The Middle East Channel

Syrian Rebels Bomb Aleppo Hotel

A large explosion in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo destroyed a hotel used as a military base by government forces. Fighters from the opposition Islamic Front reportedly dug a tunnel and detonated a huge bomb underneath the Carlton Citadel Hotel on Thursday, leveling the hotel and damaging other buildings near the city's medieval citadel. The Islamic Front claimed 50 soldiers from President Bashar al-Assad's forces were killed in the explosion, however the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 14 security forces were killed. Meanwhile, more rebel fighters are leaving the city of Homs Thursday in the second day of an evacuation deal, and the Syrian army is expected to move in to the formerly rebel-held areas later in the day. Opposition Syrian National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba is meeting with officials in Washington, where he said he will ask the Obama administration to provide antiaircraft missiles and will work to assure officials that the weapons will not fall into the hands of extremist groups. However, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, part of the Free Syrian Army, has reportedly collaborated with al Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front to fight government forces in Syria's southwestern Quneitra province. A member of Jarba's delegation in the United States has denied the collaboration.

Headlines

  • A Saudi court has sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam" and founding the website the "Liberal Saudi Network."
  • An Israeli and an Egyptian company are working to finalize a gas deal, though the Egyptian cabinet said it had not authorized gas imports from Israel.
  • The Hamas government executed two men Wednesday, without seeking approval from the Palestinian Authority president, on charges of collaborating with Israel.
  • The U.N. Human Rights Council is urging Qatar to reform its labor laws and abolish a sponsorship system ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Arguments and Analysis

'When jihadists learn how to help' (Aaron Y. Zelin, The Washington Post)

"What makes ASL stand out compared to all of the other groups, though, is that it has internationalized its dawa campaign to areas that are not part of its considered traditional constituency within the borders of Libya to a few other countries. ASL has conducted a number of campaigns to help the people of "Bilad al-Sham," Gaza, and Sudan. This illustrates that ASL is not just rhetorically talking about assisting the umma (Muslim community), but actually acting on it and trying to show that while its home base is indeed in Libya, the "imagined" umma is just as much a part of this constituency, since borders are irrelevant from its perspective. This is highlighted by the name of ASL's overseas dawa efforts: ‘The Convoy Campaign of Goodness To Our People in ‘X-location.'"

'Ronald Reagan's Benghazi' (Jane Mayer, The New Yorker)

"There were more than enough opportunities to lay blame for the horrific losses at high U.S. officials' feet. But unlike today's Congress, congressmen did not talk of impeaching Ronald Reagan, who was then President, nor were any subpoenas sent to cabinet members. This was true even though then, as now, the opposition party controlled the majority in the House. Tip O'Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, was no pushover. He, like today's opposition leaders in the House, demanded an investigation-but a real one, and only one. Instead of playing it for political points, a House committee undertook a serious investigation into what went wrong at the barracks in Beirut. Two months later, it issued a report finding "very serious errors in judgment" by officers on the ground, as well as responsibility up through the military chain of command, and called for better security measures against terrorism in U.S. government installations throughout the world.

In other words, Congress actually undertook a useful investigation and made helpful recommendations. The report's findings, by the way, were bipartisan. (The Pentagon, too, launched an investigation, issuing a report that was widely accepted by both parties.)"

-- Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

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