Terrorism & Security
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Refugees have started returning to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria after fighting between rebels and government-allied forces sent them fleeing, but the status of the Palestinian refugees, along with hundreds of thousands of others displaced by the Syrian conflict, remains a top concern for observers outside the country.
The Associated Press reports that, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "hundreds of people have returned" to Yarmouk after fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad drove out as many as two-thirds of the camp's 150,000 residents by United Nations estimates.
The battle at Yarmouk, located in southern Damascus, began Dec. 14, as pro-Assad Palestinian fighters attacked anti-Assad Palestinian rebels based in the camp. Al Jazeera English reported yesterday that although Syrian troops did not participate in the fighting within the camp, they provided support to the pro-Assad fighters, cutting off the camp from the outside and launching air strikes into the camp, which reportedly killed at least eight people on Dec. 16.
Al Jazeera noted that pro-Assad newspaper Al-Watan reported earlier this week that the government was preparing for a major assault on Yarmouk.
AP adds that while fighting has eased, some rebels still remain in the camp. Damascus-based Palestinian official Khaled Abdul-Majid told the AP that Cairo-based Palestinian leaders are negotiating the rebels' exit. Palestinian refugees in Syria have been divided over which side to ally themselves with in the ongoing civil war.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been affected by the conflict. Some 1 million people are expected to have fled Syria by mid-2013, and another 2 million have already been displaced within the country, reports BBC. The UN has issued an appeal for $1.5 billion for relief efforts in Syria.
The UN has registered more than half a million refugees so far, with between 2,000 and 3,000 arriving every day in countries neighboring Syria.
"Unless these funds come quickly, we will not be able to fully respond to the life-saving needs of civilians who flee Syria every hour of the day – many in a truly desperate condition," Panos Moumtzis of the UNHCR said.
"We are constantly shocked by the horrific stories refugees tell us," he added. "Their lives are in turmoil. They have lost their homes and family members. By the time they reach the borders, they are exhausted, traumatised and with little or no resources to rely on.
UN officials said they would need to provide food, shelter, medicines and even schools for them over the next year.
Syria is home to nearly half a million Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps around the country, including Yarmouk, according to the AP. Al Arabiya reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday called on the UN to help the Palestinian refugees displaced by the fighting in Syria to return to Gaza and the West Bank.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
The failures listed in a report released last night include relying too heavily on poorly trained local militias for security; “leadership and management” deficiencies in coordination of two important State Department bureaus; and an “under resourced” embassy lacking adequate security equipment, such as security cameras and outer perimeter walls high enough to protect the compound.
“Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department … resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place,” according to the report. The panel, known as an Accountability Review Board, was made up of five people appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, including Adm. Mike Mullen and longtime US diplomat Thomas Pickering.
The Benghazi attack, which fell on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. It highlighted the depth of lawlessness still plaguing the country in the aftermath of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's ousting.
“The attack on the US consulate was just the latest in a series of incidents,” Mohamed Abu Janah, a local radio executive and a protest organizer, told The Christian Science Monitor in September.
The month before the attack, in a piece titled “Worrying signs of lawlessness in Libya,” The Monitor’s Dan Murphy noted that some of the militias that fought to oust Qaddafi had taken on gang-like qualities. “Generally untouchable, they continue to swagger through Libya's towns and cities, demanding special treatment as a reward for their role last year. Many of them are now technically integrated into the security services, but continue to operate with impunity,” Mr. Murphy wrote.
He warned that “[T]he steady drumbeat of problems is worrying. If it isn't dealt with, 'rat-a-tat-tat' can transform into 'boom.' "
According to The New York Times, these signs of insecurity were, in part, ignored in planning security for the US Mission in Libya.
The panel also said American intelligence officials had relied too much on specific warnings of imminent attacks, which they did not have in the case of Benghazi, rather than basing assessments more broadly on a deteriorating security environment. By this spring, Benghazi, a hotbed of militant activity in eastern Libya, had experienced a string of assassinations, an attack on a British envoy’s motorcade and the explosion of a bomb outside the American Mission.
The Los Angeles Times notes that the report is “likely to represent the government’s lasting judgment on the attacks.” According to the document, the attack was:
the calculated effort of militants and not a "spontaneous" reaction of an outraged crowd, the first explanation offered by U.S. officials.
Yet the five-member independent panel said that, despite the lapses, no officials had failed to carry out their duties in a way that required disciplinary action.
It also determined that there had been "no immediate, specific intelligence" on the threat against the mission.
The Obama administration's initial response to the attacks and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s inconsistent statements describing the events of the night garnered anger from lawmakers in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.
“The report affirmed there were no protests of an anti-Islamic video before the attack, contrary to what Ms. Rice had said on several Sunday talk shows days after the attack,” notes the Times. This confirmation could reignite arguments that the White House “politicized” Ambassador Steven’s death and the embassy attack.
The Monitor reports that, “At issue were her statements over what had precipitated the attack on the US mission in Benghazi.”
The legacy of Secretary of State Clinton could also be tarnished by last night’s panel report.
