The Middle East Channel

Syrian Government and Rebels Reach Cease-Fire in Homs

The Syrian government and rebel forces reportedly agreed to a cease-fire in Homs on Friday, allowing for around 1,000 opposition fighters to withdraw from districts in and around the Old City of Homs. If the deal goes through, Syria's third-largest city will fall under government control just weeks ahead of presidential elections, in which President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win a third term. The agreement calls for a 48-hour truce in the rebel-held areas of Homs, after which fighters will be evacuated to regions north of the city. It has come just days after dozens of people were killed and wounded in explosions in government-held neighbors in the city. Syrian state television reported two car bombs exploded in the Hama province towns of Jibrin and al-Humairi Friday, killing 18 people, including 11 children and injuring 50 others. On Thursday, airstrikes killed at least 33 people at a busy market in the rebel-held district of Hullock in Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Meanwhile, the United Nations is looking for a replacement for its special envoy to Syria as Lakhdar Brahimi, frustrated by the failed Geneva peace talks, is expected to resign at the end of May.  

Headlines

  • Tunisia's interim parliament passed a new electoral law Thursday paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014.
  • Turkish prosecutors dismissed a real estate graft case against 60 suspects, including a former minister's son and a construction magnate, one of three corruption inquiries plaguing Erdogan's government.
  • Two suicide attacks in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula killed a soldier Friday and a car bomb killed a policeman at a checkpoint in Cairo.
  • Suspected Islamist militants attacked a security headquarters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi Friday killing eight soldiers and police officers.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to draft a bill promoting Israel's Jewish character in an apparent response to the failure of Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state during peace talks.

Arguments and Analysis

'How should we count the dead in Syria?' (Laia Balcells, Lionel Beehner, and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, The Washington Post)

"Herein lies the problem with counting the dead in Syria's civil war: different methods to identifying casualties, different standards, and different agendas can lead to starkly contrasting interpretations of the violence on the ground.

Consider just the conflicting enumerations of fatalities in Syria. SOHR claims to be able to account for 99% of all violence in Syria and provides video or photographic evidence in 70% of its cases. No death gets recorded unless there is an accompanying name. Its 150,000-plus-casualty figure is the one most often cited by the international media and NGO community, even though the number could be well above 220,000, SOHR's director Rami Abdel-Rahman told Lebanon's Daily Star.

By contrast, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) relies on a loose network of a few dozen reporters and activists located abroad and on the ground in Syria. Its data, which is periodically audited, is vastly different from the SOHR's and presents a much more one-sided picture of the violence. VDC claims to be able to document 60% of the instances of violence comprising its data. (Moreover, in light of the escalating number of foreign extremist fighters being killed on the rebel side, it is reportedly going to be doing away with the culturally loaded term ‘martyr')."

'Yemen's Counterterror Offensive Sidesteps Real Problems' (Vivian Salama, Atlantic Council)

"As military operations increase in the southern governorates, as many believe they could, the more productive option for winning hearts and minds is to seek reconciliation. Severe government neglect and dwindling resources, including declining water, soaring unemployment and rapid population growth - issues often at the heart of domestic conflicts - are becoming blurred as the government wages a war against these groups that supposedly represent a radical Islamist position. Resources including electricity, water, and gas are scarce and coming under increasing pressure. Many remote areas from Khawlan to Rada'a to the southern governorate of Abyaan have little-to-no access to healthcare or proper education, fueling further resentment against the state."

AFP PHOTO / BARAA AL-HALABI

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

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