Welcome to the new Syria string. The old string, "Syria", was getting too long, and anyway, the revolution is entering a new phase:
The Arab League said on Sunday it had rebuffed a request by Damascus to amend plans for a 500-strong monitoring mission to Syria, after President Bashar al-Assad vowed to continue his crackdown and said he would not surrender to outside pressure.
Within hours of Assad ignoring a deadline to halt repression of protesters, residents said two rocket-propelled grenades hit a major ruling party building in Damascus on Sunday, the first such reported attack by insurgents inside the capital.
Confronted since March by street demonstrations against 41 years of rule by his family, Assad said he had no choice but to pursue his crackdown on unrest because his foes were armed.
"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue. Syria will not bow down," he told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper.
He couldn't cope with unarmed protestors, so how can he deal with RPGs?
Turkish newspapers said on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighbouring Syria from security forces there if the bloodshed worsens.
Turkey opposes unilateral steps or intervention aimed at "regime change" in Syria, the reports said, but it has not ruled out the possibility of more extensive military action if security forces began committing large-scale massacres.
The reports, based on a briefing by Turkish officials to selected journalists, came on the day of an Arab League deadline for President Bashar al-Assad's government to end its repression of anti-government unrest and comply with a peace plan.
Democratic countries like Canada don’t realize the pervasiveness of a police state replete with spies and informers.
As a journalist, one of my fond memories of Damascus is entering a souvenir shop looking for a bargain. I found a small, metal devil’s head with horns that was unusual.
The price was too high, so I left. Later, I returned to the store and asked again. The price was still too high, and I left. The third time I returned, the shopkeeper became extremely agitated.
“The secret police keep asking why you keep coming here and not buying,” he said. “Pay whatever you wish and take the object and please don’t come back!”
And that was before the Assads ruled Syria.
While his willingness to slaughter protesters may doom Bashar, his father managed to quell a rebellion in 1982 orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood in the region of Hama that resulted in up to 35,000 being killed.
Dad got away with it. The son hasn’t.
Assad is a more sophisticated and skilled tyrant than Gadhafi, and the Syrian people are more oppressed and constrained (unable to travel) than Libyans.
Does Assad have a date with the war crimes tribunal at the Hague awaiting him if he quits? Probably not if he leaves willingly. Almost certainly if he’s forced out — and isn’t assassinated.
The choice is his, but don’t hold your breath for our sort of democracy to come to Syria after Assad.
The Arab League said on Sunday it had rebuffed a request by Damascus to amend plans for a 500-strong monitoring mission to Syria, after President Bashar al-Assad vowed to continue his crackdown and said he would not surrender to outside pressure.
Within hours of Assad ignoring a deadline to halt repression of protesters, residents said two rocket-propelled grenades hit a major ruling party building in Damascus on Sunday, the first such reported attack by insurgents inside the capital.
Confronted since March by street demonstrations against 41 years of rule by his family, Assad said he had no choice but to pursue his crackdown on unrest because his foes were armed.
"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue. Syria will not bow down," he told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper.
He couldn't cope with unarmed protestors, so how can he deal with RPGs?
Turkish newspapers said on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighbouring Syria from security forces there if the bloodshed worsens.
Turkey opposes unilateral steps or intervention aimed at "regime change" in Syria, the reports said, but it has not ruled out the possibility of more extensive military action if security forces began committing large-scale massacres.
The reports, based on a briefing by Turkish officials to selected journalists, came on the day of an Arab League deadline for President Bashar al-Assad's government to end its repression of anti-government unrest and comply with a peace plan.
Democratic countries like Canada don’t realize the pervasiveness of a police state replete with spies and informers.
As a journalist, one of my fond memories of Damascus is entering a souvenir shop looking for a bargain. I found a small, metal devil’s head with horns that was unusual.
The price was too high, so I left. Later, I returned to the store and asked again. The price was still too high, and I left. The third time I returned, the shopkeeper became extremely agitated.
“The secret police keep asking why you keep coming here and not buying,” he said. “Pay whatever you wish and take the object and please don’t come back!”
And that was before the Assads ruled Syria.
While his willingness to slaughter protesters may doom Bashar, his father managed to quell a rebellion in 1982 orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood in the region of Hama that resulted in up to 35,000 being killed.
Dad got away with it. The son hasn’t.
Assad is a more sophisticated and skilled tyrant than Gadhafi, and the Syrian people are more oppressed and constrained (unable to travel) than Libyans.
Does Assad have a date with the war crimes tribunal at the Hague awaiting him if he quits? Probably not if he leaves willingly. Almost certainly if he’s forced out — and isn’t assassinated.
The choice is his, but don’t hold your breath for our sort of democracy to come to Syria after Assad.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted on Saturday as saying he would press on with a crackdown against anti-government unrest in his country despite increased pressure from the Arab League to end it.
"The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue," he told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper. "However, I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it."
The country of 22 million, convulsed this year by a civil uprising like those that brought down dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, now appears to be on the brink of a Libya-style armed insurgency, with arms flowing in from Lebanon, Jordan and from soldiers who have deserted with their weapons.
Most observers believe Assad will fight it out, playing on fears of a sectarian war between minorities and the Sunni majority if the country’s complex ethno-sectarian mosaic unravels, and that neither western powers nor Arab neighbors would risk military intervention to prevent it.
At least two people have been injured after a convoy of buses carrying Turkish Muslim pilgrims returning from the Hajj in the Saudi Arabian holy city of Mecca came under attack by gunmen between the Syrian cities of Homs and Hama, media reports quoting unnamed officials said Monday.
The incident reportedly happened late Sunday when the convoy was passing through Syria while returning to Turkey from Saudi Arabia. The convoy later crossed into Turkey through the Cilvegozu border post and the injured received emergency treatment in the Turkish town of Hatay, just across the border with Syria.
The buses reportedly came under attack when the convoy stopped at a security checkpoint to ask for directions after getting lost. Although it is not clear who was responsible for the attack, media reports quoted witnesses as saying that the Syrian soldiers had opened fire on their convoy.
If that's how they treat Mecca pilgrins, this is a good country for unbelievers to avoid. . . .
The UN general assembly’s human rights committee has condemned Syria for its eight- month crackdown on pro- democracy demonstrators in a vote backed by western nations and most Arab states.
Yesterday’s resolution, drafted by Britain, France and Germany, received 122 votes in favour, 13 against and 41 abstentions. Thirteen Arab states, including the six Arab co-sponsors, voted for it, as did Turkey.
Russia and China, which vetoed a European-drafted UN Security Council resolution last month that would have condemned Syria and would have threatened possible future sanctions, abstained, according to a UN tally, which diplomats said could indicate a shift in their positions.
Countries that voted against the resolution included Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Vietnam.
Turkey’s prime minister on Tuesday called for the first time for Bashar al-Assad to step down, in a fiery speech that likened the Syrian leader to Hitler and Mussolini and marked the final crumbling of Turkish-Syrian relations, according to analysts.
“Without spilling any more blood, without causing any more injustice, for the sake of peace for the people, the country and the region, finally step down,” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging Assad to look to the fate of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who was toppled by an internationally backed uprising and, last month, was killed.
Psiphon is a surveillance-busting networking system designed by a Canadian company with funding from the U.S. State Department. The company's CEO told CNN the software had been "aggressively" introduced to Syria just three weeks ago. Since then, thousands of people had begun using it.
"What we're doing is not much different to what the airwaves provided during the Cold War to provide those citizens living behind the Iron Curtain with an ability to get information which otherwise they were not getting from their state," said Rafal Rohozinski, CEO of two companies involved in developing Psiphon.
Unrest continues in Syria "Whereas shortwave radio during the Cold War was very unidirectional ... with the Internet these technologies are by definition bidirectional, meaning that it gives an opportunity for citizens within these states to also communicate amongst themselves and with the outside world."
Despite the growing civil war in Syria, Russia is honoring an order, earlier this year, for an unspecified number of SSN-26 Yakhont anti-ship missiles. The order was finally confirmed eight months ago, after four years of haggling and efforts by Israel and the United States to block the sale. Apparently the missiles have already been paid for, and Syrian has assured Russia that the missiles can safely be delivered by ship. Russia is happy for any sale, but seems particularly anxious for this missile to get some combat experience.
The Yakhont was under development throughout the 1990s, but was delayed by lack of funds. Now it's in production, and the Russians have been energetically seeking export sales. The Yakhont uses a liquid-fuel ramjet and travels 300 kilometers at speeds of over 2,000 kilometers an hour (using a high altitude cruise and a low-altitude approach; if it travels entirely at low altitude the range is cut to 120km). When the missile arrives in the area where the target is supposed to be, it turns on its radar and goes for the kill. Israel is the only one in the region the Yakhonts would be used against. However, because Iran is supplying (unofficially) the cash for the missiles, there is also the risk that some of the Yakhonts would end up in Iran for use against numerous targets in the Persian Gulf.
After months of silence, Arabs are showing old formulas in the region no longer apply. The Arab League, which for six decades barely lifted a finger in anger at a member state, is now threatening Syria with sanctions for cracking down on protests.
What led to this is a mixture of Syria's blindness to - or at least determination to ignore - change brought with the Arab Spring; Damascus's choice of friends which has for years riled Arabs particularly in the Gulf; and a new chief at the League with a record of human rights work he is now bringing to bear.
Arab foreign ministers meet at the League's headquarters in Cairo on Thursday to discuss stepping up pressure on Syria. A founding member of the pan-Arab body, Syria itself won't attend because it was suspended this month at a gathering in Morocco.
Syria is increasingly being compared to Libya, just before foreign air power came to the aid of the rebels. The Syrian rebels are calling for foreign air power, and for the same reason; to halt the government slaughter of unarmed civilians. Such deaths are now running close to 200 a week. The demonstrations just won't stop, no matter how much the police and troops open fire on the protestors. Some of the other minorities (Christians, Druze and so on) who have long been the Alawite Assad's allies are openly questioning who they should be backing. If these groups wait until the end, they will suffer enormous retribution. But if these groups switch sides at the right time, they will suffer less, and be able to remain in Syria. The timing of such defections is critical. If you turn too soon, the government forces will hurt you badly. If you go over to the rebels too late, you will still be seen as part of the Assad dictatorship.
Syria is a test of whether the traditional means of repression will work to keep a dictator in power. The basis of any dictator's control is the loyalty of the faction of the population he "owns." In economic terms, only about ten percent of the population benefits from the Assad dictatorship. This fraction of the population supplies most of the manpower for the secret police (about 50,000 full-timers on the payroll) and the leadership of the armed forces (300,000 troops and 100,000 paramilitary, the majority of them Sunni, led by largely Alawite officers.) The Alawites are 5-15 percent of the population (depending on who you believe, the government has long refused to conduct an accurate census). Sunni Arabs are about 75 percent. Other minorities (Shia, Druze, Christian) will, up to a point, side with the Alawites (a common pattern in the Middle East, where non-Sunni minorities have long been persecuted).
That is the truth and I know it for a fact. Many many many wealthy Syrians, inside and outside, are giving money. There is so much investment in anti-Bashar that it’s impossible to roll back.
An Arab League committee on Thursday gave Syria 24 hours to agree to allow an observer mission into the country, or it could face sanctions that include stopping financial dealings and freezing assets.
The bloodshed in the country continued, with activists reporting at least 15 people killed, including civilians and security forces.
Thursday's threat was a humiliating blow to Damascus, a founding member of the Arab League. It comes as international pressure mounts on President Bashar Assad to stop the brutal crackdown on an uprising against his regime. The U.N. says has at least 3,500 have been killed since mid-March.
Many in Syria and abroad are now banking on the regime’s imminent collapse and wagering that all then will be for the better. That is a luxury and an optimism they cannot afford. Instead, it is high time to squarely confront and address the difficulties before it is too late. In the “draft political program” it released on 20 November, the Syrian National Council ‒ an opposition umbrella group – presented the image of an entirely peaceful movement enduring savage repression. The regime and its allies regularly describe the crisis solely as the local manifestation of a vicious regional and international struggle. The two black-and-white narratives are in every way contradictory and mutually exclusive. Both miss a central point: that successful management of this increasingly internationalised crisis depends on a clear-eyed understanding of the grey zone that lies between.
Working under the cover of darkness, their faces wrapped in scarves and black masks, defectors from Syria's army are still a bit of an unknown quantity in the rise of an armed challenge to President Bashar al-Assad.
Thousands of soldiers who fled the regular army after it started cracking down on an eight-month protest movement have formed nebulous armed units loosely linked to the umbrella "Free Syrian Army," led by officers hiding in Turkey.
Isolated inside cities across Syria, the fighters work like a shadowy guerilla operation, promoting slogans like "victory or death" and "death before humiliation."
The deserters say they turned their guns against the state to protect peaceful protests in which some 3,500 are estimated by the United Nations to have been killed. The government, which says it has lost 1,100 security forces to the fighters, calls them foreign-backed "terrorist" groups.
The government on Thursday said scores of Syrian military defectors have crossed into the Kingdom since the violence erupted in Syria earlier this year; however, they arrived individually and at different times, a senior official said.
“We have around 100, mainly conscripts, who have crossed individually over time and not in organised units,” Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told The Jordan Times over the phone Thursday from Cairo, where he was taking part in the Arab League meeting to discuss the situation in Syria.
Earlier this week, Judeh, in an interview on Jordan Television, said there were arrangements for the reception for a possible influx of Syrian refugees into the Kingdom.
He added that these arrangements are a normal procedure just for emergency situations.
“This, however, does not mean that we are encouraging Syrian citizens to flee their country, as Jordan did not offer asylum to one, but is always ready to receive humanitarian cases in emergency situations,” Judeh said in the interview.
The Jordanian media affairs and communications minister has said that arms have been smuggled into Syria from Jordan's border with the country.
Rakan al-Majali said on Thursday that his country was trying to stop the smuggling operations, which had happened more than once in Jordan's northern city of al-Ramtha, Syria's state SANA news agency reported.
He added that the Jordanian government was concerned about the issue.
On Wednesday, Syrian border guards stepped up security measures along the common border.
Closing the border with Jordan wouldn't be easy, must look at a map:
Mostly, it's just a huge, long stretch of empty desert. With all it's resources, the U.S. had great difficulty controlling the border with Iraq.
I guess it a matter of time before the lines of political demarcation will manifest more clearly as it already is in the process of doing so, for the sake of political communication with the West?
For example: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Syrian_Army
Things sort themselves out. Right now, there are a lot of Syrians who just want to continue living their lives normally. That's going to get harder and harder. Eventually, they will have to take sides, like in the American Civil War. Time is working against Assad: Right now, he controls most of the military forces, but that can't last forever, when a majority of his soldiers are Sunnis.
Syria has ignored an Arab League deadline to accept international observers to oversee an initiative aimed at ending a violent crackdown on anti-government protests.
Arab League officials had said that if the government of President Bashar al-Assad failed to respond Friday, they would meet Saturday to discuss imposing additional sanctions.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby says he received a letter from Damascus asking questions about the proposed observer mission.
The league suspended Syria's membership two weeks ago because of the government's violent crackdown on dissent and President Bashar al-Assad's failure to implement a league plan designed to end the unrest.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tells VOA that security forces have killed at least eight people across the country.
The Syrian military, meanwhile, reported on Friday that “terrorists” killed six of its pilots and three other officers. The state-run SANA news agency says the incident took place in the Homs region on Thursday.
Assad has registered only two achievements, albeit highly ambivalent ones. First, the regime in effect took the Alawite minority hostage, linking its fate to its own. It did so deliberately and cynically, not least in order to ensure the loyalty of the security services which, far from being a privileged, praetorian elite corps, are predominantly composed of underpaid and overworked Alawites hailing from villages the regime has left in a state of abject underdevelopment. As unrest began, the regime staged sectarian incidents in confessionally-mixed areas as a means of bringing to the surface deeply-ingrained feelings of insecurity among Alawites who, in centuries past, had been socially marginalised, economically exploited and targets of religious discrimination.
As repression escalated in recent months, many Syrians have shifted from blaming elements of the regime, to blaming the regime as a whole and, finally, to blaming the Alawite community itself. As a result, many Alawites are now in a state of panic, leading them to embrace a regime for which most, at the start of the crisis, evinced little sympathy. Sharing analogous fears born of their minority status, large swathes of the Christian community appear to be following a similar path. The regime’s second ambiguous success was in compartmentalising its territory. Denied both mobility and control of any symbolically decisive space (notably in the capital, Damascus, and the biggest city, Aleppo), the protest movement failed to reach the critical mass necessary to establish, once and for all, that Assad has lost his legitimacy. Instead, demonstrators doggedly resisted escalating violence on the part of the security services and their civilian proxies in an ever-growing number of hotspots segregated from one another by numerous checkpoints. Within each of these separate locations, security forces turned their firepower against uncomfortably large gatherings, stalked local leadership figures, seized tools used to communicate with the outside world and resorted to collective punishment ‒ in some instances carrying out such gruesome scare tactics as returning victims’ desecrated bodies to their families.
The United Nations voiced fresh alarm on Friday at consistent reports of executions and torture of civilians including children in Syria as well as killings of demonstrators in pro-democracy rallies.
The U.N. Committee against Torture cited 'rife or systematic attacks against (the) civilian population, including the killing of peaceful demonstrators.'
Syria faces increasing international pressure over its bloody crackdown on popular unrest.
Members of the Arab League have drafted a list of economic sanctions to impose on Syria, after a meeting in Cairo.
The proposals include the halting of dealings with the Syrian central bank, the suspension of commercial flights and a travel ban on senior officials.
Arab ministers are to vote on the proposals on Sunday - the latest move to punish Syria for its continuing brutal crackdown on protesters.
Syria's foreign minister has accused the League of meddling in its affairs.
In a letter to the 22-member organisation, Walid al-Muallem said it was seeking to "internationalise" the conflict.
ARAB foreign ministers have agreed to sweeping sanctions against Damascus to punish President Bashar al-Assad's regime for failing to halt a deadly crackdown on protests, as the death toll in Syria kept on climbing.
As another 23 civilians were reported dead in Syria, the 22-member Arab League announced an immediate ban on transactions with the Syrian government and central bank and a freeze on Syrian government assets in Arab countries.
Further measures including a ban on Syrian officials visiting any Arab country and the suspension of flights are to be implemented at a date fixed at a meeting next week.
Syrian state television reacted with a terse statement saying the Arab League's action against a member state was "an unprecedented measure" as hundreds of people gathered in Damascus to protest against the measures.
Shots rang out at the Jordanian-Syrian border late Sunday as Syrian forces attempted to prevent civilians from entering the Kingdom, hours after an Arab League decision to impose sanctions on Damascus.
Syrian soldiers opened fire on a married couple and their young child as they attempted to enter the Kingdom late yesterday near the Jaber border crossing, some 90 kilometres north of the capital, according to Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications and Government Spokesperson Rakan Majali.
Initial reports from civilians living near the border region identified the gunfire as clashes between Syrian and Jordanian forces, a claim the spokesperson denied.
The Syrian family arrived in the Kingdom and received emergency medical attention, Majali indicated.
Incidents like this one, which occurred hours after the Arab League endorsed a series of economic sanctions targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, have become “commonplace” over the past few months, he said.
“This has now become a very normal incident that happens nearly every day, but often without notice,” Majali told The Jordan Times.
Iran, its crucial anti-Israel alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at risk from an uprising against his rule, has chosen a "wait and see" policy driven in part by concern not to alienate anyone who might succeed him, analysts say.
A downfall of Assad could deal a strategic blow to Shi'ite Muslim-dominated Iran, where confrontation toward Israel remains one of its overriding foreign policy principles.
Iran has used various regional cards, including fears it could unleash militant proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas against Israeli and U.S. interests, to deter foreign intervention in Syria, making it harder for protesters to overthrow Assad.
But analysts say the Iranian-Syrian axis now faces a serious dilemma: Should Iran stick with Assad -- whose family has ruled Syria for 41 years -- at any cost or should it jettison the Islamic Republic's most important Middle East ally?
"Iran's policy is to wait and see ... We need to be patient as the situation is very unclear and very sensitive in Syria. We hope for the best possible outcome for everyone," said an Iranian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Iranians probably have some Syrian government bonds they would like to unload . . .
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Syrian security forces have committed crimes against humanity during the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, and the “sheer scale and consistent pattern of attacks” meant they must have had state backing, a UN report said.
The comments on Monday by an independent panel of the UN Human Rights Commission came as Damascus hit back at financial sanctions imposed by fellow Arab states and the European Union was reported to have imposed additional sanctions.
However, the report – a sign of the tightening international squeeze on Damascus – stopped short of referring Mr Assad or any other officials to the International Criminal Court.
The United Nations' top human rights official says Syria's bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters has degenerated into a civil war.
Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay told reporters in Geneva Thursday an increasing number of soldiers are defecting and taking up arms against the government. She also said the “reliable information” from Syria indicates the death toll from the past eight months of unrest is far higher than the confirmed U.N. figure of 4,000.
The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold an urgent meeting Friday to discuss the crisis.
But U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the violence in Syria should be characterized as a civil war, because, he said, the government is overwhelmingly responsible for the use of force.
Syria has refused to end the crackdown, saying it is a necessary response to attacks by “armed terrorists” on civilians and security personnel.
Meanwhile, a report Thursday by the Russian news agency Interfax says Moscow delivered supersonic cruise missiles to Syria, despite calls from the U.S. and Europe for a weapons embargo against the government.
Syrian army defectors are targeting military convoys sent to reinforce President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on popular unrest, a senior rebel said, increasingly taking the fight to Assad's forces in response to what he called state brutality.
Colonel Riad al-Asaad told Reuters that fighters from the Syrian Free Army, a loose collection of military units formed from thousands of military deserters, had improved their reconnaissance ability to enable them to disrupt army movements.
In the last month, army rebels have attacked and destroyed parts of an armored convoy in the southern province of Deraa, opened fire on an intelligence centre on the outskirts of Damascus, and killed six pilots at an air force base.
On Thursday, they killed eight people in a three-hour battle with security forces at an intelligence centre in the northern province of Idlib, an activist group said.
Turkey has slapped sanctions on Syria and floated the idea of a cross-border military operation, shortly after the Arab League imposed its own sanctions on the Syrian regime.
From China Hand at China Matters
According to Milliyet, as cited by IRNA, France has sent its military training forces to Turkey and Lebanon to coach the so-called Free Syrian Army — a group of defectors operating out of Turkey and Lebanon — in an effort to wage war against Syria’s military.
The report added that the French, British, and Turkish authorities “have reached an agreement to send arms into Syria.”
The Turkish daily said that the three have informed the US about training and arming the Syrian opposition.
According to Milliyet, a group of armed rebels are currently stationed in Turkey’s Hatay Province near the border with Syria.
Royal Dutch Shell PLC said it was pulling out of Syria, a day after the European Union imposed new sanctions on the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Lawyers for other oil companies active in Syria are now poring over the text of the latest bans to assess the implications for their operations there. Some have already indicated that they may follow Shell's lead.
The Anglo-Dutch energy company was forced to act after the EU blacklisted an operating company in which it holds a stake, Al Furat Petroleum Co. It is one of 11 companies that were added to the EU's sanctions ...
Nearly nine months after a sustained popular uprising erupted against the Assad government, Syria finds itself increasingly isolated, with even onetime allies condemning its use of lethal force. Turkey, the Arab League, the European Union and the United States have all imposed economic sanctions. The measures are already biting, in ways evident to a reporter during a brief, rare visit allowed by the government, which was seeking to draw attention to its claim that that the Arab League sanctions in particular amounted to “economic war.”
The crucial question for President Assad, the international community, and the tens of thousands who rose up against the government, is whether such financial pain will induce the leadership to halt the violent suppression of antigovernment protests. The sanctions are already unraveling the most significant change of President Assad’s tenure: linking Syria to the global economy, allowing private banks and opening economic opportunity for young people in nation where about three-quarters of the population is under the age of 35.
Optimists think the pressure could work, largely because the biggest tycoons are close to the president, especially his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, and some dozen sons of his father’s closest allies. (Mr. Makhlouf gobbled up so many state enterprises put up for sale that Syrians wryly dubbed the privatization process “Ramification.”)
Pessimists worry that the government, including the scions of the old guard, will let the economy sink further to cling to power.
Violence sweeping across Syria killed 25 people on Saturday, most of them in a battle between troops and a growing force of army defectors who have joined the movement to oust the autocratic president, activists said. The Arab League, meanwhile, agreed on the details of economic and diplomatic sanctions against the regime.
The revolt against Bashar Assad's rule began with peaceful protests in mid-March, triggering a brutal crackdown. The unrest has steadily become bloodier as defectors and some civilians take up arms, prompting the United Nations' human rights chief to refer to it this week as a civil war and urge the international community to protect Syrian civilians.
Sanctions by the United States, the European Union, Turkey and the 22-member Arab League have so far failed to blunt the turmoil, but are leaving Assad's regime increasingly isolated.
Arab League ministers meeting in the Gulf nation of Qatar on Saturday to finalize the bloc's penalties agreed on a list of 19 Syrian officials subject to a travel ban. Among them are Cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers, but the list does not include Assad.
Many of the Arab sanctions, which were first announced last Sunday, went into effect immediately, including cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, halting Arab government funding for projects in Syria and freezing government assets. Flights between Syria and its Arab neighbors will stop Dec. 15.
The Arab League also agreed to ban the supply of all weapons to Syria.
The worst violence on Saturday took place in the restive northwestern city of Idlib.
The pre-dawn clashes between regime forces and defectors killed seven soldiers and policemen, as well as five defectors and three civilians, according to a British-based group of Syrian activists called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Elsewhere, security forces killed one civilian in the southern province of Daraa, six in the central region of Homs and three others in areas near Idlib, the observatory said.
The U.N.'s top human rights official said this week that Syria is in a state of civil war and that more than 4,000 people have been killed since March.
After months of public demonstrations and brutal regime-directed violence, Syria appears to be slipping into an all-out insurrection. Anti-government forces have been able to seize pockets of territory and launch raids into Damascus. It may only be a matter of time before, as in Libya, clear front lines emerge and fighting escalates from an insurgency into fully-fledged civil war.
Any such escalation would almost certainly involve a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Thousands of refugees have already left Syria (itself home to hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Palestinians). There are nearly 10,000 Syrians being sheltered in camps in Turkey. If the conflict intensifies, the number could jump exponentially: up to a million fled Libya earlier this year.
Faced with this potential crisis, regional leaders and European policy-makers seem to be edging toward proposals for some sort of humanitarian intervention. While Chinese and Russian diplomats darkly hint that NATO wants to launch another war, Western leaders have little stomach for a Libyan-style air campaign. European air forces need a break after their longer-than-expected operations over Libya, and the Syrian military still has considerable firepower.
Instead, the hunt is on for ways to offer security and aid to civilians inside Syria and on its borders. Rather than air power, this could involve some sort of international presence on the ground. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned this week that "not only Turkey but the international community" might have to create a buffer zone along the Syrian border if refugee flows reach tens or hundreds of thousands. He kept this idea vague, but has underlined Turkey must be ready for all scenarios. Last week Davutoglu's French counterpart Alain Juppé used a radio interview to moot the creation of humanitarian corridors to funnel food and medical supplies into Syria, possibly accompanied by international observers with a U.N. mandate.
At least a dozen Syrian secret police have defected from an intelligence compound, activists said Sunday, in what appeared to be the first major desertion from a service that has acted as a pillar of President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
A gunfight broke out overnight after the defectors fled the Airforce Intelligence complex in the center of Idlib city, 280 kms (175 miles) northwest ofDamascus, and ten people on both sides were killed or wounded, the activists said.
The Arab League has told Syrian authorities to sign an initiative to end the military crackdown on popular protests by Sunday, and has threatened to impose financial and economic sanctions if it does not sign soon.
Such deadlines have slipped repeatedly in the past. Damascus complains that its sovereignty would be compromised by the plan, which would require it to admit Arab monitors to ensure thatSyria pulled troops out of cities.
The Assads are apparently willing to try and outwait the rebels. There are no indications the Assads are seeking sanctuary anywhere. Exile options are limited, with Iran being the most likely sanctuary. This religious dictatorship would not appeal to the secular (to Iranian eyes) Assad clan. So a fight to the death is shaping up, and it could get very nasty.
Many long-time allies are backing away from their support for the Assads. Alawite's are refusing to back the Assad's blindly, seeking to avoid a religious war with the Sunni majority. Some of the terrorist groups that have been based in Syria for decades are backing away from the Assads and looking for a new sanctuary. This is especially true of the senior Hamas leadership, who have, until now thought themselves safer in Syria than in Gaza. But ninety percent have now gone to Gaza, leaving about thirty Hanas members in Damascus to show that the terrorists still supported the Assads.
The Arab League appears determined to remove the Assad family from power in Syria. While the League appears united in opposing a NATO air campaign in Syria, there is similar determination to bring down a second Arab government. While the Kaddafi family in Libya was pushed out of power because Moamar Kaddafi was consistently hostile to fellow Arab leaders, the Assads have sinned by being an ally of Iran. One reason for that is the fact that the Assads belong to a minority Shia sect in a largely Sunni Arab Syria. Arab rulers are increasingly fearful of Iran, which is run by a coalition of Shia Moslem fanatics and is trying to develop nuclear weapons. So while the Assads are condemned publicly for killing Syrians, the real reason the Arab League wants the Assads gone is the Iranian connection.
Syria struck out at Turkey in response to Turkish sanctions by imposing 30% tariffs on Turkish imports. This will bring trade to a standstill between the two countries that had expanded their trade to well over 2 billion dollars a year. Syria also pulled out of the Barcelona Agreement for EU Partnership in reaction to EU sanctions.
Aleppo and Damascus consume more than half of Syria’s mazoot (fuel oil). Many believe this is because they smuggle so much outside to countries where its price is much higher. In Turkey, mazoot costs six times more than the official price in Syria.
Syria's state-run media say the country's military has held war games during which the army test-fired missiles and the air force and ground troops conducted operations "similar to a real battle."
The maneuvers come as Syria is under Arab and international pressure to end a crackdown on an eight-month uprising that the U.N. says has killed more than 4,000 people.
State TV said Monday the exercise was meant to test "the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression." It says the war games were held on Sunday.
In October, Syrian President Bashar Assad warned the Middle East "will burn" if the West intervenes in Syria.
Sounds more and more like Libya . . .
A surge in violence in the restive Syrian city of Homs has killed up to 50 people in the past 24 hours, leaving dozens of bodies in the streets, activists said Tuesday.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted witnesses as saying 34 bodies were dumped in the streets of Homs on Monday night. Homs-based activist Mohammed Saleh said there was a spate of kidnappings and killings in the city earlier Monday.
Homs and other areas have seen an increasing number of tit-for-tat attacks pitting majority Sunnis against members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect, fearsome violence that evokes the seething conflicts that have bedeviled neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
"It was an insane escalation," Saleh told The Associated Press by telephone from Homs after Monday's violence. "There were kidnappings and killings in a mad way. People are afraid to go out of their homes."
Turkey will levy taxes of about 30 percent tax on Syrian goods after President Bashar al-Assad suspended a free-trade agreement and imposed taxes on Turkish exports, Customs & Trade Minister Hayati Yazici said.
Another measure barring Syrian vehicles that are 20 years and older from entering Turkey and alternative transit routes to enable Turkish exporters from bypassing its southern neighbor add to efforts targeting Syria’s economy, Yazici told reporters in Ankara today, according to state-run Anatolia news agency.
Relations with Turkey, Syria’s fifth-biggest trading partner and export market, have been deteriorating since August, when Assad failed to take steps he agreed to with Turkey to end his crackdown on dissent, which the United Nations said has cost more than 4,000 lives since mid-March. Since then, Turkey has halted joint energy exploration, joined the Arab League’s sanctions against its once-close ally, threatened to expand embargoes and started shipping routes to Egypt and Lebanon to circumvent Syria, which had been blocking Turkish trucks.
“They are sawing off the branch they’re sitting on,” Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan told reporters in televised remarks from Istanbul. “These aren’t moves that a country with such a need for cash and a seriously pressured economy should be making.”
A major Syrian oil pipeline was attacked, adding further stress to an economy buckling under sanctions and widespread fuel shortages, as talks continued to let Arab observers into the country to stem the violence that took 13 more lives on Thursday.
The sabotage, which both the government and opposition reported on Thursday, happened in Homs, the uprising's epicenter, and was at least the third pipeline attack since the uprising began in March.
The explosion was sure to add to the misery and insecurity felt by Syrians, who are suffering fuel shortages under economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the U.S.—and more recently by Turkey and the Arab League—and a violent government crackdown in which more than 4,000 people have been killed.
Even as the government of President Bashar al-Assad intensifies its crackdown inside Syria, differences over tactics and strategy are generating serious divisions between political and armed opposition factions that are weakening the fight against him, senior activists say.
Soldiers and activists close to the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is orchestrating attacks across the border from inside a refugee camp guarded by the Turkish military, said Thursday that tensions were rising with Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, over its insistence that the rebel army limit itself to defensive action. They said the council moved this month to take control of the rebel group’s finances.
“We don’t like their strategy,” said Abdulsatar Maksur, a Syrian who said he was helping to coordinate the Free Syrian Army’s supply network. “They just talk and are interested in politics, while the Assad regime is slaughtering our people.” Repeating a refrain echoed by other army officials interviewed, he added: “We favor more aggressive military action.”
The tensions illustrate what has emerged as one of the key dynamics in the nine-month revolt against Mr. Assad’s government: the failure of Syria’s opposition to offer a concerted front. The exiled opposition is rife with divisions over personalities and principle. The Free Syrian Army, formed by deserters from the Syrian Army, has emerged as a new force, even as some dissidents question how coordinated it really is. The opposition inside Syria has yet to fully embrace the exiles.
Friday’s bomb attack that targeted a UNIFIL patrol in south Lebanon, wounding five French peacekeepers, is intended to send “a political message” to Western countries, mainly France, which are stepping up pressure on Syria to halt its violent crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad, political analysts said Friday.
Lebanon’s top leaders and political parties, including Hezbollah, have condemned the bombing, the third this year targeting patrols of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon. President Michel Sleiman called on French peacekeeping forces to stay in Lebanon and vowed to find those responsible for the attack.
“This terrorist attack is aimed at pressuring these [French] troops to withdraw and pave the way for the return of terrorist activities,” Sleiman told a joint news conference with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkseyan in the Armenian capital Yerevan.
Retired Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Hanna said the attack on UNIFIL was “directly linked” to the Western – and mainly French – position on the unrest in Syria.
The armed forces are now reported to be massing outside Homs, while the pro-regime "Shabiha" militia has set up a network of checkpoints. "These are all signs of a security crackdown operation that may reach the level of a total invasion of the city. We warn of the consequences of committing such a crime that could result in a massive number of casualties," added the SNC statement.
The SNC urged the Arab League, human rights organisations and foreign governments to "take immediate action to pressure the international forums to provide immediate protection to civilians in Homs".
France called on world powers to “save the Syrian people” on Saturday as it joined the United States and Britain in raising an alarm that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces may be about to storm the rebel stronghold of Homs.
In Damascus, the government denied any crackdown, while accusing its opponents of taking up arms and warning the rebels’ supporters in the West that Syria could count on Russia, China and others to oppose any foreign intervention in its affairs.
In Homs, a pro-democracy activist said there was no clear sign of a troop build-up other campaigners had reported around the city on Friday. Opposition groups have called for businesses and labour not to work on Sunday, the first day of the working week in Syria, in what they have called a “Strike for Dignity”.
“France is extremely concerned about information of a massive military operation being prepared by Syrian security authorities against the city of Homs,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, echoing concerns raised in Washington, London and neighbouring Turkey.
“France warns the Syrian government and will hold the Syrian authorities responsible for any action against the population.
“The entire international community must mobilise itself to save the Syrian people,” Valero added in a statement.
On Friday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said: “It is extremely concerning that in places like Homs we have huge number of reports that they are preparing something large-scale.
“They are not going to be able to hide who’s responsible if there is a major assault on the weekend.”
Army defectors fought government troops on Sunday in one of the biggest battles of Syria's nine-month uprising, and a strike shut businesses in a new gesture of civil disobedience, residents and activists said.
Troops mainly from the 12th Armoured Brigade, based in Isra, 40-km (25 miles) from the southern border with Jordan, stormed the nearby town of Busra al-Harir on Sunday.
A housewife in Busra who did not want to be named told Reuters by telephone that the town was being hit by machinegun fire from tanks.
Her children were crying.
The sound of explosions and heavy machineguns was heard there and in Lujah, an area of rocky hills north of the town, where defectors from the army have been hiding and attacking military supply lines, residents and activists said.
"Lujah has been the safest area for defectors to hide because it is difficult for tanks and infantry to infiltrate.
The region has caves and secret passageways and extends all the way to Damascus countryside," said an activist, who gave his name as Abu Omar.
Opposition activists said they had shut down much of the capital and other towns with a strike, the biggest walkout by workers since the protest movement demanding President Bashar al-Assad's removal erupted in March.
The Syrian government has warned protesters in the city of Homs to stop demonstrations, hand in weapons and surrender defecting military members by Monday night or face bombardment, an opposition leader said.
A 72-hour warning was given Saturday, said Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamdo of the Free Syrian Army.
The Syrian National Council, the country's leading opposition movement, had warned earlier of a potential bloodbath at the hands of the Syrian regime in Homs.
"If the world continues to watch, then the massacre of Hama in the '80s will be repeated," said Hamdo, referring to 1982, when Syria's military -- acting under orders from current President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad -- launched an assault on the city, killing thousands.
Syrian army vehicles were set ablaze yesterday as troops battled defectors during clashes that killed at least eight people across the country, according to activists.
For the first time, violent protests against President Bashar Assad's regime spilled across the border into Jordan, where about a dozen Syrians attacked the embassy in the capital, Amman, injuring at least two diplomats and four consulate employees.
The nine-month-old uprising against Syria's authoritarian president has grown increasingly violent in recent months as protesters take up arms and defected soldiers who have joined the uprising fight back against the army.
Fighting between loyalist forces and defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army threatens to push the confrontation, which has already claimed 4,000 lives according to the UN, into civil war. In one of yesterday's clashes, which took place in the northwestern town of Kfar Takharim, two of the military's armoured vehicles were set ablaze, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Three other vehicles were burned in another clash near the southern village of Busra al-Harir, the group said. Similar battles took place in several other parts of the south, said the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC). The Observatory said at least eight people were killed while the LCC put the death toll at 18.
The United Nations says the death toll from Syria's unrest has gone beyond 5,000.
