Posted by Albert Gersh - August 21, 2013
- Reports: Syrian regime launches chemical weapons overnight, triggering mass casualties
- Muslim Brotherhood supporters call for "Friday of Martyrs" in Egypt
- White House: Turkey PM's accusations against Israel "offensive, unsubstantiated, and wrong." Analysts: Turkey "as isolated as it has ever been."
- Struggling to deal with Syria blowback, Hezbollah turns Beirut stronghold into "fortress"
What we’re watching today:
- Foreign policy and intelligence analysts are scrambling to untangle reports emerging overnight Wednesday from Syria, backed by photo and video evidence, that the Bashar al-Assad regime used chemical weapons to kill hundreds and maybe thousands of Syrian civilians in the East Ghouta region outside Damascus. Foreign Policy's blog The Cable catalogs a spectrum of expert evaluations, from "no doubt it's a chemical release of some variety... and a military release of some variety" to "there's no smoking gun." Analysis appears to be converging on a scenario that would have the regime launching four Grad 122mm rockets at the town after 2:00am, which were loaded with a chemical agent less powerful than pure sarin, but intense enough to generate the mass casualties documented by multiple photos and videos. The New York Times carries an expert evaluation describing it as "either a large amount of a crowd control agent like tear gas was used a in a confined space or a weakened form of a more powerful chemical agent." The Washington Post notes that the attack, if confirmed, would "mark the most flagrant violation yet of the U.S. 'red line' for potential military action," but that "the possibility of intervention seemed ever smaller after [Gen. Martin Dempsey] offered a starkly pessimistic assessment of options."
- Supporters of Egypt's former President Mohammed Morsi are calling for "Friday of Martyrs" protests to be held later this week, following last week's "Day of Rage" demonstrations that saw over 60 killed in what the Washington Post described as "violence involving the security forces, protesters and armed civilians on both sides of the nation’s widening political divide." On Tuesday Egypt's interim prime minister brushed aside Western threats to withhold assistance unless the army-backed government lessened its crackdown on the Brotherhood, describing Egypt as heading in the "right direction." The European Union today did indeed cut some aid to Cairo, suspending weapons exports while maintaining humanitarian aid programs. Also today the Egyptian Interior Ministry announced that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will be released from jail, in the aftermath of an appeals decision that allows him to be released on bail pending trial on criminal charges.
- The White House yesterday blasted comments made by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan blaming Israel for the Egyptian military's actions against former President Mohammed Morsi, calling them "offensive, unsubstantiated, and wrong." Erdogan had discovered a 2011 video of French-Jewish intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy calling on the military to block the Brotherhood from taking power, and based on that evidence had publicly announced that an Israeli conspiracy was behind Morsi's ouster. Analysts remain skeptical. Turkey expert Michael Koplow linked what he described as Erdogan's "histrionics" to the collapse of Turkey's foreign policy toward Egypt specifically, and toward the region in general. Koplow describes how "he downfall of Morsi and the routing of the MB exposes the emptiness of Turkish foreign policy" and notes that "Ankara is as isolated as it has ever been." In Egypt and to a lesser degree in Syria, Turkey finds itself on the opposite side of U.S. allies throughout the Middle East. Its position in favor of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and against the military has put it at odds with U.S. allies in the Gulf, while regarding Syria, it has been accused by Arab states of backing extremist rebels at the expense of more moderate opposition elements.
- Hezbollah has turned its strongholds in southern Beirut into what Agence France Presse is calling a "fortress," as the Iran-backed terror group struggles to deal with violence linked to blowback from Hezbollah's intervention in Syria. Two car bombings in as many months have ripped through the Dahiyeh district where Hezbollah dominates. Reports describe how Hezbollah officials have begun cordoning off parts of Lebanon's capital, and searching motorists and bikers. Lebanese officials have become increasingly vocal in demanding that Hezbollah untangle itself and Lebanon from the Syrian conflict - a top official recently accused the group of plunging the country "into fire" - but last week Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed to double Hezbollah's commitment to the Bashar al-Assad regime.
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