News roundup — April 30

Syrians escaping violence flee to Turkey

About 250 people raced across the Syrian border into Turkey, government officials said Saturday, a flight that reflects the fear and violence gripping the Arab nation.

The people hustled to the southern Turkish Yaylidagi district in Hatay province on Friday afternoon, according to local and federal government officials.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said the government is trying to determine more about the people and how and why they chose to leave Syria.

“They just came to the border post and want to go in without passports. They were let in,” Unal said. “We are trying to figure out whether this is an individual event or the tip of the iceberg.” (CNN)

Syrian army units ‘clash over crackdown’

Members of two Syrian army units have clashed with each other over carrying out orders to crack down on protesters in Deraa, the southern city at the heart of an anti-government uprising, according to a witness and human rights groups.

More than 500 people have been killed across Syria – about 100 in Deraa alone – since the popular revolt against the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March, according to human rights groups.

While the infighting in Deraa does not indicate any decisive splits in the military, it is significant because the army has always been seen as a bastion of support for the regime. The Syrian military has denied that there have been any splits in the military. (Al Jazeera)

Syrians under siege

“L.A” writes: Syria is known for its complicated sectarian mix. The Assad government and ruling Baath party are run by Alawites, a Shia sect followed by around 12 percent of the population. The majority of Syrians are Sunnis, but there are also Christians of all denominations (10 percent), other Shia, Druze, and a tiny Jewish minority. In recent weeks, the government has cited the threat of Islamist extremism as a reason to crack down on protesters. However, despite the veils and niqabs I encountered, there was little evidence in Douma of either an Islamist or sectarian element to the political demands being made.

“We don’t have Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) in Douma,” one man told us. “They’re just conservative around here.” Later, Alaa said the same thing, explaining that much of the local population belongs to the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, the most conservative of the four Sunni schools. But there were also Shia and more secular people in the crowd. One young man I met, “Imad,” was secular, university-educated, and worked for a large company. He had been demonstrating alongside laborers wearing dusty clothes and the red and white keffiyeh, and religious conservatives. The diversity was also apparent in the different colored ribbons worn as armbands by the mourners—green for the Shia, red for the Sunni.

In other protest cities, such as Latakia and Baniyas, the demonstrations have been even more mixed, with many Shia and Christians participating. Protests in different parts of the country have generally cut across both religious and ethnic divisions: Ismailis (a Shia sect) in Salamiya near Hama, Kurds in the north, Armenians in Latakia, and Druze in Suweida. (NYRB Blog)

Thousands protest in Damascus after Syrian crackdown

Syria’s loosely organized pro-democracy movement drew tens of thousands of people into the heart of Damascus and cities across the country Friday, a major victory against a government campaign of violence that has killed hundreds of peaceful protesters.

Activists said security forces, who have deployed tanks in some cities, killed 64 people Friday as they tried to crush the 6-week-old protest movement.

In Washington, the White House said President Obama had signed an executive order imposing sanctions on three Syrian officials the United States believes engaged in human rights abuses. (Los Angeles Times)

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Libyan rebel forces reject Muammar Gaddafi’s ceasefire offer

Libyan opposition forces have rejected a ceasefire offer by Muammar Gaddafi and dismissed his regime’s claims that loyalist forces had cut off access to the crucial seaport in the besieged city of Misrata.

In a rambling, defiant speech on state television on Saturday, in which he declared that he was “more sacred [to Libyans] than the emperor of Japan is to his people”, Gaddafi called for talks with Nato, which is conducting air strikes against his forces.

“The door to peace is open,” Gaddafi said. “You are the aggressors. We will negotiate with you. Come, France, Italy, UK, America, come, we will negotiate with you. Why are you attacking us?”

More than two months into the Libyan revolution, loyalist forces are becoming increasing stretched. In the east, they are preventing the rebel advance near the town of Ajdabiya; in the far west, they are trying to quell a more recent uprising near the border with Tunisia. And just 130 miles from Tripoli, the battle for the industrial city of Misrata continues, with at least six people killed before noon on Saturday. (The Guardian)

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In shift, Egypt warms to Iran and Hamas, Israel’s foes

Egypt is charting a new course in its foreign policy that has already begun shaking up the established order in the Middle East, planning to open the blockaded border with Gaza and normalizing relations with two of Israel and the West’s Islamist foes, Hamas and Iran.

Egyptian officials, emboldened by the revolution and with an eye on coming elections, say that they are moving toward policies that more accurately reflect public opinion. In the process they are seeking to reclaim the influence over the region that waned as their country became a predictable ally of Washington and the Israelis in the years since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The first major display of this new tack was the deal Egypt brokered Wednesday to reconcile the secular Palestinian party Fatah with its rival Hamas. “We are opening a new page,” said Ambassador Menha Bakhoum, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. “Egypt is resuming its role that was once abdicated.”

Egypt’s shifts are likely to alter the balance of power in the region, allowing Iran new access to a previously implacable foe and creating distance between itself and Israel, which has been watching the changes with some alarm. “We are troubled by some of the recent actions coming out of Egypt,” said one senior Israeli official, citing a “rapprochement between Iran and Egypt” as well as “an upgrading of the relationship between Egypt and Hamas.” (New York Times)

Egypt warns Israel: Don’t interfere with opening of Gaza border crossing

Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces General Sami Anan warned Israel against interfering with Egypt’s plan to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza on a permanent basis, saying it was not a matter of Israel’s concern, Army Radio reported on Saturday.

Egypt announced this week that it intended to permanently open the border crossing with Gaza within the next few days.

The announcement indicates a significant change in the policy on Gaza, which before Egypt’s uprising, was operated in conjunction with Israel. The opening of Rafah will allow the flow of people and goods in and out of Gaza without Israeli permission or supervision, which has not been the case up until now. (Haaretz)

Ending the rift between Hamas and Fatah

Adam Shatz writes: The agreement is arguably one of the first diplomatic fruits of the Egyptian revolution. But Barack Obama also deserves some of the credit. Abbas has been humiliated by Obama, and he is clearly angry. As he told Newsweek, ‘It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder, and he removed the ladder and said to me: “Jump.” Three times, he did it.’ The Obama administration also urged Abbas to oppose a draft UN Security Council resolution demanding that Israel ‘immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory’. ‘It’s better for you and for us and for our relations,’ Obama told Abbas by phone, before enumerating the sanctions Palestinians would suffer if the vote went ahead, and warning that Congress might not approve $475 million in aid. In fact, there was little the PA could do to advance Palestinian interests that wouldn’t have put US aid at risk: soon after the unity agreement was announced, Washington chimed in with Tel Aviv’s denunciations of Hamas as a ‘terrorist organisation’, and three members of Congress, led by the House foreign affairs chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, threatened to cut off aid.

But Obama may have done Abbas a favour: by revealing in the starkest terms the unconditional nature of US support for Israel – and how slender the rewards are for being America’s man in Ramallah – he has forced Abbas to do something that, for once, may win him some Palestinian goodwill. And he may just be able to sell the agreement – in other words, the inclusion of a party that has not renounced violence or recognised Israel – to the EU, which has become increasingly exasperated with Obama’s timidity on Palestine. The unity agreement may turn out to be a bluff, Abbas’s way of reminding his patrons that he has other options, and that they can’t simply ignore Palestinian interests. But perhaps Abbas and the old men in Fatah are at last rediscovering the virtues of self-reliance. (LRB Blog)

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