This Week in Middle Eastern Conflict… February 17th-24th, 2012.

  • China announced on Friday that it had yet to receive a formal invitation to a meeting of international powers in Tunis next week to discuss the crisis in Syria; the government reportedly blocked a premiere live stream website, Bambuser, that has been used by dissidents to upload streaming video of conditions in the country in real time; thousands of Israeli Arabs reportedly demonstrated against Assad, calling for him to step down; an award-winning “New York Times” correspondent died in the country from an apparent asthma attack; NATO’s Secretary General said that the they have no intention of intervening in Syria, even if the UN mandate was changed to protect civilians; three pro-democracy protesters were allegedly killed by security forces during protests; security forces renewed a bombardment of opposition strongholds in Homs and attacks on rebels in Deraa; while the government of Venezuela allegedly supplied diesel to the country, undermining Western sanctions. On Saturday, security forces reportedly fired live ammunition to break up an anti-government protest in Damascus, killing at least one person; China said it backs President Assad’s plans for a referendum to end the violence; and Iraq announced it was reinforcing security along its Syrian border to stop the flow of arms and smuggling. On Sunday, gunmen reportedly staged an ambush that killed a senior state prosecutor and judge in an opposition-dominated northern region; a leading Chinese newspaper accused western countries of stirring civil war in Syria and that their calls for Assad to step down could provoke a “large-scale civil war” that might demand foreign intervention; Egypt announced it was recalling its ambassador to Damascus; an insider in the Syrian regime said it is “disintegrating” under the weight of international sanctions; and AP reported a troop build up in Homs. On Monday, members of the EU announced they will likely adopt fresh sanctions against the Syrian President in the coming week; the International Committee of the Red Cross said it is negotiating with Syrian forces and opposition fighters on a daily two-hour ceasefire to bring life-saving aid to civilians the hardest hit by the conflict; security forces reportedly injured four youth when they fired live ammunition at a night demonstration in Damascus. On Tuesday, the US said it will consider taking “additional measures” to end the bloodshed in Syria if an international outcry and a strengthened sanctions regime do not convince the government to stop the crackdown on the opposition; Russia said it will not attend a Western-backed international conference in Tunis about the crisis because it only supported the opposition cause; security forces reportedly killed at least 33 civilians in army raids on villages in northern Idlib province; and government forces reportedly continued to bombard the city of Homs, killing at least 63 people. On Wednesday, a veteran Sunday Times correspondent and a French photographer were reportedly killed in Syria, along with some 80 others as security forces rained rockets and bombs on opposition-held neighbourhoods in Homs, increasing the foreign pressure on Assad; security forces and militiamen loyal to Assad allegedly chased, captured and then shot dead 27 young men in three northern villages; two Islamist militant groups in Iraq rejected a call by al Qaeda to aid Syrian rebels in their revolt, saying sending weaponry and fighters across the border would only worsen the conflict; the main opposition Syrian National Council said it wants a minimum of 3 points of safe passage for life-saving aid supplies to enter the country; a main opposition group called upon Syrians to boycott an upcoming referendum on a new constitution, calling it an attempt to cover up the crackdown; King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Russian President Medvedev that any dialogue about the crisis in Syria would lead nowhere; the Information Ministry reportedly told foreign journalists that are illegally inside the country that they should report to the government, as they allegedly had no knowledge of the entrance of the two foreign journalists who were killed in Homs; France called upon the Syrian government to immediately halt the military onslaught of Homs and allow safe access for medical aid; while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the UN relief chief to visit the country to assess the humanitarian situation. On Thursday, security forces reportedly lined up and shot dead 13 men and boys from one extended family after raiding the village of Kfartoun in Hama province; three people were killed in shelling in the village of Soubin; a French journalist who was badly injured in a recent attack in Homs issued a video plea for help to cross the Lebanese border; the UN accused the Syrian regime of “crimes against humanity”, including the use of snipers against small children, and drew up a list of senior officials who should face investigation; China announced it would not accept an invitation to discuss the crisis in Syria with other world powers during the “Friends of Syria” conference on Friday in Tunisia; several attendees of the Friends of Syria group announced they would seek tougher measures, including a possible economic “stranglehold” on the Syrian government. On Friday, representatives from more than 70 nations gathered in Tunis for the “Friends of Syria” conference aimed at finding ways to end the bloodshed, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar reportedly pushing for more forceful intervention against Assad including supplying weapons to rebels; pro-Assad protesters rallied outside the conference in Tunis; EU diplomats named seven Syrian ministers to be targeted with new sanctions including travel bans and asset freezes on the ministers of health, education, presidential affairs, communications and technology, industry, oil and mineral resources, and transport, with more sanctions expected to be issued on Monday; US Secretary of State Clinton called upon Syria to agree to a cease-fire and criticised Russia and China for siding with Assad; while the Syrian Arab Red Crescent began evacuating wounded or sick women and children from the Baba Amro district of Homs, in what is being called “a first step forward”.
