The Middle East Channel

Iran and World Powers Begin Nuclear Talks in Vienna

Talks between Iran and six world powers have begun in Vienna in efforts to negotiate a final settlement over Tehran's controversial nuclear program. The three-day meeting between Iran and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States aims to build upon an interim deal negotiated in November 2013 in which Iran committed to curb uranium enrichment in exchange for some reduction in sanctions. There is little optimism surrounding the new round of talks. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Monday, "the nuclear negotiations will lead nowhere" however he maintained, "Iran will not breach what it has started." A senior U.S. official noted that it would be a "complicated, difficult, and lengthy process." U.S. President Barack Obama put the chances of successful negotiations at 50 percent. Michael Mann, spokesperson for the E.U. High Representative Catherine Ashton, said nobody expects a final agreement in this round, but continued, "The aim is really to create a framework to deal with negotiations over the coming months."

Syria

Syrian government forces have retaken the Hama province village of Maan. Fighters from several Islamist rebel groups seized Maan on February 9, killing at least 20 civilians and 25 pro-government forces, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the most recent clashes. The regime's aerial campaign on the northern city of Aleppo has caused hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians to flee the area in recent weeks. According to the United Nations, 500,000 people have been displaced creating one of the largest refugee flows in the nearing three- year conflict. With peace talks on Syria stalled, the Obama administration is reportedly reconsidering military, diplomatic, and intelligence options on Syria that had been set aside in favor of pursuing the peace conference in Geneva. Meanwhile, the opposition's Supreme Military Council has fired Free Syrian Army chief Salim Idriss. A statement on Sunday said the move was prompted by the "ineffectiveness of the command in the past few months" and a need to "restructure." Idriss will be replaced by Brigadier General Abdel-ilah Al Bashir. 

Headlines  

  • A series of bombings in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and the southern city of Hilla on Tuesday has killed at least 49 people a day after several explosions across Baghdad killed at least 23 people.
  • The Islamist militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for the bombing of a tourist bus Sunday that killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian and warned all tourists to leave Egypt before February 20.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Tunisia praising progress and urging a cementing of democratic reforms provided in the country's new constitution.  
  • Iraqi cleric Moktada al-Sadr has described Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a "tyrant" just days after announcing his departure from politics.

Arguments and Analysis

'The Syrian Civil War: Political and Military State of Play' (Charles Lister and William McCants, War on the Rocks)

"With the armed phase of the Syrian revolution now in its 34th month, a great deal has changed since protests first erupted in March 2011. More than 130,000 people have been killed, the United Nations has now stopped counting due to the dearth of reliable information. Both the political and military aspects of the conflict have always been complex, but the nature of that complexity has changed as each of the conflict's parties reevaluate their positions as the civil war drags on.

With the second round of peace talks now completed in the Swiss city of Geneva and dynamics on the ground shifting as Syrian rebel forces battle the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and moderate rebel forces restructure, now is an opportune time to assess the interests and capabilities of the main players."

'Netanyahu's silent contempt' (Emily L. Hauser, Haaretz)

"For a democracy to function properly, citizens must have regular access to information about the plans and policies of their elected leaders -- yet for some 13 months, the Prime Minister has refused to speak with his own press corps.

Israel's Channel 2 television reported in January that it had been a full year since Netanyahu last deigned to engage with the Israeli press. In the meantime, nearly a month has passed and... gornisht. Not a press conference, not an interview, not so much as a single question. Reporter Tal Schneider has established a stop watch to keep track of the time as it slips by, and as of the time of this writing, the count comes to 394 days. And several hours. The silent treatment is so exhaustive, so icy, that it would be impressive if it weren't shameful."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Militant Attack on Yemeni Prison Frees Al Qaeda Inmates

Armed gunmen assaulted Yemen's Central Security Prison on Thursday, freeing at least 14 inmates potentially associated with al Qaeda. The attack on Yemen's main security prison, located in the capital Sana'a, allegedly began with a car bomb explosion at the prison's entrance. Militants engaged in a prolonged firefight with Yemeni security officials near the prison gates and reportedly used car bombs and grenades to break into the structure. Yemeni security forces report that seven policemen and three militants were killed in the attack, and several others were wounded. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but Yemen is facing a growing threat from al Qaeda within its borders. The Yemeni al Qaeda branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has conducted numerous militant operations against Yemeni state structures in the past year, including a brutal attack against Yemen's defense ministry in December 2013.

