June 18, 2013 - Rebels and military battle in Aleppo
June 18, 2013 by Sam Dagher
As the Syrian conflict has entered its third year, staying alive is the priority of most Syrians remaining in the country.
In rebel-controlled areas, residents do everything possible to camouflage any affiliation to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which could be something as simple as collecting a meager pension or monthly government salary.
In regime strongholds, on the other hand, procuring the right kind of hawiya, or identity card, can mean the difference between coasting through the endless checkpoints within and between cities or being subjected to interrogation and possible detention. Nearly two dozen government checkpoints dot the road between the capital Damascus and the city of Homs about 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the north.
For Alia Abbir, a 40-year-old single woman living in Homs with her brothers and their families, survival has required honing the age-old art of flattery.
Ms. Abbir and her siblings are among the very few people who have stayed in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr through its many transformations and tribulations.
The neighborhood fell in rebel hands in late 2011. It quickly became a symbol of resistance in the face of a devastating siege and relentless bombardment by regime forces in Feb 2012. The regime captured it a month later but rebels returned briefly in March of this year before they were routed once more.
The regime is now building a wall around the battle-scarred streets of Baba Amrto keep rebels out. The Abbir home is located on the northern edge of the neighborhood in a section known as Jouret al-Arayees, meaning brides’ pit in Arabic.
Graffiti bears testimony to the struggle over the area.
“God wants Bashar al-Assad,” is scrawled on one wall. “Osama bin Laden: the martyr of Jabhat al-Nusra,” says a competing slogan on another, touting the militant leanings of some of the rebel fighters who were once in control of the neighborhood.
The area was crucial to securing rebel supply lines from Lebanon via the former rebel bastion of Qusayr to the south. Qusayr was captured by the regime and its ally, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah earlier this month.
On a recent morning Ms. Abbir hosted Abu Ibrahim, the regime security official in charge of the neighborhood. He is the de facto ruler here.
Dressed in a bright orange headscarf and a flowing black cloak ornamented with colorful trimmings, Ms. Abbir instructed her brothers to bring out dishes laden with fruit from the kitchen.
She peeled and sliced bananas, apples and oranges offering them to Abu Ibrahim and his assistant.
Teasing Abu Ibrahim, Ms. Abbir recalls how regime security forces fled the neighborhood when rebels came back this March.
“The gunmen were in control of the whole area, not a single security force member dared enter,” she says with a smile. “I kept calling [the security forces] but nobody answered.”
She said when rebels came back she was roused from bed at dawn by knocking at the front door.
“It was my neighbor Ali, the bear, telling me that they have come to liberate us,” says Ms. Abbir mockingly referring to one of the neighborhood’s opposition fighters by his nickname.
She said Ali politely requested that she remove the government flag she had hung from her balcony after regime forces captured Baba Amr in March of last year. She obliged and says she was never again bothered by the rebels, until they were driven out by government bombardment.
Ms. Abbir says rebels treated her well because she became briefly engaged to one of their commanders, a school friend two years her junior. This, she says, was another survival tactic.
“It was a trick to protect myself and my family,” she explains. “I kept coming up with excuses to delay the marriage.”
Ms. Abbir says she was rescued by circumstances from what she says would have been an unavoidable but unhappy and “loveless” marriage: her rebel fiancée was killed in the regime offensive on Baba Amr last year.
“Of course I (cheered) when I saw you and the army,” she says turning to Abu Ibrahim.
Source: The Wall Street Journal
N/A/CREDIT: YOUTUBE - A screengrab from YouTube showing Syrian rebel group Ajmi battalion thanking sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajmi for backing them. The Ajmi battalion named themselves after their chief sponsor.
Dubai, UAE, June 16, 2013 by Joby Warrick
Syrian tanks were closing in on the rebel-held town of Qusair last month when a Kuwaiti sheik named Hajjaj al-Ajmi and his money machine roared into action. In a series of urgent messages on his Twitter account, Ajmi appealed for cash to help save the town’s defenders.
“I hope that we can be a means for helping them and relieving them,” the young cleric wrote to his 250,000 Twitter followers on May 25. He gave a phone number for making donations and asked readers to “kindly spread it.”
The appeal came too late for the rebels in Qusair, but the technique has proved remarkably successful for Ajmi and a handful of other private backers of Syria’s patchwork of rebel groups. In just over a year, Ajmi’s foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance Syrian rebel groups.
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials describe the money as a small portion of a vast pool of private wealth being funneled to Syria’s warring factions, mostly without strings or oversight and outside the control of governments.
The private funding of individual militias — some with extremist views — further complicates the task facing the Obama administration as it ventures into arming Syria’s rebels. With its decision to increase support for the Syrian opposition, Washington is seeking to influence a patchwork of militia groups with wildly different abilities and views about how Syria should be run after the war.
The reluctance of Western governments to intervene over the past two years has allowed private donors to play an outsize role in shaping the Syrian conflict, officials say. From Persian Gulf cities hundreds of miles from the battlefield, wealthy patrons help decide which of Syria’s hundreds of rebel groups will receive money to pay salaries and buy weapons and supplies for the fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
In practice, these donors overwhelmingly back Islamist groups whose ultraconservative views reflect their own, intelligence officials and analysts say.
“Direct money from the gulf is super-empowering some of the jihadi groups,” said William McCants, a former adviser to the State Department and an expert on radical Islam. “With the United States holding back, there is a vacuum. And within this vacuum, private money is giving the jihadists more pull.”
So fierce is the competition for private funds that some Syrian groups adopt the language and dress of Islamists — growing beards, for example — to improve their chances with potential patrons, analysts say. Others post videos on YouTube thanking their gulf sponsors for past assistance and pleading for more.
A few have even named themselves after a gulf benefactor, like sports teams that adopt the logo of a corporate sponsor. One rebel group in eastern Syria now calls itself the “Hajjaj al-Ajmi Brigade,” in a tribute to the Kuwaiti sheik. A YouTube video posted by the group opens with a banner emblazoned with the sheik’s name and then shows a dozen masked fighters wearing camouflage fatigues and brandishing assault rifles.
“It’s anyone’s game,” said a U.S.-based Middle Eastern diplomat whose country has provided aid to some of the rebel factions opposed to Assad.
“Non-state actors are now involved in a big way. You see different players looking to create their own militias,” said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive aid to the Syrian opposition. “It is beyond control.”
It is difficult to obtain reliable estimates of the amount of non-official aid given to Syrian groups. The donors are private citizens, and the deliveries typically take the form of cash-stuffed suitcases handed off to rebel emissaries at the Turkish border. Government experts and private analysts say the figure is certainly well into the millions of dollars. It is roughly the same pattern of private giving that funded the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and, years later, the militant Islamist movement that came to be known as al-Qaeda, analysts say.
Virtually all of the money from gulf states flows to anti-Assad forces that share a similar Sunni Arab background. Similar cash flows have bolstered pro-Assad forces in Syria, analysts say, including donations from Shiites in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, mirroring the larger regional schism between the two major branches of Islam. Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, has provided fighters and training for Syrian government forces.
Clues about the impact of private giving can be gained from the YouTube and Facebook postings of several Syrian groups that acknowledged gifts with online thank-you notes. Last year, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, an Islamist organization with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, acknowledged receiving nearly $600,000 from the Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People, a fund managed by Ajmi and another Kuwaiti sheik, Irshid al-Hajri.
Ahar al-Sham, considered one of the most radical of the Syrian Islamist militias, recorded a similar public thank-you for $400,000 the group says it received from the same fund. In its Web posting, the group specifically thanked Ajmi and Hajri, saying it “asks God to reward them and those behind them with the best of rewards.”
In an interview with the international Arab newspaper al-Hayat, an Ahar al-Sham official said private gifts are highly valued because they are not subject to government interference or corruption.
“The difference is that the aid that comes to us reaches us directly. As for the other factions, the aid they receive stops in Istanbul and does not reach Syria,” said the official, identified as Abu Zayd, the militia’s officer in charge of enforcing sharia law. He described the group’s principle backers as “Syrian expatriates in the gulf in addition to Arab and international charitable societies.”
Most of the private support comes as cash — usually dollars or euros. The money enables militias to buy whatever weapons are available on the region’s bustling black market, free of limits or restrictions attached to government money, analysts say.
In some cases, private donors have been directly involved in arranging arms shipments, said Asher Berman, a blogger and contributing writer for the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has researched Syria’s rebel factions.
“It’s all about obtaining weapons,” Berman said. “The Libyans particularly have a lot of weapons that can be directly transferred to Syria, and you hear about sheiks from the gulf arranging weapons purchases.”
The freewheeling nature of the private assistance has prompted attempts by gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to restrict donations to Syrian fighters by charities and wealthy individuals. But Sunni-led governments in Bahrain and, most notably, Kuwait, have largely declined to interfere with private fundraising efforts.
McCants, the former State Department adviser, attributed Kuwait’s prominent role to relatively weak terrorism finance laws and to the country’s large and politically connected community of Salafists, who practice an austere form of Islam.
Among the Kuwaitis, no one is more public about the Syria fundraising than Ajmi, scion of a prominent Kuwaiti family whose vast wealth was derived from oil and construction businesses. Ajmi and a small group of relatives and partners have aggressively promoted their Popular Commission charity on social media while making numerous trips to Syria to meet with leaders of favored rebel groups.
