BEIRUT (Reuters) - Three separate Syrian opposition groups have floated proposals for a transitional government in the past week, a sign that differences among the many factions opposing President Bashar al-Assad are deepening even as victory seems closer.
With fighting reaching Damascus and Aleppo in the past month, Western countries are increasingly anxious to see the disparate groups agree on a credible plan for a transitional government should Assad fall.
The head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a long-established opposition umbrella group, said talks would be held within weeks to form a transitional government.
The next day the Free Syria Army, a loosely coordinated group of insurgents fighting Assad’s forces, floated a separate proposal that called for the establishment of a higher defense council bringing together military and civilian figures.
And the day after that, a group of exiled Syrian activists who left the SNC announced a new opposition alliance that also aimed to form a transitional government.
It is neither news nor a surprise that Syria’s opposition is divided. Assad’s opponents include Islamists and secularists, Kurds and Arabs, Sunni Muslims and members of religious minorities, defected army officers and the political activists they once hunted, exiles abroad and fighters on the ground.
The Istanbul-based SNC in particular has come under fire for being out of touch with the fighting in Syria itself. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, nominal head of the Free Syria Army, said it was made up of opportunists who want “to ride over our revolution and trade with the blood of our martyrs”.
Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge, broke away from the SNC to launch the “Council for the Syrian Revolution”.
“I don’t differ with the Syrian National Council over their vision, but over their tactics. I’m different in that I’m working on the ground, and they’re just theorizing,” he told Reuters.
Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC’s former leader, said news of the SNC’s plans to form a transitional government had created “a competitive dynamic” among those who want a role.
“I think we will be able to overcome this competition … I think Haitham’s move was a wrong one and it must be fixed with minimum fuss and without giving it importance,” he told Reuters.
Most alarming for the West, the rebels fighting inside Syria include al Qaeda-style Islamist fighters with a strong sectarian, Sunni Muslim agenda. Secularist opposition figures and members of religious minorities are also worried.
“Several opposition groups have adopted an increasingly fundamentalist discourse and demeanor, a trajectory that mirrors the conflict’s gradually deadlier and more confessional turn (and) popular loss of faith in the West,” the International Crisis Group said in a report.
Western countries fear that sectarian killings could make it difficult to halt the fighting even if Assad falls, and could unleash the sort of mass slaughter that erupted in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled.
Among other issues dividing the opposition is the role of senior defectors like Brigadier General Manaf Tlas, a former member of Assad’s inner circle who fled Syria and has since been hosted by anti-Assad governments in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Many opposition activists say Tlas is tainted by his long service under Assad and worry that he will be foisted on them as a future leader. Ghalioun said he sees a military role for Tlas and other defecting officers to retake control of the army and re-establish security in the country. Maleh was dismissive.
“I do not think that Manaf Tlas has a role in the coming time as a leader. He should have announced his defection when he left Syria and said ‘I’m joining the Free Syrian Army and I will fight alongside them,’” Maleh said.
However, some experts say the opposition’s fractiousness has a positive side, showing pluralism emerging after decades of repression under the Assad family’s Baathist rule.
“This is a political society emerging after almost nothing. So the diversity is normal and healthy,” said Nadim Shehadi, Middle East expert at London’s Chatham House think tank.
“This argument about the incoherence of the opposition and the fact the opposition doesn’t constitute an alternative to the regime was used before as an excuse to do nothing,” he said.
“We have to help the opposition to come up with a transition plan and with an alternative.”
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Peter Graff)
By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
Reuters News temporarily suspended its opinion blog on Friday after an anonymous hacker broke in and wrote false information about Syria.
“Reuters.com was a target of a hack on Friday,” Thomson Reuters said in a statement. “Our blogging platform was compromised and fabricated blog posts were falsely attributed to several Reuters journalists.”
The false posts included what was presented as an interview with Riad al-Asaad, the head of the Free Syrian Army. In the fake interview, the leader was believed to have said that his forces were pulling back from the northern province of Aleppo after clashes with the Syrian army, according to Thomson Reuters.
Thomson Reuters denied that the interview had taken place and said that the item had been removed.
The company did not provide any information about who or what group carried out the hacking. The opinion section of Reuters came back online late Friday afternoon. Reuters posted an article about the hacking on its Web site.
Four more high-ranking officers have defected from the Syrian armed forces and joined the year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, two rebel groups said on Thursday.
The men fled over the past three days to a camp for Syrian army deserters in southern Turkey, according to Lieutenant Khaled al-Hamoud, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He told Reuters by telephone from Turkey the desertions bring to seven the number of brigadier generals who have defected.
The seven are the highest-ranking officers to abandon Mr Assad, and the rank is the fifth highest in the Syrian armed forces. Mustafa Sheikh was the first brigadier general to announce his defection.
“We have six brigadier generals who are now in Turkey and another, who has stayed to lead some battalions inside Syria,” Lt Hamoud said. “We plan to form an advisory council to absorb these and any other high-ranking defections and this group will plan operations for the FSA.”
A Paris-based spokesman for Sheikh’s Supreme Syrian Military Council, Fahad al-Masri, said the four recent defectors were still under the observation of Turkish authorities and their names could not yet be released.
The rebels are also concerned for the safety of the men’s families, who have not left Syria, the two spokesmen said. They said Syrian forces had arrested the family of Brigadier General Faez Amro, who fled to Turkey last month. There have been several reports of defecting officers’ relatives being killed.
The new defections also highlight tensions over the rebel command. Hamoud said the defecting officers would be advisers to the FSA, headed by its founder, Colonel Riad al-Asaad. But the other spokesman, Fahad al-Masri, said they would join Sheikh’s Military Council.
In-fighting could weaken the defectors, now a lightly armed force of 20,000 opposing the government’s almost 300,000 strong military equipped with tanks and heavy artillery.
The uprising in Syria, which began as peaceful protests last March, has turned increasingly bloody as army deserters and armed rebels began using weapons to resist the security forces’ crackdown. Mr Assad says foreign-backed militants are behind the violence.
