The Middle East Channel

Iran and World Powers Resume Nuclear Talks

Iran and six world powers began a new round of talks in Vienna on Tuesday over Tehran's contested nuclear program in efforts to establish a final deal by July 20. The meetings on April 8 and 9 are expected to focus on how to monitor Iranian compliance with an agreement, how to deal with U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran, and suspected past atomic bomb research conducted in Iran. Both sides have said that they hope to draft a comprehensive agreement in May. A U.S. official said he is confident they will meet the deadline for a final deal, but noted that there are some difficult choices that Iran must make. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said there is a possibility of reaching a deal by July, though it would require "a lot of work." The parties reached an interim agreement in November 2013, which Iranian leaders said would ease sanctions and improve living conditions, however many Iranians feel the interim accord has done little to help them, putting increasing pressure on negotiators ahead of the July deadline. The new round of talks has come amid a dispute between Iran and the United State over Iran's nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi as Tehran's new U.N. envoy. Aboutalebi is suspected of participating in a student movement that seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. U.S. Senators approved a bill Monday that would block Aboutalebi from entering the United States, though Iran's Foreign Ministry said it is still waiting for a formal response from Washington.

Syria

A masked gunman shot and killed a Dutch Jesuit priest Monday at a monastery in the rebel-held Bustan al-Diwan district of the Syrian city of Homs. Father Frans van der Lugt, who was in his 70s, had lived in Syria since 1966 and was well known for his refusal to evacuate the besieged city, saying he would not leave while Christians were still in Homs. The gunman's motives are unclear, but it appears Van der Lugt was directly targeted. A Vatican spokesman expressed "great pain" over the priest's death saying, he was a "man of peace." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killing saying it was an "inhumane act of violence." Van der Lugt's death has come amid increasing tensions between rebel groups in the blockaded Old City of Homs over whether to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty from the government. Meanwhile, former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed, in a meeting last week, that "the active phase of military action in Syria" will end this year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing for stronger U.S military support for Syrian opposition forces, however the Pentagon is resisting a military intervention saying it would risk turning into an open-ended foreign entanglement.

Headlines

  • An Egyptian appeals court upheld sentences Monday for three activists, known for their roles in the 2011 uprisings that led to the fall of Mubarak, convicted in December of violating an anti-protest law.
  • Oil prices dropped Monday after Libyan authorities and a rebel group that had blockaded four oil terminals in the east, reached a deal to open up two of the ports.
  • Yemeni security forces have arrested 13 people suspected of involvement in the kidnappings of foreigners, businessman, and two U.N. workers.
  • An Egyptian court has sentenced four men to prison terms of up to eight years for committing homosexual acts, in a verdict condemned by human rights groups.

Arguments and Analysis

Refugee 101: Palestinians in Lebanon Show Refugees from Syria the Ropes' (Sarah E. Parkinson, MERIP)

"'Lebanese' Palestinians have attempted to provide a buffer against these challenges. Palestinians visit General Security on behalf of their Syrian tenants or friends in order to clarify regulations and fees ahead of time. This step protects Syrians from harassment or document inspection. Some have volunteered in part due to their personal connections with Lebanese bureaucrats -- via intermarriage, for example -- that were understood to protect new refugees from bribe requests. Other 'Lebanese' Palestinians have personally accompanied refugees to General Security in order to protect newcomers from being overcharged (or to raise the alarm in the event of their detention). Coupled with the now common habit of tracking the distribution of Lebanese military checkpoints around the camps, these practices provide a quotidian safety net for refugees from Syria. Relaying that a new checkpoint is being staged, that a stricter officer has arrived or that walk-ins are being searched as well as cars not only protects refugees from immediate threats; it also gives them a sense of community integration and solidarity.

But tension is building among 'Lebanese' Palestinians, 'Syrian' Palestinians, Syrian nationals and other marginalized populations. The housing situation is one major source of pressure. Rooms in Shatila and Burj al-Barajna that rented for $100 in 2011 now rent for $400 or more a month (the minimum wage in Lebanon is $250 a month but is often ignored by employers, especially since cheap labor is abundant). Many 'Lebanese' Palestinians who control these homes expelled African and Asian migrant workers living in the camps in order to raise prices for refugees from Syria. This process fractured support networks for some of Lebanon's most vulnerable and oft-ignored non-citizens and left them financially exposed. It also means that Syrian refugees' savings bottom out faster than previously, forcing them to crowd more people into the same tight, run-down spaces. Yet the financial success of this model is visible in the new floors being built above Shatila's skyline; four-story buildings have expanded to eight or nine stories. A small financial elite (in relative terms) is thus rapidly emerging within Shatila's established Palestinian community."

'The risks of a nuclear Saudi Arabia' (Nick Butler, Financial Times)

"The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the fragile government of Saudi Arabia is bad enough. The country is fundamentally unstable - held together only by force and by the flow of oil money to an ever growing number of citizens who high expectations and low productivity. But equally concerning is that any further conflict in the region - even at a level below the nuclear threshold - could shake the global energy economy to its foundations.

Over time the world is moving away from dependence on Middle East oil. Improvements in efficiency, and the development of all sorts of alternatives from shale gas and tight oil to solar and wind will give consumers new choices. Pretty soon oil demand will peak globally - as it has already in the US, Europe and Japan.

