Archive for October, 2011

Syrian protesters attack US, French embassies

July 11, 2011 — BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of Syrian government supporters attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus Monday, smashing windows and spray-painting walls with obscenities and graffiti that called the American ambassador a “dog.” Guards at the French Embassy fired in the air to ward off another group of protesters.

The sharp escalation in tensions followed a visit last week by the American and French ambassadors to the city of Hama, a stronghold of opposition to authoritarian President Bashar Assad. Syrian authorities were angered by the visit and American Ambassador Robert Ford’s harsh criticism afterward of the government crackdown on a four-month-old uprising. Ford’s residence was also attacked on Monday.

The U.S. and France both accused Syrian forces of being too slow to respond and demanded the government abide by its international obligations to protect diplomatic missions and allow envoys freedom of movement. The U.S. formally protested, calling the attacks “outrageous,” and saying protesters were incited by a television station heavily influenced by Syrian authorities.

“Ford get out now,” protesters wrote on a paper hung on the U.S. Embassy’s fence. “The people want to kick out the dog,” read graffiti scrawled in red on the wall of the embassy, along with another line cursing America. The protesters smashed the embassy sign hanging over one gate.

The U.S. said it would seek compensation for damage. Syrian-U.S. relations have been mired in mutual distrust for years. But Monday’s attacks were the worst such violence since 2000, when a stone-throwing mob attacked and vandalized the U.S. Embassy and ambassador’s residence over American and British airstrikes against Iraq.

The attacks pose a renewed challenge to the Obama administration. The White House has criticized the Syrian regime’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests but has refrained from calling for an end to the Assad family’s four decades of rule, seemingly wary of pressing too hard as it tries to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces criticism for being part of the coalition battling Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

The U.S. said about 300 “thugs” breached the wall of the embassy compound before being dispersed by American Marine guards. No injuries were reported. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the mob got onto the roof of the chancery building, spray-painted graffiti and broke windows and security cameras. They lobbed fruits and vegetables at the compound.

A witness told The Associated Press that protesters scaled a fence, smashed windows and raised a Syrian flag at the embassy. Nuland said that Syrian security forces, who are supposed to guard the mission, were slow to respond.

After the crowd at the embassy was dispersed, the protesters moved to the ambassador’s residence and attacked it, causing unspecified damage, Nuland said. The ambassador’s residence is not inside the embassy compound but is nearby.

“We consider that the Syrian government has not lived up to its obligations … to protect diplomatic facilities and it is absolutely outrageous,” she told reporters. There were similar scenes at the French embassy, where guards fired in the air to hold back Assad loyalists who attacked the compound.

The French Foreign Ministry said three embassy workers were injured as “well organized groups” smashed windows and destroyed the ambassador’s car. “Faced with the passivity of security forces, embassy security agents were forced to make three warning shots to stop intrusions from multiplying,” a French government statement said.

The French flag was removed and replaced with a Syrian one. “God, Syria and Bashar. The nation that gave birth to Bashar Assad will not kneel,” read graffiti scrawled outside the embassy. One witness said three protesters were injured when guards beat them with clubs. The witness asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Hiam al-Hassan, a witness, said about 300 people were at the French Embassy while hundreds targeted the American diplomatic compound. “Syrians demonstrated peacefully in front of the French embassy but they were faced with bullets,” said al-Hassan.

Another protester at the French Embassy, Thuraya Arafat, 58, said: “I am here to find out why the French ambassador visited Hama. Did he go there to meet armed gangs?” French Ambassador Eric Chevalier and Ford both made separate visits to Hama on Thursday.

Ford was greeted by friendly crowds who put flowers on his windshield and olive branches on his car, chanting: “Down with the regime!” The State Department said the trip was to support the right of Syrians to demonstrate peacefully.

Syrian authorities called the ambassadors’ visits to Hama interference in the country’s internal affairs and accused the envoys of undermining Syria’s stability. On Sunday, Ford attacked the government for allowing its supporters to demonstrate while violently suppressing anti-regime demonstrators.

“And how ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere,” he said. On Sunday, the State Department complained that pro-government demonstrators threw tomatoes, eggs and rocks at the embassy over the weekend to protest Ford’s visit to Hama.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that the attacks demonstrated the Syrian president was not serious about reform, but stopped short of calling on him to step down. “From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy,” Clinton told reporters at the State Department in a joint news conference with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “He has failed to deliver on promises he has made, he has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his own people.”

