The Middle East Channel

Syrian bishops remain missing despite contradicting reports

Church sources in Aleppo and Damascus said the two bishops abducted on Monday remain missing, despite reports they had been freed. Armed militants reportedly seized Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo and Boulou Yaziji, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, in a contested area of northern Aleppo. Syrian officials ...

AFP/Getty Images/LOUAI BESHARA
AFP/Getty Images/LOUAI BESHARA

Church sources in Aleppo and Damascus said the two bishops abducted on Monday remain missing, despite reports they had been freed. Armed militants reportedly seized Yohanna Ibrahim, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Aleppo and Boulou Yaziji, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, in a contested area of northern Aleppo. Syrian officials have blamed a "terrorist group" while opposition fighters have denied any involvement, claiming they are working to find the bishops who are the most senior Christian figures yet to be caught up in the Syrian war. A Christian advocacy group and Al Jazeera reported Ibrahim and Yaziji were released on Tuesday, however later on, Abdel-Ahad Steifo, a Syriac member of the Syrian opposition, told Al Jazeera the bishops were still being held by their abductors. A source from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus also said there was no indication of their release. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said that investigations have yet to produce conclusive evidence to confirm Israel’s claims that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, Israel’s senior military intelligence analyst, has cited photographic and other forms of evidence of the use of chemical weapons. However, White House spokesman Jay Carney stated, "We have not come to the conclusion that there has been that use." The Syrian regime has prevented a U.N. investigation into the alleged chemical weapons use. Soil samples were reportedly smuggled into Britain and suggested "some use of chemical weapons," however there was no evidence of who might have employed them.

Headlines

  • An estimated 15 people have been killed in Iraq on Wednesday, including 12 security forces and gunmen, in apparent retaliation for Tuesday’s raid by security forces on a Sunni protest camp.
  • U.N. special rapporteur on violence Juan Mendez has expressed "deep disappointment" over what he said was "effectively a cancellation" of his trip to Bahrain, just days after a U.S. State Department report on human rights violations in the Gulf country was released.
  • In hearings in Canada on Tuesday, Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser denied involvement in a plot to derail a train which officials say had support from al Qaeda in Iran.
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Egypt on Wednesday for talks that are expected to focus on preserving strong ties with the Egyptian military. 

Arguments and Analysis

Struggle of the Middle East Refugees (António Guterres, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"Ravaged by the most complex and devastating of the world’s current crises, Syria has itself a long and generous history of providing refuge to people in need of sanctuary, including Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. This makes the current suffering the Syrians have to endure all the more heartbreaking. The horrendous bloodshed that is now entering its third year has displaced over four million Syrians internally, many of them uprooted again and again as the fighting spreads and the entire country is engulfed in violence and chaos. Their situation is extremely precarious, and without unrestricted humanitarian access to those in need, it is getting worse every day. For more and more people, becoming refugees is the only way to survive; over 1.3 million people have already fled across borders to seek safety abroad. Since the beginning of 2013, nearly 50,000 people have been fleeing Syria every week to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Growing numbers go even farther, to North Africa and Europe. But too many do not make it to safety, and end up trapped in war zones or dying during the perilous journey to the border.

… This conflict must stop, and a political solution must be found so as to bring peace back to Syria and its people, although in the current scenario there is little reason to hope that day is near. In the meantime, all we can do as humanitarians is to continue our appeals for civilians to be spared, and for the help we can provide to be allowed to reach those in need. Humanitarian access to the displaced, regardless of their location, continues to be the biggest challenge in the response inside Syria, along with that of finding adequate financial resources. Delivering assistance in some areas of the country is highly challenging, and the majority of humanitarian agencies were for a long time unable to access people displaced in northern Syria and other contested regions. Only in late January, was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) able to start delivering emergency winter relief to areas north of Aleppo. Getting there requires constant close consultations with all parties to the conflict and strict adherence to humanitarian principles. The risks involved are high, but the price of not trying is even higher." 

Israel’s Fraying Image (Jacob Heilbrunn, The National Interest)

"WHEN THE American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds its annual spring meeting in Washington, DC, the organization takes elaborate measures to present a portrait of overwhelming political clout. Huge video screens featuring footage on Israel’s geopolitical perils, thousands of attendees, rousing speeches, a steady stream of Democratic and Republican politicians proclaiming their undying fealty to Israel-all are meant to suggest an irrepressible organization on a roll. This year, as in previous ones, Iran was the dominant topic. "Words alone will not stop Iran," Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the conference by satellite. "Sanctions alone will not stop Iran." He then admonished his American audience: "Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail." At the same time, Senator John McCain excoriated the Obama administration for not being sufficiently friendly toward the Jewish state, while Vice President Joe Biden sought to assuage lingering unease about the administration’s stance by declaring that Obama is "not bluffing" when he threatens Iran with military action to forestall its nuclear-weapons development.

But, as AIPAC once again tried ostentatiously to display its influence, distant drumbeats raised new questions about America’s relationship with the Jewish state-and whether AIPAC’s influence is perhaps not always exercised strictly in Israel’s or America’s interest. Washington’s local metro system displayed ads, sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace and the Avaaz advocacy group, that featured various ordinary American Jews denouncing AIPAC as antithetical to peace and not speaking for them. Although such protests by left-wing Jewish organizations may have only s
light influence, they reflect a broader reality: Israel’s image seems to be under challenge as never before, in Europe as well as in America."

More Help for Syrian Rebels (The Editorial Board, The New York Times)

"…Eager to find ways to speed Mr. Assad’s fall, or at least change his calculations, President Obama is edging, cautiously but appropriately, toward greater support for the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Washington would double aid to the opposition’s military wing by providing an additional $123 million in "nonlethal" assistance like body armor and night-vision goggles. Some $385 million in humanitarian aid had already been committed.

The president has wisely resisted calls to supply American weapons and to intervene directly. He should continue to do so. Nevertheless, in recent months, the C.I.A. has helped Arab governments and Turkey airlift arms and equipment to the rebels and provided training. The agency also vetted rebel groups to ensure that only moderates receive those supplies.

…Assisting the rebels is not the whole answer. Mr. Obama and Europe should keep trying to persuade Russia to abandon its unconscionable support for Mr. Assad and to work cooperatively to stabilize the region."

–By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

 Twitter: @casey_mary

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