The senior rebel officer remaining in Syria is Brigadier General Adnan Farzat, who announced his defection in a YouTube video on Tuesday, saying he objected to the intensified shelling in his home town.
He will operate in the battered Homs province, parts of which have been severely damaged during the Syrian forces’ crackdown on centers of rebellion against four decades of Assad family rule.
By Derek Henry Flood
ISTANBUL - In 1980, at the age of 15, a Syrian teenager named Khaled Khoja was detained by Syria’s mukhabarat (internal security services) and held in a Damascus prison for two years.  His alleged misdeed … That his father had provided financial support to al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, better known in the West as the Muslim Brotherhood, which began agitating against the Ba’athist regime of Hafez al-Assad in the late 1970s.
After his release in 1982, he fled north to neighboring Turkey, where he has lived and flourished in exiled ever since. Khoja is a key member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) led by political scientist Burhan Ghalioun, a fellow exile ensconced at the lauded Sorbonne in Paris.
The SNC was formed in Istanbul in late August of last year in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. As the violence has shown no sign of easing in cities across Syria, activists like Khoja have become increasingly vocal. In his capacity as part of the SNC’s foreign relations committee, Khoja publicly announced that his SNC and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had decided it was in their mutual interest to unify their disparate agendas after the SNC’s Ghalioun traveled to southern Turkey’s Hatay province to meet the nominal head of the FSA, Riad al-Asaad and other high ranking Syrian military defectors.
Khoja told Asia Times Online in an interview that Ghalioun made a second visit to the FSA’s leadership to reiterate the new-found solidarity between the two very different groups.
When discussing how much longer Assad will continue to stay in power, Khoja loosely speculated that he would be deposed perhaps by the end of 2012. “Syria is heading toward a military solution,” Khoja tells Asia Times Online.
“Armed clashes are spreading [throughout different parts of Syria] while “more [army] defections are inevitable”. In previous discussions with Asia Times Online by commanders of the FSA in the northwestern Idlib governorate that they had wrested from regime control, their primary hope was for the creation of a cordon sanitaire to contain the Syrian army, intelligence services and the tens of thousands of irregular shabiha militiamen so that refugees could safely exit to neighboring states while simultaneously enabling further defections from regime forces to the rebel cause.
In the somewhat awkward convergence of the SNC’s and the FSA’s formerly divergent agendas, the two have joined up on this specific strategic concept.
Though the FSA’s leaders based in Turkish refugee camps are largely figureheads meant to give the active rebels in Syria the appearance of structure, the SNC’s position is that the FSA must manifest some form of genuine hierarchy in Syria to avoid mass civilian participation in armed conflict, thereby widening the war.
“We must try to avoid a militarization of the street,” Khoja said. The SNC’s position on such issues has evolved considerably in recent months, borne out of Syrian realpolitik. Though the council was strictly advocating mass civil disobedience from its perch in Turkey, Europe and elsewhere, it has heeded the desires of the indigenous, diffuse street movement from Homs to Hama, from Deir ez-Zor to Dera’a, who see the FSA has a “protective force”.
“The United Nation’s General Assembly Resolution 377 A states that a buffer zone can be created if there is a two-thirds majority vote. This action could legitimate a buffer zone for the FSA,” Khoja said.
Under the terms of this resolution adopted on November 3, 1950, during the early period of the Korean War, known as the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, member states can circumvent the decisions of the Security Council’s five permanent members, the “P5”. The resolution was created to work around Soviet obstructionism and abstinence on the Security Council while the UN was intervening on the Korean Peninsula.
The Soviet Union insisted on vetoing any such action in its role on the Security Council at the time with its raison d’etre being that China was rightfully politically embodied by the revolutionary communist Maoist mainland People’s Republic of China rather than the exiled, Taiwan-based Republic of China in the name of fomenting solidarity within the rivalrous echelons of world communism.
The Chiang Kai-shek government was recognized as the Chinese seat on the Security Council until 1971. The Soviets showed their dissatisfaction with the arrangement throughout the Korean crisis in 1950 by being obstinate with their veto power and thus a mechanism was created for broad-based interventionist policies.
Though separated for decades by the Sino-Soviet split before the Soviet implosion, Moscow’s and Beijing’s stance is once again aligned in the context of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The Kremlin views the concept of internal affairs and internecine violence as an inherent right of the state after being admonished for its military adventures in Chechnya and the wider insurgency in the North Caucasus.
Beijing’s politburo, hungry for oil to keep China’s unprecedented economic boom perpetuating and seeking to silence criticism for its repression in Xinjiang and Tibet, has sided with Russia, its traditional Eurasian political rival followed by an array of far lesser powers decrying neo-imperialism like Iran and Venezuela.
Khoja told Asia Times Online that he sees no reason why the UN resolution cannot be implemented in his homeland to protect civilians, though his SNC does not seem to have outlined an exacting plan on just how to do so in the face of increasing wariness to armed humanitarian intervention in any form both among a war-fatigued Western public as well as staunch anti-interventionists in the US and the European Union.
The SNC seems to have thus far failed to precisely articulate its outline for a post-Assad, post-Ba’athist Syria. It is primarily focused on coalescing its own internal agenda and making various announcements pleading for involvement sans boots-on-the-ground style military intervention. This has been directed toward the international community from its Turkish safe haven.
Though far short of recognizing the exiles in any formal fashion, Turkey’s activist Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has allowed the SNC to open an official office near Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport. This decision reflects Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing enmity toward Bashar al-Assad.
It also may indicate a little spoken of sectarian feeling among Turkey’s ruling Islamist AK Parti (Justice and Development Party). At the risk of appearing to create an oversimplification of the situation, Syria’s uprising is at its core a Sunni revolt against minority Alawite Shi’ite rule.
