By Gideon Rachman
If you are going to intervene in a foreign country, it helps to know what you want to happen. But on Egypt – and Syria, too – western policy is buffeted by a mass of conflicting instincts. The US and the EU are pro-democracy but anti-Islamist; pro-stability but anti-crackdown; opposed both to jihadists and to their enemies in the security state. No wonder that the Arab world is confused. The one thing that unites the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood is that they both claim to have been betrayed by the US. Read more
Turkish actors Kivanc Tatlitug (L) and Songul Oden (R) (Getty)
It looks like the unkindest cut of all. After years in which the march of Turkish soap operas across the Middle East has been hailed as proof of Ankara’s soft power in the Arab world, someone wants to pull the plug.
The post-coup government in Egypt, which is barely on talking terms with Turkey, appears to be encouraging a boycott of Turkish soaps, a move that not only hits a showpiece cultural export but comes at a time when Ankara is confronting a host of problems in the Middle East.
The glory days of August 2011, when prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was greeted by thousands of sympathisers at Cairo airport, seem very far away. Indeed the upheaval in the Arab world, which once seemed set to bolster Turkey’s influence, is turning into a serious headache on issues ranging from soap operas to shootings. Read more
Residents gather at the site of an explosion in Beirut's southern suburbs, stronghold of Hizbollah, July 9, 2013. AFP/Getty
Hizbollah has brushed off the European Union’s decision on Monday to blacklist its “military wing” as a terrorist organisation. Well, it would, wouldn’t it.
The Shia paramilitary group issued the mandatory rhetorical broadside. “It looks as if the decision was written by American hands and with Israeli ink”, it said, to which “the EU only had to add its signature”.
In fact, as Hizbollah would surely know, it takes a great deal more than that for the EU’s 28 member-states to reach a consensus on anything at all. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Should the west arm the Syrian rebels? That is the issue of the day in Washington, London and at the Group of Eight summit. But behind this debate lies a bigger question. Can western powers continue to shape the future of the Middle East as they have for the past century?
John Kerry and William Hague discuss Syria (Getty)
It’s comforting to see that there is a flurry of diplomacy on Syria. But it not the Geneva peace conference sponsored by the US and Russia that had been expected this month. The conference plan has run into a few problems, including that the regime’s gains on the ground have made it even less likely that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power to a transitional government, which is supposed to be the basis of peace negotiations. There’s now talk that the conference could take place in early July, starting just before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Or it might be delayed until the end of the summer. Or it might never happen. Read more
A view of Qusair (AP)
It would seem that Qusair, the rebel-held town astride the strategic corridor between Homs and the northeast Lebanese border, has fallen to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian state media, and al-Manar, the TV station of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia allied to the Assads, have made the claim. But the situation on the ground was looking desperate for the rebels, despite their attempts to resupply the city. And officials in Damascus have been contacting journalists in the region since late last week, confident they could lay on a propaganda coup once this now emblematic town fell.
Here are some preliminary thoughts on the significance of this battle:
* The fall of al-Qusair is a serious blow to the rebels’ disparate forces. It cuts one of their supply lines from Lebanon to Homs; it restores government control over the Damascus-to-Aleppo highway; and, critically, it reconnects the capital to the north-west coast, the heartland of the Alawite minority around which the Assad clan has built its dictatorship and security state; Read more
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
What next for Syria?
With the Syrian conflict now over two years old and political positions hardening, Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor, James Blitz, diplomatic editor and Beirut correspondent Abigail Fielding-Smith join world news editor Shawn Donnan to discuss the disarray among the Syrian opposition, the relaxation of the EU arms embargo and the impact of Hizbollah fighters.
By Gideon Rachman
As the world edges towards a peace conference on Syria, three ideas about the west’s role in the conflict are widely accepted. First, that the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the chances of direct or indirect western military intervention. Second, that there is a deep and bitter division between the US and Russia that is making progress much harder. Third, that the Syrian civil war is dominating western thinking on the Middle East. Few people publicly dispute these propositions. And yet they are all distinctly questionable.
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