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Thread: The Oh-So-Fun Middle East!

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  1. #31
    Our man in Cairo

    By David Ignatius, Dec 08, 2012 01:01 AM EST

    The Washington Post Published: December 8

    How did Washington become the best friend of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even as President Mohamed Morsi was asserting dictatorial powers and his followers were beating up secular liberals in the streets of Cairo? It’s a question many Arabs ask these days, and it deserves an answer.

    Morsi and his Brotherhood followers are on a power trip after decades of isolation and persecution. You could see that newfound status when Morsi visited the United Nations in September and even more so during the diplomacy that led to last month’s cease-fire in Gaza, brokered by Morsi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Brotherhood leaders had gone from outcasts to superstars, and they were basking in the attention.

    And let’s be honest: The Obama administration has been Morsi’s main enabler. U.S. officials have worked closely with him on economic development and regional diplomacy. Visiting Washington last week, Morsi’s top aides were touting their boss’s close contacts with President Obama and describing phone calls between the two leaders that led to the Gaza cease-fire.

    Morsi’s unlikely role as a peacemaker is the upside of the “cosmic wager” Obama has made on the Muslim Brotherhood. It illustrates why the administration was wise to keep its channels open over the past year of post-revolutionary jockeying in Egypt.

    But power corrupts, and this is as true with the Muslim Brotherhood as with any other group that suddenly finds itself in the driver’s seat after decades of ostracism. Probably thinking he had America’s backing, Morsi overreached on Nov. 22 by declaring that his presidential decrees were not subject to judicial review. His followers claim that he was trying to protect Egypt’s revolution from judges appointed by Hosni Mubarak. But that rationale has worn thin as members of Morsi’s government resigned in protest, thousands of demonstrators took the streets and, ominously, Muslim Brotherhood supporters began counterattacking with rocks, clubs and metal pipes.

    Through this upheaval, the Obama administration has been oddly restrained. After the power grab, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said: “We call for calm and encourage all parties to work together and call for all Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully and through democratic dialogue.” Not exactly a thundering denunciation.

    “You need to explain to me why the U.S. reaction to Morsi’s behavior is so muted,” one Arab official wrote me. “So a Muslim Brotherhood leader becomes president of Egypt. He then swoops in with the most daring usurping of presidential powers since the Pharaohs, enough to make Mubarak look like a minor-league autocrat in training by comparison, and the only response the . . . [Obama administration] can put out is [Nuland’s statement].” This official wondered whether the United States had lost its moral and political bearings in its enthusiasm to find new friends.

    The administration’s rejoinder is that this isn’t about America. Egyptians and other Arabs are writing their history now, and they will have to live with the consequences. Moreover, the last thing secular protesters need is an American embrace. That’s surely true, but it’s crazy for Washington to appear to take sides against those who want a liberal, tolerant Egypt and for those who favor sharia. Somehow, that’s where the administration has ended up.

    For a lesson in the dangers of falling in love with your client, look at Iraq: U.S. officials, starting with President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus, kept lauding Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, despite warnings from many Iraqis that he was a conspiratorial politician who would end up siding with Iran. This misplaced affection continued into the Obama administration: Even after the Iraqi people in their wisdom voted in 2010 to dump Maliki, the United States helped him cobble together enough support to remain in power. Arab observers are still scratching their heads trying to understand that one.

    When assessing the turbulent events in the Arab world, we should remind ourselves that we’re witnessing a revolution that may take decades to produce a stable outcome. With the outcome so hard to predict, it’s a mistake to make big bets on any particular player. The U.S. role should be to support the broad movement for change and economic development and to keep lines open to whatever democratic governments emerge.

    America will help the Arab world through this turmoil if it states clearly that U.S. policy is guided by its interests and values, not by transient alliances and friendships. If Morsi wants to be treated as a democratic leader, he will have to act like one.

  2. #32
    U.S.-Egypt alliance must depend on democratic reform by Morsi

    By Editorial Board, Dec 05, 2012 12:25 AM EST

    The Washington Post Published: December 5

    THE RELATIVE good news about Egypt is that the new Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi is loudly proclaiming its desire for a continued “strategic partnership” with the United States. During a visit to Washington this week, Essam El Haddad, a senior aide to Mr. Morsi, told us the new regime sees its relationship with the Obama administration as based on “shared values,” adding that it “has a great potential to develop a new hope within the region and even beyond the region.”

    The bad news is that Egypt is dangerously polarized between Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and liberal and secular forces, which have taken to the streets repeatedly in the past two weeks. They are there to protest Mr. Morsi’s assumption of near-dictatorial power and his party’s subsequent rush to complete a new constitution. A referendum is set for Dec. 15.

    Mr. Haddad protests that Mr. Morsi’s actions mean that Egypt will move more quickly to a democratic system of checks and balances than it would have, had he allowed judges appointed by former autocrat Hosni Mubarak to dissolve the constitutional assembly, as they appeared set to do. He argues that the new constitution will institutionalize freedoms and rights Egyptians were denied during more than five decades of military rule, including protections against torture, freedom of assembly and the right to form political parties and start publications without government permission.

    In fact, the new constitution is a mixed bag. While it does not impose sharia law or other fundamentalist tenets on the country and contains the liberal provisions Mr. Haddad described, broadly written articles appear to give the government power to undermine individual rights. The Egyptian military is given virtual autonomy, with a defense minister appointed from within its ranks and a budget determined by a national security council rather than by parliament.

