The Middle East Channel

UNICEF: Syria One of the Most Dangerous Places for Children

UNICEF said Monday that Syria was now among the most dangerous places on Earth to be a child, pointing to high child casualty rates, brutalizing and traumatic violence, deteriorated access to education, and health concerns. The number of children suffering in Syria more than doubled in the third year of the conflict, with an estimated 2 million children in need of psychological support or treatment. In addition, approximately 2.8 million Syrian children cannot go to school as a result of ongoing conflict. The United Nations World Food Program also raised an alarm Monday, citing the food crisis facing three of Syria's northeastern provinces. On the other hand, WFP noted modest, increased relief access to some areas, including al-Houle in Homs for first time since May 2013. Meanwhile, a government official said that only 25 prisoners were released by the government in exchange for the 13 Greek Orthodox nuns that were released by Jabhat al-Nursa, contradicting reports that 150 prisoners were to be released.

Headlines

  • Libyan officials reported Monday that they had taken control of the North Korea-flagged oil tanker docked at the rebel-controlled Sidra port, adding that the government would assemble forces to "liberate" all rebel-occupied oil ports in the country. Rebel forces released a contradictory statement Tuesday asserting that the oil tanker had reached international waters overnight, carrying oil.
  • The Israeli Knesset passed the Governance Law, which limits the number of government ministers and raises the minimum electoral threshold for parties to win representation in parliament from 2 to 3.25 percent. The law is one of three in a package deal that includes a law to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military and a law to require a referendum in order to approve withdrawal from Israeli-held territory. The opposition boycotted the vote in protest protesting that the law provides too much power to the government and makes it difficult to overthrow the government.
  • A 15 year-old boy who had been in a coma since being hit in the head by a gas canister during a police crackdown on Turkey's Gezi Park June 2013 protests passed away Tuesday morning. Berkin Elvan is the eighth death related to the Gezi Park protests.
  • The International Monetary Fund has warned Qatar that it is likely to see higher labor costs as a result of the publicity of the working conditions and deaths of migrant workers in the country. Meanwhile, Qatar has applied for a U.S. "preclearance" customs post that could offer advantages to government-owned carriers in the Gulf, angering U.S and European carriers that operate in the region.
  • Three prominent activists of Egypt's 2011 revolution -- jailed in December 2013 for violating Egypt's anti-protest law -- claimed in an court hearing Monday that they have been abused in prison. A lawyer representing Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Mohamed Adel said that the court has refused to refer the three to forensic doctors to investigate their claims.

Arguments and Analysis

'Experts Call on Obama to Promote Bahrain Reform During Visit to Saudi Arabia' (Project on Middle East Democracy)

"As the situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate, addressing this issue must be an urgent priority. The State Department recently assessed the Bahraini government's progress in implementing the recommendations of the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), and found that only five of its 26 recommendations were fully implemented. The assessment also recognized the Government's failure to investigate claims of torture and cases that resulted in death, to ensure that individuals are no longer charged or detained for exercising their right to free speech, or to foster an environment that promotes dialogue.

Efforts last year to negotiate a political solution collapsed after the process failed to deliver any real progress, key opposition figures were arrested, and human rights violations continued. As you said in 2011, '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. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.' That was true then, and remains true today."

'Israel Watches Warily as Hezbollah Gains Battle Skills in Syria' (Isabel Kershner, New York Times)

"'This kind of experience cannot be bought,' said Gabi Siboni, director of the military and strategic affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Mr. Siboni and other analysts said that Hezbollah's experience in Syria should not be overstated since the group is fighting rebel forces like the Free Syrian Army and jihadist groups, not a modern, regular army. Still, Mr. Siboni said: 'It is an additional factor that we will have to deal with. There is no replacement for experience, and it is not to be scoffed at.'

While the Israeli military used to plan for conventional armored battle -- tanks against tanks -- now its forces train to withstand fighters who have antitank missiles and secret underground hide-outs."

-- Cortni Kerr

Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iran's Foreign Minister Confident on Comprehensive Nuclear Deal

In a joint news conference with E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that a comprehensive nuclear deal was possible in "four or five months and even shorter." Ashton cautioned that reaching a comprehensive deal would be "difficult and challenging." She arrived in Tehran Saturday for a two-day visit -- the first visit by an E.U. foreign policy chief since 2008 -- to discuss a wide range of issues, including bilateral ties, human rights, and the Syrian conflict, with Zarif and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out Sunday from Jerusalem requesting that Ashton press the Iranians on the shipment of weapons that Israel seized last week allegedly bound for Gaza. Talks between Iran and the P5+1 will resume on March 18.

