- Leaked U.N. Report Piles on Evidence Assad Regime Conducted Mass Chemical Weapons Attack
- Amid Renewed Threats From Hezbollah, Israel Reemphasizes Chemical Weapons Transfer “Red Line”
- Greek Ambassador Blasts Turkey for Vetoing NATO-Israeli Cooperation
- Palestinian Gunmen Open Fire on Soldiers Protecting Worshippers After Fatah Officials Call for Attacks
What we’re watching today:
- A leaked United Nations report, likely set for publication on Monday, piles on evidence linking the Bashar al-Assad regime to the August 21 mass chemical attack on opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs. While the report will not explicitly implicate the regime, diplomats indicate that it will offer a "wealth" of evidence implicating Assad's forces. Analysts had already identified what kind of evidence might tie the Syrian army to the attack, and had emphasized that the detection of chemical stabilizers and dispersal agents would signal sophistication unavailable to other parties fighting in Syria's more than two-year war. Secretary of State John Kerry met Thursday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as a large team of arms control specialists, to begin exploring a Russian plan to defuse the crisis by placing Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under external control. Analysts have broadly - and increasingly - expressed skepticism regarding the workability of any such international effort. Also today, Syria announced that it had formally asked to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which would require Damascus to give up its weapons. By means of clarification however, Assad indicated that Damascus would not implement the treaty's requirements in the absence of U.S. guarantees that it would not attack Syria.
- Israeli officials reemphasized today that Jerusalem would enforce its long-established "red line" against any Syrian efforts to transfer advanced weapons, including portions of Damascus's chemical weapons arsenal, to the Bashar al-Assad regime's Hezbollah allies. Hezbollah leaders have in recent days repeatedly and explicitly threatened to attack the Jewish state, doubling down on rhetoric and threats that had already heightened over the summer. Hezbollah has also in recent days moved to redeploy troops into locations near to Israel's border. Meanwhile on Thursday, several mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Israel’s Golan Heights near the Israeli-Syrian border, increasing concerns that spillover from the war will threaten stability along Israel’s borders.
- Turkey continues to veto "even the most innocent" cooperation between Israel and NATO - extending a policy that stretches back years and which diplomats had hoped would cease amid a U.S.-backed reconciliation effort - according to Greek Ambassador Spiros Lampridis. The Jerusalem Post notes that the programs Turkey has nixed include 'joint exercises, intelligence exchanges, and research and technological development programs.' Turkey's efforts to undermine ties between Israel and NATO had been blasted for damaging interoperability between Israeli and Western forces, undermining among other things America's power projection capabilities in the region. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had explicitly bragged about his government's repeated successes in cutting off Israel from NATO initiatives, but a rapprochement facilitated by President Barack Obama was to see Ankara suspend efforts to diplomatically and militarily isolate Jerusalem. Lampridis lauded Israel for making a series of gestures designed to facilitate reconciliation, and - addressing increasingly vocal accusations that Erdogan is driven by anti-Jewish animus - declared that the Islamist Turkish prime minister "can do it privately if he wants... [but shouldn't] do it openly and expose a whole country."
- Officials linked to the Palestinian Fatah faction declared yesterday that Friday will be the "first day of popular resistance" against Israel, and have called for attacks against Jewish Israelis and the Jewish state. The statement by the Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade was followed today by clashes that broke out after Palestinians opened fire on Israeli soldiers protecting some 1,400 worshippers at the Jewish holy site of Joseph's Tomb. Israeli soldiers returned fire, injuring one of the gunmen and eventually capturing another. The Palestinian government-linked media outlet Wafa earlier this week published an article blasting the rabbi of "Jewish fanatics" for asserting that Judaism's ancient Second Temple was built in Jerusalem. Palestinian officials - including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - have repeatedly and specifically sought to deny the existence of an ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and to vitiate the Jewish connection to Israel's capital. The position has been widely criticized as incitement, and is difficult to reconcile with public Palestinian pronouncements regarding the PLO's willingness to make concessions in the interest of a negotiated final settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- E.U. partially designates Hezbollah as terror organization
- Syrian army mows down scores of opposition fighters
- Sinai chaos erupts as attacks on police, army escalate
- Top Palestinian official: Still many "sticking points" before return to peace talks
What we’re watching today:
- The European Union on Monday officially designated the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The blacklisting comes just over a year after the July 2012 bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, and which Bulgarian investigators linked to the Iran-backed terror group. A Cypriot court subsequently convicted a confessed Hezbollah operative on terror-related charges, and the combination of the Bulgarian investigation and the Cypriot conviction brought significant pressure on the E.U. to formally acknowledge that a group that conducts terrorism on E.U. soil is indeed a terrorist organization for E.U. purposes. The bloc distinguished between Hezbollah's military wing and political wing, and only blacklisted the military wing. Focus and analysis will now shift toward the degree to which that separation is sustainable or accurate. Hezbollah does not recognize the distinction. Hezbollah's Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem gave a speech in 2012 in which he declared that "we don't have a military wing and a political one," echoing comments he made in 2009 to the effect that the "same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions." U.S. counterterrorism specialists have concluded that Hezbollah simply isn't structured that way, and the U.S. intelligence community has determined [PDF] that the group's organizational structure "combines political, social, paramilitary, and terrorist elements."