Ajmi’s Web postings have featured photos of the bushy-bearded sheik posing with Syrian rebel leaders, including the head of Liwaa al-Umma, a Syrian rebel group whose Web site calls for the establishment of “Islamic governance” in post-Assad Syria.
Ajmi, who did not respond to a request for an interview, has been unabashed in taking credit for his role in supporting the rebels. His prolific tweets include near-daily appeals for donations “for mujahid” — literally, “holy warriors” — in Syria, as well as for civilian victims of the civil war, which began as an uprising in March 2011. His online messages are often accompanied by photos of Syrian children killed or wounded in the fighting.
Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syria Emergency Task Force, which supports humanitarian efforts in Syria, acknowledged that private donors have made positive contributions by helping deliver essential supplies to communities destroyed by fighting.
“Humanitarian aid from outside groups is not only good, it’s essential,” said Moustafa, who escorted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his surprise visit last month to northern Syria.
But, he added, the aid “becomes problematic when you see private groups deciding to arm different brigades. It undermines unity, and it hurts the opposition in the long run.”
Other analysts noted that the rebels already are badly and perhaps hopelessly fragmented, a problem for which many say the West deserves at least part of the blame. Mustafa Alani, a counterterrorism expert at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Council, said private donors became power brokers among rebel groups by default because the United States and other Western powers declined to support more moderate groups within the Syrian opposition.
“The Obama administration was always afraid that the wrong side would get the weapons,” Alani said. “But now we have a situation in which the wrong side already has them. And that side is self-supplying and self-financing.”
Free Syrian Army fighters run for cover from snipers loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, in Deir al-Zor June 17, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi
June 18, 2013 by Barbara Surk
Syrian warplanes hit rebel positions near a contested military air base in the north on Tuesday, activists said, while President Bashar Assad’s forces nearby pressed ahead with an offensive against opposition fighters in the country’s largest city Aleppo.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that fighter jets struck near the Kweiras air base near the Turkish border early Tuesday. Opposition forces fighting to oust Assad’s regime for more than two years have been trying for months to take Kweiras and two other military air bases nearby.
Assad’s regime has relied heavily in the past year on its air force to neutralize the opposition’s territorial gains. In the last year, rebels have been able to capture much of the area near the Turkish border, several districts in Aleppo, the whole city of Raqqa and even dams on the River Euphrates. But they have had difficulty running these areas effectively because of the threat of attack from the air.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of informants inside Syria, also reported heavy clashes in Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub.
There were no reports of casualties in either the strikes or the fighting.
The regime announced June 10 that it has launched an offensive in the north with the aim of ousting rebels from Aleppo neighborhoods that the opposition captured last summer.
Assad’s army hopes to maintain the momentum from its victory in the town of Qusair, in central Syria, which the regime captured earlier this month largely with the help of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Iran-backed group.
Sunnis dominate the rebel ranks in Syria’s civil war and the Assad regime is made up of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
The Syrian uprising began more than two years ago with peaceful protests against Assad, but later grew into a civil war that has killed 93,000 people and probably many more, according to the U.N.
July/August, 2013 by Andrew J. Tabler
Washington should pursue a measured but assertive course with Syria, because the longer the conflict lasts, the greater the threat it poses.
Syria is melting down. The ruling regime’s attempt to shoot its way out of the largest uprising it has ever faced has killed over 80,000 people and displaced roughly half of Syria’s population of 22 million. If the current monthly death tolls of around 6,000 keep up, Syria will by August hit a grim milestone: 100,000 killed, a number that it took almost twice as long to reach in Bosnia in the early 1990s. This a full two years after U.S. President Barack Obama pronounced that President Bashar al-Assad needed to “step aside.”
Comparisons to the Balkans do not suffice to describe the crisis in Syria, however. The real danger is that the country could soon end up looking more like Somalia, where a bloody two-decade-long civil war has torn apart the state and created a sanctuary for criminals and terrorists. Syria has already effectively fractured into three barely contiguous areas. In each, U.S.-designated terrorist organizations are now ascendant. The regime still holds sway in western Syria, the part of the country dominated by the Alawite minority, to which the Assad family belongs; and fighters from Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist group backed by Iran, regularly cross the increasingly meaningless Lebanese border to join Assad’s forces there. Meanwhile, a heavily Sunni Arab north-central region has come under the control of a diverse assortment of armed opposition groups. These include Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as the al-Nusra Front), an al Qaeda affiliate, which recently hoisted its black flag over Syria’s largest dam on the Euphrates. In the Kurdish north, a local offshoot of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought a long guerrilla war against the Turkish government, operates freely.
Look closer, and the picture gets worse. The conflict, whose daily death toll is now above those at the height of the Iraq war, in 2007, is rapidly spilling over into neighboring countries. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has become that country’s fourth-largest city (population: 180,000), stretching the Hashemite kingdom’s resources and threatening the stability of its northern provinces. Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites, no strangers to sectarian tensions, are fighting each other across the Bekaa Valley in Syria, and Syria-related altercations occasionally break out within Lebanon. The fact that Lebanon, a country where Palestinian refugee camps are synonymous with misery and militancy, is even contemplating building camps for Syrian refugees is itself a sign of how bad things have gotten. And lest it be unclear how this affects the United States, al Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist organization that Washington sacrificed an enormous amount of blood and money trying to defeat, has found a welcome home in Syria, announcing in April that it was joining forces with Jabhat al-Nusra to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The fact that the Assad regime has reportedly dipped into its stockpile of chemical weapons — the region’s largest — has moved the crisis up several spots on the White House’s list of urgent problems. Although public opinion polls suggest that Americans are wary of intervention, avoiding the problem looks less and less feasible, as the situation in Syria shifts from a mostly contained humanitarian catastrophe to a strategic disaster for the United States and its regional allies. A country in a region that is home to 65 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 40 percent of its natural gas is on the verge of becoming a lawless haven for terrorists where dangerous weapons are on the loose.
Like it or not, the question the Obama administration now faces is not whether to do more to help resolve the conflict but when, how, and at what cost. Las Vegas rules do not apply to Syria: what happens there will not stay there. The massive refugee crisis and the threat that dangerous weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists — jihadists and Kurdish separatists alike — directly threaten the security of Washington’s allies in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. The meltdown of the Syrian state is empowering terrorist groups and could ultimately give them the freedom to plan international attacks, as the chaos of Afghanistan in the 1990s did for al Qaeda. As complex as the Syrian crisis has become, one thing is clear: the longer it lasts, the greater the threat it poses and the harder it becomes for the United States to do anything about it.
To stop Syria’s meltdown and contain its mushrooming threats, the United States needs a new approach, one that starts with a partial military intervention aimed at pushing all sides to the negotiating table. The only way Washington can resolve the crisis is by working with the people “within Syria,” as the Obama administration refers to the domestic opposition, instead of without them, that is, at the UN Security Council.
The White House’s approach to the Syrian crisis so far has been top-down, relying on diplomacy to get Assad out of the way and create the space for a peaceful transition to democracy. But simply pushing the sides to reach a viable political settlement has become less and less likely to succeed. International diplomatic mediation has failed mostly because Washington and Moscow disagree about what the transition should look like. Whereas the Americans demand that Assad and his cronies must leave Syria, Russia insists that he, or at least the regime, stay in place. To this end, Moscow has vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria that were sponsored by the United States or its allies and watered down or stymied countless others. Although the two countries recently announced plans to hold an international conference to deal with the crisis, the chances that it will bear fruit are exceeding low given the ambiguity over what the end result of any negotiations among the warring parties would be, the lack of urgency on the part of both the regime and the opposition to come to a power-sharing agreement, and Moscow’s and Washington’s inability to bring the sides to the table.
In the meantime, Washington has sought Damascus’ diplomatic isolation; imposed a raft of oil, trade, and financial sanctions targeting the regime; helped organize a number of hopelessly divided and exiled political opposition groups into the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces; reached out to civilian activists in Syria; and offered $760 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians. Fearing that American weapons could find their way into the hands of extremists, the United States has more or less ignored the armed opposition, which effectively replaced the civilian activists at the vanguard of the effort to topple Assad more than a year and a half ago and already controls large swaths of territory in the country. Washington’s hesitation has led many armed groups to seek support elsewhere — including from private Salafi and jihadist funders in Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration has sent a trickle of nonlethal assistance, such as medicine and nearly expired ready-to-eat meals, to the rebel Supreme Military Council, an armed partner of the National Coalition. But this paltry aid will neither force the downfall of the regime nor earn Washington the loyalty of the opposition. Although the White House announced in April, with great fanfare, that it would send bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles to certain vetted armed groups, it appears that this will be too little, too late to win over most of those fighting to oust Assad. Each week, protesters in certain areas regularly berate the United States, and Obama in particular, for doing little for the Syrians in their hour of need. One such demonstration, in Kafr Nabl last April, featured a protest banner asking Obama whether he needed a third term to decide what to do about Syria, and if so, if any Syrians would still be alive then. Since those now aiming shots at the regime will soon call the shots where regime forces give way, Washington should take their growing resentment seriously.
