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Council on Foreign Relations Daily News Brief
March 22, 2013

Top of the Agenda

Top of the Agenda: Top Pro-Regime Cleric Killed in Syrian Mosque Attack

Mohammed Saeed Ramadan al-Bouti, a senior pro-government Sunni cleric, was among the forty-two killed in a suicide attack (AFP) on a mosque in the Syrian capital of Damascus. While leaders of the opposition National Coalition denied responsibility (BBC), Syria's president Bashar al-Assad vowed to "cleanse" (al-Arabiya) the country of Muslim extremists, whom he blamed for the bombing. The attack comes as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the UN would launch an investigation into whether chemical weapons had been used in the conflict.


"The Sunni-led opposition appears in recent days to have made significant inroads against the government, threatening the Assad family's dynastic rule of 40 years and its long alliance with Iran. If Mr. Assad falls, that would render Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, isolated as a Shiite Muslim alliance in an ever more sectarian Middle East, no longer enjoying a special street credibility as what Damascus always tried to sell as 'the beating heart of Arab resistance,'" writes Neil MacFarquhar for the New York Times.

"As we watch sectarian violence unfold, and the ways in which various Syrian communities are increasingly isolated, there is some degree--and it's hard to document--of soft partition, where various minorities go back to places where they feel more safe. One wonders: Are we watching the beginning of the unraveling of the post-Ottoman order in Syria? And maybe even in the Levant? This would be a shift of historic implications," says Mona Yacoubian for a CFR interview.

"In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now?" writes Stephen Walt for Foreign Policy.



China's Xi Jinping Arrives in Russia

China's new president, Xi Jinping, arrived in Moscow on Friday for a three-day visit, marking his first foreign trip as president. He is expected to sign a key deal (EconomicTimes) that would see Russia ramp up oil supplies to China, the world's largest energy consumer.

This CFR backgrounder sheds light on China's recent power transition.

JAPAN: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made a direct request (JapanTimes) to U.S. President Barack Obama in February for the United States to facilitate the return of five facilities leased to the U.S. military in Okinawa.



Italy Returns Marines to India

Italy announced two of its marines will return to India to stand trial on murder charges (WSJ), a move that ends a diplomatic impasse between the two countries. The deal was reached after Rome secured a vow from New Delhi the two would not face the death penalty if convicted.

PAKISTAN: Pakistan's parliamentary committee faces a deadline Friday for a consensus (Dawn) on the next caretaker prime minister. If negotiations fail, the debate will go to the Election Commission.



Iran's Khamenei Not Opposed to Direct Talks

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Thursday that he is not opposed to direct talks (al-Jazeera) with the United States to resolve Tehran's nuclear standoff with the West, but added that he was not optimistic about any developments unless Washington stopped sanctions.

In this Ask CFR Experts session, readers ask what U.S. policy toward Iran should be in order to prevent further development of its nuclear program.



Chad Rebel Group to Resume Fighting

Chad's main rebel coalition, the Union of Resistance Forces, said Thursday it was resuming its fight (AFP) against President Idriss Deby Itno's regime. The UFR had given up weapons after a 2009 peace deal between Chad and Sudan that normalized relations.

ALGERIA: Algeria's ambassador to Libya said that three of Muammar Qaddafi's children and his widow have left the country (BBC). Two are wanted by Interpol.



Nicolas Sarkozy Placed Under Official Probe

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been placed under formal investigation (France24) in a probe into allegations of receiving illicit political party donations from Liliane Bettencourt, the billionaire heiress to cosmetics company L'Oréal suffering from poor mental health.

CYPRUS: Cyprus's parliament prepares to vote Friday (NYT) on another rewritten plan for a $13 billion international bailout. The country risks default if lawmakers do not approve the new measure.

CFR's Robert Kahn reviews contingency plans aimed at saving the island nation's fragile financial system in this blog post.



Brazil, China to Sign Bilateral Accord

Brazil hopes to sign a bilateral accord with China at next week's BRICS summit that will promote trade (MercoPress) in their national currencies. The initiative was tentatively agreed to last June during a UN summit on sustainable development in Rio.

HAITI: The UN Security Council called Haiti's political leaders to ramp up efforts on breaking a sixteen-month political impasse (MiamiHerald) preventing the country's from holding long-overdue elections.



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