    The deeper problem is that Mr. Morsi’s government appears content to steamroll, rather than seek accommodation with, secular opponents. While his spokesmen say they recognize that some of the protesters are peaceful members of the movement that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, they claim that the crowds contain paid thugs and provocateurs. In all, it’s not yet clear whether the regime is moving toward a rough but workable democracy or a new autocracy.

    All this places the Obama administration in a difficult position. The administration is understandably eager to embrace the alliance Mr. Had*dad describes; partnership with Egypt has been a pillar of U.S. Middle East strategy for 40 years. President Obama worked closely with Mr. Morsi during last month’s crisis in Gaza, and the State Department’s public criticism of Mr. Morsi’s power grab has been muted. But the United States cannot return to a policy that ignores domestic repression in Egypt, especially when it is directed against secular and liberal movements.

    Mr. Morsi was due to visit Washington on Dec. 17; fortunately, the two governments agreed to postpone the trip until after Mr. Obama’s second inauguration. That will provide more time to judge whether Mr. Morsi is leading his country toward democracy, and whether he will seek compromise with the opposition. If he does not, the hope-inspiring partnership Mr. Haddad spoke of cannot be possible.

  3. #33
    Winter brings more troubles for displaced Syrians

    (philstar.com) | Updated December 12, 2012 - 5:21am

    ATMEH (AP) — This tent camp sheltering Syrians uprooted by their country's brutal civil war has lost the race against winter: The ground under white tents is soaked in mud, fights erupt over scarce blankets and volunteer doctors routinely run out of medicine for coughing, runny-nosed children.

    The 21-month-old battle to bring down President Bashar Assad has already forced some 3 million Syrians from their homes, according to a new estimate, and cold, wet winter weather is making life increasingly unbearable for the displaced.

    Many of the roughly 12,000 people seeking refuge in the tent camp near the Syrian village of Atmeh on the Turkish border fled with just the clothes on their backs, running from intensifying bombing raids by the Syrian air force in recent months.

    A 10-year-old boy, Abdullah Ahmed, walked around the camp with a bandaged head and hands after suffering burns during an airstrike on his home.

    "I have nothing left except the mercy of God," said Mariam Ghraibeh, a 60-year-old war widow whose home in the town of Kafr Awaid, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) to the south, was destroyed in an airstrike a month ago. Ghraibeh and her family of 15 now huddle in tents, sleeping on thin mattresses on cold plastic, with two or more people sharing a blanket.

    The most basic necessities are missing or in short supply, from toilets to generator-powered electricity. In a tent kitchen, volunteers cook the day's single warm meal in huge pots on gas burners, and on yesterday that meant just potatoes.

    One tent houses a makeshift school where little learning gets done as dozens of noisy kids, from toddlers to teens, squeeze behind desks to sing, draw and mainly to escape the boredom of the family tent. But most of the children, especially the boys, roam the muddy camp in small groups, some barefoot, others in rubber boots.

    The camp is home to some 3,000 children under the age of 12, including about 900 under the age of 1, and they make up the bulk of some 200 to 300 patients a day in the camp clinic, said Dr. Abdel Majid Akkad, a volunteer physician who was born in Syria but lives in Frankfurt, Germany.

    Among children, intestinal worms, scabies and head lice are common because of the poor sanitary conditions. The sometimes rainy and windy weather, with temperatures dropping to near-freezing at night, is sending many to the medical tent with coughs and colds. Akkad said there's a routine shortage of medicines, from antibiotics and drugs against parasites to high blood pressure medication and insulin.

    Last week, volunteers pooled their money to buy anti-lice lotions, but ran out before being able to supply everyone. In any case, it seemed a hopeless task, said Akkad, 42, since effective treatment requires washing and ironing the bedding. "How are they supposed to do that?" he said of the refugees.

    On yesterday, Akkad and another doctor on duty stood side by side behind an exam table as mothers brought in their children. Akkad diagnosed a 5-month-old boy with bronchitis, while a nurse gave a shot to a crying toddler suffering from tonsillitis and diarrhea.

    "The situation is really bad, winter is already here," said camp manager Yakzan Shishakly, 34, who owns an air-conditioning business in Houston, Texas, and returned to his native Syria last year to help victims of the civil war.

    The number of Syrians driven from their homes by the fighting has risen steadily, and the UN refugee agency cited a new estimate by Syria's Red Crescent of some 2.5 million internally displaced, out of a population of 23 million.

    Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN agency, said it's difficult to get an accurate count because some areas of Syria are off-limits to aid workers. The UN says about 2,000 schools in Syria are being used to house the displaced, while other people have found shelter with relatives. It's not clear how widespread tent camps like the one near Atmeh are.

    In addition to the internally displaced, hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries. They include close to 510,000 people who have registered or are awaiting registration as refugees, mainly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, along with tens of thousands who have not registered, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, releasing new figures.

    Refugees crossing into Jordan after dark during heavy rains this week were fearful, freezing and without proper winter clothing, the UN agency said. It said 60 percent of the new arrivals in Jordan were under the age of 18, including 22 newborns arriving Sunday evening. The agency said it is distributing 50,000 thermal blankets in the largest camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

    However, there was no sign of major international aid groups in the Atmeh camp, which started out a few months ago with refugees sleeping in olive groves after Turkey slowed the influx of newcomers, said Shishakly, the camp manager.

    The camp is run by the Maram Foundation, which was set up by Shishakly and other Syrian-Americans in October to raise funds.

