02/19/2013 - #Syria - Damascus - A car bomb has torn through the Jdaydet Artouz suburb of western Damascus. According to the CFDPC, a network of activists working to report on the news in Damascus, earlier reported that at least 3 people have been killed, but that number has risen to 5.
By ANNE BARNARD and ELLEN BARRY
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Fierce fighting on the battlefield and setbacks on the diplomatic front increased pressure on the embattled Syrian government on Monday as fresh signs emerged of a worsening battle for control of the capital.
A senior Turkish official said thathad agreed on Monday to a new diplomatic approach that would seek ways to persuade President to relinquish power, a possible weakening in Russia’s steadfast support for the government. Fighting raged around Damascus, the Syrian capital, and its airport, disrupting commercial flights for a fourth straight day.
A prominent Foreign Ministry spokesman was said to have left the country amid reports of his defection, and bothand Secretary of State issued warnings that any use of chemical weapons by a desperate government would be met with a strong international response. A Western diplomat confirmed that there were grave concerns in United States intelligence circles that Syrian leaders could resort to the use of the weapons as their position deteriorates.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, repeating earlier statements, told state television that the government “would not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances.”
The United Nations said it was withdrawing nonessential international staff from, and the European Union said it was reducing activities in Damascus “to a minimum,” as security forces pummeled the suburbs with artillery and airstrikes in a struggle to seal off the city from its restive outskirts and control the airport road. A senior Russian official spoke for the first time in detail about the possibility of evacuating Russian citizens.
Mr. Assad has held on longer than many had predicted at the start of the 21-month uprising. He still has a strong military advantage and undiminished support from his closest ally, Iran. Military analysts doubt the rebels are capable of taking Damascus by force, and one fighter interviewed on Monday said the government counteroffensive was inflicting heavy losses. There were still no firm indications from Russia that it was ready to joinand Western nations in insisting on Mr. Assad’s immediate departure.
But the latest grim developments follow a week of events that suggested the Assad government was being forced to fight harder to keep its grip on power. Rebels threatened its vital control of the skies, using surface-to-air missiles to down a fighter plane and other aircraft. The opposition also gained control of strategic military bases and their arsenals, and forced the government to shut down the Damascus airport periodically. The Internet was off for two days.
A Russian political analyst with contacts at the Foreign Ministry said that “people sent by the Russian leadership” who had contact with Mr. Assad two weeks ago described a man who has lost all hope of victory or escape.
“His mood is that he will be killed anyway,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a Russian foreign affairs journal and the head of an influential policy group, said in an interview in Moscow, adding that only an “extremely bold” diplomatic proposal could possibly convince Mr. Assad that he could leave power and survive.
“If he will try to go, to leave, to exit, he will be killed by his own people,” Mr. Lukyanov said, speculating that security forces dominated by Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect would not let him depart and leave them to face revenge. “If he stays, he will be killed by his opponents. He is in a trap. It is not about Russia or anybody else. It is about his physical survival.”
Many observers — United Nations personnel in Syria, Arab diplomats and opposition activists — stress that it is difficult to reliably assess the state of the government. But taken together, the day’s events suggested that the government’s position was declining more sharply than it had in months and that an international scramble to find a solution to the crisis was intensifying.
Nabil al-Araby, the head of the Arab League, said on Monday that the government could fall at “any time,” Agence France-Presse reported.
“I think there will be something soon,” he said. “Facts on the ground indicate very clearly now that the Syrian opposition is gaining, politically and militarily.”
The Arab League has long called for Mr. Assad to step down. But Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful ally, has held out the possibility of his staying in power during a transition, so the Russian government’s apparent shift of emphasis carried more weight.
Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister, told Itar-Tass that Russia was ready to provide assistance to any of its citizens wishing to leave Syria. Tens of thousands of Russians live there, mainly women married to Syrian men after years of cold war cooperation between the countries. He said their route out would most likely be by plane.
“Due to the situation, we recommend Russian citizens not to go to Syria,” Mr. Bogdanov said.
After meeting in Istanbul on Monday, President Vladimir V. Putin and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said they had agreed on a new approach to resolving the conflict.
“We are neither protecting the regime in Syria nor acting as their advocate, but remain worried about Syria’s future,” Mr. Putin said at a joint news conference with Mr. Erdogan.
Mr. Putin did not elaborate, though Mr. Bogdanov said Russia would meet intensively with Syrian opposition groups based inside the country in the coming month. A senior Turkish official, speaking anonymously in accordance with diplomatic protocol, said plans included looking for ways to get Mr. Assad to step down. Russia has previously said it is not wedded to Mr. Assad, but the official suggested it was now more motivated to find an alternative.
“There is definitely a softening of the Russian political tone,” the Turkish official said, adding that Mr. Putin had acknowledged that Mr. Assad seemed unwilling to depart.
Yet, doubts remain about whether Russia can engineer a breakthrough. The Kremlin has insisted the crisis would be resolved only through negotiations between Syria’s government and its opponents, and its top envoy to Syria has quietly continued to meet with defectors from Mr. Assad’s government and members of the opposition.
But Russia has typically engaged mainly with Syria-based opposition groups, which the exile opposition and many in the uprising say are too close to the government. And Mr. Lukyanov, the Russian analyst, noted that even if Mr. Assad went, a radicalized Alawite security force could simply “turn into a militia.”
Lebanon’s Al-Manar television reported that a smooth-talking Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, had been fired for making statements that did not reflect the government’s position. Activists said he had defected.
Mr. Makdissi, whose polished persona and fluent English had long made him one of the most cosmopolitan faces of the government, had not taken reporters’ phone calls or made public statements recently.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who uses a pseudonym for safety reasons, said that Mr. Makdissi had met his family in Beirut, where they had been staying, and was believed to have boarded a flight for London. He said Mr. Makdissi had earlier angered some in the Syrian government with a statement saying Syria would use chemical weapons only against a foreign invasion — weapons the government prefers not to acknowledge it has.
While the fighting around Damascus has been intense, analysts say rebels are probably unable to overrun the capital; rather, in forcing the government to devote forces to Damascus, their offensive could hasten the loss of control in other parts of the country.
“We feel a change in the security situation,” said Muhannad Hadi, the Syria director of the United Nations’ World Food Program. He played down the United Nations evacuations, saying that nonessential personnel had left during a rebel offensive in July and had returned. But he said that the proliferation of checkpoints and explosions in the distance had made life in Damascus nerve-racking.
“You hear sounds of explosions, you hear shelling, you don’t know where it’s taking off or where it’s landing,” Mr. Hadi said. “It’s becoming part of daily life.”
