M!ddleEasterners Newsblog 22 February – 1 March
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi announced that planning would begin for Parliamentary elections that have been scheduled for April 22nd. Mohamed ElBaradei called for a widespread boycott of them posting on twitter “today I repeat my call, I will not be part of an act of deception”. The Muslim Brotherhood dismissed any suggestions that the elections would lack credibility – Essam Erian, a member the Freedom Justice Party commented that the polls would be carried out under “complete judicial supervision” as well as being extensively covered by Egyptian, regional and international media outlets. Sameh Ashour a member of the National Salvation Front, the largest bloc of the Egyptian opposition dismissed these comments saying that, “there can be no elections without a law that guarantees the fairness of the election process and a government that can implement such a law and be trusted by the people,” Ashour added that there must also be “real independence of the judiciary.” In hopes to persuade the opposition to take part in the elections, Morsi invited the NSF to talks, but the NSF has said that they would not attend.
A Cairo court has ruled that the government must destroy all tunnel networks between Egypt and the Gaza strip. Even though Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has close ties with Hamas, the tunnels have proved to be a security risk for Egypt. Egyptian forces had already flooded some of the tunnels with sewage earlier this month. Cairo administrative court judge, Farid Tanaghou commented that “the court ruled to make it obligatory that the government destroys the tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.”
Late February saw Syrian rebels capture tanks in order to launch a new offensive against government forces in the northern city of Aleppo. The Syrian military responded with air strikes. The rebels hope to, with the help of the newly acquired tanks, be able to capture a government facility housing a police academy. If successful, this would be a major blow to the regime. Rebels have also been attempting to capture the Aleppo International airport as well. On Friday February 22nd violence broke out in Eastern Aleppo as Syrian government forces launched rockets at residential areas killing at least 37 people and destroying countless more homes.
A French journalist working for Reporters Without Borders was killed on Sunday February 24th while he was embedded with a Syrian opposition group. Olivier Voisin sustained head injuries during an explosion in the Idlib province and later died in a hospital in Turkey. French officials issued a statement regarding the incident, “His death is a tragic reminder of the risks taken by journalists to inform our fellow citizens, regardless of the dangers. This exemplary commitment deserves recognition for all.” On that Sunday it was reported that around 57 people were killed around the country, 23 of them being civilians living in Damascus.
For the first time the United States has publicly committed itself to sending nonlethal aid to the Free Syrian Army. Nonlethal aid was just one element of the American programme of assistance that was recently unveiled. The US is also providing $60 million to help the political wing of the Syrian anti-Assad coalition improve basic services such as sanitation and education in rebel controlled provinces. In addition, a covert programme aimed at training rebel fighters has also been underway. New Secretary of State John Kerry commented on US intensions towards Syria during the end of his first international visit “I am going back to Washington with a number of thoughts and ideas that were put on the table today, and I’m confident we’re going to have a robust and ongoing conversation.” To carry out the aid programme the US plans to send technical advisors to the headquarters of the Syrian opposition in Cairo. These advisors will be taken from non-governmental organisations.
On Monday February 25th Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid al-Muallem announced that the regime is ready for dialogue with the opposition. During a meeting with his Russia counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Muallem commented that, “we are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms.” As well as asserting that… “we still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem” pointing to the creation of a possible coalition that would facilitate negotiations between the two sides.
The Syrian opposition reversed its decision to boycott a conference in Rome that was hosted by Western and Arab governments. The conference discussed more political and financial aid opportunities for the opposition. Walid al-Bunni, a spokesperson for the Syrian National Council said that his decision to attend the conference came after a phone conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry. It was reported that Kerry said “I want our friends in the Syrian opposition council to know that we are not coming to Rome simply to talk. We are coming to Rome to make a decision on next steps.”
Syrian opposition leaders are also scheduled to meet on March 2nd to choose a Prime Minister to head a provisional government, that would operate in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. A coalition sources commented that, “A compromise was reached. The coalition agreed to meet again in Istanbul exclusively to choose a prime minister.” The absence of a political body able to govern the rebel controlled areas of Syria has been a major weakness to the opposition. The coalition has also issued a statement saying that any widespread political solution must be based on, “the removal of Bashar al-Assad and the heads of the military and security apparatus responsible for the decisions that led the country to this stage.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres said the UN agency has estimated that the numbers of refugees coming out the Syria will soon surpass one million. The death total the United Nations has estimated being around 70,000 people since the start of the violence.
After the death of a Palestinian in an Israeli prison, a rocket was launched from Gaza into southern Israel, breaking the ceasefire agreement. Israeli police say that there were no reported injuries. The Gaza militant group Al-Aqsa Martyers Brigade took responsibility in an e-mail to CNN. Last week the militant group warned that there would be retaliation if anything happened to the Palestinian prisoner while in Israeli custody. Promptly after the rocket was fired the Israeli defence forces closed the Kerem Shalom crossing near the Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian boarders.
On Monday February 25th the Israeli Ministry of Defence successfully completed a test flight of a Arrow 3 interceptor system. The system is designed to defend against medium range missiles that could be fired from neighbouring countries. The test was a joint Israeli – American effort and was held over the Mediterranean Sea.