Jonathan Steele

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The four-day ceasefire that went into effect on Friday should have been the first good news from Syria for several months. The initiative came from Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League's special envoy, and was accepted by Bashar al-Assad's government as well as several opposition commanders.

Two Islamist groups rejected it outright and both sides put conditions on it. The government said it would respond to rebel attacks and the rebels said the government should not resupply its troops. The rebels seemed to be particularly sceptical of any ceasefire since they appear to believe the military momentum is with them, and they have always been wary of political negotiations unless Assad first resigns.…  Seguir leyendo »

Almost hidden from outsiders, the US is engaged in a new war in the Middle East which is growing in intensity and running out of American control. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has hugely extended its reach across southern Yemen in recent months after driving government forces out of several towns. "For the first time in history al-Qaida controls territory," an Arab diplomat in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, told me. "A year ago they were numbered in the dozens, armed with light weapons and scattered here and there. Now they are in their thousands with tanks and heavy weapons."

The movement's new armaments come from over-running government troops and bases.…  Seguir leyendo »

A las siete en punto de la tarde, miembros de las mismas familias y desconocidos se cogieron de las manos entre ellos e invadieron la carretera principal, algunos con banderas, otros con chapas en las solapas en las que se veía la cruz gamada al lado de la hoz y el martillo. Los organizadores aseguraron que había tomado parte en la manifestación un millón y medio de personas aunque, desde donde yo me encontraba situado, en medio de un campo de Lituania, en un atardecer bañado por el sol del que el pasado domingo se cumplieron 20 años, el ambiente era tan impresionante como la muchedumbre.…  Seguir leyendo »

So anxious was Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili for support from the fledgling Obama administration that even though he had not been invited to make a speech he raced to the annual Munich security conference in February to try to meet the key guest, Vice-President Joe Biden. Witnesses reported Obama's deputy initially sought to avoid a handshake or even eye contact. But the Georgian's bullying won through, obliging Biden to arrange a chat the following day.

Saakashvili followed this forced encounter by telling journalists: "It is obvious that during all types of negotiations between the United States and Russia, Georgia will be high on the agenda".…  Seguir leyendo »

Was it coincidence that Barack Obama scheduled his speech to Muslims last week on the eve of two closely fought regional elections ­– in Lebanon last Sunday and Iran this Friday? Now the "pro-western" coalition has won a narrow victory in Lebanon, some of the US president's supporters are suggesting his timing was indeed calculated.

If so, it was disingenuous. Under Lebanon's complex constitution the seats reserved for Sunnis and Shias were fixed, and Sunday's result turned on the way Christians rather than Muslims voted. A majority showed their disappointment and anger with the senior Christian politician, General Michel Aoun, who aligned himself with the Shias.…  Seguir leyendo »

History is littered with the ruined reputations of national leaders who thought they had won a great military victory only to squander it by self-congratulation and stupidity. Whether Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapakse, joins their number has yet to be seen, but the triumphant speech he will shortly make to his fellow citizens will be an important signal of the path he is choosing.

There has to be relief that the worst suffering of the quarter of a million Tamils who were trapped on the island's northern beaches is over. Cowering under government artillery fire, and shot by Tamil Tiger troops if they tried to flee, they have lived for four months in infinitely worse conditions than the people of Gaza during Israel's invasion in December.…  Seguir leyendo »

The toughest meeting of Barack Obama's young presidency is approaching. In the next few weeks, he will have to sit down with Israel's ­Binyamin Netanyahu. The difficulty is not just that the prime minister refuses to accept the right of a Palestinian state to exist and thereby shows the Palestinians have no partner for peace.

Far more burdensome are the ghosts of US policies past. If Obama is sincere in wanting to break the stalemate of the Middle East's core conflict, he will have to launch the US relationship with Israel on to radically new lines. Israel must be treated as a normal country.…  Seguir leyendo »

Walking through Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, last month I was surprised by the minimal security outside the office of the presidency. With its metallic, orange-reflecting windows the building hardly looked inviting, but there was a steady trickle of people approaching the entrance unchallenged. A policeman stamped about on the corner but made no effort to accost visitors. Across the road the parliament building did not even have a guard outside.

I then remembered that Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has seen no political violence for almost 20 years, let alone any terrorist threats. So why should its most sensitive buildings need the checkpoints and bag-searches that are the norm in western capitals?…  Seguir leyendo »

'Pressing the reset button" has become the favourite metaphor of the Obama administration's policy towards Russia. First pronounced by vice-president Joe Biden, then made flesh by secretary of state Hillary Clinton, when she handed a large red button to her Russian counterpart last month, it was mentioned again by the president during the Nato summit at the weekend.

Along Russia's north-western periphery, in countries with a long history of harsh treatment by the Kremlin, the metaphor is not being met with such enthusiasm. "When you press the reset button on your computer, you don't lose your memory files," Estonia's President Toomas Hendrik Ilves commented drily on the eve of the summit.…  Seguir leyendo »

Twenty years ago tomorrow the last Soviet units left Afghanistan after a nine-year intervention that took 15,000 soldiers' lives. As they crossed the river Oxus I was in the air above them, the only foreign journalist to fly to Kabul that day.

Russian friends in Moscow, where I was this newspaper's correspondent, doubted my sanity, convinced a bloodbath was bound to follow the Soviet exodus. I disagreed. The secular regime under Mohammed Najibullah that the Kremlin left behind had a firmer base than many outsiders realised, thanks in part to support from Kabulis who feared chaos and blood-letting if the mujahideen won the civil war.…  Seguir leyendo »

For a few days last summer Georgia was under the world spotlight, portrayed by Mikheil Saakashvili, its president, as a victim of Russian aggression on a par with the invasion of Hungary in 1956 or Hitler's blitzkriegs. As Russian tanks rolled across northern Georgia and smoke from burning villages plumed into the sky, western politicians and the media rushed into talk of a new cold war.