"This is a mark against Secretary Clinton. While she was not singled out, the report highlighted the lack of leadership and organization on security issues, and those fall into her bailiwick," Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal goes a step further, outlining reasons why Clinton, who is currently recovering from a concussion after fainting earlier this month, should testify on the Benghazi matter.
Mrs. Clinton's testimony is months overdue. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the Benghazi consulate staff reported to her. Their safety was her responsibility. Congress needs to flesh out why security was so lacking, why requests for additional protection for the mission were denied, and who made those decisions.
Despite background briefings by the Pentagon, State and CIA, the Obama Administration hasn't offered a consistent timeline of the Benghazi events. Mrs. Clinton hasn't said what she did that day and precisely how her department liaised with the military and intelligence services. It shouldn't take this long to fill such gaps.
The backdrop to Benghazi matters too. Mrs. Clinton was presumably – as the President's chief foreign policy adviser – instrumental in drawing up the "light footprint" policy in Libya. After the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, the US disengaged. As an elected but weak government struggled to establish itself in Libya, Islamist militias with al Qaeda ties filled the gap. One such group, Ansar al-Shariah, laid siege to the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, killing four Americans. Both the CIA and State immediately pulled out of the city—an abject retreat. What was the rationale for the U.S. approach to Libya, and will it change?
Mrs. Clinton will soon leave the Obama cabinet with sky-high approval ratings and an eye on the 2016 presidential nomination. It's logical for her not to want to dwell on the worst debacle of her tenure at State. But two months ago, she said "I take responsibility" for Libya without ever doing so. It's well past time she did.
According to Reuters, Clinton “said in a letter accompanying the review that she would adopt all of its recommendations.” And the New York Times reports she is already taking steps to rectify problems identified in the report, including asking for a transfer of $1.3 billion from Congress.
They say the State Department is asking permission from Congress to transfer more than $1.3 billion from contingency funds that had been allocated for spending in Iraq. This includes $553 million for hundreds of additional Marine security guards worldwide; $130 million for diplomatic security personnel; and $691 million for improving security at installations abroad.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
NBC News Chief Correspondent Richard Engel and three members of his production crew were released safely from captivity last night, five days after being kidnapped in Syria, the news network reports. It is unclear who is responsible for the kidnapping, but the episode highlights the dangerous nature of reporting in war-torn Syria, a country the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) dubbed the deadliest place for journalists this year.
NBC reports that Mr. Engel’s captors have not been identified but are “not believed to be loyal to the Assad regime.” (Editor's update: Engel later spoke live in Turkey and noted he believed his kidnappers were indeed pro-government shabiha militiamen.) Engel and his team went missing after crossing into Syria from Turkey last week, and there had been no communication with the network – neither requesting ransom nor laying claim for the kidnapping – while the team was in captivity.
After entering Syria, Engel and his team were abducted, tossed into the back of a truck and blindfolded before being transported to an unknown location believed to be near the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin. During their captivity, they were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed, the network said.
Early Monday evening local time, the prisoners were being moved to a new location in a vehicle when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group. There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued. Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped, the network said.
Engel and his team have since re-entered Turkey and say they were unharmed in the incident, NBC reports.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 after a government crackdown on protests calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. The violence has spiraled into a bloody civil war that has claimed the lives of close to 40,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
But, according to The Wall Street Journal, “the multiplying of militias on both sides of the conflict has quickly and vastly complicated the scenarios for how fighting might end or a political transition may be negotiated, and what may come next after the end of the regime.”
"The civilian militias to come out of this conflict are going to make Hezbollah [in Lebanon] look like a walk in the park," Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, told the Journal. Syria is not simply seeing a faceoff between government forces and rebel fighters, but the involvement of Al Qaeda-linked fighters and Iranian militants have also been noted.
CPJ projects that 2012 will be the deadliest year yet for journalists, with 67 journalist deaths registered through mid-December alone. The high numbers are in large part attributed to the conflict in Syria and how it has impacted local and international journalists trying to report there. Four international journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, but the majority of the 28 journalists killed there this year were local reporters, largely working online.
“This feels like the first YouTube war,” BBC Middle East correspondent Paul Wood told CPJ. “There’s a guy with a machine gun and two guys next to him with camera phones.” Mr. Wood added that local journalists are facing multiple risks. “We’ve seen pro-regime journalists targeted by rebels – it is well known. But opposition journalists say the regime is intent on targeting them as journalists.”
The number of fatalities related to the Syrian conflict approached the worst annual toll recorded during the war in Iraq, where 32 journalists were killed in both 2006 and 2007.
Paul Wood … who covered Iraq and numerous other wars, said the Syrian conflict “is the most difficult one we’ve done.” Bashar al-Assad’s government sought to cut off the flow of information by barring entry to international reporters, forcing Wood and many other international journalists to travel clandestinely into Syria to cover the conflict. “We’ve hidden in vegetable trucks, been chased by Syrian police – things happen when you try to report covertly.”
With international journalists blocked and traditional domestic media under state control, citizen journalists picked up cameras and notepads to document the conflict – and at least 13 of them paid the ultimate price. One, Anas al-Tarsha, was only 17 years old. At least five of the citizen journalists worked for Damascus-based Shaam News Network, whose videos have been used extensively by international news organizations.
