Last week, as the battle for Aleppo got under way, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said territorial gains made by Syria’s rebels would eventually result in a “safe haven” inside the country. And she called on the opposition to start preparing for a transition of power.

The rebel commanders too have been talking about Aleppo as their Benghazi ( the wellspring of last year’s Libyan uprising),  insisting that with much of the rural countryside in Idlib already under their control. Taking Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, would mean they could control territory all the way to the Turkish border. Read more

AFP/Getty Images

In the scramble for ways to address Syria’s spiralling violence UN envoy Kofi Annan and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad agreed on an approach earlier this week: work from the bottom up on local ceasefires in the most devastated areas of the country. The approach was discussed during Mr Annan’s trip to Damascus, but immediately raised questions in western capitals, according to diplomatic sources. Read more

Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army prepare their weapons (Lo/AFP/GettyImages)

Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army prepare their weapons (Lo/AFP/GettyImages)

Activists close to the Free Syrian Army say that recent defections from the regime include a general who was associated with non-conventional weapons, adding that he is the most senior military official to join the opposition thus far.

Syria has an arsenal of chemical weapons, allegedly including significant stocks of nerve gas, that has been high on the list of concerns of western governments and Israel.

The activists say they expect the general will now help them restructure the leadership of the rebels. “He has a lot of information about the deployment of security forces and the regime’s assets,” one activist says. The general, whose name is likely to be made public in the next few days, is thought to have left his post a month ago and gone into hiding before being smuggled to Turkey. Read more

Kofi Annan. Photo: Reuters

Kofi Annan, the international envoy on Syria, is trying to salvage his six-point peace plan with an international conference in Geneva this Saturday to build consensus over the form of a political transition.

The UN and Arab League backed plan was in tatters long before today’s statement from the UN that the violence in Syria has, at least, matched levels reached before ceasefire brokered in April. Read more

Members of the ruling military council, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, left, listens as Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shahin, speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, June 18, 2012. Al-Assar, a senior member of the ruling council, said the generals would transfer power in a "grand ceremony." He did not give an exact date or mention Morsi by name. He said the new president will have the authority to appoint and dismiss the government and that the military council has no intention of taking away any of the president's authorities. "We'll never tire or be bored from assuring everyone that we will hand over power before the end of June," al-Assar told a televised news conference. (AP Photo/Sami Wahib)

Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, left, and Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shahin, during a press conference in Cairo on Monday, June 18. AP Photo/Sami Wahib

The Egyptian daily newspaper, al-Masr al-Youm, summed up the country’s predicament brilliantly on Monday.

The military transfers power to the military,” read the headline.

While Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, and Ahmad Shafiq, the generals’ favourite, battled it out all day, each claiming to have won the weekend presidential vote, the ruling military council had already decided who would be the real ruler: the generals themselves. Read more

Bullet marks on the wall of a reception room, Taftanaz, Syria, April 2012, following nine extrajudicial executions there © Amnesty International

Bullet marks in a room in Taftanaz, where Amnesty says nine extrajudicial executions took place. Image: Amnesty International

Syrian activists have been reporting the regime’s human rights abuses for the past 15 months. But independent examination of the brutality in Syria has been limited because of the lack of access available for international organisations, and the inability to check the accuracy of the activists’ reports.

Amnesty International has just published a report based on a month-long trip of a researcher through the northern governorates of Idlib and Aleppo. Its findings are that Syrian security forces have been rampaging through towns and villages, summarily executing men, burning homes and at times even the bodies of those killed in cold blood. Many of the abuses, says the report, amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Read more

Supporters of Bashar al-Assad greet the motorcade of Russian minister Sergei Lavrov in Damascus earlier this year. Reuters

There’s been a lot of noise in the last few days about Russia shifting its position on Syria in the aftermath of the international outrage over the Houla massacre. In fact, every few months, as Syria slides ever more deeply into civil war, we hear the same noises.

Surely, diplomats and analysts say, the Russians must at some point recognise that the status quo is untenable, that Bashar al-Assad is a liability, that unless they loosen their support for him their interests and their naval base in Tartous will be jeopardised when a new government comes in.

But do they? British, Turkish and American officials say it is too early to tell whether Russia is willing to accept a transition that excludes Assad. It is under pressure and it is engaging more with western governments, but whether this will translate into a new attitude remains to be seen. The US will be testing the Russian position tomorrow when Fred Hof, state department advisor on Syria, holds meetings in Moscow, on what the US says should be a transition plan that includes Assad’s exit. Read more

Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 5. BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages

Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 5. BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages

The World Economic Forum for the Middle East is usually held in an Arab capital and the usual controversy is over how many Israelis show up. This year, there are so many different Arab worlds, one in political transition away from autocracy, the other still solidly autocratic, and the third profoundly troubled by the old conflicts.

That is part of the reason we are in Istanbul, where 1,000 business and political leaders are gathered for a WEF that is now “on the Middle East, north Africa and Eurasia.” The other might be that the WEF has come where Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, will no longer tread – he vowed never to return to Davos after storming off stage in 2009 in a heated debate on Gaza. Read more

Posters depicting Mohammed Morsi. AP Photo/Pete Muller

Posters depict frontrunner Mohamed Morsi. AP Photo/Pete Muller

According to unofficial vote counts, Egyptians will face a choice next month between a “feloul” (a remnant of the old regime), and a candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood – the Islamist movement and largest party in parliament.

Assuming the results are confirmed, the run-off will be seen by many as a race between the past and an Islamist future.

Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, was said to have secured 26 per cent of the vote in the presidential election, followed by a 24 per cent share for Ahmad Shafiq, a former air force commander whose campaign played on Egyptians’ yearning for security. Read more

A boy checks the list of voters' names inside a polling station in Cairo on May 23. AP Photo/Manu Brabo

A boy checks the list of voters' names inside a polling station in Cairo on May 23. AP

Egypt’s “pioneering” role is hailed this morning by the press in the Arab world. And for good reason: the Egyptian presidential election is a historic moment for the region, the first time that Arabs are allowed to genuinely and freely choose their president. What happens in the largest Arab nation matters elsewhere – Egypt influences Arab public opinion and points to political trends.

I’ve heard much talk in recent months about how Egypt’s chaotic transition is damping hopes for political change and frustrating those who want to put pressure for political reforms in other Arab states. Between Egypt’s messy transition and Syria’s violence, many have lost faith in the Arab awakening. Read more

Egyptians protest against the military rule in Cairo's Tahrir square. Getty Images

Egyptians protest against the military rule in Cairo's Tahrir square. Getty Images

Supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood gathered in Tahrir square today for an anti-military protest following the killing of 11 people in a sit-in near the defence ministry.

Of course they were joined by other young revolutionaries, who never miss an opportunity to vent their anger at the ruling military council and clashes ensued. All of Egypt is enraged at the killings of the protesters by shadowy thugs who time and again attack peaceful rallies, but whose identity no one seems able to identify. Read more

As with every eruption of violence in Egypt since the downfall of the Mubarak regime a year ago, the events at a football match on Wednesday evening were the result of the absence of an effective police force and the political failure of the generals who have let this state of affairs persist. Read more

Nearly a year into their uprising, Syrians have finally won the attention of the UN Security Council. Last night the council put on a big diplomatic show of support for political transition in Damascus. Emotional appeals for ending the Syrian tragedy were issued by Arab officials and western powers, words that Syrian activists have longed to hear.

The question, though, is whether the debate on Tuesday night represents any real progress in terms of international action. The Russian (as well as the Chinese) statements last night were not as confrontational as some had expected, perhaps because Moscow wanted to avoid taking the Arab League head on.

But the Russian red lines were nonetheless enunciated, including a clear opposition to any threat of sanctions or any wording that could lead to military action and, most damaging to the Arab-western backed draft resolution on the table, a resistance to a Security Council imposition of a road map for a political transition. Read more

Bashar al-Assad was as arrogant as ever when he delivered a 100-minute speech that promised more of the same for Syria’s beleaguered population.

The Syrian president’s answer to the uprising that has been raging for more than 10 months was to give a lecture on Arabism, lambasting neighbouring states which have frozen Syria’s membership of the Arab League, and declaring that Damascus was more Arab than any of them.

It was, he reminded his audience at Damascus University, the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser who declared that Syria was the beating heart of the Arab world. “Can a body live without a heart?” he asked. And who are these Arabs who are preaching reform? He asked. They are, he said, “like a smoking doctor who wants to convince his patients to stop smoking.” Read more

Can the army and the politicians stop a second revolution in Egypt? The images from Tahrir square suggest we are back to February, except this time the protestors’ demand is to get rid of the ruling military council which, despite having the run the country with shocking incompetence this year, has been negotiating a role for itself after it hands over power to civilians. Read more

In recent years Iran has reacted to most UN inspectors’ reports with relief. Even critical assessments and condemnations of its lack of cooperation were met with delusional statements insisting that so long as the International Atomic Energy Association found no evidence of a weapons dimension to the nuclear programme Tehran was in the clear. Read more

Here’s the problem with the Arab League. A ministerial delegation is due in Syria today to convince Bashar al-Assad’s regime to stop killing protestors demanding the president’s ouster, and agree to an Arab reconciliation plan.

Qatar, the exceedingly wealthy autocracy which has emerged as the unlikely champion of the oppressed across the Arab world, is leading the delegation, despite initial grumbles from Damascus. But the six-member mission also includes Egypt, Oman, Algeria and Yemen. Right, Yemen, where the government has been denounced by many of its fellow Arab states for rejecting a Gulf plan to transfer power away from the president, Ali Abdallah Saleh. Read more

Muammer Gaddafi’s end was destined to be bloody. A few months ago, when the rebels were struggling and their western backers were losing patience, he could have saved his skin and that of his children and fled into exile, with the consent of his Libyan opponents and their western backers.

Even the indictment by the International Criminal Court seemed, at least for a while, open for some compromise. Read more

Gilad Shalit crossed into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula this morning at the start of a highly emotional day of prisoner exchanges between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas. The 25-year-old soldier captured five years ago by Hamas will be receiving a hero’s welcome in Israel, and Palestinians will celebrate the return of 477 prisoners, the first batch in the 1,000-to-one exchange. Read more

Egypt’s rulers are making a dangerous mess of the political transition. Long before the latest violence against Christian demonstrators – which left 24 people dead on Sunday night in Cairo – the military council which ousted Hosni Mubarak was losing the confidence of many of the activists who had seen it as their saviour.

On the surface, Monday’s violence was a reflection of the sectarian tensions that have flared up since the fall of the Mubarak regime, as attacks on churches by ultraconservative Muslims have escalated.

But they quickly turned into a condemnation of the military council ruling the country since the toppling of Mr Mubarak – and the Christian protesters were joined by Muslims. Read more