The Middle East Channel

UN Begins Evacuation of Civilians from the Syrian City of Homs

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, an agreement has been reached for a three-day cease-fire in order to evacuate civilians from the Syrian city of Homs and for the delivery of humanitarian aid to people who remain. The deal came after multiple days of negotiations between a regional U.N. humanitarian coordinator and the local governor. About 2,500 people are believed to be trapped in Homs, between 500 and 700 of whom want to be evacuated, including 80 people reported to be wounded. A U.N. convoy entered the city Friday in order to begin the initial evacuation of 200 people, including women, children, and elderly. Men between the ages of 15 and 55 in the opposition held area of Old Homs will be required to register and "regularize their status," which is similar to surrender. The United Nations said that humanitarian supplies are ready outside Homs, however the expected delivery has been delayed until Saturday. Russia said the agreement on Homs should improve the atmosphere for peace talks set to resume in Geneva on Monday. On Friday, the Syrian government announced it will participate in the second round of talks. The opposition also said its delegation will attend. Meanwhile, rebel forces claimed they have seized a large part of Aleppo's central prison freeing hundreds of inmates. They have additionally overtaken the Kweiras air base east of Aleppo. Fighting has escalated in the strategic city in the past week, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the regime's "ongoing aerial attacks and the use of ‘barrel bombs' to brutal, devastating effect in populated areas."

Headlines

  • Two bombs exploded near a police checkpoint on a bridge in Giza, on the outskirts of Egypt's capital of Cairo, Friday injuring six people.
  • An Egyptian court has ordered the retrial of 62 people, 21 of whom were sentenced to death, in connection with the 2012 Port Said football riot in which 74 people were killed.
  • Libya's interim parliament has voted to extend its mandate, set to expire Friday, to give time to a special committee to draft a new constitution.
  • Israeli demolitions of Palestinian property in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have hit a five-year high with 663 structures torn down in 2013.
  • The Iranian government has offered a surprise donation to Tehran's only Jewish hospital saying it "intends to unite all ethnic groups and religions."

Arguments and Analysis

'Syria's low-tech WMD: Starvation' (Anne Applebaum, Washington Post)

"In the 20th century, dictators used starvation not just as a battle tactic but also to murder people who did not fit into their vision of an ideal society. Before resorting to more ‘industrial' methods, Hitler used starvation to kill Jews: Nazi soldiers shut them in ghettos, closed the doors and shot children who tried to smuggle food in through the sewers. Stalin used starvation to kill Ukrainian peasants: Soviet soldiers confiscated their grain, forcibly removed food from their larders and blocked roads so nothing could reach them. As in the Middle Ages, the Jews of the Lodz ghetto and the peasants of Kharkiv district grew weak, lost their hair and teeth, and then died. Millions of people were thus murdered, without a whiff of sarin gas or a drop of plutonium.

Nowadays, 'death by forced starvation' sounds like something from an old newsreel. But it is not. Right now, in the 21st century, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is once again making use of it. While the international community is haggling over his chemical weapons, the stuff of modern nightmares, Assad is following the example of his medieval and his 20th-century predecessors and deliberately starving thousands of people to death."

'Inside Baseball on Syrian Rebel Infighting' (Aaron Zelin, War on the Rocks)

"While fighting continues between the Islamic Front and ISIS, it is a lot more complex than reported in the media; though, as the fighting heads into a second month, positions are becoming hardened (more on this below). Further, the bulk of the anti-ISIS fighting has been conducted by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Jaysh al-Mujahidin. While it appears that there is a unified backlash against ISIS, there are two different dynamics going on with the bulk of the infighting occurring between the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, in coalition with Jaysh al-Mujahidin, and ISIS. The Syrian Revolutionaries Front-Jaysh al-Mujahidin alliance is more based on differences in ideology and potentially a demonstration to outside backers that they can fight against jihadis, whereas the Islamic Front offensive is more a response to abuses perpetrated by ISIS against it along with an attempt to act as a sovereign state in liberated areas. Although in the first few days of infighting ISIS was dealt blows and kicked out of a number of areas, the group has not been defeated. In fact, it has been able to recover in spite of its isolation among the rebels.

