Terrorism & Security
Kosovars celebrated and Serbian media and officials slammed a decision today by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague to acquit former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj of war crimes committed during the 1990s.
Agence France-Presse reports that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) acquitted Mr. Haradinaj and his lieutenant Idriz Balaj of six counts of crimes involving the murder and torture of Serbs and non-Albanians during the war in the Balkans in 1998 and 1999. Another officer, Lahi Brahimaj, was acquitted of four similar counts. The court, presided over by Judge Bakone Justice Moloto, said that despite the accusations, prosecutors failed to prove that the three men were involved in a "joint criminal enterprise" to ethnically cleanse Serbs.
In his ruling, the judge singled out the prosecutors' witnesses as unreliable.
Moloto said that one witness may not have been in the Jablanica detention camp where alleged abuses took place and "may have told what he heard from others."
"There is no credible evidence that Haradinaj was even aware of the crimes committed at Jablanica," Moloto said.
Reuters reports that the acquittal was met with cheers in the courtroom and fireworks in Kosovo, where Haradinaj is considered a hero and served as prime minister for several months in 2005 before being charged by the ICTY, prompting him to step down to deal with the court case. Reuters notes that many in Kosovo expect him to reenter the government as part of Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's coalition. Mr. Thaci, who called the verdict "the strongest evidence that the Kosovo Liberation Army fought a just war for freedom and never committed the crimes of which we were unfairly accused," is, like Haradinaj, a former Kosovar military commander.
The Serbian media and officials quickly condemned the ruling. A government spokesman told AFP that the ruling "legalized Mafia rule in Kosovo," while Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic slammed the acquittal as unjust and political in a statement, reports Serbian radio station B92.
“Unfortunately, expectations that the Hague Tribunal will release Ramush Haradinaj, who was accused of murder, cruel treatment, inhuman actions against non-Albanian, Serb and Roma civilians in the camp of the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in Jablanica in 1998 and violation of law and customs of war, have come true,” reads Nikolić’s statement.
“The latest decision of the Tribunal is not based on the law and justice – the main postulates on which the international court should be based. The Tribunal was apparently founded contrary to the international law and it was founded to try the Serbian people. They want to achieve certain goals that the Serbian public is well aware of,” the president stressed.
The acquittal is the second ruling in two weeks to clear men who are seen as war criminals in Serbia. Earlier this month, two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, had their convictions for war crimes overturned by the ICTY. The Associated Press reports that Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic called the ruling "scandalous" and "political and not legal."
The Associated Press notes that while the ruling complicates ongoing, European Union-sponsored talks between Serbia and Kosovo – Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia still considers it a UN-governed domestic region, even as both nations seek to join the EU – Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has said that his country is unlikely to withdraw from the negotiations.
"Continuation of dialogue and the process of integration in the European Union are in Serbia's interest," he said.
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Twin car bombs detonated in Damascus today, along with two blasts in nearby suburbs, killing and injuring scores – events whose grim familiarity underscores the unexpectedly protracted nature of Syria’s civil war, now in its 21st month.
"We no longer count the days," Ramiz Moussa, a rebel fighter and former civil servant told the Associated Press. "Today we're in a battle, but we can't remember when it started, much less the past battles. You could ask me what day it is, but I can't tell you."
What started out as political protests during the 2011 Arab uprisings segued into a brutal crackdown by government forces, and then today's bloody civil war that opposition groups say has claimed between 30,000 and 40,000 lives.
"At the start, I never imagined it would last this long," another rebel fighter, Abdulllah Qadi, told the AP. "We have been at it for 20 months and we could be at it for 20 more. All we can do is keep fighting."
Today’s car bombs all detonated within a span of five minutes in an area of the city that’s home to Christians and Druze, groups largely seen as supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, according to a separate AP report. Though no one immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts, state media said the attacks were the work of “terrorists,” a term frequently used to describe rebel fighters. Some speculate that the “government is behind the blasts as a way of spreading fear among Syria's minorities,” reports the Guardian.
Recent reports show rebel groups gaining ground against Assad’s regime in parts of the country, with a diplomat in Damascus telling Reuters that "there is a sense that the flames are licking at the door.”
