This Week in Middle Eastern Conflict… February 24th-March 2nd, 2012.

  • At least 28 people were reportedly killed in clashes on Saturday between government troops and opposition forces in Syria as the Red Cross continued efforts to evacuate civilians from the city of Homs; while at least 89 people were reportedly killed nationwide. On Sunday, the ICRC said that Syrian authorities had still not responded to a request for a ceasefire to allow the wounded to be evacuated from the Baba Amro district in Homs. On Monday, activists reported the deaths of more than 125 people across the country, just hours after the state television announced that an overwhelming majority of voters (some 89.4%) agreed to a new constitution, though the UN announced that it was “unlikely to be credible”; the shelling of Homs continued; the EU agreed to new sanctions against the country, targeting the central bank, seven cabinet ministers, prohibiting trade in gold and other precious metals with state institutions and a ban on cargo flights from the country; the ambulances of the Arab Red Crescent reportedly evacuated three people from the Baba Amro district of Homs; activists reported the discovery of at least 62 people near the city of Homs; and the Qatari PM called upon the international community to provide arms to the rebels. On Tuesday, the UN human rights chief announced that the situation in the country is “dire” and called upon the government to declare an immediate “humanitarian cease-fire”; a UN official said that Syrian forces have killed more than 7,500 civilians, or more than 100 a day; Paul Conroy, a Sunday Times photographer was reportedly evacuated from Homs, though many other journalists, including Edith Bouvier, remained trapped. On Wednesday, Libya announced it will donate $100 million in humanitarian aid to the opposition and allow them to open an office in Tripoli; 13 Syrian activists were reportedly killed in the process of helping wounded foreign journalists trapped in Homs escape; heavy fighting broke out near the main rebel stronghold of Baba Amro in Homs as Syrian troops began a ground assault; UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs announced she was denied in her repeated requests to visit the country; and Reuters ran an article on the “path of death” smuggling route that is fueling the rebels.  On Thursday, a top US official for the Middle East says the “tipping point” in the country must come “quickly”; the UN Security Council called upon the government to grant UN humanitarian chief Amos “immediate and unhindered access” to the country; the Syrian National Council formed a military council, which it says will act as a clearing house for anyone offering it arms; the rebels defending Baba Amro said they faced at least 7,000 government troops; Kuwait’s Parliament said it would support the rebel Free Syria Army  and called upon the Kuwaiti government to cut ties with Assad; Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed their concern at the possibility that Syria may have chemical weapons; security forces reportedly opened fire on an anti-government demonstration in Damascus, injuring five young men; Russia’s Putin announced he had no special relationship with President Assad and that Syrians should decide who should rule their country; American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were allegedly buried in Homs where they were killed 8 days prior; government troops started to advance on Homs, after weeks of bombardment by tanks and fighters; and the Free Syrian Army announced they had withdrawn from the Baba Amr district of Homs. On Friday, Syrian authorities reportedly blocked the Red Cross from entering the Baba Amr district of Homs, despite receiving permission from the government to send a convoy with seven truckloads of aid; Human Rights Watch said that new satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts reveal that bombardment of the Baba Amr neighbourhood has inflicted widespread destruction; Ban Ki-moon underlined the need for concerted action to end the crisis, lamenting that the international community has thus far failed in its responsibility to stop the bloodshed; while two French journalists, including Edith Bouvier, were safely evacuated from Homs to Lebanon. Some interesting articles were published, one calling for the world to prepare to arm the Syrian rebels (a position I personally strongly disagree with—after all, arming opposition groups has had soo much success in the past *sarcasm*); another questioning the morality of any foreign intervention within the country; one talking about the logistics of intervention; and another one questioning the world’s inconsistency on foreign intervention into conflicts.
  • At least 25 people were reportedly killed in a car bomb attack outside the gate of a Presidential compound in south Yemen on Saturday, hours after the new President was sworn in; while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the new President after he took his oath of office in Parliament. On Wednesday, an al-Qaeda linked group threatened to unleash a torrent of attacks unless the government pulled its forces back from a contested southern city of Zinjibar. On Thursday, rival units of the military briefly traded fire outside the residence of the newly elected President, with no reported casualties.