Engel is an experienced reporter who reported on the Iraq war in its entirety and has “covered wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years,” according to NBC. But there are many factors making reporting by inexperienced journalists in high-risk countries like Syria increasingly common today.
In addition to the rise of Internet journalism, there are other factors like “relatively cheap flights to some of the world’s trouble spots” and “shrinking budgets for foreign news” that “have dramatically reduced barriers to entry for would-be foreign correspondents,” reports the BBC.
For organisations working to improve the safety of journalists it’s a cause for increasing concern.
“There’s something of a worrying trend developing,” says Hannah Storm, director of the International News Safety Institute. “I’m hearing it from people that have recently graduated. I’m seeing it on Facebook. And I see it sometimes when I talk to students in universities.
“It feels like now in places like Syria there are more and more people in their early or mid-20s with little or no experience - but with an overriding enthusiasm which makes them want to go out there and make a name for themselves, without taking the realities on board.”
Many of these young reporters are working as freelancers, which can create an additional risk. Freelance reporter Austin Tice has been missing since August when he was kidnapped near Syria’s capital, Damascus. The Monitor reports that the number of journalists kidnapped has gone up, and "with the rise in the number of reporters operating in dangerous places like Syria – and with many parties seeing value in targeting them – many expect the threat to persist.” However, while all journalists reporting in conflict zones can expect to face threats, the increasing number of freelancers can make working in places like Syria “particularly acute, as they are often operating without significant institutional backing and experience.”
"More and more of those journalists are freelancers because of the nature of the changing field," El Zein says, referring to the rise in the number of freelancers reporting in dangerous places, traditionally more a world for journalists on the staff of major publications.
"Especially in Syria, the risks are very high for journalists, and a freelancer going in there without any support structure – it can be very risky and daunting."
The Christian Science Monitor’s Tom Peter has been in and out of Syria over the course of the past few months and noted other distinct differences in reporting from Syria compared to other conflict zones in the past. “With Aleppo just a two-hour drive from Kilis [Turkey], many journalists have opted to drive into Syria each morning and return to Turkey to write stories and sleep. Not only is it safer, but electricity and Internet access are a sure thing,” he writes.
The commute made my job of writing and filing stories easier, but it also made for a surreal reporting experience. In one afternoon, I might find myself taking cover as windows blew out around me in a bombing. By that evening, I'd be back in Kilis getting my hair cut in a barbershop where a miscommunication led to an accidental mud facial mask.
I've always thought the hardest part of conflict journalism is the anxiety you feel before and after an assignment. When you're navigating a war, you're too busy to think about the what-ifs. Commuting in and out every day creates one of the strangest cycles of stress and decompression I've ever experienced.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
In an interview with a pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper, Syria's vice president called for a peaceful political resolution to the ongoing conflict in his country, and suggested that President Bashar al-Assad may not play a role in Syria's future – marking the highest-level acknowledgment yet from the Syrian government that a victory for the Assad regime looks increasingly unlikely.
Farouk al-Sharaa, current vice president of Syria and a long-serving member of the Assad family's regime, said in an interview with the Beirut-based Al Akhbar newspaper that “With every passing day, the solution [to the Syrian conflict] gets further away, militarily, and politically.” Noticeably omitting the political survival of President Assad, Mr. Sharaa says that “We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime.”
In an indirect, verbose fashion, Sharaa seems to demarcate a divided mind-set within the Syrian government, with Assad seeking a decisive military resolution to the conflict, while others, like Sharaa, push for a political solution.
Sharaa tells Al-Akhbar that "If anyone has the chance to meet Mister President, he would hear from him that this is a long struggle, a big conspiracy with many actors (terrorists, rabble, smugglers). He does not hide his desire for a military solution that achieves a decisive victory, and only then would the political dialogue be actually possible."
But, he adds, "Many in the [Baath] party, the [National Progressive Front, a coalition of non-Baath, pro-Assad parties], and the military forces have been convinced from the onset of the crisis that there is no alternative to a political solution and that there is no turning back."
Sharaa says that neither the regime nor the rebels have an exclusive right to dictate Syria's future, and that both sides will need to work together to resolve the conflict.
The opposition with its different factions, civilian, armed, or ones with external ties, cannot claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian People, just as the current rule with its ideological army and its confrontation parties lead by the Baath, with its years of experience and rooted bureaucracy, cannot achieve change and progress alone without new partners who can contribute to maintaining the fabric of the homeland, the integrity of its territory, and its regional sovereignty.
CNN notes that Sharaa has been floated as a possible interim leader of a post-Assad government, under a plan put forward by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in October. Mr. Davutoglu, explaining his reasoning to the Turkish Anadolu Agency, said that Sharaa has "a reasonable and conscientious approach," and "was not a part of recent events and did not partake in the massacres. And perhaps there is no one that knows the system better than Farouq al-Sharaa."