The steady capture of military installations and arsenals is sapping the morale of Assad's forces and also ensuring a modest supply of new weapons to relatively ill-equipped rebels whose calls for a no-fly zone – which proved crucial in the Libyan uprising – have been ignored.
Although they have yet to seize control of a single city, or translate their dominance in swathes of rural Syria into "liberated" territory free of air and artillery strikes, rebels say that their increasing prowess on the battlefield and growing armories have finally allowed them to take the initiative.
"The difference is that we've gone from being on the defensive to thinking and acting on the offensive. We actually have the ability to work offensively now, since we have seized enough weapons," said a fighter with Islamist battalions in Damascus province, who used the nom de guerre of Abu al-Yaman.
Today’s bombings, which shattered windows in nearby buildings and scattered debris through the street, have raised concerns of “a rising Islamic militant element among the forces seeking to topple Assad,” reports the AP.
Analysts say most of those fighting Assad's regime are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, disenchanted with the authoritarian government. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines. The rebels try to play down the Islamists' influence for fear of alienating Western support.
Numerous car bombs and attacks have taken place in downtown, particularly since last December, reports the AP. These attacks have largely focused on regime targets, including “state security institutions and troops, as well as areas with homes of wealthy Syrians, army officers, security officials and other members of the regime.”
The conflict has not only destroyed Syrians' lives – in addition to the tens of thousands killed, there are an estimated 458,555 refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency – but the infrastructure of the country as well. The impact will extend beyond Syrians' day-to-day struggles, undermining the potential to rebuild post-conflict. “Much of Syria has become a disaster zone,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
More than 2.9 million homes, mosques, schools, churches, and hospitals have been reported destroyed or damaged since the conflict began, according to the September estimates of the opposition group Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Another 600,000 structures have been reported damaged or destroyed since then.
On streets once lined with multistory buildings and mosques, ceilings lie pancaked atop smashed and dusty home furnishings and appliances. Electrical wires hang like carelessly strung streamers across concrete columns strewn with antigovernment graffiti.
Roads in front of gutted shops have become impassable for the sheer amount of rubble.
The buildings and infrastructure, though of lesser importance compared with the more than 30,000 people reportedly killed and at least an equal number detained or missing, are part of the larger fraying social fabric of the country. Any post-Assad period is likely to be marked by sectarian violence, vendetta killings and hostile ideological wrangling over the future of Syria, all set against an already devastated landscape.
"The regime has said many times, 'Either Assad stays, or we will destroy the country,'" [Sami] Ibrahim [founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights] said. "It is obvious that it is punishment."
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Now that the exhumation and reburial of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is complete, the wait for results on cause of death begins. Suspicions that Israel poisoned him are widespread, and the results will put to rest eight years of questions about his rapid health deterioration and subsequent death.
Israel has vehemently denied being responsible for Mr. Arafat's death, and has even called for Palestinian officials to release his medical records to bolster their claims. No autopsy was performed at the time, leaving doctors unable to determine the cause of death. When traces of polonium were found in July on some of Mr. Arafat's belongings that had been handed over to Al Jazeera, it revived the dormant debate, Agence France-Presse reports.
Even before the polonium discovery, many Palestinians suspected Israel was behind Arafat's death, according to AFP. Although he eventually signed a peace agreement with Israel, for a long time he was considered a terrorist by most Israelis for his many years of leading Palestinian resistance to Israel.
Early this morning, forensic experts removed samples from his corpse, buried in Ramallah in the West Bank. Reuters reports that an analysis of the results isn't expected until March or April 2013. Suspicions are boosted by the fact that Israel kept Arafat confined to his headquarters in Ramallah for the last 2.5 years of his life.
"We need to find the truth. It was very suspicious how he died, just like that, under siege from the Israelis," Ghada Nayfeh told the Guardian.
The Israelis had an opportunity to interfere with food deliveries which passed through their checkpoints during the siege. But they had no way of knowing who would be eating what and the fact that there was no mass poisoning inside the Muqata would mean that Arafat's food was contaminated by someone with direct access to it.
The debate was revived when Arafat's widow, Suha, provided some of his belongings for a documentary and a Swiss institute found traces of polonium on them. However, there are still substantial doubts.
Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. But some experts have questioned whether Arafat could have died in this way, pointing to a brief recovery during his illness that they said was not consistent with radioactive poisoning. They also noted he did not lose all his hair.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev dismissed the suspicions this summer. "Israel was not involved in the death of Arafat," he said in July, according to a separate AFP report. "All the medical files are in the hands of the Palestinians and it was not Israel who is preventing their publication."
Although many Palestinians still clamor for answers, many disagree with reopening the debate, AFP reports.
The late leader's nephew Nasser al-Qidwa – one of the most vocal critics of the entire process – said he found the whole process disturbing and akin to a "desecration."
"No good can come out of this at all," Qidwa said in an interview. "It does no good to the Palestinians."
Qidwa argued that most people in the West Bank already believed that Arafat had been poisoned and did not require any further proof.
"I do not understand this exhumation," he lamented. "The French took all the samples they wanted (at the time of his death)."
Not only is invaluable energy expended on deception at the expense of tackling actual problems, but fantastic convolutions of trumped up cloak and dagger stories don’t bolster the cause of genuine peace. Falsehoods negate peace.
Where the culture of mendacity reigns, trustworthy accords cannot grow. That’s why the latest twist in the “Arafat assassination” tale matters.
It is possible that this latest inquiry will conclude natural causes, which would be closure of a sort. If high levels of polonium contamination are detected, indicating deliberate poisoning, it might simply raise more questions.
There would be no shortage of possible suspects. Many Palestinians consider Israel as the obvious culprit - the hostility of the Second Intifada and decades of unequal sparring would seem to provide clear motive. Polonium 210 is most often associated with nuclear reactors in Israel and Russia. Other theories have speculated that murky rivalries among Palestinian leaders may be to blame.
The uncertainty and suspicion is the most compelling argument to go forward with this investigation. Whether or not Arafat is viewed as a resistance hero, there must be closure about his death, so this mystery doesn't dog subsequent generations of Palestinian leaders.
The leader of the Congolese rebel group M23, which sacked the city of Goma a week ago, is set to meet officials in neighboring Uganda for negotiations over the group's withdrawal. But various reports indicate that M23 is operating under the auspices of the Rwandan government, suggesting that a resolution to the immediate crisis may require international pressure as well.
An M23 spokesman told Reuters that Col. Sultani Makenga, leader of M23, will meet with Ugandan defense chief Aronda Nyakayirima in the capital of Kampala on Monday to discuss M23's withdrawal from Goma. The Ugandan military could not immediately confirm M23's claim to Reuters, but stated that such negotiations were ongoing.
"I am not aware of his arrival but I wouldn't be surprised if he were here because meetings have been going on and since Aronda has been tasked to coordinate the withdrawal (from Goma) he would need to talk to him (Makenga)," military spokesman Felix Kulayigye said.
Reports indicate that M23 and Congolese officials met on Sunday as well. The Associated Press writes that Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga said he was overseeing negotiations between the two sides, and Rene Abandi, M23's head of external relations, told AP that M23 representatives attended a two-hour meeting with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Sunday, a day after a regional summit in Uganda that called upon M23 to withdraw from Goma. The DR Congo government denies involvement in any negotiations.
The resolution of the situation in eastern Congo is complicated due to the M23's connections with both Uganda and Rwanda. A United Nations report released last week asserts that both countries are providing support to the rebels, with the Rwandan military in active command of the group. AP writes that both Rwanda and Uganda have repeatedly denied supporting the M23 movement and have faced little international criticism over the allegations, but the report is apt to increase pressure on both countries.
The highly anticipated report from the U.N. Group of Experts said both Rwanda and Uganda have "cooperated to support the creation and expansion of the political branch of M23 and have consistently advocated on behalf of the rebels. M23 and its allies include six sanctioned individuals, some of whom reside in or regularly travel to Rwanda and Uganda."
The document said that Rwanda is funneling weapons, providing direct troop reinforcements to the M23 rebels, facilitating recruitment and encouraging desertions from the Congolese armed forces. The de facto chain of command of M23 ends with Rwandan Defense Minister Gen. James Kabarebe, the report said.
A weekend report from The Daily Telegraph provides further evidence of Rwandan involvement with M23, as two men told of their experiences working with the group and Rwandan soldiers.