The one thing that Obama has indicated might lead the United States to step in militarily, of course, is Assad’s use of chemical weapons. But even here, Washington has vacillated, betraying a deep aversion to getting involved. Obama’s redline on chemical weapons has shifted over time. At first, it included any “movement or use” of such weapons. Then, last November, it narrowed to include only their use, after U.S. intelligence detected that the regime had loaded sarin gas into bombs. Then, in late April, the administration seemed to suggest it would act only to stop the “systematic use” of chemical weapons and only when their use could be verified beyond a shadow of a doubt (a tall order, given that Washington cannot itself directly gather the samples needed for such certainty).
The U.S. government says it wants to force Assad from power and check the rise of the extremists in the opposition. But its current approach is furthering neither objective. If Washington keeps pursuing a UN-mediated settlement with Russia while allowing the conflict to deteriorate, Moscow will lose its ability to bring the regime to the table for talks on a real transition of power. As the bitter sectarian war continues, the regime’s supporters and the Alawites will have more reasons to fear one day living under Sunni rule and will see a carved-out ministate as preferable to a political settlement — and thus resist any negotiations. Meanwhile, the United States will have lost whatever diplomatic leverage it might once have had over the opposition forces, who increasingly feel that the Americans abandoned them in their hour of need.
Neither the war-weary American public nor the Syrian opposition wants to see a full-scale U.S. land invasion to topple Assad and install a U.S.-backed government; both fear that a massive intervention would mean a repeat of Iraq. But that doesn’t mean the United States lacks options. Washington should pursue a measured but assertive course, one aimed at preventing Assad from freely using his most lethal weapons, establishing safe areas for civilians on Syria’s borders, and supporting vetted elements of the armed and civilian opposition with weapons, intelligence, humanitarian aid, and reconstruction assistance. The end goal (as opposed to the starting point, as the Obama administration now favors) should be negotiations, led by the UN or another party, that lead to the departure of Assad and his entourage and the reunification of the country. If the United States wants a Syria that is united, stable, and eventually more democratic — and perhaps no longer allied with Iran — this is the least bad way to get there.
The United States should start by deterring the regime from using its most lethal tools, namely surface-to-surface missiles and chemical weapons. Such deterrence will require taking out the bombs filled with sarin gas that, according to The New York Times, were placed last year “near or on” Syrian air bases. Destroying those bombs would allow Washington to signal to Assad that preparing to use his advanced weapons will carry a cost. This would likely reduce the death toll and give Syrian civilians caught up in the fighting fewer reasons to flee their homes, thus helping stem the refugee crisis. If Assad nonetheless decided to up the ante, Washington should launch pinpoint air, missile, or, possibly, drone strikes to destroy or render useless his remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons and the missiles that could deliver them. (Of course, the U.S. military would have to take extra care to avoid harming civilians with nearby chemical explosions.) Should the U.S. military fail to locate or destroy Assad’s most dangerous weapons, or deem it too risky to try, it could instead hit Syrian command-and-control facilities.
Second, to protect Syrians in opposition-controlled territory from attacks by the regime’s Scud missiles and fixed-wing aircraft, the United States should establish 50- to 80-mile-deep safe areas within Syria along its borders with Jordan and Turkey. Critics of intervention often cast the idea of creating a no-fly zone in Syria as too risky for the U.S. pilots and planes that would be involved. But a limited approach focused on border regions would be less perilous, since the regime’s planes and missiles could be shot down using Patriot missile batteries based in Jordan and Turkey or by aircraft flying there. And the safe areas would still allow civilians to take shelter from Assad’s onslaught, keep refugees from flooding into neighboring countries, and enable the international community to funnel in humanitarian aid on a scale that local nongovernmental organizations cannot match.
Carving out these safe areas would also necessitate U.S. air or missile strikes on nearby artillery — Assad’s tool of choice for killing civilians and a possible method of delivering chemical weapons — and air defense systems. But these, too, could be conducted from over the border.
To be sure, the United States could not protect the safe areas from ground assaults by Assad’s forces. But by eliminating the threat of death from above, whether from missiles or aircraft, a remote no-fly zone could give the rebels in these areas a fighting chance and the space they needed to safeguard civilians on the ground. Similarly, this over-the-border approach would not be as effective in preventing civilian casualties as sending U.S. aircraft over Syria, but it would carry substantially fewer risks of U.S. planes being shot down by Syrian antiaircraft batteries. If the conflict markedly worsened or the regime began using its chemical weapons wholesale against the opposition, Washington would also be able to expand the safe areas toward the center of the country and create a larger no-fly zone. But both the limited, remote option and an expanded no-fly zone could be constrained by the introduction of sophisticated Russian S-300 antiaircraft missile systems, which reportedly could be operational in Syria as early as August — another reminder of the costs of waiting.
Third, Washington needs to work directly with opposition forces on the ground in Syria (as opposed to just those outside it) to push back the government’s forces, deliver humanitarian assistance, and, most important, check the growing influence of Islamic extremists. This should include the provision of arms to vetted armed groups on a trial-and-error basis, with Washington monitoring how the battalions use the intelligence, supplies, and arms they receive. The initial aid should be funneled through non-Salafi figures in the Supreme Military Council, such as Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, head of Aleppo’s Revolutionary Military Council and of the armaments committee of the Supreme Military Council’s Northern Front. (It was through Akidi that the United States recently channeled its nonlethal assistance, including the bulletproof vests.) At the same time, Washington should encourage members of the National Coalition to enter liberated areas and work together with the armed groups and local councils to build a new viable political leadership on the ground based on local elections.
None of this work would require American boots on the ground in an offensive capacity, but it could involve Americans wearing other types of footwear. The United States should immediately establish secure offices in southern Turkey and northern Jordan as centers devoted to working with the Syrian opposition, adding to the discussions that are currently taking place between Washington and some rebels via Skype and through periodic visits of U.S. officials to the border. As soon as their safety can be reasonably well assured, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers should be sent into the safe areas that the United States has established in Syria, with protection, to meet directly with civilian and armed opposition members, activists, and relief workers. Establishing close relationships with players in Syria would free the United States from having to work through Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which have in the past directed assistance into the wrong hands; Saudi-purchased Croatian arms, for example, were seen earlier this year in the possession of Jabhat al-Nusra. A more direct approach would, admittedly, put some American lives at risk, so every possible security precaution would need to be taken to avoid an attack along the lines of the 2012 assault in Benghazi that killed Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Still, establishing a presence on the ground would be worth the risks, allowing the United States to work directly with Syrian armed groups to contain the Assad regime and ultimately influence the character of the opposition. One way to exert such influence would be to condition assistance on the opposition groups’ political orientations and their respect for civilian leadership and human rights. The United States should also try to influence Syrian politics on the local level to prevent the total collapse of governance in rebel-held territories. Once the opposition fully liberates an area, Washington should require elections to select a civilian leadership. This process would help avoid chaos as the regime crumbles and expose local attitudes and sympathies, allowing U.S. officials to assess the influence of various extremist groups.
Those who oppose increasing U.S. aid to the opposition tend to point to its uglier elements, particularly to fighters affiliated with al Qaeda. But only by getting involved can the United States shape the opposition and support its moderate forces. Although anti-Americanism is growing among the rebels, there is still time for a ground-up strategy to win back their trust. This could be achieved through backing the more liberal, secular, and nationalist battalions and isolating — and possibly launching drone strikes against — those extremist forces that refuse to accept civilian authority during the transition.
With U.S. help, there are good reasons to believe that moderates within the opposition can prevail. At its core, the Syrian revolution is a nationalist one. Of the three main currents in the opposition — secularists, moderate Islamists (including those in the Muslim Brotherhood), and Salafists — the first two are more nationalist in orientation; their goals are more political than religious, and their agendas do not extend beyond Syria. Several Salafi and extremist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, have transnational goals, such as the creation of an Islamic state or caliphate beyond Syria’s current borders. The main reason such groups have come to play such a big role in the opposition is that the anti-Assad forces have had to turn to the Gulf states for weapons and money — and the sources there have favored the Salafists, which according to some estimates account for up to a quarter of all the opposition fighters. The United States could earn the influence it seeks by providing intelligence, military training, and weapons of its own.
Another factor that will likely check the influence of radicals in the opposition is the diversity of Syria’s Sunni community and the country’s historic tolerance of minorities. Syria’s Sunnis, who make up the majority of the opposition, have long identified with their region or tribe rather than their religion. Whereas Salafists have been able to win some support in the religiously conservative northwest, Damascene Sunnis are more moderate, in keeping with their city’s mercantile culture. In the south and the east, affiliations with large families and tribes, even those that stretch into Iraq, tend to matter the most. What this means is that religiously motivated atrocities against minorities throughout Syria are not inevitable and that the Sunnis will need to learn to work with one another as much as with non-Sunnis. To be sure, the prominent role of the Alawites in the regime’s campaign could lead to retribution in areas where Assad’s forces retreat. But so far, there have been remarkably few cases of opposition forces killing minority civilians en masse. A more active United States could help keep it this way, including by insisting that the opposition follow certain rules of conduct in order to receive U.S. assistance.