U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay said her office has received credible reports from a variety of sources that indicate the death toll since Syria's unrest began in March “probably exceeds 5,000.” She released the statement shortly after a meeting Monday with U.N. Security Council representatives in New York.
Pillay also warned that sources fear a major assault on the flashpoint city of Homs may be imminent.
Meanwhile, Syrians voted Monday in municipal elections amid a general strike and an escalating crackdown on anti-government protesters, The elections cover more than 17,000 seats on local councils across the country's 14 provinces. Witnesses say turnout was low.
The opposition does not consider the vote a legitimate concession by President Bashar al-Assad's government, which has promised a series of political reforms to appease demonstrators.
Fierce clashes between Syrian security forces and army defectors continued in several parts of the country Monday.
France says it believes Syria was behind an attack on U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon. While Paris has no proof, Damascus has plenty of armed supporters who might try to destabilize Lebanon to divert attention from its own turmoil.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe blamed Syria on Sunday, singling out its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah which holds sway in southern Lebanon where five French soldiers were wounded in an explosion that wrecked their patrol vehicle last week.
Syria and Hezbollah both denied the charge on Monday, but Syria's Lebanese opponents have accused Damascus of trying to stir up trouble through proxies who also include Palestinian groups in refugee camps and pro-Syrian political groups.
Analysts said the French accusation was part of an escalating showdown between Western powers demanding President Bashar al-Assad halt the violence in his country, and Syria and its allies, including Iran and Hezbollah.
The battles between rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters and government security forces are growing larger. In the south, a recent clash saw hundreds of armed men on each side fighting it out. The FSA forces also had some tanks and artillery. But for the most part, the FSA concentrates on cutting off supplies for troops and police battalions. The convoys carrying these supplies are vulnerable to ambush, and as the FSA makes more of these attacks, more soldiers and police decide to desert or switch sides. Army and police commanders must devote more and more of their time to monitoring the loyalty of subordinates. The supply problems also consume a lot more attention, as hungry troops, who are short of ammo, are a big problem. Most of the fighting it taking place in the west and along the Jordanian border down south, with the city of Homs currently at the center of army attention. The capital has been quiet, but there continues to be anti-government demonstrations in most of the country.
The UN, and most major powers, is calling for a halt to the violence in Syria. So far, about 5,000 have died, most of them civilians killed by soldiers and police. Another 15,000 have been arrested and about the same number have fled the country. UN officials are talking about war crimes charges. Despite most UN members demanding a halt to the violence, Russia, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil form a block that opposes any foreign intervention against the Syrian government.
On his sick bed in a hospital west Amman, paralysed Syrian activist Ahmed has mixed feelings of anger and hope for a better Syria after thousands killed or injured and many more languishing in notorious prisons across his homeland.
The 28 year old comes from the restive Homs, a city that is having a first hand encounter with ruthless crackdown campaign on anti-Assad protesters.
He lost feeling in his legs after receiving a bullet that pierced through his lungs and into his spine.
"I was in a demonstration near Baba Amro when we heard gunshots.
I ran to seek shelter. Bullets were flying everywhere. Suddenly I fill to the ground. A man picked me up from the street into his yard to treat me," said Ahmed in agonized voice.
Blood was bursting out of Ahmed's mouth when he was rescued and taken to hospital for treatment, he told ANSA.
His mother, who has been by his side since months, says they were forced to sign a paper claiming the injury was a result of an attack by terrorist groups.
"That was the only way for us to have him treated and leave the country," she explains as her son rests nearby.
Activists say Syrian security forces killed at least 17 people on Friday as more than 200,000 protesters rallied against President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Activists say most of the deaths took place in the flashpoint Homs region, where a huge crowd gathered to voice opposition to the Arab League's decision to postpone an emergency meeting on Syria that was set for Saturday.
A report published Thursday named more than 70 Syrian high-ranking military commanders and officials who "allegedly ordered, authorized, or condoned widespread killings, torture, and unlawful arrests." Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of defectors from Syria's military and intelligence agencies, providing detailed accounts of abuses against protesters during the nine-month uprising.
"Defectors gave us names, ranks, and positions of those who gave the orders to shoot and kill," said Anna Neistat, associate director for emergencies at Human Rights Watch. "Each and every official named in this report, up to the very highest levels of the Syrian government, should answer for their crimes against the Syrian people."
Russia's offer of a new U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria is a pragmatic step by a country increasingly isolated in its support for a widely discredited leader.
The shift allows Russia to look less recalcitrant without giving ground on its opposition to sanctions or foreign military interference, which it has vociferously opposed since the NATO operation in Libya.
With the death toll mounting in bloodshed the world blames mostly on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin is under increasing pressure to abandon a government that has given Moscow one of its firmest footholds in the Middle East.
Syrian security forces have reportedly opened fire on anti-government protesters after hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the country.
Activists said at least six people had been killed in the restive central city of Homs, where 200,000 joined marches following Friday prayers.
There were also clashes in Hama, Deraa and Deir al-Zour.
Arab states may take their proposals for ending Syria's crackdown on protests to the U.N. Security Council next week unless Damascus agrees to implement the initiative, Qatar's foreign minister said on Saturday.
Expressing frustration that Syria had not carried out the plan, six weeks after it was first agreed, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said the window for an Arab solution to the crisis was closing.
"If this matter is not solved in the weeks ahead, or couple of months, it will no longer be in Arab control," he told journalists after an Arab ministerial committee meeting in Qatar. "That is what we told the Syrians from the beginning."
Wadi Khalid, Lebanon: In a rocky valley at the northern tip of Lebanon, three generations of a Syrian farming family cluster around a small gas heater in the derelict schoolhouse that has become their refuge.
Interrupting one another in a rush to be heard, family members describe communities under siege by an iron-fisted state, and village turning against village in a chilling cycle of abductions, beatings and killings.
The account given by the family, echoed by others across a valley brimming with refugees, illustrates Syria's descent from a mostly peaceful uprising into ferocious bloodletting that in some places is beginning to resemble civil war.
Around Homs, military defectors and civilians, most of them members of the Sunni Muslim majority, are taking up arms to defend their communities against security forces controlled by members of President Bashar Al Assad's minority Alawite sect, a small Shiite Muslim offshoot.
Human Right Watch released a new report Thursday, "By All Means Necessary." Based on interviews with Syrian military defectors, it detailed orders they were given to use deadly force and torture against Syrian unarmed protesters. HRW found that "military commanders and officials in the intelligence agencies gave both direct and standing orders to use lethal force against the protesters," citing 20 specific instances in the report, and said senior Syrian officials, including President Assad, bear responsibility for the abuses committed by their subordinates.
HRW writes that all the defectors reported being under standing orders to “stop the protests at any cost” and “by all means necessary,” and often were explicitly ordered to use lethal force against protesters. A soldier recounted one such incident in which troops were told to shoot at protesters:
On August 27 we were near a police hospital in Harasta. About 1,500 protesters came there. They requested the release of an injured protester who was inside the hospital. They held olive branches. They had no arms. There were 35 army soldiers and about 50 mukhabarat [intelligence] personnel at the checkpoint. We also had a jeep with a mounted machine-gun. When the protesters were less than 100 meters away, we opened fire. We had previously received the orders to do so from [Brigadier General Talal Makhlouf]. Five protesters were hit, and I believe two of them died.
A sniper deployed in May near the key opposition city of Homs said that soldiers were given quotas of casualties they should inflict. "During the protests, the commanders gave us a specific number, or a percentage, of protesters who should be liquidated. For 5,000 protesters, for example, the target would be 15-20 people," he said.
Another defector, a soldier sent to suppress protests in Douma in April, said "At one point we killed eight people in 15 minutes. The protesters were unarmed. They didn’t even have rocks! That’s when I decided to defect."
Dozens of army deserters have been shot dead by Syrian troops as they tried to flee their bases and join anti-government protests, reports say.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 70 defectors were gunned down in the north-western Idlib province.
The claim has not been independently verified as foreign media are banned from reporting in Syria.
Damascus earlier agreed to an Arab League deal to allow monitors in.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the Arab League had accepted amendments demanded by Damascus.
Bashar Assad has agreed to let in Arab League monitors, but the Syrian autocrat’s history of unkept promises suggests a conclusion to the crisis roiling his country remains a long way off.
Monday’s announcement offered little new. The plan in question, first proposed last month, would have the Syrian government withdraw its troops from the country’s cities, release political prisoners, hold talks with opposition groups and let in monitors from Arab League states.
Damascus immediately agreed to all of the terms except the last, which it condemned as a “violation of sovereignty.”
Andrew Tabler, a Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Monday’s apparent change of heart is merely the latest empty gesture from a regime intent on clinging to power by any means.
Assad “hides behind sovereignty, and this plan would seem to put his activities in the spotlight. He will now try to skirt around the plan to his advantage and play for time,” said Tabler, author of the recently released book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.
“If he pulls back from cities and people protest, the true scale of the uprising will be apparent. That will be hard for him to handle politically,” he said.
Syria’s economy is contracting rapidly. It is estimated that since the protests began, the country’s gross domestic product has shrunk by as much as 20 percent. Revenues from oil and tourism, two important sources of foreign income, have almost disappeared. Recent Arab League sanctions have closed the trading route between Turkey and the rest of the region, cutting customs revenues.
The Syrian Central Bank has not reported its figures since May, which suggests there is a problem. In March, the government had around $18 billion in foreign currency reserves. It is believed that as much as $5 billion of this has been spent since then. The Arab League’s blacklisting of the Central Bank will complicate its operations and impede the transaction of aid money into the country.
As the Central Bank’s currency reserves are depleted, it will become trickier for the government to support the Syrian pound at the official rate of 47 pounds to $1. On the black market the value of the pound against the U.S. dollar has fallen to 62 pounds to $1, which means that Syrians have lost some 25 percent of their spending power. Imported goods have suddenly become very expensive and life in Syria is becoming difficult for ordinary people. There are shortages of baby milk and heating oil across the country, including in Damascus.
Syrian activists say government troops have killed at least 49 civilians and killed or wounded a number of army defectors in one of the bloodiest days since the unrest began, as the Arab League prepares to send observers to monitor its plan to end Syria's months of violence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the army surrounded and attacked a number of civilians, including many activists, in the Idlib province village of Kafruwed early Tuesday. The rights group says troops killed 36 civilians in the assault, even beheading a leader of the local mosque. The Observatory's claims cannot be independently confirmed at this time.
The Britain-based group said the army also attacked civilians who went into hiding in another part of Idlib. There is no word yet on casualties.
A group spokesperson says 13 other civilians were killed elsewhere, mostly in Homs, while 14 security force members were killed in clashes in Daraa.
The Observatory also quotes witnesses who say troops besieged a group of deserters following morning clashes in Idlib province bordering Turkey, surrounding them between the villages of Kafruwed and al-Fatira. Army soldiers killed or wounded at least 100 defectors, but details are unclear.
Law and order are slowly collapsing in Syria, along with reliable supplies of basic goods and services. The opposition is becoming more capable, more numerous, and better armed; more Syrians are despairing of the Assad regime and believe the president lives in a cocoon. The international community has isolated Syria and continues to tighten sanctions and force western companies to withdraw from the country, which is causing the economy to contract rapidly. Syria’s GDP has shrunk by almost 30% in dollar terms since the start of the year — from $55 billion to $37 billion dollars, as the Syrian pound has collapsed from 47 to 62 to a dollar. Heating oil has all but disappeared from the market place; people are cold. Cooking oil is scarce and electricity in many cities is cut for hours on end during peek usage periods. Municipal elections, by all accounts, were a bust. It is hard to see how they can change much so long as article 8 of the constitution – the article guaranteeing the supremacy of the Baath in society and politics – remains in force. Syrian opposition forces asked their followers to boycott them. The notion of reform is dead. The opposition is determined to bring down the regime, not reform it. Anyway, Assad has shown no inclination to cut the authority of the patronage network and security forces that sustain his regime in power. One must assume he will fight to the end, that was the thrust of his recent ABC interview with Barbara Walters.
Syrian rights activists and opposition groups said on Wednesday that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had killed at least 160 defecting soldiers, civilians and antigovernment activists over the last three days in northwestern Syria. If confirmed, the killings would constitute one of the worst spasms of violence in the nine-month-old uprising.
The killings, which the activists and opposition groups said had taken place near the city of Idlib in the Turkish border region, were reported a day before observers from the Arab League are to visit Syria for the first time to monitor pledges by Mr. Assad’s government to withdraw its troops from besieged areas.
Some activists said Mr. Assad’s forces had intensified a campaign of deadly violence and intimidation partly because the impending arrival of the Arab League monitors may prevent such action in coming days. “I fear the security forces may be trying to crush this thing before the monitors get in,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group.
The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Wednesday to extend the U.N. peacekeeping force along the Israeli-Syrian border, warning that events in the region could impact its operations.
The 15-member council renewed the mandate of the more than 1,000-strong force for six months until June 30.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, known as UNDOF, was established in 1974, following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, to monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967, and Syria wants the land returned in exchange for peace.
The Arab League sent monitors to Syria Monday even though President Bashar Assad’s regime has only intensified its crackdown on dissent in the week since agreeing to the Arab plan to stop the bloodshed.
Activists say government forces have killed several hundred civilians in the past week. At least 23 more deaths were reported Monday from intense shelling in the center of the country, just hours before the first 60 monitors were to arrive. The opposition says thousands of government troops have been besieging the Baba Amr district of in the central city of Homs for days and the government is preparing a massive assault on the area.
France expressed strong concerns about the continued deterioration of the situation in Homs. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero demanded Syrian authorities allow the Arab League observers immediate access to the city.
“The repression and unprecedented violence committed by the Damascus regime must cease and everything must be done to stop the drama going on behind closed doors in the city of Homs,” the French statement said.
In Cairo, an Arab League official said this monitoring mission was the Syrian regime’s “last chance” to reverse course.
Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrators in a Damascus suburb on Thursday morning, activists said, killing several people and dashing hopes that Arab League observers might help stem the bloodshed.
One activist in the Damascus suburb of Douma said that protesters gathered early in the morning to greet what they thought was a delegation of the observers arriving on several buses. Instead, members of the security forces disembarked.
“We lost six people, the price of seeing this cursed mission,” said the activist, who did not want to be quoted by his full name. “Their presence has raised the killing, in fact.”
Deaths were reported in several cities that the observers were supposed to visit, including Idlib and Hama. Government loyalists and troops also clashed with protesters in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan, residents said, and the Syrian government reported that opposition gunmen killed two soldiers.
Adding to the mounting criticisms of the Arab League mission, a prominent Syrian dissident, Haytham Manna, who has supported the observers, called for the delegation’s leader to be replaced or have his powers reduced. The leader, Lt. Gen. Muhammed al-Dabi of Sudan, has become a lightning rod for complaints about the team. Human rights activists say his credentials — including time as the chief of a military intelligence branch in Sudan that has been accused of atrocities — make him a poor candidate for the job.
In a statement, Mr. Manna said he was “surprised” by the choice of Mr. Dabi for the Arab League mission, though he did not refer to him by name. “We know his history and his shallow experience in this area,” Mr. Manna said. “I call for the Secretariat of the Arab League to work quickly to save the observers’ mission.”
As many as 28 people were killed on Wednesday by the gunfire of Syrian security forces across the country, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.
Residents of Baba Amro in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs have refused to allow Arab League monitors in because an army officer is accompanying them, a rights group said on Wednesday.
At the same time, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, they are asking for the observers to “come and see the wounded people and the parents of the martyrs, and not members of the (ruling) Baath party.”
Instead, the Britain-based Observatory said, the monitors visited the Bab Sebaa quarter of Homs, where it claimed the regime had organized a parade in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Observatory said it feared “that the observer team is not really seeing the violation of human rights in Syria.”
The regime withdrew tanks from the streets of Homs, where hundreds of people have died in the nine-month crackdown on dissent, just hours before the observers arrived there on Tuesday and “could be back in five minutes,” said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman, according to AFP.
Two leading factions of Syria’s political opposition moved toward forming a coalition by agreeing on a blueprint for a democratic transition of power, a step hailed and condemned by their deeply divided members.
The accord by the leaders of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) rejects foreign intervention in Syria but calls for the protection of civilians by all legitimate means, according to a statement on the NCC’s Web site.
An Arab League advisory body is calling for the immediate withdrawal of league monitors from Syria, saying the unit is failing to prevent the killing of civilians by government forces.
Syrian activists say forces loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad killed at least nine people Saturday, as leaders of the country's two largest opposition groups signed a deal laying out the scope of democratic rule should the Assad government be toppled.
Sunday, the speaker of the Arab Parliament, Ali al-Salem al-Dekbas, said the violence in Syria is continuing to claim many victims, including children. He said the pullout of the monitors should be immediate, given the ongoing deaths.
The United Nations estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since March during a crackdown on protests inspired by the Arab Spring democracy movement. The Assad government claims armed terrorists are driving the revolt.
The Arab League is scheduled to dispatch additional observers to Syria later this week, and it was unclear Sunday what impact the Arab lawmaker's call would have on the planned deployment.
Syrian authorities, under increasing international pressure, agreed last month to allow Arab League monitors into the country. The deal required the government to give monitors freedom of movement through most of the country except for sensitive military sites.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Saturday recent violence has left hundreds of people dead or wounded and many others in military custody
Usually, a budget deficit of nearing 10% of GDP starts to become a problem. This note claims the following:
1- Tax revenues next year will be less than half of what they were (50% drop).
2- Income from oil sale and the public sector will also drop.
3- The budget deficit as a result will be syp 529 billion out of a total budget of syp 1326 billion. In other words, 40% of expenditures will be unpaid for by revenue.
4- The resulting deficit of syp 529 billion is nearly $9 billion or 18% of GDP and this is assuming a GDP of $50 billion. The actual deficit/gdp ratio could top 20%.
5- The government has no access to credit markets. It never developed a local bond market and it can never access the international credit markets.
6- And here is the shocking solution: Force powerful companies, banks and even large car dealers to lend to the government especially that many made “enormous profits during the economic reform and liberalization process”. The way to do this would be through “tashreei” or passing laws that specifies the amounts, rates and tenor of these loans per company and even “individual”.
7- let me summarize it in simple terms: The state is only able to collect 60% of every syp it spends. It cannot borrow to bridge the gap. The only way to bridge the gap is to go to those companies, banks , car dealers, etc. that are thought to have benefited in the past and force them to lend to the state at rates and amounts that the government itself specifies.
Attacks suggest anti-government forces growing more brazen; Syrian website reports Assad mulling inclusion of opposition in new cabinet.
Armed rebels captured dozens of members of the Syrian security forces by seizing two military checkpoints on Monday, opposition figures said, as the Arab League chief reported cautious progress in a peace monitoring mission.
The opposition said army deserters also clashed with security forces at a third checkpoint, killing and wounding an unspecified number of troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.
On Monday the Arab League said the government had withdrawn its tanks from Syria’s cities, a key demand the Arab bloc had posed on the beleaguered Assad regime.
The statement could not be independently confirmed, and followed two days of conflicting reports over whether its monitors were having any impact at all in stemming the violence. On Sunday an Arab League advisory body called for the immediate withdrawal of monitors, saying they were allowing Damascus to cover up continuing violence and abuses.
The almost-daily killings of Syrian protesters by the Assad regime is finally forcing serious diplomatic action. In coming days, both the West and other Arab states will need to respond to the worldwide revulsion over televised videos of Syrians being slaughtered simply for demanding freedom.
Two pieces are already in place. A key player, Turkey, has turned on its onetime ally next door after thousands of protesters were killed. And international economic sanctions are biting the regime, although they don’t seem to be making much of a difference in Assad’s killing machine.
Last week, the 22-nation Arab League sent about 70 observers to Syria to try to curb the massacres, simply by their presence in major cities. Their efforts are too little and highly suspect, especially as they are led by a military general from Sudan held responsible for killings in Darfur.
And the Arab League’s advisory body, the Arab Parliament, insisted Sunday that the observers leave. President Bashar al-Assad is violating a pact with the league by, for example, not allowing journalists into Syria. And wherever the observers are present, the regime simply hides its tanks and relies on snipers to kill opponents.
All this is leading the White House to seriously weigh international options for humanitarian aid and a safety zone for opposition Syrians, much like the use of military force in Libya. “If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians,” a State Department spokesman said Dec. 27.
That effort will be helped by a unity pact signed in Cairo last Friday between Syria’s two main opposition groups. The agreement promises a democratic Syria and asks for the international community to protect the protesting civilians.
Both the West and Arab leaders know that the regime’s days are numbered. Last Friday, an estimated half-million Syrians were out in protest, the largest demonstrations in months. Dozens were killed by the regime.
Arab League efforts to calm things down in Syria have failed so far. The team of Arab League observers was criticized because the team leader was a Sudanese general accused involvement with war crimes (killing civilians). Sudan is also an ally of Iran, which backs the Syrian dictatorship. The deal was that Syria would allow observers to witness Syrian security forces not attacking protestors for a month. Syria tried to deceive the observers on this point, but failed. Syria would also release prisoners and open negotiations with protest groups. About ten percent of the nearly 40,000 prisoners were freed, but apparently these were largely innocent people to begin with. There have been no negotiations and Syria continues to insist that the protests and attacks are being staged by foreign agents. Syria insists that the U.S. is behind recent terror bombings. In return, the Arab League would not impose more economic sanctions. But Syria has refused to cooperate and the Arab League is now forced to escalate. The Arab League is under pressure by its members to withdraw the observers right away. The Arab League originally wanted 500 observers, but Syria agreed to 150 and only let 70 in, and tried to keep them away from any violence. This failed and now Syria has lost any remaining credibility it had with the Arab League.
Many opposition groups are calling for foreign intervention, and armed rebel groups are escalating their attacks. As a result, a recent opinion survey in Syria showed a little more than half the population wants to get rid of the Assads, mainly because they fear a destructive civil war. Syria may have a Sunni Arab majority, but the Sunnis are divided into many tribal and political factions. Most Syrians hate the Assads, but most fear what will follow the dictatorship. What happened next door in Iraq after Saddam Husseins branch of the Baath Party was overthrown in 2003 has not been ignored.
Syria's embattled government has been holding jailed dissidents underground and paying pro-government gang members $100 a day to crack down on protesters as it tries to quell months of demonstrations against it, a former defense official said.
Mahmoud Suleiman al-Hamad was a financial inspector in the Ministry of Defense in Damascus until his recent defection to Egypt. In an interview with CNN this week, he provided a firsthand account of the wheels of repression at work, as seen from his former 12th-floor office.
"I used to see them bringing in blindfolded and handcuffed detainees on buses who are kept in underground prisons, even some built under the streets," he said. During protests in the streets of Damascus, city buses filled with armed gangs left the ministry, flanked by four-wheel-drive vehicles "filled with weapons," he said.
"What is more horrific is the intelligence vans marked with the Syrian Red Crescent insignia that would drive through the protests as ambulances and start firing at protestors," he added.
He blames much of the carnage not Syrian regular troops but on President Bashar al-Assad's intelligence service and the armed gangs he says were recruited to battle protesters.
Arab League peace monitors will stay in Syria to check on the government's compliance with a promise to end 10 months of violence against pro-democracy protesters, Arab government sources said, despite criticism from Qatar's prime minister that they had made "mistakes".
Syria, keen to show it is respecting an Arab League peace accord, said it had released a further 552 people detained during the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad "whose hands were not stained with blood".
The team of monitors arrived in Syria last week to verify whether the government was implementing the agreement to scale back its military presence in cities and free thousands of prisoners detained since the uprising last March.
The League's special committee on Syria is due to meet in Egypt on Sunday to debate the initial findings of the mission, which has been criticised by Syrian activists who question its ability to assess the violence on the ground.
The activists said the teams did not have enough access and were escorted by Syrian authorities, who were manipulating them and hiding prisoners in military facilities.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad injured at least three protesters on Friday when they fired at hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators who had gathered at a mosque in a Damascus district where a major security headquarters is located, a witness said.
The witness, who lives in the area, told Reuters by phone that Pro-Assad militiamen, known as shabbiha, and secret police agents hit the protesters with automatic rifle fire after they defied the heavy security presence and refused to leave the Abdel Karim al-Rifai mosque in Kfar Souseh neighborhood.
"I saw three people on the ground and I do not know if they are dead or alive. The protesters were first hit with water cannons, and when they refused to leave they fired at them," said the witness, an engineer who did not want to be further identified.
"The mosque was surrounded by shabbiha and 'amn' (security police). Snipers were also on the rooftops of the buildings surrounding it, even residential private property," he added.
Arab league chief, Nabil Elarby, has called on the head of Palestinian group, Hamas, to help with efforts to end violence in Syria.
At a meeting with the Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Cairo, he told reporters that, through Meshaal, he has asked Syrian authorities to adhere to the Arab peace plan, which should see tanks pulled out of the cities and the release of political prisoners.
“Today I sent a message to the Syrian authorities that it is imperative to work with complete honesty, transparency and credibility to end the violence in Syria.,” he said. “The observers on the ground are there to see the uptake of the Arab plan, which has not been fully implemented,” Elarby said.
They're really in bad shape if they want assistance from Hamas . . .
The Syrian government has not carried out any of the terms of an Arab League accord, the Qatari prime minister has said, pledging that the League will not tolerate the "unacceptable" continuation of violence.
"The events taking place in Syria are painful and unacceptable," Shaikh Hamad Bin Jasem Bin Jaber Al Thani, whose nation currently chairs the Arab League, told Al Jazeera television in an interview.
Meanwhile, thousands of regime backers massed at a mosque in the Syrian capital for funeral prayers for policemen killed in a Damascus bombing, as the government vowed to respond with an "iron fist" to security threats.
As Arab League monitors prepared a report on Syria's compliance with its agreement to halt violence against protesters, a senior general reportedly said on live TV he was defecting from the regime's army with up to 50 of his soldiers.
Colonel Afeef Mahmoud Suleiman made the announcement live on Al-Jazeera's Arabic News channel on Saturday, the news organization reported.
Flanked by a group of his soldiers, Suleimen said he wanted to keep protesters safe. Al-Jazeera English translated his remarks from Arabic.
"We are from the army and we have defected because the government is killing civilian protesters," he said. "The Syrian army attacked Hama with heavy weapons, air raids and heavy fire from tanks."
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As Abu Rida reels off a list of the latest prices for weapons and ammunition on Lebanon’s black market, his small audience lets out low whistles of surprise.“$2,000 for an RPG?” said one man, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
“I swear to God,” replied Abu Rida who has seen his profits skyrocket over the past year. “The prices are crazy. And it’s all going to Syria.”
Black market arms dealers like Abu Rida are struggling to cope with a soaring demand from Syria that has driven the prices of weapons and ammunition in Lebanon to record highs over the past 10 months.
With the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad slowly evolving into an armed confrontation, procuring sufficient supplies of weapons and ammunition has become a key requirement of rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, a military force composed of deserters from the regular army. Syrian opposition activists who previously supported a peaceful resistance of street protests now say they accept that weapons are necessary to help tip the balance against the Syrian security forces.
“We don’t need people. We have the people. We need weapons and ammunition. If we had that, I can assure you that Assad will be finished very quickly,” said Ahmad, a Syrian activist who lives in hiding in north Lebanon.
The shortage of arms and ammunition in Syria, the high prices in Lebanon and the limited scale of smuggling across the borders Syria shares with its five neighbors underlines the hesitancy of external powers to intervene more heavily by offering clandestine military support to the opposition.
The Syrian economy will soon suffer from what I will call a “financial crisis”. This will occur as credit write offs mount. The banking system will soon be hit with a wave of defaults at both the corporate and retail levels. The former will come about as the larger companies decide not to pay the banks. Most of the credit that they have been offered comes in the shape of overdrafts, bills discounting and letters of credit. Banks are exposed to this and their exposure exceeds that at the retail level (car loans for example). Some of the banks are already fearing that a number of businessmen will default and leave the country. Another very important thing to watch is the possibility that some state banks will default on payments to the private banking system. I am led to believe that this has already happened and that no one dares make the information more public. For now, they are treating the default as a “delayed payment” and so on. The private bank involved is of course starting to think it is a default. The Central Bank has been approached. No one can speculate if it will be liable or not as it may open the floodgates for other public banks. As you know, I have always highlighted the fiscal pressures on the government. The number of state employees and subsidies are simply unsustainable. The government will not be able to raise enough revenues to pay for such liabilities. They cannot borrow from the domestic or external sectors to bridge this gap. The only thing they may do is print more money. This will lead to inflation and loss of purchasing power as the Syrian Pound loses value.
How long will it take for the above financial crisis and/or fiscal crisis to show up publicly?
My sources continue to say that the answers is “Months”. They have been saying this of course for months. My own prediction is that it will take another year or two before things truly unfold. One thing to remember always is that Syrians are poor and more importantly are used to living well below global standards. The country has been through economic hardship many times over its recent modern past. It will take a lot of further pain to cause many to revolt in massive numbers.
In his first speech since June, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to respond to threats against him with an "iron hand" and refused to step down, insisting he still has his people's support despite a 10-month-old revolt.
Assad repeated claims that a foreign conspiracy is behind the unrest - not true reform-seekers - and he blamed the news media for fabrications.
"Our priority now is to regain security in which we basked for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand," Assad said in a nearly two-hour speech to a cheering crowd packed with well-dressed supporters at Damascus University. "We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."
Turkish customs officials intercepted four trucks on Tuesday suspected of carrying military equipment from Iran to Syria, a Turkish provincial governor.
The governor of Kilis province said the trucks were confiscated at the Oncupinar border crossing into Syria after police received information about their cargo, according to Dogan news agency.
Syria is struggling to afford and secure ample food supplies for its domestic population as the European Union's ban on oil imports puts severe strain on the country's finances.
As officials warn the country is heading towards civil war under the embattled regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, Syria's ability to import wheat at affordable prices from abroad is more crucial than ever, after heavy rains caused the country's production of winter cereal crops to slump.
"The prolonged unrest is often causing disruptions in food distribution channels, leading to localized shortages in several markets," according to the United Nations' food body, the Food and Agriculture Organization.
An Arab monitor said on Wednesday he might quit a fraying Arab League team of observers in Syria because the mission was proving ineffectual in ending civilians' suffering there, exposing rifts in the Arab peace effort.
The comments come a day after Anwar Malek, an Algerian observer, told Al Jazeera he had quit Syria because the peace mission was a "farce."
Malek's departure was a blow to the mission, already criticised by Syria's opposition as a toothless body that only served to buy President Bashar al-Assad time.
Its work has already been hampered by an attack on monitors in the western port of Latakia this week that lightly wounded 11 and prompted the League to delay sending new observers to Syria to join about 165 already there.
The International Monetary Fund says Syria's economy is set to shrink 2 percent this year, the first contraction since 2003, as a result of the domestic turmoil, which began last March.
Independent economists say tighter sanctions imposed by Western and Arab countries on Syria in the wake of violence in the country will reduce crucial oil revenues and exports even though the authorities say that new export markets in Iraq and Iran could cushion the impact of the loss of lucrative markets in the Gulf.
The government has braced residents for wider power rationing, blaming terrorists for the sabotage of power plants, in what economists and business leaders say is an effort to conserve scarce fuel oil as the political crisis hits the economy more deeply.
Stealing electricity by running wires into a public electricity unit has become common this winter, some residents in Damascus say.
A Russian ship that made an unscheduled stop in Cyprus while carrying tons of arms to Syria was technically violating an EU embargo on such shipments, say Cypriot officials.
The vessel, however, was allowed to continue its journey Wednesday after changing its destination.
The cargo ship, owned by St. Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd., left the Russian port on Dec. 9 for Turkey and Syria, which is 65 miles (105 kilometers) east of Cyprus, the officials said.
Russia and Turkey are not members of the European Union, so such a route would not have violated the embargo the bloc imposed to protest Syria's crackdown on the uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule.
The Arab League should urgently condemn the Syrian security forces for shooting peaceful protesters who were attempting to reach its observers in the northern city of Jisr al-Shughur, Human Rights Watch said today. In light of these and other blatant violations of the agreement it brokered with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, the Arab League should report publicly on its findings and assess whether its mission should continue.
Two protesters who were wounded in Jisr al-Shughur and fled to southern Turkey told Human Rights Watch in face-to-face interviews that around 11 a.m. on January 10, 2012, they marched towards the Baath party square (re-named "Freedom Square" by the protesters) to meet with Arab League observers present there. According to the witnesses, when they approached a checkpoint on the way to the square, army personnel barred them from proceeding and, after the protesters refused to disperse, opened fire on the crowd, injuring at least nine protesters. The Arab League observers were in the Baath party square, but left in a car after the shooting began, the witnesses said. Despite several attempts, Human Rights Watch has not been able to contact the Arab League observers to confirm whether they witnessed the incident.
Several Arab League monitors have left Syria or may do so soon because the mission has failed to halt President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on a popular revolt against his rule, a former monitor said. Anwar Malek, an Algerian who quit the monitoring team this week, said a Moroccan legal specialist, an aid worker from Djibouti and an Egyptian had left the mission. Syrian opposition groups say the monitors, who arrived in Syria on Dec. 26 to verify Syria’s compliance with an Arab peace plan, have only given Mr. Assad more time to crush the protests. The observers resumed work on Thursday, a league official said, for the first time since 11 of them were wounded by pro-Assad demonstrators in Latakia on Monday. The league’s secretary general, Nabil el-Araby, said Syria had carried out only parts of the agreement it had signed. “Neither the violence has stopped, nor the killing,” he told Al Hayat television. “The level has dropped, but it has not stopped.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 21 people were killed across the country on Thursday.
Hundreds of Syrian and foreign activists travelling in convoy have been prevented from entering Syria to deliver aid supplies.
A representative from the group said they would now stage a sit-in on the Turkish side of the border.
Meanwhile, Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi has said that the organisation will "re-think" its observer mission to the strife-torn country next week.
Opposition groups in Syria say 22 people were killed on Thursday.
The head of the Arab League has warned Syria may be sliding towards civil war, after security forces fired on thousands of people demonstrating in support of army defectors yesterday.
At least ten people were killed, activists said, in the latest violence that has become a regular occurrence as president Bashar al-Assad attempts to hold on to power.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said the Assad regime was either not complying or partially complying with a league plan that Syria signed last month to end its crackdown.
“We are very concerned because there were certain commitments that were not complied with,” he said in Cairo, where the league is based. “If this continues, it may turn into civil war.”
Support for military opposition to the Syrian regime appears to be gaining momentum, with thousands rallying in support of armed rebels across the country Friday, while the Arab league chief voiced fears that the unrest could degenerate into a civil war.
Moscow, meanwhile, kept up its opposition to calls for tougher action against ally Damascus, calling them flagrant attempts at regime change.
Friday’s rallies in support of the rebel Free Syrian Army came after the largest civilian opposition group decided to boost cooperation with the group.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group that initially opposed the use of force in the uprising, met Thursday with rebel army chief Colonel Riad al-Asaad.
They agreed to “formulate a detailed plan, to include the reorganization 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 said.
Formed of deserters from the regular army who mutinied over the regime’s deadly crackdown, the group say they now have over 40,000 men.
Iran is supplying munitions to aid Syria's bloody protest crackdown as part of a plan that saw President Bashar al-Assad welcome Tehran's revolutionary guards chief to Damascus, senior US officials tell AFP.
Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps elite Quds force, was in the Syrian capital this month, the official said, in what Washington sees as the most concrete sign yet that Iranian aid to Syria includes military hardware, the officials said.
"We are confident that he was received at the highest levels of the Syrian government, including by President Assad," one official said on condition of anonymity.
"We think this relates to Iranian support for the Syrian government's attempts to suppress its people."
With Less than a week left on the Arab League observer mission’s timetable, it is already clear that their mission to Syria had been a failure. On Friday, one of the observers, Anwar Malek of Algeria, who has withdrawn from the monitoring team, said the Syrian regime pressured him and his colleagues, interrupted their work, planted cameras in their rooms, listened in on their conversations and even attempted to entice them to give a favorable report in various ways, including by providing them with women.
11 of the observers, including two Kuwaiti officers, were hurt when they were pelted by stones in Deir al-Zour.
A second observer mission slated to leave for Damascus, has meanwhile been postponed, while the Arab League awaits guarantees on their safety.
The Syrian opposition has reported the Assad regime, which has yet to be affected by the observers’ presence, is planning to escalate its crackdown on demonstrators, warning tens of thousands may be slaughtered.
Qatar has proposed sending Arab troops to halt the bloodshed in Syria, where violence has raged despite the presence of Arab League monitors sent to check if an Arab peace plan is working.
Asked if he was in favour of Arab nations intervening in Syria, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani told the U.S. broadcaster CBS: “For such a situation to stop the killing ... some troops should go to stop the killing.”
The emir, whose country backed last year’s NATO campaign that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi, is the first Arab leader to propose Arab military intervention in Syria where protesters are demanding President Bashar al-Assad stand down.
A Russian ship suspected of carrying munitions for Damascus arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus on "Jan. 11 or 12," shipping expert Mikhail Voitenko said.
The ship Chariot arrived at Tartus on January 11 or 12," Voitenko said Jan. 14, basing his conclusions on an examination of data from the vessel's automatic identification system transponder.
"After leaving Limassol, the ship set sail for Tartus. After travelling two-thirds of the way, the team unplugged the AIS transponder," he added.
He believed that the vessel has docked at the Syrian port, he said. It was Voitenko who in 2009 revealed the mysterious disappearance of an Arctic Sea ship, an incident that sparked international concern.
A source from the ship's operator Westberg said Jan. 13 that the ship transporting "dangerous" cargo was bound for Syria.
According to Russian media, the vessel may be transporting up to 60 tons of ammunition supplied by Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport through freight company Balchart.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt his crackdown on dissent that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Syrians.
“Stop the violence,” Ban said yesterday at a conference in Beirut, Lebanon. “Stop killing your people. The path of repression is a dead end. The winds of change will not cease to blow.”
The Syrian government released about 190 prisoners yesterday under an amnesty plan that was approved earlier in the day by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The amnesty covers all crimes committed during the country’s 10-month-old unrest.
An opposition group says a Syrian brigadier-general has escaped to Turkey, becoming the highest-ranking officer to defect.
Mahmud Osman, a member of the Syrian National Council said Saturday that Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheik, the deputy commander in charge of Syria's northern army, fled to Turkey two weeks ago.
Osman said al-Sheik was staying at a camp near Turkey's border with Syria together with other members of the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors who switched sides to try to topple President Bashar Assad.
Syrian human rights activists say at least five people were killed by pro-government forces Monday, as Arab League monitors struggle to document the violence.