Six months later, Georgia is a different place. Leading figures in the opposition openly blame Saakashvili for the five-day war. So, too, do several recent defectors from his team, including two who were his standard-bearers last summer at the United Nations and in Moscow.…  Seguir leyendo »

This is the year of the Iraq war inquiry. At least, I have the audacity to hope so. With luck, some time this spring the government will announce a full-scale independent review of the way the decision was made to invade and occupy a major Arab country, a policy that has had a bigger impact on Britain's international standing and domestic security than any other military move since the second world war.

Until now, the government has claimed it would not be right to hold an inquiry as long as British troops were in Iraq. The argument was specious, but now that we know that all except 400 troops will be withdrawn by 31 July it loses any force.…  Seguir leyendo »

The substance of Zimbabwe's horror stays the same. Only its miserable form keeps changing. Alongside hyperinflation, shanty-town evictions, mass unemployment, police-sponsored election violence and murder, badly-administered farm takeovers, rampant food shortages and the abduction of human rights activists, there now comes the latest manmade disaster - cholera. Close to 800 lives have already been lost. Thousands have fled to South Africa to try to avoid it or, if already afflicted, at least to get treatment.

As the horror mounts, calls for action grow. A few verge on the risible. "Bush steps up pressure on Mugabe", says the headline on a wire service report of a White House statement calling on Zimbabwe's leader to resign.…  Seguir leyendo »

Very few Europeans know the EU has a "security strategy". Adopted five years ago, the document contains threat assessments ranging from terrorism to nuclear proliferation and organised crime. There are also passages about the need for the EU's neighbours to be well-governed so that problems don't spill over into the area, but nothing very specific.

The original draft did not mention Russia once. Europe's largest country was considered neither a threat nor an asset. The final version remedied that, touching on its role in helping to stabilise the Balkans. The prospect of a "strategic partnership" was held out as a mutual benefit.…  Seguir leyendo »

On the lookout for "cracks in the regime", analysts of Iran had a thrill last month. The bazaars of Isfahan, Tehran, and several other cities went on strike for the first time in a generation.

In the labyrinth of vaulted passages the richest traders were always the jewellers. Their glittering windows are rarely without at least one mother and daughter glued to the glass. When one pair of black chadors goes in to buy or moves away, another takes its place. The hunt for the right wedding ring is constant and business never flags.

Except three weeks ago, when Isfahan's goldsmiths closed their doors, soon followed by jewellers elsewhere.…  Seguir leyendo »

No corkscrew. That's the first surprise about Chechnya. Unlike in Baghdad today or Kabul during the Soviet occupation, planes don't arrive high above the airfield and then dip one wing in a steep and terrifying spiral so as to reduce the risk of ground fire as they land. In Grozny they glide in over woods and villages, apparently confident there are no resistance fighters lurking in wait.

Surprise number two is the amount of reconstruction in the Chechen capital. Five years ago when I last visited Grozny it still looked like the ruins of Dresden or Hiroshima, street after devastated street.…  Seguir leyendo »

What's up with Nouri al-Maliki? As security anxieties subside in this slowly calming city, political speculation has rarely been so intense. First, it was Maliki's demand that all US troops leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Then came signs that his government wants to undermine the Sunni tribal militias, known as the Awakening councils, on whom the Americans have relied to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq. Now there are moves to take on the powerful Kurdish peshmerga troops and push them out of disputed areas in the strategic central province of Diyala.

Why is the prime minister doing this? Is "the puppet breaking his strings", as one Arab newspaper put it?…  Seguir leyendo »

After a fortnight of conflict on the ground and a flurry of propaganda and debate in European capitals the South Ossetian crisis is winding down. One of the abiding images - a Russian masterstroke - will be the moving concert given by world-renowned Valery Gergiev, a South Ossetian, and the Mariinsky orchestra in the ruins of Tskhinvali, the town the Georgians destroyed.

Another unforgettable memory will be Georgia's flak-jacketed president cowering on the ground as a Russian plane flies over the town of Gori. Bravado turning into humiliation is a metaphor for the whole foolish adventure. Georgian men are hospitable and engaging, but fond of bombast and empty macho gestures.…  Seguir leyendo »

What a contrast. In western Europe Obama-mania is in full flood, epitomised by raving crowds in Berlin last night as well as the polls which show the Democratic candidate to be far more popular than John McCain in almost every country. In Israel he is met with apprehension, and in the Palestinian territories there is only the faintest hope that the deadlocked conflict will ever end.

The difference is that Europeans know the American president holds the keys to war or peace. He has enormous influence in dragging European governments after him, as the disastrous Iraq adventure showed. So it is not surprising that many Europeans are crying out for a man in the White House who will be less aggressive, less unilateral, less imperial, and more attuned to the complexities of international policy.…  Seguir leyendo »

Suppose you were the president of Russia. At your first G8 summit you meet a seemingly friendly George Bush, and the American leader tells the media afterwards what a "sharp guy" you are. But, while this flattery is going on, Condoleezza Rice is in Prague signing a deal to install a US missile radar system in the Czech Republic. Of course, the Americans insist the new weaponry is not directed against Russia, but are you fooled?

If the missile system was really aimed at rogue third parties such as Iran or North Korea, then why not position it closer to those countries to allow more time to detect and react to a hostile launch?…  Seguir leyendo »