Passport

Syrian Internet goes dark

At 12:26 pm today in Syria, 92 percent of the country's networks went offline - shutting the country off almost completely from the Internet. (Update: 100 percent of Syrian networks are now offline.)

The Internet blackout comes at a time when Syria's rebels are believed to be making significant gains around Damascus. This map provides a snapshot of the insurgents' gains (in red) around the capital's suburbs. The fear among opposition activists is that the shutdown is the first step in a wider crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad's regime, to preempt a rebel offensive.

There are signs that Damascus airport could be the focal point of the brewing conflict between Assad and the rebel forces. The airport road was closed after being the scene of fierce fighting, and Dubai-based Emirates Airline suspended flights into the capital - possibly a reaction to the rebels' acquisition of surface-to-air missiles. An Egypt Air plane landed in Damascus today, but according to an official at Cairo airport, the pilot was instructed to take off back to Egypt without passengers "if he felt that the situation there is not good to stay for longer."

This sounds like the beginning of a story, rather than its end. More as it develops.

The Middle East Channel

U.N. General Assembly will likely pass Palestinian observer state status

Palestine is likely to win "non-member state" status today in a vote by the United Nations General Assembly. The Palestinian Liberation Organization believes it has support of 130 members of the 193-member body, and the bid only needs a simple majority to pass. If successful, the Palestinian status will be elevated from observer entity to observer state, equal to that of the Vatican. The bid has been strongly opposed by the Israel and the United States. The United States has stressed that Palestinian statehood should be achieved through negotiations with Israel, not unilateral actions, and has threatened to reduce U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinians. Israel has warned it might take significant deductions from duty transfers to the Palestinians. The European Union is split with France, Spain, Greece, and Ireland in support, and Germany likely to abstain. The Czech Republic is expected to vote against the bid. Britain said it will back the resolution, but only if given assurances that the Palestinians will participate in negotiations with Israel "without preconditions." While the move is largely symbolic, it will have some practical implications including allowing Palestinian membership in U.N. bodies such as the International Criminal Court, where it could pursue Israel for war crimes. Last year, the Palestinian Authority applied for full state status, a move also strongly opposed by the United States, but the bid stalled in the U.N. Security Council.

Syria

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a Syrian opposition body, began talks in Egypt on Wednesday in efforts to form an alternate government to that of President Bashar al-Assad. The group spent the day discussing the structure of the government and how leadership candidates would be chosen. The talks have not yet broached the election of a transitional government. Britain, France, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council have officially recognized the opposition coalition, and formation of a transitional government could pave the way for greater international acceptance and financial support. The European Union said it will reduce the renewal term for sanctions on Syria to make it easier in the future to equip opposition forces fighting against Assad. Opposition forces have reportedly used surface-to-air missiles to shoot down two Syrian aircraft in northern Syria in less than 24 hours, including a helicopter on Tuesday and a warplane on Wednesday. If opposition fighters have increased capability to counter the government's air campaign, it could mark a turning point for the insurgents.

Headlines  

  • Egypt's Constituent Assembly is fast-tracking the constitution, announcing the complete draft will come to a vote on Thursday amid a standoff between President Morsi and the judiciary
  • Bombings on Thursday morning targeted Shiites in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Hilla killing at least 39 people and wounding over 100 in the third day of increased attacks.
  • The World Bank has approved a $500 million loan to Tunisia stressing transparency and saying reforms must "respond to the aspirations of Tunisians expressed in the revolution."

Arguments and Analysis

It's Time to Stop Killing in Secret (David Cole, The New York Review of Books blog)

"What would President Romney do with a drone? The New York Times reported Sunday that this question apparently haunted the White House so much that in the weeks before the election it raced to establish "explicit rules" and "clear standards and procedures" for the use of unmanned drones for targeted killings. It should not be surprising, I suppose, that the administration was less comfortable with someone else pushing buttons to kill people than with its own exercise of that authority. As one candid, though anonymous, official stated, "There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands."

The content of the rules remains a tightly-held mystery. Apparently they are so secret that they are toted around from office to office in a single "playbook," and not even shared on the government's secure email reserved for classified material.

But what is most disturbing is the news that it took a possible transfer of power to push the White House to establish such rules. We've been assured by multiple Obama administration spokespersons over the years that its targeted killing program is fully lawful, and subject to "rigorous standards and process of review," as Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan put it in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in April. Yet only on the eve of a potential transition did the administration think to reduce these rigorous standards and procedures to writing?"

Former Israeli PM Olmert Supports Palestine U.N. Bid (Bernard Avishai, Open Zion)

"Tomorrow, Mahmoud Abbas stands before the U.N. General Assembly and presents a resolution to upgrade Palestine's membership to the status of an "observer-state." The Obama administration has signaled that it will oppose this resolution, as it vetoed a Security Council condemnation of settlements last year-putatively to emphasize the need for direct negotiations between the parties. With the Iranian nuclear program still on the horizon, the administration is loathe to call its "special relationship" with Israel into question, or run afoul of a hardline Israeli consensus, of which Benjamin Netanyahu is presumably custodian.

AIPAC is mobilized, warning of Abbas's non-violent effort as, of all things, a "flanking maneuver." We hear much about the danger of Palestinian diplomats, newly elevated to representatives of an observer-state, bringing action in the International Criminal Court against Israeli officials and officers linked to settlements-a back-handed acknowledgement, curiously, that settlements are seen as a contravention of the Geneva Conventions everywhere but in Israel.

In opposing this resolution, however, especially in the aftermath of the recent Gaza stalemate, the administration is foregoing the chance to reinforce the very forces in Israel and Palestine that are serious about compromise. A great many Israeli leaders and military intelligence officials understand the urgency of Abbas's timing-of strengthening his hand-and see no reason to oppose his resolution.

The most important is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who engaged in direct negotiations with Abbas more than any other Israeli. Why should the administration ignore their view and let the region slide into what the latest flare-up in Gaza promised, Bosnian levels of bloodshed?"

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey