The Middle East Channel

Death Toll Climbs After Turkish Mine Explosion

At least 232 miners have been killed and hundreds of others are still trapped after an explosion and a fire Tuesday at a coal mine in Turkey's western district of Soma. The mine's owners estimated 787 people were in the mine at the time of the explosion, which was reportedly sparked by an electrical fault. An estimated 93 people have been rescued. Turkey's energy minister, Taner Yildiz told reporters it is likely to be the deadliest accident in Turkey's history and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared three days of national mourning. The disaster is renewing debate over safety standards at state-run mines and comes just two weeks after a parliamentary motion filed by Turkey's main opposition party to launch an inquiry into work-related accidents at the Soma mine was rejected.

Syria

The United Nations and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has announced his resignation having failed to achieve a peace settlement through political negotiations and frustrated by President Bashar al-Assad's running for a third term in office. Brahimi succeeded former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in the position, who stepped down in 2012 also due to frustrations over lack of progress in the peace process. Brahimi's term will end on May 31, and it is unclear who might replace him. Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, during a visit to Washington, said he has credible evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, at least 14 times since signing a treaty in September 2013 banning them. Fabius additionally expressed regret over the failure of the United States, France, and Britain to conduct a military intervention in Syria last summer.

Headlines

Arguments and Analysis

'Syria's dirty secret is that Assad could win in a fair election' (Faisal Al Yafai, The National)

"But there is a serious reason to understand why Mr Al Assad is seen by many within and without Syria as a credible candidate. Because many will vote for him.

Certainly, that is because there is no real alternative, because the only places in which voting will take place are under government control, because 40 years of propaganda have removed any alternative - and because the Assad regime has spent three years demonstrating what it means by the slogan "Assad or we burn the country".

But the dirty secret in Syria today is that, if the presidential election were free and fair, Bashar Al Assad would still win.

However unpalatable it is, the man who has overseen the systematic destruction of the country, who has made more refugees than anyone else in the Middle East this century, is still popular. We ought to ask why."

'In Hassan Rouhani's Iran, an Indie Rock Band Can Play Once But Not Twice' (Sune Engel Rasmussen, New Republic)

"Your judgment of President Hassan Rouhani depends on which Evin you focus on. Rouhani's election promise to restart nuclear negotiations and warm up international relations is off to a hopeful start. His second promise, to grant more freedom to civil society, is not.

Since the election last year, observers have eyed Rouhani with apprehension. Will he open his country's gates for more Western-inspired culture, as the New York Times suggested last month? Or is he just another ‘security apparatchik,' personally responsible for prison beatings and public executions, as the Wall Street Journal claimed?

It is tempting to see every twist and turn in Iran's human rights record as a result of directions from the presidential palace. It is also grossly simplified. But no matter which way you look at it, small rips have begun to appear in the cloak of censorship."

-- Mary Casey

Ozgu Ozdemir/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Sentenced to Six Years in Jail

A Tel Aviv Court has sentenced former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to six years in prison on corruption charges. Olmert was convicted on March 31 for taking a $145,000 bribe, while he served as mayor of Jerusalem, from developers of the controversial Holyland apartment complex as well as an additional bribe from a separate project. In his opening statements, Judge David Rozen said, "A public servant who accepts bribes is akin to a traitor." Olmert was prime minister from 2006 to 2009. A centrist, he was credited internationally for his efforts attempting to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. He would be the first Israeli head of government to be imprisoned, with his jail sentence set to begin September 1. However, his lawyers, who said Olmert did not take a bribe, are expected to file an appeal with the Supreme Court.

Syria

Representatives of the 11 leading countries supporting the Syrian opposition, known as the London 11, are meeting Thursday. The meeting comes after a top U.N. humanitarian official said the "situation is getting worse" for the over 9 million Syrians displaced by conflict, and as aid workers become increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of aid deliveries into Syria. The meeting will also follow the evacuation deal that saw over 1,200 rebel fighters abandon the city of Homs. A European official said, "It doesn't mean we're giving up in any way." A U.S. official mentioned the meeting will be a "sort of reset." Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report Tuesday citing strong evidence that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in barrel bomb attacks on three towns in April.

