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M!ddleEasterners Newsblog 15-21 April

01/05/2013

Egypt

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been released on bail for charges over his complicity in the murdering of protestors. This ruling however does not cancel out the jail time he must serve for separate charges. Mubarak has spent two years in detention since the Egyptian revolution that ended with his removal from office. Mubarak has been in a military hospital for the last few months. Although the prosecutor general’s office has ordered an immediate medical report to determine whether he can return to jail. Mubarak’s case is facing an indefinite delay after the trail was aborted when the acting judge withdrew from the case.

Protests broke out in Tahrir Square between supporters and opponents of President Morsi. Four were injured as the opposing sides threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at each other. Within an hour of the protests breaking out Egyptian police in three armoured vehicles arrived and began to dispense tear gas into the growing crowd. It is unknown what started the demonstration initially.

President Mohamed Morsi announced that he will begin a wide reshuffling of his cabinet. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he commented that the reshuffle with involve a number of “key ministers.” He gave a further reasoning for this change “we will soon see a reshuffle that will include a number of key ministries, mainly to achieve public interest and to react to the changes we face and the problems that arise.” Critics of Morsi say that the move is unlikely to meet the demands of the opposition, who are calling for a complete overhaul of the government.

Israel

On Monday, Turkish and Israeli officials met to start the diplomatic process towards reconciliation between the two states, after the deadly 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla. Officials say this meeting was the first stage of what is being described as a multi-step process. The Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary commented that, “today’s meeting was positive…We didn’t discuss the amount of compensation but rather a general framework, parameters and principles.” Negotiations come after Israel made a formal apology to Turkey last month for the deaths of the nine Turkish activists aboard the ship.

Samer al-Issawi, a Palestinian prisoner being held in an Israeli jail has ended his on and off hunger strike that has lasted more then eight months in exchange for an early release. His hunger strike had fuelled many protests by Palestinians in the last few months. Issawi agreed to a deal brokered by both Israeli and Palestinian officials that will have him serve eight more months and then be returned to his Jerusalem home. Issawi was charged with opening fire on an Israeli bus back in 2002, but was released in 2011 along with 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was held hostage by Hamas. Issawi was re-arrested last July after he violated the terms of his release by crossing into the West Bank and was sentenced to sixteen years in jail.

Syria

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said that more heavily armed militants in Syria, especially on Israel’s boarder could redefine his security position. Netanyahu fears that al-Qaeda linked rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra could get a hold of chemical weapons if the regime collapses. In an interview with BBC Netanyahu commented, “we are concerned that weapons which are ground-breaking, which could change the balance of power in the Middle East, could fall into the hands of these terrorists and we reserve the right to act to prevent this from happening.” Despite warnings from Israel, Western backed Arab nations, like Saudi Arabia have continued to arm the opposition groups. The United States claims to be involved with the channelling of weapons, but it has been reported that Saudi made weapons have gotten into the hands of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. Israel reported to the international community that they have found evidence that the Syrian government has in fact used chemical weapons. Israel has argued that Syrian President Assad has repeatedly crossed President Obama’s “red-line” in respect to the use of chemical weapons. Officials from the Obama administration have said repeatedly over the last few weeks that the US would not jump into a conflict without conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary said when asked about the Israeli declaration that, “we are looking for conclusive evidence, if it exists, if there was use of chemical weapons.” The Israeli military was vague about the evidence they had, saying it was drawn from photographs of victims and some “direct” findings that they would not elaborate on. When questioned by Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu commented that he, “ was not in a position to confirm.”

Syrian warplanes have carried out several attacks on rebel held areas in and around Damascus. The government, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), have used fighter jets to bomb the rebel held towns of Yabroud, Douma and Harasta. A Syrian based human rights group has also reported that Assad’s military unit in charge of protecting Damascus has been running secret military prisons, currently holding hundreds of suspected opposition members. The week long bombing of suburbs of Damascus, especially the Sunni community of Jdeidet al-Fadel, could be one of the bloodiest episodes of the two year uprising. At least 109 people are estimated to have been killed and up to 400 more are likely to have died over the course of the week long offensive by government forces. Many of the dead are reported to have been civilians and activists.

In an interview with a pro-regime TV agency President Assad defiantly vowed to fight and defeat the rebels fighting the Syrian government, “the truth is there is a war and I repeat; no to surrender, not to submission.” Assad also claimed that Western nations who are financing and arming rebel factions connected with al-Qaeda will pay a high price, “the west funded al-Qaeda in its early stages in Afghanistan and it paid a dear price later.” Assad also reprimanded Jordan for allowing rebel forces to infiltrate Syria.  Assad affirmed to the press that a rebel victory and the end of the his government would mean the end of Syria.

The Syrian opposition captured a military base in Homs province as part as their initiative to try to expand territory under their control. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that rebels took control of the base, after weeks of fighting government forces over it. The area on which the military base sits is in a region particularly important to President Assad because it links Damascus with one of its main allies Hezbollah, in neighbouring Lebanon.  It has been reported though that regime forces have been making headway in securing some of the lost ground in the highly attested area. Although the Syrian National Council has said that advancements have only been made possible because of the help of Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah fighters are better trained in guerrilla warfare than the regimes and have been much more successful in direct contact with rebels.

The upcoming friends of Syria meeting, hosted by Turkey, does not make the Syrian opposition very hopeful. The meeting will be between more than ten Ministers, including US secretary of State John Kerry. The gathering is expected to discuss a way to end the two year conflict that is plaguing Syria. The members of this core group include the US, Britain, France, Germany, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar Jordan. The former President of the Syrian National Council  expressed his reservations on the effectiveness of these meetings, “we always hoped that it would result in concrete decisions and actions. But so far, we’ve only received promises of support without any action.”

Following the resignation of Moaz al-Khatib, the Syrian National Council has named a new leader, George Sabra. It has been reported that Sabra has been chosen to lead the coalition until proper elections can be carried out to decide the new President. Sabra is a leading member of the Syrian Democratic People’s party as well as the co-founder of the Damascus Declaration opposition coalition back in 2005.

In talks with EU foreign ministers on Monday, Germany significantly softened its stance on arming Syrian rebels. Although Britain is not ready to send weapons to the opposition yet, they are in favour of giving more support to the Syrian National Council. In regards to the arms embargo, Germany has said that it would accept lifting its embargo if other countries pushed for it. The United States has also announced that it is doubling its aid to the Syrian opposition from $127 million to $250 million. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that a large portion of the money will be used to expand direct supplies to the Free Syrian Army, beyond food and medical supplies to include defensive items. But the pledge from the United States has fallen short in the hopes of opposition fighters who desperately want lethal aid and direct military intervention.

John Kerry has said that NATO needs to consider a role in the Syrian crisis. In a meeting with NATO Foreign Ministers Kerry voiced his opinion on the possibility of sending NATO troops to Syria, “ We should also carefully and collectively consider how NATO is prepared to respond to protect its members from Syrian threat, including any potential chemical weapons threat. So far NATO has said repetitively that it has no intention in intervening military in Syria.

The UN Security Council for the first time in two years has reached a joint agreement on Syria by calling for the end of the violence and human rights violations by the current Syrian government forces and rebels. The statement came after the UNSC approved cross border relief operations into Syria to deliver aid to the millions of suffering civilians.

Written by ICSR Research Intern Mildred Conroy