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Council on Foreign Relations Daily News Brief
January 23, 2014
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Top of the Agenda

UN Prepares for Talks Between Syrian Rivals

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN mediator for Syrian peace talks, will hold separate talks on Thursday with delegates from the Syrian government and its opponents to gauge their willingness to negotiate when the conference resumes in Geneva on Friday (BBC). After Wednesday's session opened with a combative speech by Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, his tone later became more measured, raising hopes that the warring sides may be ready to discuss prisoner swaps, local cease-fires, and humanitarian aid (McClatchy). Meanwhile, in Syria, rebels are using Lebanese territory to launch a campaign to retake the Syrian border town of Qusayr, seven months after it was captured by the Syrian army and Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah (CSMonitor).


"Mr. Obama probably could force the measures Mr. Brahimi is seeking by presenting Mr. Assad with the choice of accepting them or enduring U.S. air strikes. That he refuses to consider options between Mr. Kerry's feckless diplomacy and an Iraq-style invasion only ensures that the Geneva 2 conference will fail and that the atrocities will continue," writes the Washington Post in an editorial.

"Syria is effectively divided, and none of the military forces in the field appear capable of reuniting it under their control. Negotiated settlements to end wars tend to reflect the balance of forces in play; the idea of Assad stepping aside for a consensus-based national-unity government is quite at odds with the current balance of geopolitical and military forces. For that reason, it is unlikely to be achieved at Geneva II," writes Joshua Landis for al-Jazeera.

"The role of foreign Islamist extremists in the Syrian opposition has tended to obscure the role of foreigners on the regime side. Yet there are likely as many or more foreigners fighting with Assad than against him. This issue should be addressed in the international Geneva II negotiations currently under way, especially if the regime attempts to focus the discussions on "foreign terrorists" supposedly conspiring with Western and regional governments against Syria," writes Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


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Pacific Rim

Thai Court Defers Ruling on February Election

Thailand's Constitutional Court deferred a ruling on whether a general election scheduled on February 2 can be postponed. The Election Commission says the country, which has seen months of antigovernment protests, was too volatile to hold a general election (Reuters).

CFR's Joshua Kurlantzick explains in this blog post how Thailand's royalty is becoming more openly involved in politics.

INDONESIA: Indonesia moved warships and aircraft to the border with Australia to prevent incursions by the Australian navy into Indonesian waters when towing back boatloads of asylum seekers (Guardian).


South and Central Asia

West Explores Plan B for Forces in Afghanistan

Some diplomats in Kabul are losing confidence that Afghan president Hamid Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement that will formalize a continued U.S.-led military presence in the country after 2014, and they are exploring other options for keeping forces in Afghanistan (WSJ).

This Council Special Report assesses Afghanistan's prospects after the U.S. military drawdown.

PAKISTAN: Thousands of Pakistanis blocked roads and burned tires in Karachi, Lahore, and Rawalpindi to protest the killing of at least twenty-nine Shia pilgrims on Tuesday (BBC).


Middle East

Rouhani Outlines Iran’s Growth Plans

President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos that he would remove "all political and economic impediments to growth" in Iran, and predicted that the country will be one of the world's top ten economies in three decades if sanctions were lifted (FT).



UN Says Central African Republic’s Conflict May Turn to Genocide

Adama Dieng, the UN chief's special adviser on genocide prevention, warned that there is a high risk of crimes against humanity and genocide in the Central African Republic, where violence between Christians and Muslims has left more than half the population in need of assistance (al-Jazeera).

CFR's John Campbell writes in a blog post that CAR's new interim president will need international support to succeed in reducing violence and steering the country to elections.

SOUTH AFRICA: Miners in South Africa have gone on strike seeking to double entry-level salaries to $1200 a month, causing work to stop at some of the world's largest platinum mines (South African Press Association).



Ukraine’s Opposition Ultimatum Deadline Looms

Opposition leaders in Ukraine urged protestors late Wednesday to refrain from violence for twenty-four hours until their ultimatum to President Viktor Yanukovich—to call for early elections and scrap anti-protest laws or face street rage—expires. No signs of compromise emerged on Thursday (AP).

RUSSIA: Russia's highest court refused to overturn a $514 million tax claim against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which will keep him from returning to the country. The court ordered the release of Khodorkovsky's businesses partner, Platon Lebedev (Bloomberg).



Watchdog Says NSA Phone Data Program Is Illegal

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent executive branch review group, said the U.S. National Security Agency's program to collect billions of Americans' phone records is illegal and should end (WaPo).

UNITED STATES: The Justice Department said U.S. Investigations Services, the company contracted to do background investigations on NSA leaker Edward Snowden, fraudulently signed off on more than 650,000 incomplete security investigations (NYT).



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