The Middle East Channel

Syrian Rebels Begin Withdrawal From Homs

Syrian rebels have begun evacuating the city of Homs in part of a deal struck with pro-government forces, which will be guaranteed by the United Nations and Iran. Rebel fighters have held out in the Old City of Homs and several other areas for over year while under siege by the government. About 2,000 people, including an estimated 1,200 fighters, are expected to leave Homs in phases to be bused to rebel-controlled areas of northern Homs province. Rebel fighters in turn agreed to end their siege of the predominantly Shiite northern towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa, and opened the roads for aid deliveries on Wednesday morning. They additionally agreed to release several hostages. The withdrawal of fighters from Homs, an early center of the uprising once dubbed the "capital of the revolution," is a symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad. It has come just weeks ahead of the presidential election, which Assad is widely expected to win and opposition activists have called a sham.

Headlines

  • Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian presidential candidate and former general, said U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson asked him to hold off "for a day or two" before ousting elected President Mohamed Morsi.
  • Yemen's defense ministry has reported government forces have seized two al Qaeda strongholds in the Abyan and Shawa provinces in part of an offensive in the south.
  • Saudi Arabia has claimed to have broken up a "major terrorist network" after arresting 62 suspected militants with alleged links to al Qaeda groups in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
  • Rights groups have accused Lebanon, which has taken in over one million refugees from the Syrian conflict, of blocking entry for Palestinians and forcibility returning them to Syria.
  • Lebanese lawmakers have failed to elect a president after the third parliamentary session in less than a month was boycotted.

Arguments and Analysis

'The Bitter Truth about the Settlements' (Matthew Duss, The American Prospect)

"It's important to note there that it's not just the settlements themselves-which, as their defenders never tire of pointing out, actually take up only a small fraction of land in the West Bank-that are the problem, but the system required to maintain them; the network of roads connecting them to Israel proper that bisect the West Bank, and on which Palestinians are forbidden to drive; the Israeli military presence that mocks any pretense of Palestinian autonomy; the acts of violence and harassment by settlers that Israeli authorities show little genuine interest in controlling. It's what the settlements tell the Palestinians as they grow just outside their windows: that Israel has no intention of ever ending the occupation. 

‘Twenty years after the Oslo Accords, new game rules and facts on the ground were created that are deeply entrenched," the U.S. officials continued. "This reality is very difficult for the Palestinians and very convenient for Israel.'

Having (very belatedly) recognized this: Is the U.S. now prepared to take steps that make reality less ‘convenient' for Israel? For years, the mantra of conservative pro-Israel lobby groups has been that Israel will only be able to make the difficult choices for peace if it knows that U.S. support is absolute. But there's a flip side to this, too: When Israel knows that U.S. support is absolute, it has no incentive to make difficult choices."   

'How Personal Politics Drive Conflict in the Gulf' (David Roberts, Council on Foreign Relations)

"Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recently labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, there is no turning back the clock; their antipathy is now institutionalized state policy. In the aftermath of the ambassadorial withdrawal, dozens of Qataris changed their Twitter profile pictures to photos of the Emir. Qataris - even those who do not support the Brotherhood - were clearly signaling that they would not be bullied into changing their policy. So while Qatar could theoretically change tack and join the bandwagon, such an about-face would be seen as a capitulation and would be received poorly back in Doha. Also, aside from the legacy of the policy toward the Brotherhood in Qatar, if there has been a central theme in the country's foreign policy in the last twenty-five years it has been one of unambiguously asserting Qatar's independence from Saudi Arabia. Reasonable accommodation has been made in the past, such as in 2008 when Qatar controlled to a greater degree Al Jazeera coverage of Saudi Arabia to ensure the return of the Saudi ambassador to Doha after a six year absence, but the current proposals seek strategic change. Part of the mooted accord attempting to resolve this latest crisis hints that once more Al Jazeera's coverage might be on the table and Qaradawi is, for the time being at least, cooperating by toning down his rhetoric. But without precisely the kind of meaningful change that Qatar cannot undertake, relations seem set for an extended cold snap, punctuated by personally-led spurts of anger, potentially peripatetically lurching relations from one mini-crisis to the next."