Congressional Republicans have pressed the administration to withdraw Ford from Syria, an ally of Iran that supports the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The U.S. did not send an ambassador to Damascus for five years in protest of Syria’s alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut.

Monday’s protests coincided with government-organized talks in Damascus on possible political reforms after four months of unrest. But the talks were boycotted by the main opposition factions and are unlikely to produce any breakthroughs to immediately end bloodshed.

The two days of meetings, however, were seen as a major concession by Assad’s regime after the most serious challenge to its rule. The talks did not stop Syrian forces from pressing their crackdown. Before the embassy attacks, Syrian troops stormed the country’s third-largest city of Homs with armored personnel carriers and heavy machine guns, a rights activist. At least two people were killed and 20 wounded, activists said.

Activists including the Local Coordination Committees, a group that tracks anti-government protests in Syria, also reported gunfire and a “massive wave” of arrests and raids in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib province, near the Turkish border.

Clashes between protesters and Assad’s supporters have resulted in the deaths of 1,600, in addition to 350 members of the security forces. Syria blames what it calls “armed gangs” and Muslim extremists for the violence.

Assad supporters storm US embassy in Syria


US official says embassy has sustained some physical damage, mob has then moved on to ambassador’s residence.

DAMASCUS – An angry mob stormed the US embassy in the Syrian capital on Monday, after Washington’s ambassador visited the flashpoint city of Hama, a hub for protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“Today there was an attack by a mob on the US embassy,” a US embassy official said, adding that no embassy personnel were injured although the Syrian authorities were slow in providing additional security measures.

The official said the embassy sustained some physical damage and that the crowd then moved on to the ambassador’s residence.

Opposition protests were also staged overnight in several towns against Sunday’s opening of a “national dialogue” hailed by the regime but boycotted by the opposition, rights activists said.

Monday’s embassy attack comes four days after US Ambassador Robert Ford visited the central city of Hama, 210 kilometers (130 miles) north of Damascus, sparking outrage in the capital.

The embassy official said “no staff were injured” on Monday and were never in “imminent danger,” although the “Syrian government was slow to respond with extra security measures that were needed.”

“The Syrian government has assured us that it will provide the protection required under the Vienna Convention and we expect it to do so.”

He added that a Syrian television channel had “encouraged this violent demonstration,” which followed protests at the embassy on Friday and Saturday calling for the ambassador’s resignation.

A senior US official on Sunday accused Damascus of orchestrating the protests over Ford’s trip to Hama, which the authorities slammed as a “flagrant interference” in Syria’s “domestic affairs.”

Ford and his French counterpart Eric Chevallier both visited Hama on Thursday amid fears of a bloody crackdown after Friday prayers the next day by Assad’s forces, with tanks encircling the city.

France on Sunday summoned Syria’s envoy to Paris Lamia Shakkour over damage done to the French embassy in Damascus and a consulate in Aleppo on Saturday after Chevallier’s trip to Hama.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe’s cabinet chief called her to the foreign ministry to receive a “vigorous protest”, ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said in a statement.

Tensions have been escalating for months between Damascus and Washington over the Syrian government’s fierce response to opposition protests that erupted in mid-March, seeking to oust Assad.

Human rights groups say that since the protests broke out, the security forces have killed more than 1,300 civilians and made at least 12,000 arrests.

In overnight protests, some 5,000 people demonstrated in Deir Ezzor in the east, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Monday, adding there were also protests in three districts of Damascus.

The army was also reported to be continuing a search and sweep operation in the Jebel al-Zawiya area of Idlib province in the northwest.

“Soldiers supported by tanks carried out searches in the villages of Kafarhaya, Sarjan and Al-Rami, and arrests were made in Kfar Nubol,” the Observatory said.

People were also detained in Hama and in the coastal city of Banias, where the rights group reported five arrests of people “for filming demonstrations.”

Shooting was also heard at around dawn in the central city of Homs.

A meeting of the “national dialogue” in the capital was due to take place later on Monday.

Sunday’s inaugural session saw some 200 delegates take part, including independent MPs and members of the Baath party, in power since 1963.

Opposition figures boycotted the gathering in protest at the government’s continued deadly crackdown on the anti-regime protests.

Meanwhile, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey fell to around 8,500 as hundreds decided to return home over the weekend, Turkish officials in Ankara said on Monday.