Jean-Paul Nsengiyumva (not his real name) served as an NCO with a regular Rwandan infantry battalion until June, when he was transferred to a "special battalion" created to fight in Congo. After being briefed by one of Rwanda's most senior generals at Gako Military Academy, his unit was sent to back up Congo's rebels.
"At that time, M23 did not have many soldiers, so when the fighting was hard, they were calling us for help. Then we would come over the border and take the town," he said. "When we finished, we would pull back to Rwanda and allow M23 to occupy the area." Three times, his unit went over the frontier and into battle at M23's request, helping to seize the border crossing at Bunagana and two other towns. In September, however, Nsengiyumva's unit was deployed to bolster an M23 assault on a big Congolese army camp. This battle was tougher than expected – two attacks were beaten off and Rwandan forces with their rebel allies only succeeded at their third attempt.
Similarly, another man, identified by the pseudonym Nsengimana Ngaruye, described his time working as a porter for the Rwandan army at a base inside Congo.
"They used to tell us, 'Your enemy is the government of Congo, we need you to fight them and once we take over the country, you will get rewarded'." Ngaruye said the camp was filled with Rwandan soldiers and Congolese rebels, although a colonel in the Rwandan army was in command. He never fought, but carried ammunition and supplies whenever an attack was launched. In September, he deserted. He surrendered to the Congolese army and was also jailed in Goma until being freed last week.
The Telegraph also points out that Rwanda is the beneficiary of large amounts of aid from foreign governments, including 75 million pounds ($120 million) from Britain. While that aid is specifically dedicated to non-military purposes, the Telegraph notes that "by subsidising Rwanda's government, Britain risks giving [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame more discretion. He could rely on outside donors, who provide 46 per cent of his national budget, to fund essential services and use his own resources in other ways," such as militarily.
In a commentary for the Guardian, journalist Ian Birrell criticizes both Rwanda and its foreign patrons, including Britain. "Britain and America in particular have lionised a regime guilty of ghastly internal repression and gruesome foreign adventurism, with catastrophic consequences for millions of Congolese," Mr. Birrell writes. "After weeks of prevarication, Britain has finally admitted evidence of Rwandan support for M23 was 'credible'. Now we must make up for supporting this monstrous regime by cutting all aid, imposing tough sanctions and seeking war crimes proceedings against Kagame and his senior officials."
IN PICTURES: Monitor photographers in Africa
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A rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo seized strategic parts of the eastern, mineral-rich city of Goma today, and is reportedly moving south toward Bukavu, threatening to immerse one of Africa’s largest countries in a new conflict and destabilize the region.
Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels pushed forward on two fronts: toward the city center and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital, which lies to the south.
Civilians ran down sidewalks and roads looking for cover and children shouted in alarm as gunfire crackled in the distance. A man clutched a thermos as he ran. A white tank with UN emblazoned on its side rolled down a Goma street, passing a Congolese army tank.
The U.N. peacekeepers, known by their acronym MONUSCO, were not helping the government forces during Tuesday's battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli, who was frustrated over the lack of action by the peacekeeepers.
"MONUSCO is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the MONUSCO warnings and went past their positions [at the airport]. We ask that the MONUSCO do more," he said.
"There is no Army left in the town, not a soul ... once they were in the town what could we do? It could have been very serious for the population," the Reuters source said, asking not to be named. Residents were ordered to evacuate, and refugee camps in the area were abandoned, Reuters reports.
"Despite the attack helicopters, despite the heavy weapons, the FARDC (Congo national Army) has let the town fall into our hands," Col. Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for M23, told Reuters by telephone.
The Goma airport is a lifeline for the many aid organizations based there, as well as businesses. The Congolese Army has denied claims that M23 rebels have taken over the airport, which sits across the street from the UN headquarters, reports The Daily Telegraph. “[T]here are fears that if Goma falls, rebel footsoldiers will go on a rampage of looting and rape, particularly if the UN continues to appear ineffective.”
The M23 offensive began after rebels demanded direct talks with the Congolese government. According to The Wall Street Journal, Lambert Mende, Congo's information minister, ruled out direct talks with M23, saying the government "would rather speak to Rwanda, which is the real force behind the current offensive."