Majed al-Muhammad, center, a rebel commander, said if the West continued to turn its back on Syria’s suffering, Syrians would turn their backs in return.
SAMAS, Syria — Majed al-Muhammad, the commander of a Syrian anti government fighting group, slammed his hand on his desk. “Doesn’t America have satellites?” he asked, almost shouting. “Can’t it see what is happening?”
A retired Syrian Army medic, Mr. Muhammad had reached the rank of sergeant major in the military he now fights against. He said he had never been a member of a party, and loathed jihadists and terrorists.
But he offered a warning to the West now commonly heard among fighters seeking the overthrow of President: The Syrian people are being radicalized by a combination of a grinding conflict and their belief that they have been abandoned by a watching world.
If the West continues to turn its back on Syria’s suffering, he said, Syrians will turn their backs in return, and this may imperil Western interests and security at one of the crossroads of the Middle East.
This is a theme that has resonated in recent days, not just in Syria, but in Turkey, where the government fired artillery shells into northern Syria this week after a Syrian mortar round hit a Turkish town and killed five civilians. In Turkey, there is a growing sense of frustration shared by the Syrian rebels that the West, the United States in particular, called for Mr. Assad to leave power, only to sit quietly on the sidelines as the crisis transformed into a bloody civil war.
“We are now at a very critical juncture,” wrote Melih Asik in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet. “We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China behind it as well. Behind us, we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the U.S.”
Across northern Syria, in areas that rebels have wrested from government control, such sentiments have become an angry and routine element of the public discourse. Wearied by violence, heading into another winter of fighting, and enraged by what they see as the inaction and hypocrisy of powerful nations, frontline leaders of the rebellion say that the West risks losing a potential ally in the Middle East if the Assad government should fall.
The corollary is frequently sounded, too: The West may be gaining enemies where it might have found friends. As anger grows, armed groups opposed to the United States may grow in numbers and stature, too.
“The United Nations and international community are making a big mistake,” said Ghassan Abdul Wahib, 43, a truck driver and now a leader in Kafr Takharim, a village in the north. “By letting this be a long war, they are dragging Syria toward radicalism, and they will suffer from this for a long time.”
The origins of these sentiments are typically the same: a widely held view that Washington and European capitals are more interested in maintaining the flow of oil from Libya and Iraq, or in protecting Israel, than in Syria and its people’s suffering. The view is supported, Syrians opposed to Mr. Assad say, by the West’s stubborn refusal to provide weapons to the rebels, or to protect civilians and aid the rebels with a no-fly zone.
The contrast with the West’s military assistance and vocal political support to the uprising last year in Libya is frequently drawn.
The donations of nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition by Washington are often called small-scale, to the extent that none of the half-dozen fighting groups visited by journalists for The New York Times, or the many commanders interviewed in Turkey, claimed to have seen, much less received, American aid.
“We haven’t received anything from the outside,” said Thayar, a member of the ad hoc governing body in Kafr Takharim known as the revolutionary council. (He asked that his last name be withheld to protect him and his family from retaliation.) “We read in the media that we are receiving things. But we haven’t seen it. We only received speeches from the West.”
Other men echoed this sentiment, and accused the United States and Europe of playing a double game, in effect of conspiring with the Kremlin to ensure that no nation has to act against the Assad government or on the rebels’ or civilians’ behalf.
In this view, the Kremlin’s insistence that it will not support further action against Syria is regarded as convenient for the White House, which, many commanders and fighters said, issues statements supporting the uprising and condemning the Assad government knowing it will not have to back up words with deeds. Russia has provided weapons and diplomatic support to the Assad government and blocked action by the United Nations Security Council.
Mr. Wahib, the leader in Kafr Takharim, dismissed the discussions in the United Nations as a choreographed show. “The whole world is now trying to destroy Syria,” he said. “The international community knows that Assad is dead, but they want war so it destroys Syria and puts us back 100 years. In this way, Israel will be safe.”
“The United Nations,” he added, “is a partner in destroying Syria.”
Like many activists and fighters, he had a derisive view of what had once been hailed in Western capitals as an achievement by NATO — the military intervention in Libya last year, which Western leaders have said protected civilians and which enabled disorganized rebels to defeat their country’s conventional military.
That campaign was not perfect. NATO killed and wounded many civilians whom it has refused to acknowledge or help. As the war dragged on, many armed groups formed, casting the country’s long-term security in doubt and, after the attack last month on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, jeopardizing Western engagement, too.
But Syrians opposed to Mr. Assad still crave Western military assistance, even if it would only be a no-fly zone to ground the Syrian Air Force, whose aircraft have been attacking cities and towns since this summer. The United States, however, has so far ruled out military involvement in Syria.
Many Syrian men also bristled under what they called common descriptions that their uprising is driven by foreign fighters, or hosts groups linked to Al Qaeda.
“We are not terrorists like the regime says,” said Abu Muhammad, a teacher in Deir Sonbul. “We are fighting for dignity, which has been raped for 40 years.”
In this environment of acrimony and charge and countercharge, the anger of Majed al-Muhammad, the retired sergeant major, was of a type fueled by frustration and loss.
A few days before he received journalists in his office here, from where he commands 200 fighters in the northern highlands of Jebel al-Zawiya, he learned that his sister had been killed in Damascus. A photograph of her bloodied remains, crumpled on the ground, was on his cellphone; he displayed the image with rage.
Then he moved to a collection of ordnance remnants on a table beside his desk. He held up an expended tank shell. “Is it possible for the government to use this against the people?” he asked.
He lifted the remains of an S-5 rocket, an air-to-ground weapon in common use by the Syrian Air Force’s helicopters and jets. He asked if citizens of the United States would tolerate what Syria’s opposition has endured, and not ask for weapons and help, too.
“Is it possible for your helicopters to fire this into the crowds?” He was fuming. His voice rose again. “Do we have the right to live, or not?”
#Syria, ‘contact group’ to hold more talks
Turkey, Iran and Egypt agree to meet again in New York, as differences remain on how to resolve near two year conflict
Foreign ministers of the regional “contact group” on Syria have agreed at talks in Cairo to hold more consultations in New York later this month, the official MENA news agency reported.
The top diplomats of Egypt, Turkey and Iran met in Cairo to discuss developments in conflict-stricken Syria, but Saudi Arabia, which is also a member of the group, was notably absent from the meeting.
The ministers agreed to “hold their next meeting in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month”, MENA reported on Tuesday.
“It is too early to say we have come up with any specifics,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr said after the talks.