Finally, after stepping up its involvement, Washington should seek talks between the regime and moderate opposition forces, sponsored by either the UN or, given the UN’s poor track record, another party, such as Switzerland or Norway. The timing of such talks, which would need to come on the heels of a cease-fire, would largely be dependent on the course of the war and on when Russia and the United States could arrive at a common vision for the transition and an understanding of how to get to that point. Only by raising the costs of diplomatic intransigence for both the Syrian government and Russia, with a clear show of U.S. support for the opposition, is Washington likely to persuade the Kremlin to play a constructive role in the conflict’s endgame. By tipping the balance on the ground toward the opposition, Washington could convince the regime — or at least its patrons in Moscow — that the conflict will not end by force alone. What is more, such increased U.S. support for the opposition would give the Americans more leverage to bring the rebels to the negotiating table.
At first, any talks would have to focus on getting Assad, his security chiefs, and his top generals to step down and leave the country. The ultimate goal would be the reunification of the country within a democratic and decentralized structure that recognized regional differences. Ideally, Syria’s current division into 14 provinces would be maintained. But in areas of the country that are less ethnically homogeneous, such as the province of Homs, the provinces might have to be split along the lines of manatiq (counties) or nahawi (townships). Despite such changes, maintaining the provinces as the building blocks of a democratic system would emphasize regionalism over sectarian identities, encouraging all Syrians to work together toward regional and, eventually, national reconciliation.
Solidifying this order would require Washington to get Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cut off support to their clients in Syria, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, in favor of local and regional elected representatives. These countries will no doubt be tempted to continue backing their preferred political fronts in Syria, but Washington should push them to recognize that this approach has failed to bring about Assad’s downfall and has allowed for the proliferation of dangerous nonstate actors. The United States now has an opportunity to play the role that these countries have asked it to play from day one of the crisis: to lead a coalition to get rid of the Assad regime and take Syria out of Iran’s orbit. In return, Washington should make clear that it expects their cooperation.
Taking these steps would help Washington constrain Assad’s behavior, address a pressing humanitarian crisis, shape the fragmented Syrian opposition, and keep the conflict from spilling out of Syria’s borders. It would also give the United States an opportunity to prevent the division of Syria — a short-term inevitability — from becoming a permanent reality. Keeping Syria whole is necessary to prevent its dangerous weapons and its problems, which will no doubt persist for some time, from affecting neighboring countries. A prolonged sectarian civil war risks becoming a broader proxy fight between Iran and the Sunni powers, which would devastate the region as a whole.
Much of what Washington envisages in Syria may not go according to plan. American bullets could find their way into Salafi Kalashnikovs, and American radios could fall into the hands of those preaching hatred. Violence and massacres could delay or prevent elections in some areas. And the conflict could remain a stalemate for years to come, with no side gaining the decisive upper hand. The United States’ commitment to any one facet of this plan should not be open ended, and Washington will need to continually evaluate how well it is meeting its objectives.
Despite the many risks, it is important that the United States continue to help parts of the Syrian opposition on the ground take power — and not attempt to give power to those in exile who promise much but can in fact deliver little. Given the degree of Syria’s meltdown and the country’s strategic importance, standing idly by is the worst option. Establishing a stronger relationship with the opposition is what will best allow the United States to shape an outcome among the warring parties that suits its interests and those of its allies and provides a better future for the Syrian people.
June 17, 2013 by Josh Rogin
As the French arrange high-level meetings with the rebel leadership, the U.S. continues to maintain its distance. General Idris talks with The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin.
Despite the White House’s public announcement Wednesday that it would provide “military assistance” to the Syrian rebels, Washington has yet to communicate with the rebels about that assistance, Gen. Salem Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, told The Daily Beast Sunday.
Syrian rebel fighters belonging to the Martyrs of Maaret al-Numan battalion leave their position after a range of shootings on June 13, 2013, in the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty
“We are still waiting for the military support from the United States. They didn’t tell us anything about the military support. Direct and officially, we didn’t receive any information from the United States,” Idris told The Daily Beast, adding that he had heard from “my friends who are close to the administration” while waiting to hear directly. “We welcomed the announcementfrom the United States,” he said. “They announced that the regime used chemical weapons. But we are waiting for the next step, which will be the decision to support the FSA with weapons and ammunition.”
Much like in the Libyan civil war two years ago, the White House has followed Europe’s lead in the intra-Syrian conflict. The French, and to a lesser degree the British, have been in close consultation with Idris and the other leaders of the FSA over the past days and weeks, according to the general, who said that he met privately on June 11 with French President François Hollande in Ankara, Turkey, after the French government decided to provide military assistance on June 5, according to two government officials and sources close to Idris.
The Idris-Hollande meeting set the stage for a larger meeting in Gazientep, Turkey, that took place on June 13 and included Idris, the French Special Envoy for Syria Eric Chevallier, U.K. Special Envoy Jon Wilks, and FSA commanders of the Northern Front, Eastern Front, Western Front, and Homs Front. The meeting was organized between the FSA, the French, and the British, without significant U.S. involvement. The State Department’s Mark Ward attended, but U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford did not.
During and since the June 12 conference call with Deputy National Security Adviser for Communications Ben Rhodes announcing that the U.S. would provide “military assistance” to the Free Syrian Army, the White House has provided no details on what that would entail. The announcement came along with the administration’s first acknowledgment that the U.S. intelligence community could determine with “high confidence” that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its people on a small scale on multiple occasions, crossing President Obama’s “red line” for the conflict—a conclusion both the British and the French had already reached.
But even if the U.S. does provide small arms and ammunition, as has been widely reported, the FSA needs anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, Idris said. There is already some fighting in the western and northern regions of Aleppo and the FSA is expecting a combined regime-Iranian-Hezbollah attack on the city any day now.
“We are concerned the regime will use aircraft very heavily as they did in Qusayr,” he said. “We are asking for a no-fly zone over the while country because the regime has a powerful air force and we don’t have any way to defend against it.”
While some lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have called for a no-fly zone, and Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi endorsed one Saturday while announcing he had severed diplomatic relations with Syria, where at least 93,000 have died over the course of the conflict, the Obama administration has been wary of being drawn further into the conflict.
“We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past, We’re not going to do it here,” Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said Sunday on Face the Nation. (The National Security Council declined to comment Sunday on the administration’s internal deliberations or on the timing of their decision-making regarding Syria.)
Speaking with the Beast, Idris said that every ten days there is another Russian arms delivery to the regime. About one month ago, the Russians delivered new tanks and new jets, he said.
“I told our friends in the U.S. and western countries we are sure and I can give them any kind of guarantee the weapons will be in good hands,” Idris said, claiming that the FSA can guarantee that any weapons they receive won’t fall into extremist hands, “I need weapons yesterday and right now, not tomorrow, because the situation is very dangerous and critical in Aleppo and we are afraid the regime will have the upper hand in the country and when that happens there will be a lot of danger because the extremist groups will win more sympathy.”
There will be no FSA participation in any peace conference if they don’t get weapons first, Idris said. Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for a second conference in Geneva that was supposed to happen in June but has been postponed until at least July.
“If there is not change on the ground, if we didn’t receive weapons and ammunition to rebalance the situation on the ground, we will not go to Geneva, there will be no Geneva,” said Idris. “We hope our friends who love freedom and democracy don’t leave us alone.”
Other officials, lawmakers, and experts said the timing of Obama’s military assistance announcement had less to do with chemical weapons that with the rebels’ rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground following the fall of the strategic town of Qusayr, and the French and British governments moving before the U.S. to arm the rebels.
“This policy of leading from behind on Syria for the U.S. is not working,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, policy director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American organization that works directly with the Syrian rebels. “The lack of U.S. leadership on Syria has allowed for our allies to take the lead in ways that are not necessarily conducive for U.S. interests and policy going forward.”
Several news reports have stated that following Rhodes announcement the CIA will begin providing the FSA with small arms and ammunition—but those deliveries could take weeks to arrive, not in time for the impending battle in Aleppo, said O’Bagy. She added that the CIA has reportedly been facilitating small arms shipments to the rebels for several months, leaving it unclear what was really new in the White House’s announcement.
“Even though the decision to increase military assistance has been made, they are still working out the details and that will take some time,” said O’Bagy. “The upcoming discussions [at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland this week] will be crucial to deciding whether this is game changing or more of a continuation of the same.”
McCain Sunday told The Daily Beast that the Obama administration is not “leading from behind” in Syria because it is not leading at all, noting that France and the U.K. tool the lead in determining that the regime had used chemical weapons and calling the White House announcement of “military assistance” a small adjustment, not a new policy. He also noted that past promises of American assistance to the Syrian rebels have not materialized or have been very slow to arrive.
For example, the U.S. has not supplied large amounts of non-lethal military assistance to the FSA, despite an April decision to authorize such supplies, which would include things like body armor and night vision goggles. The U.S. has provided some medical kits and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), which were delivered in May.
“The only thing that has actually reached the hands of rebels fighting are the MREs. Maybe they could throw them at the helicopters. Some of them aren’t that delicious,” McCain said.
He also said U.S. decision making was slowed by an internal division inside the administration between Kerry and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who he said favored more aggressive steps, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and outgoing National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who have resisted more direct or lethal support for the FSA.
“If you do not change the equation on the battlefield and you have incremental increases in aid, they are going to be countered,” he said. “Unless we neutralize the air assets with the no-fly zone, this bleeding will continue.”