    The Turkish Red Crescent has sent tents and distributes breakfast, he said, while he and his supporters buy drinking water and provide a daily warm meal. Another aid group, Medical Relief for Syria, runs the small clinic.

    The tents are pitched on a slope that overlooks rolling olive tree-covered hills on one side and a forbidding Turkish military base on the other.

    People in the camp say they have been prevented from entering Turkey. While Turkey officially maintains an "open door" policy for Syrian refugees, it has acknowledged delays in accepting newcomers because of strains on its resources and more thorough efforts to vet and register new arrivals.

    Some Syrians try to sneak across border, but that requires money.

    Mohannad Fahad, a 33-year-old physician from Kafr Awaid, said he is being asked to pay $50 each for his mother, wife and three young sons to be smuggled into Turkey. His family arrived at the camp Monday morning, fleeing air attacks and leaving behind a largely destroyed and deserted town, but he said there is no way he could stay in the camp.

    Mohammed Yousef, 45, who fled Kafr Awaid back in September, said most of those trying to sneak in are turned back, and that the only hope is for Turkey to ease restrictions.

    In the meantime, Shishakly is trying to make conditions more bearable, by building a storage room, a kitchen and toilets from crude cinderblocks. Some camp residents spread gravel to help keep rainwater away from the tents.

    Weather-proofing looks like an impossible challenge, said Shishakly. "We are fighting with time."

  4. #34
    Taliban popular where US fought biggest battle

    (philstar.com) | Updated December 12, 2012 - 4:40am

    MARJAH (AP) — Nearly three years after US-led forces launched the biggest operation of the war to clear insurgents, foster economic growth and set a model for the rest of Afghanistan, angry residents of Helmand province say they are too afraid to go out after dark because of marauding bands of thieves.

    And during the day, they say corrupt police and government officials bully them into paying bribes. After 11 years of war, many here long for a return of the Taliban. They say that under the Taliban, who routinely punished thieves by cutting off a hand, they were at least safe from crime and corruption.

    "If you had a box of cash on your head, you could go to the farthest part of Marjah and no one would take it from you, even at night," said Maulvi Daoud, who runs a cubbyhole sized-shop in the town of Marjah. "Today you bring your motorcycle in front of your shop and it will be gone. Now the situation is that you go on the road and they are standing in police and army uniform with weapons and they can take your money."

    It was in the town of Marjah in early 2010 that some 15,000 NATO and Afghan forces waged the war's biggest battle. They not only fought the Taliban with weapons, they promised to bring good governance to Marjah and the rest of the southern province of Helmand — and demonstrate to the residents the advantages of shunning the militants.

    But it appears the flaw in the plan was with the quality of Afghans chosen by President Hamid Karzai to govern and police the area after most of the fighting ended. And that adds to growing doubts about the entire country's future after foreign troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

    Despite military claims of gains across the province and an overall drop in violence, Marjah residents told The Associated Press that NATO's counterinsurgency experiment has failed. A bleak picture also emerges from anecdotal evidence collected from dozens of interviews with residents elsewhere in the province, some from the most violent districts.

    Many claim the US-funded local police, a type of locally sanctioned militia, routinely demand bribes and threaten to accuse those who do not comply of being members of the Taliban. Good governance never came to Marjah, they say.

    In villages of sun-baked mud homes, at crowded bus stops and in local tea houses where residents sit cross-legged on plastic-covered tables drinking tea and eating off communal plates, people scoffed at claims of security and development. They heaped criticism on the Afghan government and officials, accusing them of stealing billions of dollars in aid money meant for the people and on an international community that they said ignored their needs and pandered to a corrupt administration.

    Daoud, the Marjah shop owner, said there was more security under the country's Taliban regime that was ousted by the US-led invasion in late 2001.

    "They were never cruel to us and the one difference was security. It was better during the Taliban," he said.

    His partner in the rickety shop along Marjah's chaotic one-street bazaar, Mohammed Haider, said poppy farmers who planted substitute crops such as cotton are losing money because they cannot sell their harvests. He predicted poppy production would double when foreign soldiers leave in 2014.

    At a bus stop in Helmand's provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, residents scrambled for dilapidated old buses and cars to go to parts of Helmand. Hamidullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was waiting for a bus to Sangin district — the scene of some of the most violent fighting between the Taliban and British and US forces.

    Like the majority of those at the stop, he wanted foreign forces to leave Afghanistan.

    "All these foreign soldiers are here and it is totally insecure everywhere in Helmand," Hamidullah said. "For the time that they are in Afghanistan we will always have war."

    Several of the men scrambling on top the packed buses and jamming themselves into the back of cars seemed to growl at the presence of foreigners in their midst. A single question: "What is the situation like in Helmand today?" brought a cacophony of answers. Many of the voices sounded angry, some sounded weary and a few angry-looking men walked away.

    "We are completely destroyed today," said Hamidullah.

    "The situation is getting worse and worse," shouted a voice in the crowd. Another yelled: "There is no security because of the foreigners." And from a deeply wrinkled elderly man whose voice seemed both angry and sad: "If the foreigners are out of Afghanistan, all the problems will be solved. Are our lives any better?"

    Analysts who know Helmand say a corrupt government poses one of the biggest hurdles to stability, alienating the local population and driving them into the hands of the Taliban.

    The province is strategically important because of a massive poppy production that is financing the insurgency and fueling criminal activity. While some success has been achieved at getting farmers to plant substitute crops, Helmand is still one of Afghanistan's largest opium-producing provinces, often blamed on anti-government sentiment and collusion between corrupt government officials and the Taliban.