Diplomats and Western officials have been sceptical that the group can reach any tangible deal on defusing Syria’s civil war, citing rivalry and mistrust between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shia Muslim Iran as one significant stumbling block.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Assad step down, while Iran has accused states including Saudi Arabia and Turkey of helping the rebels who are fighting to topple him.
Group will meet again at UN
Against that backdrop, some analysts said Egypt may itself not have expected much from the group and that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s main aim may have been to put Cairo back on the map as a regional power broker.
The contact group decided to meet again in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the Egyptian foreign minister said after the Cairo meeting during a joint news conference with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts.
“To expect a quick solution from one meeting is unrealistic. We must be patient. But I confirm to you that the things we agree on are greater than our differences,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said during the news conference.
“Everyone confirmed the need to bring about a peaceful solution,” he added, reiterating what he described as Tehran’s longstanding position that the Syrian government must meet the demands of the Syrian people but a solution could not be imposed from outside.
He said the four states had a “great role” to play and could table a proposal that “we hope, God willing, will produce a result that satisfies everyone … But this needs more talks.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of the need for “regional ownership of the issues of our region”.
Egyptian officials gave conflicting reasons for the absence of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. They did not say why no one else came in his place.
The Saudi minister underwent surgery last month, keeping him away from official business, but he has been represented at international meetings by Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah.
Egyptian presidential spokesman Yasser Ali and an Arab League official both said Faisal was staying away for health reasons. But Amr, the foreign minister, said the absence was due to previously arranged engagements.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia, which attended a preparatory meeting last week.
China and Russia have vetoed Western- and Arab-backed UN Security Council resolutions intended to raise pressure on Assad to halt the violence and engage in talks on a peaceful solution.
The UN-Arab League mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, also visited Cairo on Monday after making his first trip to Damascus in his new post. Brahimi met privately with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi in Arabi’s home in Cairo.
Brahimi told Reuters that his visit to Damascus made him ”form an inclusive image about the situation in Syria that confirmed that the situation is extremely dangerous and escalating”.
The veteran Algerian diplomat said he would next report to the UN Security Council and Arab ministers, who will be there to attend the UN General Assembly. He said he would then return to Syria, without saying when.
Turkey’s Davutoglu said Brahimi should have a different mandate from Kofi Annan, the ex-UN secretary-general who quit in August as Syria envoy after his six-point plan for peace met with failure.
“He must not allow Assad to buy more time with this type of mission,” Davutoglu said after meeting Morsi earlier in the day. ”Assad misused Kofi Annan’s mission to increase pressure on people. Brahimi shouldn’t give Assad this chance.”
* Investigators have secret list of alleged perpetrators
* Call for U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to ICC
* Both sides commit war crimes in Syria, Pinheiro says
* Syrian envoy says Western, Arab nations back jihad
By Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles
GENEVA, Sept 17 (Reuters) - United Nations human rights investigators said on Monday they had drawn up a new secret list of Syrians and military units suspected of committing war crimes who ought to be prosecuted.
The independent investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, said they had gathered “a formidable and extraordinary body of evidence” and urged the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“Gross human rights violations have grown in number, in pace and in scale,” Pinheiro told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. “There is no statute of limitations on these crimes.”
He did not say if any Syrian rebels were among the names on the list, which updated a confidential one his team submitted to U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay in February.
Pinheiro presented the team’s latest report, issued a month ago, saying Syrian government forces and allied militia have committed war crimes including murder and torture of civilians in what appears to be a state-directed policy.
More than 20,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old conflict, 1.2 million are uprooted within Syria and more than 250,000 have fled abroad, the United Nations says.
Food, water and medical supplies have run short in areas subjected to Syrian government air strikes, shelling and siege, Pinheiro said, adding that investigators had received “numerous accounts…of civilians barely managing to survive”.
Pinheiro reported an “increasing and alarming presence” of Islamist militants in Syria, some joining the rebels and others operating independently. They tended to radicalise the rebels, who have also committed war crimes, the Brazilian expert said.
It would be “improper” to make public the list of suspects because they were entitled to the presumption of innocence and no mechanism to hold perpetrators responsible was in place yet where allegations could be contested, Pinheiro said.
His team interviewed more than 1,100 victims, refugees and defectors in the past year. “We have no interviews with wounded soldiers, or families of dead agents of the government because the government of Syria does now allow us access to Syria.”
Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui accused Western and Arab powers of arming and funding rebels conducting a “jihad” or holy war against Damascus, and warned that this would backfire.
“The mercenaries are a time bomb that will explode later in the country and in the countries supporting them after they finish their terrorist mission in Syria,” he declared.
The report should have named countries that “support the killers”, which he said included the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Libya.
SYRIA SAYS FOES BACK “JIHAD”
“One of the facts that we do not see in the report is that many international parties are working at increasing the crisis in Syria through instigating their media, through training mercenaries, Qaeda elements, training them and funding them and sending them to Syria for jihad. This through fatwas that were issued,” Khabbaz Hamoui said during the four-hour debate.
Russia, Syria’s ally which has vetoed all Western attempts at the Security Council to condemn Syria, said rebels were committing “terrorist acts” including executions and jihadists were increasingly active due to “support from the outside”.
“There are jihadist mercenaries fighting on the opposition side. Those who in the view of some states are bringing democracy to the region are in actual fact carrying out mass murder,” Russian diplomat Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva said.
“They are deliberately firing on peaceful inhabitants who support the government…and are using hostages as suicide bombers and children as soldiers,” she said.
Western countries are seeking another condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government at the session, as well as an extension of the commission of inquiry’s mandate, which expires this month.
European Union ambassador Mariangela Zappia said: “The international community must ensure impunity will not prevail.”
U.S. human rights ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe also called for the investigators to pursue their work.
Turkey’s ambassador Oguz Demiralp, describing the conflict in Syria as a “serious threat to international security”, said those behind crimes there would be held accountable.
Human Rights Watch, which has repeatedly documented abuses by Syrian security forces, said on Monday that rebel groups had subjected detainees to ill-treatment and torture and committed extrajudicial or summary executions.
“Declarations by opposition groups that they want to respect human rights are important, but the real test is how opposition forces behave,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director of the New York-based watchdog. “Those assisting the Syrian opposition have a particular responsibility to condemn abuses.”
(Reuters) - France may be considering arming Syria’s rebels but the U.S. and other Western powers have yet to find opposition figures they genuinely trust as they worry over growing jihadi and sectarian forces.
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya’s Benghazi that killed its ambassador and anti-American demonstrations elsewhere this week over an obscure video that ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad might have no Syria links but will make nervous governments even more cautious.
Western officials say there is little doubt a growing number of foreign jihadi fighters are entering the fray, although it is far from clear whether any have direct links to Al Qaeda. But It is just one worry amongst many.
