The Middle East Channel

Turkish Riot Police Break Up May Day Demonstrations

Turkish riot police fired tear gas, water cannon, and rubber pellets in efforts to disperse thousands of demonstrators defying a ban on May Day protests attempting to reach Istanbul's Taksim Square. The square has historically been the gathering point for Turkish protesters marking International Workers' Day. About 40,000 police officers were deployed across the city and parts of the public transportation system were closed. Turkey's main trade unions issued a statement Wednesday saying "We will be in Taksim despite the irrational and illegal ban." The Progressive Lawyers Association reported 51 people have been injured in clashes and 138 people detained. Authorities issued a similar ban last year, sparking violence that was followed by mass anti-government protests late last May. In addition to Istanbul, activists planned protests Thursday in the capital of Ankara and over 30 provinces in Turkey.

Syria

A government airstrike hit an elementary school in the Syrian city of Aleppo Wednesday morning killing an estimated 20 people, including 17 children, according to opposition activists. The strike came as hundreds of students from local schools gathered at the Ein Jalout school in Aleppo's Ansari district for an art exhibit. The United Nations Children's Fund expressed outrage saying indiscriminate attacks on populated areas appear to be escalating, killing children "who are simply trying to go about their everyday lives." Clashes broke out overnight between government forces and opposition fighters in the town of Zabadani, outside Damascus. The town is one of the last rebel strongholds in the mountainous Qalamoun region along the border with Lebanon. The fighting reportedly killed 14 rebel fighters and an unknown number of Syrian soldiers.

Headlines

  • Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki remains the frontrunner as vote tallying begins in Iraq's parliamentary elections which have been hailed as a "national-building step."
  • Thousands of Egyptian prisoners are refusing to attend trials and are staging hunger strikes protesting mass trials, poor prison conditions, and lack of access to justice.

Arguments and Analysis

'Press Freedom in 2013: Media Freedom Hits Decade Low' (Karin Deutsch Karlekar and Jennifer Dunham, Freedom House)

"Global press freedom fell to its lowest level in over a decade in 2013, as hopes raised by the Arab Spring were further dashed by major regression in Egypt, Libya, and Jordan, and marked setbacks also occurred in Turkey, Ukraine, and a number of countries in East Africa. In another key development, media freedom in the United States deteriorated due primarily to attempts by the government to inhibit reporting on national security issues.

Meanwhile, as a result of declines in democratic settings over the past several years, the share of the world's population that enjoys a Free press remained at 14 percent, meaning only one in seven people live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures."

'The Rising Costs of Turkey's Syrian Quagmire' (International Crisis Group)

"The Syrian crisis crashed onto neighbouring Turkey's doorstep three years ago and the humanitarian, policy and security costs continue to rise. After at least 720,000 Syrian refugees, over 75 Turkish fatalities and nearly $3 billion in spending, frustration and fatigue are kicking in. Turkey's humanitarian outreach, while morally right and in line with international principles, remains an emergency response. Ankara needs to find a sustainable, long-term arrangement with the international community to care for the Syrians who arrive daily. While spared the worst of the sectarian and military spillover, Turks are reminded of the security risks by deadly car bombs and armed incidents on their territory, especially as northern Syria remains an unpredictable no-man's-land. The conflict was not of its making, but Ankara has in effect become a party. Unable to make a real difference by itself, it should focus on protecting its border and citizens, invigorate recent efforts to move back from the ruling party's Sunni Muslim-oriented foreign policy to one of sectarian neutrality and publicly promote a compromise political solution in Syria."

'Binyamin Netanyahu would rather stay in power than pursue a peace deal' (Aluff Benn, The Guardian)

"Netanyahu missed an opportunity. He could have leveraged his unchallenged leadership to make headway towards peace, freed Israel from the moral and political burden of its endless occupation in the West Bank, and drawn the country's permanent borders. The Israeli public would widely support any peace programme endorsed by Netanyahu. And for the first time in his turbulent 30-year career, Bibi could have been the national hero, leading from the centre, rather than remaining the aloof master of PR.

