Syria will soon mark two years of civil war, with over 45,000 killed and international diplomacy attempting in vain to translate the words ''truce'' and ''peace'' into reality. Amid a tension-riddled Middle East, Israel has responded to the recognition of Palestine as a UN non-member observer state by stepping up settlement building in East Jerusalem, while a right coalition under Prime Minister Netanyahu and the settlers movement is headed for a clear win in the January 22 parliamentary elections. After the heavily criticised launch of a constitution seen by the opposition as being dangerously close to Sharia, Egypt must now deal with a severe economic and currency crisis and the matter of a 4.8-million-dollar IMF loan which can no longer be postponed. In the meantime, Greece, Spain and Italy are still struggling under an economic crisis casting doubt on the structures and very nature of the European Union itself. The situation in Syria is by far the most painful thorn in the side of the entire Middle East, the equilibrium of which has already been shaken even before Bashar Al-Assad's regime has been brought down - a fall hoped for in the West but by no means taken for granted by the Syrian regime's powerful Russian ally. UN and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, after recent visits to Damascus and Moscow, said that he had drawn up a proposal for negotiations but did not go into the details. He claimed, however, that it would ''satisfy the international community''. Without a political agreement, it will be ''hell'', warned Brahimi from the Russian capital (confirming a reality that Syrians have known well for almost two years), saying that the country may turn into another Somalia. However, the Syrian National Coalition of opposition groups formed in Doha in November in the attempt to get past sharp internal divisions - a coalition recognised by most Arab and Western countries, despite concerns over the dangerous presence of foreign fighters and jihadists among the ranks of Syrian rebel groups - looked warily at the involvement of Russia due to its close ties with Assad. As concerns the latter, there has repeatedly been talk of the Syrian president leaving the scene via exile in another country, such as Russia or Venezuela, or possibly his withdrawing into an Alawite (the Shia religious minority to which he and his clan belong) enclave along the Mediterranean coast. However, the opposition rejects any possibility of his officially remaining in power. Lebanon is the country concerned the most about the possible spill-over of the Syrian conflict, given persistent sectarian tension within its own borders as well, while the presence of Syrian refugees is a heavy burden to bear not only for Turkey - which has been highly active alongside Gulf countries in supporting the rebels - but also for the poorer Jordan, which on January 23 will hold parliamentary elections.
January 22 will instead be the date for Israeli elections, which polls say will be won by the right under Prime Minister Netanyahu and the electoral coalition Likud Beitenu, as well as the religious nationalist party Jewish Home. Any lightening up of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem therefore seems highly unlikely.
Settlement building was stepped up by the Netanyahu government as an immediate response to the diplomatic victory of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas at the UN, which recently recognised the Palestinian state as a UN non-member observer state. The stance is a hardline one, and is coming after the brief but brutal military operation against the Gaza Strip in November - an operation which the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah is considering filing a complaint against at the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, from jail Marwan Marhgouti, the Al-Fatah leader serving a life sentence, warned that a ''third intifada'' may soon break out among Palestinians.
In North Africa a number of thorny issues have arisen in post-revolutionary Egypt, where the government under President Mohamed Morsi (of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party) has just received approval of the new constitution in a referendum in which only a third of those with voting rights actually took part. However, after two years of political instability and unceasing street clashes - with Tahrir Square continuing to be the symbolic centre of the secular and liberal opposition and the perennially conflict-ridden relations between President Morsi with the judiciary and the military - for the Arab world's largest country, the time has come to stem monetary devaluation, face up to the need for substantial assistance from the IMF and deal with the economic crisis gripping all of the country's sectors, beginning with tourism. And impending austerity measures are likely to be painful for Egyptian population.