Fighting on: rebels on a training exercise in Syria's northern Latakia province (Getty)
The international diplomacy to try and resolve the crisis in Syria is entering a new and complex phase. Over the next few weeks, the main focus will be on attempts by the US and Russia to convene a peace conference in early June that brings together representatives of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, president, and the Syrian opposition. Whether this conference can achieve anything – indeed, whether it will even take place – is hard to tell. As President Obama said when meeting David Cameron, British prime minister, this week: “I’m not promising that [the peace conference] is going to be successful. It’s going to be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.”
Despite that effort, the UK and France are not giving up on an altogether different diplomatic push. Both want to open the way for the transfer of weapons by EU states to the moderate rebels fighting the Syrian regime. Britain has committed itself to providing the opposition with armoured vehicles, body armour and power generators. But Mr Cameron said this week that he now wants “more flexibility” to support the rebels.
The UK and France are therefore committed to trying to get the EU arms embargo on Syria amended at the end of this month so that weapons can at some later stage be transferred to the Syrian opposition. The difficulty is the huge opposition within the EU to any amendment that allows weapons to be transferred to Assad’s opponents. Read more
On its way out? A Trident submarine leaves Faslane naval base (Getty)
Does the US want Britain to renew its independent nuclear deterrent? The question is generating a certain amount of debate among security analysts on both sides of the Atlantic. Between now and 2016, the UK must take a decision on whether to spend £20bn building four new submarines to carry the Trident missile. David Cameron’s Conservatives are keenly committed to a like-for-like replacement, saying there can be no compromise with the UK’s ultimate security guarantee.
But there are a few discordant voices out there who are questioning whether it is really worth ploughing all this money into a renewed nuclear weapons capability when the UK is having to cut its conventional arsenal as much as it is. Would it not be better, ask some critics, if Britain shifted the billions of pounds of cash meant for Trident’s replacement and bought weapons it is far more likely to use and which will ensure it remains an effective ally of the US? Read more
(CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)
President François Hollande this week published France’s long awaited strategic defence review, setting out what the French armed forces should be aiming to do in the years ahead. The publication of the document – called the “livre blanc” or “white book” – was an important moment for those following European defence.
In recent years, the US has become increasingly concerned that European states are cutting back on defence spending, leaving the US to do more and more of the heavy lifting in Nato. In 2010, Britain, the biggest defence spender in Europe, slashed expenditure by eight per cent in real terms. The big question was whether France was about to do the same.
The good news for France’s allies is that it isn’t taking what might be called the “Cameron approach.” According to Camille Grand, director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, France did debate whether to slash defence spending by 10 per cent. “But the French finance ministry lost that argument, much to relief of the service chiefs,” he says. Read more
Images of the two suspects at an FBI press conference on April 18 (Darren McCollester/Getty)
Two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are suspected by US law enforcement officials of carrying out the bombing of the Boston marathon on Monday. The elder brother Tamerlan died in the course of an early morning car chase. The younger is now the subject of a manhunt. If we assume that these two men were indeed the perpetrators of the killings, establishing the motive for the attacks will soon become the biggest challenge for the US authorities.
Over the next few hours and days the US police and security services will be searching properties and buildings associated with the two men, analysing the content of computers and laptops, interviewing family and friends – all in order to build up a picture of why the two brothers acted as they did. Only then will the US government be able to work out the security and policy implications of the horrific events Boston has seen this week.
As of now, no form conclusion can be drawn. What can be said is that the two brothers will have had one of three possible motives. Read more
As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.
President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.
Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do. Read more
Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama will visit Israel on Wednesday 20 March. It will be the first foreign visit of his second term. The trip will be dominated by three foreign policy issues – Iran’s nuclear programme, the Syrian civil war and the Middle East peace process.
Those issues will do much to define how his presidency is eventually judged. This will not be an easy visit for Obama; his relations with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, are notoriously frosty. “Obama has done a lot for Israel but many Israelis are still uncertain to what extent he is a true friend of their country,” says one veteran foreign diplomat. “If he wants to persuade Israelis to move on issues like the peace process he needs to convince them he is genuinely on their side.”
But this visit has to be more than just a charm offensive. Three questions will determine whether it is a success. Read more
Talks in Almaty on February 27 (AFP/Getty Images)
The latest meeting between Iran and world powers to try and resolve the dilemma over the Iranian nuclear programme is over. And once again, a shaft of light has emerged that will lead some to hope that military action over the Iranian programme might be averted.
After two days of talks in the freezing city of Almaty in Kazakhstan, Iran has told the US and five other world powers that it is prepared to hold a couple more meetings in March and April to try to resolve international concerns that it wants a nuclear bomb.
That said, few will want to overplay the significance of this move. Here are three reasons why many western diplomats will be cautious. Read more
Obama and Medvedev signing the 2010 treaty (Getty)
Can Barack Obama use his second term of office to push through another round of cuts in American and Russian nuclear weapons? After declaring in his State of the Union address that he will “engage Russia” on this issue, the question is suddenly back on the international security agenda.
In his first presidential term, President Obama and his then Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev pushed through big cuts in the number of deployed nuclear weapons each side possesses, with each pledging to have no more than 1,550 each by 2018. Now, Mr Obama has come back to the issue and says he wants to do more – with his officials indicating they want to see deployed US and Russian nuclear weapons coming down another third – to around 1,000 on either side.
Discussions about US- Russia arms control are very technical and the detail quickly gets mind-boggling. To the outsider, the subject also seems dispiriting. Even a big cut like the one Mr Obama is proposing would still leave both countries with massive capability to destroy each other and the world. Still, there are a number of reasons why Mr Obama’s attempt to get new cuts is worth attention in the months ahead. Read more
South Koreans burn pictures of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-eun after Pyongyang's nuclear test. (AP)
North Korea’s decision to conduct its third underground nuclear test will come as no surprise to governments around the world. Pyongyang has been making clear for some weeks that it planned a nuclear test at a “higher level” than its previous two in 2006 and 2009. Its decision to press ahead has already triggered widespread condemnation from the US and its allies. Now that the test has taken place, diplomats and nuclear experts will be asking four key questions about the nuclear explosion.
First, have the North Korans managed to developed a device that they can place on top of a long-range missile?
North Korea stated that the test used “a small and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously”. This will prompt fears that Pyongyang has managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, in order to place it on top of a long range ballistic missile. Read more
South Koreans protest this week about a possible North Korean nuclear test. (AP)
This is turning out to be a rather fraught time for people who worry about the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. In recent days, there has been much dismay about the way talks are going between world powers and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Iran does not look like it wants to make the kind of concessions that the US and its allies seek if there is to be a deal that averts Israeli or US military action over the programme.
Now it looks like there is about to be bad news from the world’s other nuclear pariah state – North Korea. All the signs are that Pyongyang is about to conduct another nuclear test, its third since 2006 and potentially one that is far bigger than the two it has conducted previously.
Nobody can be 100 per cent sure that North Korea will test a nuclear weapon in the next few days. But the signs are growing that something is afoot. North Korea announced last month that it would conduct a nuclear test to protest against UN Security Council sanctions, stating it would be an explosion at a “higher level” than has been seen in the past. Read more