  • Police and anti-government protesters clashed in Bahrain on Thursday, with two policemen reportedly severely injured in a petrol bomb attack. Two Western activists were detained for leading a women’s protest on Friday, while police suppressed the protests with water cannons and armoured vehicles. On Monday, police again used water cannons and tear gas to break up a march chanting anti-government slogans following a funeral. On Wednesday, Sunni Muslims warned the government at a rally of some 20,000 people, against entering a dialogue with Shi’ite-led opposition parties, instead urging them to focus on security.
  • Government forces in Yemen reportedly detained 10 al Qaeda linked fighters on Friday; while oil pipeline workers returned to work after a 10-day strike which had shut down oil exports. On Monday, an explosion rocked a polling station in Aden and was followed by gunfire that killed one soldier and injured another; while the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda confirmed the death of a senior leader who officials say died in a bloody family feud. The country went to the polls on Tuesday, with the Vice-President as the only candidate in polls that are reported to have a high turnout despite calls for a boycott by the opposition and deadly violence in the south. Reuters ran an article outlining the high-ranking members of Saleh’s family who still have positions in security and military roles or influential positions in the business community. On Wednesday, vote counting was underway  to confirm the current VP as the new leader, amid violence that killed at least 10 people across the country’s south; while the Security Council welcomed the holding of elections and encouraged leaders to move on to the next stage of transition. On Thursday, troops reportedly opened fire on a rally by southern secessionists opposed to the Presidential elections, killing one protester and wounding three others; while outgoing President Saleh, who had been receiving medical treatment in the US, left the country headed for an unknown destination. On Friday, Al Jazeera ran a report about the cost of rebuilding the country in the wake of Saleh’s departure, a price the country can ill afford.
  • Police announced on Friday that they had found the bullet-riddled body of a man in his twenties floating in a river northwest of Kirkuk, Iraq; gunmen in a speeding car opened fire on a man and his son, wounding both in Mandili; a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol wounded two policemen near Muqdadiya; gunmen opened fire on an off-duty policeman near his home, killing him near Khalis; gunmen in a speeding car opened fire on a police patrol, killing two officers in southern Baghdad; gunmen in a car opened fire on a police lieutenant colonel and his driver, killing both in Tikrit; and a sticky bomb attached to a car wounded a farmer near Hawija. On Saturday, authorities began evacuating an initial batch of 400 Iranian dissidents from Camp Ashraf to a transit camp near the airport in Baghdad; gunmen killed two off-duty soldiers in separate attacks in western Mosul; a mortar round killed one civilians in eastern Mosul; a bomb attached to a car wounded three people in Falluja; gunmen opened fire at a police checkpoint, wounding one policeman in Falluja; police found the body of a man who had been handcuffed and shot in southern Kirkuk; and police found the body of an unidentified man who was killed by the explosion of a roadside bomb he was trying to plant in Hawija. On Sunday, a suicide bomber reportedly killed 16 people and wounded some 26 in a crowd of police recruits leaving their academy in eastern Baghdad. On Monday, a sticky bomb attached to a police lieutenant colonel’s car exploded, seriously wounding him in Tuz Khurmato; gunmen stormed a house killing a tribal leader in the southern outskirts of Falluja; a sticky bomb attached to a former civil defense lieutenant’s car exploded, killing him and seriously wounding two others in Jalawla; a sticky bomb attached to an off-duty police lieutenant’s car exploded, killing him and seriously wounding another policeman in Ramadi; while judges ordered one of the two VPs be tried for terrorism, a move the accused dismissed as “black comedy”. On Wednesday, a bomb near a policeman’s house exploded, wounding his wife and child in Baquba; a roadside bomb wounded one civilian in western Mosul, and gunmen shot dead a civilian in eastern Mosul. On Thursday, at least 28 separate bombings were reported across the country, killing over 49 people and wounding at least 280 people, many of them security forces; while there were at least 6 attacks by gunmen, mostly at security checkpoint,  killing some 18, and wounding at least 31 people.