Dubai, June 17, 2013 by Amena Bakr
Saudi Arabia, a staunch opponent of President Bashar al-Assad since early in Syria’s conflict, began supplying anti-aircraft missiles to rebels “on a small scale” about two months ago, a Gulf source said on Monday.
The shoulder-fired weapons were obtained mostly from suppliers inFrance and Belgium, the source told Reuters. France had paid for the transport of the weapons to the region.
The supplies were intended for General Salim Idriss, leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who was still the kingdom’s main “point man” in the opposition, the source said.
The Gulf source said without elaborating that the kingdom had begun taking a more active role in the Syrian conflict in recent weeks due to the intensification of the conflict.
A foreign ministry spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
King Abdullah returned to Saudi Arabia on Friday after cutting short a holiday in Morocco to deal with what state media described as “repercussions of the events that the region is currently witnessing”.
Diplomatic sources in the kingdom say Riyadh has grown increasingly concerned after the entry of Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah into the conflict and the subsequent rebel defeat in Qusair.
Speaking to Reuters on Friday, Idriss urged Western allies to supply anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles and to create a no-fly zone, saying if properly armed he could defeat Assad’s army within six months.
Idriss said his forces urgently needed heavier weapons in the northern city of Aleppo, where Assad’s government has said its troops are preparing a massive assault.
Syria’s civil war grew out of protests that swept across the Arab world in 2011, becoming by far the deadliest of those uprisings and the most difficult to resolve.
Just months ago, Western countries believed Assad’s days were numbered. But momentum on the battlefield has turned in his favor, making the prospect of his swift removal and an end to the bloodshed appear remote without outside intervention.
The reported Saudi supplies began shortly before its main Western ally the United States announced it would likely send arms to Syrian rebels, a development long encouraged by Riyadh.
Top Saudi princes have been shuttling from one ally to another in recent weeks for meetings about Syria.
The epicenter of this activity was Paris, visited by Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in May, intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal this month.
Saudi Arabian National Guard Minister Prince Miteb bin Abdullah is there this week after meeting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Crown Prince Salman met British Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond in Jeddah in early June.
Diplomatic sources in Riyadh said Saudi Arabia, France and Britain shared common ground on pushing Washington to take more decisive action against Assad.
Saudi Arabia has led Arab opposition to Assad since early in Syria’s revolution. It was the first country to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus last year and took an early lead in funding and arming the rebels and helping them logistically.
However, its support has always been tempered by concerns of blowback from the more militant Islamist groups spearheading the battle against Assad, diplomatic sources in Riyadh say.
Riyadh has spent years combating domestic militants who waged a bombing campaign against Saudi and U.S. targets last decade, after they returned from fighting under the Islamist banner in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Photo: Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
Sakhour, Aleppo, June 16, 2013 by Richard Spencer
It was long after dark when the rebel fighter saw something through his night-vision goggles. In the past, the regime had made its moves openly, by daylight, but this seemed different.
There were figures flitting across the end of the street ahead of him, perhaps 150 yards away, one by one. Then he realised that there were others, already much closer, half the distance.
He called the alert, and within minutes reinforcements had arrived, 1,000 in all, such was the panic, and so overcrowding the front that some had to be withdrawn again. In the battle that ensued, half a dozen rebel fighters were killed, before they beat off the incursion, sending the regime’s troops “fleeing, leaving their weapons behind”, said the fighter, known as “Bushi”, and his friends, boasting.
The attack on the eastern suburb of Sakhour had turned into another skirmish in Aleppo’s long war, leaving the front lines just where they were before, but it gave food for thought.
Was this the start of the regime advance on Aleppo,Syria’s biggest city, promised since the fall of the Qusayr ten days ago? Was it an attempt to seize the flyover the checkpoint was protecting, which if over-run would cut off rebel supply lines around the city? Or was it just a test of their defences?
Aleppo this weekend is waiting for two things: the enemy onslaught, and American weapons. It is more confident of the first.
The fall of Qusayr, 120 miles to the south, has changed expectations in the Syrian war, both inside the country and out. The regime promptly announced it would move troops north to take the fight to Syria’s biggest city, half of which has been in rebel hands since July.
With them came Hizbollah, whose thousands of reinforcements turned the tide in Qusayr and are now said to be massing on the north side of Aleppo. Bushi and his friends believed Hizbollah were also among the Sakhour attackers, and even Iranians, given the accents they heard, though in Syria now everyone claims to hear Lebanese and Iranian voices.
On Thursday night, the United States gave its own response to Qusayr, that it would be putting its might behind the rebel cause. President Barack Obama had suddenly decided that, as France and Britain have been insisting for weeks, President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons, and could not be allowed to win.
He is still set firmly against sending in the cavalry, and there will be no “boots on the ground” – nor much else, on the record at least. But officials were quietly briefing that anti-tank weapons and command-and-control vehicles were on the list.
They are also mooting the possibility – played down in other quarters – of limited no-fly zones on the southern and northern borders, with US bases at Incirlik in Turkey and Al-Mafrek in Jordan and Patriot missile defence systems handily placed. A military exercise, Operation Eager Lion, with 5,000 US troops including 300 US Marines, is conveniently also under way in Jordan.
The opposition will be rescued one way or the other, is the implication.
In Sakhour, the rebels claim they do not see it as a rescue. “Morale since the fall of Qusayr has been higher,” said Abdulmajid Malah, a Free Syrian Army fighter, over a plentiful lunch on Saturday of hummus, bean stew and salad in a rear base. “Why? In one word - Hizbollah.”
The public involvement of the Lebanese militia had galvanised the opposition, he said. Moreover, the losses the outgunned defenders of Qusayr had inflicted, with more than 130 Hizbollah killed by most counts, was itself a victory.
Meanwhile, less noticed, the rebels were still on the advance on a number of smaller fronts in the north. “Whether you in the West support us or not, we will defeat Assad. That’s my last word,” said another fighter, Ahmed Eissa.
Their confidence had an air of desperation. They had been waiting for more than a year for American help, they said, but it had never come, and they still did not believe it is on its way. “It is all lies, lies built on promises,” a former fighter, Abu Ahmed, who lost one leg in battle last autumn, said.
Up front, at the flyover, they did not even pretend. Standing next to “Bushi” when he spotted the regime “trying to sneak in”, was Mohammed Shamma, a heavily bearded fighter from the Tawhid Brigade, Aleppo’s largest.
“I used 300 bullets in one fight,” he said of that night, Thursday. “All that ammunition, gone. Our need is now urgent.
“When they come, you need to have your supplies right next to you. You need to have them there the next day, too, to be ready when they attack again.
Proper supplies - one or two magazines isn’t enough. What if they attack two or three times? Then we would be right out.
“If help is coming, let it come.” He said demand was such that a single bullet for a Kalashnikov now cost the equivalent of a euro.
Mr Obama’s hesitation over providing weapons directly comes from fear of sophisticated equipment landing in the hands of radical jihadists such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the rebel group affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
In particular, he has vetoed high-end, heat-seeking portable surface-to-air missiles - MANPADs – which could be used against civilian air-liners.
Rebels say they want them because whenever they order advances of their own the regime retaliates with air raids against civilian areas.
But evidence from Aleppo and from fighters in Qusayr suggests even lower end resources would make a significant difference. Besides ammunition, rebels particularly want anti-tank missiles, the value of which they have discovered after seizing Russian-made Konkurs weapons from regime bases and turning them against their previous owners.
In Sakhour, they have now dug a tank trap across the approach to the flyover. But a serious offensive by high-end Russian T82 tanks, impervious to rocket-propelled grenades, would be a major challenge.
There are significant differences between Aleppo and Qusayr, and not merely of scale.
Qusayr, a small Sunni town, was surrounded by regime-held areas to the east and south and by loyalist Shia villages and Hizbollah territory in Lebanon to the west. Aleppo is not only larger but in the Sunni heartlands where the Assad regime is most detested.
It is also 30 miles from Turkey, the rebels’ closest ally. The challenge facing the regime if it makes a serious attempt to retake it is immediately visible on the city’s streets, where shops are full of supplies, vegetables and spit-roasted chickens shipped in from the farms to the north and east.
While Qusayr’s women and children had largely fled in advance of the final battle, Aleppo has been a magnet, streets just 100 yards from the front jammed with cars and food stalls. Civilian officials believe more people are living in the city now than before the war.
The Assad regime has not been squeamish about civilian casualties, but the potential slaughter from an all-out battle would be on an altogether different scale.
The obliviousness to the impending storm is perhaps more shocking than the conditions in which people are living in Sakhour, a working class neighbourhood crumbling from gunfire where windows of upper floors of houses even far from the fighting are shattered by sniper fire.
The flyover and the nearby roundabout are in a hollow, making them hard to defend and exposing raised residential areas on either side, leaving them shattered and ghostly. In another minor battle on Thursday night, two civilians were killed when the regime responded with artillery to an unplanned and ill-disciplined attack further north.
At a maternity unit just half a mile away, mothers are still giving birth.
Abu Qasem, the anaesthetist, said he did not think residents would leave when the attack came, whatever the danger.
