The Middle East Channel

Iran and World Powers Agree on Agenda for Nuclear Talks

Iran and six world powers have agreed to a framework and timetable for negotiations over Tehran's contested nuclear program as the recent round of talks concluded in Vienna. E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, "we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement." She noted there is a lot still to do, but that they had made a "good start." Ashton didn't give details of the framework, but a western diplomat mentioned talks are expected to be monthly over the next four months. An interim deal reached in November 2013 is set to expire in July, however the deadline can be extended. The next round of talks is scheduled for March 17 to 20 in Vienna, although experts will meet in early March.

Syria

Members of the U.N. Security Council have put forward a draft resolution on humanitarian access in Syria. Australia, Jordan, and Luxembourg finalized the Western and Arab backed text late Wednesday. The draft includes demands for cross-border aid access and an end to aerial bombardments -- including references to the government's use of barrel bombs. It additionally warns of unspecified "further steps" in the event of non-compliance. Diplomats said the 15-member council will likely vote on the proposed resolution Friday. It is unclear if Russia and China will support the draft. The two parties have previously vetoed three resolutions condemning the Syrian government. On Wednesday afternoon, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, said, "There are still some pretty thorny issues which we are talking about." Meanwhile, the Syrian government has allowed UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency supporting Palestinian refugees, to resume food distribution to the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus after an 11-day halt. According to the United Nations, over 100 people have died in Yarmouk since mid-2013 from starvation or illness.

Headlines

  • Explosions hit five polling stations in the eastern town of Derna as Libyans began voting to elect an assembly to draft a new constitution.
  • Egypt is set to begin the trial of 20 journalists, including Al Jazeera staff, on terror-related charges, which Human Rights Watch has criticized as "politicized."
  • An Alawite pro-Syrian regime party has issued an ultimatum to Lebanese authorities to arrest the killers of a senior party official who was shot Thursday in Tripoli, or the northern city will be "directly targeted."
  • A Bahraini court has sentenced one man to death and six others to life in prison over the death of a policeman who was hit by a petrol bomb during a 2013 protest.

Arguments and Analysis

'Lebanon's Precarious New Government' (Mario Abou Zeid, Carnegie Middle East Center)

"Of course, compromise does not guard against contestation, and Hezbollah has proven in the past that it can effectively derail government activities if it does not get its way. Three years ago, when a national unity government was formed, Hezbollah had de facto majority support in the cabinet. In January 2011, a crisis emerged over the expectation that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was investigating the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, would indict top members of Hezbollah's military and security apparatus in the killing. In response, Hezbollah orchestrated the resignation of more than one-third of the cabinet, causing its collapse.

The new cabinet's precarious power-sharing arrangement makes it as vulnerable to this tactic as the 2011 government was. Not only is finding common ground between the various blocs going to be problematic, any cabinet move interpreted by Hezbollah as a challenge to its status and actions may well lead the party to conclude that collapsing the government is preferable to being backed into a corner, prompting it to repeat its 2011 withdrawal. For Hezbollah, a vacuum of power in Beirut or the paralysis of Lebanese state institutions would allow it to achieve its strategic goals without being held accountable."

'False Friends: Why the United States Is Getting Tough With Turkey' (Michael J. Koplow, Foreign Affairs)

"So far, the evidence suggests that taking a tougher line with Turkey works well. In early February, Ankara announced that it had not made a final decision to go with the Chinese missile bid, and was open to bids from other companies. Given that the French offer includes some coproduction and technology transfer, there is a good chance that the United States and NATO will be able to pressure Turkey into accepting it. Also this month, Turkey announced that it was close to normalizing ties with Israel after nearly a year of foot-dragging following Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's own 2010 apology to Erdogan for the deaths of Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Public talk of a thaw with Israel is a clear effort to signal to the West that Turkey is still a worthwhile partner. Rapprochement with Israel is not exactly a winning political issue, and if Turkey and Israel do end up normalizing ties, it will bring some hardline domestic criticism.  Were it not for the United States' cold shoulder and the drumbeat of EU criticism, Ankara would likely be proceeding with business as usual.

