the new political dispensation."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images