    The NATO-led coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, claims there are tangible gains against the Taliban in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province.

    "While insurgent activity remains problematic in several districts, primarily in northern Helmand and western Kandahar, data from the battle space shows a marked decrease in overall enemy activity," ISAF spokesman Jamie Graybeal said recently.

    Despite a drop of 8 percent in militant attacks from January to October compared to the same period last year, Helmand and neighboring Nimroz province accounted for 32 percent of all such attacks reported across the country from October 2011 to October this year, according to ISAF.

    Ryan Evans, a research fellow at the US-based Center for National Policy, called Helmand the "most dangerous and violent" of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

    "From 2010 to early 2012, one of five ISAF soldiers was killed in this one province — Helmand. And the province has since taken more lives and limbs than any other province," said Evans, who worked with US and British troops in Helmand during 2010 and 2011.

    The larger question, of course, is whether what's happening in Helmand is a harbinger of what the rest of Afghanistan will look like after the departure of the international troops.

    A report released last month by the British Parliament's International Development Committee offered grim statistics.

    Afghanistan continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world, with the average person earning less than one dollar a day despite $32 billion in foreign investment.

    The country has also tumbled in corruption ratings assembled by Transparency International. Afghanistan was ranked 117 out of 158 countries in 2005, then slid to 180 out of 183 nations last year. The scandal-ridden Kabul Bank milked millions of dollars from Afghans' savings.

    Some Afghans believe their countrymen are responsible for the current state of affairs.

    Haji Khalil who moved his family from Marjah to Lashkar Gah during the 2010 offensive, blamed Afghans for the spike in thefts and lawlessness since the defeat of the Taliban.

    "During the Taliban no one would steal because we knew the punishment, but when they left everyone began to steal," Khalil said.

    "We became worse after the Taliban," he said. "The problem is with us."

  5. #35
    Syria Unleashes Cluster Bombs on Town, Punishing Civilians

    By C. J. CHIVERS

    Published: December 20, 2012

    MAREA, Syria — The plane came in from the southeast late in the afternoon, releasing its weapons in a single pass. Within seconds, scores of finned bomblets struck and exploded on the homes and narrow streets of this small Syrian town.

    After the screams and the desperate gathering of the victims, the staff at the local Freedom Hospital counted 4 dead and 23 wounded. All were civilians, doctors and residents said.

    Many forms of violence and hardship have befallen Syria’s people as the country’s civil war has escalated this year. But the Syrian government’s attack here on Dec. 12 pointed to one of the war’s irrefutable patterns: the deliberate targeting of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s military, in this case with a weapon that is impossible to use precisely.

    Syrians on both sides in this fight have suffered from the bloodshed and sectarian furies given dark license by the war. The victims of the cluster bomb attacks describe the tactic as collective punishment, a mass reprisal against populations that are with the rebels.

    The munitions in question — Soviet-era PTAB-2.5Ms — were designed decades ago by Communist engineers to destroy battlefield formations of Western armored vehicles and tanks. They are ejected in dense bunches from free-falling dispensers dropped from aircraft. The bomblets then scatter and descend nose-down to land and explode almost at once over a wide area, often hundreds of yards across.

    Marea stands along an agricultural plain, surrounded for miles by empty fields. Even at night, or in bad weather, it cannot be mistaken for anything but what it is — the densely packed collection of small businesses, offices and homes that together form a town.

    Two journalists from The New York Times were traveling toward Marea as the attack occurred and arrived not long after the exploding bomblets had rippled across its neighborhoods.

    Blood pooled on the street, including beside a water-collection point at an intersection where Nabhan al-Haji, 18, was killed.

    Another victim, Ahmad Najjar Asmail, had been riding a motorcycle when a submunition landed beside him. He was decapitated. Ramy Naser, 15, was also fatally wounded.

    The hospital was crowded with patients. Many more were en route to hospitals in Turkey.

    The use of cluster munitions is banned by much of the world, although Syria, like the United States, is not party to that international convention. In the detached parlance of military planners, they are also sometimes referred to as area weapons — ordnance with effects that cover a sprawling amount of ground.

    In the attack on Marea, at least three dispensers, each containing 42 bomblets slightly smaller than a one-liter bottle and packed with a high-explosive shaped charge, were dropped squarely onto neighborhoods and homes.

    Two funerals began as the sun set, the latest in a town that rose early against Syria’s government, and has been one of the seats of defiance.

    One homeowner, Ali Farouh, showed the place where a PTAB-2.5M struck an exterior wall on his patio. His young son held up bits of shrapnel.

    “Bashar is a horse,” Mr. Farouh said, almost spitting with disgust as he said the president’s name. “He is a donkey.”

    An examination of the area by daylight found the signature signs of an air-delivered cluster munitions attack, including unexploded PTAB-2.5M submunitions, the tail sections and fins of three dispensers and three main dispenser bodies.

    One resident also displayed the nearly intact remains of an ATK-EB mechanical time fuse associated with the same dispensers. Fragments of the submunitions’ fins were in abundance. An interior spacer and dispenser nose plate were also found.

    Throughout the town, many of the narrow, telltale craters made by shaped charges could be seen. Some cut deep holes through asphalt into the dirt below, almost like a drill.

    It was not immediately clear why Marea was attacked, although many residents ascribed motives that mix collective punishment with revenge.