“This is not a situation where the U.S. can do much to shape what happens,” says Mona Yacoubian, a former State Department official and now fellow and Syria expert at the Stimson Centre. “There has always been a lot of caution within the Obama Administration on Syria and if anything things are getting more complicated.”
Working with Libya’s initially notoriously disorganized rebels, officials complained, was hard enough; but the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al Assad seems even more diffuse.
That makes policy-making much more complicated and supplying weapons, or even choosing who to talk to, more of a gamble.
“We badly need to identify some political and military leaders who can make clear that they seek a political settlement to bring all fighting to an end,” said one Western official on condition of anonymity. “Without that the blood letting reinforces the worst aspects of sectarianism and makes a soft landing ever less likely.”
Western states have been on a concerted offensive to push opposition figures towards greater unity, facilitating meetings that range from foreign-based conferences to Internet chats and small border gatherings.
But, beyond pushing in humanitarian aid they fear there is a limited amount they can do to change the situation on the ground.
“It’s a very difficult situation, and the lack of coherence of the opposition is probably the biggest single challenge,” says Melissa Dalton, a senior Pentagon adviser on Syria and the Middle East currently on sabbatical as a visiting fellow at the Centre for New American Security.
“Given everything that is at stake, the United States clearly cannot do nothing. But there are no good scenarios arising from this conflict, and so the most important strategy for the United States to pursue is mitigating the risks to its interests.”
That meant to prioritize tracking Syria’s chemical weapons, ensuring militant groups inspired by Al Qaeda were unable to set up safe havens and preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands, she said. It also meant avoiding doing anything to make matters worse.
DITCHING SNC FOR FSA
Current and former Western officials say their countries have lost confidence in the Syrian National Council (SNC), the largely foreign-based body initially courted as a government in waiting. With some of its meetings dissolving into fisticuffs, it is increasingly both too chaotic, too sectarian and simply lacking in a significant support.
The main focus of political and diplomatic effort, they say, is now the Free Syrian Army (FSA), particularly as its fighters prove increasingly successful at ousting Assad’s forces from significant portions of the country. But even the FSA, they worry, may be a unified body in little more than name.
After a sluggish start, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been overseeing cross border movements from a secret liaison center in Turkey. Ankara denies any direct involvement in channeling of arms across the frontier. U.N. diplomats say Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been transferring weapons to rebels.
Western states have so far restricted themselves to “nonlethal” support such as body armor, radios and medical equipment although a French diplomatic source said early this month that Paris was considering giving heavy weaponry.
Those with knowledge of events say the United States and other Western intelligence agencies are already trying to vet those receiving arms channeled across the Turkish border. Should France choose to supply arms, it could expect warnings from Washington if it dealt with those about whom the U.S. had concern.
But knowing conclusively who anyone is along the chaotic border, experts say, can be all but impossible.
In principle, the FSA remains commanded by former Syrian force colonel Rian al-Assad, an early defector who first announced the rebel group’s existence to the world more than a year ago. But in reality, there are growing suspicions that his influence and that of the rest of the group’s leadership may be collapsing on the ground.
Kept cloistered by their Turkish military hosts, some Syria experts say the FSA’s headquarters now amounts to little more than a media center. The real emerging power bases seem to be within Syria, particularly in cities such as Aleppo and Idlib where Assad’s forces have ceded some ground.
“CHAOTIC FREE FOR ALL”
“Every group is sending people (separately) to Turkey to ask for weapons,” says Joseph Holliday, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and Syria expert now a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC, describing the situation as a “free for all”“. “Countries, organizations or just wealthy individuals are talking to these individual groups and giving what support they want to people that they want.”
Dealing with so many players was itself a challenge for organizations such as the U.S. State Department more used to working on a national level, he said.
Some groups are already accused of reprisal killings, a worrying sign for foreign powers who believe agreement with some of the minority Alawite regime may ultimately prove vital.
Any offer of lethal support, some argue, should bring with it signed assurances of commitment to a peaceful post-war transition. But holding the rebels to account afterwards might prove impossible.
In a potential sign of further escalation, France, which has a colonial history in Syria and showed itself in Libya to be an increasingly assertive Mediterranean power, has also voiced support for a Turkish suggestion of militarily protected “humanitarian zones”.
But as well as worries that any such action would simply further inflame the situation, the United States in particular worries that even enforcing a no-fly zone could require it to move forces currently arrayed against Iran.
Washington is also unpleasantly aware that as things stand, any such move would be in the face of angry Russian and probably also Chinese opposition - as well as one of the most militarily challenging battles of recent decades. The downing of a Turkish jet earlier this year showed Assad retained a sophisticated air defense system.
The opposition, however, says Western reticence is already costing lives. Last week in Istanbul, two senior Aleppo rebels accused the outside world of simply watching “like a movie” while thousands died.
“There’s a lot of frustration with the West,” says former U.S. Army intelligence officer Holliday “they think we encouraged them to rise up and then didn’t do anything to support them.”
President of the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sieda. Photograph: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images
The opposition Syrian National Council has come under attack from within and without. Western governments have given up on its ability to unite the opposition and some high-profile members have resigned.
Western governments, along with Qatar, Saudi and Turkey, have begun building channels of communication with grassroots opposition groups and activists by training them to run liberated areas and prepare for a post-Assad Syria.
A western diplomat who works on Syrian issues has told me that these countries are tapping into such groups to prevent the spread of militias after the downfall of the regime. The diplomat said that although the SNC receives sufficient relief resources, the funds are misspent. And, despite frequent attempts, the council failed to reform itself.
Ziour al-Omar, a Kurdish figure and a former member of the SNC, said:
“When the council was formed, there was a kind of balance between its components: secularists, liberals, nationalists, Islamists and other religious groups.
The imbalance occurred at a later stage when Islamist forces managed to control the decision-making process within the council, a development that had been watched closely and with discomfort by the international community.”
Members of the SNC sense the attempts to sideline it and have taken steps to assert its presence. The council is building ties with the more popular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and there is a plan to change the FSA’s name to the Syrian National Army – the similarity of names is not a coincidence but a clear attempt to maintain the Syrian National Council as the leading brand.
Despite its current failure, however, sidelining the Syrian National Council is a mistake. While it is an effective policy to build channels of grassroots communication, that is not enough. Instead of abandoning the council, the west and its allies in the region must throw their weight behind reforming the council.
There are several risks in abandoning the council. Political legitimacy will be a decisive factor in maintaining order after the downfall of the regime. Without a legitimate political body, the risk of the country lapsing into chaos is extremely high. Establishing legitimacy must not be deferred to the transition period, as some suggest, because it takes time, and should be proven through palpable contribution to the downfall of the regime.
