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
Seen from outside France, the country’s “cultural exception” – which protects its art, music and movie industries in trade negotiations – is like a long-running film franchise.
In the new sequel – Exception Culturelle 3D, if you will – Pierre Lescure, author of a government-commissioned report, has given the story a great new twist by suggesting a tax on smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles and e-readers to fund French cultural output. Read more
The debate over intervention in Syria
The death toll in Syria is now estimated at a horrifying 70,000, and the pressure on the United States to intervene is mounting, particularly with the suggestion that the Syrian government may have used chemical weapons. Geoff Dyer in Washington and Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut join Gideon Rachman to discuss where the debate over Western intervention in Syria stands. Read more
Barack Obama is meant to be the most powerful man in the world. But it looks increasingly as though he may be dragged into a conflict in Syria, against his own better judgment. Read more
Reaching out? The Bibi and Barack show, complete with gags about each other's pulchritude (Getty)
As they were trying out their new bromance on Wednesday, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu opened a press conference with some blokey teasing about their families. Mr Obama joked that Mr Netanyahu’s two sons “clearly got their good looks from their mother”. Mr Netanyahu shot back: “Well, I could say the same of your daughters.”
Speaking in Ramallah on Thursday, Mr Obama made a reference to his daughters that probably did not bring quite the same smile to Mr Netanyahu’s face. Discussing the struggles to get ahead that young Palestinians face, the US president drew a parallel with the civil rights movement in America and its impact on his family.
“Those of us in the United States understand that change takes time, but change is possible,” he said in Ramallah, three weeks after he unveiled a new statue in Washington to civil rights hero Rosa Parkes. “There was a time when my daughters did not have the same opportunities as somebody else’s daughters.”
For many Israelis, there is no analogy more insulting than having the country compared to the Jim Crow American South or, worse still, to apartheid South Africa – as it sometimes is by human rights groups. Read more
Barack Obama is only the fifth serving US president to visit Israel since the state was founded in 1948. As Marvin Kalb notes: “A presidential visit to Israel is not routine. Quite the contrary.” So who are the other four?
President Nixon speaking during the official banquet at the Knesset. Photo: GPO
1) Richard Nixon made history as the first US president to visit Israel while in office. He and the first lady, Pat Nixon, touched down in Israel for 24 hours in June 1974 as part of a trip that included Austria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan. According to Aaron David Miller, “Nixon’s trip was a largely a farewell tour, a last hurrah following his administration’s deep involvement in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the diplomacy that followed.”
The itinerary Nixon’s daily diary records that after giving a speech at Ben Gurian airport, the President “motored” to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (where the president and his wife were staying in suite 429) accompanied by Ephraim Katzir, Israeli president, and Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister. Later, he went to “the residence of Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel”, along with Henry Kissinger and Rabin. The following day, Nixon and the first lady went to the Yad Vashem memorial, where they took part in a ceremony for Jews killed during the Second World War. Nixon then went to the Knesset and met the Israeli cabinet.
Gifts from Israel to Nixon: A papyrus scroll, a menorah and a book entitled “Justice in Jerusalem”
Hotel: King David Hotel
A tale of two Middle East anniversaries
March 15 marks the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria and on March 20 it will have been a decade since the start of the Iraq war, a conflict that still reverberates around the region and the world. Abigail Fielding-Smith, FT correspondent in Damascus; David Gardner, senior international affairs commentator, and Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor, join Shawn Donnan. Read more
Photo by Getty
“If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” Proud, unrepentant, unreflecting, these are the words of Dick Cheney in a new documentary to be aired on American television on Friday evening.
The film is being released a few days before the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but it is not the place to go for a candid reassessment of the war. Mr Cheney admits that “we did not find stockpiles” of weapons of mass destruction, but he adds: “We did find that he had the capability and we believed he had the intent.”
He is equally unflinching in his support for torture and other controversial aspects of the war on terror. “It isn’t so much what you achieved as is what you prevented,” he says. Read more
In February, the weather in Almaty is usually well below freezing. So as some of the world’s top diplomats prepare to travel to the former capital of Kazakhstan this month for yet another meeting with Iran over its nuclear programme, most will be feeling somewhat gloomy. The concern is not just the weather, of course, The thing that will induce angst is the near-certain prediction that they will sit there for days in the freezing cold of the southern Kazakh mountains – only to make no progress yet again in talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. As one top diplomat tells me: “The best I’m hoping for is that we agree another date to meet. That’s it.”
Judging by the advanced briefing for this meeting – where Iran will negotiate with the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – it’s easy to see why Almaty is set to join Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow as the scene of another negotiating failure. Read more