A UN panel of experts has accused both Rwanda and Uganda of backing the rebels, though leaders from both countries deny the charges. The AP reports that Rwanda is accused of equipping M23 rebels with “sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120 mm mortars.” And, according to the BBC, the M23 is made up of mostly ethnic Tutsis, which is the same group that dominates Rwanda’s government.
The New York Times reports this is the heaviest fighting seen in eastern Congo since 2008. That was when Goma was last threatened by rebels, reports the AP, “when fighters from the now-defunct National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, stopped just short of Goma, after intense international pressure.”
Their backs to the wall, the Congolese government agreed to enter into talks with the CNDP and a year later, on March 23, 2009, a peace deal was negotiated calling for the CNDP to put down their arms in return for being integrated into the national army.
The peace deal fell apart this April, when up to 700 soldiers, most of them ex-CNDP members, defected from the army, claiming that the Congolese government had failed to uphold their end of the deal. They charged that they were not properly paid and equipped and that the government has systematically discriminated against ethnic Tutsis, which make-up the majority of their ranks.
The rebels are led by a “renegade general” Bosco Ntaganda who is wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, reports the Journal. During the mass defections last April, The Christian Science Monitor’s guest blogger Jason K. Stearns wrote that Congolese generals feared Ntaganda and his troops would attack Goma “to make a point.”
At the same time, he has been able to stitch together a formidable, if shaky, alliance of [ex-army] commanders through co-option and intimidation over the past years, and he personally has a lot to lose.
Mr. Stearns, an expert on eastern Congo, echoed that sentiment in comments to the Times this week. “This is the big escalation we’ve been expecting for months." But, Stearns added, “for the M23, taking Goma is a gamble. It gives them huge leverage, but also brings greater infamy.
“It will be a serious blow to the region’s stability.”
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As Israel's "Pillar of Defense" operation against Hamas and other Islamist militant groups in Gaza enters its sixth day, negotiations for a cease-fire are progressing in Cairo, according to reports. But a resolution is not imminent, despite indications that the "window is closing" for Israel to conduct military operations without opposition from its Western allies.
Independent Palestinian outlet Ma'an News Agency reports that Palestinian Liberation Organization official Nabil Shaath said Sunday that negotiations in Cairo between Palestinian groups and an unnamed Israeli delegate are progressing, but that a cease-fire "is not likely to take effect in the coming days." Mr. Shaath, who has been in contact with Hamas officials over the status of talks, added that the negotiations are being sponsored by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, with Turkey and Qatar also playing significant roles.
Although the Israeli prime minister and the defense ministry declined to comment, an anonymous Israeli official confirmed to Haaretz that an Israeli envoy is indeed in Cairo to negotiate a cease-fire.
The Jerusalem official confirmed an Associated Press report that said that an Israeli envoy landed on Sunday afternoon at Cairo’s main international airport and was whisked away in a heavily fortified convoy of vehicles. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry declined to comment.
Senior officials in Jerusalem say that Israel is keen to reach a two-stage cease-fire agreement. The first stage would be based on a principle that Israel has used many times before in its dealings with Palestinian militant groups, whereby if they cease their attacks on Israeli targets, the Israel Defense Forces would halt its offensive operations. An Egyptian official involved in the talks confirmed that this was the direction of the current negotiations, telling Haaretz that “we are working toward a small cease-fire before trying to achieve a big cease-fire.”
The Jerusalem Post writes that Hamas is seeking an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and to Israel's assassinations of its officials, like the high-profile assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, which prompted the current fighting. In addition to an end to rockets into its territory, Israel wants Hamas and other Palestinian militants to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and to stay away from the security zone between Gaza and Israel. The Post notes that Hamas officials were unaware of the Israeli delegate's presence in Cairo.
Israel was given a window within which to act by its key allies in the US and Europe who largely held Hamas responsible for this upsurge in fighting. But now that window is closing. If Israel continues with its air operations, the civilian death toll will only mount further and the diplomatic support for Israel will melt away. A weekend of frantic diplomatic activity involving Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar has so far produced little. But the common goal now is to try to halt this conflict before Israel unleashes a ground operation which will only push the casualty toll ever higher.