He said many had fled the regime air raids last year, but had returned after running out of money. The city was in quiet despair, he said, adding that every woman who gave birth told him they did not want to bring a baby into the world, but that they had searched in vain for contraceptive pills.
“We are living in a time of catastrophe,” he said. “But nobody will leave. In any case, most people wish they were dead already.”
June 16, 2013 by AFP
Saudi Arabia plans to supply the Syrian opposition with anti-aircraft missiles to counter President Bashar al-Assad’s air force, German news weekly Der Spiegel reported Sunday.
The article, citing a classified report received by the German foreign intelligence service and the German government last week, said Riyadh was looking at sending European-made Mistral-class MANPADS, or man-portable air-defense systems.
Der Spiegel noted the shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles can target low-flying aircraft including helicopters and had given mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan a decisive edge against Soviet troops in the 1980s.
Saudi Arabia is a key supporter of the Syrian rebels and has long advocated providing them with better weaponry.
Washington vowed last week to send military aid to rebel forces trying to unseat Assad after saying it had proof that the regime had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons on a small scale.
The European Union lifted an embargo on arming the Syrian opposition last month, paving the way for greater Western support for rebels in a civil war that has claimed 93,000 lives.
Photo: Tyler Hicks/NY Times/Redux
June 14, 2013 by Rania Abouzeid
The Syrian opposition—in all its varied forms—has long asked that Barack Obama contribute more to its fight against President Bashar al-Assad than reprimands and non-lethal aid. (That category has included ready-to-eat meals of Western but not Syrian favorites like tortellini with cream sauce.) The rebels got some of what they wanted Thursday, when the White House let it be known that it is now considering sending them small arms. The change in policy was prompted by intelligence reports claiming that Assad had used small quantities of sarin gas on several occasions, killing between a hundred and a hundred and fifty people, and occurred on the same day that the United Nations announced that at least ninety-three thousand people have died in the war. The former, though, were the decisive hundred.
But what will American guns mean on the ground? What kinds of weapons will the United States provide, how many, and to whom?
Rebel commanders I’ve talked to inside Syria over the past two years say they can always use more Kalashnikovs and other light weapons. What they really want, though, are anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft systems, the kinds of sophisticated armaments that the West worries might end up in the hands of Islamic extremists, either inside Syria or elsewhere.
But guns serve two purposes: they function not only as weapons against the enemy but also as a potential means of helping rebels the United States favors enforce command and control within their ranks. The rebels, so far, have been unable to form a chain of command that is respected on the ground, has real authority, and can enforce direction. The United States will likely seek to funnel supplies to so-called moderate rebels under General Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army’s military command, to make him a more attractive alternative to more extreme elements. This will be very difficult, for a number of reasons.
For starters, the rebels already have several sources of weapons, having become proficient at scrounging for supplies, and many have long balked at the idea of selling their fealty and loyalty for weapons. Much of their stocks are captured by overrunning government checkpoints and bases. Some weapons are purchased on the black market, both inside Syria (mainly from corrupt members of the Assad regime) and in neighboring countries, including Iraq and Lebanon, from which they are smuggled across the border. Certain rebel groups have also become adept at making their own armaments, including improvised explosive devices (often with assistance from Syrian and foreign veterans of the fight in Iraq), mortars, hand grenades, and even rockets.
I visited one factory in Syria’s northern Idlib province that based its rockets on Hamas’s Qassam model; they got technical help from members of Hamas. The Qassam isn’t exactly known for its efficacy, but the fact that Syrians were receiving Palestinian help indicates their wiliness, and their desperation to secure the means to fight back against the Syrian state’s formidable Army and Air Force.
For the past year or so, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sponsored a structured effort, with U.S. and Turkish backing, to funnel weapons—mainly light armaments like rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and ammunition—to select rebel groups. The conduits have been the rebel F.S.A.’s various hierarchical structures, including military councils in each of Syria’s fourteen provinces. These were supposed to be the main tap for weapons, and an instrument of control over the men on the ground; they never were. The Saudis and the Qataris had conflicting ideas about which groups should be armed, and sent weapons in different directions. The operation was plagued, too, by claims of favoritism in the distribution process. Instead of being a model, the experience may provide a cautionary tale of what might go wrong with a U.S. effort to arm the rebels.
A particular F.S.A. battalion, for example, might be part of a military council and receive a smattering of supplies from it, while also having a private donor or donors—often wealthy businessmen or clerics from the Syrian diaspora or the Gulf. The battalion might augment this with war booty, and might fight alongside the very groups the United States and the rest of the West fear the most: the Islamic conservatives and extremists, like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigades. (The F.S.A. also includes Islamist groups, and in Cairo on Thursday, several Sunni clerics with regional influence called for jihad to support the rebels; Hezbollah’s Shiite fighters are already on the government’s side.)
Jabhat al-Nusra has deep pockets (thanks in part to its affiliation with Al Qaeda in Iraq), a steady source of weapons and ammunition, and a regimental, disciplined approach to the fight that has made it among the most proficient anti-Assad groups. The essential problem is that the F.S.A. doesn’t have the same discipline. It has never been an organized force with any top-down command and control—it’s just a loose franchise outfit, little more than a term to sanitize the reality that most of the groups on the ground are independent militias that rarely take orders from the senior defectors and prominent armed civilians leading the F.S.A. In fact, many fighters despise the so-called leaders-in-exile who claim to speak on their behalf. Any organized relations among the armed groups are very local or ad hoc. There is often coordination in a particular town or for a certain battle, between groups that are part of the F.S.A. as well as those outside it, but that’s about it.
In late February, I asked General Idris why and how he thought he was going to be able to control the myriad groups when his predecessors could not. He didn’t offer a persuasive answer, beyond that he had set up local operations rooms at various fronts to monitor the fights and to see who was working—and hence worthy of being supported—and who was not.
If anything, having more guns to dole out in this manner may just increase the already intense competition between various battalions for a patron’s money or supplies. There are fierce rivalries within rebel ranks—for ideological, territorial, and other reasons—some of which have already devolved into gun battles. Warlords have emerged. Criminal elements have taken root, exploiting the disorder. Human-rights groups have noted abuses by both sides.
Idris acknowledged that such competition was fracturing the military opposition but said the main reason was the lack of adequate supplies. If he is to control the men on the ground he claims are under his command, he will need leverage. American guns might help him acquire it, if they are provided in a consistent manner and are of the sort that might make a difference on the battlefield—by helping neutralize the threat of Assad’s aircraft, for example. But many questions about the rebels need to be answered first. And there are larger ones for the international community. Will pouring more guns into this fight result in more deaths? Or will it level the killing field and bring down the regime sooner? Even if it does, the end of the regime is unlikely to be the end of the fight, unless the deepening rebel rivalries can somehow be resolved.
Rebel fighters walk through Aleppo. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
June 14, 2013 by Max Fisher
The Obama administration announced Thursday night that, after concluding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons, it would provide direct military assistance to the rebels as a “last step.” Although it has not announced what kind of military assistance it would send, it’s expected to consist mostly of small arms: rifles and bullets.
Rebel leaders say that small arms will do them little good and that they need heavier weapons. Whether or not greater U.S. involvement is a good idea, two things appear to be true: that the rebels are losing ground against Assad’s forces, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, and that small arms would not turn the tide.
Why? It has to do with Assad’s military strategy. New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, appearing on NPR’s Fresh Air in late April, explained that strategy, its successes and why heavy weapons such as artillery or shoulder-launched missiles would likely be necessary to overcome it. Chivers, as a former Marine and the Pulitzer-winning author of “The Gun,” a history of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, does have some direct experience in these matters. I’ve added some emphasis in bold.
We talked about a social shift to this country but as this point you’re also seeing a tactical shift. When the Syrian military first set out in the crackdown it had the run of the countryside. It could drive around freely on the roads, it was even using the rail line. It could move almost as it saw fit and it could predictably in these large columns and patrols. That changed when the rebels developed an indigenous effort at making improvised explosive devices, or makeshift bombs. By bombing the roads, by setting up ambushes, they were able to deny sections of the countryside to the army. Certainly, the freedom of movement in the countryside, where the rebels were strong, became a thing of the past.
And the army reacted. And the army understood that when it couldn’t fight this free-roaming that it needed to find a way that capitalized on its own strengths. And that strength was firepower, in some cases manpower but often just firepower.And so they went to a series of strong points, like islands, all across areas of the countryside where they were weak. And these islands are almost, in some cases, impregnable to the rebels’ weapons.
If the other side is not coming out, if the other side is not exposing itself, it’s very difficult to dislodge that army with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and makeshift bombs that are waiting along the sides of the roads. It’s very, very hard to gain momentum against a militarily stronger side that will not move when all you have are these weapons that you can carry on your shoulder or in your backpack.
And that mismatch persists as recently as a few weeks ago when we were traveling with groups. They still had, in the main, only rifles, machine guns, in some cases bolt-action rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and very occasionally you would see an old anti-tank system known as a recoilless gun. These tend to be relatively short-range, flat-shooting weapons that don’t have an ability to dislodge a force that is bunkered in.