Because of this lack of legitimacy and the council’s performance, anti-regime fighters are planning the future of the country without the council. The rebels believe the council is idly waiting to be handed the keys to the country by the Free Syrian Army. They have a point. How can a political body that claims to represent people in a complex struggle against a brutal regime have members living in different parts of the world without dedication to the cause?
According to Hussein Jamo, a Kurdish-Syrian journalist who embedded with the FSA in Aleppo for a week, the fighters began to give up on the council by the turn of the year. Criticism by activists and fighters on the ground heightened when the SNC failed to provide relief work after the regime’s violent escalation that turned several cities to rubble. SNC member Ridwan Ziada has blamed the donor countries for this, saying the first funds received by the council were in February.
The persistence of rifts within the opposition and the rise of extremism are driving more people towards the Assad camp. Also, the failure of the council has a direct impact on the unity and operations of the anti-regime fighters. The selective distribution of ammunition, according to Jamo, is a major cause of rifts among brigades of the FSA. Ziour al Omar said the council’s top leadership distributes the money they receive among themselves and then spend it for the uprising as they see fit. “Each member then distributes it to his own supporters,” he said.
The west must tie support and funding for the council to reform and inclusiveness. Some groups and figures within the council have already established channels of financial support in the region, which means the west must work with its regional allies.
The unconditional flow of funding, along with other factors, impede progress. Influential members feel they do not need to bow to pressure and cede monopoly over the council. According to an SNC member, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Riad al-Shiqfa has said: “The west has no choice but to deal with us [the council].”
There is a pervasive attitude among SNC members that the issue of unity has been put forward by the international community to justify inaction. SNC member Ghassan Mufleh called the issue of unity a “concoction” and said that “a person with conscious” should not speak about reassuring the minorities when the majority is being persecuted. Such a statement is an example of why many Syrians are averse to the council.
Different countries share some of the blame for the current state of the council, due to heavy interference early on (particularly from Turkey), the little support for the council when it was more representative and because some allied themselves with certain groups or individuals within the opposition. Those factors led to rifts, confusion and mixed messages.
Yet, the council has proven that it would not reform itself on its own. The international community must take serious steps to help the council reform or to form a new one.
Russia said Saturday it would be “naive” for outside powers to expect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to withdraw his troops first from cities and then wait for the opposition to follow suit.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said such a demand on the regime amounted to a call for “capitulation” that Western and Arab nations had no right to make.
“When our partners say that the government must stop first and withdraw all its soldiers and weapons from cities – and only then call on the opposition to do the same – well, this is a completely unworkable scheme,” said Lavrov.
“Either people are naive or it is some sort of provocation,” he noted in answering questions from students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
Lavrov stressed that Russia was not trying to support Assad or his government but basing its policies on the daily situation on the ground.
“No matter your view of the Syrian regime, it is completely unrealistic in the current situation – when there is fighting in the cities – to say that the only way out is the unilateral capitulation of one of the opposing sides,” said Lavrov.
“We are not holding on to any regime or any individuals in the Syrian situation,” he added. “We are simply basing our position on what is realistic.”
Russia continues to lobby for a short-lived agreement struck by world powers in Geneva on June 30 that called for a rapid ceasefire and supported a move toward a transition government that could decide the future of Assad.
But it made no call on the Syrian strongman to quit or explicitly deny him a role in the country’s future. The armed opposition denounced the agreement and fighting has since escalated.
Lavrov admitted that Russia and the other international players had “serious differences” over the conflict. Moscow has vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions threatening sanctions against Assad.
“Our Western colleagues and representatives of some regional governments are almost openly backing foreign intervention,” Lavrov argued.
Russia has been adamantly opposed to any use of outside force for ending the bloodshed after giving de facto approval to a no fly zone over Libya last year that NATO used to launch air strikes against government troops.
Lavrov said nations pressing on Assad to be the first to call an end to fighting that activists say has claimed 23,000 lives must claim responsibility for an even heavier death toll which would follow once the rebels seek to take control.
“The position of those demanding a unilateral capitulation from government forces are simultaneously encouraging armed opposition units to continue their fight – this position assumes that they are ready to pay the additional price of many, many lives lost,” Russia’s top diplomat said.
UNITED NATIONS |
(Reuters) - A U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria’s aid crisis achieved nothing new on Thursday except to highlight global paralysis on the 17-month conflict as western powers warned that military action to secure civilian safe zones was still an option.
While the Security Council impasse between western nations and Russia and China means a resolution to approve such a move appears impossible, countries could act outside the authority of the world body and intervene, as happened in Kosovo in 1999.
“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu asked the Security Council.
“I was expecting this meeting to produce tangible solutions to the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said. “We don’t have anything new to say to thousands of Syrians who suffer at the hands of the regime as the U.N. is entrapped by inaction.”
The meeting produced neither a resolution nor a statement approved by the 15 Security Council members.
Ankara has repeatedly urged the United Nations to protect displaced Syrians inside their country as the number of refugees swells in neighbouring states.
France and Britain said ahead of the meeting that civilian safe havens were being considered.
“We’re ruling nothing out and we have contingency planning for a wide range of scenarios,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “We also have to be clear that anything like a safe zone requires military intervention.”
Creating a buffer zone for displaced Syrians would be difficult because a U.N. Security Council resolution would be needed to set up a no-fly zone to protect the area, and Russia and China would not approve such a move, diplomats said.
However, the Security Council could be bypassed to take action. The United States and its European allies did this in 1999 when they turned to NATO to halt a Serbian onslaught in Kosovo with a bombing campaign against Serbia.
The United Nations warned that the idea of buffer zones raised serious questions and had not always proved effective.
“Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.
AID FOR REBEL ZONES
As Syria spirals deeper into civil war, the 15-member council is paralyzed as Russia and China have blocked three Western-backed resolutions that criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and threatened sanctions.
France, which is council president for August, had hoped the body could unite to deal with a shortfall in humanitarian aid and convened Thursday’s meeting, which was attended by ministers from Syria’s neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
“If sadly the conflict continues then we have to examine various solutions. We have to be realistic,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
But the absence of the U.S., Russian and Chinese foreign ministers at the meeting highlights the Security Council’s failure to end Syria’s conflict, which the United Nations says has killed nearly 20,000 people.
Less than half the council members sent ministers, and of the permanent members - the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France - only Fabius and Hague attended.
The two countries announced an increase in their humanitarian aid - 3 million pounds from London and 5 million euros from Paris - and called on other states to boost their commitments.