Treading lightly with Turkey did not prevent Ankara from subverting the United States in the Middle East. It is time for something different. The United States needs to institutionalize its new, sterner approach to Turkey by making it clear to Ankara what its expectations are and ceasing its rhetoric on the strength of Turkish democracy, which has made it easier for American diplomats to fall back on a reality that has rapidly disappeared. If the United States gets tough with Turkey in a more systematic way, as it has with the Chinese arms deal, and makes it clear that the U.S.-Turkey strategic relationship cannot be taken for granted, perhaps Turkey will see the value in being a reliable ally and actually become one."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The Sinai War Escalates

Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has been associated with lawlessness and terrorism since the 2011 uprising. Most attacks in -- and emanating from -- Sinai had three specific targets: Israel, Egyptian-Israeli relations, and Egyptian security forces. Following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sinai-based jihadi groups have continuously escalated their attacks: first using car-bombs in Sinai, then spreading their attacks outside the peninsula, then using advanced weaponry against the Egyptian military. A further escalation last weekend could mark a new target, which should worry both Egypt and the international community.

On February 16, a man boarded a bus carrying South Korean tourists in Taba, Sinai, and set off a bomb on his person. The bus had stopped approximately 270 yards from the Egyptian-Israeli border, where the Koreans were to cross and continue their international tour. Tourism, a key economic sector in Egypt, has dropped off significantly during Egypt's recent political turmoil. In the past three years, Sinai Bedouin have kidnapped tourists to gain Cairo's attention and hotels in Cairo have been attacked by thugs; however, this was the first terrorist attack targeting foreign tourists.

Sinai's most lethal and effective jihadi group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The group emerged in Sinai in 2011, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the dissolution of Egypt's security state to disrupt the flow of a gas pipeline to Israel and occasionally launching cross-border attacks with fighters, snipers, and rockets. Beginning in summer 2012, when the Egyptian military launched a serious effort to uproot the jihadi threat in Sinai, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and likeminded groups turned their weapons almost exclusively on the military and police.

Attacks against Egyptian security forces became more frequent, more deadly, and more damaging after Morsi's ouster. At the same time, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis's propaganda targeted Sinai's population and disenfranchised Muslims throughout Egypt. The group claimed to be defending the population against the brutality of Egypt's "infidel" armed forces, and its attacks -- both in and outside Sinai -- targeted security buildings and national security leaders, including an attempted assassination on Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. Throughout this terror campaign, Sinai's jihadi groups have attacked and threatened the military's economic empire, but until February 16 they had spared other important sectors of the economy, including tourism.

Prior to Sunday, the last bombing in Taba was in October 2004. That attack marked the beginning of a two-year terror campaign against South Sinai resorts. The recent attack, however, marks a shift in tactics reminiscent of the radical Islamist terrorism Egypt faced in the 1990s. Also, similarly, the Egyptian government and security forces are fighting what they see as a war of survival against Islamists. As then, Islamist groups are targeting security forces, political leaders, and symbols of the state. Then, and apparently now, groups such as al-Jihad and Gamaa al-Islamiyya transitioned from taking on the state to taking on the economic pillars of the state: namely tourism. That campaign culminated with the 1997 shooting attack at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, in which 60 foreign tourists were killed. The assault was so brutal, and so detrimental to Egypt's tourism economy, that it forced these groups to reconsider their methods.

Almost 20 years later, attacks on tourists in Egypt are still rejected by Egyptians and any group targeting tourists is likely to lose support. Given that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis's actions and statements have focused on gaining sympathies and support from disenfranchised Egyptians, this attack suggests a radicalization among Sinai's jihadis. By claiming responsibility, the group made clear that the Taba attack is more than a one-off incident. Indeed, one of the more disconcerting aspects of the claim is that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis does not view its attack on tourists as an escalation but defined the incident within the context of its "economic war" against Egypt's government.

The willingness to target tourism also renews worries that Sinai-based jihadis have shifted their sights to international interests. Until now, Israel has borne the brunt of Sinai groups' foreign ire. International actors have warned of threats to foreign embassies, Suez Canal shipping, and even civil aviation. To date, these targets have been possibilities -- and have even faced small-scale attacks -- but not serious concerns based on operational trends. Over the past three years Sinai attacks first targeted Israel then shifted to Egypt. A campaign against foreigner tourists may signal another, worrisome shift.

Zack Gold is a Washington-based analyst. He is the author of the Brookings Saban Center analysis paper, "Sinai Security: Opportunities for Unlikely Cooperation Among Egypt, Israel, and Hamas," and a forthcoming paper on terrorism in Sinai for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague. Follow Zack Gold on Twitter: @ZLGold.

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