The Middle East Channel

Libyan Military Plane Carrying Medical Patients Crashes in Tunisia

A Libyan military plane crashed early Friday south of the Tunisian capital of Tunis killing all 11 people onboard. The plane was carrying doctors and medical patients, as well as six crewmembers. Libyans often travel to Tunisia for medical care. Libyan official Sheikh Meftah Daouadi, undersecretary at the Ministry of Martyrs, was among the dead. The Antonov 26 plane's crash was reportedly a result of engine failure. According to Tunisia's TAP state news agency, the pilot was attempting to land the aircraft in farmland near Grombalia. 

Syria

The Syrian government has increased air raids and shelling in Syria's southern province of Daraa killing at least two people Friday. The move has come amid reports that rebel fighters are preparing to launch an offensive in the region. An explosion hit a Syrian border post near a refugee camp close to the Turkish city of Kilis killing five people and injuring dozens of others. The camp's administrator, Abu Osama, said the blast destroyed 20 tents. He mentioned that thousands of new refugees have been arriving in the area over the past few weeks "because of the barrel bombing in Aleppo." Iran has been stepping up its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, deploying hundreds of additional military specialists to gather intelligence and train troops. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council will vote on a resolution Saturday on humanitarian access in Syria. The vote, which had been expected Friday, was pushed a day after Russia said it needed more time "to get some instructions from its capital." On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the resolution should state that cross-border aid deliveries should be conducted in accordance with international humanitarian law, requiring the government's consent.

Headlines

  • Three Al Jazeera journalists appeared in an Egyptian court Thursday and pleaded not guilty to terrorism-related charges, however the trial was quickly adjourned until March 5.
  • Iran's judiciary has closed the new pro-government reformist-oriented Aseman (Sky) newspaper, and jailed its manager, apparently accusing it of insulting Islam.
  • Up to five mortar rounds hit a crowded market in the mainly Shiite town of Musayyib south of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad Thursday evening killing an estimated 22 people.
  • A U.S. military commission has accepted a plea bargain from a Saudi Guantánamo detainee who pleaded guilty to involvement in a 2002 attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen.

Arguments and Analysis

The Battle Over Higher Education in Iran' (Mohammad Ali Kadivar, MERIP)

"Rouhani's Ministry of Sciences, the main government body overseeing higher learning, has already taken important steps. The new minister, Faraji Dana, has promised that students will no longer be denied educational opportunities because of their political beliefs. Dana was referring to a policy by which the students of known dissidents are banned from admission into masters and doctoral programs or other avenues of educational advancement. This policy is nearly as old as the Islamic Republic, but Ahmadinejad's governments enforced it more aggressively than their predecessors. Today, several of the students who were denied admission have already returned to universities, and some of the programs removed from the curriculum under Ahmadinejad, such as women's studies, are accepting students for the new school year. Iran's parliament, still controlled by conservatives, is unhappy with the changes. Dana was summoned in January to answer the questions of 23 parliamentarians -- and the deputies clearly found the minister's responses unsatisfactory. Regardless, the Ministry of Sciences appears determined to push ahead with the reforms.

But there is a larger problem with Iranian higher education, particularly in social sciences and some of the humanities, that seems likely to remain intractable for the foreseeable future. Under Ahmadinejad, hundreds of new faculty members in these fields were appointed on the basis of their devotion to the Islamic Republic -- a practice plainly at odds with existing practices such as considering the quality and quantity of academic publications and the endorsements of senior scholars. The new appointments were made in concert with the firing of several high-ranking professors who, according to the regime, were disseminating secular ideas."

Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Bracing for the Long Haul' (Kemal Kiri?ci , Brookings)

"This means that the third option, integration into the host country, will inevitably have to be considered. Turkey is already abuzz with rumors that the government is going to extend citizenship and the right to vote to the Syrian refugees. A number of officials as well as MPs during interviews with this author have categorically denied that the government had any such intentions and noted that there were no steps that had been taken in this direction. The current Turkish Law on Settlement allows only for refugees who are of "Turkish descent and culture" to settle in Turkey. The government would have to adopt special legislation to be able to extend mass naturalization for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. This would be a very controversial and divisive issue and a politically treacherous decision as Turkey enters a eighteen-month-long election cycle. While Turkey's government has been generous, the public in Turkey is growing weary of the refugees and increasingly sees them as a burden. There is an unhappiness that is growing as prices rise - especially rent prices in towns along the Syrian border - and wages fall as more and more refugees enter the informal labor market. These attitudes are reflected in the results of a January 2014 poll taken by the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). According to this poll 86 percent of the respondents want the intake to be stopped while close to 30 percent of these respondents advocated that the refugees should simply be sent back.

As much as the path of formal integration in the form of the granting of citizenship may at the moment be a difficult and thorny one there is the sheer reality that more than half a million Syrian refugees are present in urban setting. There is already an informal process of integration occurring as Syrians try to adjust to their new surroundings as they seek more permanent accommodation, employment and education for their children to school. The government as well as many municipalities and civil society groups are extending and expanding a range of services including language courses in Turkish. Refugees themselves realize that they are likely to be in Turkey for the long haul and demand these courses in Turkish. However, short of formal integration, the government is going to have to give priority to two policy areas critical to formal or informal integration: employment and education of refugee children."

-- Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

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