  • The United States and the EU expressed cautious optimism on Friday over prospects that Iran  may be willing to engage major powers in new talks; President Ahmadinejad blamed foreign powers for “all the problems” in the region through their interference; two Iranian naval ships sailed through the Suez Canal with permission of Egyptian authorities; officials in key parts of the American Obama administration are increasingly convinced that sanctions will not deter Iran from nuclear ambitions and that the US will be left with “no option” but to launch an attack on the country, or watch Israel do so; two articles in the Atlantic discussed the warmongering media frenzy over Iran; and Israel blamed Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah of plotting attacks against Israelis and Jews worldwide, a claim Hezbollah leader Nasrallah vehemently denied. On Saturday, Britain’s foreign minister warned that any attack on Iran would carry huge costs, including leading to a new cold war; American General Martin Dempsey also warned against military strikes against Iran; the Israeli Defense Minister said a nuclear-armed Iran could trigger an arms race in the Middle East and that nations should impose “crippling” sanctions on them to force the end to their nuclear ambitions; while a Vienna-based diplomat announced that Iran may be poised to expand its nuclear program at an underground site near the city of Qom. On Sunday, Iran’s oil ministry announced it had stopped selling crude oil to British and French companies in retaliation for the EU sanctions. On Monday, inspectors from the UN International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in the country for two days of talks about the Iranian nuclear program; the Iranian media reported that two of their navy ships docked in the Syrian port of Tartous on a mission to provide training to Syrian naval forces; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s outlook on the West appears to dim the hopes for any future nuclear deal; several European countries announced they have stopped buying Iranian oil, while others announced they would be cutting back on their purchases; authorities reportedly faced a second and more extensive disruption of Internet access; and Common Dreams published a report highlighting the hypocrisy of condemning Iran for its alleged connection to the assassinations in Tbilisi, New Delhi and Bangkok while not doing the same to the assassinations of Iranian scientists allegedly ordered by Israel. On Tuesday, the EU’s foreign policy chief renewed calls for Iranian authorities to halt the execution of an Iranian man with Canadian residency for “designing and moderating adult-content websites” that contravene the country’s laws; the two Iranian warships were reported to have passed south through the Suez Canal after a brief stop in the Syrian port of Tartus; the Iranian body that vets election hopefuls reportedly approved 3,444 candidates to run in the March 2nd parliamentary polls; authorities announced they expect to hold more talks with the IAEA; while a five-member group of UN atomic energy watchdog experts continued their talks on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Christian Science Monitor ran a report detailing what would happen if Iran did have a nuclear bomb. On Wednesday, the IAEA team declared their mission in Iran a disappointment as they were unable to visit a military site at Parchin; Russia warned that an attack on Iran would lead to a catastrophe; Supreme Leader Khamenei offered new assurances that his country is not seeking to develop nuclear weapons, even while a report, allegedly out of Iran, of the wife of an assassinated nuclear scientist who said her husband’s ultimate goal was the annihilation of Israel; Israel said it believes that within 2-3 years Iran will have intercontinental missiles able to hit the US; and the Atlantic ran a piece suggesting that a pre-emptive attack on Iran may actually ensure they get nuclear weaponry, if they don’t already have it.  On Thursday, a weeklong election campaign began for the March 2nd parliamentary polls, with analysts predicting a comfortable victory for the ruling conservative faction loyal to Ayatollah Khamanei. On Friday, Russian PM Putin accused the west of seeking “regime change” in Iran under the guise of trying to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, during a tour of Iranian nuclear research centre; while the IAEA reportedly claimed that Iran has dramatically accelerated its production of enriched uranium in recent months and is refusing to cooperate with an investigation of evidence that it may have worked on designing a bomb.
  • Several thousand Palestinians reportedly rallied in Gaza and the West Bank on Friday in support of the jailed Islamic Jihad leader who has been on a hunger strike protest for a 63rd day against his detention by Israel; while reports suggested that a sustainable energy program in a rural area of the West Bank was being threatened by Israeli authorities. On Saturday, at least two Palestinian were wounded in an Israeli air strike on southern Gaza City, allegedly in retaliation for several rockets fired into southern Israel the day before. On Tuesday, the Palestinian prisoner whose life was in danger after he went on a hunger strike for 66 days, agreed to eat after a deal was struck for him to be released at the end of a four-month period of detention. On Wednesday, the top UN envoy for the Middle East peace process described Israel’s announcement that it had given approval to a large number of new settlement units deep inside occupied Palestinian territory; while members of Hamas endorsed a unity government with the Palestinian authority, taking on a more moderate position that reportedly presents a serious challenge to Israel and raises the states in any future peace process. On Friday, Israeli police clashed with hundreds of Muslim worshippers near the al-Aqsa mosque for the third time this week, reportedly sparked by fears that far-right Israeli activists were planning to enter Muslim-controlled areas at the site; while the UN committee on Palestine rights voiced alarm over the recent Israeli decision to build more than 500 new homes in a settlement inside occupied Palestinian territory and to retroactively “legalize” some 200 settlement units built earlier without permit.

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