The number of refugees fleeing the government crackdown and entering Turkey peaked at 11,739 at the end of June, when Syrian troops stormed border villages where many displaced people had massed.

Source: Middle East Online.

Iraqis who sought refuge in Syria, now returning


Deadly unrest in Syria force Iraqi refugees who fled 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq to return home.

By Sammy Ketz – BAGHDAD

When his six-year-old son was killed in a 2006 Baghdad gun battle, Seif Rashid decided to flee with his family to Syria, but the deadly unrest there forced him to return to Iraq last month.

“When I saw the lifeless body of my little Abdel Rahman I decided to leave with my wife and two girls. I could not stand my country, which was overwhelmed by hatred,” Rashid said.

The boy had been killed by a stray bullet in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah neighborhood.

Rashid moved to Kafar Batna, on the outskirts of Damascus, because he had no work and the rent and life was cheaper.

But the wave of protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in March once again upset their lives.

“There were protests, they burned public buildings, posters of Bashar al-Assad — and there have been arrests — the situation was untenable,” Rashid said. “So, we took our bags and left again.”

Rashid, a 30-year-old shoe designer, mingled in Baghdad with a crowd of other returnees like him, all waiting to sign up at the National Registry office for refugees.

Registration entitles displaced Iraqis like him to a government installation allowance of four million dinars ($3,400/2,380 euros) per family, to help with the costs of resettling.

Many lost everything they had when they fled the violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled leader Saddam Hussein and triggered an insurgency and Shiite-Sunni bloodletting.

Rashid, unemployed since he fled Iraq, has been living on his savings.

In Iraq, after the turmoil of the invasion and the extreme violence that began in 2004 and peaked in 2006 and 2007, neighboring Syria quickly became the preferred escape for many Iraqis.

It was next door, not very expensive, and it had open borders. Between 300,000 and one million Iraqis are estimated to have fled to Syria during the violence.

Security is better than in Syria

In 2004, 45-year-old Yaqub Khalaf Nussayef was shot in the abdomen and leg during a settling of scores between Sunni and Shiite groups.

Nussayef is a Sunni and former soldier who was living in the Shiite neighborhood of Abu Ghraib, which gained worldwide notoriety after publication of photographs showing American soldiers humiliating and torturing prisoners.

A father of five, he first fled to Jordan and then to Damascus, where he collected and sold empty soft drink cans for recycling in order to feed his family.

“The Syrian capital was quiet, but elsewhere there was chaos. I have tasted the bitter taste of sectarian war and bloodshed, and I did not wish to be part of a new wave of violence,” he said.

“I am convinced that what is going on over there is a sectarian war,” said Nussayef, who arrived only days ago in Baghdad, searching for a home before he brings his family.

Syria is majority Sunni, but the Alawites, who comprise only 12 percent of the population, have been in power since 1963.

Hayat Saad, legal officer at the Baghdad refugees center, said “every day we deal with between 60 to 70 cases of families who have returned to the country.”

“Daily, about 20 come from Syria — the largest contingent — followed by Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Libya,” she added.

Since the beginning of May, 1,171 families — about 7,000 people — have returned from Syria, and three-quarters have taken up residence in Baghdad province, the International Organization for Migration said.

“We still do not have any evidence of a large ‘wave’ of return in the past few months due to unrest,” said the IOM’s Nuray Inal.

In addition to assisting in housing, the ministry of refugees also helps in settling utility bills such as for water, electricity and telephones that may have accumulated over the years that owners were absent from their homes. It also helps in recovering homes that may have been taken over by squatters.

Qahtan Sabri, a 61-year-old carpenter, went to Damascus in 2005. “The situation was getting worse day-by-day. The confessional killings were increasing, and I had to stop working.

“I decided to return to Iraq when I realized that security is better in my own country than in Syria. I have resumed my business and will never leave my country,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Jordan opposition leader claims security apparatus controls government

Jamal Halaby, The Associated Press
Jul 08, 2011

AMMAN, Jordan – Jordan’s Islamist opposition leader Friday issued a rare public denunciation of the country’s feared security apparatus, accusing it controlling government policies and seeking to limit free expression.

“Enough is enough,” shouted Hamza Mansour of the Islamic Action Front in a speech to 300 protesters outside the prime minister’s office to press for his dismissal.