It was another difficult day for Arab League monitors. One group, taken to hear evidence of unrest in areas just outside the capital, spent the morning listening to government official after government official tell of attacks against them.
The group listened patiently, asking questions and seeking clarification. One case seemed particularly confusing - a sanitation official who said opposition forces in the restive town of Douma were trying to sabotage their own water supply.
The same monitors had a more trying experience the day before, as they went beyond government-controlled areas to investigate an attack in Zabadani. The observers were welcomed as heroes, but soon found themselves fleeing under gunfire. Who fired the shots is unclear.
A recent visit by the commander of Iran's elite Quds force to Damascus is the strongest sign yet that Iran is supplying weapons to aid Bashar Assad's crackdown on the Syrian people, a senior Obama administration official said Tuesday.
While the U.S. has long believed Iran is helping drive the deadly crackdown on dissent in Syria, the official says the visit by Quds Force Commander Ghassem Soleimani provides a concrete example of direct high-level cooperation between Iran and Syria.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak publicly.
Syrian troops remain in the besieged town of Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon, where they have clashed with defectors, amid reports of a truce between the two sides and an agreement to withdraw, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“It’s illogical for President Bashar al-Assad to say last week he will strike with an ‘iron fist’ and for the army to give up in Zabadani,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the U.K.-based observatory, which has a network of activists in the country, said by telephone today. “If that’s true, then the regime is finished. This isn’t true.”
While on the phone, Abdel Rahman called a resident of Zabadani, who said soldiers were still in the town and gunfire could be heard though shelling had stopped. Zabadani has been besieged by the army, which deployed tanks to the area and clashed with defectors yesterday, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by phone today.
The cease fire in Zabadani has collapsed due to government strikes on the city, reports Brian Whitaker of the Guardian. Earlier the BBC announced that the Syrian army ‘agrees to ceasefire in Zabadani’, which had been reported by Radwan Ziadeh in the US. There was some excitement about the cease-fire development when it was first announced because it suggests that the Syrian military is overwhelmed by the spread of conflict to towns on the outskirts of Damascus. It also suggests that regions of Syria were falling out of government control and staying out of government control to create a “Libya like” situation where rebels could operate and organize without remaining on the run.
Opposition members argue that the Free Syrian Army based in Turkey are spearheading and commanding the fight in Zabadani. Nir Rosen, who has recently come out of Syria after a two month stay, argues on al-Jazeera (linked below) that the opposition claim of the existence of a centrally commanded Free Syrian Army is a myth. He claims that the militias that are springing up in different towns are locally commanded and organized and do not take orders from Col. Asaad or his FSA in Turkey. If this is true, it suggests that multiple militias are emerging, which may eventually struggle for command of Syria and take the place of the Syrian Army, unless they can negotiate some agreement on a central command. In the meantime, it is convenient for the opposition to call opposition forces the Free Syrian Army.
Syrian forces have retreated from a rebel-held town under a local ceasefire, residents said, but deadly violence raged on elsewhere as a month-long mandate for Arab League peace monitors in Syria was expiring.
The head of the monitoring team was still working on his report and would not arrive at the League's Cairo headquarters until Saturday, the day before Arab foreign ministers are due to weigh their next move on Syria, a League source said.
Twenty people, including two army officers, were reported killed across Syria on Thursday, adding to a death toll of more than 600 since the Arab League observers arrived.
An armed insurgency is taking hold in some areas, hardening what began 10 months ago as a mostly peaceful struggle against President Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian rule.
The Obama administration is preparing to evacuate American personnel and close the U.S. embassy in Damascus, Syria, by the end of this month unless the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad provides additional security for the facility, senior administration officials said.
Officials said they have not reached a final decision and are engaged in talks with the Assad government, but there so far have been no tangible results in providing more protection for the embassy.
"We have serious concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Damascus, including the recent spate of car bombs, and about the safety and security of embassy personnel,” a State Department release Friday evening said. “We have requested that the government of Syria take additional security measures to protect our embassy, and the Syrian government is considering that request. We have also advised the Syrian government that unless concrete steps are taken in the coming days we may have no choice but to close the mission.”
A drawdown of the staff at the embassy, which is located on a busy street in Damascus, began last week after three unexplained car bombings in recent weeks jarred the previously calm capital and left as many as 80 people dead.
The U.S. government confirmed Friday the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Syria, a State Department official said.
Consular access has not been provided, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Abdelkader Chaar, 22, is thought to have been arrested in Aleppo, Syria, on January 8.
Chaar was born in Syracuse, New York, moved to Aleppo with his parents when he was a boy and is currently a medical student at Aleppo University, his uncle said. His family has not been told why he was arrested, said Sam Chaar, who spoke to CNN from Arizona.
His family has been in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and has reached out to Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the elder Chaar said.
The headline of Anthony Shadid’s article in Sunday’s New York Times reads “Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens.” The Arab League’s Secretary General, Nabil el-Araby, is quoted as saying “I fear a civil war, and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war.” Others concur, while stopping short of saying that Syria is currently in a state of civil war.
Syrian rebels seized parts of the town of Douma near the capital Damascus on Saturday and then withdrew to their hideouts, activists said.
Night-time gunbattles and explosions rocked Douma, 14 kilometres (9 miles) northwest of the capital, activists said. Douma has been a center of protests in the 10-month revolt against President Bashar Assad.
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighters retreated to their hideouts once they had pushed state forces outside of Douma.
"It seems they chose not to hold on to the territory, most likely because it could offer the regime an excuse to storm the area," Rami Abdelrahman told Reuters.
The Arab League has agreed a new road map for Syria.
The plan would see President Bashar Assad handing power to a deputy and setting up a unity government before holding early parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Arab League said it would take its road-map to the United Nations for endorsement.
The plan was adopted by Arab League foreign ministers meeting January 22 in Cairo.
The Arab League foreign ministers had been expected to extend for another month their observer mission in Syria.
Activists in Syria, however, said the presence of the Arab League mission had not led to a drop in the violence.
Syria rebuffed as a “conspiracy” Monday an Arab League call for President Bashar Assad to step down in favor of a unity government to calm a 10-month-old revolt in which thousands of Syrians have been killed.
But a day after Arab ministers urged Assad to step aside, a senior Russian lawmaker said that Moscow could do little more to support the 46-year-old leader, opening the door to a policy shift by one of Syria’s few remaining powerful allies.
Mikhail Margelov said Russia’s veto last year, alongside China’s, of a Western-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad’s crackdown on months of protests was the “last instrument” Russia could use to support Assad.
“This veto has exhausted our arsenal of such resources,” Margelov was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, tens of thousands of people turned out Monday under the protection of rebel Free Syrian Army fighters to mourn 11 people killed by security forces, activists and a resident said. Security forces, apparently keen to avoid a confrontation, stayed outside the area, where fighting had erupted overnight.
Russia has signed a contract to sell combat jets to Syria, a newspaper reported Monday, in apparent support for President Bashar Assad and open defiance of international condemnation of his regime's bloody crackdown.
The respected business daily Kommersant, citing an unidentified source close to Russia's Rosoboronexport state arms trader, said the $550-million deal envisions the delivery of 36 Yak-130 aircraft. A spokesman for Rosoboronexport refused to comment on the report.
If confirmed, the deal would cement Russian opposition to international efforts to put pressure on Assad's regime over its attempts to snuff out the country's uprising. The U.N. says more than 5,400 people have died over 10 months. The report of the sale comes the same day that Human Rights Watch called Russia's backing of the Syrian regime "immoral."
An Arab League peace plan for Syria appeared to be near collapse Tuesday as six Persian Gulf nations announced their intention to withdraw monitors from the country and urged the United Nations Security Council to take "all needed measures" to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.
The gulf monarchies, including regional giant Saudi Arabia, said in a statement that Assad's government had failed to comply with demands by the 22-member regional bloc designed to curb months of bloodshed in Syria. The six nations — which also include Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — contributed 55 of the 165 monitors sent to Syria.
On Monday, Syria rejected as a "flagrant violation" of its sovereignty a proposed Arab League political road map that called for Assad to transfer power to a deputy and for the establishment of a national unity government within two months. Supervised parliamentary and presidential elections would follow, according to the proposal.
The city of Zabadani in southwestern Syria reportedly has fallen into the hands of anti-regime forces. Though the city does not have much tactical value for the rebels, and the regime could well retake it, the event could have real significance. Up to this point, apart from media attention, the resistance to the regime of President Bashar al Assad has not proven particularly effective. It was certainly not able to take and hold territory, which is critical for any insurgency to have significance.
Now that the rebels have taken Zabadani amid much fanfare -- even though it is not clear to what extent the city was ceded to their control, much less whether they will be able to hold it against Syrian military action -- a small bit of Syria now appears to be under rebel control. The longer they can hold it, the weaker al Assad will look and the more likely it becomes that regime opponents can create a provisional government on Syrian soil to rally around.
Zabadani also gives outside powers something to help defend, should they choose to do so. Intervening in a civil war against weak and diffused rebels is one thing. Attacking Syrian tanks moving to retake Zabadani is quite another. There are no indications that this is under consideration, but for the first time, there is the potential for a militarily viable target set for outside players acting on behalf of the rebels. The existence of that possibility might change the dynamic in Syria. When we take into account the atmospherics of the Arab League demands for a provisional government, some meaningful pressure might actually emerge.
For ten months, the regime has been collapsing in slow-motion, and it is showing. Its political structures, weak at the outset, have eroded beyond repair; the executive has lost any ability it once had to implement policy and the ruling party is an empty shell. The security services remain largely cohesive and ready to fight, but in many places they increasingly resemble at best an occupying force cut off from society, at worst a collection of sectarian militias on a rampage. The military is fragmenting, slowly but surely. The regime's territorial control depended on the protest movement remaining largely peaceful. Now that an insurgency is spreading, it is losing its grip. Arguably, the regime has refrained from using much of the firepower at its disposal, for fear of tilting the balance decisively against it within the international community. It could easily muster enough troops to put down resistance in any specific area, but at the expense of letting things slip elsewhere in a losing game of whack-a-mole; other rebellious areas would go for broke, knowing their turn would soon come if the regime was allowed to deal with them sequentially. Meanwhile, the economy's collapse is accelerating. Because none of this is lost on a majority of Syrians, once spectacular demonstrations of loyalists have narrowed to the point where official footage prefers close-ups to aerial photography. The "silent majority" the regime claimed to have on its side is now angry and scared: it both blames the country's leadership for spelling disaster and distrusts the protest movement, exiled opposition, and outside world for offering no clear prospect for the future other than growing chaos.
On a popular level, the picture also differs from what the regime, its sympathizers, and allies would like to believe. The protest movement, which to this day remains conspicuously absent from the official narrative, is remarkably broad-based, intuitively cohesive, and in many ways sophisticated. Until now, it has effectively contained the more thuggish, criminal, sectarian, and fundamentalist strands that clearly exist within society. In fact, the protest movement's better sides are the only bulwark against such demons, at a time when the regime's course of action -- exacerbating communal tensions as a divide-and-rule tactic, targeting non-violent activists, and compartmentalizing its territory while losing control within screened-off areas -- is making things worse by the day. Unlike the case of Libya, it took months of bullying, disruption, and despair for Syrians to call for international intervention (which they ordinarily would loath), to pick up arms on a large scale (an option the vast majority agreed should be kept as the last resort), and to allow a political struggle to give way insidiously to civil strife (as is occurring in some parts of central Syria). If chaos deepens further, criminals, foreign volunteers, and home-grown fundamentalists are bound to become more striking features of this crisis -- a self-fulfilling prophecy come true.
Arab and Western nations are planning a diplomatic push at the United Nations to persuade Russia to back the Arab League’s call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power.
Qatar, Morocco, the US and the U.K. are among the nations trying to overcome Russian resistance to sanctioning Syria by promoting a UN Security Council draft resolution that has strong Arab backing, according to a UN diplomat who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
The measure “condemns the continued and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” by Syrian authorities and calls for the Assad regime to implement Arab League resolutions for a “political transition,” according to a copy of the document obtained by Bloomberg News.
“We are going to present all Arab resolutions, including the one from two days ago, to the Security Council so the highest authority in the world can adopt them,” Qatar Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber al Thani said in an interview with Al Jazeera television Tuesday.
The secretary general of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and a Christian priest have been killed in violence that flared in parts of Syria on Wednesday, as Arab and Western nations continued their attempts to isolate Syria by trying to unseat it from two committees at a United Nations agency.
The Red Crescent official, Dr. Abd-al-Razzaq Jbeiro, was shot and killed while traveling on the Halab-Damascus highway in a vehicle that was “clearly marked with the Red Crescent emblem,” according to a statement released by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The priest, from the Greek Orthodox Church, the Rev. Basilious Nasser, was shot and killed on the second day of heavy fighting in the city of Hama. The Syrian state news agency blamed an “armed terrorist group” for the killing, while opposition activists in Hama said the priest was shot by a government sniper.
Demonstrations and clashes were also reported on the outskirts of Damascus as the country braced for more violence, after a promise by Syria’s foreign minister on Tuesday that the government would deal “firmly” with armed groups that had recently stepped up their confrontations with security forces.
Arab states and several Western nations are pressing the United Nations Security Council to endorse an Arab League plan that calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
At the same time, at least 25 countries have joined an effort to try to unseat Syria from two committees of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, Western diplomats and Unesco officials said Wednesday. The committees deal with human rights issues.
The Syrian army is falling apart. The desertions continue and troop morale declines each day, especially if troops are being asked to fire on civilians. The only units the government can rely on are those that are Shia (Alawite). By that standard only about a quarter of the 400,000 men in the security forces can be used to attack the rebels. But many of those pro-government troops are needed to guard key political and economic assets (like the Presidential Palace and housing compounds of senior leaders). Rebel troops are increasingly free to travel around the country without encountering any pro-government forces. Violence is increasing, with several hundred casualties each day. Fighting is particularly heavy and persistent in cities like Hama and Homs.
Syrian Kurds (about eight percent of the population) are negotiating with the rebels. The Kurds want autonomy in return for active participation in the rebellion. Arab Syrians fear such a deal will encourage the kind of separatist violence long practiced by Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Russia said on Wednesday it remained opposed to sanctions against Syria and signaled no change in its stance over the government's crackdown on protesters seeking an end to President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also reiterated Moscow's opposition to outside military intervention in Syria and called for negotiations to end 10 months of bloodshed in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 civilians have been killed.
Lavrov, whose country is a veto-wielding permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, criticized Western powers for seeking the United Nations' "post facto" approval for their "unilateral" actions over Syria.
Security forces killed over 40 people in Syria on Friday, activists and residents said, as people in Homs mourned 14 members of a family they said were slain by militiamen in one of the worst sectarian attacks in a 10-month revolt.
The U.N. Security Council discussed a new European-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting 10 months of bloodshed.
Russia, which joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October and which has since promoted its own draft, said the European-Arab version was unacceptable in its present form but added that it was willing to "engage" on it.
The Arab League suspended its observer mission in Syria Saturday following an upsurge in violence and what it described as a “critical deterioration of the situation” in the country, reports Al-Jazeera. “It has been decided to immediately stop the work of the Arab League's mission to Syria pending presentation of the issue to the league's council," Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in a statement. No date has been set for that council meeting, notes Reuters.
The Arab League’s observer mission has come under heavy criticism for failing to stop a crackdown on protesters who have been demanding that President Bashar al-Assad step down from power. Still, despite its shortcomings, the Arab League extended the mission for a second month on Tuesday, but Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states withdrew their monitors in protest, reducing the total number of observers to 110, according to BBC News. The observers will now remain in the country but will not take on new missions. The United Nations estimates that around 5,400 people have been killed in nearly a year of protests, reports the Wall Street Journal. For its part, Syria says around 2,000 of its security forces have been killed.
Fighting between the Free Syrian Army and government troops appeared to escalate Saturday, following a deadly day in which around 60 people were killed across the country, reports Al-Jazeera. Now all eyes are on the U.N. Security Council as it continues to discuss a resolution drafted by Arab states, Britain, France and Germany that calls on Assad to hand over power to his deputy within two months. Russia has said it opposed the resolution but noted it is willing to discuss the details. The Arab League is reportedly in talks with Russia to try to obtain a compromise before Tuesday, when Elaraby is scheduled to brief the Security Council.
The draft resolution has already undergone several changes to try to appease Russia. The latest draft doesn’t actually call on Assad to step down, but rather to delegate authority, which could leave him as “the nominal leader even if he is devoid of powers,” reports Bloomberg.
The Syrian military launched an offensive to regain control of suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus Sunday, storming neighborhoods and clashing with groups of army defectors in fierce fighting that sent residents fleeing and killed at least three civilians, activists said.
Six soldiers were also killed when a roadside bomb detonated near the bus they were traveling in several miles south of the capital. Activists said government forces dispatched dozens of tanks and armored vehicles to reinforce troops in a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus where armed defectors have grown increasingly bold, staking out positions and setting up checkpoints in recent days.
(PHOTOS: Protests Rage on in Syria)
The area on Saturday witnessed some of the most intense fighting yet so close to the capital as President Bashar Assad's regime scrambles to try to uproot protesters and dissident soldiers who have joined the opposition. The ten-month uprising against Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has become increasingly militarized recently as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms against the regime.
The assault on the suburbs seemed to be a sign of the growing presence of dissident soldiers closer to Damascus, and the regime's rising concern about the situation. Although the tightly controlled capital has been relatively quiet since the uprising began, its outskirts have witnessed intense anti-regime protests and army defectors have become more visible and active in the past few months.
The military has responded with a withering assault on a string of Damascus suburbs in a bid to stamp out the resistance, leading to a spike in violence has killed nearly 100 people since Thursday.
Street battles raged at the gates of the Syrian capital on Monday as President Bashar al-Assad's troops sought to consolidate their grip on suburbs that rebel fighters had seized only a few miles from the centre of government power.
Fighting subsided by nightfall as members of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) pulled out to the edges of the capital's suburbs, activists said by telephone, adding they believed 19 civilians and six FSA members had been killed.
A diplomatic battle loomed in the United Nations, where the Arab League - backed by the United States, Britain and France - wants the Security Council to act on an Arab peace plan that would call for Assad to leave power.
Russia, a veto-wielding Security Council member and one of Syria's few allies, said Assad's government had agreed to talks in Moscow to end the crisis, but a major opposition body rejected any dialogue with him, demanding he step down.
With fighting now encroaching the suburbs of the Syrian capital, the conflict is entering into a new dimension for the first time in nearly 10 months.
President Bashar Assad's regime is intensifying its violent crackdown on Syrian protesters, despite international pressure. NBC News' Ayman Mohyeldin is one of the few Western journalists to have been granted permission inside Syria in recent weeks, click to see some of his photos.
The Syrian military has regained control of the Damascus suburbs after rebel fighters over the weekend made strong advances around the capital, threatening the grip of President Bashar al Assad. The Syrian News Agency say security forces attacked "terrorist hideouts" in the Damascus countryside -- a loosely veiled acknowledgment that the fighting is now on the doorsteps of the capital.
But the attention on the capital and its outlying areas is a sign that rebel fighters who are part of the loosely knit Free Syrian Army have grown more brazen in their attacks as they go on the offensive against government troops. The fighting near the capital comes as a spike in violence has left several hundreds of people dead over the past five days. Both the government and opposition activists continue to blame each other for the violence that only seems to be escalating.
Syrian troops crushed pockets of rebel soldiers Tuesday on the outskirts of Damascus and the U.N. Security Council took up a draft resolution demanding that President Bashar Assad halt the violence and yield power.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Security Council that action to end the violence in Syria would be different from U.N. efforts to pacify Libya.
"I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya," she said. "That is a false analogy."
"It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria," Clinton said.
Russia, one of Assad's strongest backers, has signaled it would veto any U.N. action against Damascus, fearing it could open the door to eventual international military involvement, the way an Arab-backed U.N. resolution led to NATO airstrikes in Libya.
As the U.N. Security Council meets today to discuss how to halt Syria's descent into civil war, the available statistics show a country more violent than ever -- and increasingly defined by armed conflict.
In mid-November, I charted the rising bloodshed in Syria and found that the country was on pace for its deadliest month yet. Since then, the United Nations has admitted that it can no longer keep track of the country's death. However, the Violations Documenting Center in Syria (VDC), which is affiliated with local activist groups, has continued to keep track of the body count -- and the picture isn't pretty.
The past three months have easily been Syria's bloodiest, resulting in 3,029 deaths. By way of comparison, roughly 3,100 people were killed during the first six months of the revolt -- meaning that violence in the country has doubled since then. And it's only getting worse: 829 Syrians were killed in November, 1,049 were killed in December, and 1,151 were killed in January.
The statistics also bear out the view that the revolt increasingly resembles a guerilla war. According to the VDC's statistics, 312 soldiers were killed in January -- 27 percent of the total death toll, the highest proportion during the entire conflict. By contrast, in December, military members only accounted for 18 percent of the deaths. It is unclear whether the VDC counts the deaths of defected Syrian soldiers as civilian or military, so the actual percentage of combatants killed in Syria could be even higher.
Heavy gunfire and shelling rattled towns in a mountain valley outside Damascus on Wednesday, as Syrian troops opened a new front in their campaign to crush rebels who have taken control of areas around the capital.
The assault in the mountains overlooking Damascus from the northwest came a day after regime troops largely succeeded in retaking suburbs on the eastern side of the city in an offensive over the past week.
Syrian rebels take their position behind a wall as they fire their guns during a battle with the Syrian government forces, at Rastan area in Homs province, central Syria, on Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. Syrian troops crushed pockets of rebel soldiers Tuesday on the outskirts of Damascus, fueling some of the bloodiest fighting of the 10-month-old uprising, as Western diplomats tried to overcome Russia’s rejection of a draft U.N. resolution demanding President Bashar Assad halt the violence and yield power.
.With activists reporting more than 30 killed in violence Wednesday, U.N. ambassadors held a second day of talks in a closed session at the Security Council, trying to win the agreement of Syria’s ally Russia to a draft resolution calling for President Bashar Assad to surrender power.
Moscow says it would veto the draft because it believes it opens the way for eventual international military action. Western and Arab diplomats at a high-level Council session Monday that grouped U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British and French foreign ministers insisted no such intervention was in the works.
Mr. Omar and other Syrian activists said one of the challenges facing the resistance was that many Syrian defectors were forced to leave their guns behind when they fled, which left them exposed and vulnerable.
He and his friends are now desperate for the international community to enforce a buffer zone within Syria, a place where aid workers could deliver aid and defectors could find refuge.
But so far, there seems little political will for such a measure. While unsubstantiated rumors have circulated that French and British intelligence agents are helping to train the Free Syrian Army, they remain severely outgunned. Stymied by Russian intransigence, the international community has struggled to find a unified voice to raise against Syria, even sanctions have been strengthened.
"They sent me the threat just because I am an Alawite living in Barzeh," Ali said during a series of interviews Reuters conducted in the Syrian capital last week with a variety of Alawite residents who asked that their identities be concealed.
If Assad falls, they fear a bloodbath for fellow Alawites, outnumbered six to one by the Sunnis in a Syrian population of 23 million, which also includes large minorities of Christians and ethic Kurds.
"We will go to the palace to protect him with our lives," said Mahmoud, an Alawite student at another Damascus university, who spoke to Reuters among a group of friends.
"If Assad goes," added another in the group, also called Ali, "I'm sure I'll either end up dead or I'll leave the country."
Western and Arab states on the United Nations Security Council weakened a draft resolution Thursday urging Syria to end violence — dropping demands for an arms embargo and a call to support sanctions in order to win support from Russia.
It was unclear whether the changes would be enough to persuade Russia, Syria’s ally and a major weapons supplier to the country, to back the resolution. But ambassadors said they expected to send a draft resolution overnight to their governments to see if they would move it toward a vote.
Diplomats acknowledged that the changes diluted the pressure they were trying to bring to bear on Damascus to stop its violent crackdown on antigovernment protests. But they said they had done so to maintain language that effectively seconded an Arab League plan calling for a political transition to democracy in Syria.
More than 200 people were reported to have been killed yesterday in the Syrian city of Homs as security forces continued their efforts to take back opposition-held areas on the eve of a vote by the UN security council on a much-disputed resolution on the country.
Hundreds more were killed in shelling of the city, according to the the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which cited witnesses.
Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the campaign group, said that women and children were among 217 people killed, many of them in the Khalidya district of the city.
"Syrian forces are shelling the district with mortars from several locations, some buildings are on fire. There are also buildings which got destroyed," Abdulrahman told Reuters.
The UN Security Council is expected to meet on Saturday morning to vote on a European-Arab draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan calling for Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, to give up power, council members announced.
The U.N. Security Council failed again Saturday to take decisive action to stop the escalating violence in Syria as Russia and China vetoed a resolution backing an Arab League plan that calls for President Bashar Assad to step down.
The other 13 members of the council, including the United States, Britain and France, voted in an unusual weekend session in favor of the resolution aimed at stopping the ongoing violence in Syria.
It was the second time in four months that Russia and China used their veto power to block a Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria.
The rare double-veto was issued following days of negotiations aimed at overcoming Russian opposition to the draft resolution. Several European envoys said before the session that they felt compelled to call for the vote despite Russia’s attempts to seek a delay because they were concerned about the escalating violence by Assad’s regime.
The urgency was heightened by an assault by Syrian forces firing mortars and artillery on the city of Homs. Activists said more than 200 people were killed in what they called one of the bloodiest episodes of the uprising against Assad. The U.N. says more than 5,400 people have been killed over almost 11 months in a government crackdown on civilian protests.
How to continue from here? Russia raised the stakes until the very end. The government in Moscow wants any UN resolution to also condemn the violence from the protesters' side and to rule out any option of foreign intervention like in Libya.
But the international community will not grant those demands as they would violate the key principle of having the responsibility to protect the civil population around the globe.
Russiais also using its veto to elevate itself to a position of power that Moscow had lost with the end of the Soviet Union. But a veto will not work to change the course of history here.
And China? For Beijing, the veto was a welcome opportunity to react to the US changing its defense focus towards Asia. But it's doubtful whether it was particularly smart to use the Syria resolution for that.
Chinawill need the raw materials and resources of the Middle East if it wants to continue its economic surge. The people in that region longing for freedom might one day remember that Syrian veto.
And there's a good chance that then, Beijing will regret its decision to block the resolution.
A wave of protests broke out at Syrian embassies on several continents amid reports of hundreds of deaths in one Syrian city and hours before a possible U.N. Security Council vote on a response to the violent crackdown in the country. Here's a breakdown of some of the demonstrations Friday and Saturday:
Egyptian police arrested 12 people, mostly Syrians, accused of setting the first floor of the Syrian embassy in Cairo on fire, according to Egyptian police Maj. Karim El-Fouli. Groups of Syrians outside the police station demanded the release of those detained, El-Fouli said.
About 100 people sat outside the police station, leading to a tense standoff with police, said Sumer Badr, a Syrian activist in Cairo.
Sanctions are blow to Syrian citizens Badr said demonstrators gathered because of the "massacre" in Homs. (The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group, had reported that more than 200 people were killed in the besieged city Homs. One activist told CNN the assault on Homs took place after dozens of soldiers from the Syrian army defected and fled into the city.)
The commander of rebel Syrian soldiers said Sunday there is no choice but to use military force to drive President Bashar Assad's regime from power as fears mounted that government troops will escalate their deadly crackdown on dissent after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution aimed at resolving the crisis.
With Western nations searching for an alternative strategy after the failed U.N. Security Council resolution, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite and rally against Assad's regime. The remark suggested the possible formation of a formal group of nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian opposition has called for such a coalition to provide it direct political and economic support after the double veto at the Security Council on Saturday killed a U.N. effort to promote an Arab plan to end violence in Syria.
In his first full-length newspaper interview, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, who has taken refuge in Turkey, gave an apocalyptic insider's view of the state of the regime – despite its attempt to reassert control this weekend.
He said only a third of the army was at combat readiness due to defections or absenteeism, while remaining troops were demoralised, most of its Sunni officers had fled, been arrested, or sidelined, and its equipment was degraded.
"The situation is now very dangerous and threatens to explode across the whole region, like a nuclear reaction," he said.
The failure of President Assad to keep a tight grip even on the towns and suburbs around Damascus, some of which have driven out the army for periods in recent weeks, has led to a reassessment of his forces' unity.
When Gen Sheikh fled over the border from his town in the north of the country in the second half of November, he thought the army could hold out against a vastly outnumbered opposition for a year or more. Now, he said, attacks by the rebels' Free Syrian Army were escalating as the rank and file withered away due to lack of belief in the cause.
Heavy artillery fire has been rocking Homs, as Syrian troops step up an assault on the restive city.
A BBC correspondent there describes almost constant blasts, in the fiercest attack in the 11-month uprising.
US President Barack Obama said it was important to resolve the conflict without outside military intervention.
The U.S. closed its Syrian embassy Monday and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a dramatic escalation of Western pressure on President Bashar Assad to give up power, just days after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to end the crisis collapsed.
The U.S. evacuated all its diplomats from the country as Syrian forces intensified a shelling assault on the restive city of Homs. The offensive began Saturday, the same day Syria’s allies in Russia and China vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution aimed at trying to end the brutal crackdown on dissent.
The men call themselves the Syrian Liberation Army, though they have no military training. They claim to be in control of large parts of this Syrian city, which has been a hotbed of unrest since the uprising began nearly a year ago.
Abdul Rahman is one of the group's leaders. He took CBS News on a tour of the area he claims to have liberated from the Syrian army.
"This place all with me also, government cannot come here," Rahman said.
Along this road, armed rebel fighters man the checkpoints, not the Syrian army.
But just a few minutes later, the CBS News crew was stopped. Regime forces had left a gruesome message by the side of the road: the body of a local activist who was allegedly taken to prison and shot in the head, before being dumped by the highway.
At the local hospital there is a constant flow of injuries and fatalities - victims, people here say, of government snipers.
But still they gather every night to shout their defiance and demand an end to the regime, and every night, gun battles erupt all around the city
After the men get word that regime forces have surrounded some of the rebels, loudspeakers call out for them to come and fight.
The Syrian Liberation Army set out to answer the call. With light weapons and heavy hearts they stood guard on their street corners. They are brave defenders of their community, but no match for the Syrian army when it comes.
With Syria already in civil war, the focus must be preventing a sectarian bloodbath and regional spillover. As violence increases dramatically, options must include alternative measures beyond the United Nations Security Council. The logical initial step is an ad hoc coalition of key international players. However, such a grouping must be prepared to take firm action as dictated by necessity while treading carefully. The unfortunate reality is that a bloody protracted stalemate in Syria can ensue indefinitely.
Furthermore, plans must be made for all types of assistance. But actual aid must be largely determined in proportion to realities on the ground. As civilian casualties mount exponentially, safe-zones and accompanying measures must be tabled sooner rather than later. However, any direct form of military intervention must be a last resort. Frankly, Syria is not Libya. A geographical image of Syria alone speaks more than a thousand words. Politically, diplomatically and militarily, the Syrian crisis is far more complex and less containable than Libya.
Further negotiations at the U.N. Security Council are unlikely to yield concrete dividends anytime soon. Nonetheless, the international community has an obligation to continuously attempt to find ways to reduce violence. Even the remote chance of achieving a temporary breakthrough can spare loss of innocent life.
There now is only limited support in the US, Europe, and the Arab world for direct intervention in Syria. However, the same could also have been said in the lead-up to operations in Libya. There are also reasons why the US might directly (or indirectly) take the lead in such efforts. The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has left many questions about the future role and influence of the US, especially in the context of strategic competition with Iran. Instability in Syria presents Washington with the opportunity to undermine Iran’s regional posture, weaken or change the leadership of one of its key regional allies and potentially to downgrade the Islamic Republic’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict through Hezbollah.
Syria is not Libya. While the later may be geographically much larger, it is a mostly empty country with a small population and very limited military capacity. In contrast, Syria’s population is more than three times larger than Libya, has almost 30 times the latter’s population density and a much larger and far more capable military overall. All of these factors complicate any calculus on military intervention in Syria, whether in terms of the level of potential military opposition, or with regards to the risk of high civilian casualties.
Opposition forces in Syria do not control territory, nor do they currently have military resources at their disposal to mount more than hit-and-run attacks. Most attacks by the FSA, while potentially coordinated, seem to have limited tactical or strategic depth and have yet to present a serious challenge to units loyal to the regime. While Libya’s opposition forces were divided, Syria’s are far more so, with little unity or agreement on the use of violence as a means to an end, and discord about the potential role of foreign intervention. The bulk of the security forces remain largely loyal as decades of over-recruiting from mainly rural minority groups bares fruit in terms of a strong corporatist military culture.
Syrian forces bombarded districts of the city of Homs in their drive to crush a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, ahead of a meeting of Arab foreign ministers due to discuss setting up a joint observer mission with the United Nations.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activists' organization, said that according to a tally from doctors at makeshift hospitals, at least 31 people were killed on Saturday in the latest attacks in a week-long government siege of Homs, Syria's third largest city, which has been at the heart of an uprising that broke out 11 months ago.
"Tens of shabbiha (militiamen loyal to Assad) along with army snipers and two tanks have deployed at the citadel and they are bombarding Old Homs with mortar rounds and anti-aircraft guns," activist Malek Mohammad said by satellite phone from the city, 140 km (88 miles) north of Damascus.
Three gunmen killed the head of a Syrian military hospital as he left his home in the capital Damascus. Three men reportedly ambushed and shot Dr. Issa al-Khouli, the state-run news agency reported, blaming members of an “armed terrorist group.” It is thought to be the first assassination of a senior military official since the uprising began almost a year ago. “Assassinations of the government’s supporters and opponents have previously taken place in embattled cities like Homs and Hama, but Damascus had been relatively quiet until recent weeks, when reports of skirmishing in some neighborhoods began to surface,” reports the New York Times.
U.S. officials reportedly believe that al-Qaida in Iraq was behind two recent bombings in Damascus as well as suicide bombings that struck the city of Aleppo Friday, reports McClatchy. U.S. intelligence reports appear to back claims by Assad’s government that foreign terrorist involvement in the uprising is growing. The opposition had said the regime planned the bombings itself to discredit the movement. The assassination could be one of several “ominous signs that al-Qaida is joining in the uprising against the Syrian regime,” writes the BBC’s Jim Muir.
Why does the leadership think it can still win?
Put simply, the daily morning decision making process may go as follows:
“Does anyone think that foreign military intervention (especially U.S.) is near”?
Answer: A unanimous negative.
Thank you all for coming. Meeting dismissed.
Asking the Syrian President to step down while giving near zero indication that a “credible” military option is on the table is the definition of weak and confused foreign policy by the international community. No, I am not personally advocating foreign intervention here but stating a fact.
Syrian forces resumed their bombardment of the city of Homs Monday after Arab countries called for U.N. peacekeepers and pledged their firm support for the opposition battling President Bashar al-Assad.
Opposition campaigners said tank fire was concentrated on two large Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods that have been at the forefront of opposition to Assad. They said 23 people were killed Sunday after a lull in shelling the previous day.
The government's assault on Homs has spurred Arab countries to ostracise Assad and promise tougher action. At a meeting in Cairo Sunday, Arab League foreign ministers pledged for the first time to aid the opposition battling to overthrow Assad.
The League also called on the U.N. Security Council to authorise a peacekeeping force, a challenge to Russia and China which have so far used their veto power to block action by the world body, most recently on Feb 4.
Leaked documents suggest Iran has agreed to help Syria get around international sanctions imposed against the country for killing civilians.
“Iran has promised to relay to Syria its know-how on ways for transferring funds from the country abroad and back, based on the experience Iran has accumulated in this field,” one memo dated Dec. 8 said.
This document lists ways Iran would help Syria, which is undergoing an economic crisis due to sanctions imposed by the Arab League, the United States, Turkey and the European Union. The European Union has imposed an oil embargo on Syria. Roughly 20 percent of Syria’s gross domestic product comes from oil and 90 percent of Syrian oil is exported to European countries.
Iran paid Syria $1 billion for staples like olive oil, meat and fruit, though it is unclear if Iran actually needs the products or if the country is trying to boost Syria’s economy, Haaertz said.
A second document from Dec. 14, says “the central banks of Syria and Iran agreed to use banks in Russia and China to ease the transfer of funds between the two countries, in view of the current conditions in Syria and Iran.”
Syrian rebels repelled a push Monday by government tanks into a central town held by forces fighting President Bashar Assad's regime in an 11-month conflict that looks increasingly like a civil war.
The military pressed its offensive on Rastan a day after the regime rejected Arab League calls for the U.N. to create a peacekeeping force in Syria and for an end to the violent crackdown on dissent. Damascus called the League initiative "a flagrant interference in (Syria's) internal affairs and an infringement upon national sovereignty."
With diplomatic efforts bogged down, the conflict is taking on the dimensions of a civil war, with army defectors clashing almost daily with soldiers. The rebels have taken control of small swathes of territory in central Homs province, where Rastan is located, and the northwestern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least three government soldiers were killed in the attempt to storm Rastan, which has been held by the rebels since late January.
Damascus is a city in denial with residents mumbling about the events of the last 11 months as a distant problem that is restricted to the city suburbs or other parts of the country that will soon fade away.
But in reality the Syrian revolution has already arrived.
Only a matter of two miles across this vast city in its restive warrens armed gunmen are beginning to control the streets.
As night falls over the central district of Barzeh, crowds of men, women and children gather among the crumbling old city walls to shout for the downfall of the regime. Walking, silently, and swiftly down narrow alleyways, they pass men sporting balaclavas and clutching Kalashnikovs stationed at the entrances to the public square. Members of the group that likes to call itself the Free Syrian Army, they provide ‘security’ for the demonstrators.
For months these protests would last minutes, or be violently dispersed up by security forces. Over thirty people have been shot dead here by regime security, locals told the Daily Telegraph. But now, surrounded by their own military, the crowds are becoming ever more confident and openly defiant.
“Now we have our fighters to protect us, the regime knows this and they don’t dare to come here. We are not safe but now if the regime wants to come he has to bring tanks and troops,” said Asra, a Sunni Muslim pharmacist who has been calling for the demise of the regime since early April.
The U.N. human rights chief blamed disagreement in the Security Council on Monday for encouraging the Syrian government to step up attacks on opposition strongholds in its campaign to crush an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's 11-year rule.
Russia and China on February 4 vetoed a European-Arab draft resolution condemning the crackdown and endorsing an Arab League plan for the Syrian leader to step aside.
"The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force," the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the U.N. General Assembly.
"I am particularly appalled by the ongoing onslaught on Homs," she said. "According to credible accounts, the Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighborhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas."