CNN adds that Sharaa has significant clout within Syria's government, having first been appointed to be foreign minister by Assad's father, Hafez. But Sharaa, who has been rumored to have defected several times, is also a Sunni, possibly granting him better standing among the largely Sunni rebels than his peers within Assad's primarily Shiite-aligned Alawite government.
Turkey has also reportedly offered a new post-Assad plan to Russia, which has been a staunch supporter of the Assad regime during the crisis. Agence France-Presse reports that, according to Turkish newspaper Radikal, the proposal would see Assad step down in early 2013 to be replaced by an interim government led by the opposition National Coalition. Radikal writes that earlier this month the plan was discussed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin, who called it a "creative formula." Though the two men did not come to an agreement on the plan – Turkey has been fiercely critical of Assad and backs an end to his regime – Mr. Putin did note that the Russians were not "inveterate defenders" of Assad.
AFP also reports that another staunch Assad ally, Iran, has put forth further details on its own plan to end the conflict. The six-point plan calls for an end to the violence under the supervision of the United Nations, followed by an end to foreign sanctions and formation of a transitional government. The plan also says that political prisoners should be released and impartial trials should be held for those jailed for crimes. Opposition groups have routinely rejected Iranian involvement in resolution of the Syrian crisis, due to Iran's unwavering military support for the Assad regime.
IN PICTURES - Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Russia today denied that it had changed its policy towards the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a day after a high-ranking Russian official admitted publicly for the first time that the Syrian government may fall.
A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said today that Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, in comments widely published yesterday that acknowledged the possible victory of Syria's rebels, was only reiterating Russia's official position of supporting a political end to the conflict, reports RIA Novosti.
...[O]n Friday Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich was dismissive [of reports that Russia was backing away from Assad]. “I saw the US State Department spokeswoman citing [Bodganov] and praising how Moscow has finally woken up and is changing its position,” he said.
“But we never slept. And we never changed our position, and will not do so in the future,” Lukashevich said at a press briefing in Moscow.
RIA Novosti writes that the ministry said Mr. Bogdanov "has not made any specific statements for the press on Syria in recent days," suggesting that his statements were not intended to reflect Russian policy.
Russia has been a staunch supporter of Assad's since the conflict began last year, and before yesterday had not countenanced the possibility of his fall. Bogdanov's comments -- made at a Kremlin hearing in which he addressed the ongoing conflict in Syria and its possible outcome, reports Reuters – thus marked what was seen as a significant shift.
"An opposition victory can't be excluded, unfortunately, but it's necessary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body. ...
Bogdanov also reaffirmed Russia's call for a compromise, saying it would take the opposition a long time to defeat the regime and Syria would suffer heavy casualties.
"The fighting will become even more intense, and you will lose tens of thousands and, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of people," he said. "If such a price for the ouster of the president seems acceptable to you, what can we do? We, of course, consider it absolutely unacceptable."
Bogdanov's comments were taken by many as a sign of the Kremlin's weakening support for Assad. US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she "commend[ed] the Russian Government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered."
But Andrew Weiss, formerly of the US state and defense departments, wrote in a commentary for Foreign Policy that it was more important to "Watch what the Kremlin does, not what it says." Mr. Weiss argues that there has been little evidence that Russia is backing away from Assad.
Indeed, the evidence runs in the opposite direction. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday said, "We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad. ... All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor." Other official spokesmen never miss an opportunity to condemn the militarization of the conflict, foreign interference in Syria's domestic affairs, and even NATO's plan to provide Patriot missiles to Turkey to help guard its airspace against Syrian incursions. And both Time magazine and ProPublica have reported recently on Syrian skullduggery to arrange continued imports of Russian attack helicopters and Russian-printed Syrian banknotes, which are helping keep the shaky Syrian economy afloat.
And the Guardian notes that while Assad may be on the back foot, he is still far from being toppled, even if Russia is starting to withdraw its support.
"Assad's situation is very difficult," said one senior Arab source in the region. "But he has a lot of strength. He is still getting arms and finance from Iran and his military capability is still robust." ...
What appears to have undergone a subtle change in recent weeks is the attitude of Russia and Iran. According to an observer closely familiar with recent high level diplomatic exchanges over Syria, Russia is said to be moving gradually towards accepting there may need to be a third alternative to the scenarios in which either Assad survives or is replaced by an unknown quantity involving jihadist groups.
IN PICTURES - Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Though the Chinese plane was not a military aircraft, its presence is the latest provocation in a dispute that has affected economic relations between the two countries and comes just three days before Japanese elections.
The Chinese state maritime agency said that the marine surveillance plane was sent to patrol the disputed islands – known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan – along with four boats, according to China’s Global Times. Japanese boats also patrolling the disputed area were asked to leave immediately, in line with the Chinese government’s stance, the Global Times reports.
RELATED: East Asia's top 5 island disputes
Japan’s defense agency dispatched eight F-15 jets in response, but the Chinese plane had already left the area by the time they arrived, according to the Associated Press. The Japanese government also issued an official complaint, however China responded that it was “carrying out a normal operation,” reports AP.