    The town is the home of Abdulkader al-Saleh, a prominent rebel field commander in the Aleppo region. Mr. Saleh, charismatic and lean, is locally known with near reverence as Haji Marea, and is celebrated by his townspeople for his mix of battlefield savvy, courage and luck. This month, just days before the cluster attack on his hometown, he was named a leader in the reorganized Free Syrian Army, as many rebels call themselves.

    Residents said Marea’s recent history, and its indelible connection to the commander it produced, has earned it a high place on Mr. Assad’s list of targets.

    “The regime especially hates us,” said Yasser al-Haji, an activist who lost a cousin in the attack.

    No one disputes that Marea has repeatedly been attacked by some of the Assad government’s most frightening weapons. On Thursday, residents reported being hit by cruise missiles, perhaps Scuds, which they said landed just north of the town with tremendous, earth-heaving explosions.

    In the case of the cluster munitions attack, one of the submunitions did strike a building being used by the rebels — a school where some of Haji Marea’s fighters are based. It blasted a small hole in the concrete roof and sprayed bits of concrete and shrapnel into the room below, which was empty.

    Several fighters, who were meeting in the next room as the jet screamed overhead — and the sole bomblet, out of more than 100, hit their building — chuckled at their near miss. But they were enraged by the attack.

    They spoke of the government’s escalation of weapons throughout the year — from mortars, tanks and artillery to helicopter gunships, then to fixed-wing attack jets. Since summer, Mr. Assad’s military has used cluster munitions repeatedly, and recently began using incendiary cluster munitions, too. This month, Syrian activists and officials in Washington said the government had ratcheted up the pressure with one of the last unused weapons left in its stock — cruise missiles, with conventional warheads. Analysts who have watched the gradual escalations said the Assad government has followed a “boil-the-frog-slowly” strategy.

    With the incremental escalations, they say, Mr. Assad has prevented the West from finding cause to enter the war, as NATO did against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya after he rolled out almost all of his military’s full might at the war’s outset.

    One fighter, who gave his name as Mustafa, said that Mr. Assad had little left that he had not used. The fighter said he expected no restraint.

    “In the coming days, he’ll use the chemicals and he’ll destroy everything,” he said. “And will burn the people, and kill all the people — children, women, old men, the elders.”

    Mr. Assad, Mustafa said, “just needs to kill.”
    FRIENDS LANG KAMI

  6. #36
    UN envoy worried after talks with Syria’s Assad

    By Ben Hubbard

    Associated Press

    9:24 am | Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

    BEIRUT — The international envoy to Syria said after talks with the country’s leader Monday that the situation was “worrying” and gave no indication of progress toward a negotiated solution for the civil war.

    Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission came as activists reported intense fighting in the central province of Hama, where anti-government gunmen entered the predominantly Alawite town of Maan. Assad’s regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.

    Brahimi said he and President Bashar Assad exchanged views on the crisis and discussed possible steps forward, which he did not disclose. He spoke briefly to reporters after meeting the Syrian leader at the presidential palace in Damascus.

    “The situation in Syria is still worrying and we hope that all the parties will go toward the solution that the Syrian people are hoping for and look forward to,” Brahimi said.

    Syria’s state news agency quoted Assad as saying his government supports “any effort in the interest of the Syrian people which preserves the homeland’s sovereignty and independence.”

    Brahimi has apparently made little progress toward brokering an end to the conflict since starting his job in September, primarily because both sides adamantly refuse to talk to each other.

    The government describes the rebels as foreign-backed terrorists set on destroying the country. The opposition says that forces under Assad’s command have killed too many people for him to be part of any solution.

    Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.

    Brahimi’s two-day visit was to end later Monday. It is his third to Damascus as an envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League.

    The security situation in Damascus and elsewhere in the country has declined since Brahimi’s previous visits. Instead of flying in to the Damascus International Airport as he did on earlier visits, Brahimi drove to Damascus over land from the Lebanese capital Beirut because of fighting near the Damascus airport.

    The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted activists in the central city of Homs as saying that six rebels died in two neighborhoods Sunday night after inhaling white smoke that came out of shells fired on the area.

    “We demand that an international team be sent to the area to investigate the type” of the shells used, said Observatory chief Rami Abdul-Rahman.

    Amateur videos released by activists showed men in hospital beds suffering breathing problems as doctors placed oxygen masks on their faces. Some of them coughed strongly as they tried to breath.

    “At first, the smell was strong. Then little by little, it got weaker,” a man who was identified as a rebel in the area said in the video. “The smell was like hydrochloric acid, and people started choking and I wasn’t able to breath.” He added.

    “My eyes hurt and burned, my head started hurting, I wasn’t able to breathe. I just want to breathe clean air,” said the man who closed his eyes and said he was having difficulty seeing because of the attack.

    The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

    In nearby Hama province, where rebels launched an offensive against army checkpoints and posts last week, opposition gunmen entered Maan and raised the opposition flag over the main police station, Hama activist Mousab Alhamadee said via Skype.

    The Observatory said the rebels included members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and is affiliated with al-Qaida.

    The Observatory and Alhamadee said the rebels shot down a Syrian government MiG warplane that was attacking rebel positions in and around Maan. The Observatory said at least 20 soldiers and 11 rebels were killed in Monday’s fighting.

    The Observatory also said Syrian army helicopters bombed the town of Talbiseh in central Homs province, killing at least 14 people, five of them under age 18. The Local Coordination Committees said the attacks targeted a makeshift hospital and a bakery.

    Reports by anti-regime activists about a government airstrike Sunday in the rebel-held central town of Halfaya that killed scores of people also cast pall over Brahimi’s visit.