Syrian government forces launched an offensive on the city of Hama early on Wednesday, firing on residential neighbourhoods from armored vehicles and mobile anti-aircraft guns, opposition activists said.
Troops also shelled Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods in Homs, the 13th day of their bombardment of a city that has been at the forefront of the uprising against 42 years of rule by President Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez.
France said it had created a one million euro emergency fund for aid agencies looking to help the Syrian people and would propose a similar one at an international level next week at a meeting in Tunisia to discuss the escalating crisis.
Paris had previously proposed "humanitarian corridors" with Syrian approval or with an international mandate for shipping food and medicine to alleviate civilian suffering.
Tanks deployed near the citadel of Hama were shelling the neighbourhoods of Faraya, Olailat, Bashoura and al-Hamidiya, and troops were advancing from the airport, opposition sources said.
An activist called Amer, speaking briefly by satellite phone, said that "landlines and mobile phone networks have been cut in the whole of Hama," a Sunni city notorious for the massacre of some 10,000 people when the present president's father Hafez sent in troops to crush an uprising there in 1982.
It was April 1982 and I had just arrived in Beirut as a reporter for The New York Times. I quickly heard terrifying stories about an uprising that had happened in February in the Syrian town of Hama, led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Word had it (there were no Internet or cellphones) that then-President Hafez al-Assad had quashed the rebellion by shelling whole Hama neighborhoods, then dynamiting buildings, some with residents still inside. That May, I got a visa to Syria, just as Hama had been reopened. The Syrian regime was “encouraging” Syrians to drive through the broken town and reflect on its meaning. So I just hired a cab and went.
It was stunning. Whole swaths of buildings had, indeed, been destroyed and then professionally steamrolled into parking lots the size of football fields. If you kicked the ground, you’d come up with scraps of clothing, a tattered book, a shoe. Amnesty International estimated that as many as 20,000 people were killed there. I had never seen brutality at that scale, and, in a book I wrote later, I gave it a name: “Hama Rules.”
Hama Rules are no rules at all. You do whatever it takes to stay in power and you don’t just defeat your foes. You bomb them in their homes and then you steamroll them so that their children and their children’s children will never forget and never even dream of challenging you again.
Elite Syrian forces backed by armored personnel carriers stormed part of Damascus on Wednesday, firing machineguns in the air, in the closest deployment of troops to the center of the capital in an 11-month uprising, residents and activists said.
Troops from the Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guards erected roadblocks in main streets of Barzeh neighborhood, a residential neighborhood north of the city center, searched houses and made arrests.
Residents said the troops were looking for opposition activists and members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, which has been providing security for protests against President Bashar Assad in the district.
"They have destroyed the facades of shops and turned back students heading to school. The raids are concentrating on Dahar al-Mustaha and Haret al-Bustan," Mazen, a university student, said by phone from Barzeh.
He said at least 1,000 soldiers had deployed in the district after sealing off its thoroughfares, along with armored personnel carriers, armored jeeps and pick-up trucks with heavy machineguns mounted on them.
They call it the jineyee, Arabic for "genie" — or crazy female. Standing at about 60 cm high, the rust-colored metal tube doesn't look like much. But it's what's inside that counts: 2 kg of yellow granular explosive material, hooked up to a trigger device that is remotely detonated.
The handful of Free Syrian Army members who gather in this safe house on the Turkish-Syrian border hope that the improvised explosive device (IED) will help even out the odds somewhat in what has become a brutal, vastly asymmetrical civil war in Syria.
On this day, eight of the cylinders were being put together in one of the two rooms of the decrepit stone house with no electricity. It's in the middle of nowhere (TIME was asked not to provide further details of its location). The bombmaker, a short, bearded man in civilian clothes and latex gloves who looked to be in his early 40s, puffed on a cigarette as he prepared what he called his "special recipe." He didn't want to give a name, not even a pseudonym. He'd learned his trade in the military, he said, where he was an explosives engineer "another lifetime" ago. He'd since improved his skills "here and there" and had been a civilian "for a long time."
This was the first batch of IEDs this group of Syrian military defectors and their civilian partners said they had put together. "We haven't been doing this for very long," a former officer said as he inspected the devices. "It took a few tries to get it right, the mix of materials. It was trial and error, and looking some things up on the internet." A 200-g device had been tested a day earlier. "It destroyed a tree," the former officer said. "One of these should take out a tank."
The tanks the rebels have in their sights are in the northern Syrian governorate of Idlib, an area that includes the restive towns of Jabal al-Zawiya and Jisr al-Shughour, which the Syrian military has pounded on and off for months.
Syria’s alleged possession of a significant arsenal of chemical weapons is being viewed with growing alarm by western governments and by Israel, amid fears that any stockpile could fall into the hands of militant organisations or be attacked or seized by opposition forces.
As western states examine possible outcomes of the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, questions surrounding Syria’s alleged chemical weapons arsenal – which is thought to contain significant stocks of nerve gas – are rising up the list of concerns for the US, Israel and European governments.
Syria is one of a small number of states that are not members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body which verifies chemical weapons stocks across the world. As a result, there is no independent assessment or firm knowledge of what chemical weapons stocks Syriamay possess.
More videoHowever, the US State Department has said that Syria has had an active chemical weapons programme since the 1980s. Western governments and think-tanks believe the state has done much to develop this capability in recent years.
Witnesses say Syrian government forces attacked parts of the southern flashpoint city of Daraa Thursday, in a fresh bid to subdue the opposition movement. That attack was coupled with a widespread offensive in other areas of the country, including Homs, Hama, Idlib, and the outskirts of Damascus.
Witnesses and opposition websites report that Syrian government tanks stormed a number of smaller towns. Pro-government militiamen also reportedly arrested hundreds of suspected opposition activists.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told VOA at least 24 people were killed across the country Thursday, including four people in clashes in Daraa and 14 people in a government assault on an area near Hama.
The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday for a resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime.
The vote in the 193-member world body on the Arab-sponsored resolution was 137-12 with 17 abstentions. Several countries complained immediately afterward that they unable to vote due to problems with the U.N.'s voting machine.
"The resolution was intended to send a message to Russia and China that they were among only ten other countries in the world supporting the brutal Assad regime," said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk. "The purpose of the resolution was to bolster the Arab League and to attempt to put pressure on Russia and China to reverse course in order to allow the U.N. Security Council to authorize a humanitarian corridor and a joint U.N.-Arab League peacekeeping force."
Syria's civil conflict is rapidly expanding into a regional proxy battle that threatens to cleave neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Iraq, as their populations harden along sectarian lines.
Soldiers guard Tripoli, northern Lebanon, on Sunday following deadly clashes between Sunnis hostile to Syria's regime and Alawites who support it.
.Syria's struggle is reopening sectarian fault lines in places like Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon where tensions have long simmered. The area's minority Alawite residents belong to the same Muslim offshoot sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and have long supported the family regime. Meanwhile, Sunni residents in recent months have provided shelter, hospitals and a base for arms trade to Syrian rebels, all sides acknowledge.
The Syrian regime is closer to taking decisive military action against the armed opposition than it has been since the uprising in Syria began 11 months ago, according to pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad Arab diplomats.
Diplomatic sources said that the Syrian leadership is working to stamp out the armed rebellion before the Friends of Syria conference convenes next week in Tunisia. They said the Syrian regime will not give attendees of the conference – expected to include Western and Arab nations – the opportunity to discuss ways to provide financial and military aid to the armed Syrian opposition because by then the Syrian Army will have put an end to all armed resistance.
They acknowledged that the Syrian people will continue to feel repercussions of the crisis, but maintained that this would not affect the progress of reform, which will begin in earnest after a referendum is held for a new constitution on Feb. 26.
Damascus is coordinating its military action with Russia, which has given the impression that it would not oppose such action as long as it is carried out swiftly. Once the operation is over, Russia will be in a position to negotiate the next steps with Arab and Westerns states.
China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun is expected to arrive today in Damascus in a show of support for the country's beleaguered president Bashar al-Assad, and reinforce a Russian initiative to restart political talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. "China does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change," said Zhai, according to Reuters.
The Syrian leader also got short lifeline from a handful of anti-Western governments, including Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe -- countries that have themselves have been the target of Western attacks on their own human rights records.
"We denounce before the world the fact that imperial powers and their allies are hoping to trigger a regime change in Syria," said Venezuela's U.N. envoy Jorge Valero, striking a theme that was common among the resolution's opponents.
But all in all, it was not a good week for Assad or other despotic regimes, who found that an informal bloc of repressive governments was beginning to unravel and could no longer be relied upon to come to their defense.
A number of countries with deplorable rights records, including Burma and Sri Lanka, kept their distance from Assad's regime, casting abstentions, while newly minted governments in Egypt and Libya denounced the Syrian regime.
The United States, and its Arab and Western partners, peeled countries like South Africa and India away from the Russian and Syrian camps. "Today the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria -- the world is with you," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said yesterday in a statement.
Even Serbia, which has relied heavily on Russia's for support at the United Nations on Kosovo, broke ranks with its patron, voting in support of the Western- and Arab-backed resolution. In an effort to limit the damage, Serbia's envoy praised Moscow's effort to pursue a political settlement in Syria.
Syrian security forces fired live ammunition at a funeral procession in Damascus that quickly turned into one of the biggest demonstrations in the capital since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began 11 months ago, reports the Associated Press. Earlier, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun had met with Assad and called for an end to the violence from both sides.
The shooting that killed at least one person took place during a funeral for three people killed on Friday during a protest against the regime. Reuters says that “up to 30,000 demonstrators” took to the streets while the AP hears from an activist that the funeral procession had around 15,000 people. Approximately 60 people were arrested, according to Al Jazeera.
The demonstration took place shortly after Zhai met with Assad and expressed the Chinese government’s support for Assad’s plan to hold a referendum on Feb. 26. Speaking to journalists after the meeting, Zhai called on all sides to stop the violence. Assad later characterized the protests as an effort to divide the country “and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region.”
Meanwhile, Reuters hears word that government forces have resumed their shelling of Homs, an opposition stronghold. The BBC notes that Amnesty International says it has obtained new evidence that Syrian troops are using torture against opponents of the regime, including reports of beatings and rapes. Human rights groups say around 7,000 people have died in Syria since March of last year.
Iraq said on Saturday it had reinforced security along its Syrian border to prevent arms smuggling, after reports fighters and weapons were crossing into Syria where President Bashar al-Assad has been facing an increasingly armed revolt.
The Shi'ite-led Iraqi government is worried the unrest in Syria, now nearly a year old, could spill across the porous 600 km (373 mile) frontier and upset its own fragile sectarian balance.
Iraq's Shi'ites fear a toppling of Assad, himself from a minority Shi'ite sect, could bring hardline Sunnis to power, a shift which could threaten Iraqi Shi'ites' newly-acquired dominance since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
A group calling itself the Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade has formed in the Syrian town of Homs, and has said it will employ suicide bombers against Syrian security forces. From Jih@d, a website that tracks al Qaeda and other terror groups:
The footage seems oddly similar to what was released from Iraq in 2003 soon after the American invasion. Masked gunmen posing with their weapons in front of an Al-Qaida flag. But this is not the scene of a Iraqi Al-Qaida video - it is recent footage coming out of Syria.
A group of the so-called "Free Syrian Army" in the occupied city fo Homs has - according to the new video - formed a martyrdom battalion, a special unit committed to carry out suicide bombings in the country.
One Syrian militant explains that the "Al-Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade" will fight the Assad regime and its military with all needs, especially suicide bombers.
Syrian security forces have deployed heavily in a tense Damascus neighborhood, blocking opposition activists from staging a second day of mass protests, as the government continued a nationwide crackdown on protest hubs.
Activists said Syrian police flooded the Mezze district on Sunday to prevent a funeral for a young protester from turning into a major rally against President Bashar al-Assad. Samer al-Khatib was shot dead Saturday, as security forces fired on a mass funeral for several other anti-Assad activists killed in a police crackdown the day before. The mass funeral was one of the Syrian capital's largest anti-Assad rallies of an 11-month opposition uprising.
Activists said police and pro-government militiamen forced Khatib's family to hold Sunday's funeral earlier than planned. Activist groups posted messages on Facebook urging Damascus residents to hold a one-day strike in solidarity with the uprising, but there was little response with the capital under tight government control.
Elsewhere, activists reported 14 people killed in violence linked to the revolt across Syria. Syrian state media said gunmen attacked a car carrying a Syrian state prosecutor and a judge in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing both officials and their driver Their deaths follow the Saturday assassination of an Aleppo city council member. Syrian state news agency SANA blamed "terrorists" for the killings.
The United States is not interested in providing weapons to opposition forces in Syria until it has a better picture of what those forces are, the top U.S. military officer said in an interview aired Sunday.
"I think it's premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point," Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS."
More than 50 prominent U.S. conservatives signed an open letter last week urging the Obama administration to "take immediate action" against the Syrian regime, including "self-defense aid" to an armed opposition led by defected government troops. Among the signatories were some of the leading voices in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as the former head of the U.S.-led occupation government there.
Syrian tanks and troops massed Monday outside the resistance stronghold of Homs for a possible ground assault that one activist warned could unleash a new round of fierce and bloody urban combat even as the Red Cross tried to broker a cease-fire to allow emergency aid in.
A flood of military reinforcements has been a prelude to previous offensives by President Bashar Assad’s regime, which has tried to use its overwhelming firepower to crush an opposition that has been bolstered by defecting soldiers and hardened by 11 months of street battles.
“The human loss is going to be huge if they retake Baba Amr,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The central city of Homs — and in particular the opposition district known as Baba Amr — has become a critical ground for both sides.
The demonstrations in Mezeh, Damascus, as shown above, suggest that the revolt has spread to the heart of bourgeois Damascus, an area many said would not be affected. The Homs repression is spreading revolt to new areas. The opposition is not being cowed. In this video police shoot into the air in order to frighten the women of Mezeh, Damascus. It does not seem that security shot into the crowd, but the fear and anger is all to clear. It will grow.
The Syrian opposition is gaining strength and spreading to new areas of Syria with each passing weak. Government action makes it stronger, as does government inaction. Assad faces a catch 22. He has no way forward. The opposition, despite its multitude of jostling leaders is developing new communication and activist networks all the time. The destruction of Sunni neighborhoods in Homs has outraged Syrians across the country. Growing lawlessness has dispirited those who would support the government. Inflation and economic hardship is overtaking everyone in a constant reminder that things will get worse and that Assad is leading the country off a cliff.
The departure of al Qaida-affiliated fighters from Iraq to join the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad in Syria has had one benefit, Iraqi officials say: Violence has dropped in this country, in some areas by as much as 50 percent in just a few months.
Iraqi officials declined to provide precise figures for the drop-off or to estimate how many al Qaida-affiliated fighters have left the country for Syria. But the impact of the departure, they said, has been especially apparent in Ninewah province, which borders Syria and has long been the scene of some of al Qaida in Iraq's most violent bombings and assassinations.
The province's capital, Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, was once home to as many as 800 al Qaida-affiliated fighters, U.S. officials estimated last summer. But one provincial security officer said al Qaida in Iraq attacks in Mosul have become infrequent this year, and the attacks that do occur generally are small or are detected before they can be carried out. The officer spoke only on the condition of anonymity because regulations prohibit him from talking to reporters.
Syria’s army escalated its shelling of the city of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad accused “foreign sides” of providing weapons and money to rebels.
The army killed 65 people across the country, including 41 during heavy bombardment of Homs, Al Arabiya reported, citing opposition activists. The city, under siege for almost three weeks, was hit by 200 tank shells today, it said. Security forces fired on 2,500 demonstrators at Aleppo University, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement today.
Government forces have intensified efforts to stamp out the rebellion by using mortars, artillery and tanks. The United Nations estimates more than 5,400 Syrians died last year as loyalist forces cracked down on protests that began in March. Twenty people were killed yesterday across the country, according to the Syrian Observatory.
Syrian forces launched a sustained assault close to the border with Turkey yesterday in an attempt to cut off areas where the rebels have established de facto control.
The fiercest attack focused on the town of Darkush which has become a pocket of resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Around 18 people are reported to have been killed and 30 injured when troops moved in during the morning. The city of Idlib, the largest in the region, was also hit by shellfire, reportedly leaving around 10 dead.
The routes from Turkey into Syria have been used to ferry in supplies for the revolutionaries and the fighting blocked a number of the routes. Mobile regime columns were carrying out operations further along the frontier, according to rebels.
The opposition maintained that a counter-attack in Kfar Tkharim, in the same area, had killed five soldiers and two more were captured, with clashes continuing into the evening.
The Syrian capital, Damascus, was also the scene of violence with live ammunition used on demonstrators yesterday, according to activists. Syrian forces, they added, had opened fire with live ammunition on demonstrators in the early hours of Tuesday, wounding at least four people.
Western and Arab nations will demand that Syrian forces implement an immediate ceasefire to allow relief supplies to reach desperate civilians in bombarded cities such as Homs when they meet in Tunis on Friday.
Piling pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, U.N. investigators accused his security apparatus of crimes against humanity as world outrage mounted over violence that has cost thousands of lives during an almost year-long popular revolt against his 11-year rule.
The Syrian uprising will only intensify, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a London conference. "There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures," she told reporters.
The "Friends of Syria" meeting, that Clinton will attend, will call on Syrian forces to stop firing to give international aid groups access to areas worst hit by the violence which are running out of medicine and food, according to a draft declaration obtained by Reuters.
Medics stitch wounds with thread used for clothing. Hungry residents risk Syrian government sniper fire or shelling to hunt for dwindling supplies of bread and canned food on the streets of the besieged city of Homs.
The opposition stronghold was being destroyed "inch by inch," by government forces, with collapsed walls and scorched buildings, according to accounts Thursday, while Western and Arab leaders hoped to silence the guns long enough to rush in relief aid.
The pressure for "humanitarian corridors" into the central Syrian city of Homs and other places caught in President Bashar Assad's crushing attacks appeared to be part of shifts toward more aggressive steps against his regime after nearly a year of bloodshed and thousands of deaths in an anti-government uprising.
In back-to-back announcements, U.N.-appointed investigators in Geneva said a list for possible crimes against humanity prosecution reaches as high as Assad, and international envoys in London - including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton - made final touches to an expected demand for Assad to call a cease-fire within days to permit emergency shipments of food and medicine.
Many Syrians now view the armed opposition as more legitimate than the civilian opposition led by the Syrian National Council (SNC). Nominally grouped under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and loosely commanded by officers who defected from the Syrian military, the armed opposition poses a significant political challenge to the SNC's efforts to consolidate its standing as a credible and legitimate alternative to the Assad regime. While the FSA does not openly position itself as an alternative to the SNC, its visibility and the prestige it has acquired by providing Syrians with a measure of protection give its leadership grassroots support that the SNC has struggled to achieve. Its success casts a long shadow over the civilian opposition, and raises important questions about where the balance of political influence lies, with the civilian leadership of the SNC or the armed leadership of the FSA.
Despite its growing popularity, however, it would be a mistake to view the FSA as having control over the militarization of the Syrian uprising. Not only is the FSA a diffuse and highly decentralized force, including many small bands of fighters who barter their allegiance to FSA commanders in exchange for weapons, supplies, and cash, but the armed opposition extends well beyond the FSA to neighborhood and tribal militias that operate largely outside its control. Nor does the FSA have the capacity to regulate the flow of weapons into Syria. Small arms are now entering Syria from every neighboring country. They are moving through networks that are tribal, sectarian, and regionally based, reinforcing the segmentation of Syrian society. Influential Syrian tribes, for example, especially Sunni tribes, have longstanding kinship ties that extend into Iraq and south to the Gulf. These transnational tribal networks have already been mobilized to support the flow of arms into Syria.
The demand for weapons also provides opportunities for the regionalization of the conflict, as governments and non-state actors exploit Syria's uprising to cement their own influence by equipping armed groups as local proxies. These efforts are undertaken with no accountability and little regard for the consequences. Unregulated militarization has fueled revenge killings, kidnappings, including by "uniformed" members of the FSA, and a wave of criminality that has amplified the erosion of public order caused by the regime's response to the uprising. Should the Assad regime fall, these trends virtually ensure that Syria will be left, like Libya, with dozens if not hundreds of local militias able to disrupt the transition to a stable post-Assad democracy.
Dr. Landis (University of Oklahoma, Center for Middle East Studies & Editor, Syria Comment) believes that the regime’s chances for survival to 2013 are stronger than many think, for four reasons:
1. Asad remains strong militarily.
Unlike Mubarak in Egypt, who left the military in the hands of non-family members, the Asads have taken extreme “sectarian safety measures,” staffing the security forces and broader government with loyal Alawis. Some estimates suggest that as many as 80% of Syria’s officer corps are Alawi.
2. The opposition is weak.
Reports that the political Syrian National Council has gained control over the Free Syrian Army are by most accounts fictional. Whether peaceful or armed, the opposition cells in Syria work independently.
3. The international community is unlikely to intervene.
Syria remains in the realm of “too big to fail,” and foreign powers are unlikely to intervene if Syrians cannot unite and build a military force capable of providing, at the very least, a credible promise of stabilizing Syria on its own.
4. The economy is problematic.
Asad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf is “Mr. Ten Percent” of the Syrian economy, having assumed a majority stake in many major enterprises and holding companies, assuring that the Asad family maintained control over the economy.
International leaders meeting here Friday agreed on a unified plan for pressure they hope will stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on civilian opponents and drive him from power, but stopped well short of approving military assistance to the Syrian opposition.
The “Friends of Syria” gathering agreed to tighten sanctions against Assad and his government and called on the United Nations to ready a peacekeeping force for deployment along with massive international reconstruction assistance once the ongoing violence ceases and, presumably, Assad has stepped down.
The Red Cross said Friday it is trying to reach foreign journalists who were wounded during fighting in the Syrian city of Homs. French journalists Edith Bouvier and William Daniels have asked for help leaving the embattled city.
The session came as President Obama said in Washington that the United States and its allies would consider “every tool available’’ to halt the killing in Syria, some of the strongest language he has used during the year-long crisis. For her part, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the gathering that “we cannot wait for this crisis to become an even greater catastrophe.”
But despite their calls for an “immediate” end to ongoing government bombardment of the Syrian city of Homs and other opposition strongholds to allow humanitarian assistance to safely enter the country, participants here voiced few illusions that their actions would produce immediate results.
Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers rescued a small number of wounded civilians Friday from the hard-hit Baba Amr neighborhood of the city of Homs as representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian government negotiated over a ceasefire that would allow still larger evacuations.
The barrage of mortar and rocket fire that had rained down on the neighborhood came to a halt apparently for the first time in three weeks as the negotiations took place.
Two journalists wounded Wednesday in a hail of fire that killed two of their colleagues were apparently not among the seven women and children rescued Friday and taken to a local Homs hospital. But diplomatic efforts to bring the wounded journalists to safety were continuing, and an ICRC spokesman in Damascus said Red Cross officials were trying to "evacuate all persons in need of help with no exception whatsoever."
It was unclear whether that would include not just the journalists, Edith Bouvier of France and Paul Conroy of Britain, but also wounded anti-government fighters.
In a change in policy, the leaders of the Syrian-backed Islamic militant group Hamas declared their support Friday for anti-government protesters in Syria.
Speaking at Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, told worshipers, "I salute the Syrian people who strive toward freedom, democracy and reform."
The message was echoed in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
There, at a rally in the southern city of Khan Younis, senior Palestinian leader Salah al-Bardaweel expressed support for the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Addressing thousands of Palestinians, al-Bardaweel described the Syrian blood being spilled in the fight against the Assad regime as a great loss for the Syrian nation.
Speaking to the Khan Younis rally by phone, Haniyeh praised the revolutions of the Arab Spring and saluted the sacrifices of the Syrian people.
Sermons in Gaza mosques focused on Syria, with imams calling for the freedom of the Syrian people.
Even rats will desert a sinking ship . . .
A Red Cross team evacuated 27 people from a besieged neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs on Friday but apparently failed to get out two wounded Western journalists and the bodies of two others killed by government rockets.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said a local team entered the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr, but spokesman Hicham Hassan said he wasn't sure if foreign journalists were among them.
An earlier statement said that seven people were taken to the privately owned al-Amin hospital, which is nearby. It was not immediately clear where the others were moved to.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry accused "armed groups" of refusing to hand over the journalists, and an opposition activist in the area said the journalists had refused to leave.
The Syrian regime continued its deadly assault on its own citizens Saturday, killing dozens of people a day before a constitutional referendum on a measure the president says will open up his country's political system.
At least 89 people were killed across the country Saturday, as Syrian regime rockets bombarded the opposition stronghold of Homs for a fourth week in a row as human rights leaders begged for help from inside the besieged city.
The violence occurred a day before Syrians are to vote on a revised charter put forward by President Bashar Assad, changes that would create a multi-party system. Syria has been ruled by the same family since 1963, when the president's father, Hafez, took power in a coup.
Opposition and rebel leaders have denounced the measure as a ploy and have called for a boycott of the vote.
Aid agencies were unable to evacuate any people Saturday from a battled-scarred neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs, one day after the United States and other nations demanded that President Bashar Assad allow humanitarian aid into strife-ridden Syria.
Among the injured still stranded in Homs’ Baba Amr district were a pair of Western journalists, Edith Bouvier of the French daily Le Figaro and Paul Conroy of the London Sunday Times. Both suffered leg injuries in a shelling attack Wednesday that killed two other Western journalists.
Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad's government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to enter the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs and evacuate three people on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. Foreign reporters trapped in the area were not evacuated and the bodies of two journalists killed there had not been recovered, it said.
The bodies of dozens of men were found dumped on the outskirts of the stricken city of Homs on Monday in what appeared to be one of the worst instances of mass killing since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began last March.
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said the bodies of 64 men were taken to the National Hospital in Homs and that an unknown number of women and children who had been with them are missing. Activists said they believed the men had been trying to flee the violence with their families when they were stopped and gunned down by security forces.
Available details were murky, however, and the bodies had not been identified, making it difficult to establish exactly how or why the men died.
The European Union announced stepped-up sanctions against the Syrian regime today that, to my eyes, looks like a preliminary step to more serious sanctions on Bashar al-Assad and those around him.
In a statement, Catherine Ashton, the EU's representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said "Today's decisions will put further pressure on those who are responsible for the ruthless campaign of repression in Syria. The measures target the regime and its ability to conduct the appalling violence against civilians. As long as the repression continues, the EU will keep imposing sanctions."
The EU also explained that the "Syrian regime's continued use of violence against civilians" prompted the new measures. One wonders if war crimes indictments are not far off. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and members of his circle were hit with International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments far sooner during that country's uprising, and if only half of the reports coming out of Syria are to be believed, Mr. Assad long ago passed Qaddafi's triggering threshold.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah scolded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week for failing to coordinate with Arab states before vetoing a United Nations resolution demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Emboldened by the lack of international action, Assad's forces are now slaughtering civilians in the streets at an even greater rate. Referring to the bloodshed, the king ominously warned Medvedev that Saudi Arabia "will never abandon its religious and moral obligations towards what's happening."
The last time the Saudis decided they had a moral obligation to scuttle Russian policies, they gave birth to a generation of jihadi fighters in Afghanistan who are still wreaking havoc three decades later.
According to news reports confirmed by a member of the Syrian opposition, Riyadh currently sends weapons on an ad hoc basis to the Syrian opposition by way of Sunni tribal allies in Iraq and Lebanon. But in light of recent developments, more weapons are almost certainly on their way. After his delegation withdrew in frustration from last week's Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said that humanitarian aid to Syria was "not enough" and that arming the Syrian rebels was an "excellent idea." Soon afterward, an unnamed official commented in the state-controlled Saudi press that Riyadh sought to provide the Syrian opposition with the "means to achieve stability and peace and to allow it the right to choose its own representatives." Meanwhile, Saudi clerics are now openly calling for jihad in Syria and scorning those who wait for Western intervention. One prominent unsanctioned cleric, Aidh al-Qarni, openly calls for Assad's death.
Other Sunni Gulf states, principally Qatar, may be contributing weapons. On Monday, Feb. 27, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said, "We should do whatever necessary to help [the Syrian opposition], including giving them weapons to defend themselves." The positions of other regional actors are less clear. But whether or not they supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army -- the armed opposition composed of defectors and local militia -- all these Sunni states now want the Assad regime to crumble because it is an ally and proxy of their sworn Shiite enemy, Iran, which destabilizes the region with terrorism and nuclear threats.
Venezuela has been sending diesel fuel to Syria and the government of President Hugo Chavez has no plans to halt the shipments, the country’s energy minister said Tuesday.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the possibility of facing international sanctions won’t deter Venezuela from helping Syria. He said Venezuela’s state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, has sent two loads of 300,000 barrels each to Syria.
“Syria is a blockaded country,” Ramirez said. “If it needs diesel and we can provide it, there’s no reason not to do it.”
Chavez is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has drawn widespread international criticism for his tough military response to an 11-month-old uprising.
In Syria, the Christians are angry. For eleven months, many of their leaders have stood firmly behind the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. However, Syria's new constitution explicitly says in Article 3 that the president of the country has to be a Muslim, thereby barring Christians from the right to run for the top post.
On Sunday, pro-government Syrians went to the polls to approve the new constitution. In protest of Article 3, Christians voted with a "no," while the opposition movement boycotted the election altogether, saying that it was inconceivable for it to take place while the country is up in flames. Nevertheless, the new constitution passed.
The controversial clause in Article 3 has been around for a long time, ever since Syria established its first constitution in 1920. Both secular and Christian Syrians have over the years tried to amend the clause but to no avail. In 1973, President Hafez al-Assad released a constitutional draft that omitted reference to Islam as the official religion of the state, which enraged conservative Muslims. Faced with pressure, Assad eventually restored Article 3 to its original form.
Syrian troops advanced Wednesday on a rebel-held neighborhood of Homs, raising fears that it was preparing an all-out ground assault there, while Syria's government thwarted efforts by the United Nations' top humanitarian official to gain entry to the country.
A Syrian official vowed early Wednesday that the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr would be "cleansed" within hours, the Associated Press reported, noting it was impossible to reach residents and activists inside the neighborhood to learn whether a ground assault was under way.
The Baba Amr neighborhood, a stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, has come under attack for weeks. On several days there, activists have said, the fatality count has run into the dozens.
"I am appalled by reports that the Assad regime is preparing a full-scale land assault on the people of Homs," U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement. "I urge it to stop any such plans and instead allow immediate and unhindered access to the humanitarian agencies who are ready to deliver vital assistance."
Activists said Wednesday that elite Fourth Armored Division units under the command of President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher, were engaged in pitched battles with the rebel Free Syrian Army just outside the opposition Baba Amr and al-Inshaat neighborhoods.
A Syrian official vowed Baba Amr would be "cleansed" within hours. But an activist in the district told VOA via Skype that rebel lines have held.
The activist, who uses the pseudonym Abo Emad, said he had witnessed 16 government soldiers and six tank crews defect to the opposition Wednesday morning. He said rebel army sources told him more desertions were taking place as troops enter the city and blend in with the local population.
Syrian rebels have retreated from a neighborhood in the city of Homs that they had held for months. And the government says the army has moved in.
After a nearly four-week government assault, the rebels said they were running out of weapons, and that conditions for the people still living in the neighborhood had become catastrophic.
Within hours after the pullout, the government of President Bashar Assad granted permission for the International Committee of the Red Cross to enter the neighborhood tomorrow.
The leaders of the political and armed wings of Syria's opposition appear to be at odds over the authority of a military council that was announced Thursday, underscoring divisions that are hampering efforts to lead an uprising.
Syrian National Council (SNC) leader Burhan Ghalioun said his political opposition group had formed a military body to oversee and organize armed rebels within the country under a unified leadership.
"The creation of the military council was agreed upon by all armed forces in Syria," he told a news conference in Paris on Thursday. "We will be like a defense ministry."
Formation of SNC military council causes uproar among fighters in Syria and Turkey
The Homs Revolutionary Council has announced that it will “not coordinate with Burhan Ghalioun in the affairs of the Military Office and its principles” because it doesn’t agree with its goals. It had a 15 minute phone call with Ghalioun. It wants “action not words.” It will retain authority over its own military strategy, “which is to bring down the regime and free Syria from the ruling gang.”
For a country that over the years has seen its own share of violence, forcing many of its own citizens to take refuge in Syria, it's new for Lebanese to see Syrian refugees in their country. So much so that international aid workers and activists say Lebanon has been slow to acknowledge and deal with the flow of Syrians across the border into their country.
Part of problem, Syrian activists say, is the attempt by the Lebanese government to remain on the sidelines of the conflict – without conceding that its side effects are beginning to seep in.
More than 7,000 Syrians refugees have fled into Lebanon and registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The majority of them have crossed into the north of Lebanon, activists tell us.
Bearing witness to a country falling apart is a sobering experience. Cars don't stop at traffic lights or for traffic police. Security officers manning checkpoints slip their hands into cars' glove compartments without asking. But when I speak to Syrians, the most troubling aspect -- though few appear to realize it -- are the growing divisions between them.
Christians complain how beggars take all their money back to the mosque. Most Damascenes, who as one observer eloquently noted "are waiting for a winner and then they will support them," don't give a damn about their fellow Syrians in Homs and Daraa.
But one thing is certain: The Assad regime will fall. Its policy of maintaining thousands of security minions at dozens of locations across the country is unsustainable. The cash it has hoarded and stolen will run out, and it will no longer be able to pay its gangsters and public-sector employees, leading to millions more hungry Syrians on the streets calling for change. At some point, probably within 18 months, army defections will reach a tipping point, and massive numbers of Sunni soldiers will run home or rush to defend besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro. Meanwhile, Christians and other minorities will refuse to pick up guns and shoot their fellow Syrians for Assad.
Syria's uprising, however, may not end with Assad's demise. Even after the dictatorship crumbles, there will be 22 million people who will have a hell of a lot of issues with one other -- and Assad will no longer be around to be blamed for the poor state of their lives. Responsibility for Syria will not come from the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, or the local policeman -- it will have to come from each individual. Syrians will have to decide for themselves where they want their country to go.
The Syrian crisis may yet trigger outside intervention. But, it doesn’t have to in order to be noteworthy to DoD and the American military. Indeed, Syria provides a frightening archetype for future conflicts that have the potential to go viral and could under the most grave circumstances call for U.S. intervention. Consider these facts. Syria sits in the middle of an enormously important region that for decades has been at the center of U.S. security strategy. It is ruled by an authoritarian minority regime. The ruling elite and its legitimacy are increasingly undermined by a capable but fractious majority opposition. Syrian forces boast substantial military capabilities, including relatively modern ground and air combat capabilities, air defenses, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons. With increasing defections from the Syrian military, centralized control of these capabilities would undoubtedly collapse, leaving Syria (and its neighbors) vulnerable to the predations of a number of exceedingly well-armed factions; not to mention opening the prospect for proliferation of the most dangerous among these capabilities to hostile third parties. Some form of horizontal conflict escalation is not only possible but probable. Regional powers will ultimately be tempted to defend their interests forward in Syria via proxy war while Syria’s state-killing violence and instability may increasingly defy international boundaries and begin infecting adjacent states.
One day after the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr was overrun, opposition groups claimed Syrian forces executed 14 civilians there Friday while the Red Cross said an aid convoy seeking to deliver food and medical care was turned back.
"It is unacceptable that people who have been in need of emergency assistance for weeks have still not received any help," said International Committee of the Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger. "We are staying in Homs tonight in the hope of entering Baba Amr in the very near future. In addition, many families have fled Baba Amr, and we will help them as soon as we possibly can."
Amid claims by opposition groups that Syrian officials were purposefully keeping aid workers out of Baba Amr to conceal atrocities, British, French, European Union and United Nations officials accused the Syrian regime of "appalling crimes" and called for an immediate end to the violence.
The Syrian regime did not appear to be listening based on opposition reports of violence in the country on Friday.
At least 75 people died, including the 14 civilians reportedly executed in Homs and 16 others who died in Rastan when a shell fired by Syrian forces exploded in a crowd of demonstrators, according to the Local Coordination Committee of Syria.
Deaths were also reported in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Dourna, Daraa and Lattakia, according to the LCC.
Two French journalists who had been smuggled out of Syria flew to France Friday, a week after one of them suffered injuries in the restive central Syrian city of Homs, officials said.
Edith Bouvier and William Daniels were taken on a medically equipped plane, said airport officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Francois Abi Saab, a French Embassy spokeswoman, confirmed the two journalists left Lebanon.
Earlier Friday, a senior Lebanese security official said Bouvier and Daniels were smuggled across the Lebanese-Syrian border into the northeastern part of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Bouvier was then taken to the Hotel-Dieu de France hospital in Beirut, where she arrived early Friday.
Syrian forces renewed their bombardment of parts of the shattered city of Homs and for a second day blocked Red Cross aid meant for civilians stranded without food and fuel in the former rebel stronghold, activists and aid workers said.
Army tanks also deployed in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor on Saturday to confront a growing rebel force there - setting up another possible flashpoint, opposition campaigners said.
The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests against Assad's rule has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.
The last defenders of the free Syrian village of Ain al-Beida were huddling from a biting wind in a Turkish border town. They were still covered with mud from their desperate escape over the mountains.
The previous day, the unit of 50 ragged fighters were driven out of their village by 500 Syrian soldiers backed with tanks. Afterwards, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces burnt the buildings and planted landmines.
"We’ve never seen them fight like that before, they were crazed," said Jamal, a rebel commander, on Saturday. "You shot them and they didn’t drop. They must have been drugged or something."
Many other villages in Idlib province, in the north along the Turkish border, got the same treatment last week. While the world's attention was focused on the horror being inflicted on Homs, where Syrian troops were accused of "medieval barbarity" by David Cameron, President Assad expanded his scorched-earth policy northwards in an apparent bid to destroy the rebel movement altogether.
Looks like Damascus will be the capital of a barren wilderness . . .
The Red Cross delivered emergency aid to areas around the battered Baba Amro district of the Syrian city of Homs on Sunday, but was blocked for a third day from entering the former rebel bastion amid reports of bloody reprisals by state forces.
Activists reported shelling and other violence across Syria, sending one of the biggest surges of refugees across the border into Lebanon in a single day since a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began a year ago.
Concerns mounted for civilians stranded in Baba Amro in freezing weather with little food, fuel or medicine after weeks in a state of siege and under near-constant shelling by Syrian forces intent on crushing the uprising.
"We have the green light, we hope to enter, we hope today is the day," said the International Committee of the Red Cross' Damascus-based spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh, declining to comment on what he said were sensitive talks with Syrian officials.
