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Newsblog – 21-28 November

03/12/2012

Following French and British diplomatic recognition and more qualified US and EU support of the new Syrian opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces formed in Qatar earlier this month. More radical Syrian Islamists rejected this move and confirmed their intention to establish an Islamist state in Syria. More mainstream rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian Party, welcomed the new coalition.

In contrast to the generally positive Western response, neutral Russia openly criticised France’s decision and its potential plans to arm the rebels against the Assad regime. Russian Prime Minister Medvedev called such a step ‘not entirely civilised’ and the Russian ambassador to France voiced concerns about a future ‘wahabist and salafist’ Syria.

Meanwhile on the ground in Syria, the rebels made advances in northern and eastern parts of the country and took control of an important military base, Marj al-Sultan, near Damascus. The government has responded with heavy artillery and air strikes. Amid evidence of escalating violence and allegations of governmental bombing of civilian targets, most recently an alleged cluster-bomb attack on a playground killing 10 children, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) published a press release urging the warring parties to conform with international humanitarian law and only attack military targets.

It has been confirmed that NATO surface-to-air missiles due to be stationed near Turkey’s border with Syria will only be used to protect Turkish territory and not to establish a no-fly zone. Amid continued Turkish-Syrian border tensions including instances of cross-border shelling, Turkey, a staunch supporter of the Syrian opposition, grapples with increasing flows of Syrian refugees across its 565-mile common border with Syria.

Only one day after successful brokering of a Gaza ceasefire between Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, and Israel Egyptian President Mursi issued a decree that places all his decisions beyond judicial scrutiny until the holding of parliamentary elections expected early next year. Mursi stated that his move was designed to prevent the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly by the judiciary for a second time and speed up reforms towards democratic transition. His opponents, however, accused him of betraying the revolution by extending his powers at the expense of the judiciary and demanded the decree to be cancelled. Rival demonstrations between Mursi supporters and opponents, injuring hundreds and killing at least one, exposed the dangers of a divided Egyptian society. Having triggered a rebellion by judges, Mursi’s attempt to diffuse the crisis in a meeting with members of the Supreme Judiciary Council, the state’s highest judicial authority, was seen to fail as mass protests continued. International responses have so far been cautious with only the US and Germany expressing concern.

For background information on Egypt’s political institutions, click here.

After Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, and Israel agreed to a Egyptian-brokered ceasefire last week people in Gaza and Southern Israel returned to normal life with schools opening and people returning to work. Israel eased restrictions on Gazan fishermen and farmers honouring the ceasefire terms.

A more contentious issue in indirect talks resumed in Cairo – concerning the suspension of the smuggling of arms into Gaza which Israel views as a necessary condition for lifting the blockade. How uncertain prospects are for long-term peace between Gaza and Israel are has become obvious in light of a statement made by Zahar, a leading Hamas figure, in which he reaffirms Hamas’ intention to continue smuggling arms into Gaza with the help of Iran.

On the diplomatic front, Hamas’ support of the Palestinian Authority’s announced bid for UN recognition as a ‘non member observer state’ at the UN General Assembly on Thursday came as a surprise. Until recently Hamas dismissed these efforts by the Palestinian Authority as useless. The US and Israel announced financial sanctions in response to the Palestinian bid.

A survey of media reactions to the recent escalation of violence between Hamas and Israel in Gaza revealed that commentators have been especially intrigued by the media savviness demonstrated by both sides in what was seen as a ‘Twitter War’. In the course of the two-week long confrontation both Hamas and the IDF provided Twitter updates on each attack and its immediate consequences.

Another aspect of the confrontation that has received much attention concerns Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system. In light of the system’s success in neutralising Hamas’ missiles directed at civilian targets in Israel some suggested that this would give Israel a significant strategic advantage over its adversaries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon whose main threat to Israel concerns its arsenal of missiles. Others cautioned against too much optimism pointing out the system’s high financial costs and the dangers of viewing it as a technological panacea that can substitute for a resolution to the political stalemate.

by Hannah Ellermann