    Some activists said the strike had targeted a bakery. Amateur videos posted online showed the bodies of many dead and wounded scattered in a street. The videos appeared to be genuine and corresponded with other AP reporting.

    The Observatory said it had collected the names of 40 men and three women killed in Halfaya. The group also reported seeing photos of the dead bodies of 15 more unknown men.

    On Sunday, it reported 60 dead.

    Abdul-Rahman, the group’s head, said he could not confirm that the attack was an airstrike or that it had targeted a bakery.

    Syria’s state news service blamed the attack on “an armed terrorist group” — its shorthand for the rebels — accusing them of filming the aftermath to “frame the Syrian army.”

    In the videos, armed rebels are clearly among those tending to the dead and wounded.

    In a statement, a U.S. State Department spokesman condemned “the latest vicious attacks by the Syrian regime against civilians” and expressed support for Brahimi’s work.

    “We urge the regime to capitalize on the Joint Special Representative’s efforts in order to transition to a new government and end the brutal repression of the Syrian people,” the spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said.

  7. #37
    The defenseless

    Philippine Daily Inquirer

    9:01 pm | Thursday, December 27th, 2012

    IT IS with great sadness and foreboding that we watch the news from Syria. The civil war has already claimed over 44,000 lives, and even though it seems to be entering its final phases it looks set to consume many more. The latest developments are worrying, precisely because they show steady but incremental rebel advances; Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already proven that he will not vacate the dictatorship his father created regardless of the consequences to his countrymen. The newest developments have only made him an even more wounded, more dangerous, tiger.

    A two-star general, the commanding officer of the Syrian military police, defected to the opposition on Wednesday, becoming the highest-ranking of the hundreds of Army members to defect. Rebels made new territorial claims in other parts of the country. And most disturbing, from the government’s perspective: Russia, its most important ally and the main source of its arms and materiel, began making preparations for the possible evacuation of diplomatic personnel stationed in Damascus and other cities.

    The mere fact that evacuations were being openly discussed in Russian newspapers reflected “Moscow’s deeply pessimistic prognosis for the region,” the New York Times reported a Russian analyst as saying. Even an ostensibly upbeat assessment, such as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s assertion last Saturday to the effect that the civil war “had reached stalemate and international efforts to persuade Assad to quit would fail,” in the words of the Reuters report, unintentionally revealed the true picture. That rebel forces had reached stalemate with the vastly more powerful, much better-prepared Syrian military spoke volumes.

    Unless Assad has been persuaded to change his mind, however, he may be preparing to die in his boots—with unfortunate consequences for the Syrian people already struggling through 21 months of internal turmoil. As Benedict XVI noted in his traditional Christmas Day message, Syria was “deeply wounded and divided by a conflict that does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims.” The vast majority of the dead have been civilians.

    The worst part is, the ongoing slaughter of the innocents in Syria seems headed for a genocide; the longer Assad clings to power, and the more brutal his retaliations against his own people become, then the higher the chances of the ruling class in Syria, the minority Alawites, falling victim to a paroxysm of mass-murdering revenge at the hands of the majority Sunnis. We do not know if the point of no return has already been reached, but if only to prevent a massacre of his own Alawite sect, Assad should leave on the next plane to Moscow.

    The vulnerable

    Protests of a different nature have rocked Delhi and many other cities in India, but at bottom they too are about the plight of the vulnerable. In India’s case: women, especially those who are the victims of violence and sexual abuse.

    The horrifying case of a 23-year-old female student gang-raped for an excruciating hour on Dec. 16, on board a moving bus, by six men who took turns savaging her and assaulting her with an iron bar, has hogged headlines around the world and provoked general unrest in India. The gang-rape left the victim suffering major internal injuries; after three operations in Delhi, she was flown to Singapore, where she was described as being in “extremely critical” condition.

    After days of widespread protests, came more troubling news: In a southern Indian province, a 20-year-old woman was gang-raped by a total of 10 men on Christmas Eve.

    According to Agence France-Presse, gang rapes are in fact reported on a daily basis in India. And according to official statistics, out of a total of 256,329 crimes of violence recorded in 2011, a staggering 89 percent, or 228,650 crimes, were against women.

    In Delhi alone, the number of rapes recorded in 2012 rose 17 percent to 661—or almost two every single day.

    It is an unbearable sum, and the starkest proof of a continuing culture of abuse directed at women.
    FRIENDS LANG KAMI

  8. #38
    Wading into the Middle East morass

    By Jackson Diehl, Jan 07, 2013 12:42 AM EST

    The Washington Post Published: January 7

    On his second day in office in 2009, Barack Obama launched an ambitious effort to broker peace in the Middle East, ignoring warnings that neither Israelis nor Palestinians were ready for a deal. He was badly burned. Despite the appointment of former senator George Mitchell as an envoy and plenty of direct presidential involvement, the initiative flopped. Israelis and Palestinians never began substantial negotiations, and Obama’s first term ended with another mini-war in the Gaza Strip.

    Four years later, the diplomatic landscape looks even more forbidding. Gaza remains firmly in the possession of the Hamas movement, which has not budged from its refusal to recognize Israel. The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas appears to be crumbling, with Abbas himself contemplating retirement. An election this month in Israel appears likely to create one of most nationalist governments in the country’s history, one in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — regarded in the White House as a serious obstacle to any peace process — may represent the dovish left wing.

