Saudi Arabia Replaces Key Official in Effort to Arm Syria Rebels - Ellen Knickmeyer and Adam Entous (Wall Street Journal)
Saudi Arabia has sidelined its veteran intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as leader of the kingdom's efforts to arm and fund Syrian rebels, replacing him with Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is well-regarded by U.S. officials for his successes fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere, Saudi royal advisers said this week.
Senior U.S. officials recently described Prince Bandar as "erratic" and "hot-headed."
Secretary of State John Kerry, in private meetings, singled him out as "the problem" and complained about his conduct in orchestrating Saudi policy in Syria.
Syria Says 175 Rebels Killed in Ambush (AP-Washington Post)
Syrian state media said army troops on Wednesday killed 175 rebels, many of them al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters, in an ambush near Damascus. The report said several were foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Qatar.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack was carried out by Hizbullah fighters backed by Syrian troops. Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV aired exclusive footage of the ambush.
Syrian Government Detains Relatives of Opposition Peace Talks Delegation (U.S. State Department)
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said Wednesday:
"The United States is outraged by reports that the Assad regime has arrested family members of the Syrian Opposition Coalition delegation to the Geneva II peace talks."
"Unfortunately, these arrests and attempts to silence dissent are not new behavior for the Assad regime."
"Political and arbitrary imprisonment, and the systematic torture and death of tens of thousands of people without access to due process, are but a few of the regime's documented human rights violations."
See also Israel to UN: Syria's Atrocities Are Being Underwritten by Iran - Maya Shwayder (Jerusalem Post)
Syria and Iran together have "defied every code of morality" in the Syrian civil war, Israel's ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.
"The Syrian regime's murderous rampage is being underwritten by the undertakers of Tehran."
Iraqi Army Struggles in Battle Against Islamist Fighters in Anbar Province - Loveday Morris (Washington Post)
The U.S. is shipping arms to Iraq to help its army fight a Sunni Islamist insurgency in Anbar province.
But an Iraqi deputy army commander based at the 8th Division headquarters in Diwaniyah recounted a series of what he said were poorly planned and executed missions in Anbar.
There, the government is struggling to oust militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda splinter group.
That operation was one of several ill-fated missions that have characterized Iraq's battle against ISIS in Anbar and underscored the weakness of security forces that the U.S. spent more than $20 billion to train and equip, according to the Congressional Research Service.
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- Obama Plans Personal Role in Middle East Peace Bid - Mark Landler
President Obama, after avoiding a hands-on role in Middle East peacemaking since the setbacks of his first term, plans to plunge back into the effort, his advisers said this week. When he welcomes
Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House on Monday, Obama will press him to agree to a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that is being drafted by Secretary of State Kerry. Later in March, Obama is likely to meet with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to make the same pitch.
It is far from clear, however, that Obama can pull off what has so far eluded his secretary of state - not to mention several of his Oval Office predecessors. The two sides have not met face to face for weeks. That suggests, analysts say, that there has been scant progress in closing some of the core differences.
(New York Times)
See also Kerry: Israeli-Palestinian Framework Deal Won't Be Ready by April
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday night he would not be able to present a framework document for continued Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations within the nine-month deadline given to the current round of talks, Israel Radio cited the top U.S. diplomat as saying.
- In Syria, Preparing for the Mother of All Battles - Urayb ar-Rintawi
The Syrian army is gathering its forces amidst reports of intensive Iranian support with weapons, experts, and fighters supportive of the regime. On the other side, certain regional states backed by American sponsorship, are mobilizing thousands of well-trained armed elements in preparation for throwing them into battle, perhaps using advanced Pakistani weapons this time around.
From its position of influence in the southern provinces of Syria (Der'a/Kuneitra), the Nusra Front is trying to forge a broad front of armed factions and groups that are politically and ideologically close to it. For its part, ISIS has begun to mobilize its forces and send mujahidin southward to ensure that "the enemies of Islam" would not be alone in deciding the outcome of the fighting on that front.
See also Pakistan Joins Saudi Arabia, Shuns Iran on Syria War - Walter Russell Mead
Pakistan has covertly supported the Saudi effort in the Syrian civil war for some time now. Frustrated with the lack of American action in supporting the Syrian rebels against the Assad regime, Saudi Arabia turned to Pakistan for help in training and arming them. Now, however, Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia's efforts in Syria is official.
The Pak-Saudi alignment comes at a particularly difficult moment in Islamabad's relationship with Iran.
Iranian soldiers were recently kidnapped by insurgents operating in Pakistan's remote Balochistan province. Iran has threatened to invade Pakistani territory in order to rescue them.