Turkey has both a small Alawite minority of Arabic extraction in Hatay province that was once a part of French Mandate Syria and a much more substantial Alevi minority. The Alevis, whose precise percentage of Turkey’s population remains unknown, have been traditionally characterized as a mysterious heterodox sect by Western Orientalists and apostates by orthodox Sunnis.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father, stressed “Turkishness” over any form of religious identity after the republic’s 1923 founding and post-Ottoman political evolution in an effort to consolidate the integrity of the nascent Turkish polity.
Erdogan’s AK Parti, though Islamist in outlook, needs Alevi support while making little effort to recognize the Alevis as a legitimate religious group beyond the veneer of reforms aimed more at appeasing the European Union than appeasing Alevi demands.
But Erdogan’s party is a Sunni one in character and through this lens the position of Turkey’s political rulers is likely to differ sharply from the country’s traditional military elites, whose more nationalist concerns lead them toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and Cyprus - making them hesitant to involve Turkey in the Syrian conflict in any manner.
Erdogan may drag Turkey towards some level of confrontation, whether political or clandestine, as his rhetoric against Assad has continually escalated. Though it is unclear which direction Turkey will take toward Syria, Erdogan publicly calling for Assad to step down has set Ankara on a hostile path that may be irrevocable.
A retired Turkish general told Asia Times Online that the ruling party’s allowing of the SNC to maintain such an office was “a mistake”. The general’s view sounds emblematic of the divide between Turkey’s military establishment that sees itself as a vanguard of republican secularism at any cost versus the conservative political religiosity of AK Parti voters.
On Thursday, despite an implacable Russian stance with regard to the sovereignty of Syria’s much-cherished “internal affairs” which the Kremlin puts far above the human security of the Syrian people, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for an Arab League framework enabling the end of Assad’s rule with 137 voting for, 12 against and 17 abstentions. Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN, was quoted by Reuters as saying, “Bashar al-Assad has never been more isolated.”
Khoja said that a mediator involved in secret negotiations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Hafez al-Assad in the late 1990s painted a picture of a much younger Bashar - then being integrated into the Syrian security apparatus by his father after the death of his heir-apparent brother Basil in a 1994 vehicular accident - as “less clever yet more spiteful than his father”.
Though Bashar may not have been the elder Assad’s first choice, he ranked above his two younger brothers, the late Majid who died in 2009 and Maher who commands the Fourth Armored Division as well as leads the Republican Guard. Majid led a reportedly troubled life, living and dying in obscure circumstances.
Khoja described Maher as being viewed as “too crazy” by Hafez to inherit the supreme Ba’athist mantle eventually bestowed on Bashar. Maher, thought of as a corrupt and detestable figure by several Syrian oppositionists interviewed by Asia Times Online, has been Bashar’s right-hand man since the uprising began 11 months ago.
As ruthlessly as Hafez had put down the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Hama over a period of weeks in February 1982, many in the West were under the false assumption that Bashar, with his brief period cutting his teeth as an ophthalmologist in London, might therefore possibly be more lenient than the Assad patriarch who answered dissent with scorched-earth tactics.
A mediator then approached Bashar early on in his inherited presidency about the possibility of a political accommodation with the Sunni Islamists his father had either killed or sent into exile. Bashar stated that his mind was closed to any such idea and implied that he would not hesitate to employ violence to keep his father’s Ba’athist legacy intact with their Alawite clique firmly in power for the foreseeable future.
One of the most talked about external players in the Syrian crisis is that of the Russian Federation, which is reportedly keeping the regime afloat with arms shipments while providing diplomatic cover for Assad within the UN Security Council.
Khoja said the SNC, too, was in dealings with Moscow, though he did not go into great detail regarding specifics. “The Russians recognize him [Assad] as a dictator,” according to Khoja, while describing back-channel talks between the SNC and various Kremlin diplomats.
He emphasized that the Russians were genuinely worried about the fate of the Assad regime, a Russian and Soviet military client since the mid-Cold War period. Khoja stated, “The Russians would prefer to see a GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-style compromise as in Yemen where the leader steps down but key military and security elements remain in place.” The Russians for their part insist they are simply fulfilling an arms agreement with Damascus made well before the revolt began in March of 2011.
When asked what he sees as the biggest challenges for a post-Assad Syria, Khoja feared for the future of the Alawite sect, which would very likely face violent inter-communal reprisals which he believes are a certainty after the immense bloodshed and further entrenching of sectarian identities. Khoja suggested it may be necessary to form a protective force for the Alawites after the regime’s downfall.
His other principal concern is the stoking of separatist sentiments among Syria’s Kurdish minority. The danger would be if Syria’s Kurds made any attempt to emulate Iraq’s largely successful, secure and highly autonomous Kurdistan region. Unlike Iraq’s now powerful Kurds who were able to consolidate their northern enclave into a fairly homogenous ethno-geographic arc that stretches from the Syrian to Iranian borders, Khoja said the Kurdish heartland in Syrian is in fact bifurcated in two distinct, non contiguous regions with the city of Afrin in the far northwest and Qamishle in the far northeast. In that respect, Syria’s Kurdish question is very unlike that of Iraq.
Khoja believes that Kurdish separatism in Syria would be disastrous, leading to state fracture with deadly results. He postulates the solution to this problem is a democratic one whereby all groups - be they defined by religion, sect, ethnicity or language - be included in a pluralistic Syria.
The SNC, initially quite wary of the FSA, came to the realization that the rebels “are a reality” on the ground inside Syria - in Khoja’s words - and that an accommodation between the two movements had to be made to marry the dreams of the exiled activists with the wish of ordinary Syrians who continue to rise up against Assadist rule.
1. Khoja was born in Damascus in 1965 and moved to Libya. He graduated from Obari High School after being arrested in Damascus between1980-1982. He studied at the Political Science Faculty, Istanbul University from 1985-1986 and then at the Medical Faculty, 9th of September University from 1987 to 1994. In 2001, he founded and still manages Mertip Healthcare Group. He has been heading the Damascus Declaration Turkey branch since March 2011 and is member of the Syrian National Council (SNC). (Source: the Syrian National Council website.)
Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia and has covered many of the world’s conflicts since 9/11 as a frontline reporter. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com. Follow Derek on Twiiter @DerekHenryFlood
Supporters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad wave Syrian flags and carry pictures of him as they write on what they said is the world’s longest letter, in Damascus January 15, 2012.
(Reuters) - A Syrian rebel army chief urged the world on Tuesday to protect civilians, saying Arab peace monitors had failed to curb President Bashar al-Assad’s violent response to a 10-month-old revolt against his rule.
Big powers have also proved unable to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where U.N. officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed and Damascus says its security forces have lost 2,000 dead. Riad al-Asaad, a Turkish-based leader of the rebel Free Syrian Army, called for international intervention to replace the Arab observer mission, which has only days to run. “The Arab League and their monitors failed in their mission and though we respect and appreciate our Arab brothers for their efforts, we think they are incapable of improving conditions in Syria or resisting this regime,” he told Reuters by telephone. “For that reason we call on them to turn the issue over to the U.N. Security Council and we ask that the international community intervene because they are more capable of protecting Syrians at this stage than our Arab brothers,” Asaad said. President Assad, while proffering reform, has vowed to crush his “terrorist” foes with an “iron fist,” but Syrians braving bullets and torture chambers appear equally determined to add him to the past year’s list of toppled Arab leaders. Army deserters and other rebels have taken up arms against security forces dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, pushing Sunni Muslim-majority Syria closer to civil war. ROCKETS AND TANK FIRE “Terrorists” firing rockets killed an officer and five of his men at a rural checkpoint near Damascus, and wounded seven others, the state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday, a day after gunmen assassinated a brigadier general near the capital. In Homs, tank fire crashed into the Khalidiya district after a night rally against Assad there, activists said. YouTube footage showed a crowd dancing at the rally and waving old Syrian flags used before the Baath Party seized power in 1963. Activists also reported fighting between rebels and troops trying to edge into Khalidiya, a neighborhood that is home to Sunni tribesmen and lies next to the Alawite district of Nozha. Tanks were firing sporadically at the rebel-held town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, which has been under attack since Friday, activists said. They added that several soldiers who had tried to defect to the opposition had been killed. Syrian forces shot dead a man at a roadblock in the restive Damascus suburb of Qatana, they said, and an activist was killed by sniper fire in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Arab League must decide soon whether to withdraw its 165 monitors, whose mandate expires on Thursday, or keep them in Syria, even though they are set to report that Damascus has not fully implemented a peace plan agreed on November 2. The Arab plan required Syria to halt the bloodshed, withdraw troops from cities, free detainees, provide access for the monitors and the media and open talks with opposition forces. Qatar has proposed sending in Arab troops, a bold idea for the often sluggish League and one likely to be resisted by Arab rulers close to Assad and those worried about unrest at home. The League could ask the U.N. Security Council to act, but until now opposition from Russia and China has prevented the world body from even criticizing Syria, an old ally of Moscow. Western diplomats said a Russian draft resolution handed to the Council on Monday did not make clear if Moscow would accept tough language demanded by the West. Few Western powers favour any Libya-style military action in Syria, which lies in the heart of the conflict-prone Middle East. Bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, it is allied to Iran and the armed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group. The United States, the European Union, Turkey and the Arab League have announced sanctions against Syria, but while these have hurt its economy, they have yet to prompt Assad to change course. Opposition to sanctions from some of Syria’s trading partners, notably Lebanon and Iraq, also dilutes their impact. Council members have been divided for months over the uprising against Assad, with Western countries pushing for strong condemnation of the government’s bloody crackdown but Russia seeking to shield its ally Damascus. In October, Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted resolution that threatened possible sanctions. Russia presented its own draft on December 15 and Western countries agreed to discuss and negotiate it, but there has been little progress since then. A Syrian lawmaker told Reuters on Monday he had fled the country to join the opposition after losing hope that Assad would enact reforms or stop the violence. “Blood is in the streets,” said Imad Ghalioun, from the restive city of Homs, who took refuge in Cairo two weeks ago. “The whole country is bleeding. I do not think there will be any reforms because the young people have taken their decision,” he said. “This is a revolution and there is no going back.” (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Mariam Karouny and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
Big powers have also proved unable to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where U.N. officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed and Damascus says its security forces have lost 2,000 dead.
Riad al-Asaad, a Turkish-based leader of the rebel Free Syrian Army, called for international intervention to replace the Arab observer mission, which has only days to run.
“The Arab League and their monitors failed in their mission and though we respect and appreciate our Arab brothers for their efforts, we think they are incapable of improving conditions in Syria or resisting this regime,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“For that reason we call on them to turn the issue over to the U.N. Security Council and we ask that the international community intervene because they are more capable of protecting Syrians at this stage than our Arab brothers,” Asaad said.
President Assad, while proffering reform, has vowed to crush his “terrorist” foes with an “iron fist,” but Syrians braving bullets and torture chambers appear equally determined to add him to the past year’s list of toppled Arab leaders.
Army deserters and other rebels have taken up arms against security forces dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, pushing Sunni Muslim-majority Syria closer to civil war.
ROCKETS AND TANK FIRE
“Terrorists” firing rockets killed an officer and five of his men at a rural checkpoint near Damascus, and wounded seven others, the state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday, a day after gunmen assassinated a brigadier general near the capital.
In Homs, tank fire crashed into the Khalidiya district after a night rally against Assad there, activists said. YouTube footage showed a crowd dancing at the rally and waving old Syrian flags used before the Baath Party seized power in 1963.
Activists also reported fighting between rebels and troops trying to edge into Khalidiya, a neighborhood that is home to Sunni tribesmen and lies next to the Alawite district of Nozha.