  • At least 8 people were reportedly killed in violence in Iraq on Wednesday, after a car bomb exploded in a shopping area in southeastern Baghdad, unknown gunmen shot at a car in Mosul and a car bomb exploded in the city of Kirkuk; the main Sunni Muslim insurgent groups rejected laying down their arms to join the political process and announced they will keep fighting to topple the “occupation government”. On Thursday, a student shot and killed an American teacher at a private Christian school in the autonomous Kurdish region, then attempted suicide and was taken to a mental hospital; while Human Rights Watch criticized Iraqi authorities for using “repressive means” to muzzle peaceful protests after last week’s demonstrations to mark the one-year anniversary of protests against widespread corruption, poor basic services and high unemployment. Reuters reported that militants killed 151 Iraqi civilians and members of the security forces in February, showing that daily bombings and shootings remain persistent fact of life despite the withdrawal of US forces in December.
  • The government of Bahrain announced on Sunday that almost all the verdicts issued by military courts against people involved in pro-democracy protest movements crushed by the state last year were now being handled by civilian courts. On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch released a new report on unfair trails in military and civilian courts in the country. On Thursday, authorities imposed restrictions on groups trying to monitor reforms and asked UN investigators into torture to postpone their scheduled trip.
  • A Palestinian man reportedly died after being shot in clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank on Saturday. On Monday, a Palestinian women, released by Israel in a prisoner swap last year, but re-arrested earlier this month and held without charge, is reportedly on a hunger strike to protest her treatment, just a week after the Israeli government struck a deal with another prisoner on a hunger strike. On Tuesday, the UN political chief called upon Israeli and Palestinian leaders to get serious about overcoming the current impasse, noting that talks that began last month have stalled and the situation on the ground in West Bank and Gaza remains dangerous. On Wednesday, Israeli troops reportedly raided two private Palestinian television stations in the West Bank, seizing transmitters and other equipment on the grounds that they “interfered with legal broadcasters and aircraft communications”.
  • American intelligence analysts suggested on Friday that they continued to believe that there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb despite a new report from the IAEA about an accelerated uranium enrichment program. On Saturday, the IAEA claimed that Iran had yet to give an explanation over a small quantity of uranium metal missing from a research site; while SWIFT, the world’s biggest electronic banking system, announced it is ready to block the country’s central bank from using its network to transfer funds. On Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministers announced he expects talks with the international community over the controversial nuclear program and is confident they will continue, also condemning the production of atomic weaponry as a “great sin”; while Human Rights Watch claimed that authorities are “dramatically” escalating their crackdown on freedom of expression ahead of the parliamentary elections. On Wednesday, Hezbollah said that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear programme would set the Middle East ablaze, possibly drag in the US and unleash a conflict beyond their control; while Iranian authorities offered Pakistan 80,000 barrels of oil per day on a three-month deferred payment plan in an attempt to soften the impact of Western sanctions and ease some of Pakistan’s energy needs. On Thursday, the Atlantic ran an article claiming that bombing Iran would mean also invading Iran and all that this would entail; Israel announced that it would soon test-fire a ballistic interceptor missile, hoping to avoid stoking war tensions with Iran; an opinion poll showed that a wide majority of Israelis either oppose a strike on Iran or would favour an attack only if it was carried out with US agreement; while Israel pressed American President Obama for an explicit threat of military action against Iran if sanctions fail and their nuclear programme advances beyond specified “red lines”. On Friday, Iranian semi-official Mehr news agency reported that the sister of President Ahmadinejad failed to win a Parliamentary seat and early returns were showing conservative rivals of Ahmadinejad elected in many other constituencies; several other sites wrote articles about the parliamentary elections that reportedly had a “record” turnout; Iran’s ambassador to Moscow complained that a Russian state-controlled bank shut down the accounts of Iranian embassy personnel, the Russian Foreign Ministry thought may be a consequence of EU and US sanctions; American President Obama warned that he is not bluffing about attacking Iran if it builds a nuclear weapon, but that a premature attack would do more harm than good; while Israeli PM Netanyahu says his country will not draw any “red lines” for action regarding Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

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