Many within the jihadi camp have framed any fighting between ISIS and the Islamic Front as merely fitna (discord), while the fight with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front-Jaysh al-Mujahidin is seen as more akin to a second sahwa movement (similar to what occurred in Iraq last decade). Though, some diehard ISIS activists view Islamic Front as part of the sahwat as well. Originally, when the fighting first began, there were hopes within the jihadi movement that the more complicated dynamics between the Islamic Front and ISIS could to be resolved through mediation, especially with Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda's preferred branch in Syria) as a potential interlocker. In addition to Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, calling for a cease-fire, key global jihadi ideologues such as Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Shaykh Abu Qatadah al-Filistini, Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Iyad Qunaybi, and Shaykh Sulayman al-Ulwan have criticized ISIS' excessive use of force. It should be noted that there have also been small skirmishes between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, but in a very limited capacity."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egyptian Army Denies Report of Sisi’s Presidential Candidacy

The Egyptian military has denied a report that army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has announced his candidacy for presidency. On Thursday, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah quoted Sisi saying "The decision has been made, and I have to succumb to the people's demand of running for the republic's presidency." Egypt's military spokesman Ahmed Ali, in a statement on Facebook, said, "What was published in Al-Seyassah is merely journalistic speculation and not a direct statement from Field Marshal al-Sisi." He continued that Sisi's "decision to run for president is a personal one that he will announce by himself to the great Egyptian people and no one else." The army chief has been expected to resign and announce a bid to run in presidential elections, which according to a decree issued by interim President Adly Mansour should begin between mid-February and April 18.

Syria

The Islamic Front and al Nusra Front have launched a new offensive in the northern province of Aleppo. The announcement Thursday has come in response to a recent campaign of attacks by government forces on the city of Aleppo. In the past five days, airstrikes with barrel bombs have killed at least 246 people in Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Meanwhile, a close advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, said the government remains undecided on whether to participate in the second round of peace talks that the United Nations has proposed to begin February 10. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said he is confident that Syria would meet a June 30 deadline to eliminate its chemical weapons program, despite missing a February 5 deadline for the removal of its chemical arsenal. Ban said, "This may be a very tight target, but I believe that it can be done with the full support of the Syrian government."

Headlines

  • Iraqi authorities are illegally detaining thousands of women, subjecting many of them to torture and sexual abuse, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch.
  • A series of car bombings across the Iraqi capital Baghdad have killed at least 13 people on Thursday, a day after multiple explosions killed an estimated 34 people.
  • The Turkish Parliament has passed a bill imposing new restrictions on the Internet in a move met with outrage from the opposition and which has raised concerns for Europe over freedom of expression.
  • Israel approved the construction of 558 new homes in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem in a move Palestinian officials said undermined peace talks.
  • Iran's nuclear energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran is prepared to modify its planned Arak heavy water reactor to produce less plutonium in order to ease Western concerns.

Arguments and Analysis

'Iraq: Security Forces Abusing Women in Detention' (Human Rights Watch)

"Both men and women suffer from the severe flaws of the criminal justice system. But women suffer a double burden due to their second-class status in Iraqi society. Human Rights Watch found that women are frequently targeted not only for crimes they themselves are said to have committed, but to harass male family or members of their communities. Once they have been detained, and even if they are released unharmed, women are frequently stigmatized by their family or community, who perceive them to have been dishonored.

Iraq's broken criminal justice system fails to achieve justice for victims either of security force abuses or of criminal attacks by armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. Arrests and convictions Human Rights Watch documented appeared often to have been predicated on information provided by secret informants and confessions coerced under torture."

'Jihadist Return is Said to Drive Attacks in Egypt' (David D. Kirkpatrick and Eric Schmitt, New York Times)

"'Egypt is again an open front for jihad,' said Brian Fishman, a researcher in counterterrorism at the New America Foundation in Washington. 'The world is being turned on its head, and, for the United States, the ability to rely on Egypt as a stabilizing force in the region -- rather than a source of problems -- is really being challenged.'

The birthplace of political Islam, Egypt has sent fighters to battle zones from Kandahar to the Caucasus for decades, and in the late 1990s its security forces crushed an Islamist insurgency at home. But until last summer, when the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi and began a bloody crackdown on his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt remained largely insulated from the Islamist violence that flared up around it.

Now the new government is facing a new campaign of terrorism -- set off by anger at Mr. Morsi's ouster but also tied to the Islamist and sectarian violence engulfing the region."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images