-- Mary Casey

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s Sisi Says if Elected Muslim Brotherhood Will Cease to Exist

In the first televised interview of his campaign, former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed that the banned Muslim Brotherhood will not exist if he wins the presidency. Sisi led the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the Muslim Brotherhood has since been designated a terrorist organization. The military-backed government has killed more than a thousand pro-Morsi demonstrators and imprisoned over 10,000 political opponents, primarily Islamists. Sisi claimed the Muslim Brotherhood has ties to militant groups and mentioned that two plots to assassinate him had been discovered. He said it would not be possible for the Brotherhood to re-enter political life in Egypt and asserted, "It's not me who finished the Muslim Brotherhood -- the Egyptian people have." Sisi is widely expected to win Egypt's presidential election on May 26 and 27.

Syria

The United States said it will recognize the offices of Syria's main opposition alliance, the Syrian National Coalition, as diplomatic missions. The State Department also pledged $27 million in nonlethal aid bringing the total U.S. assistance since the beginning of the Syrian conflict to $287 million. The moves have come ahead of talks between Secretary of State John Kerry, and other senior U.S. officials, and a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders, including SNC President Ahmad Jarba. While granting the opposition coalition diplomatic status does not mean the United States is recognizing the SNC as Syria's government, it will make it easier to facilitate banking and security services. Jarba said it was a "diplomatic blow against Assad's legitimacy and demonstrates how far the opposition has progressed." 

Headlines

  • An Egyptian court has banned officials from former President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party from running in elections.
  • A French security guard working at the EU mission in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa was shot and killed Monday.
  • Hamas released six Fatah prisoners held in Gaza beginning to implement a unity deal signed two weeks ago between the Palestinian factions.
  • The Iranian navy has been building replicas of U.S. warships to practice blowing them up, and Navy Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi boasted about the capability to destroy U.S. vessels.

Arguments and Analysis

'Libya's Faustian Bargains: Breaking the Appeasement Cycle' (Karim Mezran, Jason Pack, and Mohamed Eljarh, Atlantic Council)

"The proximal cause of Libya's current problems in the security sector, the economy, and the transition to constitutional governance is the Libyan authorities' policy of appeasement of their opponents. Some analysts have absolved the post-Qaddafi authorities­-the National Transitional Council (NTC), General National Congress (GNC), government, cabinet, and ministries-of both their agency and responsibility for the current problems by blaming Qaddafi-era policies, Libya's primordial social and regional structures, and the absence of institutions (such as a national army or civil society) for most challenges currently facing the country. These factors are, indeed, key components of the troubles and constitute the root causes of the current situation. However, these preexisting factors have been exacerbated and mutated by the practice of appeasement."

'Near Eastern Promises: Why Washington Should Focus on the Middle East' (Kenneth M. Pollack and Ray Takeyh, Foreign Affairs)

"Nevertheless, the fact that these problems have not already affected American interests suggests that, in confronting the region's instability, a modestly increased effort might be all that is required to safeguard U.S. interests against the Middle East's myriad threats. Obama might have pushed the pendulum of U.S. involvement in the Middle East too far toward disengagement, but there is no need to swing it back to the militarized overinvolvement that characterized the administration of George W. Bush."

'Excluding the Old Regime: Political Participation in Tunisia' (Karina Piser, Muftah)

Tunisia's ongoing debate on political exclusion reflects the dilemmas inherent in maintaining institutional stability during transitions to democracy. Obviously, it is important to keep those guilty of torture, corruption, and other violations of human rights on the sidelines. But, as the Tunisian experience demonstrates, authoritarian practices deprive a country of a viable political culture that extends beyond a small coterie of elites. In banning opposition parties and silencing dissent, dictators, like Ben Ali, allow only their inner circle to gain political expertise and experience in governance.

In Tunisia, the first three years after Ben Ali's ouster have been a period of nascent democracy, with fledgling political parties asserting themselves for the first time. During the constitution's drafting, for example, some attributed the lengthy process to a lack of experience among assembly members, while also recognizing the NCA's importance in promoting a shift toward democracy in the country."

-- Mary Casey

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images