What you hear constantly from the rebels is not that they want a military intervention per se, but that they want equipment so that they can fight, themselves, more effectively, and the rebels would certainly like and appreciate something like a no-fly zone. But what they want and probably think is more realistic to get are weapons that will allow them to fight against these strong points and will allow them to fight against armor and will allow them to defeat aircraft that are in some cases bombing their positions and their homes and their towns. Not in some cases, actually, in many cases their homes and their towns, because a lot of the air strikes are clearly just dropped on neighborhoods.
Weapons, in the view of the guys that are doing the fighting, are the thing they need most.
Expect to hear this argument increasingly from Syrian opposition representatives. As Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syria Army, told The Washington Post regarding the Obama administration’s decision to send some military support, “We welcome the decision, but it is a late step. And if they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference? They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone.”
The risk of sending any military support to the rebels is that it’s not clear how the U.S. could arm moderate rebels without some of those weapons ending up in the hands of extremist fighters. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the increasingly successful Islamist rebels who are allied with al-Qaeda, would likely end up with some of the arms, whether small or heavy. And these weapons don’t disappear once the conflict ends, nor do they stop working if they’re transferred out of Syria into, say, Lebanon or Iraq.
So the case against sending small arms is two-fold: first, it’s unlikely to turn the tide against Assad’s forces, for the reasons Chivers explained above; second, extremists are bound to end up with some of those guns, which they could use to terrorize Syrian civilians or foreign targets. To be clear, the case against small arms is not necessarily a case for heavy weapons, which after all could also end up in the hands of extremists. But it’s easy to see why both advocates and critics of greater U.S. involvement are warning against sending small arms, which analysts such as the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid have called a “half measure.”
Source: Washington Post
Syrian refugees fill their buckets at Atmeh refugee camp in the northern province of Idlib on April 5. Photo: Aleppo Media Center via AP
Amman, Jordan, June 14, 2013 by Oren Dorell and Ahmed Kwider
Now that President Obama has decided to provide military assistance to Syrian rebels, the next step is not difficult, said a military analyst who’s been studying the Syria conflict.
U.S. intelligence has vetted the rebel forces to determine who should get the arms, and it has a willing middleman in Turkey on Syria’s northern border, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study or War.
Turkey, a NATO member, has air bases and ports U.S. forces have used to move equipment and people to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Turkey’s Incirlak Air Base, which is technically a NATO air base, is one likely hub for U.S.-supplied weapons intended for the rebels, Harmer said.
“The U.S. moves cargo through there all the time,” Harmer said. Establishing a supply route to the rebels “is not that hard.”
Tony Badran, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Syrian troop movements toward the major rebel stronghold Aleppo could disrupt that well-worn supply route in Syria.
“It’s a very important area for weapons supplies because it’s close to the border with Turkey, and the countryside along the border with Turkey is really where all those weapons come in,” Badran said.
The United States has been sending communication equipment to rebels of the Free Syrian Army through Turkey. Rebels have picked up shipments in Istanbul and driven them across the border into Syria along secure routes.
Turkey has sea ports for larger shipments. Most of the arms rebel leaders have requested are light weapons, chief among them shoulder-fired missiles. The missiles are wanted to shoot down Syrian aircraft or disable Syrian tanks.
If the United States agrees to provide such weapons, they can be delivered to Turkey by air, Harmer said. Arms could then travel by truck or rail to the Turkish border with Syria, and that’s where U.S. control over the weapons will probably end, Harmer said.
The effort depends on Turkish cooperation. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has allowed weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to move through his country, and he supports the toppling of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The Syrian rebels control at least 20 miles of Syrian territory south of the Turkish border, “so there’s really no mechanical way for the Syrian government to stop them,” Harmer said.
There is a risk that Syria will directly attack Turkey over the shipments. Syria has fired missiles into Turkish territory along the border to target weapons shipments and rebel fighters seeking protection. Turkey has hosted about 1 million Syrian refugees, and rebels have camps there as well.
The U.S. presence in Syria will probably be very small, limited to CIA or Special Forces operators, and focused on identifying rebel groups they can trust, Harmer said.
“We don’t want to provide weapons to al-Qaeda affiliates” who are also fighting the government in Syria, he said.
When the conflict started, the rebels’ identity and motivations were not well understood. Harmer said two years have changed that situation. The Institute for the Study of War and other independent groups have completed extensive studies on the various rebel groups.
“We know from open sources, YouTube videos and interviews who are secular freedom lovers and who are the extremist religious types,” Harmer said.
Rebel leaders have reported Syrian government forces moving toward Aleppo, Syria’s largest city in the north and a hub for rebel operations and supplies and fighters coming from Turkey.
The massing of troops for a possible offensive on Aleppo has led to “a major freakout” among rebel supporters about whether the divided city will fall to a combined assault by government forces and fighters from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon, Badran said.
Assad used a combination of total siege, artillery bombardment and hundreds of Hezbollah ground forces to overtake Qusair last week after a battle that lasted almost a month, but that approach will be much more difficult in Aleppo, Badran said.
Rebels control most of the countryside between Aleppo and Turkey to the north, and activists on the ground report that the Turks have secured all the border crossings, in preparation for weapons shipments to start flowing, he said.
The timing of Obama’s announcement provides political cover to other U.S. allies, such as the British, French, Turks, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that are poised to start supplying rebels in earnest, he said.
“To lock down Aleppo like the regime did in Qusair is not going to be as easy,” Badran said.
The Free Syrian Army has been complaining over a lack of weapons since last year. What they mainly have is small arms and grenades taken from regime forces or smuggled through from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, sometimes paid for by Gulf states such as Qatar.
“A couple of countries have been doing that already through Turkey or Jordan,” said Hozan Ibrahim, a Syrian opposition activist based in Berlin. “It is not an obvious cooperation, but they are doing that underground, undercover, and that is totally OK with us. And of course, in Turkey, there is the headquarters of the Syrian army.”
Commanders say that as the conflict has dragged on, more regime soldiers have defected and foreign fighters have joined the battle, rebels’ technical know-how has grown.
“At the beginning of the revolution, we used to buy arms from the regime’s shabiha(thugs),” said Abu Jarah, leader of Al al-Bait Battalions in Binish-Idlib, part of the opposition forces. “The regime wanted to get rid of all its damaged arms, so they pushed them onto the streets.
“We used to buy them for high prices because our need to defend ourselves was urgent. Meanwhile, they used that money to buy advanced, more lethal weapons. After that, some traders in Aleppo assisted us through Turkey, Lebanon and the Jordanian borders near Daraa.
“Now, we’ve started to manufacture and develop our own weapons,” he said. “The Syrian people get the means to defend themselves any way they can.”
Still, shortages are everywhere, and the FSA needs help. Qatar money has been drying up, and as Hezbollah has become increasingly involved, fewer arms are flowing across the Lebanese border.
“First of all, we need some international coalition of the willing,” Ibrahim said. “If the U.S. openly starts arming, then the other countries will have more courage to start arming us, too. Otherwise, we will continue where we are: a situation where nobody is willing to act really and people continue to die while the radicals are gaining more and more ground.”
Source: USA Today
A welder attached tail fins to makeshift mortar rounds at an arms-making shop in Idlib province. Photo: Tyler Hicks/NY Times
Saraqeb, Syria, June 12, 2013 by C.J. Chivers
The workers arrive by darkness, taking their stations at the vise and the lathe. Soon metal filings and sparks fly, and the stack of their creations grows at their feet: makeshift mortar shells to be fired through barrels salvaged from disabled Syrian Army tanks.
Across northern Syria, rebel workshops like these are part of a clandestine network of primitive arms-making plants, a signature element of a militarily lopsided war.
Their products — machine-gun mounts, hand grenades, rockets, mortar shells, roadside bombs and the locally brewed explosives that are packed inside — help form the arsenal of a guerrilla force that has suffered serious setbacks this year in its effort to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
“Everybody knows we do not have the weapons we need to defend ourselves,” said Abu Trad, a commander of the Saraqib Rebels Front, shortly before he allowed visitors into this mortar-round plant. “But we have the will, and we have humble means, and we have tools.”
The value of workshop-grade weapons, while once crucial to the rebels’ success in claiming territory in northern Syria, may have substantially declined.
Last spring, when Mr. Assad was struggling to confront the armed opposition that his crackdown had fueled, shops like these forced Syria’s military to change tactics. The roads became so laced with their output of hidden bombs that the army stopped roaming where the rebels were strongest, and pulled back to defensive positions. The shops were a marker of the rebels’ budding organization and lethal skill.
But the government has spent a year refitting its troops, Hezbollah has sent in reinforcements, and Iran and Russia have kept Mr. Assad’s forces resupplied.
These days the government’s forces are less likely to venture out on patrols or expose themselves in small checkpoints, reducing their vulnerability to the rebels’ makeshift bombs. And most of the shops’ other weapons systems lack the accuracy, range or explosive punch to drive the army from the positions where it is entrenched and from where soldiers can fire back with barrages of more powerful and precise weapons.
Moreover, some of the locally made weapons are prone to malfunction, which can kill those who use them.
And yet the arms plants remain a prominent feature of the opposition’s logistics, as arms flows from the Arab world fail to keep up with demand. Though the European Union lifted its embargo on arms transfers to the opposition last month, many rebels said they see the decision as a diplomatic tactic intended to pressure the Syrian government, and unlikely to lead to shipments from Western governments soon.
