The Middle East Channel

First Round of Syria Peace Talks Wraps Up

The first round of peace talks on Syria is set to wrap up Friday in deadlock. After a week of negotiations in Geneva, Syrian government and opposition delegations have yet to agree on how to proceed. The opposing parties are expected to meet again around February 10. U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi expressed frustration that talks had not produced an agreement, even on allowing a U.N. aid convoy to enter the besieged Old City of Homs. On Thursday, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, accused of favoring pro-government areas, posted a statement that humanitarian aid should be distributed in a politically neutral manner. On Friday, the United Nations for the second day entered the largely rebel-controlled Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in order to distribute food to thousands of trapped civilians. Meanwhile, Russia has said that the Syrian government is acting "in good faith" and that a June 30 deadline for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal remains "completely realistic." The comments came after the United States accused the Assad regime of deliberately stalling and missing deadlines on the removal and destruction of its most dangerous chemical weapons. Robert Mikulak, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said, "Syria must immediately take the necessary actions to comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention."

Headlines

  • Turkey has purged at least 700 more police officers over a graft probe, bringing the total that have been dismissed or transferred since December 17 over 5,000.
  • A bomb hit a police station in the Egyptian city of Alexandria without causing injuries, meanwhile the militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for Tuesday's assassination of a senior police officer.
  • The Quartet of Middle East peace mediators will meet Saturday to discuss how to help forward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, while the U.S. hopes to complete a "framework" agreement within weeks.
  • The IAEA said it is time to tackle "more difficult" issues in a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program as the E.U. reported a date and venue have not yet been set for the next round of talks.
  • At least one soldier has been killed in clashes that broke out in Benghazi after the abduction of the son of a Libyan special forces commander.
  • Two rockets hit the international airport in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad Friday morning, but did not cause damage or casualties.

Arguments and Analysis

'Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners' (Avi Shlaim, New York Times)

"The reason that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not disown his defense minister is that what Mr. Yaalon said is what Mr. Netanyahu thinks. The real problem is not Mr. Yaalon's bad manners but the policy that he and Mr. Netanyahu are trying to foist on their senior ally: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, to confront Iran, to protect Israel's nuclear monopoly, and to preserve its regional hegemony solely by military means. This program is diametrically opposed to America's true national security interests.

America gives Israel money, arms and advice. Israel takes the money, it takes the arms, and it rudely rejects the advice.

The fundamental problem with American support for Israel is its unconditional nature. Consequently, Israel does not have to pay a price for acting unilaterally in a multilateral world, for its flagrant violations of international law, and for its systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights.

Blind support for the Jewish state does not advance the cause of peace. America is going nowhere in the Middle East until it makes the provision of money and arms conditional on good manners and, more importantly, on Israeli respect for its advice."

'Working Group on Egypt Letter to the President'

"Dear Mr. President:

We write to you out of deep concern that your administration may pursue policies towards Egypt, a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, that will exacerbate persistent instability in that country. A failed attempt at democratic transition has given way to intense polarization, frightening repression, and escalating violence. Such instability will make it impossible for Egypt to be a reliable security ally for the United States or peace partner for Israel, and threatens to increase terrorism against American targets and important American interests. If the United States fails to take a clear stance against Egypt's current democratic reversal, and decides to resume suspended aid programs in the face of growing repression, your policies may reinforce this debilitating dynamic to the detriment of U.S. interests and values. We urge you to instruct Secretary of State Kerry not to certify that Egypt has met congressionally mandated conditions on democracy under current conditions.

The idea that there will be a trade-off between democracy and stability in Egypt is false. A realistic assessment of what is happening in Egypt -- a massive crackdown on members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, mounting repression of peaceful critics of the coup, societal polarization and troubling vigilante violence, persistent demonstrations, escalating militant attacks on police and military targets -- shows that repressive, security-dominated rule will not produce long-, medium-, or even short-term stability. Especially since the events of 2011, the populace is more mobilized, more involved in politics, and more divided than ever. In these circumstances, pluralistic democratic institutions, and an opportunity for freedom of speech and assembly, will be necessary to allow citizens to struggle peacefully to resolve those divisions through compromise and democratic decision-making."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iraqi Forces Free Hostages After Firefight at Ministry Building

Iraqi security forces have freed all hostages taken after gunmen attacked a transportation ministry building in the capital of Baghdad Thursday. Up to eight militants were involved in the assault, all of whom were killed according to the Interior Ministry. A senior security source said the militants had taken a number of hostages, killing four of them inside the building. There were an estimated eight additional victims, though it is unclear how they died. No group has claimed responsibility for the assault, however Sunni militants in the past have targeted government facilities. The attack has come as January's death toll in Iraq exceeded 900.