Fabius said Paris was channelling some aid to areas of Syria no longer under government control so that local communities can self-govern, encouraging people not to flee the country.
“The opposition has taken strong positions in the country,” Fabius said after the meeting. “We need to help them financially, administratively and in terms of supplies.”
Aid groups say as many as 300,000 Syrians have poured out of Syria since the uprising against Syrian Assad’s rule began last year, while up to 3 million have been displaced. Turkey has seen the highest refugee influx.
SYRIA SAYS HELP NEEDED
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said Syria did need humanitarian assistance, but its sovereignty should not be undermined in the process. He described refugee camps in neighbouring countries as “detention camps.”
“Syria feels a great bitterness and sorrow when we see some of our brothers living in tents on the border in dreadful conditions being dissuaded by attempts at intimidation from returning home,” Ja’afari told the council. “They are turned into refugees, prisoners of these camps.”
He said they were fleeing Syria because “terrorists” were using them as human shields.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin blamed economic sanctions imposed on Syria by the United States and the European Union for worsening the humanitarian crisis.
“We fundamentally oppose such practices,” Churkin told the council. “They simply complicate the life of simple citizens and deny them the opportunity to meet their elementary needs and fully enjoy basic human rights.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said no amount of aid would end the bloodshed and suffering. “That day will come only once Assad has departed and a peaceful Syrian-led transition to democracy has begun,” she said.
Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who will replace Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League Syria mediator on Saturday, also attended but did not brief members. Annan blamed the Security Council impasse for hampering his six-month bid to broker peace and leading to his decision to step down.
“It is essential that the international community, and this Council in particular, unite behind him and his efforts,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said. “Separate diplomatic tracks will only prolong the violence, the human rights abuses and the humanitarian crisis.”
Iran said on Wednesday it will form a team with other non-aligned countries to explore solutions to the crisis, while the United States has said it will turn to alternatives such as the “Friends of Syria” grouping of allied countries to pressure Assad after the Security Council’s failure to act.
“If we do not act against such a crime against humanity happening in front of our eyes, we become accomplice to the crime,” Turkey’s Davutoglu told the council.
(Reuters) - Syrian opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Sunday of committing a massacre of scores of people in a town close to the capital that the army had just retaken from rebels.
More than 200 bodies were found in houses and basements around Daraya, a working-class Sunni Muslim town to the southwest of Damascus, according to activists who said most had been killed “execution-style” by troops on house-to-house raids.
Due to restrictions on non-state media in Syria, it was impossible to independently verify the accounts.
“Assad’s army has committed a massacre in Daraya,” said Abu Kinan, an activist in Daraya, using an alias to protect himself from reprisals.
“In the last hour, 122 bodies were discovered and it appears that two dozen died from sniper fire and the rest were summarily executed by gunshots from close range,” Kinan told Reuters by telephone.
Video footage from activists showed numerous bodies of young men side-by-side at the Abu Suleiman al-Darani mosque in Daraya, many with what looked like gunshot wounds to the head and chest.
“A massacre,” said the voice of the man who appeared to be taking the footage. “You are seeing the revenge of Assad’s forces … more than 150 bodies on the floor of this mosque.”
The southern fringe of Damascus is a frontline in what has snowballed over the last 17 months from anti-Assad protests into a sectarian civil war.
Tanks deployed on the Damascus ring-road shelled the southern neighbourhoods of al-Lawwan and Nahr Aisheh late into Saturday night, local residents said.
The army overran Daraya, one of a series of large, mostly rundown Sunni Muslim towns that surround Damascus, on Saturday after three days of heavy bombardment that killed 70 people, according to opposition sources and residents. They said most of the dead were civilians.
The Daraya Coordination Committee activists’ group said in a statement that among those found with shots to the head were eight members of the al-Qassaa family: three children, their father and mother and three other relatives.
U.N. investigators said in a report this month that both sides in the conflict had performed summary executions - a war crime - but that Assad’s troops and militia loyal to the president had committed many more offences than the rebels.
The report said government forces and militiamen loyal to Assad committed a massacre of more than 100 civilians in the town of Houla in May that the government blamed on Islamist “terrorists”.
The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people have been killed in the conflict that pits a mainly Sunni opposition against a ruling system dominated by the Assad’s family for the last five decades.
Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam and the sectarian nature of the conflict has already had an impact on neighbouring countries.
A Lebanese man who was abducted with a group of 10 other Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims in Syria in May, triggering tit-for-tat kidnappings of Syrian activists in Lebanon, arrived home on Saturday, hours after Syrian rebels released him as a “goodwill gesture”.
With Russia leading resistance to Western and Arab pressure for action against Assad, the United Nations Security Council remains deadlocked.
A new U.N. envoy, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, has said he is “humbled and scared” at the task of seeking a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Ralph Gowling)
Russia has warned against unilateral action in Syria after the US said it might intervene militarily if Damascus used chemical weapons on the rebels.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there should be no outside interference and countries should “strictly adhere to the norms of international law”.
On Monday, President Barack Obama said the deployment of chemical weapons represented a “red line” for the US.
Meanwhile, troops are reported to have stormed a western suburb of Damascus.
On Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister held talks in Moscow with China’s top diplomat, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, and a Syrian government delegation to discuss the conflict, which the UN says has left 18,000 people dead.
After meeting Mr Dai, Mr Lavrov said Moscow and Beijing based their diplomatic co-operation on “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law and the principles contained in the UN Charter, and not to allow their violation”.
“I think this is the only correct path in today’s conditions,” Mr Lavrov added.
He said only the UN Security Council could authorise the use of force against Syria, and warned against imposing “democracy by bombs”.
He also told Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil that he wanted to hear his plans for “further actions to shift the situation into the channel of political dialogue in order for Syrians themselves to decide their fate without external interference”.
Mr Jamil said external interference was “hindering efforts for Syrians themselves to resolve this problem”.
Russia and China have opposed intervention in Syria since anti-government protests erupted in March 2011. They have vetoed three Security Council resolutions seeking to press President Bashar al-Assad to end the violence.
On Monday, President Obama warned Syria’s government at a news conference that “there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons”.
Mr Obama said that he had not ordered military engagement “at this point”, but added that the US was monitoring the situation carefully and had made contingency plans.
In July, the Syrian government admitted that it had chemical and biological weapons and might use them in case of any “external aggression”. But it insisted they would “never be used in the Syrian crisis, no matter what the internal developments”.
Correspondents say there is also growing unease in Washington that Syria’s chemical weapons may fall into what Mr Obama termed “the hands of the wrong people”.
On Tuesday, soldiers were said to have stormed the western Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya.
