The Middle East Channel

Syria Peace Talks to Begin Without Iran, Overshadowed by Evidence of Torture

Diplomats have affirmed that a peace conference on Syria will begin as scheduled on January 22, after the United Nations withdrew an invitation to Iran to participate in talks. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon unexpectedly invited Iran to attend the conference in Switzerland prompting a strong U.S. objection and a threat by the opposition Syrian National Coalition to boycott. The last-minute disarray and ensuing diplomatic fiasco underscore the challenges facing the conference, which will for the first time bring together the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents. Iran and Russia have expressed anger over the U.N. decision to rescind Tehran's invitation with Iran calling the decision deplorable. The conference is additionally being overshadowed by new evidence of the Syrian government conducting systematic torture and execution. Three international war crimes prosecutors have examined photographs, apparently smuggled out of Syria by a defecting military police photographer, that provide evidence that the Syrian regime has tortured and killed an estimated 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising in March 2011. The Syrian government has denied claims of abuse. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has accused government and opposition forces of human rights abuses and claimed Russia and China have allowed such abuses to take place by blocking action through the United Nations.


  • A suspected suicide car bomb has killed at least four people in a Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut in an attack claimed by al-Nusra Front in Lebanon, meanwhile clashes have reignited in the northern city of Tripoli.
  • The United States and European Union have suspended some sanctions on Iran after Tehran began restricting uranium enrichment in accordance with a nuclear deal negotiated in November.
  • The UAE has convicted 20 Egyptians and 10 Emiratis on national security charges for setting up an illegal branch of the Muslim Brotherhood issuing sentences of up to five years.
  • Political factions participating in a national reconciliation conference have extended the term of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi by one year and approved a federal system for Yemen.
  • Iran has sent two warships for the navy's first mission to the Atlantic in efforts to extend its reach.   

Arguments and Analysis

'If Everyone Votes Yes, Is It Democracy?' (Peter Hessler, The New Yorker)

"As an outsider, it's hard to be optimistic about near-term prospects in Egypt, but there are a few reasons to temper the pessimism. Despite the disastrous political climate, most experts believe that the new constitution is an improvement on the previous version. It gives far too much power to the military and the judiciary, two institutions that have always been wary of Islamists, and the preamble and other details are off-putting. (Article 44: 'Every citizen is guaranteed the right to enjoy the River Nile.') But there's more attention to basic human rights, especially for women. And it establishes that within five years there will be democratic elections for councils at the village and other local levels, which were never part of the Egyptian system in the past.

The most heartening thing about the referendum, though, was the relative lack of violence. Egypt won't go the way of Syria -- there's too much power in the Army and the police, and too little support for the Brotherhood. And Egyptians have a social cohesiveness that allows them to survive despite a deeply dysfunctional government. Throughout the chaos of the past three years, even a big city like Cairo has remained remarkably safe and functional. There are signs that terrorist activity is expanding, but, thus far, the attacks have been focused on the police, the Army, and other government institutions, rather than on the public. At five o'clock in the morning of the first day of the referendum, a bomb exploded in front of a Cairo court; the façade was damaged, but there were no injuries. The attack was clearly a statement -- but a very different statement than would have been made by a midday bomb at a crowded polling station."

'America chooses the wrong allies in Egypt' (Jackson Diehl, Washington Post)

"Who are the allies of the United States in Egypt? The Obama administration's judgment is crystal clear: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has plied Sissi with more than two dozen phone calls since he led a coup against the elected Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi in July, while Kerry has repeatedly endorsed the general's increasingly implausible claim to be building a democracy -- as opposed to restoring the pre-2011 dictatorship in a more repressive form. The administration just persuaded Congress to pass legislation exempting it from an awkward ban on giving aid to regimes that gained power through a military coup so that the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Sissi's army can keep flowing.

Sissi and his cohort, however, are anything but pro-American. The media they control have been orchestrating an orgy of vile propaganda, charging the United States with everything from seeking to carve Egypt into pieces to subverting its morals.

Maher, Adel, Douma and Abdel Fattah aren't particularly pro-American either -- no one in Egypt is these days. But they at least share core American values. If they and their followers ever came to power, Egypt might come to resemble India or Brazil: a sometimes difficult partner but a democratic one. That is another reason they are in jail: The military's strategy is to present Washington with a choice between their secular thuggishness and that of the Islamists."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber



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