"We are very concerned about the people in Baba Amro."
The ICRC said it had been prevented from entering Baba Amro by Syrian forces despite receiving government permission, a move activists said was to hide "massacres" by the Syrian army.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday he had received "grisly reports" that troops were executing and torturing people in Homs after insurgents abandoned their positions.
US officials say they see Iran's hand in the increasingly brutal crackdown on opposition strongholds in Syria, including evidence of Iranian military and intelligence support for government troops accused of mass executions and other atrocities in the past week.
Three US officials with access to intelligence reports from the region described a spike in Iranian-supplied arms and other aid for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad at a time when the regime is mounting an unprecedented offensive to crush resistance in the key city of Homs.
"The aid from Iran is increasing and is increasingly focused on lethal assistance," said one of the officials, insisting on anonymity to discuss intelligence reports from the region.
The expanded Iranian role in the conflict has been underscored by reports, supported by US intelligence findings, that an Iranian operative was recently wounded while working with Syrian security forces inside the country.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad faces growing pressure for blocking humanitarian aid and human rights abuses, with the U.N. humanitarian chief set to visit the country this week and the broadcast of harrowing pictures said to show torture victims at a hospital in the embattled city of Homs
Secretly shot video footage aired on Monday by a British television station shows what it said were Syrian patients being tortured by medical staff at a state-run hospital in Homs.
The video, which Channel 4 said it could not independently verify, showed wounded, blindfolded men chained to beds. A rubber whip and electrical cable lay on a table in one of the wards. Some patients showed what looked like signs of having been severely beaten.
Syrian refugees fleeing to neighboring Lebanon on Monday said they feared they would be slaughtered in their homes as government forces hunted down opponents in a brutal offensive against the opposition stronghold of Homs.
Activists accused the regime of trying to hide its crimes from the world as the military cracks down on an anti-government uprising that has raged for nearly a year.
The Obama administration is moving to provide direct assistance to the internal opposition in Syria for the first time, marking a shift in U.S. policy toward a more aggressive plan to help oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, a group of senior Obama administration officials met to finalize a package of options for aiding both the internal and external Syrian opposition, to include providing direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable. This meeting of what's known as the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council set forth a new and assertive strategy for expanding U.S. engagement with Syrian activists and providing them with the means to organize themselves, but stops short of providing any direct military assistance to the armed opposition.
For now, riskier options, such as creating a no-fly zone in Syria, using U.S. military force there, or engaging directly with the Free Syrian Army, are all still off the table. But the administration has decided not to oppose, either in public or in private, the arming of the rebels by other countries, the officials said.
"These moves are going to invest the U.S. in a much deeper sense with the opposition," one administration official said. "U.S. policy is now aligned with enabling the opposition to overthrow the Assad regime. This codifies a significant change in our Syria policy."
The top U.S. commander in the Middle East told senators Tuesday that the advanced air defense weapons Russia has provided to Syria’s regime would make it difficult to establish a no-fly zone there as part of an effort to help the rebellion.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, declined to detail any military options the Pentagon has developed for action against the regime. But he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take a significant military commitment to create even safe havens in Syria where aid could be delivered, as Sen. John McCain suggested Monday.
International pressure rose against Syria's crackdown, as the U.S. drafted a new United Nations Security Council resolution to end the violence and Turkey's leader called on Damascus to quickly open humanitarian corridors to aid civilians.
The U.N. draft is similar to one vetoed by Russia and China last month and U.S. officials acknowledged after consultations with other council members that it stood little chance to pass. "I don't think you should expect anything" soon, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said.
Still, the U.S. appears to be redoubling its efforts in the face of a deteriorating humanitarian situation, which on Tuesday didn't let up, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces pounded Daraa province, where the uprising began a year ago.
The U.N. draft calls for Damascus to cease all violence, protect civilians, release detained activists, withdraw its forces from urban zones and provide unhindered access to the Arab League and foreign news media.
A video aired by a British television station purporting to show Syrian patients being tortured in hospital appears to support increasingly grave allegations pointing to crimes against humanity, the U.N. torture investigator said on Tuesday.
Juan Mendez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture worldwide, said that while he had not seen the Channel 4 video, it seemed in line with recent reports he has received on Syrian forces torturing opponents.
"Unfortunately this new allegation is consistent with what my mandate (office) has been receiving over the last several months. The new allegation only adds to the gravity of the situation," Mendez told Reuters in Geneva.
A friend from Aleppo wrote me over the weekend that he believes that the northern suburbs of Aleppo are falling out of government control. In particular, the poorer towns of Azaz, Hreitan, and Anadan, which are on the road to Turkey, have been taken over by opposition groups. On February 27, a number of local residents were killed by the military, setting off protests and violent confrontations with local security. He does not believe the regime’s end is imminent because the armed groups are not centrally organized. All the same, the migration of neighborhoods out of government control is unceasing. Although the government has retaken Homs, it is losing Aleppo and the broader North, an area that has long been fertile ground for Islamist currents.
The Syrian army watchtower seemed to taunt the rebel fighters who could only gaze at it on Wednesday from across the valley in Turkey.
Driven out of the Syrian village of Ain al-Baida by regime forces last Friday, the dozen or so opposition force members gathered in a Turkish farm building seemed besieged and bereft.
“Today we are very pessimistic,” said a fighter named Mohammed, his T-shirt bulging at the stomach from the dressing on a bullet wound. “Because yesterday [President Barack] Obama said there was no way the US would intervene.”
For these rebels, advances by the Syrian army over the past weeks into opposition-held areas on the country’s 900km border with Turkey have hammered home a truth they had always feared: no international power is likely to help them any time soon. That realisation, twinned with their military defeats, has spawned a disillusionment with the foreign governments – and with visiting reporters.
“You provoke the people to rebel against the regime and then you stay away,” an activist named Mahmoud observed acidly, referring to the Western states that have called for the Syrian president to step down. “And then you send your journalists to see how Bashar al-Assad kills his people.”
CBS News correspondent David Martin reports that, with the Ayrian army's assault on the opposition gathering steam, President Obama has directed the Pentagon to begin preliminary planning for what had once been all but ruled out: military intervention. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee the military has provided the White House an estimate of what it would take.
Dempsey said the questions they tried to provide answers for include: "What are the potential missions? What is the enemy order of battle? What are the enemy's capabilities, or potential enemyies? what are the troops we have available and how much time?"
Defense officials say that to protect civilians from the Syrian army would require tens of thousands of troops occupying parts of Syria and a sustained air campaign that would dwarf last year's operation in Libya.
"They have approximately five times more air defense, more sophisticated air defense systems, than existed in Libya, covering one-fifth of the terrain," said Dempsey.
To hear Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tell it, everything about Syria is many times more difficult than Libya. The logistics of providing arms to the opposition is just one example.
"Here you've got triple the problem because there are so many diverse groups that are involved," Panetta said.
"There are approximately 100 groups that we've identified as part of the opposition, rough number," Dempsey said.
There is also a very valid concern that arms could end up in the hands of terrorist groups known to be operating in Syria.
The exchange rate of the Syrian Pound has reportedly plunged to the 103 range against the dollar at mid-day Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 in Damascus. This is a loss of over 100% since the beginning of the uprising. Over the last month, the pound has begun to weaken significantly which has received little attention. The 100 mark is an important psychological barrier.
Syrian businessmen are taking large losses. Most rely on account receivables when they sell their goods. This means that traders who have sold goods over the last half year in Syrian pounds are taking heavy losses when they are paid back.
One businessman I spoke to this morning reports that he sold three-hundred thousand dollars of car parts several months ago in Syrian pounds. He is to be paid at the end of this month. Due to the decline of the pound over this time period from 57 to 100 pounds per dollar, he will lose close to $150,000 dollars. This is a crushing blow to business.
No one is trading the Syrian pound today because its price is decreasing every hour. No one has any idea where this might end.
Minister of Commerce Chen Deming said Wednesday that most people working for Chinese projects in Syria have already evacuated from the violence-torn country.
Some 100 are staying there to look after their money, equipment, and projects, Chen said.
"We will come back to those projects when the situation there is stable and favorable for peaceful development," Chen said.
This is starting to look like a descent into chaos. If there is no foreign intervention, Syria could become a failed state like Somalia, a situation intolerable to its neighbors.
James Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, warned last month of al Qaeda taking advantage of the growing conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime and its supporters frequently claim that the opposition is dominated by al Qaeda-linked extremists. Opposition supporters often counter that the uprising is completely secular. But months of reporting on the ground in Syria revealed that the truth is more complex.
Syria's uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria's demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East. A minority is secular and another minority is comprised of ideological Islamists. The majority is made of religious-minded people with little ideology, like most Syrians. They are not fighting to defend secularism (nor is the regime) but they are also not fighting to establish a theocracy. But as the conflict grinds on, Islam is playing an increasing role in the uprising.
Mosques became central to Syria's demonstrations as early as March 2011 and influenced the uprising's trajectory, with religion becoming increasingly more important. Often activists described how they had "corrected themselves" after the uprising started. Martyrs became important to a generation that had only seen martyrs on television from Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. "People got more religious," one activist in Damascus's Barzeh neighborhood explained, "they got closer to death, you could be a martyr so people who drank or went out at night corrected themselves." Some Arab satellite news stations have also contributed to the dominance of Islamists by interviewing more of them and focusing on them as opposed to more secular opposition figures or intellectuals. In Daraa activists complained that satellite networks were marginalizing prominent leftists.
Clerics were influential from the beginning in much of the country, but their authority is not absolute. Sheikhs have often played a positive role in the uprising, enforcing discipline and exhorting armed and unarmed activists to act responsibly. One reason why Homs has not descended into Bosnia-like sectarian massacres is because of the strong influence of opposition sheikhs.
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 Assad, and the rank is the fifth highest in the Syrian armed forces. Mustafa Sheikh was the first brigadier general to announce his defection.
Despite reports of high level defections of government and military officials, U.S. intelligence sees no signs of significant deterioration of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by his inner circle, senior U.S. intelligence officials said Friday.
The officials, who would only speak on condition their names not be used, said to date the defections have been of lower level officials and military. None of those defections, including the group of military officers who are reported to have defected this week, are close enough to Assad to truly make a difference, the senior intelligence officials said.
NightWatch has sought to enter the Syrian instability problem at the district or sub-district level so as to guard against bias and get finer ground truth granularity about just what is happening in Syrian neighborhoods.
For example, a careful survey shows that today the Free Syrian Army and its supporting web sites posted situation reports indicating that this force engaged in six operations in five different governates on 7 March. Several were exchanges of gunfire in which no one was injured and one was erection of a roadblock, in a territory the size of North Dakota.
This data supports leaked information attributed to US intelligence persons that there isn't much of a Free Syrian Army. There is unrest in Syria, but there really isn't much of an insurgency. For the purposes of comparison, in Iraq in 2006, more than 300 firefights occurred daily. In Afghanistan last spring, there were around 50 firefights daily and hundreds of incidents involving makeshift explosives.
The Central Bank has managed to bring the Syrian pound back down into a manageable trading range. It had plunged to an exchange rate over 100 pounds to a dollar. It is now below 100 to a dollar. How did it do this?
Reports are that the central bank sold only 2 million dollars. Yes, only 2 million dollars in order to calm the market. One friend reported paying 113 pounds for a dollar in Aleppo on Wednesday 7 March. On Thursday morning, the pound had risen to a range between 89 and 91 per pound. Six hours later it hit 103. The rate was bouncing all over the place between 85 to 113 per dollar; there was no real price.
If the Central Bank can hold the price of pound below 90 per dollar, it will be doing very well. That is where it really belonged before the revolution. Syria had been pursuing a suicidal strong-pound policy for years. The artificially high rate of 47 pounds to a dollar ignored imbalances in the economy. It undercut Syrian exports and inflated the cost of doing business in Syria, which has too many impediments and too few attractions for foreign investment.
Most important, however, was that the strong currency encouraged Syrians to buy foreign goods well beyond their means. In effect, the government was giving Syrians free foreign currency to buy cars and other goods that the country could ill afford. This made Syrians feel good, but it ignored the real costs. The strong currency ignored the decline of oil revenues. The government was ignoring its costs which were rising. The government needed to down size and let go of workers, but it refused to do so, preserving the bloated and inefficient public sector industries.
Government costs of expanding subsidies were also draining the treasury. Fuel and food subsidies were sky-rocketing with the growing population and rising commodity prices.
How are Damascenes coping?
Well if the miserable deadness of many of the city's usual hotspots - streets in Bab Sharqi, Bab Tuma and around the Umayyad Mosque - is anything to go by, some are simply staying at home.
Others are taking refuge in the coffee bars.
One hidden-away establishment in the Saruja area was full with gaggles of young men and women smoking shisha and flirting with each other.
When the room suddenly turned pitch black, there was a louche murmur of general approval.
Many of the shops are staying open, even in the dark. Across the road from the hotel in the barbers, I saw a row of brave customers sitting waiting to have their hair cut by candlelight.
Damascenes are relatively lucky.
In much of the rest of the country the electricity is cut off 12 hours out of 24.
Some are living without any power at all.
One man with relatives in the country told me the excitement comes on the rare occasions that it is on, not when it is cut off.
There is no doubt that for now Damascus remains firmly under government control, the place is a citadel, with military checkpoints everywhere.
But the amount of poverty is growing, thanks in part to international sanctions.
One small businessman friend, a man with no political sympathies on either side, thinks all this is going to do the opposition no favours.
"Now people don't care about pro-Assad, anti-Assad," he told me, "they just want to eat."
Syria launched a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition in the rebellious north on Saturday, bombarding its main city with tank shells from all sides and clashing with rebel fighters struggling to hold back an invasion.
President Bashar Assad rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already staggering international efforts for talks to end to the conflict. Assad told U.N. envoy Kofi Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as "terrorist groups" threaten the country.
The opposition's political leadership has also rejected dialogue, saying talk is impossible after a yearlong crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 7,500 people. That makes it likely that the conflict will continue to edge toward civil war.
Syrian forces have been building up for days around Idlib, the capital of a hilly, agricultural province along the Syria-Turkey border that has been a hotbed of protests against Assad's regime.
Saturday morning, troops blasted Idlib for hours with dozens of tank shells as the forces moved to encircle the town, an Associated Press team in Idlib reported.
Families fled their homes, carrying blankets and a few other meager belongings. Others huddled in homes.
Despite the Obama administration's predictions that the Syrian government's days are numbered, recent U.S. intelligence reports suggest President Bashar Assad commands a formidable army that is unlikely to turn on him, an inner circle that has stayed loyal and an elite class that still supports his rule.
The assessment hinted at a continuing campaign lasting several months, if not longer, with more Syrians dying. For the past year, Assad's government has tried to crush a popular uprising inspired by the Arab Spring movements. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have died.
Over time, worsening economic conditions could threaten Assad's hold on power. Food prices recently doubled, unemployment is rising and refined fuel products are running out.
But no mass protests over food or fuel shortages have broken out, and there hasn't been any discernible slowing in military activity because of a lack of supplies, three senior intelligence officials said Friday. They spoke on condition of anonymity to provide a snapshot of recent intelligence reports and analysis of the crisis.
Satellite imagery shows a new ferociousness to the government's attacks, including artillery shelling of mosques, schools, playgrounds and a hospital, in the Sunni neighborhood of Homs, the officials said.
Continuing unrest in Syria is driving Hezbollah to prepare for a worst-case scenario in which it loses a key patron in Damascus and is left to fend for itself against a host of Lebanese factions that share an interest in undermining Hezbollah's -- and by extension, Iran's -- influence in the Levant.
The inability of Syria's al Assad regime to contain unrest across the country is naturally of great concern to Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran. The geopolitical reality of this region dictates that any consolidated regime in Syria will also be the pre-eminent power in Lebanon. Should Syria's majority Sunni community succeed in splitting the Alawite-Baathist regime, it is highly unlikely that a re-emerging Sunni elite would be friendly to Iranian and Hezbollah interests. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and others would have an opportunity to severely undercut Iran's foothold in the Levant and dial back Hezbollah's political and military influence in Lebanon.
This is not to say that the al Assad regime has reached the brink of collapse, or even that Syria's Sunnis have the tools, backing and unity they need to fill a power vacuum in Damascus without first undergoing a protracted struggle with Syria's minority factions (including Alawites, mainstream Shia, Ismailis, Christians and Druze who would much rather see Damascus in the hands of a minority government than under Sunni control). But the more vulnerable the al Assad government appears, the more likely Lebanon is to bear the brunt of the sectarian spillover from this conflict.
An international push to end Syria's conflict stalled Sunday as U.N. envoy Kofi Annan left Damascus without a cease-fire and President Bashar Assad's forces pounded opposition areas and clashed with rebels throughout the country.
Western and Arab powers are struggling for ways to stem the bloodshed in the year-old conflict while both the regime and the opposition reject dialogue. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appeared to make little progress during two visits with Assad during his first trip to Syria as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy.
Annan was seeking an immediate cease-fire to allow for humanitarian aid and the start of a dialogue between all parties on a political solution. After meeting with Assad on Sunday, Annan said he had presented steps to ease the crisis, but gave no details.
Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen have killed at least a dozen people — including children — in the latest violence in the embattled central city of Homs. State media in Damascus confirmed the deaths but blamed "armed terrorists."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12 people were killed Sunday night while the Local Coordination Committees said 45 were "murdered." Both groups said children were among the dead.
Homs has been one of the hardest hit cities in violence since an uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March last year. Several Homs neighborhoods, including Karm el-Zeytoun where Sunday's deaths occurred, were controlled by rebels and retaken by government forces earlier this month.
Pictures posted online by activists showed the bodies of five children who were disfigured after being apparently hit with sharp objects. At least six dead adults were covered with sheets.
The LCC and the Observatory said the attack was carried out by gunmen known as "shabiha" who have been playing a major role in crushing the year-old uprising.
The brutal killings of dozens of women and children in the central Syrian city of Homs prompted the council representing Syria’s opposition to call Monday for “urgent” international military intervention to protect civilians and prevent civil war as diplomatic efforts to resolve the country’s escalating conflict faltered.
The Syrian National Council — a deeply divided umbrella group whose efforts to unite the opposition have failed in part because of differences over military intervention — issued the call after videos showing the mutilated corpses of at least 45 victims were posted overnight on the Internet.
Activists and medical workers said the videos offered evidence of what they called a massacre in Homs by pro-government militias, which embarked on a murderous rampage Sunday evening in the Sunni neighborhood of Karm el-Zeitoun. Groups of people known as shabiha, or armed thugs, raided the area from an adjoining neighborhood populated by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect and began randomly shooting, stabbing and burning civilians, the activists said.
Syrian forces have bombed civilian areas in collective punishment for allegedly harboring opposition forces, made mass arrests and executed people in Homs, United Nations investigators said on Monday.
Paulo Pinheiro, addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council on behalf of an independent panel, said those who committed such crimes must face justice. He did not name any suspects.
But the three-member panel said last month it had drawn up a confidential list of suspects alleged to be behind documented crimes against humanity, including murder and torture, for future prosecution by a credible body.
A month of unrelenting shelling by Syrian forces had brought death and destruction to the Baba Amr district of Homs, Pinheiro, the panel's chairman, said.
The big news today is that Mustapha and Firas Tlass fled Syria and are in Paris. Mustapha Tlass is ex-Defense Minister. His son is a major businessman and his second son, Manaf, is a current top officer in the Syrian Army, born in 1964.
One Friend writes of Firas Tlass’ journey to France:
Word in Lebanon is that Mustafa Tlass was trying to recruit people here to overthrow Bashar, and the regime found out about it. They let him and his one son leave, to France, but the other son is in the Army and they are basically keeping him as a hostage to prevent Tlass from joining the rebels.
Both Tlass and opposition members in Paris reject these allegations, claiming, “Syrian regime stalwart and former defence minister Mustafa Tlass has arrived in Paris with one of his sons but they are not defecting, opposition representatives told AFP on Monday.”
The Tlass family has long been one of the highest placed Sunni families of the Assad regime. If there is any truth to the defection story, it would indeed be a big blow to the regime. Firas Tlass has been flirting with the opposition since the uprising began. He frequently writes on the Facebook sites of “friends” who are opposition members, congratulating them on their stands. Most people laughed at this sort of thing because they are considered to be pillars of the regime.
Turkey envisions itself as a Middle East power, a dynamic Islamic democracy with a thriving economy that can help guide the region through the turmoil of the "Arab Spring." But it has stumbled in its efforts to stop the violence and repression in its neighbor and onetime ally Syria.
Although Turkish officials have harshly criticized President Bashar Assad's response to a yearlong uprising that is increasingly taking on the character of a civil war, they have not budged the Syrian leader. And they are aware that a tougher stance could backfire.
The harder they squeeze Syria, the more likely they are to anger the other non-Arab power with regional ambitions, Iran, which remains loyal to Assad. And Assad could retaliate by fomenting unrest within Turkey's borders.
The result has been a diplomatic and public relations nightmare for Turkey.
"I think in a way Turkey has become a victim of its own self-image," said Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "For six or seven months, Turkey tried its best to get Assad to change, and the allies waited for Turkey to deliver."
The Assad regime is not behaving like they give a damn what anyone thinks... only what it does. So far, they have little to care about in the "does" department.
Most of the nations of the world I suspect are will to let the Syrian people pay a higher price, then what would be asked for then say for the Egyptian populace to remove Assad?
Egypt is a very important strategic country because of the Suez Canal. Syria gets less scrutiny.
It is little remembered today that Egypt and Syria were once united (with North Yemen) as the United Arab Republic. Egypt gave up its attempts to dominate the Arab world after a failed intervention in Yemen.
The Syrian army has recaptured most of the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib near the Turkish border, pushing hundreds of military defectors out of a major base they had held for months even as pockets of resistance kept up their fight Tuesday.
The three-day operation to capture the city followed closely after a similar offensive to dislodge the opposition from another key piece of territory it had controlled, the Baba Amr district in central Homs. The two victories gave President Bashar al-Assad's regime unmistakable momentum as it tries to crush the armed opposition fighters.
A pledge Tuesday from Syria's ally Russia that Moscow will continue selling weapons to the regime was yet another boost. And a diplomatic bid by Kofi Annan, an envoy from the United Nations and the Arab League, to broker a cease-fire and start negotiations failed over the weekend. Mr. Annan said Tuesday that he was expecting to hear from Syrian officials on "concrete proposals" he offered on how to end the violence in their homeland.
Syria marks the first anniversary on Thursday of an increasingly bloody uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, with recent army gains unlikely to quell the revolt and no diplomatic solution in sight.
Troops loyal to Assad have pummeled rebel strongholds across Syria this week, deploying tanks and heavy artillery to crush opponents in a string of cities and villages, including Deraa in the far south where the rebellion took hold last March.
Amid dire warnings that Syria is set to sink into a protracted civil war, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has demanded further clarifications from Damascus over its response to proposals aimed at ending the violence.
He is due to report back to a divided U.N. Security Council on Friday, with Russia and China still standing behind a defiant Assad while exasperated Western powers push for regime change.
The main Syrian exile opposition group suffered a serious fracture on Wednesday as several prominent members resigned, calling the group autocratic, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and powerless to help Syrian rebels as government forces, having flushed insurgent strongholds in the north, swept into the rebellious southern city of Dara’a.
The government’s near-complete takeover of the cities of Homs and Idlib fueled frustration with the exile group, the Syrian National Council, said one activist who had resigned, Kamal al-Labwani, a respected dissident released from Syrian prison last year halfway through a 12-year sentence.
Activists have said hundreds of people were killed in Homs alone as rebel fighters, their pleas for weapons unanswered, were heavily outgunned by the Syrian military.
The battle of Homs is over and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have taken control of the besieged city. Yet despite what they viewed as a "tactical defeat," Syria's armed rebels, who are operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- a group of defected soldiers from the Syrian military -- vowed to continue the fight until the Syrian regime is toppled.
The balance of power tilts heavily in favor of the Syrian forces and, barring unforeseen circumstances, will likely remain so for months to come. But there is an increasing possibility that the governments of Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait could provide financial, military, and logistical assistance to the FSA in the not so distant future, bolstering its overall strength. Yet public statements by senior Qatari and Saudi officials expressing their governments' desire to arm the FSA notwithstanding, there is no evidence yet of substantial amounts of money or weapons being transferred to the rebels.
Should regional governments and Western powers commit to turning the FSA into an organized and well-armed military force that is capable of both defending its members and launching offensive attacks against Syrian forces, Assad's ability to crack down on the opposition will likely be degraded. But there is also the risk that such a strategy could not only fail but also have unintended consequences for the Syrian people and the region. Indeed, while a stronger FSA could put a dent in the repression campaign of the Syrian government (especially if the rebels receive anti-tank weaponry, improvised explosive devices, and modern communications equipment necessary for effective command and control), further militarization of the Syrian uprising is also likely to deepen and intensify domestic conflict, possibly causing a full-blown civil war. Facing what could be a more potent foe, the Syrian government will show no restraint in its application of military force, seeking to crush all forms of armed resistance once and for all. In the event that Syria slides into full-blown civil war, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon will bear the brunt of the spillover. Specifically, these countries will have to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence inside Syria (hundreds, if not thousands, have already arrived in Turkey and Lebanon), an outcome, which could cause heavy economic burdens and much societal stress for the host countries. Increasing sectarian bloodshed in Syria will also encourage al Qaeda and other radical Islamist actors to expand their involvement inside the country for the purpose of saving their Sunni co-religionists and establishing a base of operations in the region.
In this potential -- and highly probable -- scenario of widespread chaos in Syria, regional and international security concerns abound. High on a list of security worries for Washington and other Western capitals is the fate of the Syrian government's stockpiles of chemical and potentially other mass destruction weapons. There are sharp disagreements among analysts and policymakers in the United States over what to do in Syria to stop the bloodshed. Some, including Senator John McCain, are calling for air strikes against government assets. Others such as Senator Lindsay Graham prefer arming the rebels. And another group favors efforts to establish a more effective diplomatic approach with Russia and China. However, all government agencies inside the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama concur on the critical need to keep a close eye on Syria's chemical arsenal and other strategic weapons. "We're watching this. We're watching it carefully," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, describing the State Department's efforts to monitor the safety and security of the Syrian government's chemical arsenal. At the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman George Little stated that the U.S. military "remains concerned" about Syria's deadliest weapons, but considers them secure for now. At the White House, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor noted that "Syria is a country of significant proliferation concern, so we monitor its chemical weapons activities very closely." At a February 14 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned that the United States was keeping a close eye on defections and the command structure of the Syrian army "to make sure they [the chemical weapons] are still under control of the regime." Three days later, in a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senators Susan Collins, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Jeanne Shaheen urged the Obama administration to clarify U.S. plans for securing or neutralizing Assad's chemical arsenal.
The Syrian regime will persist with its strategy of bombing into submission pockets of rebel resistance as it remains convinced it alone holds the key to resolving a crisis now entering a second year, analysts say.
“The regime believes that the international community after a while will realize that it cannot be undone, that the pressure will relent and that the outside will re-engage,” said Peter Harling, an expert on Syria with the International Crisis Group.
“When we throw envoys at them without a clear mandate, it further convinces them that they are doing the right thing,” he added, referring to former U.N. chief Kofi Annan’s weekend mission to Damascus aimed at pressuring President Bashar Assad to halt his bloody crackdown on dissent.
Experts say, however, that while Assad may have the military might to crush rebel strongholds, as seen in Homs and Idlib in the past two weeks, his regime is nonetheless doomed and waging a losing battle.
“It’s a game of whack a mole,” said Harling, referring to Assad’s bid to root out armed insurgents.
With Syrian forces tightening their grip in and around Deraa, the city close to this Jordanian border town where the revolt against President Bashar Assad began a year ago, the uprising may be entering a new phase of grinding guerrilla warfare.
Short of ammunition and heavy weapons — and driven from a succession of urban strongholds in recent weeks — rebel bands of civilians, military deserters and Islamic militants will likely turn increasingly to ambushes, bombings and other classic insurgent tactics in their fight to end four decades of Assad family rule, said activists, experts and U.S. officials.
The rebels will "avoid being strong in one area...but rather will want to be more (dispersed) and conduct guerrilla warfare against the army," said Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition political organization.
"We are not near the end."
The loose amalgam of groups known collectively as the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, are moving their operations into rural areas where they can count on popular support — while hoping that Syrian forces spread themselves and their logistics chains thin in the battle for urban centers where anti-regime protests are continuing.
"The main thing they (the FSA groups) are doing is trying to shift the fighting to less densely populated areas," said Mohammad, an opposition activist in Damascus who asked that his last name be withheld to shield himself from reprisals.
"They are engaging a lot of time on the roads leading to a town or city. The main thing is to cause defections and a loss of morale."
Bashar al-Assad took advice from Iran on how to handle the uprising against his rule, according to a cache of what appear to be several thousand emails received and sent by the Syrian leader and his wife.
The Syrian leader was also briefed in detail about the presence of western journalists in the Baba Amr district of Homs and urged to “tighten the security grip” on the opposition-held city in November.
The revelations are contained in more than 3,000 documents that activists say are emails downloaded from private accounts belonging to Assad and his wife, Asma.
The messages, which have been obtained by the Guardian, are said to have been intercepted by members of the opposition Supreme Council of the Revolution group between June and early February.
The documents, which emerge on the first anniversary of the rebellion that has seen more than 8,000 Syrians killed, paint a portrait of a first family remarkably insulated from the mounting crisis and continuing to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.
They appear to show the president’s wife spending thousands of dollars over the internet for designer goods while he swaps entertaining internet links on his iPad and downloads music from iTunes.
Turkey said on Friday it might set up a "buffer zone" inside Syria to protect refugees fleeing President Bashar al-Assad's forces, raising the prospect of foreign intervention in the year-long revolt.
With the uprising entering its second year, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan urged the Security Council to end its divisions over Syria and work to help a peace mission mired in difficulty.
On the ground in Syria, the violence continued. Syrian forces battled protesters in at least three suburbs of the capital Damascus, opposition activists said. They were also flare-ups in other cities, with a number of deaths reported.
Refugees were crossing hills into Turkey, evading Syrian forces and minefields to be taken into refugee camps there. The increasing flow, and memories of a flood of 500,000 fleeing into Turkey from Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, are causing growing concern in Ankara.
Annan said he would dispatch advisors to Syria early next week for talks about sending international monitors, in the hope their presence would brake the violence. But Western diplomats had little expectation of any swift breakthroughs.
The United Nations estimates that Assad's forces have killed at least 8,000 people, many of them civilians during the revolt, which has splintered Syria along sectarian lines and also deeply divided world powers.
Deadly explosions rocked parts of Damascus on Saturday with some of the targets being Syrian government facilities, witnesses and state television reported.
At least 27 people were killed and 97 others were wounded in two blasts, state TV reported, quoting Syrian Health Minister Wael Halki.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said early indications were that two booby-trapped cars exploded in crowded areas. It put the death toll at 24, with 140 people injured and serious damage caused to surrounding buildings.
One explosion occurred near the customs criminal investigations department, witnesses said. Another struck near the Air Force intelligence headquarters in Tahrir Square in a different area of the city.
State TV reports blamed the explosions on "terrorists."
Kofi Annan advises caution on Syria The explosion by the customs criminal investigations department was only a short distance from Umayyad Square, where state media reported Friday that huge numbers turned out to demonstrate in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The blast near the Air Force intelligence headquarters was close to where twin bombings struck the offices of two security branches in Damascus in December. The government blamed terrorists inside and outside of Syria, but the opposition called the attacks the work of the regime. The capital was hit by another blast in January.
The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) of Syria, an opposition activist network, reported seeing a large white cloud of smoke hanging above Damascus Friday.
Looks like Al-Qaida is setting up shop in Syria, which is bad news for Assad . . . and everyone else . . .
A car bomb ripped through a residential area of Syria's second city Aleppo on Sunday, as activists reported heavy clashes across the country between state forces and rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
World powers have been unable to stop more than a year of bloodshed in Syria, a country that sits on the fault lines of several regional and ethnic conflicts. Recent army gains against rebel positions have shown no sign of quelling the violence and no negotiated settlement is in sight.
In Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub, state news agency SANA said terrorists were behind the car bomb that killed two people and wounded 30 others when it exploded in a central area close to a state security office and a church.
Opposition activists accused the government of staging the explosion to back up its official line that foreign-backed extremists are behind the uprising. The government says about 2,000 members of security forces have been killed in the unrest.
For months, arms merchants such as Abu Ismail have been buying black-market weapons in Lebanon for the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the arms supply has slowed to a trickle, he says.
"When attacks on protesters began, an RPG cost $300; now it's $800 and there aren't any more to be found," said Abu Ismail, who is from the embattled city of Homs and asked to be identified by a family nickname for security reasons. "The Lebanese weapons market has dried up completely."
The weapons shortage has serious implications for the uprising, even as Syrian expatriate money increasingly flows to the rebels and international support appears to be growing for arming the opposition. On Monday, the opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council announced that it would help arm the Free Syrian Army with the help of foreign governments, which it declined to name.
But little of that seems to affect the situation as rebels find fewer weapons sources and have a harder time getting the arms into Syria.
In the face of a much better-armed Syrian army, the rebels will find it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain their insurgency if a surge of weapons doesn't come soon.
Syria’s diplomatic isolation deepened on Friday as four more Persian Gulf states moved to close their Damascus embassies in protest of the violent suppression of a year-old uprising.
At the same time, Turkey advised its citizens in Syria to evacuate and announced that it would soon suspend consular services there, a possible prelude to the closure of its embassy as well.
In a further sign of alienation between Turkey and Syria, formerly close neighbors, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters in Ankara that his government was considering the possibility of establishing a military buffer zone inside Syrian territory to help handle the flow of Syrian refugees across the border.
While other Turkish officials have raised that possibility before, Turkey is not expected to take such a step, which would put Turkish soldiers in Syria, unless it receives broad international support.
While all major Western governments including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany and the European Union have condemned Assad’s bloody crackdown, most Asian governments, including its major democracies and key NGOs, have remained eerily silent. This is a travesty and a shameful chapter in the international community’s response to the ongoing Arab Spring that began early last year with a people's power uprising in Tunisia.
Asian states, and particularly representative democracies such as India, Japan and South Korea, as well as relatively new democracies in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, have often practiced “stealth diplomacy” when it comes to human rights and the promotion of democracy.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, comprising ten states with widely divergent levels of political freedoms, has long preached the virtues of the “ASEAN way” or non-interference in domestic affairs. And as the recent turn of events has shown in Burma, with the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi – Asia’s best-known democracy advocate – dialogue and engagement can certainly produce marginal improvements.
Yet if Asia's rise is going to be about more than accelerated economic growth and vested commercial interests, it’s time that Asian governments spoke out forcefully against the brutal genocide in Syria and in support of the yearning for freedom and democracy worldwide, including in their own backyard.
Despite the ambitions she expressed for liberalising Syria before the uprising, Mrs Assad, 36, displays no misgivings about the regime’s bloody crackdown, which has accounted for most of the estimated 8,000 lives lost.
Her correspondence with Bashar al-Assad, his aides, friends and family portray her as highly supportive of her husband.
In an email to a family friend on Jan 10, she praised a speech the president gave for conveying a sense of being “very strong, no more messing around”.
In another, she complains that ABC News unfavourably edited an interview with him.
On Jan 17, she circulated an email cracking a joke at the expense of the people of Homs, shortly before a regime onslaught that would claim hundreds of lives.
Fresh explosions and gunfire pierced through the pre-dawn air Monday in cities across Syria, opposition activists said, with the ongoing violence following a gruesome weekend in the embattled nation.
At least three blasts took place in the Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh, where persistent gunfire rang out for at least an hour, said the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist network.
The group also reported attacks around the capital early Monday, including "intense shooting" in Dummar as well as Keswa, where heavy gunfire rang out from security checkpoints "all over the city."
Some of the latest violence erupted between Syrian government forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army, the LCC said.
In Deir Ezzor, Free Syrian Army members destroyed "the Division of the Countryside," a government ministry, as the rebel fighters battled government forces who subjected them to "intense shelling," the LCC said.
Two more generals defected to the Syrian rebel army yesterday as the military battle against President Bashar Al Assad's regime gained momentum.
Rare gun battles between security forces and rebels broke out yesterday in an upmarket Damascus neighbourhood where embassies are located and senior officials live.
It was one of the most serious confrontations in the tightly controlled capital since the anti-government uprising began a year ago.
The clash, which left at least three people dead, was a show of force by the opposition fighters, who recently suffered several major setbacks when they were driven out of strongholds in the northern city of Idlib and the central city of Homs.
It demonstrated that they can strike at the heavily guarded heart of the capital.
Nine generals have now joined the Free Syrian Army, which is based in neighbouring Turkey under the protection of Turkish authorities. And more and more Syrians want to take up arms against the government and its forces, who have been accused of killing at least 8,000 civilians in the past year.
A Russian military unit has arrived in Syria, according to Russian news reports, a development that a United Nations Security Council source told ABC News was "a bomb" certain to have serious repercussions.
Russia, one of President Bashar al-Assad's strongest allies despite international condemnation of the government's violent crackdown on the country's uprising, has repeatedly blocked the United Nations Security Council's attempts to halt the violence, accusing the U.S. and its allies of trying to start another war.
Now the Russian Black Sea fleet's Iman tanker has arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea with an anti-terror squad from the Russian Marines aboard according to the Interfax news agency. The Assad government has insisted it is fighting a terrorist insurgency. The Russian news reports did not elaborate on the Russian troops' mission in Syria or if they are expected to leave the port.
The presence of Russian troops in Syria could be a "pretty obvious" show of support to the regime, according to Russian security expert Mark Galeotti.
"No one thinks of the Russians as anything but Assad's last friends," said Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University.
So the Russians are NOT opposed to foreign military intervention . . . good to know . . .
Syria is locked in an ominous and violent stalemate: With overwhelming firepower and a willingness to kill, President Bashar al-Assad could hold on to power for months or even years, keeping the opposition from controlling any territory and denying it breathing space to develop a coherent, effective leadership, according to analysts, diplomats and Syrians involved in the uprising.
Syrians and regional analysts say sheer force alone is unlikely to eradicate what has become a diffuse and unpredictable insurgency, one able to strike out even after the government has used crushing force against centers of resistance like Homs, Idlib and Dara’a. Broad areas of the country are hostile territory for government troops, and attackers have managed to hit centers of power, even in the capital, Damascus.
