Welcome to Middle East Live.
Here’s a roundup of the latest developments:
• Russia has denied that its policy on Syria has changed and distanced itself from comments by deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov who said Syrian rebels may win. Russia’s foreign ministry said Bogdanov had merely reiterated the country’s position and its commitment to June’s Geneva agreement which makes no mention of President Bashar al-Assad standing down.
• Rebels told the Guardian they were occupying more territory and besieging government troops in many parts of the country. “The situation is excellent. We are winning. Not just in Aleppo but the whole of Syria,” said Abu Saaed, a fighter in the northern rebel-held town of El Bab.
• Others caution that Assad is still in charge and his military forces remain relatively strong. A senior Arab source said: “Assad’s situation is very difficult. But he has a lot of strength. He is still getting arms and finance from Iran and his military capability is still robust.” The source said Iran’s objective now appeared not to be an absolute commitment to Assad’s survival but rather to limit potential damage to its key ally, Hezbollah, by ensuring the cost of Assad’s fall remains high.
• The United States welcomed Bogdanov’s admission that the rebels could win and called on Moscow to join efforts to manage a peaceful political transition. State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “We want to commend the Russian government for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered. The question now is, will the Russian government join those of us in the international community who are working with the opposition to try to have a smooth democratic transition?”
• Russian support for the Assad regime is likely to prove more durable than Bogdanov’s remarks suggest, according to former US state department adviser Andrew Weiss. Writing in Foreign Policy before Russia distanced itself from Bogdanov’s remarks, he said:
What, if anything, has actually changed? Amid a flurry of comments from the Syrian opposition and their foreign supporters that the Assad regime is finished, as yet there’s been no meaningful sign that the Russians are willing to withdraw valuable political, military, and economic support for Assad …
We should not be surprised if Moscow’s obstinance on Syria proves surprisingly durable.
• An opinion piece in Russia’s Pravda newspaper described the French, US and UK coalition against Assad as the Fukus axis, and claimed it was backing terrorism by recognising the Syrian opposition.
The United States of America has joined its Fukus Axis partners France and the UK (together with wannabe Ottoman imperialist Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council) in recognising the Syrian opposition as the only “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.
For a start, how about asking the Syrian people? Secondly, the representative of the Syrian people under international law is the Syrian Government led by His Excellency President Bashar al-Assad. Thirdly who is the President of the United States of America to announce what is, or is not, the legitimate representative of a sovereign nation? Fourthly, why is the United States of America joining its Fukus Axis allies in recognising terrorists?
Responding to the article US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “it speaks to what passes for news in Pravda”.
There is overwhelming evidence that the military forces of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have deliberately targeted bakeries, in what appears to be official policy to starve rebel areas into submission. (It has also hit field hospitals, schools and civilian areas.) The al-Bab factory has been targeted three times; the last time a rocket injured six bakery workers.
• Reporters Sans Frontieres said it was extremely concerned for a Ukrainian journalist kidnapped in Syria, as the deadline passed for a huge ransom demand from a rebel group threatening to kill her. Anhar Kochneva, who had been reporting for Russian media outlets in Syria, was taken hostage in October near Homs. RSF said that Kochneva was known for criticising the Syrian opposition, which she had publicly accused of cruelty to civilians and prisoners.
• Supporters and opponents of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi will stage final rallies on Friday before a divisive referendum on a new constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Morsi to power in June’s presidential election, will assemble at a mosque not far from the president’s palace in Cairo. A little later in the day, the liberal, secular and Christian opposition will rally in favour of a vote against the basic law outside the palace and in Tahrir Square.
• The Carter Centre, former US president Jimmy Carter’s human rights NGO, said it would not deploy monitors for Egypt’s divisive constitutional referendum. Its decision based on the late release of regulations for election monitoring is likely to further undermine the legitimacy of the rushed process.