- Scores of rebel fighters were killed Sunday near Damascus, underscoring concerns that the momentum in the conflict has shifted in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime. At least 75 opposition fighters were killed by regime forces, which - with significant support from the Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah - have made substantial progress in rolling back two years of opposition gains. Meanwhile reports emerged that the Syrian military used chemical weapons against Palestinians in a Damascus refugee camp over the weekend. Opposition officials said that 22 people died in the attack on the camp, which was also attacked last December. The Syrian military has long leveraged its air assets to battle against the rebels. Observers have emphasized that, to be effective, Western lethal assistance to the opposition would have to be provided with an eye on degrading those assets.
- At least six Egyptians were killed on Monday in a string of attacks carried out against police stations and army checkpoints in the Sinai Peninsula. Two policemen and two army officers were among the dead. Over the weekend gunmen killed four security officials in separate attacks in the northern city of el-Arish, and earlier Monday at least six people – five policemen and one civilian – were wounded in an attack on a security camp near Rafah. Violence in the increasingly anarchic territory has spiked since the removal from power of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi earlier this month, and Egyptian security officials have linked the uptick to supporters of Morsi and his Islamist Muslim Brotherhood-linked government. The Egyptian army blames the Iran-backed terror group Hamas for the much of the violence, accusing the group of maintaining tunnels between the Sinai and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip through which jihadists move personnel and weapons.
- A top Palestinian official on Sunday rejected reports that Palestinian factions had agreed to return to U.S.-mediated negotiations with Israel, telling Palestinian radio that direct talks were "conditioned on many clarifications." Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a leading figure involved in the peace initiative being pushed by Secretary of State John Kerry, went on to emphasize that there are a number of remaining "sticking points," despite declarations by State officials that the path had been cleared for renewed negotiations. Palestinian conditions have consistently stymied talks and led to tensions between the State Department and the Palestinian Authority (PA). PA President Mahmoud Abbas was still struggling to secure support for Kerry's initiative as late as last Thursday. His Fatah faction's rival Hamas condemned him for "succumbing to American extortion."
Israel’s northern border with Lebanon and Syria has long been a hotbed of confrontation. Syria and the Lebanese-based terror organization Hezbollah backed by Iran, continue to threaten Israel’s fragile security.
Jerusalem, Jan. 9 – Senior Palestinian officials cast a large shadow over the latest talks with Israel taking place in Amman today. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned he would take “tough measures” if the parley failed.
“Israel does not want serious negotiations,” said Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Yasser Abd Rabbo.
The Israelis have called for a successful outcome in their public statements on the Jordanian-chaired meetings, the first of which took place last week.
The Israelis say further meetings are planned, while the Palestinians say they are considering once again turning to the United Nations in a bid to gain recognition there.
The Middle East peace Quartet, which is brokering the peace process, has repeatedly urged the Palestinians not to go down the unilateral route but gain statehood via negotiations. The Quartet comprises Russia, the United Nations, European Union and United States.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a key policy speech on June 14, 2009 embracing the two-state solution, he has repeatedly called on the Palestinians to enter peace talks without preconditions.
“We have to stop negotiating about the negotiations. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s negotiate peace,” Netanyahu said at United Nations headquarters in New York in September 2011.
However, the Palestinians are demanding Israel make several concessions prior to any direct negotiations.
Israel insists it is prepared to discuss all issues during face-to-face talks.