“I want to stress that these activities are completely normal. The Diaoyu and its affiliated islands are China’s inherent territory since ancient times,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the plane. “China requires the Japanese side stop illegal activities in the waters and airspace of the Diaoyu islands.”
Osamu Fujimura, Japan's chief cabinet secretary, called the Chinese move “extremely regrettable.”
International law forbids entering another nation's airspace without permission and gives countries the right to expel unauthorized aircraft with force immediately. In contrast, foreign ships are able sail through a nation's territorial waters as long as it is considered "innocent passage."
The incident also puts further pressure on [Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda], whose ruling Democratic Party of Japan is likely to face a decisive defeat in Sunday's elections, according to various national polls. Shinzo Abe, who's likely to take his job away, has criticized Mr. Noda for his handling of the territorial issues, and called for a confrontational approach focused on the use of "physical power," rather than diplomacy.
Mr. Abe is expected to invest more money into the Japanese coast guard and defense, Reuters reports. The coast guard has gained popularity since the confrontation reignited earlier this year, with the most recent escalation taking place after Japan purchased the islands from a private Japanese investor in September. The move inspired anti-Japanese rallies across China, “with people looting and torching Japanese-owned businesses,” according to The Christian Science Monitor.
The New York Times reports that today’s incident was an “embarrassment for the current administration” in Japan because its radar system failed to register the Chinese plane. The alert came from Japanese ships near the islands.
The Japan Daily Press notes that the coast guard has earned fame from the action surrounding the charged island dispute, “causing a surge in job applications and even inspiring a local box-office hit film.” However, the civilian-staffed guard is “being stressed and tested to its limits.”
[I]n order not to escalate the situation, the government isn’t using the military Self Defense Forces. Instead, it has tasked the Coast Guard, composed of civilians and run by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism. Although somewhat on par with their Chinese counterparts, the Coast Guard is being stretched thin. Its crew, used to shifts of at most two weeks, are on duty without time off for months. They are also forced to skip crucial training, in a time when they are expected to be able to ward off and restrain offenders both on sea and on remote islands. Ships also receive only temporary repairs instead of much-needed overhauls.
… The situation has become a rallying and unifying point of many of the political parties and candidates running for election in a few days, with promises of allocating funds and beefing up the Coast Guard to empower it to respond to situations and emergencies that the pacifist nation hasn’t faced in decades.
Today was the first time both countries have used planes in the dispute. Reuters reports that Japanese analysts are concerned over the use of aircraft.
"This is serious ... intrusion into Japan's airspace is a very important step to erode Japan's effective control over the area," said Kazuya Sakamoto, a professor at Osaka University.
"If China sends a military plane as a next step, that would really make Japan's control precarious."
Toshiyuki Shikata, a Teikyo University professor and a retired general, said the use of aircraft by both sides was significant.
"Something accidental is more likely to happen with planes than with ships," he said.
The uptick in interest in the islands is likely linked to the potential for oil and gas in surrounding waters, but “For most of human history,” The Christian Science Monitor’s China bureau chief Peter Ford wrote this fall, “the five rocky islets in the eye of the current diplomatic storm between China and Japan have sat in remote and irrelevant obscurity, lapped by the tropical waters of the East China Sea.”
Japan bases its claim to the islands, which it calls the Senkaku, on a cabinet decision in January 1895 whereby because there was no trace of anyone else controlling them they were deemed "terra nullius," nobody else's, and Tokyo incorporated them into its territory.
China disputes that claim, pointing to 15th-century accounts of sea voyages by Chinese envoys and a 17th-century map of China's sea defenses, among other documents, to show that "the Diaoyu islands were first discovered, named, and exploited by the Chinese," in the words of a Foreign Ministry statement.
IN PICTURES - Troubled waters: disputes in the China Seas
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
The United States last night granted long-demanded recognition to a Syrian opposition council as the legitimate representative of Syrians opposing President Bashar al-Assad, but any celebration was short-lived. A spokesman for the opposition council called for "real support" today, meaning weapons and other forms of military aid.
"We've made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime, and so we will provide them recognition," President Barack Obama said last night, according to the Wall Street Journal. "It's a big step."
Recognition of the opposition coalition, formed last month to replace an earlier, largely ineffective iteration, comes amid substantial rebel military gains and a sense that President Assad is in his most precarious position yet after months of bloody fighting.
“Recognition is nice, but we need real support,” said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, according to the Associated Press. “I will be happy after the conference if we have something for the Syrian people.”
By real support, Mr. Bunni likely meant weapons – something the Syrian opposition has requested repeatedly and which the US has steadfastly refused because it says it cannot ensure those weapons will not end up with anti-US jihadi groups widely believed to be fighting in Syria alongside Syrian rebels. Britain has also consistently rejected the possibility of military aid.
A Western diplomat at the meeting told Reuters that arming the rebels has not been ruled out but that "assurances" about the destination of the weapons would be required first. "No option is ruled out. But there are big issues about the legality of intervening in a civil war. Any support to any group depends on the command control and the discipline on the ground," he said.