    Yet if Obama were to listen to his European counterparts, Arab leaders and even his incoming secretary of state, he would, once again, make the “peace process” a top priority in his second term. The puzzling but persistent illogic behind this is worth deconstructing.

    In Washington, some of the loudest calls for Obama’s reengagement come from the “realist” foreign policy camp, populated by figures such as former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft — and former senator Chuck Hagel, whom Obama is considering for defense secretary. These folks opposed the war in Iraq, and they reject U.S. intervention in Syria or military action against Iran’s nuclear program. They have been arguing for years that it is time for the United States to recognize limits to its power.

    When it comes to Israel, however, the realists assume boundless U.S. strength. If only he chooses to do so, they argue, Obama could join with U.S. allies or the U.N Security Council in imposing a two-state solution on the Israelis and Palestinians, like it or not. The supposition seems to be that a United States too weak to force Bashar al-Assad out of Syria can compel Israel’s advanced democracy and the leaderless Palestinians to accept compromises they have resisted for decades.

    There’s nothing wrong with the realists’ goal. Though often accused of being anti-Israel, Brzezinski and Scowcroft have proposed parameters for a Palestinian state close to those embraced by previous Israeli governments. Their solution is eminently logical; it’s the means of getting there that beggar belief. Obama’s first term was proof: The president proved unable even to force Israel to freeze settlements, or oblige the Palestinian Authority to negotiate — much less dictate a deal.

    European governments mostly realized long ago that no U.S. administration would or could strong-arm the two sides. Yet they cling to another dogma, one that I suspect is shared by Secretary of State-to-be John Kerry: that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is the key to stabilizing the broader Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq. It’s an idea nourished by old and new Arab rulers across the region, from Egypt’s new Islamist president to the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who are eager to divert U.S. attention from their own troubles.

    If Palestinian statehood is so crucial, then it must be at the center of U.S. foreign policy, regardless of whether the time is ripe. But is it? As Egypt polarizes between secular and Islamist camps, and Syria’s vicious war pits Sunni Muslims against Alawites and their Shiite allies, it seems clear that the region’s biggest conflicts are those of Arabs against Arabs. But Western governments are at a loss over what to do about these battles. For the Israelis and Palestinians there is, at least, a well-known formula: conferences to be arranged, shuttles between capitals, dickering over conditions and pre-conditions.

    All this is not to argue that Obama should ignore the Israelis and Palestinians or abandon the cause of Palestinian statehood, which in the long run will be a building block of a modernized Middle East. U.S. neglect could be taken as license by Israeli nationalists to take steps to obstruct that future state; it could also prompt Palestinians to embrace more provocative measures, from firing more missiles from Gaza at Israeli cities to inciting a new uprising in the West Bank.

    But what’s needed is a concerted but low-key policy, one that aims at creating conditions for a long-term solution but does not pretend that it can be delivered in the next year or two. Obama should encourage Israel’s new government to take palliative steps to ease movement and promote development in the West Bank; he should press Egypt’s ruling Islamists to exert a moderating influence over Hamas. Above all, he should accept the lesson of his first term: that making Middle East peace a presidential priority will not make it happen.

  9. #39
    Preserving the two-state solution

    By Jeremy Ben-Ami, Jan 05, 2013 12:50 AM EST

    The Washington Post Published: January 5

    Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a Washington-based organization that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    A mere 24 hours after it takes office this month, President Obama’s new national security team will come face to face with a fundamentally different political reality in Israel and the Palestinian territory than their predecessors dealt with.

    The real story of the Israeli election scheduled for Jan. 22 is the meteoric rise of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party and its new leader, Naftali Bennett. Likely to head the second- or third-largest party in the next Knesset, Bennett advocates immediate annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank.

    Gone from Israel’s next government will be any semblance of a moderate voice favoring a two-state solution. Instead, the ruling coalition will feature leaders such as Moshe Feiglin, a firebrand who wants to rebuild a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, denigrates Muslims and democracy and suggests paying Palestinian families to emigrate.

    Cabinet members are still likely to include Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein, who says Israel should move toward gradual or total annexation of the West Bank, and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who assures his supporters that “two states for two peoples was never part of Likud’s election platform.”

    This is the Israeli reality of 2013, enabled in part by American politicians and staunch supporters in this country who refuse to question Israel’s policies as the two-state solution slips through our fingers.

    Also awaiting Obama’s new team will be a clear message from the Palestinian leaders who still believe in two states: President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Without immediate, meaningful diplomatic action to bring about two states, they will say, talking about a two-state solution while Israel settles the land where Palestinians look to build their state is no longer a viable option.

    Unless Obama acts meaningfully, the Palestinians’ next move is likely to be to either dismantle the Palestinian Authority or to pursue relief in an international legal forum.

    The Obama team’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what needs to be done to solve it, has to catch up with these new realities.

    Sadly, many in the nation’s capital remain convinced that Israel is simply building on land that “everyone knows” it will ultimately keep. In their view, the present settlement-building frenzy should not be a problem for Palestinians.

    Contrary to The Post’s assertion in its Jan. 2 editorial, “Rash rhetoric,” that there is no concerted Israeli campaign to block creation of a Palestinian state, the words and deeds of Israeli leaders today say otherwise.

    Construction and planning are taking place in areas far outside the “consensus” blocs that President Bill Clinton envisioned remaining with Israel in 2000. From construction in Shiloh and Beit El, to accrediting a national university in the outlying settlement of Ariel, to planning to develop the E-1 area east of Jerusalem, the government of Israel is unrelentingly establishing that it has no interest in the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

    If Obama believes that achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fundamental American national security interest, he will need to chart a far different course than has been tried before — and quickly.