At least 23 people were killed and shops and houses were set on fire after government forces entered Muadhamiya at dawn, looking for rebel fighters, opposition activists said.
The bodies of several men who had been shot at close range were found inside buildings after the troops withdrew from the town, they added.
There was reportedly also heavy shelling and fierce fighting in the southern town of Herak and in the northern city of Aleppo, where the Japanese journalist, Mika Yamamoto, was killed on Monday.
A commander in the Free Syrian Army, Col Abdul Jabbar al-Ukaidi, told the AFP news agency that its fighters now controlled “more than 60%” of Aleppo, although a security source in Damascus dismissed the claims.
Sunday Times says British intelligence helping rebels launch successful attacks
- Published: 14:02 August 19, 2012
- Syrian rebels man a checkpoint in the north of northern Syria’s Idlib region.
Aleppo: British and German spies are involved in covert operations to help Syrian rebels in their increasingly bloody fight to topple the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, press reports said on Sunday.
The reports said German and British spies were passing on information about Syrian troop movements to the rebels.
“We can be proud of the significant contribution we are making to the fall of the [Al] Assad regime,” an official from Germany’s BND foreign intelligence service told Bild am Sonntag.
The paper said German spies were stationed off the Syrian coast and also active at a Nato base in Turkey, whose government is staunchly opposed to the Al Assad regime and is sheltering Free Syrian Army rebels.
Britain’s Sunday Times newsaper also said British intelligence was helping rebels launch successful attacks on government forces with information gathered from their listening posts in nearby Cyprus.
It said the most valuable intelligence has been about the movements of troops towards the flashpoint commercial hub of Aleppo, which is now partly controlled by rebels and is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting.
The regime’s far superior military might has failed to suppress the poorly armed rebels whose determination to bring Al Assad down has only grown with the passing of time.
Overall the death toll has surged to at least 23,000 people since March last year, the Observatory says, while the UN puts the toll at 17,000.
With the bloodletting showing no signs of abating, the opposition lashed out at new envoy Brahimi, branding as “unacceptable” his reported comments that it was too soon for him to call for Al Assad to go.
Brahimi’s comments only served to give Al Assad’s government a “licence to kill tens of thousands more Syrians”, the Syrian National Council said in a statement.
The West is demanding Al Assad step down as part of any political deal to end the 17-month conflict but is opposed by Syria’s traditional allies in Moscow and Beijing which see it as foreign-imposed regime change.
Brahimi, who replaced Kofi Annan, nevertheless won support from the West as well as China and Russia, although the White House said it would be seeking clarifications on the terms of his mandate.
With Western speculation of further defections, Syrian state television insisted that Vice-President Farouq Al Shar’a had not left the country after opposition and media reports that he had defected.
“Mr [Al] Shar’a has never thought about leaving the country or going anywhere,” the television said on Saturday, quoting a statement from his office.
Al Shar’a, 73, is the most powerful Sunni Muslim figure in the minority Alawite-led regime and has served in top posts for almost 30 years.
A former deputy oil minister who defected in March said Al Shar’a was actually under house arrest and that other top officials were also being kept under surveillance.
“He has been trying to leave Syria,” Abd Hussam Al Deen told Al Arabiya television. “But there are a series of circumstances that prevent him from leaving, especially the fact that he has been under house arrest for some time.”
Among those to have abandoned the embattled regime are former prime minister Riyad Hijab and high profile general Manaf Tlass — a childhood friend of Al Assad.
Meanwhile, UN observers were preparing to wrap up their mission on Sunday after chief observer General Babacar Gaye accused both sides of failing to protect civilians.
“Both parties have obligations under international humanitarian law to make sure that civilians are protected,” Gaye told reporters in Damascus ahead of the mission’s end at midnight on Sunday. “These obligations have not been respected.”
The UN originally sent in 300 unarmed military observers in April but its patrols were suspended in June because of the mounting violence.
As Muslims the world over marked Eid, Syrians faced another daily cycle of bloodshed.
Troops bombarded the besieged city of Rastan in the central province of Homs, as well as Idlib in the northwest and the eastern province of Deir Al zor, the Observatory said.
“This is how we celebrate Eid!” chanted a crowd of protesters — among them children — who took to the streets of Kafr Zeita, in the central province of Hama, according to amateur video posted on YouTube by activists.
The intensified fighting has sent at least 170,000 Syrians fleeing while another 2.5 million inside Syria need aid, according to the UN.
By ZEINA KARAM
BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S. has spent months disparaging Russia for blocking strong U.N. action against Syria and standing by President Bashar Assad as his forces lay waste to rebellious cities.
But in many ways, Russia’s stance is convenient for Washington and its allies which have their own reasons for avoiding direct intervention in yet another Arab nation in crisis.
Not the least of them is the impending U.S. presidential election in November. Others are the uncertain outcome of a military commitment and the war-weariness of the U.S. public.
“The fact that Russia is not budging on Syria certainly helps Washington in its efforts to justify its inaction,” said Bilal Saab, a fellow and Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
For all the tough rhetoric over the carnage in Syria, Washington and its Western allies remain deeply reluctant to engage in any kind of military action such as the NATO-led mission that helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
The American domestic political situation is also a factor. President Barack Obama faces a tough re-election battle, and his people are focused on their economic woes. Many are clamoring for an end to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after the American pullout from Iraq and would oppose yet another military adventure.
The U.S. would rather deflect blame for the bloody conflict onto its old Cold War foe.
Russia’s continued support for Assad “is going to help contribute to a civil war,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned last month.
Syria has become one of the bloodiest and murkiest conflicts of the Arab Spring, and world powers have been unable to stop the violence which has so far killed 14,000, according to opposition groups.
The country is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy.
Many fear a destabilized Syria could send unsettling ripples through the region or lead to a regional war pulling in Iran and Israel.
Syria also has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Tensions over Syria have turned into a proxy confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Officials of the two countries traded harsh accusations last week, charging each other with providing military support to opposing sides of the conflict in Syria.
President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin were meeting in Mexico Monday at the Group of 20 economic meeting to try and bridge differences. But in the best case scenario, the two sides might agree on a transition plan that would end the four-decade Assad family rule, something Moscow has rejected so far.
U.S. and U.N. officials have said that a six-point peace plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan was in fact the only plan on the table for dealing with the Syrian crisis for the time being. That plan seemed to be unraveling this week — U.N. observers in Syria announced they were suspending all missions because of escalating violence over the previous 10 days.
The Syrian regime has contributed to the international tension by systematically ignoring initiatives and sanctions, often with the support of Moscow.
Clinton has acknowledged that military intervention faces serious hurdles beyond Russian reticence.