The Syrian rebel forces are still a relatively disorganized entity in comparison to standing armies, but they have made major strides in their organization, tactics, and capabilities in the last couple months. In addition to a substantial bloc of territory in northwest Syria stretching from Aleppo west to the border with Turkey, they now hold a similarly contiguous strip of territory from eastern Syria to southwest of Damascus, according to Reuters.
According to residents in central Syria, where rebels have had a "string of victories," Assad's forces have been unable to regain control. Rebels insist that they can only maintain that momentum if they are provided with heavy weapons that can rival those of the regime forces.
"The rebels are now much closer to the palace. Bashar is under siege. His end will be like Gaddafi's end. Didn't Bashar say, 'I was born in Syria and will die in Syria'? This is what Gaddafi said as well, and that's it," Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Farouq Tayfour said at the meeting in Morocco, according to Reuters.
The US only recently began actively engaging with the opposition, likely spurred on by a combination of rebel military gains that made their success seem more likely and by concerns about the growing influence of Islamist units. It has now inserted itself into the upheaval energetically, leading efforts to build up the second iteration of the opposition coalition, but The New York Times reports "experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the American move may well be too little, too late" to exercise any real influence over the rebels or to overcome anger at the US for its slow response.
As the US was taking steps to recognize the opposition coalition, it was also gathering the information needed to formerly sanction one of the most high-profile and successful of the rebel militias, the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, in order to prevent Americans from providing support for the group. The group has declared a string of victories against regime forces and has been perhaps the most successful of the rebel units, but it also has ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which played a powerful role in the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
The Obama administration yesterday connected the group to Al Qaeda in Iraq and said that Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks in Syria in the last year. The treasury department classified its efforts as "attempts to hijack the Syrian rebellion, a pro-democracy uprising at its roots that has no connection to global jihadist ideologies."
But Jabhat al-Nusra has curried favor among rebels for taking action, and the blacklisting risks raising their ire, as The New York Times reported earlier this week in an article in which it described the group as one of the uprising's "most effective fighting forces."
The Nusra Front “defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn’t do anything,” said Mosaab Abu Qatada, a rebel spokesman. “They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and the crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists."
On Friday, demonstrators in several Syrian cities raised banners with slogans like, “No to American intervention, for we are all Jebhat al-Nusra,” referring to the group’s full name, Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, or Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria. One rebel battalion, the Ahrar, or Free Men, asked on its Facebook page why the United States did not blacklist Mr. Assad’s “terrorist” militias.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
As Egypt prepares for rival protests today over its upcoming, controversial constitutional referendum, outside observers speculate about what role the Egyptian military – which President Mohamed Morsi empowered this week in a bid to maintain security during the process – will choose to play in the ongoing political crisis.
Egypt's Ahram Online reports that a group of armed men attacked anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square using pellet guns and Molotov cocktails early this morning, injuring 16 people. A physician who set up a clinic in the square, Hassanein Abu El-Hasan, told Ahram Online that injuries were primarily pellet wounds in the arms and feet.
The attacks come at the outset of a day expected to feature demonstrations by both pro- and anti-referendum protesters, reports Agence France-Presse. A pro-Morsi coalition, including members of Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, plan to start the protests near the presidential palace, while members of the opposition National Salvation Front plan to gather later at Tahrir Square to call for a stay on the referendum process, which they say institutionalizes Islamist principles at the expense of human rights, women, and religious minorities.
Each demonstration is expected to draw tens of thousands of people. Should the opposing rallies meet, there is a high risk of violence.
The fresh protests "raise the spectre of 'bloody Wednesday'," the independent newspaper Al-Shuruq headlined, referring to last week's deadly clashes.
The pro-government daily Al-Akhbar said: "My God, save Egypt."
Morsi yesterday granted the military, a dominant force in the country until Morsi stripped it of many of its powers in August, the power to arrest citizens during the referendum process. The move will potentially force the military to choose a side in the debate and gives it substantial influence over the outcome of the vote. When the military tried to take that same power for itself earlier this year, it raised a broad outcry in Egypt.
Voice of America, the official US international news agency, reports that the military is setting itself up to remain neutral in the crisis. Yezid Sayigh, a Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center analyst, told VOA that the generals' call last week for the political crisis to be resolved through dialogue "sent very strong signals to Morsi in particular that the army is not going to act as his proxy or as an ally in his political disagreement with the opposition in Egypt."
"The army also is saying we will not allow (the president) to go too far in imposing his will," Mr. Sayigh said. He added that the military has little interest in direct control of the government, saying "The army as a whole was not at all happy with their political role over the past year-and-a-half after Mubarak's downfall. I believe they are very reluctant to be in that position once again."
Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Egypt and current Princeton University professor, told VOA that the military is satisfied with Morsi's rule and the terms of the constitution, as long as the document retains the military's powers and place in Egyptian society.
"If the military is satisfied that the constitution protects its role, I think (the generals) would give a lot of leeway to other forces within society to define the role of Islam and the questions of civil rights and the protection of human rights," he said.
The Monitor's Dan Murphy argues that the constitutional powers granted to the military in the draft constitution makes the military Morsi's ally, not a neutral observer of the conflict.