Syria

Human Rights Watch has released a report accusing the Syrian regime of "deliberately and unlawfully" razing thousands of homes in Damascus and Hama between July 2012 and July 2013. According to the report, the Syrian government used bulldozers and explosives "wiping entire neighborhoods off the map" as a means of "collective punishment" of communities supporting the opposition. The report has come as negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition delegations appear to have hit an impasse ahead of the end of the first round of talks set for Friday. U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he didn't expect to achieve "anything substantive" with the initial round, and that he was "not disappointed." Brahimi expressed satisfaction with the opposing parties' willingness to talk to each other. Opposition spokesman Louay Safi said it was a "positive step forward" because the government for the first time agreed to a framework for the Geneva I communiqué. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is holding a meeting of its executive council Thursday to discuss the slow pace of the process of removing Syria's most toxic chemical weapons. Only 4.1 percent of the estimated 1,300 tons of chemical agents reported by the Syrian government were transferred from the port of Latakia in two shipments in January. All of the most dangerous materials were slated to be removed by February 5 for destruction and with the mission six to eight weeks behind schedule, the deadline will be missed. According to a senior Western diplomat there are indications that the Syrian government has been stalling the implementation of an agreement for the elimination of its chemical weapons arsenal.

Headlines

  • Egypt has rejected U.S. criticism over prosecutors charging 20 Al Jazeera journalists with conspiring with a terrorist group, broadcasting false news, and endangering national security.
  • Turkish troops opened fire into northern Syria on an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) convoy Tuesday apparently in retaliation for cross border fire.
  • Several U.S. Senators pushing for new sanctions on Iran appear to have pulled back saying now is not the time as "long as there's visible and meaningful progress" in negotiations.
  • Actress Scarlett Johansson has ended her relationship with Oxfam after coming under criticism by pro-Palestinian activists for her sponsorship of the Israeli company SodaStream, which operates in a West Bank settlement.

Arguments and Analysis

'Egypt's Missing Political Middle' (Alfred Raouf, Al-Monitor)

"Even today, after the revolution against the regime and the emergence of the role of the middle class in the popular movement, many believe that the middle class had performed its role by taking to the streets for a few days to protest once against the Mubarak regime, and another time against the Muslim Brotherhood regime. However, this is absolutely not true and not sufficient. And even those from the upper and middle classes who were doing their societal duty have shied away from these efforts in a political framework or through a political party, using as a pretext the corruption of the political elite and the stances of political parties. The majority of the middle and upper classes persist in criticizing political parties and all that they do merely from behind their iPads and on their mobile phones. Everyone is waiting for the other to do something, and everyone is ready to criticize any act, but who wants to actually do anything?

Those who have busied themselves with public work since the January 25 Revolution as well as those affiliated with the revolution have entered into many battles with opponents and enemies of the revolution. And the revolution did in fact succeed in toppling Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, and then the Military Council, and then the Brotherhood regime. However, every time the revolution did not reach the seat of power, the latter was always usurped by a third party. The worst thing about all of this -- until now -- is that a lot of the 'revolutionaries' did not learn the most important lesson on these three occasions -- that is, what is more important than toppling the regime is what kind of regime comes after it. I argue that the primary battle facing the revolution, and which the revolutionary forces did not focus on sufficiently, is how to establish a political alternative that is outside the control of the state and the regime. All battles -- without building an alternative -- against one party to topple it, will lead to the same result: Power will fall in the hands of a third party that is more radical and violent. This is a vicious and terrifying circle."

'Egypt's Post-Mubarak Predicament' (Ashraf El-Sherif, Carnegie Endowment)

"In many ways, Egypt is now back where it was nearly three years ago. The popular mobilization against Morsi, which reached its crescendo in the mass demonstrations of June 2013, signaled a reorientation. Following the long parentheses of Muslim Brotherhood rule, society is returning to the revolutionary battle lines against the old state's authoritarianism. Some optimists believe that after the old state finishes off the Brothers, it will establish a democracy. At the root of this hope, however, lies either naïveté or dishonesty.

The current political process, framed by the military's announcement of a political road map after Morsi's overthrow, is no less authoritarian than that led by the military and the Muslim Brotherhood together after Mubarak's ouster. Furthermore, the new political process does not position the interim government to better handle Egypt's current crisis of democratic legitimacy, much less create a better political future for Egyptians. A political battle rages on between the old state and the Islamists, immobilizing all political actors in the country." 

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images