“They promise things all the time,” said Maj. Mohammad Ali, who commands the fighters in northern Syria for the Grandsons of the Prophet, a large rebel formation. “We are now in the third year, and so far we have had so many decisions from the West and nothing was acted on.”
Abu Trad and other rebels said the workshops have been as essential as the fighters on the front lines, and the laborers are part of a revolution’s foundation. “The mother who cooks for the fighters is a revolutionary, the medic who helps the wounded is a revolutionary, and the man who makes the mortar and the shell is a revolutionary, too,” he said.
On several trips into Syria, journalists for The New York Times visited four active arms workshops in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces, interviewed other bomb- or weapons-makers who agreed to discuss their work but not to allow access to their plants, and examined other workshops’ products on rebel bases and front lines.
The plant in Saraqib is one part of a larger and more complicated supply chain. On this night, it had received a batch of freshly cast shell bodies from a rebel foundry elsewhere. (Its workers declined to discuss its location, beyond saying that it was “underground.”)
One man tightened the shells in a vise before sweeping over them with a grinder to remove surface imperfection. Each round was then passed to a welder who affixed precut fins, designed to stabilize the rounds in flight.
The shells were then worked on by a machinist at a lathe, who shaped the nose so that a locally made fuze might be inserted. The workers said the rounds would be moved to yet another shop to be packed with explosive fill.
Finally, the rounds would be provided to front-line units equipped with sections of the 125-millimeter main guns from former government T-72 tanks. The barrels had been cut and converted to makeshift mortar systems, the fighters said.
Abu Trad said that these weapons had been effective in attacking Syrian Army checkpoints, and that the power of a 125-millimeter shell had frightened government soldiers.
But shells made in these ways carry many risks, including the danger that as a round accelerates after being fired, its crude fuze will be driven backward, causing the round to detonate in the tube.
This might have been what killed Azzam Alzier, the owner of an Internet cafe, one of the men in Saraqib first to take up arms. He had volunteered for mortar duty, his friends said, and was killed when a locally made round exploded as he fired it.
Another risk is that each round, because of inconsistencies inherent to workshop production, will fly a different height and distance, making the weapon dangerous to other rebels and potentially indiscriminate when fired in areas where soldiers are near civilians or civilian infrastructure.
Several workers in the shops noted that the dangers lie not just in using such weapons, but in manufacturing them.
At another plant, in the Aleppo countryside, Abu Walid, a young electrical engineer who said he and his colleagues principally make RDX, a plastic explosive for which manufacturing instructions are available online, said that he knew of roughly 10 people who had been killed in accidents while working with explosives for grenades and bombs.
And at a third plant, several workers described the perils that accompany one of their methods of obtaining explosives. One man displayed a plastic bag of foamlike chips of a TNT mix removed from old Soviet aircraft bombs that had been dropped from Syrian Air Force jets but failed to explode. “What Bashar sends to us, we reuse,” he said.
“It takes only 10 minutes to open a bomb,” another worker said. “We disassemble the front fuze; we cut the bomb using the lathe.”
Then the workers extract its contents to be repacked into rocket warheads. “We first find the explosive material as solid as a stone, then we grind it and it will break into pieces, and then we grind it again into powder,” he said.
Given the amount of explosive in an aircraft bomb — sometimes more than 200 pounds, compared with roughly two ounces in a hand grenade — there is no chance of surviving a mistake. “It is not only about losing a limb,” he said. “You and where you are will vanish.”
Rockets from this shop go by the name Rakan 1, and are sections of pipe that together form a weapon about four feet long. The longest section is a fuel cell containing a mix of potassium nitrate and sugar. To one end is threaded a nozzle through which the burning propellant vents, driving the rocket into flight after the weapon is launched with an electric charge.
To the other is threaded a warhead containing a high-explosive fill, which in turn is fitted with an aluminum fuze well and a simple striker assembly designed to initiate the explosion when the warhead’s nose strikes the ground.
The shop produces two of its rockets each day, the workers said. Abu Fawzi, 23, a furniture maker by trade who helped design Rakan 1, said that it was the result of trial and error, and that the Internet, hailed by security analysts as a virtual academy for waging war, was of little value.
“The first six or seven months we kept trying and held experiments, tests,” he said. “At first we searched the Internet, and we failed. We didn’t find anything useful. After that we relied on ourselves and bit by bit, with God’s help, we learned how.”
Rebels disagree about the value of homemade projectiles. Some welcome them. Others noted that rockets and mortars often fail to fire, or fly unpredictable paths.
And the weapons, they said, are almost no match for the incoming fire the rebels face.
On a front in the arid farmland north of Hama, Khaled Muhammed Addibis, a rebel commander, pointed to a stack of rockets his fighters had tried to fire the previous day. They had failed to launch. Others had veered far off-target in flight. And none had reached their expected range.
“All we need is effective weapons,” he said. “Effective weapons. Nothing else.”
Source: The New York Times
Barricades are seen on a street in Aleppo’s countryside, June 13, 2013. Photo: Reuters/George Ourfalian
Beirut, June 13, 2013 by Erika Soloman
U.S. President Barack Obama is deciding whether to take new action to help Syria’s rebels, the White House said on Thursday, while President Bashar al-Assad’s surging forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies turned their guns on the north.
Assad’s forces fought near the northern city of Aleppo on Thursday and bombarded the central city of Homs, having seized the initiative by winning the open backing of Hezbollah last month and capturing the strategic town of Qusair last week.
The arrival of thousands of seasoned, Iran-backed Hezbollah Shi’ite fighters to help Assad combat the mainly Sunni rebellion has shifted momentum in the two-year-old war, which the United Nations said on Thursday has killed at least 93,000 people.
U.S. and European officials anxious about the rapid change are meeting the commander of the main rebel fighting force, the Free Syrian Army, on Friday in Turkey. FSA chief Salim Idriss is expected to plead urgently for more help.
Obama has come under mounting pressure in recent weeks from allies abroad and politicians at home to take more action to help the rebels as the balance of power tilts towards Assad.
He has so far been more cautious than Britain and France, who have already forced the European Union this month to lift an embargo that had blocked weapons for the rebels.
“The president is reviewing and considering what other options are available to him and to the United States as well as our allies and partners for further and additional steps in Syria, and that process continues,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“As terrible as the situation is in Syria, he has to make decisions when it comes to policy towards Syria that are in the best interests of the United States.”
Western governments that months ago predicted Assad would soon fall now believe that support from Tehran and Hezbollah are giving Assad the upper hand. However, they also worry that sending arms to rebel fighters could empower Sunni Islamist insurgents who have pledged their loyalty to al Qaeda.
While Britain and France have yet to announce their own decisions to start arming the rebels, their diplomats have been making the case that the best way to counter both threats is to beef up support for Idriss’s mainstream rebel force.
Strengthening the FSA with money, weapons and ammunition, they argue, would both help combat Assad and also provide a counterweight among the rebels to al Qaeda-linked groups.
France in particular has developed good relations with Idriss while providing funds and non-lethal support, and seems eager to send him military aid.
BILL CLINTON SPEAKS OUT
Among those whose comments put pressure on Obama to act was one of his predecessors, Bill Clinton.
“The only question is: now that the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah are in there head over heels … should we try to do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance to prevail,” the ex-president was quoted by newspaper Politico as saying.
Assad’s government says its next move will be to re-capture Aleppo in the north, Syria’s biggest city and commercial hub, which has been divided since last year when advancing rebels seized most of the countryside around it.
Syrian state media have been touting plans for “Northern Storm”, a looming campaign to recapture the rebel-held north.
The United Nations, which raised its death toll for the war so far to 93,000 on Thursday, said it was concerned about the fate of residents if a new offensive is launched.
“All of the reports I’m receiving are of augmentation of resources and forces (for an Aleppo offensive) on the part of the government,” U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay told Reuters Television.
Assad’s army appears to be massing some troops in its footholds in Aleppo province, particularly in Shi’ite areas such as the enclaves of Nubel and Zahra, although some opposition activists say the government may be exaggerating the extent of its offensive to intimidate rebel supporters.
Activists reported fighting in the area around Aleppo on Thursday, especially near an airport that rebels have been trying to capture. The government has also launched an offensive in Homs, the closest big city to its last victory in Qusair and one of the last major rebel strongholds in the country’s centre.
“There was a fourth day of escalations today on the besieged neighborhoods of Homs’s old city. Early in the morning there were two air strikes … followed by artillery and mortar shelling,” said Jad, an activist from Homs speaking via Skype.
“More than 25 rockets fell in one area and then the area was combed with tanks…. The shelling is still going on now.”
Ahmed al-Ahmed, an activist in Aleppo, said the government’s reinforcements in the north were just a distraction from Homs.
“They’ve turned the world’s attention to watching northern Aleppo and fearing an attack and massacres as happened to our people in Qusair, to get us to forget Homs which is the decisive battle.”
Hezbollah’s participation has deepened the sectarian character of the war, with Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, backed by Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah while Sunni-ruled Arab states and Turkey back the rebels.
The 7th century rift between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam has fueled violence across the Middle East in recent decades, including the sectarian bloodletting unleashed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion and the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.
Leading Sunni Muslim clerics met in Cairo on Thursday and issued a call to jihad on Thursday, condemning the conflict as a “war on Islam”.