New York Times reports on the outrages prices of KFC chicken in the Gaza Strip...smuggled from Egypt in underground tunnels! Read also about clashes in Tunisia between militant Islamists and security forces, fresh crackdown on dissenters in Saudi Arabia, and a new peak in violence in Iraq.
- The New York Times: Tunneling KFC to Gazans craving the world outside (Fares Akram, May 15)
"The French fries arrive soggy, the chicken having long since lost its crunch. A 12-piece bucket goes for about $27 here -- more than twice the $11.50 it costs just across the border in Egypt."
President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron are discussing the crisis in Syria during bilateral talks in Washington today, as diplomatic efforts to find a political solution gather pace. Again.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry agreed with Russian officials on a new international conference on Syria, with the participation of Syrian government representatives and the opposition. Syrian government has reportedly appointed its negotiator, while the opposition coalition says it will decide on its participation later this month.
Should the conference go through, it will be the first time that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition formally sit at a negotiating table. But no date has been set yet and there's plenty of reason for scepticism. Not least because the US-Russian initiative avoids the central issue over which all previous mediation attempts had floundered: can Assad stay in power?
Continue reading: Obstacles to a Peaceful Resolution in Syria
The BBC and the Guardian write about the ceasefire between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatist rebels, and how the deal could affect the wider region. See also why the scientist Stephen Hawking joined the international academic boycott of Israel, and the latest on presidential elections in Iran.
- BBC: PKK Kurdish deal with Turkey may worry Iran and Syria (Guney Yildiz, May 10)
"Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have begun leaving south-eastern Turkey for their main bases in northern Iraq, but there is no talk of disarmament yet. Instead, several top commanders of the PKK have said they will keep and even consolidate their forces. So what will the thousands of well-trained militants in Qandil, Zap and other PKK-controlled areas of northern Iraq do, as the truce with Turkey holds?"
Marc Lynch at the Foreign Policy magazine writes how the civil war in Syria derailed the Arab Spring in the Middle East. Read also on the latest developments in Iraq, Syria's neighbor which suffers from similar internal divisions, and the inability of the Egyptian opposition to stand up to the Islamists.
- Foreign Policy: How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring (Marc Lynch, May 3)
"The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria's highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare."
Israeli war jets struck targets in and around Damascus on Friday and again on Sunday morning, ostensibly to thwart a shipment of advanced missiles that the Syrian army was planning to supply to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon (see CNN report).
The air raids again triggered talk of a wider regional war, even if Syria clearly lacks the capacity to retaliate in any meaningful way. As argued by Ian Black at The Guardian, the attack was more likely a confirmation of Israel's "red line": any sign of shipment of chemical or advanced weapons to Hezbollah by the Syrian regime will attract an instant response, but Israel has few reasons to go into an open war.
What's also clear is that attacks like these will not weaken Bashar al-Assad in any meaningful way either. If anything, it bolstered the regime's propaganda, with state media depicting the air raids as final proof of Israel's complicity in the "foreign plot" hatched against Syria, a global conspiracy that somehow brings together Israeli hardliners and Al Qaeda terrorists from Al Nusra Front rebel group.
What's more important is that Assad retains support from a significant section of Syrian population, which fears the arrival of Islamist militants among the rebels, has economic interests vested into the regime, or simply sees no alternative to Assad. Unless the opposition unites provides a credible alternative, the regime will keep its faithful in check.
Read more: Who Supports the Syrian regime?
Photo by Salah Malkawi/Getty Images.
Christopher M. Davidson at the Foreign Policy magazine argues that the Arab Spring is around the corner for the oil-rich Gulf Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Political tension is rising as the nervous governments seek to lock up online critics and stifle public debate. Read also about the sectarian tension in north of Iraq turning bloody, the upcoming elections in Iran, and the latest on the Syrian civil war.
- Foreign Policy: Why the sheikhs will fall (Christopher M. Davidson, April 26)
"The Gulf monarchies were once thought immune to the uprisings sweeping the Arab world. Not anymore...Most of the Gulf states are now caught between unsustainable wealth distribution mechanisms and increasingly powerful "super modernizing forces" that can no longer be controlled or co-opted by elites."
The bloody events in Syria have not been unfavorable for Israel so far. The rebellion next door has weakened, possibly terminally, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, one of Israel's most implacable foes.
With no resolution in sight, either military or political, Syria will be eliminated as a regional player for a good few years. This will be a huge blow to Iran, which uses Syria as a gateway to the Arab Middle East and, in practical terms, as conduit for weapons shipped to Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. Even if Assad manages to hold to power in the capital Damascus, he's unlikely ever to regain full control over the state territory.
But there are increasing signs that Israel is becoming less comfortable to simply sit back and see Syria descend further into the chaos, chiefly due to mounting concerns over militant Islamist groups gaining ground on Israel's northern border. Unconfirmed reports say Jordan might allow Israel to use its airspace for any operations in Syria (see full story).
What are Israel's options in Syria, and why has it been reluctant to play an active role so far?
- Current Situation in Israel
- Why Iran Suppports the Syrian Regime
- Difference Between Sunnis and Alawites
Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images News
John Ware of the BBC looks at Israeli society as the Jewish state turns 65. Economically successful, militarily formidable, but faces with a rapidly evolving region, growing Palestinian population on occupied territories, and the growing clout of religious conservatives and right-wing groups at home. In other news, read about the protests in Bahrain during this weekend's Formula 1 Grand Prix, and religious tension in Iraq ahead of local elections.
- BBC: Israel at 65: What does the future hold? (John Ware, April 17)
"Israel was founded in 1948 by mainly secular Zionists as both a Jewish and democratic state. They hoped to confine theocracy to the temples. But just as Islamism is reshaping the Arab world, so too is theocracy reshaping Israel."
Egyptian Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky has resigned over the weekend, reports the BBC, in protest against demands by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi for the judiciary to be "cleansed" of former regime supporters.
I wrote before of the growing Islamist-secular divide and escalating political violence in Egypt, as President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to broaden his powers, while pushing through a controversial constitutional document. The mutual distrust is such, that almost any decision taken by Morsi triggers a passionate reaction from the secular camp, convinced the president will push for wholesale Islamization of Egypt once his party captures full power (the date for new parliamentary elections is yet to be set).
Islamism has been on the rise across the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, we often read in the media, but the field of Islamist politics is extremely diverse and fragmented. The Islamists that won recent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco belong to established political parties that generally accept the concept of parliamentary democracy, and are willing to cooperate in government with secular political parties.
The outlook of these parties is relatively moderate when compared to more radical fundamentalist groups, often referred to as Salafis, who advocate a strict implementation of Islamic law and have little time for secular institutions of the state. There is intense competition for donors, voters, and ideological supremacy among various groups: Egypt's Morsi is under close scrutiny by Salafist groups who suspect his Islamism is too "light".
And, on the extreme end of the Islamist spectrum are militant groups such as Al Qaeda which preach that governments in Muslim countries must be brought down by force.
I cover these issues here:
The civil war in Syria remains the main story, following the recent formalization of ties between Al Qaeda and one of Syria's strongest rebel groups. Read also about growing Islamization in Hamas-ruled Gaza strip, and why some Iranians are emigrating to Georgia.
- BBC: Proxy war heats up as endgame inches closer (Jim Muir, April 12)
"The latest example is the attempt by al-Qaeda to put its stamp publicly on the Nusra Front in Syria and encourage it to push for an Islamic state there, while its more moderate or secular partners in the common drive to oust the regime are committed to democracy."