James Blitz

For the past 2½ years, the US and its allies have been deeply reluctant to become engaged in the Syrian civil war. Over the past few days, however, the mood in the Obama administration has clearly shifted. In the aftermath of an apparent chemical weapons attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus, the US is clearly contemplating military action. Nothing, as yet is guaranteed. Instead, as Mr Obama and his allies contemplate the next steps, there are three broad questions they will be considering.

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James Blitz

Syrian rebels in the southern town of Maaret al-Numan (AFP)

US President Barack Obama’s decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels is clearly an important moment in the country’s civil war. It is a decision that will be welcomed by David Cameron, the British prime minister.

Over the last year, Cameron has been one of the strongest supporters for the idea of sending arms to the rebels in order to level the Syrian battlefield and help bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table. A constant theme in his argument is that there must not be a repeat of the Bosnia conflict in the 1990s, in which thousands died while the west stood aside and did nothing. Read more

James Blitz

Qusair, in Homs Province (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a week of intense diplomatic and military activity over Syria. At the end of it, anyone analysing the situation has much new detail to reflect on. The Assad regime is making considerable advances on the ground. The EU arms embargo on Syria has been amended, allowing Britain and France to supply weapons to parts of the Syrian opposition at some future date if they wish. Russia seems to be pressing ahead with the provision of the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian regime, alarming the Israelis. Meanwhile diplomacy over a planned peace conference to try and bring an end to the civil war presses ahead – albeit with deep scepticism from many diplomats about the chance of success.

What should we make of all these events? After conversations with several western diplomats analysing the situation, one can pick out various strands that help organise one’s assessment of where things stand. Read more

James Blitz

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

James Blitz

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

James Blitz

(CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

(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

James Blitz

Images of two suspects at an FBI press conference on April 18  (Darren McCollester/Getty)

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

James Blitz

AFP/Getty

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

James Blitz

Employees in the town of Kfar Saba sew flags in preparation for the upcoming visit of Barack Obama (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

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

James Blitz

Iran's representatives led by their top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili (back 4th L) take part in talks on Iran's nuclear programme in the Kazakh city of Almaty on February 27, 2013 (ILYAS OMAROV/AFP/Getty Images)

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