The Guardian offers some initial signs that Western support for Israel in the current conflict is reaching its limits. Both the US and British leaders backed Israel's response so far, but offered only lukewarm support for a ground assault, the likely next stage of the conflict should it escalate. US President Barack Obama, speaking while on a tour of Asia, said that "Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory."
"There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." The US president said it would be preferable if the Israeli operation against rocket launchers in Gaza could be accomplished without "a ramping-up of military activity".
Obama added: "It's not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It's also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."
Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, told Sky News that the ruling Hamas party bore "principal responsibility" for the current conflict, but added that a ground invasion would "lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy they have in this situation."
Reuters reports that there is only limited support within Israel for a ground invasion. Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said that from his conversations with members of the Israeli government, he understood "there is no interest at all" to invade the Gaza Strip. And while 84 percent of Israelis support the "Pillar of Defense" operation, only 30 percent back a ground invasion of Gaza, according to a Haaretz poll.
The current conflict has left more than 90 people dead, writes Reuters. Three of those were Israelis, and more than half were noncombatants.
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Hopes for a brief halt to the fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces were quickly dashed Friday morning, as both sides continued to exchange fire even as Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil visited the Gaza Strip.
The Guardian reports that Israel initially promised to observe a cease-fire during Mr. Kandil's visit, provided that no rockets were launched from Gaza during the same period. But the cease-fire was shattered soon after Kandil's arrival, as Palestinians launched several rockets into southern Israel. Israel retaliated with an airstrike against the home of a Hamas commander in Gaza, killing two people, one of them a child. Those deaths bring the overall death toll of the conflict so far to 21 Palestinians and 3 Israelis.
The Los Angeles Times reports that during his visit, Kandil made no mention of the cease-fire or of ending the violence between Gaza and Israel. "Instead he said Egypt’s loyalty rested squarely with the Gazan people."
“The cause of Palestinians is the cause of all Arabs and Muslims,’’ he said during a visit to Shifa hospital. “Palestinians are heroes.”
The Guardian adds: "Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government has said a truce is the only option, but officials in Cairo warned privately that there was no immediate prospect of an end to the Israeli operation, saying the conflict could continue for at least another week."
At the moment, escalation seems a more likely future for the current Gaza conflict, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced Friday morning on its official Twitter feed that it had begun to call up 16,000 reservists as part of its Pillar of Defense operation, a process which the IDF later confirmed to Agence France-Presse. AFP notes that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced on Thursday he had authorized the mobilization of 30,000 reservists, in a likely prelude to ground operations.
The Associated Press writes that late Thursday, Israeli troops, tanks, and armored personnel carriers were seen moving toward the border with Gaza, and that Israeli television stations reported that ground operations were likely to begin on Friday. But the AP notes that changes on both sides of the conflict will likely prevent a repeat of the last war in Gaza, despite superficial similarities.
The current round of fighting is reminiscent of the first days of that three-week offensive against Hamas. Israel also caught Hamas off-guard then with a barrage of missile strikes and threatened to follow up with a ground offensive.
However, much has also changed since then.
Israel has improved its missile defense systems, but is facing a more heavily armed Hamas. Israel estimates militants possess 12,000 rockets, including more sophisticated weapons from Iran and from Libyan stockpiles plundered after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime there last year.
The AP also notes that the geopolitics of the region have also shifted. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a much more tense relationship with Israel's Western allies than then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did. And Egypt's government now includes the Muslim Brotherhood.
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Just two days after becoming the first nation to recognize Syria's new opposition group, the French government has said it will begin discussions with its partners in Europe to end the European Union's embargo against arming the rebels. But while France appears willing to step up its involvement in the Syrian civil war, its Western allies, including the United States, still seem cool to the idea.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe's RTL radio today that while France is wary of escalating the Syrian conflict, it does not want rebel-controlled regions to fall for lack of self-defense, reports Agence France-Presse.
"For the moment, there is an embargo, so there are no arms being delivered from the European side. The issue ... will no doubt be raised for defensive arms," he told RTL radio.
"The issue will be raised because the (opposition) coalition has asked us to do so," he said, adding that "this is something that we can only do in coordination with the Europeans."
"France's position for the moment is to say that we must not militarise the conflict, but it is evidently unacceptable that there are liberated zones and that they be bombarded by Bashar's planes."