Tanks were firing sporadically at the rebel-held town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, which has been under attack since Friday, activists said. They added that several soldiers who had tried to defect to the opposition had been killed.
Syrian forces shot dead a man at a roadblock in the restive Damascus suburb of Qatana, they said, and an activist was killed by sniper fire in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The Arab League must decide soon whether to withdraw its 165 monitors, whose mandate expires on Thursday, or keep them in Syria, even though they are set to report that Damascus has not fully implemented a peace plan agreed on November 2.
The Arab plan required Syria to halt the bloodshed, withdraw troops from cities, free detainees, provide access for the monitors and the media and open talks with opposition forces.
Qatar has proposed sending in Arab troops, a bold idea for the often sluggish League and one likely to be resisted by Arab rulers close to Assad and those worried about unrest at home.
The League could ask the U.N. Security Council to act, but until now opposition from Russia and China has prevented the world body from even criticizing Syria, an old ally of Moscow.
Western diplomats said a Russian draft resolution handed to the Council on Monday did not make clear if Moscow would accept tough language demanded by the West.
Few Western powers favour any Libya-style military action in Syria, which lies in the heart of the conflict-prone Middle East. Bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, it is allied to Iran and the armed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group.
The United States, the European Union, Turkey and the Arab League have announced sanctions against Syria, but while these have hurt its economy, they have yet to prompt Assad to change course. Opposition to sanctions from some of Syria’s trading partners, notably Lebanon and Iraq, also dilutes their impact.
Council members have been divided for months over the uprising against Assad, with Western countries pushing for strong condemnation of the government’s bloody crackdown but Russia seeking to shield its ally Damascus.
In October, Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted resolution that threatened possible sanctions. Russia presented its own draft on December 15 and Western countries agreed to discuss and negotiate it, but there has been little progress since then.
A Syrian lawmaker told Reuters on Monday he had fled the country to join the opposition after losing hope that Assad would enact reforms or stop the violence.
“Blood is in the streets,” said Imad Ghalioun, from the restive city of Homs, who took refuge in Cairo two weeks ago.
“The whole country is bleeding. I do not think there will be any reforms because the young people have taken their decision,” he said. “This is a revolution and there is no going back.”
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Mariam Karouny and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)
Syrian opposition activists have called for mass rallies in support of the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors seeking to topple the government.
Demonstrations are reportedly already taking place in Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, Homs, Idlib and suburbs of Damascus.
One activist group said two civilians had been killed, one of them a child.
On Thursday, the Free Syrian Army and the main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, agreed to co-ordinate their operations more closely.
An SNC statement said a liaison office would be set up with the FSA to “maintain direct communications around the clock”.
The groups also agreed to devise a plan, which would include “the reorganisation of FSA units and brigades, and the creation of a format to accommodate within FSA ranks additional officers and soldiers, especially senior military officials, who side with the revolution”, the SNC added.
- More than 5,000 civilians have been killed, says the UN
- More than 400 killed since start of Arab League mission on 26 December
- UN denied access to Syria
- Information gathered from NGOs, sources in Syria and Syrians who have fled
- Vast majority of casualties were unarmed, but the figure may include armed defectors
- Tally does not include serving members of the security forces
Source: UN’s OHCHR
The SNC initially opposed the use of force in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, while the FSA operated independently.
It is impossible to verify how many army defectors have joined the FSA, but its leader, Col Riyad al-Asaad, has put the figure at as many as 20,000.
The group has said it is behind an increasing number of attacks on Syrian security forces, and the authorities have acknowledged mounting losses.
The government says 2,000 security personnel have died combating “armed gangs and terrorists”. The UN last month said more than 5,000 people had been killed by Syrian security forces since the uprising began in March.
Also on Thursday, the secretary general of the Arab League defended the organisation’s observer mission in Syria, saying in an interview with the BBC that it had helped to save lives.
Nabil al-Arabi was responding to criticism of the mission, which one former monitor has called a “farce”.
Mr Arabi said the presence of the observers had encouraged more Syrians to take part in peaceful demonstrations.
“The observers are in Damascus to verify that shooting and killing has stopped. This has not materialised. So, the rationale for sending observers has not materialised,” he said.
He added that he regretted President Assad’s criticism of the Arab League in a speech this week and hinted they had exchanged sharp words in private.
Meanwhile, Syrian border guards turned back several hundred activists who wanted to take humanitarian aid across the border from Turkey. The guards said they did not have the right permits to enter the country.
The activists, who called themselves the Freedom Convoy, said they would stage a sit-in protest close to the border.
AKKAR, Lebanon — Under cover of darkness, in a shabby rented house in the northern Lebanese mountains, a dozen Syrian men huddle round a wood stove, candlelight flickering on their drawn faces.
All of them claim to be defected soldiers, who were forced to conduct operations against a widespread protest movement before fleeing the army. They said they escaped over the border into the relative safety of Lebanon, where they joined the Free Syrian Army.
This loose collection of defectors and armed civilians claims thousands of members and posts footage of attacks on military infrastructure on Facebook. But the men in north Lebanon, all of them Sunni Muslims, said that they lived in poverty and secrecy, numbering a few hundred at most, and had limited access to weapons, prompting questions about the capability of the organization to have a substantial impact on well-armed and organized Alawite-led Syrian security forces.
“The arms we have are what we defected with, or things that we steal from the other side,” said one, who added that he had been a private in the army. They receive no international help and had been visited by no military attaches, they said, although they would take arms, money or supplies from almost anyone if they offered it.
The defectors have won grudging support from the Syrian National Council, the most prominent political group calling for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad. The council recognized the FSA’s “honorable role in protecting the peaceful Revolution of our people” in a statement last month.
And they have garnered more enthusiastic approval from other Syrian dissidents — who carry banners with the group’s name at demonstrations and chant for them, calling on them to protect civilians from security forces, and hoping the group could one day present a challenge to the military.