The broadside by Mansour underlines growing frustration with the tight security grip in this pro-U.S. Arab kingdom. In street protests over the past six months — inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia — Jordanians accused police and intelligence of using excessive force to quell the demonstrations.

“Intelligence approves Cabinets and dismisses them at will if Cabinet ministers did not implement the policies of limiting the freedom of expression, intimidating citizens and frightening the regime’s opponents,” claimed Mansour, who leads Jordan’s biggest opposition party.

Jordan’s Western-trained intelligence network is widely seen as one of the region’s most highly regarded spy agencies. It closely co-operates with the United States in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and played a role in efforts to battle al-Qaida.

Within Jordan, the intelligence service maintain close control over state affairs. It must approve civil servants before taking up public office, acquiring emigration visas or even driver’s licenses.

Mansour did not provide evidence to backup his allegation on intelligence approving and dismissing Cabinet — which is in the hands of King Abdullah II, who has the final say in all matters.

But Mansour insisted that government policies “are meant to maintain the status quo, which is the tight grip of security over everyone.”

Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, a former army general, is accused of dragging his feet on promised political reforms, which include amending legislation to give the public a wider say in politics.

Jordanian opposition and protesters say they want Abdullah to remain their king, but want to limit some of his powers. They want the king to stop appointing prime ministers and allow the post to be picked by the elected parliament.

Elsewhere, about 800 Jordanians took to the streets in various demonstrations to demand al-Bakhit step down.

Source: 680 News.

Israel, Turkey lock horns over flotilla

Sat Jul 9, 2011

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has once again rejected Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conditions for the normalization of diplomatic relations.

“Israel did not commit any crime,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 1 television on Friday night, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

He made the remarks after Erdogan said earlier on Friday that Israel must apologize for the killing of nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists last year.

On May 31, 2010, Israeli commandos attacked the first Freedom Flotilla in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea, killing nine Turkish citizens on board the Turkish-flagged M.V. Mavi Marmara and injuring about 50 other people who were part of the team on the six-ship convoy.

Israeli troops also forced the ships to dock at an Israeli port and detained all those on board.

During a speech to the Turkish parliament, Erdogan also said Tel Aviv should lift its four-year blockade of Gaza and pay compensation to the victims of the flotilla attack.

However, the Israeli defense minister said he expected the UN inquiry to vindicate Israel’s actions.

“The Palmer commission will say that Israel acted according to international law. The blockade is legal, stopping the ships is legal, the use of force in these circumstances is justified,” Barak said.

On Thursday, an Israeli official said that a UN report on Israel’s flotilla attack would be published on July 27.

Source: PressTV.

Jordanians call for ouster of PM Bakhit

Jul 8, 2011

AMMAN: Jordanians demonstrated on Friday for the fifth week in a row in several cities calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit’s government, the dissolution of the lower house of parliament and taking serious moves to punish corrupt officials, witnesses said.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers in the city of Tafileh, 180 km south of Amman, to press their demand for Bakhit’s ouster.

They issued a statement rejecting last week’s reshuffle of Bakhit’s cabinet as a fresh evidence of the government’s “weak will” to carry out the needed political reforms and a move designed to “kill the public mobility.”

“The decision-makers have to stop their procrastination, piracy and the cover-up they provide for corrupts,” the statement said.

In the reshuffle, Bakhit appointed nine new ministers, including replacements for the ministers of the Interior, Justice and Health who resigned in connection with the fleeing of the convicted tycoon Khalid Shahin.

Shahin, who was serving a three-year jail term when he fled to London on Feb. 25, is now in Frankfurt under the pretext of seeking medical treatment that he says he could not find locally.

Jordanian authorities said they were in contact with the German government seeking to ensure Shahin’s extradition to Jordan.

Scores of activists demonstrated for the first time in the city of Mafraq, 50 km east of Amman, urging King Abdallah to sack the cabinet and dissolve the House of Representatives. They also called for Bakhit’s trial over his role in the so-called 2007 casino deal, when his government then allowed a London-based investor to build a casino on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.

Samir Rifai, who succeeded Bakhit as premier, sought to annul the agreement in 2008, contending that it harmed Jordan’s interests and involved taboos because Islamic teachings prohibit gambling.

The lower house voted recently to clear Bakhit of wrongdoings, but implicated former Tourism Minister Osama Dabbas.

Source: Arab News.