The Egyptian military hierarchy is often described as hostile to the Brothers, but that case is frequently overstated. What the Egyptian military wants is the ability to conduct its own affairs without civilian meddling, and to continue to expand a sprawling business empire that ranges from refrigerator factories to water-bottling plants to high-end condominium development. Mubarak provided that platform until he fell. Now, if the Muslim Brotherhood is offering a similar deal, who are Egypt's officers to complain?
There have been plenty of efforts to induce the military to cooperate. While two years ago Brotherhood leaders would talk about the baleful role the military played in Egyptian political life and bitterly complain about US backing for the army, the draft constitution includes protections of the military's long-established perks that seem the result of a remarkable detente between the Muslim Brotherhood and the officers. ...
The second sentence of the preamble to the draft hails the military's support for the January 25 revolution – a remarkable piece of historical revisionism for the beginning of a document that's supposed to undergird the building of a democratic political culture in the country. Article 197 of the draft takes control of the military's budget out of the hands of the legislature, and Article 198 says "civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that harm the armed forces." That caveat is big enough to drive a truck through.
In his column for The Nation, investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss makes a similar point, arguing that "a burgeoning alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military is threatening to create a new authoritarian regime."
Long ago, in blogging about the Arab Spring in Egypt, I predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood would form an alliance with the generals, not because I had inside information but because it was so obvious. And it is coming to pass. ...
Having claimed vast new powers, designed to ram through a constitutional draft by referendum next week, Morsi is now officially promising to use the military to enforce the vote, despite huge protests from an anti–Muslim Brotherhood coalition. Paranoically blaming “foreigners” for the protests, Morsi has deployed the military’s tanks around his office, adding: “It is my duty to defend the homeland.” Morsi and the government-controlled newspaper Al Ahram used precisely the same language as the generals did in pledging to protect Egypt’s “institutions.”
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has called on the military to "preserve security" during the runup to the controversial Dec. 15 constitutional referendum, as opposition critics dismiss his recent reversal of his immunity from oversight as a "nothing" gesture.
Agence France-Presse reports that Mr. Morsi instructed the military to cooperate fully with police "to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announce of the results from the referendum." The order also allows the military to arrest civilians.
The military has largely been neutral so far in Egypt's political crisis, though it deployed troops on Dec. 6 around the presidential palace to keep the peace amid ongoing opposition protests in the area. The BBC's Jon Leyne in Cairo says the decree will raise fears that the military, which ruled Egypt for decades under former President Hosni Mubarak but was curtailed earlier this year by Morsi, is regaining some of that power.
The president's decree comes on the heels of his annulment of his Nov. 22 power grab, when he declared his power immune to any judicial or legislative review. That order, combined with the Muslim Brotherhood's rush to produce the constitution that will be put to a referendum on Dec. 15, spurred the widespread protests that have wracked Egypt since.
But while Morsi framed the rescission as a concession to the opposition, protesters say that the damage has already been done, reports Kristen Chick for the Monitor.
"Morsi used the powers of the decree to push his constitution on us, so what does it mean if he cancels it now? It means nothing. He achieved his goal already," says Haitham Mohamed, who has spent much of the last week protesting the president's moves. He noted that if the referendum approves the constitution, Morsi's previous decree, and the powers that came with it, would have been invalidated soon anyway. "We demanded that he delay the referendum, and for a constitution we agree on. He ignored this demand." ...
[Bassem Sabry, a writer who often focuses on Egypt's opposition,] says the new constitutional decree was not a compromise because it did not delay the constitutional referendum. After a contentious process that saw most non-Islamist members of the committee walk out, the committee announced abruptly less than two weeks ago that it would finish the document and put it to a vote.
Sabry says Egyptians need at least a month to mull the document, which rights activists and many opposition members call deeply flawed. Sabry also objects to the president's repeated use of constitutional declarations, the term used here for unilateral amendments, made by the executive, to the temporary constitution.
The Washington Post reports that it remains unclear whether the president's rescission really reversed course. The Post notes that "The new declaration, while voiding the old, contained an article that grants the president the right to make new decrees, free of oversight."
Expanding on his comments to the Monitor, Bassem Sabry writes that "The opposition and others ... do not believe that he has the legal power to issue such declarations," such as the ones issued on Nov. 22 and over the weekend. Mr. Sabry adds that the president's refusal to delay the constitutional referendum is problematic, as the constitution is too complex to be understood in just a few days, even by those like himself who have been monitoring its evolution closely.
I have followed every document released by the assembly from day one, analysed and written about them, attended formal discussion groups on the documents, have studied relevant academic material in my education, and I – and others like me – are actually still discovering new perspectives about this document till this day! What would a normal citizen do? People need at least a month to study this document and make up their minds in an informed decision. Trying to rush the referendum appears to be an attempt to capitalise on current conditions to secure a yes vote. ...
The referendum has to be delayed, if there is any real desire by the administration for people to actually make some informed opinion of any kind. I have asked tens of current yes and no voters, and many are basing their decisions on things that are either inaccurate or had changed from previous drafts!