One defector, who said he had been a second lieutenant and showed military identification, said that there were about 500 defected soldiers in north Lebanon, working with about 200 on the other side of the border. He said the men took turns to cross the border on foot, along old smuggling routes through newly-laid minefields into Syria.
They do not carry weapons across the border, he said, because to do so would risk execution if they were captured. But they do collect weapons from family and clan members over the border, he said, and spend a few days or weeks in the country, attending protests in the town of Tal Kalakh and surrounding villages to provide some protection from the heavy presence of security forces.
All of the soldiers who had gathered in the Lebanese mountains said they were from the town of Tal Kalakh. They had been deployed across the country, but all fled to their home town when they defected. Thus far, they said, relatively few soldiers had joined the group, simply because they were afraid of the consequences.
Under orders from their superiors, the men said, the defectors have suspended offensive operations over the past two weeks, during a visit to Syria by a monitoring team from the Arab League. They receive orders via a commanding officer from defected Col. Riad al-Asaad, who leads the group from southern Turkey.
The Arab League mission had been to oversee the implementation of an agreement by the government to end the use of deadly force against protests, withdraw soldiers from cities and free political prisoners. On Thursday, however, Col. Malik Kurdi, an assistant to Asaad, said the defectors would now escalate their operations because the Syrian authorities were continuing their military operations.
The soldiers in Lebanon expressed frustration with the work of the Arab League mission, pointing out that activists have reported hundreds of people have died in protests and clashes across the country, despite the presence of observers.
Sectarian divisions dominated the armed forces, they said. All of the men there were Sunni, and they had been closely watched in their work by soldiers and informal militias, known as shabiha, from the Alawite sect of the president’s family. It was these Alawites who ensured that soldiers followed orders, which included shooting on protesters with live bullets.
Their accounts matched more than 60 interviews with defectors in a recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which provided detailed evidence of high-level orders to fire on unarmed civilian protesters, said the group’s Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson.
“What we hear from soldiers is fear, fear of retribution,” she said, citing an incident in Jabal Zawiya in Idlib province on Dec. 20 in which more than 100 soldiers were reportedly killed after attempting to defect.
“I hear — not just from soldiers, but also from diplomats — that we’re not seeing defections because the Assad regime has made sure that their family members always remain in the country,” and people fear their families will be harmed if they desert their posts, Whitson said. Although they are relatively safe in Lebanon, the men fear being caught and deported by Lebanese security forces, so they move about only at night.
Unlike in an uprising in Libya that eventually swept Moammar Gaddafi from power, she added, where large parts of the armed forces defected en masse and fled to the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, there is no safe area for Syrian soldiers easily to escape to.
The Free Syrian Army and parts of the Syrian opposition have called for the swift creation of a safe zone, patrolled by an international military force along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. If soldiers had somewhere to go, large chunks of the army would defect, the men in north Lebanon said.
However, that remains a distant prospect, said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who said that Turkish authorities believe that Assad will fall, but are unwilling to intervene directly.
“The Turks see [the Free Syrian Army] as a useful tool,” Barkey said. “They assume that these guys are part of the ultimate picture that is going to emerge,” as shown by Turkish authorities allowing the group’s commander to remain in Turkey. “But they don’t want to get involved too deeply because it’s too risky for them at the moment.”
For now, the defectors continue on their missions. As some of them spoke animatedly, a few others excused themselves, saying that they were heading across the border later that night. At least two had been killed in minefields in the last week, they said, offering names and military identification numbers as proof.
“But when we have funerals for the martyrs,” said the second lieutenant, “we don’t grieve, but we congratulate each other on the honor. This is what makes the soldiers so determined.”
Syria’s interior ministry has vowed to “strike back with an iron fist” at what it say is a recent “escalation” of anti-government terror attacks.
It comes after a bomb in the capital, Damascus, killed at least 26 civilians and members of the security forces.
Opposition groups have accused the government of planting the bomb to discredit their opponents and influence Arab League monitors.
The monitors are assessing the progress of a regional peace plan.
But activists say the government crackdown has continued, with scores of people killed since the monitors arrived.
The UN says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began 10 months ago.
- More than 5,000 civilians have been killed, says the UN
- UN denied access to Syria
- Information gathered from NGOs, sources in Syria and Syrian nationals who have fled
- The death toll is compiled as a list of names which the UN cross-references
- Vast majority of casualties were unarmed, but the figure may include armed defectors
- Tally does not include serving members of the security forces
Source: UN’s OHCHR
The Damascus blast happened at a busy junction in the Midan district of Damascus. State TV showed the shattered blood-stained windows of what appeared to be a bus carrying policemen.
Authorities say most of those killed were civilians, but some security personnel were among the casualties.
Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar blamed the attack on a suicide bomber, who he said had “detonated himself with the aim of killing the largest number of people”.
“We will strike back with an iron fist at anyone tempted to tamper with the security of the country or its citizens,” he said.
The country’s main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC) said the attacks had been carried out by Mr Assad’s government to discredit its critics.
“It is a continuation of the regime’s dirty game as it tries to divert attention from massive protests,” said spokesman Omar Idlibi.
“We call for an independent international committee to investigate these crimes that we believe that the regime planned and carried out.”
Maj Maher al-Naimi, a spokesman for the armed anti-government movement the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said the blast was “planned and systematic state terrorism by the security forces of President Bashar al-Assad”.
FSA leader Col Riad al-Asaad reportedly denied involvement in the attack.
A British journalist who visited the scene told the BBC reporters were not shown any bodies of those killed.
“We left with the sense of this is a horrific spectacle but that maybe some of the details weren’t quite as one might have expected,” said Ian Black of the Guardian newspaper.
The US condemned the attack, saying violence was not “the right answer to the problems in Syria”.
Two weeks ago 44 people died in similar blasts also blamed on terrorists but which opposition groups accused the government of staging.
Arab League concern
Meanwhile, activists reported further violence on Friday. Anti-government protests have regularly followed traditional Friday prayers.