Haniyeh praises Gaza flytilla campaign

Sat Jul 9, 2011

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has praised the activists who started the Gaza ‘flytilla’ campaign to support Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

“More than 66 flights originated from different European cities to go to Al-Lod (Ben Gurion) airport to support the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, and to say no to the Zionist occupation,” he told a crowd gathered at a mosque in Gaza City on Friday, AP reported.

Israeli police detained 69 activists upon their arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Friday. A total of 25 other activists were also denied entry into Israel.

Four of the 69 activists have been deported to their home countries and the rest have been sent to detention facilities, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

The activists were part of the pro-Palestinian Welcome to Palestine campaign, which has been organizing the flytilla to Israel.

The effort is meant to be a complement to the Gaza Freedom Flotilla II, a convoy of ships organized by activists to deliver humanitarian supplies to the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip.

The 10-ship humanitarian flotilla was scheduled to leave Greek ports for the coastal enclave in early July, with the goal of breaking Israel’s blockade of the impoverished territory.

However, the flotilla was prohibited from leaving the ports after the Greek government made a sudden decision to impose a blanket ban on the departure of any vessels destined for Gaza.

Source: PressTV.

Lebanon govt. wins confidence vote

Thu Jul 7, 2011

Lebanese lawmakers have given their vote of confidence to the newly-appointed government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Thursday — the third and final day of a related parliamentary discussion — saw 68 out of 128 MPs endorsing the policy statement adopted by Mikati’s government.

Mikati’s government, in which the Lebanese resistance movement of Hezbollah and its Muslim and Christian allies have the majority of the seats, was formed in June.

The parliament’s confidence vote enables the government to carry out its mandate.

Ahead of the voting process, the prime minister addressed the lawmakers, vowing to preserve stability and security in Lebanon and asserting that his government is committed to national unity.

A sticking point in the preceding talks was the government’s determined stance on a United States-backed UN court, which recently ruled on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri.

The pro-Western Future Television owned by the Future Movement of the victim’s son Sa’ad Hariri has said the court’s indictment has named four Hezbollah members.

The Hezbollah movement and its allies view the tribunal as a joint US-Israeli plot.

Mikati has also insisted that “indictments, regardless of their source, are not conclusive and that any accusations need solid evidence that cannot be doubted.”

The March 14 parliamentary coalition also led by Hariri has, however, argued that the government’s policy statement lacks a commitment to the court.

The alliance had vowed to vote against the government and walked out of the session en masse just before the start of Thursday’s voting process.

Lebanon’s Maronite Church had urged the parliamentarians to vote for the government.

It had said that the indictment came at a time when the cabinet was working to finalize a draft of its policy statement, and that it sought to sow discord among the Lebanese political ranks.

Source: PressTV.

Hezbollah: STL covers up real criminal

Tue Jul 5, 2011

Hezbollah has accused a US-backed tribunal probing the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri of refusing to pursue the real criminal.

Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Tuesday that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is covering up Israel as the real killer of Rafiq Hariri, a Press TV correspondent reported.

“The greatest injustice against former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was to say that Israel would never assassinate Hariri,” Nasrallah said.

The Hezbollah leader made the remarks in a speech on the occasion of “The wounded resistance day.”

Nasrallah questioned the credibility of Daniel Bellemare, the prosecutor general of the STL, accusing some investigators, legal experts and key advisers to Bellemare of having connections with the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency.

He criticized Bellemare for ignoring strong Hezbollah documents proving Israel’s involvement in Hariri’s assassination, saying Bellemare did not consider any of the presented evidence as he was not able to refute any of them.

Nasrallah also accused the Western-backed March 14 coalition of promoting injustice in the country by not considering Israel as a suspect in the Hariri assassination.

Naim Qassem, deputy leader of Hezbollah, said US-Israel joint efforts to weaken the resistance through the tribunal will fail.

“The resistance (Hezbollah), which has left a mark on history and the present, will not be hindered by the Israeli-American project, the so-called tribunal, which is now behind us, and there is no going back,” Qassem said.

The STL last week handed down indictments against four members of Hezbollah, accusing them of playing a role in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri.

Nasrallah has rejected the allegations, describing them as injustice.

Source: PressTV.

Syrian Opposition Remains Divided on Engagement

By Samer Araabi

WASHINGTON, Jul 5, 2011 (IPS) – Despite countless attempts by the Bashar al-Assad regime to subdue the sporadic protests that have appeared across Syria since February, the demonstrations have consistently grown in both size and intensity.