    No, he cannot impose a settlement. But these parties — with their lack of trust and wildly conflicting narratives and interests — cannot and will not work this out on their own. We need to stop fixating on “direct talks” as the only option and move the focus away from simply getting the parties “to the table.”

    Obama must go to the region early in his second term and, backed by the entire international community, lay out the parameters for resolving the conflict, a credible timeline and a process for mediated discussions that assures both sides their concerns will be heard.

    He and the world need to exert meaningful pressure on both sides to decide whether they will accept the well-known terms of a viable two-state solution.

    If the majority of the people on both sides believes the package offered is reasonable — and polling consistently shows these majorities would support a reasonable two-state deal — then the leaders will be pressed by their own constituencies to say yes.

    Israelis will have to decide between leaders such as Feiglin and Bennett, who say no to compromise and peace, and those who — like all six of Israel’s living internal security chiefs — are willing to lead the way to a two-state solution. Palestinians will have to decide between leaders such as Abbas and Fayyad, who believe in nonviolence and diplomacy, and Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s existence.

    Inaction on the part of the United States is a recipe for a continued spiral toward extremism on both sides. Allowing this conflict to fester will be disastrous for the region and U.S. interests.

    And throwing one’s hands up in despair or saying there’s nothing to be done until the parties themselves solve the conflict is not a policy.

  10. #40
    Promoting peace in the Middle East: The case of Orphaned Land.

    By Bernardo Correia Hourmat

    November 29, 2012

    Today I have the opportunity of discussing two topics that are very near and dear to me, namely, the Middle East and heavy metal music.

    Now, for the two or three readers that have not bolted straight away after reading that premise, I’ll be happy to elaborate a bit further on what I meant by that opening statement.

    For the past 60 years, as the Israeli-Arab conflict went through its, sadly, usual ups and downs, non-political actors have regularly shown that there is a minimum level of understanding between two people that, arguably, have more in common than differentiating features.

    As the Second Intifadeh raged in 2000, in concert venues across the Middle East (and I truly mean “across” the Middle East and not just Israel) audiences raged as well but over a common bond that has transcended religion, politics or ethnicity and created a true feeling of understanding and acceptance, albeit a noisy one. I am talking about Israeli heavy metal band, OrphanedLand.

    Created in 1991, near Tel-Aviv, OrphanedLand have recently gained new visibility not only through the unquestionable quality of their music but also through the ways in which they have engaged their community of fans across all the Middle-East.

    Their relevance to Middle Eastern affairs comes from the way that they have been able to forge an understanding and a spirit of tolerance that has, so far, eluded traditional political actors, either Israeli or Arab. Through music (particularly, heavy metal music I might add) they have been able to join fans from across the region, leading to a community that spans all the major Arab states, even those that are still in an official state of war with Israel.

    They have done this mainly through their own abilities as musicians, in fusing both heavy metal with traditional Middle-Eastern rhythms and melodies along with actual instruments, quotes from the Koran, the Bible or the Torah and by having the regular participation of musicians and performers from those same countries.

    Two cases in point can illustrate the very real impact that the band’s performances have. The first case refers to the participation of a Lebanese belly-dancer in the bands participation in a French festival in 2011. Since that occasion, Johanna Najla has been issued a fatwa and has been forbidden to travel to her native Lebanon.

    The second is related to Turkey, a longtime political friend of Israel that, due to the tragic killing of protesters aboard the Mavi Marmara by Israeli commandos, severed major diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, leading to a very delicate state of affairs between the two countries that, although since that time has seen a degree of improvement, still remains a point of contention between both countries.

    During that year (2010), the band were active in providing an alternative diplomatic channel of sorts, by forwarding the revenues of their Turkish shows to the victims of the earthquake in Van as well as acting as a de facto bridge between the two countries and showing that common ground could still be found, even if both governments did not see each other eye to eye.

    This has led to actual recognition from Turkey, in the form of a peace prize by IstanbulCommerceUniversity for their contribution to the friendship between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East as well as a “Friendship and Peace Award” from Dr. Huseyin Tugcu, official advisor to Prime Minster Erdogan.

    Roi Ben-Yehuda, an Israeli writer currently living in the US, makes his own assessment of Orphaned Lands’ contribution to foster regional peace, stating that «Orphaned Land have at once weakened destructive patterns of perception and communication, and helped build new forms on relations and recognition about what is possible».

    Of course, cynics can argue about the limited (if any) impact that musicians can have on a regional conflict that has been going strong for decades (if we want to avoid going back too much in time, for argument’s sake) and where the diplomatic efforts of countless politicians, States and organisations have fallen short. But, again, I wouldn’t expect a band to come up with an actual “road map” for peace because, frankly, that’s not their role nor should we delude ourselves and expect something like that.

    What I wanted to pass along is that alternative routes towards political negotiation and, more importantly, political and religious understanding can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places and through unlikely channels.

    We should really take the time to assess these growing new forms of circumventing traditional political actors and communication “channels”(if we can call them as such) before we contemptuously brush them aside as “irrelevant”.

    Interestingly enough, Roi Ben-Yehuda has created a petition to propose OrphanedLand as candidates for the Nobel Peace prize in 2013.

    Following the latest recipients of the prize, perhaps the Nobel Committee would do well to, at the very least, seriously consider this possibility.


 
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