The LCC said nine protesters had been killed in Hama, 14 in the suburbs of Damascus, eight in Homs, three in Idlib and one in Deraa. The numbers cannot be verified.
The Arab League observers have been in Syria since late December to monitor compliance with a peace plan under which the government promised to withdraw the military from the streets and cease its use of force against civilians.
But critics say Mr Assad is using their presence as a political cover and that attacks continue.
Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed bin Helli said he was “concerned” about the Damascus blasts.
“That is why we are calling on the Syrian government to be totally cooperative with the mission and to work by all means to stop the bloodshed and allow room for the political process to begin,” he told the Associated Press.
He said observers at the scene would “undoubtedly have an opinion” about what had happened.
Opposition activists have urged Syrians to take to the streets in mass protests ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Sunday which will debate the initial findings of the observer mission.
In the recent past, it wasn’t unusual to hear Syrians (those who dared whisper about politics) say that although they lived under a repressive regime, they had bread on the table, and car bombs didn’t go off in their neighborhoods, unlike in their troubled neighbor to the east, Iraq. Such security was part of a decades-old, now decaying grand old bargain with autocratic leaders: they’d provide relative peace and limited prosperity in exchange for iron-fisted, one-party rule. In particular, the Syrian capital Damascus, the headquarters of all 18 or so of the state’s security and intelligence agencies, as well as the military, was particularly impenetrable to would-be no-gooders.
That has all changed. On Friday, a blast shook the central Damascene neighborhood of Midan, just before Friday noon prayers. That much is undisputed. The rest depends on which side of the political divide you listen to, either the pro or anti-regime camp. It was third time the capital has been struck. Nearly two weeks ago, Damascus was hit by two nearly simultaneous explosions, also on a Friday before midday prayers, also targeting security forces. The Dec. 23 double suicide left 44 people dead. (See TIME’s photoessay “Protests in Syria”)
Syrian state TV, the regime’s mouthpiece whose cameras were quick on the scene in Midan, beamed grisly images of bright red pools of blood and torn, shredded body parts. The blast was the work of a suicide bomber, it reported. The target was a bus ferrying security forces. There were “tens of victims among civilians and law-enforcement forces, the majority were civilians,” the SANA news agency reported, adding that the alleged suicide bomber set off his explosives at a traffic light, not far from the Hassan al-Hakeem Basic Education School. “The initial death toll is estimated at 25 martyrs, including the remains of 15 martyrs, and 46 injured, most of them civilians,” SANA said. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that the attacks “have the fingerprints of al-Qaeda all over them.”
The opposition, in its many forms, coalesced around a very different explanation. It claimed that all the attacks were staged by the regime, part of a cynical and bloody attempt to influence Arab League observers who are in the country to monitor the government’s compliance with an agreement to end violence, pull troops and tanks out of cities, free political prisoners and begin a dialogue with the opposition. The attacks, the opposition argued, only furthered the regime’s narrative that it is facing armed terrorist gangs rather than largely peaceful pro-democracy protesters.
The opposition points to two short snippets of video uploaded to YouTube to back their claims that the crimes were set up and that evidence was being planted — even though their authenticity cannot be verified. In a 13-second clip allegedly from Syrian state TV and broadcast on Lebanese and other Arab news channels, the camera moves inside a small mini bus, an apparent target of the Midan blast. Its light gray seats appear unsmeared by blood. A clear plastic Police shield can be seen in the aisle, as well as a black helmet on one of the seats. A hand or two (the men seem to be in uniform) then reach through the broken back window of the bus to place two police shields on the seats. In the next shot, shattered glass is visible on one of the gray seats, which is soaked in blood. A black helmet is then placed on the floor near the seat. (See “Syria: How the Arab League’s Monitors Are on a ‘Mission: Impossible’”)
In the other snippet, also imprinted with the logo of Syria TV, a man carrying a reporter’s microphone (only his hand and shoe appears) drops three plastic bags apparently full of groceries near a puddle of blood, before retreating from the frame. The news reader providing commentary freezes mid-sentence unsure of how to proceed.
There were reports of other explosions, also targeting loyalist troops in Syria today, principally in the rebellious central city of Hama, as well as the similarly besieged Homs. Syrian state TV did not dwell on those incidents.
Colonel Riad al-As’ad, the leader of the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA), was quick to distance his group from Friday’s bombing. But just days before, he had pledged to step up attacks against loyalist security forces. On Jan. 3, As’ad had said that his group would “take a decision which will surprise the regime and the whole world” within days. “What is most likely now is we will start a huge escalation of our operations,” he told the media. It’s unclear how much control As’ad, who is based in Turkey, has over defectors on the ground. TIME’s reporting suggests Syria-based defectors make and follow their own orders, sometimes informing the FSA’s command in Turkey after the fact, as a courtesy and in order to publicize it.
It’s all getting very ugly, very quickly. The Arab League observer mission, now two weeks into its task, was supposed to cut through the competing narratives and ascertain what is going on. Instead, it has come under mounting criticism for everything from its choice of the head of the mission, a Sudanese general whom rights organizations accuse of playing a role in the alleged atrocities in Darfur, to claims that the regime is hoodwinking the monitors. Earlier this week, the Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby said that regime had released some 3,500 prisoners, and withdrawn its tanks from the cities. Amateur footage soon surfaced disputing the latter claim, showing military hardware on residential streets, while rights activists say thousands more continue to languish in Syrian detention centers.
The Qatari prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, who chairs the League’s committee on Syria, acknowledged that the mission had made mistakes, but did not specify what they were. Al Thani was at the United Nations on Thursday, seeking “technical” assistance for the monitoring mission. The League is due to meet on the weekend to discuss if the mission will proceed, given increasing calls for it to withdraw, including from the largely toothless but still symbolic Arab Parliament. Still, Araby has already said that the show will go on, and that more monitors will soon arrive in the country.