But Netanyahu wasn't interested. Even when shown polls indicating that a peace breakthrough would make him extremely popular, he shrugged and kept looking to the right, to make sure his base was still there. The scar from his first term - when the left and far-right joined to topple him following the Wye River accord he signed with Yasser Arafat - wouldn't heal."

-- Mary Casey

Burak Kara/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iraqis Head to Polls Amid Heavy Security

Iraqis are heading to the polls amid heavy security in the first parliamentary elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. Iraq has seen the worst violence since 2008, with 160 people killed in attacks within the last week. As polls opened Wednesday, two roadside bombs exploded near Kirkuk killing two women and a bombing at a market northeast of Baghdad killed at least 11 people. The capital is under lockdown, and cars have been banned during the voting in efforts to prevent suicide attacks and car bombers. Polling stations in much of Anbar province were closed on Wednesday. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seeking a third term and his Shiite State of Law list is expected to win the most seats in parliament. However, growing unrest will pose a challenge to Maliki and he is unlikely to take enough seats to avoid needing to establish a coalition.

Syria

Jordan and the United Nations have opened up a new camp for refugees fleeing Syria's civil war. The Azraq camp has the infrastructure to house 50,000 people, but has been designed to expand to hold 130,000 refugees. Zaatari camp is currently Jordan's biggest and has reached capacity at a population of 100,000. Zaatari has been strongly criticized for its poor conditions, and Jack Byrne from the International Rescue Committee said Azraq was built taking into account lessons from Zaatari. Meanwhile the death toll has risen from bomb, mortar, and rocket attacks on government-held areas of Damascus and Homs on Tuesday, with estimates ranging from 50 to 100 people killed. In a statement at The Hague Tuesday the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced it will send a team to investigate claims that chlorine gas has been used in attacks in Syria at least nine times since February.  

Headlines

  • U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy has blocked military aid to Egypt criticizing the administration's intention to release $650 million in assistance considering an Egyptian court's recent issuing of 720 death sentences.
  • With the end of peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is considering unilateral moves such as annexing parts of the West Bank while the PLO may seek to join the ICC.
  • Lebanese speaker Nabih Berri adjourned the second round of the presidential election after lawmakers boycotted and scheduled the third round for May 7.
  • Gunmen attacked Libya's parliament Tuesday causing several injuries and forcing lawmakers to suspend a vote on a new prime minister.

Arguments and Analysis

'Palestinian-Israeli Talks: Time for a "Time Out"' (Shai Feldman, The National Interest)

"What are the key mistakes that should be discussed at the retreat? First, Kerry should not have permitted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to engage him in endless discussions regarding the conditions for negotiations. Kerry should have told the two leaders:

Gentlemen, if you want peace, the United States is prepared to facilitate. If you reach an agreement, issues like a settlement-construction freeze and release of prisoners will be taken care of. Prisoners will be released and construction will cease in whatever settlements will find themselves located on the Palestinian side of the negotiated boundary. But the world presents the United States with too many important challenges for us to be engaged in negotiating precursors to negotiations. So make up your mind: If you want peace, we need to focus on border demarcation, security, Jerusalem, refugees, and water resources. Not on your conditions for negotiating these issues."

'Syria: Pull Together Resources, Rationalize the Response' (Frederic C. Hof, Atlantic Council)

"The key obstacle, therefore, to the proposition that the United States should pull together the resources and rationalize the response to the depredations of the Assad regime may be entirely internal. How, after all, would such a labor-intensive, complicated, contentious, and lengthy process be managed and controlled by the president and his staff? When the inevitable problems arise and reverses occur, who-with everything else going on-will massage and manage the media message? Who would have the requisite combination of leadership skills, area expertise, operational experience, and presidential trust to lead such a complex and difficult effort? Where would the White House inner circle find the time to review everything down to punctuation in planning documentation that would first be required to run a gauntlet of skeptical lawyers primed to find fault and eliminate risk? Is there, in short, anything about Syria worth the political risks and managerial burdens of doing something big?"

-- Mary Casey

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images