Headlines

  • The IAEA has reported that Iran is making slow progress in clarifying possible military dimensions of Tehran's nuclear program ahead of resumed talks with world powers in Vienna.
  • Jordanian Ambassador to Libya Fawaz al-Itan has been freed, after being abducted in April in Tripoli, in exchange for the release of a fighter held since 2007 by Jordan.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday for the first time since peace talks collapsed to discuss resuming negotiations with Israel.
  • A series of car bombings in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad targeting Shiite celebrations Tuesday killed an estimated 23 people.

Arguments and Analysis

'The random Muslim scare story generator: separating fact from fiction' (Nesrine Malik, The Guardian)

"Underpinning it is a common theme: that there is an ever more muscular and intimidating Muslim minority demanding special rights from a cowed and pandering, lily-livered body politic muzzled by ‘multicultural Britain' - rather than simply attempting to adapt and integrate, as immigrants of all religions have been doing in the UK for centuries. It's not hard to see how this constant blurring of facts generates the mood music of anti-immigration rightwingers and establishes common misconceptions about Muslims.

But the threat of a creeping sharia never seems to materialise. It seems to be more of a crawling sharia, so slowly has the Islamist takeover of Britain been, in contrast to the constant media warnings of its imminent arrival.

The focus far outstrips the size and political activity of the minority, which number 2.7 million (less than 5% of the population), not all of whom are practising Muslims. The Islamic scare story plays to a nexus of easy media sensationalism, a portion of the public primed and ready to believe the worst, and an interested rightwing element for whom it is a convenient vehicle for their anti-immigration views, xenophobia, or just Islamophobia."

'The U.S., Asia and the Middle East: A convergence of interests' (Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Houston Chronicle)

"Crucially, the recipient states with some of the highest dependencies on Gulf energy are those that are commonly projected as forming the focus of any U.S. "pivot." The U.S. has a powerful set of overlapping interests with Asian partners when engaging with the Middle East. With Asian economies all looking to the Gulf as a stable and long-term supplier of oil and gas, a nexus of shared U.S.-Middle East-Asian interest is coalescing around the security of supply through international sea lanes and regional chokepoints in addition to the maintenance of regional stability more generally. These are substantive ties that can bind U.S., Middle Eastern and Asian interests and soothe the surface tensions that recently have marred U.S.-Gulf relations, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates."

'Syrian Refugees and Turkey's Challenges: Beyond the Limits of Hospitality' (Kemal Kiri?ci, The Brookings Institution)

"The persistence of the conflict and the ever growing number of urban refugees is creating a set of tough challenges for Turkey. Firstly, it is becoming increasingly clear that refugees are not about to return home anytime soon. This brings up a range of very difficult policy issues for the government. They range from whether the government should start to think in terms of offering refugees the possibility to remain and integrate in Turkey to addressing urgent education, employment, health, shelter and other needs of Syrian refugees. Secondly, the refugee population outside camps has grown significantly and is expected to surpass one million by the end of the year. The government is trying to register them but the process is far from complete, particularly as increasing number of refugees are living outside of camps where assistance is always more difficult and complex. Working with refugees who are dispersed in the host community involves different governmental agencies and it is harder to identify who the target population is, harder to figure out how to assist host communities, especially in the absence of a comprehensive systematic need assessment exercise. Thirdly, the presence of growing numbers of Syrians in Turkey is deeply impacting on host communities economically, socially as well as politically. Last but not least, there is also the continued deterioration of the humanitarian and political situation inside Syria. How should Turkey be addressing these challenges?"

-- Mary Casey

Sebastian Scheiner-Pool/Getty Images