Syria

By Gideon Rachman
The Middle East has a way of provoking wild mood swings. The Arab spring of early 2011 was greeted with euphoria in the US and Europe. A month ago, after the coup in Egypt and the chemical weapons attack in Syria, the mood was despairing. Now, hopes are surging again, after a historic phone call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, the US and Iranian presidents.

It is encouraging that the UN Security Council seems to be edging towards a resolution on Syria. It is even possible that a diplomatic breakthrough there, could lead to wider Russian/US co-operation on a peace process for Syria.

But while the diplomatic picture is improving outside Syria, the situation on the ground gets ever more complicated — in ways that will make it even harder to find a political solution that outside powers can endorse, and that has a chance of sticking. Read more

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani address the UN General Assembly (Getty)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been at the UN in New York all this week, opening up the possibility of engagement with the US over Tehran’s nuclear programme. One of the most striking features of his performance is the way he has used different settings to push forward different messages about how he views the world.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Rouhani took what sounded like a very traditional Iranian line. It may have had none of the apocalyptic and offensive rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, on such occasions. But the speech contained plenty of passages which implied a strong attack on America’s “coercive economic and military policies.” Many experts were disappointed that it failed to deviate from Iran’s traditional script.

Mr Rouhani has also found plenty of time, however, to meet US media, and here his tone has been very different. With CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he read out a message in English of goodwill towards Americans.

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Not many letters to the FT go viral. But KN Al-Sabah’s pithy explanation of the intricacies of Middle East politics, deservedly garnered a wide audience. It read as follows:

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad. Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi. But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood! Read more

Ever since the chemical weapons attack in Syria, I have assumed that there would have to be a western military response – and that’s still my view. But I must admit that some US efforts to sell the idea have been so ham-fisted that they are having the opposite effect on me, increasing my doubts. I was particularly alarmed to hear John Kerry describe the Syrian crisis as “our Munich moment”. Munich is one of the most over-used and abused analogies in the making of foreign policy. Almost every western foreign-policy disaster since 1945 – from Suez to Vietnam to Iraq – has been preceded by some idiot saying that this is Munich. Read more

Obama’s political gamble on Syria
President Barack Obama’s decision to consult Congress before launching any military strikes on Syria came as a surprise to friend and foe alike. How is this political gamble likely to work out and what are the implications for the crisis in Syria and and for the use of American power around the world? Gideon Rachman is joined by James Blitz, diplomatic editor and Richard McGregor, Washington bureau chief, to discuss

As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.

The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. Read more

Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.

July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.

August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. Read more

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

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.

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.