Syria. The first ever talks between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime continue in Switzerland, with the Syrian government hinting yesterday it may be willing to accede to the 2012 Geneva I communique as a road map for the future. However, the Damascus government and the Syrian opposition fundamentally disagree over how to implement the document and its call for a political transition in Syria. Today, representatives from the Syrian government and opposition exchanged bitter accusations of responsibility for Syria’s violence. UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi expressed “some satisfaction” that the two sides have not walked out, reflecting the low expectations for the talks’ initial round. This first phase of direct face-to-face talks that began last Friday is set to finish tomorrow and will be followed by a weeklong break.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a new report today that documents the Syrian government’s razing of entire neighborhoods in Damascus and Hama. Ole Solvang, an emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, described the demolitions as “wiping entire neighborhoods off the map.”
Egypt. Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was endorsed by Egypt’s top military commanders for a potential presidential bid on Monday. The official endorsement by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces came a few hours after interim president Adly Mansour promoted al-Sisi to the position of field marshal, the highest rank in the Egyptian Army. The generals also declared that Sisi’s broad public backing has made his candidacy an “obligation.” Meanwhile, Former president Morsi on Tuesday made his second appearance since his arrest following the July 3 military takeover in Egypt. Morsi sat locked in a soundproof glass cage that impeded him from speaking during most of the day’s proceedings.
The Cairo Criminal Court charged twenty Al Jazeera reporters yesterday of joining or aiding a terrorist group. A statement released by prosecutors claimed that the journalists had released images to assist the Muslim Brotherhood in influencing international opinion. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that, “The government’s targeting of journalists and others on spurious claims is wrong and demonstrates an egregious disregard for the protection of basic rights and freedoms.”
Iran. UN nuclear inspectors reportedly visited an Iranian uranium mine yesterday, marking the first International Atomic Energy Agency visit to an Iranian uranium facility in nearly a decade. Allowing IAEA access to Gchine represents one of six steps that Iran agreed to under the November 11 cooperation agreement with the agency. President Obama argued against new Iran sanctions in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, saying that, “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.” He acknowledged that sanctions had made a deal with Iran possible, but warned Congress that he would veto any new sanctions bill.
U.S. Foreign Policy
Syria. Reuters reported on Tuesday that the United States is supplying “light arms” to moderate Syrian rebels and that Congress has approved funding for further deliveries through September 30, the end of the fiscal year. Lawmakers reportedly approved the funding in classified sections of defense funding legislation. The unclassified defense appropriations bill was passed in late December, but it is unclear when the closed door vote on supplying arms occurred.
Israel-Palestine. Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, visited Washington on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing peace negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to present the parties with a draft framework agreement sometime in the next few weeks. Israeli negotiators—Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho—visited Washington last week to meet Kerry.
Jordan. U.S. deputy secretary of state William Burns was received by King Abdullah on Wednesday when the two reportedly discussed regional developments and Arab-Israeli peace efforts. Speaking about the Syrian peace talks in Geneva at a press conference, Burns said that it is “the beginning of a long and difficult process aimed at political transition” and that “the key will remain the transition to a new leadership.” The White House announced yesterday that President Obama will meet King Abdullah on February 14 at the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage, California.
While We Are Looking Elsewhere
Tunisia. A new technocratic government headed by interim prime minister Medhi Jomaa was sworn in yesterday, coming on the heels of the country’s official adoption of a new constitution on Monday. Earlier this week, Jomaa appealed to the international community, stating that “this sensitive phase of democratic transition…will need some economic reforms and sources of financing.” The IMF announced today the release of a $500 million loan that had been delayed for months due to political instability.
Iraq. Six suicide bombers attacked the Iraqi transportation ministry in Baghdad today, killing at least twenty-four people. While no group has claimed responsibility, Iraqi security officials blamed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is an al-Qaeda linked group that seized control of Fallujah earlier this month.
Yemen. Following the conclusion ceremony of reconciliation talks on Saturday, Yemeni president Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi assigned a newly-formed committee on Monday with the task of exploring options to transform Yemen into a federation. The committee will explore dividing the country into two or six zones. The result will be written into a new constitution scheduled to be completed within a year.
Libya. New fighting erupted in the city of Sebha on Tuesday between supporters of former ruler Muammar Qaddafi and government forces and former rebels. The clash was sparked by the arrival of government reinforcements deployed to dislodge the Qaddafi supporters from several positions in the urban area.
Israel-Palestine. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said in an interview on Tuesday that he would accept a gradual three-year Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank. Abbas was reportedly responding to Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon’s challenge on the effectiveness of the Palestinian leader’s security commitments. “I am saying that clearly: whoever proposes 10 or 15 years for a transition period does not want to withdraw,” Abbas stated. “We say that a transitional period not exceed three years, during which Israel can withdraw gradually.” The interview was broadcast at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, the Shin Bet and Israeli police have arrested sixteen East Jerusalem residents on suspicion of funding Hamas activity in the city. Authorities suspect that Hamas has been funding an educational program in Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount area, paying Muslims to stay in the area in order to increase the Islamic presence there.