But with so much blood spilled, diplomacy stalled and both sides refusing to negotiate, there is no obvious path out. That has made Syria stand out among the countries swept up in the regional Arab revolts, impervious to a sustained popular uprising and so far beyond the reach of outside intervention. It has become a war of attrition that grows more dangerous as it goes along.
Two large suburbs of Damascus came under heavy tank bombardment on Wednesday following renewed Free Syrian Army attacks on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, opposition activists said.
Artillery and anti-aircraft gun barrages hit the suburbs of Harasta and Irbin, retaken from rebels by Assad's forces two months ago, and army helicopters were heard flying over the area, on the eastern edge of the capital, the activists said.
Syrian rebel commander Ahmad Mihbzt and his ragtag fighters grabbed their aging rifles to fight Syrian troops advancing on their village, but soon fled under a rain of exploding artillery shells.
"We will fight until our last drop of blood," Mihbzt declared a week later in this village across the Turkish border. "We just withdrew because we ran out of ammunition."
Like Mihbzt's men, rebels across Syria fighting to topple President Bashar Assad lack the weapons that can pose a serious challenge to the regime's large, professional army. Some rebel units have more fighters than guns, forcing them to take turns fighting. Because of ammunition shortages, some fire automatic rifles one shot at a time, counting each bullet.
Rebel leaders and anti-regime activists say rising gun prices and more tightly controlled borders are making it harder for them to acquire arms and smuggle them into Syria. This could tip the already unbalanced military equation of Syria's year-old uprising further in the regime's favor.
The U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, threw its weight on Wednesday behind efforts by Kofi Annan to end the bloody conflict in Syria, providing a rare moment of global unity in the face of the year-long crisis.
In a statement approved by all its 15 members, the council threatened Syria with unspecified "further steps" if it failed to comply with Annan's peace plan, which calls for a ceasefire and demands swift access for aid agencies.
Although the original statement was diluted at Russia's demand, editing out any specific ultimatums, the fact that all world powers signed up to the proposal dealt a serious diplomatic blow to President Bashar al-Assad as he battles a popular uprising.
Moscow seems to be on the edges with Damascus. The blunt words from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Syria is making ‘a lot of mistakes’ are worth pondering.
This widely goes on reflect that the all-weather friend of the Baath Party Damascus is seriously contemplating options on the crisis at hand. Moscow’s undiplomatic slang in which it politely said that President Bashar Al Assad has ‘responded incorrectly’ to the upheavals under his nose should be taken as a writing on the wall. It goes without saying that Moscow and Beijing had twice saved the day for the regime by preempting moves on the part of the Western nations and the Arab League who were convinced to nail down Assad for excessive use of force and defiance.
This new thinking in Moscow should be more than enough to make Assad realise that time is not on his side, and there is a minimum agenda that he has to accomplish if he wants to stay put in the corridors of power. Killing of more than 8,000 people in a quick-fix only to make the point that the writ of the regime is felt is barbarism. Assad, who was widely known in the Arab world as a moderate and one who looked up to egalitarianism and wouldn’t mind a pluralistic society, has indeed lost an opportunity. His so-called sloganeering of reforms is in thin air, and the way the opposition and the people have been marginalised is quite unfortunate.
Syrian troops shelled and raided opposition areas and clashed with rebel fighters around the country Thursday despite U.N. efforts to stop the bloodshed so aid could reach suffering civilians.
Activists cited the fresh violence in dismissing a U.N. Security Council statement calling for a cease-fire to allow for dialogue between all sides on a political solution. The government of President Bashar Assad also played down the statement, saying Damascus is under no threats or ultimatums.
Mounting international condemnation of Assad's regime and high-level diplomacy have failed to ease the year-old Syria conflict, which the U.N. says has killed more than 8,000 people. Activists reported dozens of people killed Thursday including at least 12 government soldiers.
The international community should be making a “joint action plan” to end the violence in Syria rather than just releasing joint messages, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said yesterday during a visit to Austria.
“A joint action plan should be implemented,” Davutoğlu told a joint press conference with Austrian Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger in Vienna. Everybody should support the rule of law, Davutoğlu added.
Davutoğlu said that the international community should also react to the “agony” in Syria with a common voice.
Tens of thousands of Syrians braved tear gas and gunfire to protest across the country Friday, vowing to storm the capital Damascus to oust President Bashar Assad as the European Union ramped up pressure on the regime by imposing sanctions on his wife and other close relatives.
Security forces deployed in many cities to disperse protests, but opposition groups reported fewer protester deaths than in past weeks. Activists said more than 20 people were killed nationwide in army attacks on opposition areas or clashes with armed rebels.
The European Union slapped sanctions Friday on Asma Assad, the 36-year-old wife of the president who for the past decade offered a veneer of respectability to one of the world’s most opaque and ruthless dictatorships.
The Syrian government’s ferocious crackdown on a year-old uprising has shattered the image of her as a glamorous, reform-minded woman who could help bring progressive values to a country that has been ruled by the Assad family dynasty for more than 40 years. The European action — the latest punishment imposed by world leaders on Syria for its crackdown — bans her from traveling to E.U. countries and freezes any assets she may have there.
International condemnation and high-level diplomacy have failed to stop the year-old Syria crisis, which the U.N. says has killed more than 8,000 people, many of them civilian protesters.
Friday’s sanctions bring to 13 the sets imposed by the EU to try to compel the regime to halt its violent crackdown on dissent. The U.S. and others have also imposed sanctions. Previous measures were aimed at Syrian companies and Assad himself.
A United Nations inquiry commission on rights abuses in the Syria conflict offered grim new details on Friday of the government repression in that country, including the uprooting of extended clans and villages forced to flee into neighboring countries by armed forces bent on crushing armed resistance.
The three-member commission, which released its first highly incriminating report on rights abuses in Syria last November, told a news conference it now had a fuller picture of what had been happening inside Syria in an updated report based partly on the refugee flows.
“There are people coming out in greater numbers,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, a panel member. While refugees in the early days of the conflict went across borders often by themselves or with their families, she said, “people are now coming out in whole groups.”
Members said refugees had told them that in some cases, entire villages had been warned by advancing military columns that suspected insurgents hiding in their midst must surrender or the villages would be shelled. They did not identify any villages by name.
As my colleagues Rick Gladstone and Stephen Castle report, a United Nations inquiry commission on rights abuses in Syria offered grim new details on Friday of the ongoing crackdown by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The three-member commission also noted government reports that armed opposition groups had committed abuses too, but called on Syria to provide evidence to support those assertions. Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch, which has repeatedly condemned abuses by the government, released an open letter to the Syrian opposition condemning what it called video evidence — found among the tens of thousands of clips posted online since Syria’s uprising began a year ago — of kidnappings, torture and executions that appeared to have been the work of “armed opposition members.”
Syrian troops shelled rebellious areas in central and northern Syria Saturday in the latest push to quash the uprising against President Bashar Assad, but they faced fierce resistance from army defectors, activists said.
Much of the day's fighting focused on the northeastern town of Saraqeb, which activists said regime troops and tanks entered from the north amid heavy shelling.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting reached the central market district, where army defectors damaged a tank and three armored personnel carriers. Late Saturday, it said two rebel fighters and nine government troops had been killed in the clashes.
"Large numbers of residents are fleeing the town," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, which has a network of activists inside Syria. "People have been leaving the town for some time but after today's attack the process intensified."
Government troops also shelled parts of the central city of Homs and the nearby town of al-Qusair. Activist videos posted online Saturday showed explosions in residential neighborhoods sending up balls of flame and huge plumes of black smoke.
Sunday was marked by a slew of anti-regime protests and yet more violence targeting dissenters in Syria, while outside the embattled country the leaders of the United States and Turkey discussed ways to aid the opposition.
The bloodshed includes what the Local Coordination Committee of Syria, a network of opposition groups, is calling the "Morek Massacre." The group claimed that 11 civilians calling for the regime's ouster were murdered, among them five "executed by firing squad."
In total, the LCC reported that at least 70 died across the Middle Eastern nation Sunday, including 17 in the province of Homs, 17 in Hama (where the town of Morek is located), 11 in Idlib, 10 in the suburbs of Damascus, nine in Daraa, five in Aleppo and one in Hasakeh.
The same group also stated that such violence did not prevent demonstrations in upwards of 18 locales around Syria -- many of which it described as "massive," and documented with YouTube videos.
The Syrian army has used civilians as human shields during arrest and combat operations in rebel- held towns and villages, Human Rights Watch said.
Witnesses from al-Janoudyah, Kafr Nabl, Kafr Rouma and Ayn Larouz in Idlib governorate in northern Syria said they saw the army and pro-government men force people to march in front of soldiers during an offensive this month to take control of those areas, the New York-based rights group said in an e-mailed statement.
“The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at the group.
A regime that uses its own citizens as human shields is on its last legs.
Kofi Annan arrives in Beijing today to try to boost flagging diplomatic efforts to force President Bashar al-Assad to end his bloody crackdown, hoping to get China's endorsement of his blueprint for a negotiated end to Syria's deadlocked conflict.
Mr Annan, whom the United Nations and Arab League have tasked with attempting to resolve the crisis, travels to China after visiting Russia, where he succeeded in gaining the support of President Dmitry Medvedev.
"This cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely and as I have told the parties on the ground, they cannot resist the transformational winds that are blowing," Mr Annan said.
Chinese officials have already voiced support for his six-point plan, which does not require that Mr Assad steps down and instead focuses on ending the violence and beginning a gradual transition to democracy. Mr Annan's office said yesterday that Syria has formally responded to his plan, but did not give any further details, saying he was studying the counter-proposals.
Arab leaders will not call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down at a summit in Iraq on Thursday but will support Syrian-led transfer of power, Iraq's foreign minister said on Monday.
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said the summit is also expected to endorse a six-point peace proposal by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for a cease-fire, political dialogue between the government and opposition, and full access for aid agencies.
Assad, who is facing a year-long revolt against his rule, was not invited to the three-day summit.
If history is any indication, Assad will go along with the plan, so far as empty lip-service is concerned, but nothing with change on the ground.
Syria accepted a cease-fire drawn up by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan on Tuesday, but the diplomatic breakthrough was swiftly overshadowed by intense clashes between government soldiers and rebels that sent bullets flying into Lebanon.
Opposition members accuse President Bashar Assad of agreeing to the plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to kill off bastions of dissent. And the conflict just keeps getting deadlier: The U.N. said the death toll has grown to more than 9,000, a sobering assessment of a devastating year-old crackdown on the uprising that shows no sign of ending.
Annan's announcement that Syria had accepted his peace plan was met with deep skepticism.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said President Bashar al-Assad would be judged by events.
"Given Assad's history of over-promising and under-delivering, that commitment must now be matched by immediate actions," she said.
Earlier the UN said more than 9,000 people have now died since the Syria uprising started a year ago.
"If he is ready to bring this dark chapter in Syria's history to a close he can prove it by immediately ordering regime forces to stop firing and begin withdrawing from populated areas," Mrs Clinton said.
Other Western powers have made similar comments.
The Four Seasons embodies the state of Assad's nation, but not quite in the way he'd planned. At the beginning of the month, the Rotana Cafe, a hookah and latté joint owned by Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, closed its doors until further notice, citing poor business and security concerns. Costa Coffee remains open, but of the eight cafes it once had country-wide, the one in Damascus Boulevard is the only one left standing, said a spokesman for the company. Still, the manager of Damascus Boulevard, Mohamed al-Awa, said in a phone interview that business is "normal" and everything in Damascus is "good."
But from the looks of it, nothing is normal in Syria these days. While the spiraling violence has largely left Damascus untouched, except for scattered bomb attacks and occasional fighting throughout the city, the country's economy is in shambles, with a tightening noose of sanctions and closed borders putting the brakes on international trade. While foreign hotels, food, and clothing in Syria are not the target of sanctions, they are finding it increasingly difficult to do business in a country so isolated from the rest of the world.
The hotel itself is a ghost town. "Let's put it this way, the Four Seasons was very excited about the mission of Kofi Annan -- not because they were hopeful he'd come away with a solution to the crisis, but because they were finally getting some business. And they knew he'd be back," said one prominent businessman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. The hotel's Damascus-based spokeswoman disputed the characterization, saying they were still making summer plans and hosting visiting delegations, journalists, conferences, board meetings, and weddings, but admitted that business is "as you would assume" and occupancy is "lower than it should be."
Amid an uprising and government crackdown, central Damascus has largely been able to exist in a bubble of privilege. But after a year of crisis, it too is finally feeling the pinch. Last year was unsurprisingly a bad one for business in Syria, with the International Monetary Fund predicting a 2 percent contraction, but the past two months have been the worst by far since the start of the revolution.
With insurance rates soaring, logistics risky, and the plummeting Syrian pound making import purchases increasingly expensive, the cost of doing business in Syria has skyrocketed. As business owners raise prices to compensate, middle-class customers with shrinking purchasing power are increasingly staying away, even from previously insulated retail spots like the Cham City Center, a mall that brought in foreign brands like Cinnabon and United Colors of Benetton when it opened in 2007. "It was very puzzling to me, but until the last week of December, Cham City Center mall was packed whenever I went, even during the middle of the week," said one foreign banker based in Damascus until last month, when his bank closed up its Syria office.
Since Monday morning I have been receiving calls about the fact that the roads to the north are closed because of military action. Turkey has shuttered its embassy and Turkish airlines is pulling its flights to and from Syria, which is causing panic in Aleppo, where no open access to Turkey remains open. Businessmen are despondent about being able to keep business going between the two neighboring countries.
Syrian rights activists say government forces have assaulted several rebel strongholds, triggering battles that killed 40 people as Arab nations began a new diplomatic effort to end Syria's year-long conflict.
Activists said Wednesday that government troops battled opposition forces in the towns of Rastan in central Syria and Daraa in the south.
The New York Times, citing the Local Coordination Committees activist group, reported that troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad stormed the northern town of Saraqeb, leaving 40 people dead and the streets littered with unidentified corpses and wounded citizens after four days of attacks. The group appealed to the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to “treat the injured and bury the martyrs.”
The violence continued a day after international envoy Kofi Annan said Syria had accepted his peace plan for a cease-fire and a dialogue between government and rebel forces. He had urged the Syrian government to implement the plan immediately.
Arab League foreign ministers expressed support for the Annan peace initiative at a meeting in Baghdad, where leaders of the regional bloc were expected to attend a summit on Thursday.
A draft resolution prepared by the ministers for the summit's approval calls on the Assad government to stop violent attacks on the opposition and allow peaceful protests.
Sunni Muslims who have fled Syria described a government crackdown that is more pervasive and more sectarian than previously understood, with civilians affiliated with President Bashar al-Assad’s minority religious sect shooting at their onetime neighbors as the military presses what many Sunnis see as a campaign to force them to flee their homes and villages in some sections of the country.
The refugees, from in and around Qusayr, a town in the province of the rebellious city of Homs, this week offered a rare witness account of the unfolding tumult in western Syria as an intensive bombardment of communities continues. They said it appeared that the government concluded that when it pushed rebels from strongholds like the Bab Amr neighborhood in Homs, opposition fighters and protesters quickly regrouped in other Sunni areas.
As a result, they said they believed that the government was not only striking at large, rebellious urban centers, but had also hit towns and villages that had not been seen as central to the year-old uprising. The refugees’ firsthand accounts painted a picture of a section of western Syria that is more thoroughly under siege — and perhaps more widely in revolt — than has previously been depicted.
Despite his aggressive efforts to remain in control, Assad’s days in power are numbered. The real question is not whether the regime will collapse, but when. That is good news for the world, but there is no assurance that regime change will ultimately resolve Syria’s problems. On the contrary, some problems may worsen.
The most critical issue is how to maintain political stability in the region. Syria has been a serious risk factor for years. It has the tenth-largest army in the world and a chemical-weapons arsenal. Despite official denials, it has also tried to develop a covert nuclear programme, with the help of North Korea. Under the Assad clan’s leadership, the country has become one of Iran’s main allies and a hub for international terrorism.
The relationship between Syria and Iran has already had a destructive influence on the region. Through their alliance with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran kept Lebanon in a political stranglehold for nearly two decades. In 2005, former Lebanese President Rafiq Al Hariri was murdered when his motorcade was blown up in Beirut. The subsequent United Nations investigation indicated that there was strong evidence that the explosion was caused by Hezbollah operatives, with probable support from the Syrian secret service.
A “Syrian Spring” will be dangerous if it results in a failed state. Given the already growing tensions between the Sunni majority and Assad’s ruling Alawite-Shia minority, the risk is considerable. Those demanding change will have huge and unrealistic expectations of a new government, which, in turn, will be limited by the conflicting interests of the main players.
Syrian volunteers are trying to clear landmines that Turkish authorities say the Syrian army began planting along stretches of the border earlier this winter, report Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert who went to see the effort in Altinozu, Turkey.
Amid the olive groves of Turkey just a stone's throw away from the Syrian border, one volunteer has hidden away several Styrofoam boxes.
Their contents are deadly: a dozen unexploded antipersonnel mines.
Mazen Hajisa took one out and brushed dirt off its green molded plastic case. It was about the size of a soup bowl and stamped with Cyrillic letters.
Hajisa pointed at a raised black cross on the top of the device.
"If you put pressure on this trigger," he said, "It will explode."
After showing CNN his boxes full of landmines, Hajisa gingerly carried them back into the underbrush where he had stored them.
The volunteer de-miner did not know how to defuse the deadly little devices. He said he didn't know of any official to whom he could turn over the mines, seeming not to trust the Turks.
"I hide them here because I don't know where else to put them," he said.
The United States sanctioned three senior Syrian officials in President Bashar al-Assad's regime Friday as the yearlong violence in the country showed no signs of letting up.
Dawood Rajiha, Syria's defense minister; Munir Adanov, a senior Syrian Army official; and Zuhayr Shalish, the head of presidential security, were targeted in the action announced by the Treasury Department.
"The U.S. and the international community will hold to account those who stand with the Assad regime as it trains the instruments of war against Syrian civilians," David S. Cohen, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a written statement. "The time has long since passed for Syrian officials at all levels to turn their backs on this bloody regime."
In the tranquil border town Ramtha, the civil war being fought in neighbouring Syria is never very far away. Not only do the residents hear sounds of the gun battles between the Syrian army and defectors in the nearby town of Deraa and cope with a swelling population of refugees, they are also feeling the impact of the plunging Syrian pound.
The 40% drop in value of the pound over the last year should be good news for Jordanian traders, enabling them to pay less for the goods they bring across the border. But it hasn’t worked that way: The sharp depreciation of the currency has caused Syrian suppliers to cut back on the quality of the products they ship to Jordan and in many cases to cut off the supply altogether.
Iran is helping its ally Syria defy Western sanctions by providing a vessel to ship Syrian oil to a state-run company in China, potentially giving the government of President Bashar al-Assad a financial boost worth an estimated $80 million.
Iran, itself a target of Western sanctions, is among Syria's closest allies and has promised to do all it can to support Assad, recently praising his handling of the year-long uprising against Assad in which thousands have been killed.
China has also shielded Assad from foreign intervention, vetoing two Western-backed resolutions at the United Nations over the bloodshed, and is not bound by Western sanctions against Syria, its oil sector and state oil firm Sytrol.
A major reason for Iran's enthusiastic, and expensive (billions of dollars so far) support of the Syrian dictatorship is the increasing use of Syria as a way to buy weapons that several embargos prevent Iran from buying directly. Neither Syria nor Iran will admit this sort of thing is going on, but Syria has spent five times as much on imported weapons during the past five years, than it did in the previous five years. At the same time, the Syrian economy has been getting worse in the last decade. The cash for all these new weapons purchases (most of them from Russia) has come from Iran, and some of the weapons have shown up in Iran.
The bloody uprising against the Assad regime has now lasted for a year. And Hussein's story illustrates that, in this time, the rebels have also lost their innocence.
There are probably many reasons for that development. Hussein can rattle off several of them. "There are no longer any laws in Syria," he says. "Soldiers or thugs hired by the regime kill men, maim children and rape our women. If we don't do it, nobody will hold these perpetrators to account."
Another reason, he explains, is the desire for vengeance. "I have been arrested twice. I was tortured for 72 hours. They hung me by the hands, until the joints in my shoulders cracked. They burnt me with hot irons. Of course I want revenge."
His family, too, has suffered. He explains that he lost three uncles, all murdered by the regime. "One of them died with his five children," he says. "Their murderers deserve no mercy."
Most chillingly, Hussein believes that violence is simply in the nature of his society. "Children in France grow up with French, and learn to speak it perfectly," he says. "We Syrians were brought up with the language of violence. We don't speak anything else."
But in spite of all the rebels' justification for their brand of self-administered justice, Hussein's actions fall under what the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch on Tuesday condemned as "serious human rights abuses" on the part of the Syrian rebels. In the corridors of the hospital in Tripoli, Hussein and his fellow injured comrades speak openly about the fact that they, just like the regime's troops, torture and kill. They find the criticism from the human rights activists unfair: "We rebels are trying to defend the people. We're fighting against slaughterers. When we catch them, we must strike hard," says one fighter, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Rami.
There are two disastrous outcomes that are most likely in six months. The first is a weakened regime continuing to violently quell the rebellion. As Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces move from city to city and from town to town wantonly killing civilians, thousands more innocent people may die. The numbers would increase if the rebels get armed.
Alternatively, in six months the Assad regime may be gone. The sectarian polarization and bitterness engendered by its brutality may result in a bloodbath as Sunni Muslims take revenge on all those who stood with Assad to the end. In the chaos that would ensue, and in the absence of a well-organized opposition force, sectarian war would reign.
There may of course be other outcomes, including a regional conflagration should Assad choose to launch a war of desperation against Israel, but the challenge at hand is to design policies that prevent the worst ones from materializing.
Syria rejected international envoy Kofi Annan's call for the regime to halt violence first just days after the government agreed to a cease-fire plan. A senior official declared victory over the opposition.
It was the government's first response to an appeal by Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, to stop military operations first as "the stronger party" in a "gesture of good faith" to the lightly armed opposition. Annan brokered the agreement aimed at stopping the bloodshed and Assad agreed to it on Monday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said the government will not pull tanks and troops from towns and cities engulfed by unrest before life returns to normal there.
"The battle to bring down the state in Syria has already ended and the battle of reinforcing stability has started," Makdessi said in an apparent reference to a string of recent regime offensives that drove rebels from key strongholds. He spoke on state TV late Friday.
Activists reported fresh violence Saturday that killed more than two dozen people. The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising to oust Assad began a year ago.
So what exactly is Bashar al-Assad trying to accomplish with all of these military operations? The most obvious answer, of course, is that he is attempting to root out his political opponents through sheer force, hoping that the deaths of family members and friends will deter others from coming out and voicing anger against the regime. But if that is indeed what Assad’s ultimate objective is, he has failed, for every death inside Syria has only mobilized more supporters for the opposition and strengthened the resolve of those that are already on the streets.
While only those close to him know for sure, Assad likely realizes that military force is the only way to protect the authority and legacy that his father has built since the Baa’th Party took over Syria in a 1963 coup. Yet what he does not seem to realize is that all of the machine-guns, AK-47 assault rifles, and Russian-made tanks in the world cannot dent the will, faith, and selflessness his opponents, who have the United Nations General Assembly and history at their side.
From a pure military perspective, Assad’s war strategy is dubious, if not self-defeating. To date, the Syrian army has been trying to create a security buffer between the provinces—where most of the unrest has been percolating—and the two main cities that are crucial to the government’s support base (Damascus and Aleppo). These two cities are undoubtedly the government’s strongest electoral base, where Assad’s privatization policies have had the most effect in creating a middle-class of Syrian merchants and a proliferation of small business opportunities that were absent under the elder Assad’s system. Were Bashar to lose those two cities, his domestic support (which is rooted in Syria’s minority communities) could go the route of Homs, Idlib, Dara’a, Deir el-Zour, and Hama—areas that were once quiet, docile, and apolitical bubbles but are now bastions of resistance against the entire Baa’thist political and social order.
A coalition of more than 70 partners, including the United States, pledged Sunday to send millions of dollars and communications equipment to Syria's opposition groups, signaling deeper involvement in the conflict amid a growing belief that diplomacy and sanctions alone cannot end the Damascus regime's repression.
The shift by the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies toward seeking to sway the military balance in Syria carries regional risks because the crisis there increasingly resembles a proxy conflict that could exacerbate sectarian tensions. The Syrian rebels are overmatched by heavily armed regime forces.
The summit meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People" follows a year of failed diplomacy that seems close to running its course with a troubled peace plan led by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other participants at the conference in Istanbul uniformly expressed concern that Annan's plan might backfire, speculating that Syrian President Bashar Assad would try to manipulate it to prolong his hold on power.
Following an international conference in Turkey, the Syrian National Council says it will receive millions a month in funding from wealthy Gulf nations in order to pay Syrians who are either rebelling against and defecting from President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The BBC reports that the compromise decision by some 70 foreign governments stops short of arming the rebels:
BBC: An SNC leader told the BBC that she hoped more substantial funding would help bind the disparate units of the Free Syrian Army into a more coherent fighting force, and encourage other soldiers to defect from the government side.
Some countries at the conference - notably Saudi Arabia - have been openly calling for insurgents in Syria to be given weapons. But others - including the US and Turkey - oppose the move, fearing it could fuel an all-out civil war. Read more
U.N.-Arab League Syria Envoy Kofi Annan told the U.N. Security Council Monday that the Syrian government has agreed to begin withdrawing its troops from towns and cities and will complete its military pullback by April 10.
Kofi Annan briefed the 15-nation Security Council via a video link from Geneva during a closed meeting. Afterwards, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who holds the council’s rotating presidency this month, told reporters that Annan reported on the Syrian pledge to implement the cessation of hostilities.
“Mr. Annan reported that the Syrian foreign minister sent him a letter yesterday in which he said the Syrian military will begin immediately -- and by April 10 will complete -- the cessation of all forward deployment and use of heavy weapons and will complete its withdrawal from population centers," said Rice.
Former Syrian soldiers who've escaped to northern Iraq are telling grisly stories of how their units executed unarmed civilians for demonstrating against the Assad regime and staged mass reprisals when residents shot back, on one occasion lining up and shooting 30defenseless civilians.
The former soldiers — Syrian Kurds who've crossed the mountainous border into Iraq's Kurdistan region in small groups over the past three months, a group that now totals well more than 400 — also brought tales of colleagues being shot for not firing on civilians. One former noncommissioned special-forces officer even said he suspected that other government troops had orchestrated an ambush his unit endured, in an effort to motivate the unit to kill civilians.
Members of a special United Nations commission of inquiry said they'd heard many reports of soldiers being shot for not shooting civilians but that they hadn't been able to confirm them. The U.N. investigators said they hadn't heard reports of government-staged ambushes against its own forces.
Reports of brutality against Syrian civilians in the year since the government of President Bashar Assad has moved aggressively against demonstrators demanding Assad's removal are nothing new. But those accounts have come largely from members of the opposition or refugees, who've told investigators of them.
Syrian troops began pulling out Tuesday from some calm cities and headed back to their bases a week ahead of a deadline to implement an international cease-fire plan, a government official said.
The claim could not immediately be verified and activists near the capital Damascus denied troops were leaving their area. They said the day regime forces withdraw from streets, Syria will witness massive protests that will overthrow the government.
"Forces began withdrawing to outside calm cities and are returning to their bases, while in tense areas, they are pulling out to the outskirts," the government official told The Associated Press in Damascus without saying when the withdrawal began. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
President Bashar Assad agreed just days ago to an April 10 deadline to implement international envoy Kofi Annan's truce plan. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities and observe a cease-fire. Rebel fighters are to immediately follow by ceasing violence.
Khaled al-Omar, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, denied that any withdrawal was under way in his area.
"This is impossible. I can see a checkpoint from my window," he said via Skype, adding the regime forces were still in the main square.
Earlier in the day, opposition activists charged that the regime was racing to crush opponents ahead of the cease-fire deadline by carrying out intense raids, arrests and shelling on Tuesday.
Syrian artillery pounded the rebellious city of Homs and tanks and troops stormed towns in the north and south on Wednesday, deepening doubts that President Bashar Assad will follow through on his commitment to a truce starting next week.
Anti-regime activists cited the new assaults as evidence Assad is trying to crush those seeking to overthrow his regime before the cease-fire brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan begins on April 10. Activist groups reported more than 50 dead nationwide for the day.
Russia, a key Assad ally, warned other nations not to arm the opposition, predicting such a move would only increase bloodshed without ending Assad's rule. The international community is sharply divided over how to stop the violence that has left more than 9,000 people dead over the past year.
This week, Assad agreed to implement the cease-fire from April 10. The truce is the keystone of a six-point plan put forward by Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities, followed by a withdrawal by rebel fighters. Then all sides are supposed to hold talks on a political solution.
A Syrian government official claimed Tuesday that troops had begun withdrawing from some calm cities while moving to the outskirts of tense areas. He gave no further details and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
But activists reached by phone Wednesday in north, south and central Syria said they had seen no sign that the military was pulling out. Some reported the opposite.
Facing a U.N.-brokered deadline to end the bloodshed in Syria, President Bashar Assad is likely to try to manipulate the terms of the plan to buy more time.
It's a matter of survival: If Assad fully implements a cease-fire and pulls back troops that have been suppressing the year-old uprising, large swaths of the country could slip out of the regime's control.
Assad has little choice but to comply in some way with the April 10 deadline set by international envoy Kofi Annan, in part because his chief backers of Russia and China have given the plan their full support.
Syria launched a blistering assault Thursday on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
The bloodshed undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused President Bashar Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan's deadline to pull the army back from population centers by April 10.
According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end Assad's violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died.
"Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis was getting worse, even though the Syrian government accepted Annan's plan March 27. Activists have accused the regime of stepping up attacks across the country, and they described Thursday's assault in Douma as among the worst around the capital since the uprising began.
"Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating," Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. "The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically."
He said the violence has not stopped and the situation on the ground "continues to deteriorate."
Black smoke billowed from residential areas of Douma, about 8 miles (12 kilometers) outside Damascus, amid heavy cracks of gunfire. Douma, which has seen anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by Assad's regime over the past year.
Activists said soldiers occupied Douma's Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the area.
"No one dares to walk in the streets because of the snipers," Syrian activist Omar Hamza told The Associated Press by telephone. "They are like stray dogs attacking sheep."
Syrian troops shelled restive areas and sent tanks and snipers into battle against rebels in the capital's suburbs on Friday, broadening a government offensive that appeared aimed at crushing pockets of opposition less than a week before an internationally sponsored cease-fire is to take hold, activists said.
With fighting escalating, the stream of Syrians fleeing to neighboring Turkey has picked up considerably, as about one-third of the total of 24,000 refugees arrived in the past two weeks, Turkish officials said. Some 2,500 crossed the border on Thursday alone, said Ankara's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, adding that the daily flow has doubled since Syria promised last week to abide by a truce.
Davutoglu told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday his country would seek U.N. assistance if the influx continues. Turkey has in the past floated the idea of creating a small buffer zone inside Syria if refugee flows become overwhelming, a step that could set the stage for possible further escalation. "These developments are seriously worrying us," Davutoglu said of the intensifying violence.
The apparent trigger for the latest rush of refugees was an offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces this week near the town of Idlib, close to Turkey.
After a year of iron support for its embattled Middle East ally, Russia’s recent criticism of Syrian President Bashar Assad suggests that Moscow could be planning for a future without the Arab strongman.
There is still no indication that Moscow will abandon Syria altogether and back U.N. sanctions against its old friend, even as the estimated body count from Assad’s crackdown on a yearlong opposition uprising has surged past 9,000.
But in recent weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly criticized Assad for using excessive force and dragging his feet on reforms. Moscow also has urged Assad to take the first step and pull his troops from cities and towns in line with a peace plan put forth by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan.
The U.S. has released de-classifed aerial reconnaissance photos of Syria, showing the level of compliance by government forces with an international plan to establish a cease fire which calls upon the Syrian government to remove its tropps and heavy weapons from their locations around cities no later than April 10, 2012.
The Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, currently in the United States after he was withdrawn from Damascus, writes in a commentary, that "there are some locales where the Syrian government did remove some forces, such as Da’el in Daraa province and Taftanaz in Idlib, following several days of assaults against the towns."
In some other places, he says, such as Homs and Zabadani the Syrian government kept artillery units near residential areas where they could again fire upon them.
The U.S. warned Syria it won't be able to deceive the world about compliance with a cease-fire that is just days away, as regime forces pounded more opposition strongholds Saturday in an apparent rush to crush resistance before troops must withdraw. Activists said more than 100 people were killed, including at least 87 civilians.
Almost half died in a Syrian army raid on the central village of al-Latamneh, activists said. Amateur video from the village showed the body of a baby with bloodied clothes and an apparent bullet wound in the chest. On another video, a barrage of shells is heard hitting a neighborhood of Homs as the restive city's skyline is engulfed in white smoke.
Turkey's prime minister says the country will wait "patiently" to see if Syria abides by a cease-fire deadline, but may take certain "steps" if the violence does not stop after that.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not specify Saturday what measures Turkey would take. But Ankara has in the past floated the idea of creating a buffer zone inside Syria if refugee flows become overwhelming.
Hopes for a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis were fading rapidly on Sunday after President Bashar al-Assad refused to meet Tuesday's deadline for withdrawing his forces from flashpoints across the country without guarantees from the opposition to stop fighting first.
Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, had called for a pullout to be completed by Tuesday morning with a ceasefire taking effect 48 hours later as the first stage in a six-point international plan for political negotiations between the Assad regime and its opponents.
Amid evidence of continuing government operations, Syria's foreign ministry said it was demanding written guarantees that "armed terrorist groups" would lay down their weapons.
The Free Syrian Army, the opposition's main fighting wing, quickly blamed the government for undermining the deal.
"The regime will not implement this plan," the FSA commander Colonel Riad al-As'ad, told Reuters from his Turkish headquarters. As'ad and other officers said the rebels had promised to stop fighting if the government did the same.
BBC Arabic reported that the FSA had refused to give any guarantees.
But the continuing bloodshed, deep mistrust after 13 months of the uprising, an estimated 9,000-10,000 dead and the fragmented nature of the anti-Assad forces meant that any guarantees were unlikely to be forthcoming and meaningless if made.
After the peace plan for Syria just about collapsed over the weekend, Syrian forces fired across the Turkish border Monday, wounding at least five people in a refugee camp.
The Associated Press reports that the Syrian soldiers were apparently firing at fleeing rebels who had just attacked a military checkpoint, killing six soldiers. Syrian activists say two were killed at the refugee camp, but that hasn't been confirmed.
The incident follows a bloody weekend that will likely mark the collapse of U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan for the country. The plan called for Syria to withdraw troops from populated areas by April 10, with a cease-fire between Syrian forces and opposition fighters to follow 48 hours later.
On Saturday, as many as 160 were killed in Syria, one of the bloodiest days in the yearlong unrest in the country. And on Sunday, the Syrian government made an eleventh hour demand that all but ensures the deal is off: President Bashar al-Assad's regime wants a written guarantee from the opposition that it will stop fighting, a demand that the Free Syrian Army quickly rejected.
MORE than 50 people have died as Syrian forces pound protest hubs on the day it was to begin implementing a ceasefire deal, prompting a UN Security Council call on Damascus to meet the deadline.
Syria said it was abiding by the deal, but UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan accused it of pulling troops from some areas and moving them elsewhere.
At the same time, the rebel Free Syrian Army warned it would resume attacks if the government offensive does not stop.
Washington said it hoped the UN Security Council would consider action yesterday if Mr Annan concludes that Damascus broke its commitment to pull troops and heavy weapons out of key cities In a first reaction, the council called on President Bashar al-Assad to keep a Thursday deadline for a complete ceasefire.
In a statement read by US Ambassador Susan Rice, it backed a demand by Mr Annan for Damascus to make a "fundamental change of course" to end hostilities by 6am Damascus time on Thursday.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Turkey will meet to discuss Syria on Friday, a Saudi official said on Tuesday, in a mark of accelerating diplomacy on a crisis in which both regional powers have condemned President Bashar al-Assad.
"The Syrian issue is top of the agenda," the official told Reuters in confirming that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan would hold talks with King Abdullah in Riyadh at the end of the week. A Turkish newspaper said Erdogan would fly there directly on Thursday on his way home from an official visit to China.
Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter has led Arab efforts to isolate Assad over the violent repression of an uprising that the United Nations says has killed 9,000 people.
Turkey, a former friend to the Syrian president, has been angered by a flood of refugees fleeing the Syrian army and by shooting across its border on Monday that wounded five people.
Closer Turkish-Saudi cooperation on Syria would be serious bad news for Assad.
The Syrian government says that it will cease military operations on Thursday. Annan’s spokesman Ahmed Fawzi said that he had received a letter from Syria’s Foreign Ministry that stated that the government agrees “to cease all military fighting throughout Syrian territory as of 6am (4am BST) tomorrow, Thursday, 12 April 2012, while reserving the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property.” Syrian state TV has also announced the same ceasefire, says the BBC.
Notably, the Syrian government’s announcement did not mention the ceasefire plan detailed in the six-point peace deal proposed by Kofi Annan, the special envoy to the United Nations and the Arab League. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has already missed the April 10th deadline for a ceasefire that Annan’s plan called for, as well as a requirement to withdraw troops from population centers. In a reversal and (notes that BBC) an effective rejection of Annan’s timetable, Syria has also demanded that UN observers arrive in Syria prior to a ceasefire beginning.
The Syrian government claims that the ceasefire won't exist unless the rebels disarm. It is believed that the government is determined to delay foreign intervention for as long as possible, while trying to suppress the rebels by identifying and hunting down the leadership. But many of the rebel leaders are now outside the country and the rebellion is so widespread that new leaders tend to appear to replace those killed or arrested. Yet the government sees that as an advantage because so many of the rebels are strangers to each other. Rebels are complaining about corruption and incompetence within their own ranks, especially among those rebels outside Syria, who are supposed to be obtaining weapons and equipment. More frequently, the supplies don't arrive and the money disappears, along with those entrusted with it. Those rebels who have known each other for some time have trust, but all others are suspect. This makes cooperation difficult especially as so many long-time opponents of the government are killed or arrested.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the recent escalation is that it has not elicited a dramatic response from any key player, making it likely that things will only get worse. The regime has long been locked in a vicious cycle, heightening repression in response to the radicalisation of the popular movement that regime repression was instrumental in bringing about in the first place. The opposition is deeply polarised, between those who harbour the largely illusory hope that the regime will abandon its elusive quest for a “security solution” and those who – by calling to arm rebels on the ground and lobbying for international military intervention – essentially aspire to a “security solution” of their own.