The League seems desperate for some way to resolve the Syrian quagmire, preferably via an “Arab solution.” Toward that end, El-Araby held a press conference at the League’s headquarters in Cairo on Friday with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who had travelled from Damascus. “Khaled Meshaal carried no message to me from the Syrian authorities but I asked him to carry a message to Damascus to help facilitate the job of the Arab League mission in Syria,” El-Araby said.
He acknowledged that the Syrian government wasn’t holding up its end of the Arab League bargain, saying that the monitors “are not having an easy time and their task is difficult. I am sending a message via Khaled Meshaal to ask the Syrian authorities to honor their commitments,” he said.
Meshaal, pledged to deliver the message and to try to help “spare Syrian blood and help the cause of stability in Syria against plots that are designed against it.” There has been much talk in recent weeks about Hamas potentially pulling out of its long-time base in Damascus, given Syria’s troubles, and relocating elsewhere in the region, in a move that may also realign away from Syria and Iran toward the Sunni Arab monarchies. But on Friday, Meshaal downplayed any fears about Hamas’ future in Syria or elsewhere. “Hamas leaders have no concern about where they would be in the Arab world or in the occupied Palestinian territories,” he said.
Published: January 3, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian activists reported that at least two people were killed on Tuesday in the restive city of Hama in central, despite the presence of observers there.
The league said on Tuesday that it would send more monitors to Syria to shore up its heavily criticized mission. In a statement, Adnan Khudair, the chief of the observers’ operations room, said that 50 more monitors would be sent to Syria by the end of the week, to join the 60 who are already there.
The mission of the observers is to ensure that the embattled government of Presidentlives up to its promises, including to withdraw troops from cities and to release political prisoners.
But Syrian activists say that at least 150 people have been killed in the country since the observers started their work a week ago. The activists argue that the Arab League monitoring effort is far too small to be effective; hundreds or perhaps thousands of observers would be needed, they say.
Meanwhile, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France issued a new call on Tuesday for Mr. Assad to step down because of massacres carried out by his government, The Associated Press reported. The killings “rightly arouse disgust,” said Mr. Sarkozy, who in August joined other Western powers in asking Mr. Assad to “step aside.”
Opposition activists in Hama said that government troops opened fire on a demonstration there on Tuesday.
The Arab League recently set up an office in Hama to hear complaints from citizens, but an activist who uses the name Abu Faysal said: “Frankly, who dares go there? It’s completely controlled by government people; there are bodyguards downstairs searching people.”
Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said in a news briefing on Tuesday that “the Syrian regime has not lived up to the full spectrum of commitments that it made to the Arab League when it accepted its proposal some nine weeks ago,” and noted that “the violence hasn’t stopped — far from it,” Reuters reported.
Some of the recent violence has stemmed from clashes between security forces and army defectors, or ambushes of government troops by armed rebels.
On Tuesday, Col. Riad al-As’aad, the leader of an opposition militia, the Free Syrian Army, said that his group might soon intensify its attacks because the Arab League observer mission had proved ineffective.
“Thugs and security people are escorting them all the time,” Colonel As’aad said. “We haven’t seen snipers leaving the roofs of buildings. The killing has increased with the presence of the observers.”
08 December 2011
by Anthony Tucker-Jones
It seems the military success of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Libya is now to be replicated in Syria. The well-armed Libyans, triumphant after ousting Colonel Gaddafi, have made it known that they intend assisting their fellow oppressed Arabs in Syria.
Syrian opposition figures flew into London in late November where they held discussions with British Foreign Secretary William Hague about possible measures against beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Immediately afterwards a secret meeting was held in Istanbul, involving the Syrian opposition, Turkish government officials and representatives from Libya. Reportedly the Libyans offered weapons, training and volunteers.
Assad sent weapons to try and prop up Gaddafi so there is no love lost between Libya’s new authorities and the Syrian government.
Members of Syria’s main opposition group the Syrian National Council (SNC) were in Tripoli earlier in November, and Libya’s interim government recognises them as the country’s ‘legitimate authority.’
However, Libyan intervention is likely to spark a much wider conflict. To date, key NATO member Turkey has stood by while the Syrian military has forced thousands of refugees over their mutual border. Amongst these refugees are deserting Syrian army officers who have self-styled themselves as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) including General Riadh Asaad.
Their aim is to secure control of northern Syria and launch attacks on the regime, much as the Libyan opposition did from the sanctuary of Benghazi. Clearly they are seeking a ‘Benghazi solution’ to regime change.
With demonstrations nationwide regularly seeing up to 500,000 people taking to the streets and with protestors regularly killed in Damascus, Harata, Homs and Banias, one can only speculate as to how much longer Assad can keep a lid on things.
Certainly after eight months of uprising and over 4,000 dead, Assad’s minority Alawite elite is running out of options. The majority Sunni population has had enough.
Against this background the FSA are hoping that once they have control of northern Syria NATO will impose a no-fly zone over the area and there will be a repeat of the Libyan rising.
Although General Assad claims the FSA is around 10,000 strong, in reality it will be lucky to muster more than a few thousand. Their most active unit is the Khaled bin al-Walid brigade. The majority of the protestors remain unarmed.
Illegal weapons have been flowing into Syria via Lebanon since April, but these have reportedly been for self-defence rather than fuelling any insurgency. Libyan military assistance would put a whole new complexion on things.
In response Iran is likely to step up its support for President Assad – indeed, according to intelligence sources Iranian Brigadier Ahmad Rez Radan, the police commander responsible for putting down the 2009 Iranian protests, has been giving Damascus security advice.
The Arab League is calling for an end to the violence and sanctions on the table include banning all flights into Syria, placing an embargo on the Syrian central bank and freezing the government’s overseas accounts.
The FSA, SNC and their newfound Libyan allies are of the view that only force and bloodshed will remove President Assad’s one-party state.
If Turkey is prepared to offer safe haven to a Libyan-armed FSA, then Syria is facing full-blown civil war and possible NATO intervention.