Regardless, the rescission satisfied at least one group of protesters: Egypt's judges. Independent Egyptian news site Bikya Masr reports that Egypt's judges, who had been on strike since Morsi's Nov. 22 decree, returned to work today. Bikya Masr writes that according to Judge Zaghloul al-Balshi, head of judicial inspection, the judges had been angry "because of the constitutional decree and Morsi annulled that yesterday. Therefore there is no need for judges to suspend their work and as of tomorrow they will return to their work as usual.”
Bikya Masr adds that the judges will announce tomorrow whether they will oversee the upcoming constitutional referendum.
IN PICTURES: Egypt struggles for democracy
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is walking on Palestinian territory for the first time in 45 years. He's in town to celebrate his party’s 25th anniversary and the end of a week-long conflagration with Israel last month.
But his visit could also signal growing confidence within the Islamist party – which Israel, the United States, and the European Union consider a terrorist organization – over its position in the tumultuous Middle East.
Mr. Meshaal, who left the West Bank as a boy in 1967 and had not visited Gaza before today, has led Hamas for over 15 years, primarily from the party's offices in Damascus, Syria. But he was in Egypt late last month for negotiations of the cease-fire that ended the eight-day conflict with Israel. Some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the violence, the Telegraph reports, the worst fighting in four years. The New York Times reports that Hamas' negotiation of “a cease-fire with Israel through the agency of the Egyptians … may represent an important step toward becoming a more recognized international player and representative of at least a portion of the Palestinian people.”
Meshaal has since spoken of the possibility of reaching out to other political factions within the Palestinian territory, including the Fatah party, which was pushed out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Al Jazeera reports Hamas invited Fatah officials to a celebration rally in Gaza tomorrow, part of Meshaal’s whirlwind trip.
"There is a new mood that allows us to achieve reconciliation," Meshaal told Al Jazeera.
According to the Times, “The Fatah movement controls the West Bank, which Israel still occupies, and the rivalry between the two groups is the defining principle of Palestinian politics, despite continuing efforts by Egypt to bring about a reconciliation.”
The most recent violence between Israel and Palestine started on Nov. 14 with an exchange of rockets and airstrikes. Since then, the Palestinian Authority gained United Nation’s recognition as a non-member observer state (something that Meshaal thanked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for, reports the BBC), and Israel announced the expansion of settlement construction on the West Bank.
Israel says its airstrikes did substantial damage to Hamas in November, killing Ahmed al-Jaabari, its military chief, and diminishing its supply of weapons, reports the Telegraph. But according to The Associated Press, Hamas leaders declared victory in Gaza after the truce was brokered in November. “While Israel said it inflicted heavy damage on the militants, Gaza's Hamas rulers claimed that Israel's decision not to send ground troops into the territory, as it had four years ago, was a sign of a new Hamas deterrent power.”
A spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry told Bloomberg today that “it doesn’t matter who they are, Hamas still stands for violence, bloodshed, extremism and racism.”
But the November Israeli-Palestinian face-off highlighted a change in the regional attitude toward Hamas, one that The Christian Science Monitor’s Egypt correspondent writes may be attributed to the aftermath of last year’s Arab uprisings. Political parties such as Hamas now have more support from Arab leaders, and the role Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, the Turkish prime minister, Qatari emir, and Hamas’ exiled Meshaal played in brokering the cease-fire last month is one example of this.
…[I]n the post-“Arab spring” Middle East, the region looks much different, and Hamas has found a new swell of support as it faces Israel. Mr. Mubarak, ousted in a popular uprising in 2011, has been replaced by an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of a mostly sealed Gaza-Egypt border, it has become difficult to keep track of all the solidarity trips made to Gaza by Arab officials. ...
The uprisings that displaced pro-Western autocrats who toed the US line on Israel have brought to power Islamist governments more friendly to Hamas, as well as more sensitive to public opinion typically supportive of the Palestinian cause. This has reshaped the regional dynamics, leaving Israel increasingly isolated. These new governments, along with Turkey and Qatar, have formed a vocal block of opposition to Israel's assault on Gaza.
“This is a significant change in the Arab reaction,” says Khalil Al Anani, a scholar at Durham University in Britain. The new Arab nations ready to take a stronger stance against Israel could change Israel’s calculations in favor of more restraint.
“It shows that Gaza is not alone. This will put pressure on Israel, and they [Arab states] can move further if they want, by lobbying internationally and putting a spotlight on Israel and its lack of interest in peace," he says.
“The visit of Mashaal to Gaza is one of the fruits of the victory Hamas has achieved during the eight-day war on Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, according to Bloomberg. “Gaza is freed now and will receive whoever visitors it wants.”
Hamas was founded Dec. 14, 1987, after the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. This weekend’s celebrations were moved up to coincide with the first intifada, or uprising, against Israel, reports the Times.
According to the BBC, “Under its charter, Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel. But the group has also offered a 10-year truce in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967.”
Meshaal, who reportedly kissed the ground upon entering Gaza from Egypt, is expected to speak at tomorrow’s rally. He also plans to visit the homes of fallen Hamas members including Mr. Jabari and Hamas’ spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.