But the crucial point is that we are not there yet. It is common place to talk about oil and gas self sufficiency in North America and the potential for development of Chinese shale gas. The hard reality though is that neither will be achieved before 2020. In the shorter term there are new sources of supply gradually coming onstream - for instance in the Caspian, Brazil and west Africa. But in every case the pace of those developments is slower than promised. We cannot afford to misunderstand the fact that the positive prospects for the medium and long term do not remove the dependence of the oil market on Middle East exports for most of the next decade."

'Uphill Battle in Gulf Strategy' (Becca Wasser, Defense News)

"Greater GCC defense cooperation would be financially and operationally more effective. A coordinated, cooperative GCC would provide Washington with an institutionalized multilateral channel to reassure the gulf states. But as the GCC diplomatic rift illustrates, no matter what initiatives are put forward by President Obama, collective GCC security cooperation is unlikely to happen.

Gulf states remain very protective of their sovereignty and maintain their preference for bilateral engagement, even when this complicates important defense initiatives. But US engagement with the gulf states does not rest on a cooperative GCC security institution. It is a preference, not a prerequisite.

American multilateral engagement has proved challenging as the individual gulf states require bilateral reassurance and individual attention. The recent tempering of ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will further complicate US efforts, but they will in no way cause the US to shift its strategy.

There are inherent obstacles to GCC military integration, and the political mistrust of the gulf states is just one challenge. As such, it is likely that the current strain in the GCC writ large will produce little change in the structure of US-gulf security cooperation."

-- Mary Casey

DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Syrian Refugees Registered in Lebanon Top 1 Million

The number of Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon officially topped 1 million Thursday in what the United Nations called a "devastating milestone." With a population of about 4 million, this constitutes about a quarter of Lebanon's resident population and has made it so that Lebanon now has the highest concentration of refugees per capita in the world. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said, "The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country. For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering." The surge of refugees has put a strain on Lebanon's health and education sectors, as well as water, sanitation, and utility services. An estimated 2,500 Syrians flee to Lebanon each day. Others seek refugee in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere constituting over 2.6 million people. Another 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria. Meanwhile, the Syria has written a letter to the United Nations claiming that rebel groups are planning to conduct a gas attack in an opposition-held are near Damascus in or to blame it on government forces. Bashar Jaafari, Syrian envoy to the United Nations, wrote in the letter that authorities had intercepted rebel communications indicating a gas attack will take place and showing a man distributing gas masks in Jobar. On Thursday, several mortar shells hit the Syrian capital of Damascus as well as the suburb of Harasta killing at least six people.

Headlines

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday continuing to push talks as negotiators met in Jerusalem.
  • Twitter remained blocked in Turkey on Thursday despite the Constitutional Court's ruling that the ban was "illegal" and "arbitrary" and violated freedom of expression.
  • The U.S. State Department has raised serious concerns over Iran's nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi, who is connected with the 1979 hostage crisis, as its envoy to the United Nations.
  • Israel's foreign ministry workers committee and the Treasury signed a labor agreement Wednesday evening ended the Foreign Ministry's 11-day strike.
  • Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has responded to an announced British inquiry into the group saying it will take the government to court if it attempts to restrict its activities in Britain.

Arguments and Analysis

'America has resettled 121 of Syria's 2m refugees. We must do better ­­- now' (Eleanor Acer, Human Rights First)

"As the crisis enters its fourth year, the scale of suffering in Syria is tremendous; so, too, is its impact on the region. More than 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria and more than 2.6 million have fled the country in search of refuge. The UN Refugee Agency expects this number to rise to more than 4 million by the end of this year. More than 587,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, more than 649,000 have fled to Turkey, and nearly 1 million have fled to Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now constitute a quarter of the fragile country's population.

In his testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and former United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, noted: ‘If we do not act now to protect the region's future, the fallout from this conflict will be felt for generations.'

This is already apparent. Despite their generosity, Syria's neighbouring states are struggling to provide basic needs to refugees, some of whom are living in squalor. And the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis also threatens the stability of the region, including that of key US allies like Jordan.

And yet, so far, the American response has been wanting. With more than $1.7bn in aid so far, it is the single largest donor to the Syria humanitarian response, but the United States resettled a mere 36 Syrian refugees in 2013. As of February 2014, the US has resettled only 25 more. That's a total of 121 since 2011, out of over 2 million refugees.

If the country with the largest resettlement program in the world doesn't step up, who will?"

'Erdogan's next moves' (Gonul Tol, The Washington Post)

"Yet the most significant factor behind the AKP's strong standing in local elections is the economy. Corruption is prevalent in Turkey, but voters tend to punish politicians for corruption only when the economy is perceived to be doing poorly. After a volatile 1990s, the AKP has presided over steady high growth and modest inflation. Despite the slowdown in economic growth over the past year, Turkish voters seem to credit the government for the economic development and relative stability that have marked the nearly 12 years of its rule.

Regardless of the factors behind the AKP victory, the win could have broad implications for Turkey's turbulent political landscape. Erdogan is likely to interpret the result as a popular seal of approval, and will assert his authority even more strongly in a power struggle continuing into this summer's presidential election and next year's parliamentary elections. After being targeted by Gulen supporters within the judiciary and the police force, Erdogan's first move will be to root out Gulenists within the state and target businesses and civil society organizations close to the movement. That Gulenists allegedly posted a recording on YouTube of a secret meeting of security officials about possible intervention in Syria right before the elections has given such action new urgency."

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Image