Syria

A Qatari-Lebanese delegation negotiated the release of a group of Greek Orthodox nuns who had been held hostage by Islamist rebels in Syria since being kidnapped from their Maaloula monastery in December. The nuns, who are being transported to Damascus via Lebanon, were freed as part of a prisoner exchange involving 150 women and children held by the Syrian government. Meanwhile, a new report from Save the Children claims that Syria's conflict is threatening to collapse the entire health system, which is already severely crippled. Another report released by Amnesty International accuses the Syrian government of employing starvation tactics against civilians, citing the case of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus where at least 128 refugees have died as a result.

Headlines

  • The Libyan government has threatened to bomb a North Korea-flagged oil tanker if it attempts to export oil from the rebel-controlled Sidra port. The armed rebels who control the port have warned that an attack on the tanker, which docked on Saturday, would constitute a "declaration of war."
  • At least 40 people have been killed in clashes between Houthi and Sunni tribesmen in Yemen's al-Jawf province since Friday. Meanwhile, a boat transporting African migrants capsized off of the coast of Yemen. At least 30 people were rescued by a Yemeni naval control, however 42 migrants drowned.
  • Thousands marched through Beirut on Saturday demanding Lebanon's first law against domestic violence.
  • A minibus packed with explosives detonated at a security checkpoint Saturday in the Iraqi city of Hilla, killing at least 32 people and injuring at least 150 others.
  • A Palestinian man was shot dead at the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan after attempting to snatch a weapon from and choke an Israeli Defense Forces soldier according to a military statement.
  • Heavy rain has lashed Egypt since Saturday, resulting in the death of 16 people across the country and the closure of ports, schools, and some highways.

Arguments and Analysis

'Breaking Taboos: Youth Activism in the Gulf States' (Kristin Smith Diwan, Atlantic Council)

"Youth activists are challenging the conservative political culture and traditional social norms of these oil-exporting monarchies. In Saudi Arabia this has included criticism of the king online and even demonstrations. In Kuwait, a youth campaign of escalating street action forced the hand of parliament and prompted the resignation of a scandal-weakened prime minister. Bahrain experienced several years of youth-initiated protests, though these failed to compel political concessions from a sharply divided monarchy.

Youth movements are far from achieving their demands for greater democratic representation and government accountability in a region where political parties are banned and direct criticism of rulers brings imprisonment. But their influence cannot be assessed by a narrow focus on immediate political outcomes. The generational divide is testing not only the state but important mediators of state power: tribes and Islamist movements. Youth are struggling against the suffocating lack of space for social engagement and political innovation. And they are tapping into growing doubts about the capacity of ruling families to manage the coming challenges to the welfare state system. In short, they are laying the groundwork for the transformations to come."

'Iran Deal: Keeping Israel on Board' (Shai Feldman and Oren Setter, The National Interest)

"Given these conflicting considerations, can the U.S. and Israel maintain their informal alliance while maximizing the odds that the talks recently launched would produce an optimal comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran? The key here seems to be the ability and willingness of Washington and Jerusalem to prenegotiate a 'code of conduct' possibly consisting of four elements: First, a U.S.-Israel agreed timeframe for testing Iran's willingness to reach a deal limiting its nuclear program. Second, an understanding that during the agreed timeframe for the talks, Israel, while adhering to its public stance favoring the 'ideal deal' would refrain from undermining the negotiations by waging a public campaign against the talks. Third, that during the same timeframe the Israeli national-security community will be fully briefed regarding the details of the talks, and more importantly, will be provided multiple opportunities to share its possible concerns and to offer its ideas about the ways in which difficult issues in the talks can be best addressed. Fourth, and in parallel, the U.S. and Israel will create one or more Track-II channels for conversations among both sides' non-official experts and former government officials. In these totally deniable frameworks, the two sides will be able to explore ideas and possible compromises that may be deemed too sensitive even for secret-yet-official talks.

The stakes involved for the U.S. and Israel in the recently launched efforts to reach a comprehensive deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program are enormous. Yet their stakes and priorities in these talks are not identical, presenting Washington and Jerusalem with a serious alliance management problem. The four-element 'code of conduct' proposed here would allow the U.S. and Israel to maintain their close ties while the P-5+1 led by the U.S. productively negotiate with Iran."

-- Cortni Kerr

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images