On the whole, the outside word is caught between four costly postures. The regime’s allies, Iran and Hizbollah, have supported it unconditionally and have every incentive to continue doing so. Russia and China put the onus on regime foes at home and abroad to defuse the situation, expecting the former to lay down their arms and join an ill-defined “dialogue”, and the latter to cease all forms of pressure. The West remains confused and ambivalent, having exhausted all sources of diplomatic and economic leverage, fearful of the future and tiptoeing around the question of military options. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spoken loudly of their intention to arm the rebellion but, even assuming they demonstrate the commitment and follow-through necessary to establish meaningful supply lines, it is hard to see how such efforts would bring a well-armed regime to its knees. Hamstrung between these conflicting stances, Annan’s mission has yet to achieve much traction other than rhetorical endorsements by all concerned.
As the crossing of ever more alarming thresholds suggests, this is not a static stalemate but a conflict in perpetual motion and moving in ever more dangerous ways. Whether regime elements or armed opposition groups are to blame for any particular bomb attack or civilian massacre is an essentially futile debate. The fact is that the regime’s behaviour has fuelled extremists on both sides and, by allowing the country’s slide into chaos, provided them space to move in and operate. Its security services are likely to do everything in their power to tarnish and vilify the opposition – and the opposition to do whatever it can to avenge the unbearable violence to which it has been subjected. As a result, conditions have been created in which extreme forms of violence may well become routine. In turn, this will further empower the most radical elements on all sides, justifying the worst forms of regime brutality and prompting appalling retaliation in response. Should such trends continue, the conflict’s current death toll – already in the thousands – likely will appear modest in hindsight.
A fragile UN-backed ceasefire aimed at halting more than a year of bloodshed in Syria appeared to be holding on Thursday but there were no signs that President Bashar al Assad was pulling his forces out of restive cities.
Russia and China, which have twice vetoed council resolutions condemning Assad's 13-month assault on anti-government protesters but are strong supporters of Annan's peace efforts, urged Damascus and the opposition to meet all the terms and conditions of Annan's plan.
Mr Annan told council members that the precarious truce needed support and called for the early arrival of a first wave of unarmed observers to monitor implementation of his six point peace plan, to be followed by a second wave of observers later.
"Joint special envoy Annan was clear that what the Syrian government has done today, the steps that have been taken, do not constitute full compliance. Either with item two of his six-point plan or with the six-point plan in its entirety," said US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, the Security Council president for April.
"If this very fragile initial opening is respected and sustained, and that must include the pull back of Syrian forces from populated areas, the pull back of their heavy weapons and the return to barracks," she told reporters after a closed-door council meeting which Annan addressed via video link from Geneva.
Syria has accepted the Annan plan in principle and claims that its guns will fall quiet tomorrow – Thursday April 12, 2012. It is difficult to see how a truce can hold for long, but one must give Annan his due. He has worked hard to get both Russia and China to back the plan and placed considerable pressure on both sides to go along with his six points, at least on the face of it.
The problem with the plan is that it resolves none of the political demands of the revolutionaries or the Syrian regime. Both sides continue to believe that time is on their side and that they can only win this struggle on the battle field. For this reason the renewal of the conflict would seem to be only a matter of time. But no one has a better plan to avoid Syria’s downward spiral toward greater levels of violence and civil war.
Tens of thousands of reenergized opponents of the Syrian government gathered Friday for demonstrations on a second day marked by relatively low levels of violence, but the U.N. Security Council was unable to agree on a mission to monitor further implementation of a peace plan.
The protests that now habitually take place after Friday prayers were much anticipated this week, coming 36 hours after a cease-fire mandated in the plan put forward last month by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which also requires the government to allow peaceful demonstrations of dissent.
A look at the Syrian uprising one year later. Thousands of Syrians have died and President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, despite numerous calls by the international community for him to step down.
The plan has been endorsed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his allies in Russia and China, and Western nations that have called for him to step down. However, a heavy military presence Friday thwarted major protests in most cities, and eight civilians were killed across the country by security forces, according to a spokesman for the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights who uses the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman.
The cease-fire was also marred by a skirmish in Idlib province near the Turkish border, although no casualties were reported there.
The plan’s requirements appeared to have been violated by armed members of the opposition as well as by security forces, with two soldiers reportedly killed in an attack near Hama. According to Abdulrahman, however, the number of casualties remained significantly lower than on the previous Friday — when dozens of people were killed — even with five times as many people demonstrating nationwide. The information was not possible to verify, as the Syrian government restricts journalists’ access to the country.
A UN-brokered ceasefire does not settle the concerns over what has been an increasingly aggressive Saudi intervention in Syria. While the United States and its allies are wary of seeing Syria become a sectarian battleground, the power brokers in Riyadh seem to have been hurtling toward it. The Saudis look to have clearly made the calculus that the potential fruit from toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and enthroning a Sunni aligned regime in Damascus is well worth the political risk.
The danger with this scenario is that while Saudi Arabia embarks on its jihad to topple Mr. Assad, it will get free reign in picking the winners and losers among the opposition – likely Islamist groups at the expense of moderates and secularists.
A small advance group of UN monitors is preparing to go to Syria to oversee the ceasefire, hours after the Security Council voted for its deployment.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would make firm proposals in days for a larger group of about 250 people.
The mission comes as a BBC reporter says the ceasefire appears in danger of collapsing in some parts of Syria.
Activists said at least 20 people were killed as violence flared on Saturday in Homs and at a funeral in Aleppo.
The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, condemned the bloodshed saying it raises "renewed doubts about the sincerity of the [Syrian] regime's commitment to the ceasefire".
She said the resolution was an important opportunity to stop the bloodshed, adding that the burden was now on the Syrian regime.
But Syria's ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja'afari, blamed opposition forces for the spike in violence, saying that more than 50 violations had taken place including "many assassinations and sabotage operations".
Syria's opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, welcomed the vote.
Syria's 4-day-old cease-fire appeared to be quickly eroding Sunday, with regime forces firing dozens of tank shells and mortar rounds at neighborhoods in the opposition stronghold of Homs, hours before the arrival of a first team of U.N. truce monitors.
Even though the overall level of violence has dropped, escalating regime attacks over the weekend raised new doubts about President Bashar Assad's commitment to a plan by special envoy Kofi Annan to end 13 months of violence and launch talks on Syria's political future.
Assad accepted the truce deal at the prodding of his main ally, Russia, but his compliance has been limited. He has halted shelling of rebel-held neighborhoods, with the exception of Homs, but ignored calls to pull troops out of urban centers, apparently for fear of losing control over a country his family has ruled for four decades. Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks, including shooting ambushes.
The international community hopes U.N. observers will be able to stabilize the cease-fire, which formally took effect Thursday. A six-member advance team of U.N. observers headed to Damascus on Sunday, a day after an unanimous U.N. Security Council approved such a mission. A larger team of 250 observers requires more negotiations between the U.N. and the Syrian government next week.
As six members of a United Nations monitoring mission began setting up an operations headquarters and reaching out to both sides of the Syrian conflict Monday, the violence continued to slip toward the level it had been before a cease-fire began Thursday.
In coming days, 25 more observers are expected to arrive in the Syrian capital of Damascus to monitor what was hoped to be an end to 13 months of unrest in Syria.
The U.N. observers were in touch with the government and opposition forces so that both sides understood their role, said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for special envoy Kofi Annan, who brokered the peace plan.
The monitoring team is due to leave Damascus soon to set up operational bases in other cities and towns, U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations spokesman Kieran Dwyer said. The monitors will also prepare for a larger mission of perhaps as many as 250 observers, which will depend on the situation in the country and the daily reports from the advance team, he said.
The Syrian government stepped up attacks on opposition fighters on Monday, resuming shelling and arrests in several cities, activists said, events that threatened to doom a five-day old cease-fire agreement.
A small group of United Nations monitors began to work in Damascus on Monday in an attempt to enforce the truce agreement, brokered by United Nations-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan.
Mr. Annan's six-point plan won rare unanimous support within the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia for the first time were able to find common ground with other member nations in authorizing the deployment of U.N. cease-fire monitors. Diplomats, while skeptical, see it as the most promising chance of resolving the 13-month old conflict diplomatically.
"Should the violence persist and the cease-fire not hold, that…will call into the question the wisdom and viability of sending in the full monitors' presence," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
Violence, though still less than before the cease-fire, has steadily ticked up each day since the truce fully took effect Thursday morning. An opposition umbrella group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 30 people were killed by regime forces on Monday in fighting in several cities throughout the country, which would make it by far the deadliest day since the cease-fire.
Iran is escalating its threat to respond forcefully against outside interference in the Syrian conflict, despite already having 15,000 of its own troops inside Syria to help put down the rebellion that threatens the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Mashregh News, a media outlet run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, reported in March that the Islamic republic’s armed forces have established a “joint war room” with both Syria and the terrorist group Hezbollah.
The trio aim to provide a coordinated response to any American aggression against Syria or Iran, which Mashregh News said would include counterattacking with missiles aimed at Israel and American assets in the region.
According to the Fars News Agency, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a warning recently during his recent meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “The Islamic Republic will defend Syria,” FNA reported that message read, “because of its support for the resistance front against the Zionist regime [Israel], and is vehemently opposed to any intervention by foreign forces in Syrian internal affairs.”
Syrian troops continue to pound rebel strongholds with deadly fire as the regime seeks to reassure an increasingly sceptical world that it is committed to a week-old ceasefire.
As UN observers were greeted by hundreds of anti-regime protesters on the streets of Damascus on Wednesday, Washington said their mission was not being given the necessary freedom to properly monitor a halt to hostilities.
'We have a very small number of observers now on the ground and it seems that small number is having difficulty with the freedom that we all expected and that is required,' said Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the latest violence shows the 'insincerity' of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
'It's another indication of the apparent but not entirely unexpected insincerity of the Assad regime when it promises to abide by the elements of the (special envoy) Kofi Annan plan, ceasefire and withdrawal. We will work with our allies and partners on next steps,' he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Assad of tougher measures if he squanders his 'last chance' by failing to implement envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan six days after it came into force.
Syria is trying to sell gold reserves to raise revenue as Western and Arab sanctions targeting its central bank and oil exports begin to bite, diplomats and traders said.
Western sanctions have halved Syria's foreign exchange reserves from about $17 billion, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday after a meeting with about 60 nations aimed at coordinating measures against President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"Syria is selling its gold at rock bottom prices," said a Western diplomatic source, declining to say where it was being sold.
A second diplomatic source confirmed the information, adding that Damascus was looking to offload everything it could to raise cash, including currency reserves.
"The sect [referring to the Alawites], vital in itself, was clannish in feeling and politics. One Nosairi would not betray another, and would hardly not betray an unbeliever. Their villages lay in patches down the main hills to the Tripoli gap. They spoke Arabic, but had lived there since the beginning of Greek letters in Syria. Usually they stood aside from affairs, and left the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity."
~T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Basically, put this group with this kind of history, knows it has to fight perhaps to the bitter end?
The Alawites are a small and clannish sect dedicated to their own survival and not much else. Religion is not so important to them as group loyalty. They stem from the time of the Crusades, when local tribes were forcibly converted to Christianity and then converted back to Islam. They retain some Christian practices, such as honoring the saints and consuming alcohol, besides rejecting Muslim practices, such as praying five times a day and making pilgrimage to Mecca. This make them heretics to the much more numerous Sunnis. Alawites also reject traditional Muslim customs, such as the veiling of women, which makes them more modern and acceptable to Westerners than other sects.
The international sense of urgency over the Syrian crisis grew on Thursday, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for an arms embargo and other tough U.N. Security Council steps against the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Clinton suggested moving "very vigorously" toward a Chapter VII sanctions resolution, including travel and financial sanctions as well as the arms embargo, pressure that would coax the regime to comply with U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan. A Chapter VII resolution would provide for the use of force if needed.
Clinton, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and other top diplomats met Thursday in Paris about what to do if a week-old cease-fire in Syria fails.
"I think we are all here out of a sense of great frustration and outrage over what we see occurring in Syria," Clinton said. "We also are hopeful that despite the evidence thus far, the mission of Kofi Annan can begin to take root, starting with monitors being sent, but remembering that it's a six-point plan and that it is not a menu of options. It has to be a complete acceptance by the Syrian government of all six points."
Also Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said violence has persisted and the Syrian government hasn't lived up to its own promise to withdraw troops from cities, a key element of Annan's peace plan.
France, the U.S. and other countries are showing little confidence in the week-old Syria cease-fire, increasing the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt the violence while aiding his opponents.
Fifty-seven countries, meeting in France, voted yesterday to tighten sanctions on Syria as Russia accused Persian Gulf nations of arming opposition fighters. Members of the so-called Friends of Syria group are openly supporting the rebels with non-lethal assistance, such as communications equipment, and weighing gestures to further cast Assad’s regime as a pariah, including the expulsion of Syria’s ambassadors, according to European diplomats who aren’t authorized to speak to the media.
While the daily death toll has dropped, Assad hasn’t lived up to the terms of the United Nations-backed peace plan, which include a pullback of his forces and steps toward democratic reforms. Even as the first UN monitors arrived in Syria, Assad’s tanks continued attacking Homs and other areas, Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said yesterday.
Large antigovernment demonstrations filled the streets of Syria on Friday despite reports of regime forces trying to prevent them from forming and, in other instances, shooting at protesters as an announced cease-fire continued to unravel.
Activists said security forces fired bullets and tear gas at protesters in several areas across the country, ignoring the government's agreement to a peace plan that guarantees the right to demonstrate. Shelling also continued in Homs province, and at least 57 people were reported killed across the country.
State media reported that a roadside bomb in a village near the border with Israel killed 10 law enforcement personnel, and two other people were killed elsewhere in the country. The attacks constituted more "breaches" of the peace plan by the opposition, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
But United Nations observers who are in Syria to monitor the implementation of the cease-fire and peace plan were nowhere to be seen because the team has decided not to patrol on Fridays, which is the biggest day of demonstrations.
"Having them on the streets always changes the dynamics," said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for the U.N.'s special envoy, Kofi Annan. "It either gets more violent or less violent."
The head of the U.N. team, Moroccan Col. Ahmed Himmiche, told Al Jazeera TV network, "We don't want to be used as a tool for escalating the situation."
After one year and over 10,000 deaths, it’s little surprise that we find ourselves clutching at straws in Syria. But Kofi Annan’s well-intended mediation – including a ceasefire that’s already crumbling, according to Ban Ki-Moon – is unlikely to bear fruit. Syria’s civil war may have passed the point of no return.
The Assad family of all people should know how civil wars work. For 30 years President Hafez al-Assad, and later his son, occupied Lebanon. They fuelled its militias and murdered its politicians – all while Beirut burned. The irony is that we are now watching the Lebanonisation of Syria.
Annan’s ceasefire may have paused the worst of the butchery, but it won’t be for long. The peace plan requires a serious “political dialogue”, the removal of government forces from cities, and respect for right of protest – none of which Assad can provide without hastening his own demise. He will use this hiatus to buy time and regroup.
There’s a second problem, which is that there is no Syrian opposition. Rather, there are thousands of oppositions scattered across Syria. Few are willing to subordinate themselves to what they see as plump exiles wandering around the five-star hotels of Paris and Doha.
The formal opposition, dominated by the Syrian National Council (SNC), is mired in fratricidal bickering reminiscent of Monty Python's battles between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judaean People’s Front.
Five unarmed U.N. truce monitors toured the battered city at the heart of the Syrian uprising on foot Saturday, encountering unusually calm streets after weeks of shelling as a throng of residents clamoured for foreign military help to oust President Bashar Assad.
Their foray into a chaotic crowd in the city of Homs highlighted the risks faced by the observers, protected only by bright blue helmets and bulletproof vests. It came as the U.N. Security Council voted Saturday to expand the mission to 300 members in hopes of salvaging an international peace plan marred by continued fighting between the military and opposition rebels.
The observers, members of an eight-member advance team that has been on the ground a week, were seen on amateur video Saturday walking through rubble-strewn deserted streets lined by gutted apartment buildings. Activists reported only sporadic gunfire, but no shelling, and said troops had pulled armoured vehicles off the streets. Two observers stayed behind in Homs to keep monitoring the city, after the rest of the team left Saturday evening.
The mission approved Saturday, initially for 90 days, is meant to shore up a cease-fire that officially took effect 10 days ago, but has failed to halt violence. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has accused Assad of violating the truce, and said Saturday that "the gross violations of the fundamental rights of the Syrian people must stop at once." Rebel fighters have also kept up attacks.
An armed group blasted an oil pipeline in Syria's Deir al-Zour province, the state-run SANA news agency reported.
The attack was carried out Saturday on the pipeline belonging to the Furat Oil Company near Abu Hamam area in the oil-rich province, said Xinhua.
The report said the pipeline was full of oil when it was hit, which led to the leaking of around 2,000 barrels of oil.
Thought the blast caused a fire, the company said production was not affected. The fire was put out in a few hours.
The Syrian government blames the year-long crisis on armed groups working out a foreign conspiracy.
According to the UN, more than 9,000 people have so far been killed in the conflict, including 500 children.
Syrian activists say government soldiers backed by tanks have killed three people near Damascus, even as international envoy Kofi Annan called the U.N. Security Council’s decision to deploy 300 cease-fire monitors in Syria a “pivotal moment” for the country.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported shelling and heavy gunfire Sunday as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stormed the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Opposition activists said the embattled flashpoint city of Homs also endured another day of heavy shelling Sunday after a temporary halt the day before when a small advance team of U.N. monitors toured the city. Two observers spent the night in Homs.
An eight-member team is on the ground in Syria, and since Thursday has visited flashpoints of the 13-month-long conflict. Fighting generally halts temporarily when the observers are present in an area, but there has been a steady stream of reports of violence from towns and regions where they have not yet gone.
"This U.N. observers thing is a big joke," said Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed. "Shelling stops and tanks are hidden when they visit somewhere, and when they leave, shelling resumes."
Syrian forces have opened fire on civilians fleeing to neighboring Jordan, killing at least one refugee and injuring dozens, activists and relief workers said on Sunday.
A Jordanian security source confirmed that Syrian soldiers opened fire on hundreds of civilians attempting to cross the border on Saturday.
Aid workers said the attack near the Syrian border city of Naseeb left many refugees suffering from bullet wounds and burns. They said some 180 arrived in Jordan on Saturday.
A day ago, crowds in the Syrian city of Hama welcomed a U.N. team sent in to observe a shaky truce. On Monday, government troops opened fire on the same streets, killing dozens, activists said, raising fears the regime is targeting opponents emboldened to protest by the U.N. monitors.
U.S. President Barack Obama and European countries announced new sanctions against Damascus, while the U.N.'s political chief said the Syrian government has failed to implement the peace plan designed to end 13 months of deadly conflict that has killed more than 9,000 people.
The new bloodshed — the worst violence in the central city of Hama in months — came despite the cease-fire that went into effect April 12. Skepticism about the commitment to the truce by Syrian President Bashar Assad remains high among the regime's opponents and some of the peace plan's key backers, such as the United States.
U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council that the Syrian government is still using heavy weapons against its people and has failed to implement key parts of the plan, such as releasing detainees and allowing peaceful demonstrations. The cease-fire is supposed to allow for dialogue on a political solution between Assad's regime and those seeking his ouster.
"Human rights violations are still perpetrated with impunity," Pascoe said.
A major explosion killed a large number of Syrian civilians on Thursday, although, as has become commonplace, the government and opposition are offering greatly varying accounts of both how it happened and how many died.
Regardless, the casualties are the latest sign that a U.N.-brokered ceasefire has done little to stop the violence and is in danger of collapsing outright.
The New York Times reports that opposition forces say that roughly 70 civilians died after the Assad regime shelled a row of cinder-block shanties in a poor neighborhood in Hama. The government, however, claims that the blast was the result of a bomb-making operation by rebels gone wrong, and that the death toll was only 16.
Tens of thousands protested across Syria on Friday as a deadly suicide bombing rocked the capital, killing 11 people and fuelling growing scepticism over the prospects of a UN-backed peace plan.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three people, including a child, were killed as regime forces opened fire to disperse protests.
“Tens of thousands of people protested today in various areas of the country,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based group, told AFP.
He said one protester was killed in the village Daf al-Shok in Damascus province. Another died in the Sakhur district of northern Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and the child was killed in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.
Three members of the security forces and a deserter were also killed in other clashes across the country, the Syrian Observatory said.
Syrian rebel gunmen in inflatable dinghies have attacked a military unit on the Mediterranean coast, with deaths on both sides, state media report.
It is thought to be the first rebel assault from the sea. Separately, Lebanon says its navy has seized weapons destined for the rebels.
Clashes between security forces and deserting troops left heavy casualties near Damascus and Aleppo, reports say.
The violence comes despite a shaky ceasefire in force since 12 April.
On Thursday UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that Syria's government was "in contravention" of a UN- and Arab League-backed peace plan.
Saturday's violence came after the Lebanese navy said it had found and confiscated three containers full of arms and ammunition bound for the rebels.
The ship, the Lutfallah II, is reported to have begun its voyage from Libya, stopped off in Alexandria in Egypt, and then headed for the port of Tripoli in northern Lebanon before it was intercepted.
The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says it is believed the consignment was destined for the rebels in Syria, with whom the new Libyan regime strongly sympathises.
Syrian forces killed 10 army defectors in fighting in the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement today.
Clashes between troops and rebels were taking place in the Qalamoun district on the outskirts of the capital, the group said.
Israeli officials have become increasingly outspoken in their belief that Syria's President Bashar Assad should relinquish power after a 13-month uprising that has killed thousands of his citizens — a surprising turnaround that risks backfiring and potentially strengthening the embattled Syrian leader.
These calls mark an important shift in Israel, where leaders initially reacted to the uprising with barely disguised concern and alarm. As the Arab Spring remakes the fabric of the Middle East, Israel has been torn between support for democratic change and a surprising comfort with the established order.
This early dominant thinking was that while Assad was no friend of Israel, he remained a known quantity whose family had kept the shared border quiet for nearly four decades and occasionally pursued peace talks with Israel. With Islamic parties on the rise throughout the region, there was no telling who might replace him.
But as the Syrian uprising has dragged on and the death toll mounted in recent months, a number of Israeli officials have concluded that the Middle East would be a better place without Assad.
In fresh attacks on symbols of state power, twin suicide bombs exploded near a government security compound in northern Syria and rockets struck the central bank in Damascus, killing nine people and wounding 100.
The regime and the opposition traded blame, accusing each other of dooming a United Nations plan to calm violence that has largely failed so far. The head of the UN observer mission acknowledged that his force cannot solve the country's crisis alone and urged both sides to stop fighting.
The attacks are the latest in a series of suicide bombings that started in December and have mostly targeted Syrian military and intelligence positions.
The regime routinely blames the opposition, which denies having a role or the capability to carry out such attacks. After other similar bombings, US officials suggested al-Qaida militants may be joining the fray, and an al-Qaida-inspired Islamist group has claimed responsibility for previous attacks in Syria.
The powerful blasts, which blew two craters in the ground and ripped the facade off a multistory building, came a day after Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the observer mission, took up his post in Damascus.
"Ten, 30, 300 or 1,000 observers will not solve all problems," he told reporters Monday. "So everyone has to help us achieve this mission."
The UN peacekeeping chief said on Tuesday that its military observers in Syria are reporting ceasefire violations from the government and opposition and he demanded an immediate halt to all violence.
Herve Ladsous refused to say which side was responsible for the most violations. But he said the unarmed observers have documented a number of Syrian heavy weapons deployed in populated areas – including armored personnel carriers and artillery – despite the government's claim that it had withdrawn tanks and troops from cities and towns as required under international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.
Syrian government forces fired mortar shells into a farming village near the Turkish border on Tuesday, killing 10 people, among them two young children.
"The level of violence in Syria has been appalling," Ladsous said at a news conference. "I think the violations that are observed come from both sides. I would not establish a ratio. Now is not the time … The important fact is that violations do come from both sides."
President Barack Obama is tightening penalties on foreign entities and individuals who try to evade sanctions on Iran and Syria.
Obama authorized the penalties in an executive order signed Tuesday. The administration said he took the step in response to efforts by the Iranian and Syrian governments to avoid the consequences of U.S.-mandated sanctions.
The executive order gives the Treasury Department the capability to publicly identify foreign individuals and entities that try to sidestep the restrictions. The new penalties also bar violators from accessing the U.S. financial and commercial systems.
The administration said that as the U.S. and other countries have increased sanctions pressures on Iran and Syria, both countries have sought to use non-bank financial institutions and other alternative methods to transmit funds and make payments.
Syrian government forces clashed with army defectors in the country's north on Wednesday, causing casualties and further enflaming an area near the Turkish border where rebel fighters have tried to seize territory, activists said.
Syria's persistent bloodshed has tarnished efforts by a U.N. team of observers to salvage a truce that started to unravel almost as soon as it was supposed to begin on April 12.
Human Rights Watch accused President Bashar Assad's regime of war crimes during an offensive ahead of the truce, further throwing into doubt his commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Despite the violence, the international community still sees the peace plan as the last chance to prevent Syria from falling into civil war — in part because no other country wants to intervene militarily.
Syrians planned mass protests under the banner of faith in the revolution Friday, following a bloody incident Thursday in which Syrian security forces and loyalist students armed with knives stormed Aleppo University Thursday, killing at least four.
Elsewhere Thursday, Syrian authorities appeared to step up a campaign to crush dissent, arresting the sons of a prominent dissident and reportedly assassinating the activist son of a pro-Assad political leader in Homs.
The latest incidents cast fresh doubts over Syria’s willingness to comply with U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan, under which an agreed cease-fire aims to pave the way for political dialogue to end the 14-month crisis in the country which has seen upwards of 9,000 civilians killed.
It may be time for the world to acknowledge that a cease-fire is not holding in Syria, and that it is time to try another approach to stop the violence, the White House said Thursday.
"If the regime's intransigence continues, the international community is going to have to admit defeat," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
It was the clearest statement yet that the Obama administration sees little chance for the cease-fire and peace plan brokered by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan last month but largely ignored by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Syria’s economy is collapsing. Deposits fell by an average of 35 percent in 2011 at Bank of Syria and Overseas SA, Bank Audi Syria and Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi, according to April filings to the Damascus Securities Exchange.
Lending plunged 22 percent last year, the filings by the three banks show, compared with a 6.9 percent increase in Egypt and a 3.9 percent gain in the United Arab Emirates. The central bank’s foreign reserves may drop to $10 billion this year, half the 2010 peak, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The 14-month long uprising that has claimed more than 9,000 lives is taking an increasing toll on the economy and the business class, mostly drawn from the majority Sunni Muslim community. Their support for President Bashar Assad – who stems from the minority Alawite sect – may buckle as the economy, which is forecast to contract 5.9 percent in 2012 by the EIU, spirals downward.
If “the government cannot come up with a consistent policy to stop this economic deterioration, at some point in time Syrian businesses are going to realize that backing Bashar Assad himself is too costly,” Ayesha Sabavala, an EIU economist on Syria, said in a telephone interview.
Syria’s pound weakened to about 68 per U.S. dollar, from 47 per dollar before the uprising started in March 2011, according to data on the Syrian central bank’s website. Unofficial money exchangers on the Lebanese side of the border sell the pound at about 72 per dollar.
Syria’s economy shrank 3.4 percent in 2011 because of the unrest, the EIU’s estimates show. Inflation may accelerate to 14.7 percent in 2012 from 4.8 percent in 2011, it said.
Syrians took to the streets in their thousands Friday to show their determination to oust President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as the office of envoy Kofi Annan insisted his peace plan was “on track.”
The demonstrations came as government forces cracking down on dissent reportedly killed at least 10 civilians, only hours after UN peacekeepers urged Damascus to make the first move to end nearly 14 months of bloodshed. “The Annan plan is on track and a crisis that has been going on for over a year is not going to be resolved in a day or a week,” the UN-Arab League envoy’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told journalists in Geneva. “There are signs on the ground of movement, albeit slow and small. “Some heavy weapons have been withdrawn, some heavy weapons remain. Some violence has receded, some violence continues. And that is not satisfactory, I’m not saying it is,” Fawzi said. Major General Robert Mood, who heads the UN mission to oversee Annan’s hard-won ceasefire agreement, had issued an appeal late Thursday for the Assad regime to make the first move to end the violence. “The strongest party needs to make the first move,” he told reporters in Syria, stressing he was referring to the government and army.
The government and Syrian military have taken the gloves off and are executing opposition members in ever greater numbers. There is no need to exaggerate their role in Syria’s brutality. The truth is horrifying enough. The reality is that the insurgency is become every more skilled and competent at killing. Far from destroying the opposition, the government crackdown is only serving to drive the opposition to ever more lethal methods of gaining power.
A harrowing report by Amnesty International of the Idlib crackdown will send shivers down anyone’s spin. After the retreat from Homs, the opposition became centered in the Idlib region on the Turkish boarder. The government crackdown there over the last few months has been brutal. Syrian forces have been executing and burning the residents of Idlib, Amnesty says.
In the Sarmin area near Idlib a mother claimed that her three sons had been taken from their home early on 23 March and killed. “[The military] did not let me follow them outside; every time I tried to go out they pushed me back,” the mother said. “When I was able to go outside, after a couple of hours, I found my boys burning in the street. They had been piled on top of each other and had motorbikes piled on top of them and set on fire.”
More than a month after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to provide non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition movement, leaders battling a brutal government crackdown say almost none of that aid has arrived.
Clinton announced April 1 the USA would provide medical and communications equipment and supplies, with the State Department pledging $33 million in non-lethal aid by the end of the month. Saleh Al-Hamwi, a leader of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, said Friday from Hama, Syria, he knows of only five satellite phones provided by the U.S. government.
Radwan Ziadeh, director of foreign relations for the Syrian National Council in Washington, said earlier this week he knows of 10 satellite phones provided by the State Department.
Satellite phones fetch between $495 and $1,695 at Satellitephonestore.com.
The slow pace of U.S. aid creates the impression that "the US is trying to show the world it's helping Syria but really it's not," Al-Hamwi said.
A series of blasts rocked Syria's capital Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday, killing at least five civilians, activists and monitors said.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the bomb in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, exploded in a carwash just as a bus was passing by in al-Zarzeer region.
The state-run news agency SANA put the death toll in Aleppo at three, among them a child. Activists said five people, among them women and two children, were killed and at least 10 others wounded.
"Two blasts also hit the capital Damascus, one explosion occurred inside the city, and the other hit an area at the outskirts of the capital," observatory chief Rami Abdul-Rahman told dpa.
The second explosion, which targeted a bus transporting regime troops, injured at least three, Abdul-Rahman said.
According to residents, the explosion in the capital targeted the Social Military Institute wrecking nine cars, including military vehicles, and shattering windows in nearby buildings.
Also in Damascus, troops opened fire in Kfar Sousa on a funeral procession for nine people who were killed on Friday. There was no report on casualties.
Activists accused government forces of being behind the Damascus blasts to prevent people from participating in the funeral.
Earlier, activists said heavy shelling targeted the area of Silkeen in the northern province of Idlib before the troops stormed it, and started "terrorizing" the people.
Silkeen is located near the Syrian-Turkish border, which is a hub for the rebel Free Syrian Army.
The state news agency said members of a border post at the Turkish frontier foiled an infiltration attempt "of an armed terrorist group from the Turkish side at the vicinity of al-Allani village in Idlib province."
SANA said "a number of border guards were martyred and injured while the terrorists fled to the Turkish territories carrying their killed and injured members during the clash."
The violence came two days before Syria was due to hold its parliamentary elections, which the opposition has boycotted and described as "a mockery."
Fighting between rebels and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces erupted in an oil-producing province in eastern Syria, residents and activists said on Sunday, the eve of a parliamentary election the authorities say shows reforms are under way.
Rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked tank positions in the east of the provincial capital Deir al-Zor, in response to an army offensive against towns and villages in the tribal area bordering Iraq that has killed tens of people and stopped others reaching supplies and medical care, they said.
“We do not have a death toll because no one is daring to go into the streets,” said Ghaith Abdelsalam, an opposition activist who lives near Ghassan Abboud roundabout that has become a flashpoint for the fighting in the city.
“The population has been trapped and anger has been building up,” he said, adding the fighting subsided early in the morning after erupting overnight.
President Bashar Assad's grip on Syria is getting weaker by the day and "victory is close," Turkey's prime minister said Sunday in an address to thousands of cheering Syrians who fled a brutal crackdown on an anti-regime uprising.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's cross-border taunt during a rare visit to a refugee camp, delivered while standing atop a bus and protected by snipers on rooftops, came a day before Syria was to hold parliament elections.
The regime has portrayed the vote for a 250-member parliament as a sign of its willingness to carry out democratic reforms. Syria's opposition dismissed the election Sunday as a cynical attempt to salvage Assad's tattered legitimacy and asked voters to stay away.
Assad's opponents say elections cannot be held under the threat of gunfire. Activists said at least five people were killed by army gunfire Sunday. In late March, the U.N. said 9,000 people have been killed during the conflict, now in its 14th month.
"We think the elections have no credibility at all in the middle of a situation where the regime is killing the population," said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile. "It is an insult to the democratic process."
An April 12 truce that was part of a peace plan for Syria by special envoy Kofi Annan has failed to take hold. Even so, the international community has not declared Annan's plan a failure, perhaps in part because it can't agree on an alternative.
Syrians have voted in the country's first multi-party elections in five decades, as violence continued throughout the country and opposition groups slammed the poll as a sham.
The election for Syria's 250-seat parliament was planned for last year, but the vote was delayed when president Bashar al-Assad announced a series of reforms, including a new constitution.
Voters turned out in relatively peaceful areas of the country, with many hopeful the election might bring change.
But opposition groups, along with countries including the United States, condemned the parliamentary elections as a sham designed to keep Mr Assad's regime in power.
Protesters in several cities staged mock votes in the streets, with some placing shoes in a fake ballot box mounted on the back of a donkey.
"Whoever drowns Syria in blood, displaces Syrians and shoots at the Syrian people does not have the legitimacy to draw up a constitution, an electoral law, or to run elections," the exiled opposition Syrian National Council said.
The US labelled the election as "bordering on ludicrous".
The Syrian conflict is at risk of breaking into a war that could split the Middle East, the lead international envoy to the country said, presenting his increasingly fragile peace plan as "the only remaining chance" to avert such a fate.
"There is a profound concern that the country could descend into full civil war" that could affect the whole region, joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan told reporters Tuesday in his most pessimistic comments yet on the Syrian crisis. "For geopolitical reasons, we should all be concerned."
Syria is facing a halt in imports of diesel needed to power heavy vehicles including army tanks, as a stream of shipments from Russia and other sources has dried up over the past four weeks, industry sources say.
Ordinary Syrians have been grappling with fuel supply shortages for months as Western sanctions prompted most European oil firms to drop trade with Syria. The halt in Russian supplies could exacerbate the pain already felt by many struggling to make a living with limited access to fuel and power.
Thousands of people have been killed in Syria during a year-long popular revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, a conflict in which the military's use of heavy vehicles has been prominent.
Syria is finding it increasingly hard to buy grain on international markets because sanctions have blocked its access to trade finance, while growing numbers of its citizens are struggling to obtain food after more than a year of conflict.
The European Union, the United States and other Western countries have imposed sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's government in response to his bloody crackdown on a revolt that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
The measures, which include asset freezes and financing restrictions, have hurt Syria's vital commercial grain trade.
Syria relies on food imports for almost half of its total needs, with wheat used for food, while maize and barley are used mainly for animal feed.
Weapons are being smuggled both ways between Lebanon and Syria, where a 14-month popular uprising has brought the country to the brink of civil war, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Syria has repeatedly said weapons are being smuggled over its border from Lebanon and other countries to arm rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad in the conflict. Western diplomats and U.N. officials say that although the rebels have received some weapons they remain severely outgunned.
Israeli officials, who for months were reluctant to discuss the fate of a hostile Syrian regime with which they have a long-held truce, are increasingly calling for its ouster. The same is true in the towns perched on a snow-streaked mountain visible from here, where most residents are members of the Druze religious sect who identify themselves as Syrian and where the conflict is carving deep new divisions, pitting cousin against cousin.
For more than a year, Israel has warily watched the seismic political shifts in the Arab world, believing that the rise of Islamism is unlikely to herald changes favorable to the Jewish state. The fall of Syria, some Israeli observers say, could transform the Golan Heights — which Israel has occupied since 1967 — from placid disputed territory into a battlefield, bringing with it a possible stream of refugees, or it could make Syria a base for terrorist organizations bent on attacking Israel.
Here along the boundary, where the Israeli military scrutinizes subtle shifts on the other side and Druze villagers gather snippets of information from relatives in Syria via Skype and Facebook, there is general agreement that Bashar al-Assad’s government will fight for many more months, spilling more blood and leaving the fate of the uprising uncertain.
“The way I see things today is that Assad will not collapse before the nation is destroyed,” said Waheeb Ayub, a businessman in the Druze village of Majdal Shams who is an outspoken supporter of the Syrian opposition.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the world body on Wednesday of a worrying increase in bomb attacks in Syria, where people continue to be killed every day and a 14-month old revolt shows no sign of subsiding.
Speaking to the 193-nation U.N. General Assembly, he also said that there was a narrow window of opportunity to avert a full-scale civil war in Syria, where a U.N.-backed ceasefire agreement announced last month has failed to take hold.
"There is no escaping the reality that we see every day," he said. "Innocent civilians dying, government troops and heavy armor in city streets, growing numbers of arrests and allegations of brutal torture, an alarming upsurge in the use of IEDs and other explosive devices throughout the country."
IEDs are improvised explosive devices. Often planted along roads and detonated remotely, IEDs have proven to be especially deadly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Syria is importing significant volumes of grain via Lebanon to work around western sanctions and secure vital supplies, European traders told Reuters.
The trade is not illegal because food imports are not included in sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States and other Western countries on President Bashar al-Assad's government over his crackdown on a revolt.
But the measures have blocked access to trade finance for Syria in the same way as similar penalties imposed on Iran over its nuclear program.
Growing numbers of Syrians are struggling to obtain food, with prices of staples more than doubling after more than a year of conflict that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
A pair of suicide bombers killed at least 55 people and wounded 372 more in a coordinated attack on a military intelligence headquarters in the Syrian capital of Damascus.
One suicide bomber detonated his car packed with explosives outside of the Palestine Branch Military Intelligence headquarters at 8:00 a.m. local time, just as employees were arriving, Reuters reported. A second suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden car as emergency personnel were responding to the attack and tending to the wounded.