Mr. Fabius's comments come amid a strong showing of support from France for the Syrian rebels. France announced Tuesday that it would recognize the new Syrian opposition group – formed over the weekend to unite the disparate rebel and exile groups under a single organization – as the Syrian people's sole representative. And French President François Hollande, who like Mr. Fabius also said recently that the question of arming the rebels would now "have to be necessarily reviewed," is set to meet with the group's leader, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, in Paris on Saturday, according to a second AFP report.
But even with the French push, arms shipments to the rebels look far from imminent. The Wall Street Journal reports that an EU diplomat speaking anonymously said that while France would likely bring up the arms embargo during a EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on Monday, a European consensus on lifting the ban is a long way off.
The official ... said it would take time for the EU to make any decision on changing the blanket arms embargo, and that some member states would likely take a lot of convincing to do so. Any change would require the agreement of all 27 member states.
"You know some of our member states may have in principle some difficulty in accepting the sheer principle of delivering arms to the opposition. So I will guess we will need to have long discussions before any agreement could be reached," said the official, who chose to remain unnamed.
The US also remains disinclined to arm the rebels, in large part due to fears that weapons could end up in the hands of jihadists – a situation that the US faced in the 1980s, when it armed Afghan militants who went on to form Al Qaeda and the Taliban, reports the Los Angeles Times.
"We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition," [President] Obama responded to a sole question about Syria in his postelection news conference. "One of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we're not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in ... actions that are detrimental to our national security." ...
"One of the questions that we are going to continue to press is making sure that the opposition is committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria," he said. "The more engaged we are, the more we'll be in a position to make sure ... that we are encouraging the most moderate, thoughtful elements of the opposition that are committed to inclusion, observance of human rights and working cooperatively with us over the long term."
IN PICTURES - Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
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A series of bombings across Iraq killed at least 14 people today and injured hundreds, highlighting the protracted challenge of sectarian violence in a country that only recently emerged from war.
The attacks took place on the eve of the Muslim festival marking the start of the Islamic New Year. Muharram, as the holy month is called, is of particular importance on the Shiite Muslim religious calendar, reports the BBC. A majority of Iraq's population is Shiite, and its religious festivals have been targeted by violence in the past by Sunni extremists.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but AFP notes that “Al-Qaeda's front group in Iraq frequently carries out coordinated bombings and attempts mass-casualty attacks in a bid to destabilise the government through fomenting bloodshed.”
Security, or a lack of, is a common theme in Iraq, as the Shiite-dominated government continues to struggle with Sunni Islamists and Al Qaeda affiliates seeking to undermine it. Although US troops withdrew from the country nearly a year ago and the war is over, there has never been a successful reconciliation between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites – nor is the government apt to seek one, the Monitor's Dan Murphy wrote after a similar spate of bombings this summer.
[Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] has shown little interest in making concessions to his ideological opponents and has unsurprisingly been most interested in locking in a long period of dominance for his own confessional community. He hasn't exactly been subtle about it.
The good news for Maliki is that he's unlikely to lose the battle with Sunni insurgents. They remain a minority in Iraq, and Maliki's forces are better armed and far more numerous. The goal for Iraq's jihadis has all along been to drive the country into a vicious sectarian civil war, which they hope will create enough chaos to topple the government. But they actually succeeded in getting their wish in 2006, when the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed the most vicious wave of sectarian massacres of the whole war. The result? Tens of thousands more dead, but ultimately Iraq's new Shiite government was more entrenched than ever.
The bad news for Iraq is something else again. It remains among the most violent countries on earth and while rich in oil, its economy remains moribund. International investors are not exactly rushing to place their bets on a country that is as corrupt as it is dangerous.
Today's deadliest attacks took place in the city of Kirkuk, about 175 miles north of Baghdad. The oil-rich region is home to Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen, all of whom are competing to control Kirkuk, reports the Associated Press.
The first bomb detonated in a parked car near the Kurdish political party’s offices there this morning, and a second bomb exploded when medical personnel and rescuers arrived on the scene. Five were killed in what is often referred to as a “double bombing,” a well-known insurgent tactic, reports the AP.
Although violence across Iraq has dropped precipitously since its height in 2006 and 2007, September was the deadliest month in Iraq in the past two years, with a death toll of 365 people, according to Voice of America.