Among those, she said, were Syria’s substantial air defenses, divisions among Arab countries on whether military options should be entertained in Syria, and the danger of Syria’s unrest spiraling into a larger civil war which could spill over Syrian borders.
“We know it could actually get much worse than it is,” Clinton said.
U.S. officials have also cited the risk of a “proxy war” with Syrian ally Iran backing Assad and other outside nations or forces backing insurgent factions. The U.S. is among six world powers engaged in talks with Iran meant to reduce tensions over Tehran’s nuclear activities.
“Obama believes that his strategy for Iran, a far more important issue than Syria for this administration, is working,” Saab said. Obama “does not want to mess it up by fishing in troubled Syrian waters.”
The Western psyche finds it difficult, if not quite impossible, to understand how Eastern tyrannies think. During the Cold War, this handicap was known as “mirror-imaging”: trying to guess what the Soviets would do by imagining what we would do in the same circumstances. The Ukrainian famine, the show trials, the Great Terror, the military purges and other acts of capricious malice should have dispelled the delusion that dictatorships can be understood with classical political science. Robert Conquest once asked the Russo-Hungarian historian Tibor Szamuely why Stalin had ordered his old friend Marshal Yegorev killed. Szamuely replied: “Why not?” It was a better explanation than most Sovietologists could muster.
Mirror-imaging has raised its head again, this time in the Middle East. The question I get asked the most about Syria is why Russia continues to back Assad. And it’s always based on one of a series of mirror-image misconceptions.
“Putin just wants to retain control of Russia’s only warm-water port”. Yet the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, has repeatedly offered Russia control of the Syrian port of Tartus in exchange for its diplomatic abandonment of Assad. No joy.
“Putin wants payback for acquiescing to the Libya intervention, which turned into ‘mission creep’ and then regime change”. Yet the United States, Britain and Nato have repeatedly scuppered the possibility of military intervention in Syria. Just yesterday the Nato Secretary-General again insisted that he has no plan or desire to interfere in Syria – even after the Houla and Quebair massacres. Deference to Russia on this point was so stark that by acceding to Kofi Annan’s six-point protocol for Syria, the United States implicitly rescinded its earlier demand for Assad’s renunciation of power: a demand it has now, incoherently, restored, even while continuing to insist on the legitimacy of the Annan protocol.
“Putin has no special attachment to Assad or his regime; as his foreign minister says, he only respects the Syrian ‘state’ and her ‘people’”. Yet Putin’s idea of respecting his own “people” is to violently raid the homes of both opposition leaders and their families, then force the opposition leaders to turn up for questioning before the Investigative Committee on the day that their anti-Putin protest is scheduled to take place. Russian parliament has just authorised the levying of $9,000 fines against participants in “illegal” demonstrations – $30,000 if you happen organise one. (The average annual income in Russia is a little over $8,000.) Putin’s idea of a “state” is a ramped-up crime syndicate: Upper Volga with kickbacks. He built himself a $1 billion palace on the Black Sea that he can never live in. Why? Why not?
Or how about this item from the Moscow Times:
In an open letter published on [independent newspaper] Novaya Gazeta’s website, [Dmitry] Muratov said security guards forcibly transported deputy editor Sergei Sokolov to a Moscow region forest and left him alone with Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee, who threatened his life.
The Investigative Committee is Russia’s version of the FBI. Try to imagine the deputy editor of the New York Times being driven out to the Berkshires and being told by Robert Mueller that unless the paper cooled it with stories about warrantless wiretaps, the deputy editor might just have a bad accident.
“Putin just wants to be seen as a geopolitical power broker and to negotiate a Mideast conflict into remission for once”. And so in the midst of adopting this mantle he supplies new or refurbished attack helicopters to the regime which has just used attack helicopters to lay waste to the city of al-Haffeh, now successfully “cleansed”, according to Syrian state media.
The truth is this. Putin’s only criticism of Assad is that Assad has not already destroyed this annoying little revolution and convinced the world that he is doing so as part of of the global war on terror. (The man rumoured to be running Moscow’s Syria policy is Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s successor as director of the FSB.) When Russia sounds more conciliatory to the Western position, it is to buy more time for Damascus. If Putin has one lament, it is only that Bassel al-Assad, Bashar’s smarter older brother, died in a car crash in 1994. Thus was a perfectly good client state entrusted to a combination of Fredo Corleone and Forrest Gump. If Putin ever did accede to a “transition” of power, you can be sure the man to take Bashar’s place would be more like Bassel, and like Vladimir.
According to a high-ranking French diplomat, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to Baba Amr, the former rebel stronghold in Homs that was recently taken by regime forces, points to the start of a new stage in the Syrian conflict.
In this phase, great powers may reconsider their calculations of the regime’s staying power, especially given that it has eliminated many armed anti-regime pockets.
The diplomat denied rumors that the French administration was opening communication with Assad and reconsidering its estimations on Syria, saying this would not happen as long as Assad did not translate his verbal commitment to U.N. envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan into action. To do this he would have to cease violence, withdraw his troops from heavily populated areas and increase the speed with which he releases detainees.
Confirming France’s interest in seeing Syria move to democracy, the diplomat addressed Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea’s call regarding the victories of Islamist parties in the Arab Spring to “let the Muslim brotherhood rule.” The diplomat said Geagea’s remark has moved from a slogan to a reality that is now being supported by states involved in the Arab Spring.
European sources spoke to The Daily Star about a similar subject – the West’s interest in opening serious dialogue with Islamist groups both in countries that have won elections and in countries still revolting.
The sources said the Vatican had shown signs of encouraging this path, and its officials had met with delegations from Islamist parties. Most recently, it met with the head of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, and spoke with him at a seminar organized by a Rome-based think tank.
These sources were surprised at what they called the “isolation” of some Christian groups from their Arab and Muslim surroundings, at a time when European emissaries were preparing for conferences in the Middle East with the aim of opening Christian-Islamic dialogue. Lebanon will likely play host to one of these meetings.
Sources say Italy, in coordination with the Vatican, will most likely send its minister for international cooperation and integration, Andrea Ricardi, to participate in these talks. The Daily Star has learned that whoever he or she is, the Italian delegate will present the Italian view that democracy and ensuring the protection of minorities are the truly effective methods for fighting terrorism.
The same European sources noted that Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s opinions have not been in harmony with those of Western states.
“The patriarch speaks about a dictatorship in Syria, and that the people have suffered from it,” one of the sources said. But no one comments on this, the source added, instead accusing the patriarch of defending the Syrian regime when he cautions against the possibility that chaos in Syria will negatively affect Lebanon.