The blasts were so powerful that the outer facade of the military intelligence headquarters and other buildings in the area collapsed, according to Al Jazeera.
There have been no claims of responsibility for the attack, but it was likely carried out by the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, a jihadist group that has claimed credit for three other suicide attacks in Syria. The Al Nusrah Front announced its formation on Jan. 23, in a video statement that was released on YouTube.
Another jihadist group, the Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade, announced its formation in February, and said it would conduct suicide operations against the Syrian government. The Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade has yet to claim credit for any suicide attacks in Syria.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has recently urged Muslims inside and outside of Syria to take up arms against the Syrian government.
The main pillars of the Syrian regime are collapsing one after the other. The closing of the University of Aleppo signifies the beginning of the end to public education. It will only be the first of the universities to close. Most are trying to limp to the end of the academic year, but they will probably not be able to open in the fall. Students are becoming mobilized and radicalized.
The stories coming out about the government’s inability to import wheat and fuel-oil suggest that authorities can no longer provide the basic commodities that have long been the central job of the government: providing grain and fuel. Electricity, which is already limited, will be cut further, as fuel-oil scarcities become more acute. Bread scarcities will mean starvation for many. Refugees fleeing Syria have been reached 60,00 according to some sources, but those numbers include middle class Syrians who are re-locating as well as those driven into Turkey from Idlib, for example. But these numbers will seem small as the year wears on. Many Syrians of means that I know have left the country or are seeking employment outside the country. Most of my good friends in Damascus have already abandoned ship and moved to Amman. The car bombs at the Palestinian Intelligence Branch drove home the point that the insurgency is getting more lethal and capable all the time. Damascus will become more like Baghdad and Kabul.
The possibility of invoking the right to military protection of Turkish borders against threats from Syria under Article 5 of the NATO charter is still on Turkey's agenda, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said, Today's Zaman reported.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal said during a press briefing on Thursday that Turkey's expectation from Syria is that it halts the violence as soon as possible to prevent further instability. Unal said: "However, we have many options on the table if this instability deepens. We have to determine these options in accordance with the developments we face. As you know, Article 5 of NATO is related to self-defense. So, this issue was mentioned in the past due to some incidents that occurred [along the Turkish border]. This is, of course, a matter which will remain on the agenda and it will still be assessed."
Turkey first raised the issue of NATO protection of Turkish borders under Article 5 on April 10, following an incident along Turkey's border with Syria. Speaking to reporters traveling with him during his official visit to China, Erdogan said Turkey may consider invoking the NATO charter's fifth article to protect Turkish national security in the face of increasing tension along the Syrian border.
His comments came after four Syrians who fled to Turkey from the violence in Syria were killed by Syrian forces targeting refugees on the Turkish side of the border. Two Turkish nationals and two Syrians were injured during the incident at a refugee camp in Kilis province when Syrian forces fired across the border during clashes with opposition fighters, who had reportedly attempted to seize control of the border gate and then fled to Turkey.
Article 5, known as the collective defense clause, commits NATO states to defend a member state when it comes under attack. Whether or not NATO launches an intervention will be the sole decision of the treaty partners, who will assess the severity of the perceived threat.
An explosion hit Syria’s northern city of Aleppo Friday, just hours after state TV said the army had foiled a would-be suicide attack in the city, raising fears the country is drifting toward an Iraq-style insurgency.
Elsewhere across the country Friday, peaceful protesters defied Syrian army gunfire and took to the streets in the tens of thousands to protest the rule of President Bashar Assad.
The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said no one had been killed by the Aleppo blast close to the ruling party headquarters, which came a day after twin bombings in Damascus left scores dead.
“Initial details indicate that the Aleppo blast was targeting the local branch of the ruling Baath party and there is no information until now on the number of victims that fell in the explosion,” the British-based group said in an email.
As the school year ends and the uprising grinds on into its 15th month, many middle- and upper-class Syrians are agonizing over whether to leave the country. Now, another atrocity will weigh on their minds: Two explosions ripped through the capital, Damascus, on the morning of May 10, killing at least 55 people near a military intelligence building and wounding 170 more. A Syrian filming the smoke plume from the first explosion caught the earth-shaking sound of the second blast on camera. The Syrian government blamed the attacks on "terrorists," while the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group, blamed the regime for orchestrating the attacks. Syria's state news agency published gruesome images of those killed in the attacks.
This bloody escalation in the battle between Assad and his opponents -- and possibly others, such as the self-styled jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility for some recent bombings -- seems certain to hasten the departure of both activists and regular Syrians. They will join a growing flood of their fellow compatriots: Since the uprising started in March 2011, over 54,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey -- and that's just the official number of those who have registered with the United Nations' refugee agency. Roughly 300,000 more Syrians have been displaced from their homes and are still living within the country.
Iran’s Palestinian policy has, to a great extent, been forged under the influence of its alliance with Syria. That is why the tensions between Damascus and Hamas, brought about by the latter’s equivocal stance on Syrian crisis, have spilled over into the Palestinian movement’s relationship with Tehran.
Last February, on the thirty third anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Hamas’ Prime Minister in Gaza paid a visit to Tehran and met with the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenehi. Given the rumors and reports of tensions between Iran and Hamas over the Syrian crisis, Ismail Haniyeh’s official trip was important and timely for the Islamic Republic. The visit conveyed a clear message that, in the words of Haniyeh, Iran’s support for Palestinian issue has “remained unchanged and unconditional” and that their ties are “as strong as before”. But some remarks that Iranian officials made during Haniyeh’s visit revealed how concerned Tehran is with a changing Hamas in the wake of the “Arab Spring”.
Tehran is invested in the Assad regime, but Hamas just needs good relations with Syria, regardless who is in charge . . .
Troops stormed a village in central Syria yesterday and rained shells on rebel strongholds Douma and Rastan, monitors said, as a UN-backed truce entered a second month looking in tatters.
The assault on Al Tamanaa Al Ghab village in Hama province, a hotbed of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, killed five civilians, wounded 18 and saw houses torched, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Clashes between troops and deserters in the southern province of Daraa, meanwhile, saw five soldiers killed, it said. Two civilians died in the crossfire.
The watchdog said at least 25 people - 18 civilians, five soldiers and two rebels - were killed in a surge of violence in various flashpoints yesterday, despite a ceasefire brokered by UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan that was supposed to take effect on April 12.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), a coalition of opposition activists on the ground, said the Syrian army shelled Douma near Damascus yesterday and that heavy gunfire was also heard in the suburb of the capital.
The LCC also said the town of Rastan in central Homs province also came under heavy bombardment, with one activist reporting “one rocket a minute” slamming into the rebel-hand town.
The violence in Syria has escalated over the past week, despite the arrival of more ceasefire observers. The UN mission in Syria said yesterday it now has 189 military observers on the ground, nearly two-thirds of its planned strength of 300.
Firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Lebanese gunmen clashed in street battles Monday as sectarian tensions linked to the 14-month-old uprising in Syria bled across the border for a third day.
At least five people have been killed and 100 wounded in Lebanon's second-largest city since the gunbattles erupted late Saturday, security officials said. Residents say differences over Syria are at the root of the fighting, which pits neighbor against neighbor and raises fears of broader unrest that could draw in neighboring countries.
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which are easily enflamed. Tripoli has seen bouts of sectarian violence in the past, but the fighting has become more frequent as the conflict in Syria worsens.
The fighting camps break down along sectarian and political lines. On one side are Sunni Muslims who support the rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. On the other are members of the tiny Alawite sect, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam who are Assad's most loyal supporters.
The recent clashes were sparked by the arrest of Lebanese national Shadi Mawlawi, an outspoken critic of Assad. The Sunni fighters say the root of the latest conflict in Tripoli is across the border.
As Syria’s rebel militias become more lethal, foreign analysts are trying to determine how Islamic they are, how to unify them, and what role the West can play in guiding Syria toward an outcome favorable to its interests. The Syrian government is exploiting Western concerns that the Syrian militias could turn out to be harmful to Western and Israeli interests. Deborah Amos explains that Damascus is arresting most moderates in an evident attempt to create an “either-or” dilemma for Western governments and Syrians themselves: they must choose either between and Assad dictatorship or divided Islamists. This has been the Assad strategy for 40 years. Liz Sly explains that in fact the Muslim Brotherhood is gaining influence over the revolt. Sharmine Narwani, in contrast to Deborah Amos, highlights the brutal and Islamist characteristics of some of the rebel groups, suggesting that the stark choices Syrians face are not manufactured by the Assad regime, but real.
Things just keep getting worse in Syria.
The latest bad news comes from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who suggested Tuesday that Russia may be in the process of sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
While that report remains unconfirmed, if accurate, it would appear certain to lead to even more violence and civilian deaths in the Arab nation's 15-month conflict that many diplomats had already warned was inching ever closer to a full-blown civil war that could have far-reaching effects in the region.
The Associated Press reports that Clinton broke the news during a public appearance at a Washington, D.C., think tank, saying that the United States is "concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria" and suggesting that the shipment "will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
Even if Clinton's concerns proved unfounded, the mere fact that she is publicly suggesting that Russia is arming the Assad regime in its fight against opposition forces is further confirmation that Washington has been unable to convince Moscow to sign on to an international effort to bring an end to the conflict. Without Russia's support, the U.N. has instead had to rely on a fragile peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan that provided only initial glimpses of hope before recent civilian massacres in Syria led both sides to walk away from the cease-fire.
Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday defended his country's sale of arms to Syria and accused the United States of supplying rebels with weapons to fight against the government.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday Washington was worried Russia may be sending attack helicopters to Syria and described as "patently untrue" Moscow's argument that its arms transfers to Syria are unrelated to the conflict there.
"We are not violating any international law in performing these contracts," said Sergei Lavrov, in response to a question about Clinton's comments at a news conference during a visit to Iran.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same." -- Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
Turkey has conceded that the Turkish plane shot down by Syrian air defences may have crossed into the country's airspace at the time.
But in an interview on Saturday morning, the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, said there was no reason for the Syrian military to have interpreted the move as a hostile act.
"It is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over (national) borders ... when you consider their speed over the sea," Mr Gul told the Anatolia news agency. "These are not ill-intentioned things but happen beyond control due to the jets' speed."
The loss of the Turkish Air Force plane on Friday marked the most dangerous development yet in Syria's 15-month uprising and left Western powers scrambling over how to respond. While countries are co-operating together in a search for the two pilots, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has promised a "decisive" response after the full facts of the incident have been established.
As Syria's 15-month-old uprising has morphed from a popular call for reform into an armed insurgency, the country's civilians have paid the highest price.
Most of the more than 14,000 people activists say have been killed are civilians. Countless others have watched their livelihoods collapse, their neighborhoods turn to battlegrounds and their friends and relatives die or disappear.
During two weeks in northern Syria, three Associated Press journalists met scores of civilians whose lives have been altered by the conflict: students who cannot cross army checkpoints to reach schools and universities; merchants whose suppliers have stopped delivering; and farmers who left land fallow because they can no longer afford diesel for irrigation pumps.
The international community has harshly condemned President Bashar Assad's regime for its role in the violence, endorsing a plan by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan to try to end it.
But that plan has fallen far short — as is obvious here in Khan Sheikhoun, a city of 80,000 people surrounded by wheat fields and orchards on the country's main north-south highway.
Six military checkpoints ring the city, housing snipers who fire on civilians and rebels alike. Troops block roads to the fields and sometimes set them ablaze, meaning farmers can smell the smoke of their crops burning but cannot fight the flames.
Regime forces have also seized the state hospital and other downtown buildings, parking armored vehicles out front and piling sandbags on the roofs. Residents call the shuttered central boulevard the "street of death" because so many people have been shot there.
I've been reading of Mr. Sharp's works for some time -- he been the thorn in the side of many of an established Dictator in recent years:
"He's been called the father of nonviolent struggle. He could be also described as a revolutionary's best friend. Or perhaps, more accurately, as a dictatorship's worst nightmare."
Syrian troops flushed out rebels from a key Damascus suburbs Saturday, regaining control of a key area just outside the capital after a 10-day assault that left dozens dead, hundreds wounded and caused a major humanitarian crisis.
The relentless offensive against Douma forced residents and fighters to flee, leaving a trail of destruction and bodies in the streets, activists said.
The sprawling area on the outskirts of Damascus has been a hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad's regime since the start of the uprising in March 2001. Securing control of the suburb for a sustained period would be a significant triumph for the regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activist Mohammed Saeed said regime forces recaptured Douma late Friday. The latest offensive was the worst of several assaults on the area, the Observatory said.
"The situation in Douma is catastrophic. The suburb is badly destroyed," Saeed said via Skype, adding that he was among dozens of residents who fled on foot through the fields to safer areas for fear of being captured by security forces.
Russia's foreign minister says the U.N.-brokered peace plan for Syria agreed on by major powers does not require the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
Sergey Lavrov says there is "no attempt in the document to impose on the Syrian people any type of transitional process."
Moscow had refused to back a provision that would call for Assad to step aside, insisting that outsiders cannot order a political solution for Syria.
Putin probably feels that overthrowing a dictator would set a bad precedent . . .
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday hailed an accelerating wave of defections in President Bashar Assad's inner circle as the United States and its international allies pleaded once again for global sanctions against the Syrian regime. Frustrated by the slow pace of diplomacy, Clinton lambasted Russia and China for standing in the way.
Speaking after a 100-nation conference in Paris, Clinton said Syria's "regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet" by abandoning the four-decade Assad dynasty. She spoke after Western officials reported top Assad aide aide Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass had left the country.
"Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away," Clinton told reporters. "We think that is a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime."
Tlass' departure from Syria provided welcome news for the U.S. and its European and Arab partners after another gathering of the "Friends of Syria" group that demonstrated the international community's continued inability to end 16 months of brutal government repression and civil war that has killed some 14,000 people, according to activists.
The defection of Tlass, a member of the elite Republican Guards and a son of a former defense minister, is the first major crack in the upper reaches of Assad's regime, which has remained largely cohesive throughout the uprising.
A senior Russian defense official said Moscow will no longer sell any weapons to Syria until the situation there calms down, as a Syrian activist group said the death toll from the Syrian conflict has surpassed 17,000.
Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, the deputy chief of the Russian military and technical cooperation agency, said Monday that Russia will not sign any more arms deals, deliver any more weapons or ship any spare parts for weapons delivered earlier.
The United States and other world leaders have pushed Russia to stop helping Damascus crackdown on the opposition there.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said the Syrian government and the opposition groups should be forced to enter negotiations.
"I am convinced that we must do everything possible to force the conflicting sides to find a peaceful political solution to all the disputed issues," Putin told a group of Russian and foreign diplomats in televised remarks.
His comments came hours after his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met with a senior Syrian opposition leader, Michel Kilo, in Moscow.
Heavy toll of conflict
Russia's announcement that it will no longer send weapons to Syria comes as the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 17,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict since it began in March of last year.
Rami Abdelrahman said Monday that 31 died across Syria, including 11 Syrian army troops and 20 civilians and rebels.
He said there was heavy fighting and army shelling in the provinces of Homs, Idlib, Daraa and Deir Ezzor, and near Damascus.
"There is fighting everyday. It doesn't ever stop," Abdelrahman said.
The escalating violence in Syria -- opposition groups place the death toll at over 17,000 -- has resulted in a swelling wave of refugees to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, estimates that it has assisted almost 100,000 Syrian refugees in these countries since the revolution kicked off in March 2011 -- more than double the number it had assisted just three months ago. In Syria itself, at least 500,000 people have been internally displaced, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Many of these refugees inside and outside Syria live in dire conditions, and aid organizations have struggled to bring in badly needed relief.
Jordan may have opened its doors to Syrians -- accommodating 140,000 since the revolt broke out, by its own figures -- but that doesn't mean life is easy for the refugees there. In recent months, hundreds have crossed the border illegally on a daily basis. Once they arrive, they are taken to an overcrowded, run-down shelter in Ramtha known as the "Bashabsheh" -- named after the family that owns it -- before they are sent onward to three other transit facilities. Security and military defectors stay at a different shelter in the northern city of Mafraq, for their own safety. They are only allowed a few days' freedom to see their families.
More than 200 people, mostly civilians, were massacred in a Syrian army and militia onslaught on a village in the rebellious province of Hama on Thursday, opposition activists said.
If confirmed, it would be the worst single incident of violence in 16 months of conflict in which rebels are fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad and diplomacy to halt the bloodshed has been stymied by deadlock between world powers.
The Revolution Leadership Council of Hama told Reuters the Sunni Muslim village of Taramseh was assaulted by helicopter gunships and tanks and that pro-government Alawite militiamen then stormed in and carried out execution-style killings.
"More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh. They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions," the regional opposition group said in a statement.
A portion of Syria's large stockpile of chemical warfare agents have been removed from holding sites, raising fears in the United States that the Assad government might be prepared to unleash the materials on opposition fighters or others, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.
The regime is believed to hold hundreds of tons of blister and nerve agents stored at multiple locations, along with missiles and other means of delivering the materials. Syria is not a member state to the Chemical Weapons Convention and has never publicly declared holding such armaments.
President Bashar Assad has sought to crush an uprising against his government that began last year. Thousands have died and there have been worries that the chemical arsenal could be deployed against the resistance or possibly put at risk of diversion to terrorists if the security situation further deteriorates.
"The regime has a plan for ethnic cleansing, and we must come to terms with this," according to an anonymous U.S. government insider. "There is no diplomatic solution."
"Over the past sixteen months of bloody conflict in Syria, observers have been waiting for one key development: top-level defections from within President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. Suddenly, it seems a pressure valve has gone off. Pilots, ambassadors, and even one general have defected. What does it mean?"
The Red Cross now views fighting in Syria as an internal armed conflict - a civil war in layman's terms - crossing a threshold experts say can help lay the ground for future prosecutions for war crimes.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions setting down the rules of war, and as such is considered a reference in qualifying when violence has evolved into an armed conflict.
The independent humanitarian agency had previously classed the violence in Syria as localized civil wars between government forces and armed opposition groups in three flashpoints - Homs, Hama and Idlib.
But hostilities have spread to other areas, leading the Swiss-based agency to conclude the fighting meets its threshold for an internal armed conflict and to inform the warring parties of its analysis and their obligations under law.
SYRIA'S army has blasted rebel strongholds in Damascus with mortars, sparking the "most intense" fighting in the capital since the revolt erupted 16 months ago, a monitoring group says.
The army's offensive, aimed at driving rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) out of Damascus, was launched soon after Syria's foreign ministry held a news conference to deny its troops had carried out a massacre in Treimsa village.
"The regular army fired mortar rounds into several suburbs" where FSA rebels are entrenched, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The fighting was heaviest in the Tadamon, Kfar Sousa, Nahr Aisha and Sidi Qadad neighbourhoods, he said.
"(It has) never been this intense," Mr Abdel Rahman said.
"The security forces are attempting to take control of these neighbourhoods but so far they have not succeeded."
Syrian rebels fired grenades at tanks and troops while regime armor shelled Damascus neighborhoods on Monday, sending terrified families fleeing the most sustained and widespread fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising 16 months ago.
A ring of fierce clashes nearly encircled the heavily guarded capital as rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad pushed the civil war that has been building in Syria's impoverished provinces closer to the seat of power.
While the clashes were focused in a string of neighborhoods in the city's southwest, for many of its 4 million people the violence brought scarily close to home the strife that has deeply scarred other Syrian cities.
In high-end downtown cafes frequented by the business and government elite tightly bound to the Assad regime, customers watched as black smoke billowed on the horizon and the boom of government shells reverberated in the distance.
"Without a doubt, this is all anyone is talking about today," a Damascus activist who gave his name as Noor Bitar said via Skype. "The sounds of war are clear throughout the city. They are bouncing off the buildings."
Syria's violence has grown increasingly bloody and chaotic in recent months as the uprising has morphed from a peaceful protest movement seeking political change into an armed insurgency seeking to topple the regime by force.
Syria is refusing visas to Western aid workers, hampering United Nations efforts to expand further its humanitarian operation to meet growing needs in the conflict-torn country, a senior U.N. aid official said on Monday.
Some 1.5 million people require assistance in Syria amid escalating violence and "political failure" to resolve the crisis, John Ging told reporters in Geneva.
Insecurity remains a tremendous challenge as fighting prevents aid agencies from reaching increasingly hungry and desperate civilians in flashpoint areas including Homs, he said.
"We have a number of visas pending for international staff from a number of Western countries - the United States, Canada, the UK, France and one or two more - that are refused their visas because of their nationalities," said Ging, of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Fierce clashes between rebels and government forces rocked the Syrian capital for a third day Tuesday in the heaviest period of fighting in the city since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began 16 months ago.
The sounds of gunfire and tank shells reverberated across large parts of Damascus, bringing the popular rebellion a notch closer to the center of power. Eyewitnesses say fighting engulfed parts of Baghdad Street, a major boulevard in the center of the city.
Amateur video showed plumes of black smoke rising over the city's skyline, as helicopters circled several key districts. Many residents are reported to have fled the hardest hit regions of the capital.
Abou Mourad, a resident of the Midan district, speaking over the sounds of gunfire, told Alhurra TV that heavy fighting was engulfing the area.
Yesterday, in a wide-ranging interview conducted by telephone from Qatar, where he has now sought refuge, Mr Fares made a series of devastating claims against the Assad regime, which he said was determined to be “victorious” whatever the cost.
* Jihadi units that Mr Fares himself had helped Damascus send to fight US troops in neighbouring Iraq were involved in the string of deadly suicide bomb attacks in Syria
* The attacks were carried on the direct orders of the Assad regime, in the hope that it could blame them on the rebel movement
* President Assad, who had a “violent streak” inherited from his father, was now living “in a world of his own”
Mr Fares spoke out as the violence in Syria continued unabated, with at least 28 people killed across the country yesterday. The town of Khirbet Ghazaleh in southern Syria was attacked by hundreds of troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A bomber killed three of Bashar al-Assad's top military officials on Wednesday - including his powerful brother-in-law - in a devastating blow to the Syrian leader's inner circle as rebels closed in vowing to "liberate" the capital.
Slain brother-in-law Assef Shawkat was one of the principle figures in the tight, clan-based ruling elite that has been battling to put down a 16-month rebellion against four decades of rule by Assad and his father.
The defense minister and a senior general were also killed and other top security officials wounded in the attack on a crisis meeting of top Assad security aides that took place as battles raged within sight of the nearby presidential palace.
A security source said the bomber was a bodyguard entrusted with protecting the closest members of Assad's circle. State television said it was a suicide bomb. Two anti-Assad groups claimed responsibility.
The government vowed to retaliate, and residents said army helicopters fired machine guns and in some cases rockets at several residential districts. Television footage showed rebels storming a security base in southern Damascus.
By nightfall, activists said Syrian army artillery had begun shelling the capital from the mountains that overlook it.
With the growing conviction that the Assad family’s 42-year grip on power in Syria is coming to an end, Obama administration officials worked on contingency plans Wednesday for a collapse of the Syrian government, focusing particularly on the chemical weapons that Syria is thought to possess and that President Bashar al-Assad could try to use on opposition forces and civilians.
Pentagon officials were in talks with Israeli defense officials about whether Israel might move to destroy Syrian weapons facilities, two administration official said. The administration is not advocating such an attack, the American officials said, because of the risk that it would give Mr. Assad an opportunity to rally support against Israeli interference.
As my colleague Tim Arango reports from Baghdad, Iraqi government officials “said Thursday evening that Syrian rebels had wrested control of all four border checkpoints between Iraq and Syria, and that additional Iraqi forces were being sent to the border.”
Fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army also claimed to have seized at least one major crossing point into Turkey, after a back-and-forth struggle with government forces.
One top Iraqi official told The New York Times that the border crossings, in Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, were closed and that Iraqi border forces had witnessed the executions of several Syrian army soldiers at the hands of the Free Syrian Army rebels and the raising of the rebels’ flag.
Iraq’s acting minister of interior, Adnan al-Assadi, told Agence France-Presse that Iraqi forces had seen the executions of 22 Syrian soldiers.
As Reuters reports, the rebels now control “the main border crossing with Iraq on the Baghdad-Damascus highway at Abu Kamal — one of the most important trade routes in the Middle East.”
Syrian forces staged fierce attacks on opposition strongholds in the Syrian capital on Friday, a day after rebels seized crossings on the Iraq and Turkey borders.
Rebel fighters also clashed with troops in several neighbourhoods of Aleppo in what a human rights watchdog said was the fiercest fighting so far in Syria's second city.
Up to 30,000 Syrians have fled into Lebanon over the past 48 hours, the UN refugee agency said.
"Reports vary between 8,500 and 30,000 people having crossed in the past 48 hours," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva.
Syrians are also fleeing towards Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
Friday's violence came after Russia and China used their powers as UN Security Council permanent members to block resolutions on Syria for the third time in nine months.
Riding a wave of momentum, Syrian rebels made a run on Aleppo Saturday in some of the fiercest fighting seen in the country's largest city, which has been a key bastion of support for President Bashar Assad over the course of the 17-month-old uprising.
The rebels also took over a third border crossing — and the second one along Syria's northeastern frontier with Iraq — another sign the regime's tight grip on the country is wobbling.
The fighting in Aleppo comes on the heels of intense clashes in the capital, Damascus, as rebel forces target the pillars of regime power in their attempts to usher in what they hope will be the end of Assad's rule.
"There were huge explosions and the gunfire didn't stop for several hours," Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed told The Associated Press via Skype. "The uprising has finally reached Aleppo."
The city has remained largely loyal to Assad and been spared the kind of daily bloodshed that has plagued other areas.
But Saeed said dozens of fighters from the rag-tag Free Syrian Army entered Aleppo — a commercial hub — from the countryside and were fighting regime troops from inside.
It was the first sustained fighting in the city center, focused on the Salaheddine district, although there have been protests in Aleppo and violence on the outskirts.
Syria was in the grip of bloody urban warfare on Sunday, with fierce fighting between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and government forces raging on the streets of Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo.
Video footage showed the Syrian army bombarding several districts of the capital using helicopter gunships. Smoke could be seen pluming across the city.
Tanks and soldiers besieged the northern Barzeh district, previously a centre of rebel resistance, with the army carrying out what it called mopping-up operations in Marzeh, another opposition enclave. Many shops were shut. Only a few central areas were unaffected, with Damascus resembling a war zone.
There was also fighting in Aleppo, Syria's historic biggest city. The FSA, which penetrated into Aleppo late last week, was battling Syrian troops equipped with gunships and tanks.
The rebels were in control of several areas of the city, with fighting around the intelligence headquarters. There were clashes in other parts of the country, too, including the eastern city of Deir al Zor on the Euphrates and in Homs.
Syria's brutal 16-month conflict now appears to be moving from the countryside into the cities, with rebels increasingly adept at staging guerrilla-style attacks followed by tactical withdrawals. Activists on Sunday said the death toll had gone up sharply to more than 19,000. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said July was shaping up to be the deadliest month of the conflict so far, with 2,752 people killed in the first three weeks.
A Syrian government official threatened to use chemical and biological weapons against any invading foreign forces in the government’s first acknowledgement it posses the weapons.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi made the remark in a news conference on Syrian state TV, according to the Associated Press, acknowledging publicly what has already beenlargely known about the existence of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction. Makdissi emphasized that the weapons would not be used against Syrians as opposition forces continue to gain on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
"No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria," Makdissi said on Syrian state TV, according to the AP.
Foreign ministers from the European Union's 27 member states today (23 July) tightened sanctions against the Syrian regime, and described a threat by the Syrian government to use chemical weapons in the event of international military intervention as “monstrous” and “unacceptable”.
After their meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministers issued a statement saying that “the EU is seriously concerned about the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria”. Separately, the foreign minister of Germany, Guido Westewelle, said that “threatening to use chemical weapons is monstrous”, while his British counterpart, William Hague, said: “It is unacceptable to say they would use chemical weapons under any circumstances.”
The declaration by the Syrian regime, also made today, was the first acknowledgement that Syria possesses chemical weapons.
Blustering about chemical weapons worked so great for Saddam . . . let's try it again . . .
Regime forces gained control of and mopped up Damascus neighborhoods where rebels fought President Bashar al-Assad's security forces last week, state media said Tuesday.
ITN journalist Alex Thomsen, writing via a blog from Damascus, noted these military strides, saying "it is quite clear that the regime has just had, in Damascus, the biggest boost to its morale in 16 months of violent civil war."
"The crackling of automatic fire, the crumbling explosion of incoming shellfire, the helicopter gunships quartering the city and firing machinegun bursts -- all those sounds have gone pretty much from Damascus today."
"This is a comprehensive victory of the Assad Regime in its own backyard and capital."
But unrest persisted in restive spots across the country, opposition groups said. At least 80 people died Tuesday in Syria's violence, including 20 killed during shelling and clashes in the country's largest city of Aleppo, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
Syrian opposition forces on Tuesday claimed the Assad regime was transporting chemical arms to the nation's borders, one day after Damascus warned it was prepared to use the weapons of mass destruction against foreign aggressors (see GSN, July 23).
The Free Syrian Army said the effort was aimed at coercing foreign nations into staying out of the 17-month popular rebellion against the long-ruling Assad government, Agence France-Presse reported.
"We in the joint command of the Free Syrian Army inside the country know very well the locations and positions of these [chemical] weapons. We also reveal that [President Bashar] Assad has transferred some of these weapons and equipment for mixing chemical components to airports on the border," according to a statement from the rebel army. "According to our information, the regime began moving its stocks of weapons of mass destruction several months ago ... with the goal of putting pressure on the region and the international community."
The crumbling regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly unleashed its air force on Wednesday in what could be the biggest aerial onslaught in a civil war that’s more than a year old. Jet fighters fired on the northern city of Aleppo, Reuters and the BBC reported. But if Assad thinks his jets can tip the balance against his opposition, he doesn’t understand air power.
Fixed-wing air attacks — rare events in this bloody, grinding conflict — can be visually impressive. But attacks by fast-moving warplanes are rarely effective in dislodging fleet-footed insurgent forces from urban areas. Bombings can, however, kill unprotected civilians and devastate homes and businesses. An air attack that kills or injures civilians “provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory,” the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency handbook (.pdf) warns.
To be sure, most of the fighting in Syria pits the regime’s infantry and mechanized forces against insurgent foot soldiers armed with rifles, machine guns and, if they’re lucky, a rocket or two. Increasingly Assad’s forces have deployed Russian-made Hip helicopters armed with rockets. Damascus attempted to acquire new Hind attack copters from Russia last month, but Moscow bowed to international pressure and recalled the cargo ship transporting the Hinds.
The rebels aren’t defenseless. As the aerial threat escalated, the Free Syrian Army fought back with heavy machine guns and captured government anti-aircraft weapons, apparently destroying at least one helicopter, as depicted in the video above. The rebel arsenal possibly includes a captured ZSU-23-4, a fast-firing, gun-armed vehicle that was one of the most fearsome aircraft-killers of the Cold War. And the opposition has been building up its weapons expertise on Facebook and YouTube.
In general, Assad’s jets fly too high and too fast for the rebels to easily hit, though insurgent fighters did manage to destroy at least one aged MiG-23 on the ground by sneaking up to the airfield and firing a rocket-propelled grenade. But the speed and altitude that protects the jets also makes it difficult for them to effectively strike rebel positions. To accurately hit Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force relies on highly-trained observers on the ground. It’s unlikely Damascus employs similar specialists.
Some reporters covering the fighting are skeptical that Syrian planes have even fired ordnance at all. The Associated Press described jets swooping over Aleppo and breaking the sound barrier as a bloodless “show of force” — a favorite tactic of American warplanes in Afghanistan. The AP attributed widespread destruction in the city to helicopters and artillery.
In any event, the Syrian air force could be quickly exhausted. Damascus possesses around 460 fixed-wing warplanes, according to a 2011 survey by the Center for Strategic and International Studies — a not insignificant arsenal. But more than half of the planes are 30-year-old MiG-21s and MiG-23s; only 40 or so MiG-29s can be described as modern.
Syrian troops rushed dozens of tanks and reinforcements Wednesday toward Aleppo, the country's strategically vital commercial capital, in a bid to crush a rebel advance that has spread to wide swaths of the sprawling city.
As five days of fighting in Aleppo intensified, and with rumors swirling of a final showdown in that city, neighboring Turkey tightened its borders but said refugees will be allowed through.
"We are expecting a big attack on Aleppo," Mohammed Saeed, an activist based in Aleppo, told The Associated Press. "People are worried they might face random shelling while fleeing."
The rebels have made stunning advances over the past week, but the battle for control of Syria, a geographic and political linchpin at the heart of the Middle East, is far from over. And the potential for wider, regional unrest is great.
Syrian governmental forces have retreated from the Kurdish regions of Syria without a fight; the liberated cities are now being ruled evenly by the People’s Council of Syrian Kurdistan (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC).
According to the information obtained by Rudaw, the Kurdish cities of Kobane, Derek, Amoude, Efrin and Sari Kani have fallen under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces.
The city of Kobane was the first Kurdish city to be liberated last Thursday, 17 months after the revolution against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began.
The KNC and PYD agreed to jointly control the liberated Kurdish cities in a deal made in Erbil on July 11, under the supervision of Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani.
“According to the treaty of Erbil which was signed by the KNC and PYD, any administrative vacuum in the Kurdish cities of Syria will be occupied evenly — 50/50 — by these two signatories. These two groups will continue ruling the Kurdish regions until an election is carried out,” said Nuri Brimo, a spokesperson of the Democratic Kurdish Party of Syria
The national flag of Kurdistan and the flag of the PKK – which the PYD is affiliated with — are now being raised over the majority of government and public buildings.
The Turks won't like this at all . . .
On July 18, a bomb killed at least three top officials from Bashar al Assad's crumbling regime. Among them was Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and former head of Syrian military intelligence. Different accounts of how Shawkat and the others were killed have been offered to the media. Either a suicide bomber or a remotely detonated explosive device did them in. In either case, it was a remarkable turn of events--a boomerang of sorts. For years, Shawkat and his fellow Assad family cronies directed this sort of attack at others, particularly American soldiers in Iraq.
Leaked State Department cables show that Shawkat was one of al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) most important patrons. And he played this role on behalf of his brother-in-law, Bashar al Assad.
The Kurdish action on the ground in Syria is almost all-PYD units, i.e. the PKK’s Syrian wing. They’ve had an ambiguous relationship to the regime, but now seem to have moved firmly into the opposition camp, set on dominating the Kurdish scene. It’s an impressively disciplined and effective group, but totally committed to its own agenda, and absolutely ruthless in carrying it out. I have a section on them in my report on the Syrian opposition, which provides some further background, here.
The recent Erbil alliance between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC = almost all other Syrian-Kurdish groups) is less an ideological alliance, rather it is basically a function of the latters’ weakness. The PKK/PYD was always the single-strongest group, and it has been growing rapidly during the uprising. It has infiltrated hundreds or possibly thousands of armed members from Iraq/Turkey into northern Syria, and used harsh tactics to suppress rivals, while also long avoiding confrontations with the regime during its build-up phase. Since winter, PYD “popular protection committes” (lijan el-himaya el-shaabiya) have been setting up checkpoints and conducting armed patrols in their traditional areas of influence (Kobane, Afrin, Sheikh Maqsoud and other areas of Aleppo). In the past months they’ve also begun to pop up in Qamishli and other areas where the PYD is considered traditionally weaker. These groups have by now established themselves as the strongest de facto power on the ground in many Kurdish areas.
Turkish fears stem from the fact that the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is reportedly taking over some of the border cities, has a reputation for opposing Turkey and supporting its sworn-enemy, the PKK. Until recently, the PYD advertised itself as being close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group notorious for leading a decades-long fight against Turkey -- one that has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties.
As the Turks see it, with identical PKK/PYD flags reportedly being raised over Ayn al-'Arab and Afrin, developments suggest that the PKK may be creating a safe haven for itself on Turkey's border with Syria. This has prompted some bad memories: in the past, the PKK has used safe havens such as the territory it occupied inside northern Iraq to launch devastating attacks in Turkey.
What's more, today's alleged developments leave Turkey between a rock and a hard place: will Ankara watch on as the PKK carves out a base in Syria, or will it do something about this development, taking military action inside Syria to deny the PYD/PKK that opportunity?
Hard as it would for the Turks to bear, Ankara may be forced to accept inaction, given the risks of acting alone militarily.
A showdown between rebels and government troops in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, is imminent, the UN's human rights office said today, as the Red Cross pulled some of its foreign staff from Damascus out of concern for the safety of its workers.
Syrian rebels have made a run on the country's two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, since last week. Regime forces have responded with overwhelming firepower, ushering in some of the most serious violence the cities have seen in 17 months of conflict.
Rebels have been locked in fierce fighting with government troops in Aleppo for seven days and they are bracing for an attack amid reports that the regime is massing reinforcements to retake the embattled city of 3 million.
Mohammed Saeed, an Aleppo-based activist, said helicopters were firing with heavy machine-guns on rebel-held areas east and west of the city today. He added that army reinforcements arrived in the city yesterday and a major attack is expected any time.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said unconfirmed reports are coming out of the capital, Damascus, of extra-judicial killings and shootings of civilians during fighting in the city's suburbs. Pillay said the report "bodes ill for the people of that city (Aleppo).”
How long can any government bomb and shell its own cities?
The Syrian government launched an offensive Saturday to retake rebel-held neighborhoods in the nation's commercial hub of Aleppo, unleashing artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships against poorly armed opposition fighters.
Yet after a day of fighting, the rag-tag rebel forces remained in control of their neighborhoods in Syria's largest city, said activists, suggesting they had successfully fought off the government's initial assault.
The international community has raised an outcry about a possible massacre in this city of 3 million but acknowledged there was little they could do to stop the bloodshed. The foreign minister of Russia, a powerful ally of Syria, said it was "simply unrealistic" for the Syrian regime to cede control.
The state-controlled al-Watan newspaper celebrated the assault with a banner headline proclaiming the fight for Aleppo "the mother of all battles."
"The Mother Of All Battles!" Another one?
To secure Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the embodiment of the state.
The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad's grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.
But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria's coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads' Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.
After South Carolina declared its secession, former congressman James L. Petigru famously remarked, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."
The Syrian army has launched a massive assault on rebels in Aleppo amid growing world concern about the risks of reprisals against civilians in the country's largest city.
Troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, which had been massing for the past two days, on Saturday moved on south-western districts of the commercial hub, where rebels concentrated their forces when they seized much of the northern city on July 20.
Artillery pounded Salaheddin and other neighbourhoods from 8am (1500 AEST) as ground troops advanced, an AFP correspondent reported.