An hour after the first bombs in Kirkuk, another five people were killed by an explosion in a parked car near an Iraqi army patrol in the nearby city of Hawija, reports AP.
Some 60 miles south of Baghdad in the town of Hilla, another car bomb detonated. "A car bomb exploded near a secondary school for girls and a crowded poultry market, leaving four dead, including innocent students. It's a real vicious terrorist act," Hamza Kadhim, a local official in Hilla told Reuters.
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Just days after Syria’s splintered opposition groups announced a unity bloc, violence escalated on the borders with Turkey and Israel, further raising concerns that Syria's civil war could spread outside its borders and destabilize the region.
Syrian warplanes struck the small Syrian city of Ras al-Ain, which shares a border with Turkey, for the second day today in an attempt to force out rebels who took control of the town last week, reports Reuters:
The second day of jet strikes sent Syrians scurrying through the flimsy barbed-wire fence that divides Ras al-Ain from the Turkish settlement of Ceylanpinar, thick plumes of smoke rising above the town.… Turkey is reluctant to be drawn into a regional conflict but the proximity of the bombing raids to the border is testing its pledge to defend itself from any violation of its territory or any spillover of violence from Syria.
"We will not allow our borders to be breached or our citizens to be fired at," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967. Although the two countries have not fought over the territory since 1973, they are still officially at war.
The unity pact reached by Syrian opposition groups to create the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was immediately praised by those in support of toppling President Bashar al-Assad (see The Christian Science Monitor’s coverage of world reactions to the new organization here). And 10 countries including France, Jordan, the United States, and Egypt have expressed support for the coalition, according to Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and the Middle East who blogs at Syria Comment.
It’s a big day for the Syrian opposition. Defying naysayers and skeptics, the opposition came together.... Opposition members the world over are electrified by the outcome and moving speeches given by the opposition’s new leadership. Assad regime must be worried, as it has survived for 42 years thanks to Syria’s fragmentation.
But some argue that even with a unified opposition, without aid in the form of weapons and firepower, the regime will continue to maintain power.
"Syria has more than enough weapons for fighting the rebels," Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of Russia's military general staff who is now editor of National Defense magazine, told The Associated Press. "As long as Bashar Assad has the money to pay his military, it will keep fighting."
The US has thus far discouraged sending weapons to Syria’s rebels; however, according to AP, “some opposition figures believe Washington could give its tacit support to others funneling weapons if the new broad-based rebel coalition holds together and gains international legitimacy, such as winning recognition from the Arab League and other groups.”
The New York Times notes that in light of the conflict’s recent overflow into neighboring Turkey and Israel, some question whether Assad could be intentionally trying to broaden Syria’s civil war.
There has been speculation that Mr. Assad, feeling increasingly threatened, may deliberately seek to widen the conflict that has consumed much of his country for the last 20 months, leaving roughly 40,000 people dead and over 400,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Although there was no indication that Mr. Assad was trying to lure Israel into the fight, any Israeli involvement could rally his failing support and frustrate the efforts of his Arab adversaries.
But "Assad is fighting for his survival. The enemy at this stage is not Israel. He has much bigger problems," former Israeli diplomat Alon Liel told The Wall Street Journal. And Israel has reasons – like an impending election – to avoid getting entangled in Syria’s war.
“High-ranking Israeli military officials say their real fear is that a power vacuum in Syria near the Golan Heights border could be exploited by militants or Iran in the same way that armed groups have exploited a breakdown in security in the Sinai Desert,” the Journal reports.
Despite the dire situation in Syria, and the pressure put on neighboring countries as a result of a growing refugee crisis, novelist Dima Wannous writes in The Washington Post that the revolution has made important gains.
Despite the death and destruction in Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad’s steadfast devotion to staying in power, the revolution there has gained a lot more than it has lost in the past year and a half. The rebels have torn down the overwhelming sense of fear — a force far more menacing than any dictator — that ruled the country for at least four decades.
Before the revolution began in March of last year, Syria could be summarized as the ruling elite and its beneficiaries vs. everyone else. There were no independent political parties, no real and effective opposition, no forums for political debate, no freedom of the press and no unions. Now the opposition is trying to create this type of civil society.