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- Report: Abbas Calls Kerry's Framework Proposal "Insanity"
PA President Mahmoud Abbas left a two-day meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris last week fuming over Kerry's proposals for a framework accord between Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinian daily Al Quds reported on Wednesday. Kerry reportedly offered for Abbas to form a Palestinian capital in the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina, and suggested that Israel keep 10 settlement blocs. The Jordan Valley would not be part of a future Palestinian state, Palestinian sources said, nor would there be an international force stationed there. And Kerry reportedly demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Abbas reportedly exploded with rage over Kerry's proposals and described them as "insanity." (Times of Israel)
- Netanyahu: Israel Will Not Change Status Quo on Temple Mount - Herb Keinon and Ariel Ben Solomon
Israel has no intention of changing its policies on the Temple Mount, Prime Minister Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, said on Wednesday, a day after a Knesset debate on restrictions imposed on non-Muslims at the site triggered angry political reactions in the Arab world.
"The policy of the government of Israel has been and continues to be the maintenance of the status quo at the Temple Mount, including freedom of access for all faiths to the holy sites."
Since the Arab riots of 1929, Arab claims of alleged Jewish designs to take over the Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount have intermittently triggered Arab violence. Arab League representatives met in an "extraordinary meeting" in Cairo Wednesday to discuss the matter. (Jerusalem Post)
- Palestinians Hurl Firebombs at Israeli Vehicles in West Bank, Two Injured - Yaakov Lappin
Palestinians hurled four firebombs at an Israeli bus and car near Migdalim in the West Bank on Wednesday evening.
Two soldiers on the bus were injured and both vehicles were damaged in the attack.
- Palestinian Hate Speech Comes from Official Sources - David Pollock
Let us distinguish between the Israeli and Palestinian sides on the nature of hate speech and incitement to violence. In Israel, the problem concerns individuals, but this is not authorized by the Israeli government, which is now actively fighting against this phenomenon.
On the Palestinian side, however, from President Abbas, to his Cabinet, to the official media, one must note that every day, Palestinian terrorists who perpetrated assaults are considered heroes. This is the official discourse, which works against peace and which encourages violence and terrorism. It is clearly a case of double-talk and mixed messaging, which professes peace and tolerance, while supporting violence and anti-Semitism.
Every day, official Palestinian television calls Jews "rats" and "animals." On the official Facebook page of Palestinian schools, one sees photographs of Hitler, and cartoons that illustrate the hadith saying that Muslims must kill Jews. One could condition European and American financial aid to the Palestinian Authority on its cessation of such speech.
The writer is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute. These remarks are from his testimony to the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense of the French Senate on January 29, 2014.
(Washington Institute for Near East Policy)
- Gaza Left Out of Mideast Peace Talks - William Booth and Anne Gearan
As Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to publicly present outlines of a proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Gaza is the rarely mentioned elephant in the bargaining room - a huge obstacle to a permanent settlement of the conflict. Kerry has confined his peacemaking to Palestinians in the West Bank. That means that if a deal could be done right now, the 1.6 million people who live in Gaza - about 40% of the population in the two Palestinian territories - would essentially be left out.
"Gaza and Hamas represent the real conundrum of the peace process. You can't do a conflict-ending deal without them, and you can't do one with them either," said Aaron David Miller, a U.S. adviser in failed peace negotiations in which Gaza played a central role.
"Nobody talks about Gaza and Hamas, because nobody has the slightest idea of how to deal with the challenges these issues pose," Miller said.
U.S. officials say Kerry is dealing with Abbas because he is the only Palestinian leader U.S. and Israeli leaders could realistically engage. Like the U.S., Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group, funded partly by Iran.
Hurt Iran's Hawks - Abraham D. Sofaer (New York Times)
- The U.S. must do more than keep the nuclear talks going; at the same time, it must push back against the Revolutionary Guards, the force within Iran that most wants to militarize its nuclear program.
- The last time the U.S. reacted forcefully to the Guards' aggression was in 1987. When the Guards began mining the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy boarded and sank one of its mining vessels and destroyed several of its speedboats and oil platforms. Our attacks deterred the Revolutionary Guards Corps; it has never again tried to mine the gulf.
- More significantly for today, our hard response didn't diminish Iranian diplomats' desires to negotiate. Each time the U.S. has used force in the Middle East - in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq - Iran has sought to be more, not less, engaged diplomatically.
- We have to respond to the Guards in such a way that Mr. Rouhani and his team can argue convincingly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that the force's aggression invites only more trouble, while a nuclear deal holds the key to improving Iran's future.
- For example, America could assist Syria's moderate rebels; interdict the Guards' shipments of weapons to Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan; and block activity by the Guards in Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.
- Punishing the Iranians most culpable for the country's violence and terror, while negotiating effectively with its most pragmatic representatives, would strengthen President Rouhani's position in Iran, weaken those who want a nuclear military program, and increase the likelihood of a sound nuclear agreement.
The writer, who served as legal adviser to the State Department from 1985 to 1990, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
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