Syria

Following a deadlocked second round of talks, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is reportedly advancing Syria peace talks between regime and opposition actors into a third round Friday. While the United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the peace talks, have promised to pressure their respective Syrian allies, disagreement among the powers has sharpened. On Friday Russia lashed out against the United States, accusing it of pursuing "regime change" in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov remarked, "The only thing they want to talk about is the establishment of a transitional governing body." Disagreement also surrounds draft UN resolutions on Syria's humanitarian crisis. Russia has stated its rejection of a Western-Arab draft resolution calling for greater humanitarian access, and has proposed its own resolution focused on combatting "terrorism." In a strongly-worded statement, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos urged the UN Security Council to use its "levers" to ensure humanitarian access to Syrians, calling regime and opposition attempts to obstruct aid delivery "flagrant" violations of humanitarian law. On Friday, the United Nations voiced concern over a possible "major assault" by regime forces against the opposition-held town Yabroud, noting a concentration of military forces in the area. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that President Barack Obama has requested new policy options for Syria as the country's crisis worsens.

Headlines

  • Bahraini authorities arrested 29 people for "rioting and vandalism" charges Friday as hundreds of anti-government protesters sought entry into Manama, the nation's capital, on the eve of the Bahrain uprising's third anniversary.
  • Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man and wounded another Thursday amid a confrontation at the Gaza border.
  • Western powers will press Iran to surrender its capability to develop a nuclear bomb during next week's talks on a final Iran nuclear deal.
  • The IAEA reported on Thursday that Iranian crude oil sales rose by 100,000 barrels per day in January.

Arguments and Analysis

'(No) Dialogue in Bahrain' (Toby Matthiesen, MERIP)

"Looking at events since 2011, and indeed past decades, it is hard to be optimistic about the meetings between the crown prince and the opposition. It seems that, as in previous years, the ruling family is in need of positive news that the public relations firms hired by the government can spin as evidence of an 'ongoing reform process.' Parliamentary elections are supposed to be held in October, and the ruling family wants the opposition to participate. The last elections after the crackdown in 2011 were boycotted by the opposition and thus returned a loyalist parliament. As ‘Ali al-Aswad, London representative of al-Wifaq, explained: 'The ruling family tells us that there can only be reform once the opposition is in Parliament again. They essentially want us to forget three years of struggle and suffering, and go back to square one, to where we were before 2011.'

Even if al-Wifaq and the leftist groups in the opposition alliance were to agree to such a scenario, and that is far from certain, the people who are driving the protests in the streets every night in the largely Shi‘i villages will not be appeased. The demonstrators dream of the downfall of the regime, though they acknowledge that this outcome is unlikely any time soon. Only if genuine political concessions were on the table could they be persuaded to stop protesting. These concessions would include the release or fair retrial of political prisoners, in particular 13 leaders of unlicensed political groups who have received long jail terms for their role in the uprising. The ruling family is angry at these opposition figures, who called for their downfall, but these men will have to be included in the political process if there is to be long-term stability in Bahrain. Even President Barack Obama argued in May 2011 that 'the only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.' At the moment, however, release of the 'Bahrain 13,' as activists have dubbed them, is anathema to the ruling family. Given the regional balance of power, the unconditional financial, military and political support of the GCC, the US, Britain and others, and the deep divisions within the ruling family as well as within the opposition, the stalemate in Bahrain is likely to continue for the foreseeable future."

'The Day After' (Timothy Kaldas, Mada Masr)

"Our first lesson: the regime is the regime is the regime. No, the army will not quietly voluntarily cede power and return to its barracks. No, a coup will not 'correct' the path of the revolution. No the use of force in politics will not produce a democratic political order and no we cannot hope to co-opt elements of the regime that oppressed us temporarily to deliver future long-term liberation. Freedom will not be granted and we must take it forcefully. Depending on the military to remove the Muslim Brotherhood was a mistake and has been the single greatest coup (forgive the pun) for Egypt's counterrevolutionary forces. Today, this is beyond dispute. Those who still seek to justify the July coup do so out of an inability to admit their mistakes. So long as we refuse to recognize this counter-revolutionary coup for what it is we will be left wasting our energy defending and justifying what is indefensible and unjustifiable rather than building a movement that demands a true, fully civil, state that democratically rules this country and defeats political parties we dislike with politics rather than massacres and mass arrests.

Lesson number two: institutional politics may be the game of the corrupt, but it is also essential to our future. If we do not build alternative political parties and engage directly in the electoral process and central policy debates that face this country, we cannot cry foul when we find ourselves and our fellow revolutionaries marginalized from the democratic process. It is true that democracy is more than elections, but that has never meant that elections and their results are irrelevant to democratic rule."

-- Joshua Haber

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)