Last week, a march in the town of Hama may have attracted over 100,000 protestors, quite likely the largest anti-Assad demonstration in Syria thus far.

While the opposition grows, however, its leadership remains bitterly divided, geographically disparate, and unable to agree on tactics to oust the Assad regime or a collective political vision for a post- Assad future.

As another round of crackdowns broke out this week, opposition figures in Syria and abroad have continued to battle one another on the central question of how to engage with the regime.

At a meeting last week in Washington hosted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the New American Foundation, policy analysts and international advocates met with Syrian American figures involved in the opposition movement to discuss the role of the international community in resolving the Syrian crisis.

A particularly passionate debate raged around the role of the United States in assisting the Syrian opposition movement. Some, such as international human rights lawyer Yaser Tabbara, argued that Washington was purposely pulling its punches, and could be doing much more to help.

Over the course of the morning, Tabbara called for tighter sanctions, stronger condemnations of government heavy-handedness, more international political leverage, and a direct appeal from President Barack Obama for a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government.

Others, including author and historian Mark Perry, gave words of support for the Syrian people, but asked the audience, “What should we do? Nothing. This is a revolution in the hands of the Syrian people.”

Perry was confident in the “inevitability” of the revolution, but maintained that “a revolution is very difficult to stop, to influence, or to make succeed. They have their own internal dynamic.”

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a professor at the College of William & Mary and the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, agreed that the U.S. had very limited leverage, and a very low willingness to use it.

He reminded attendees that all policy decisions “have to be considered in a bigger tapestry than just Syria”, adding that “the U.S. strategic interests in the region are significant in other countries where there’s turmoil going on. We have to handle this with finesse, in the scope of U.S. national interests, against a fiscal backdrop that’s absolutely frightening. To ask [the Assad regime] for some kind of deadline without backing it up with the threat of force, or to ask for any more adamant position of the United States, is not useful.”

Many others took a middle road, recognizing that U.S. leverage was minimal at best, but certain small steps could be taken to assist the Syrian resistance without overextending Washington’s reach.

Nuh Yilmaz, director of the Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research, tried to demonstrate Turkey’s inclination to take a middle path by refusing to “have a civil war on its border” while trying to maintain relationships with both the Assad regime and the protest movement.

Yilmaz argued that it was in Turkey’s strategic interest – and consequently, regional strategic interest – to ensure that Assad produces real reforms and that the opposition moderates their demands.

He emphasized the “need to be strategic” and make better use of the international community’s limited leverage, but others were less willing to recognize any legitimacy for the Assad regime.

“The regime is inflexible, and therefore irredeemable,” said Louay Safi, a member of the Syrian American Council. He urged the international community to “choke the security apparatus in Syria, make sure they’re not getting any outside funding…and take legal action.”

The disagreement on the fundamental question of foreign intervention comes as U.S. diplomats have struggled to chart a strategic course in Syria, often deciding on a middle ground that neither side finds particularly satisfying.

Last week, the State Department was rumored to have put forward a “roadmap” for Syrian reforms that would allow Assad to remain in power while overseeing a number of democratic reforms in the country. The roadmap calls for the Syrian government to appoint a “transitional assembly” to oversee the instatement of open elections, the legalization of political parties, and the loosening of media restrictions.

Though Washington has denied pushing for the roadmap, a number of Syrian opposition members have claimed that official sources, including U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, have been encouraging the opposition to seek common ground with Assad.

Many figures, however, have openly condemned the roadmap, reiterating the idea that such reforms are “too little, too late”, and calling for nothing less than the downfall of the regime and its Ba’ath party supporters.

These overtures for compromise, emanating from Turkey, and to a lesser extent, the U.S., may be beginning to have an effect on Assad. A large opposition meeting held in Damascus, with the permission of state authorities, was held last week at the Semiramis hotel, the first of its kind in decades.

More recently, government figures have openly invited representatives of the opposition for talks, another first.

The reaction to these developments has underscored the tension between those willing to work with the regime and those who have rejected it categorically.

Though many elements of the opposition blasted the Damascus meeting as a “government sanctioned-ruse”, others hailed the gathering as deeply significant.

The divisions within the opposition have shown few signs of easing. Though many signs point to a significant weakening of the Assad regime, no movement as yet appears ready to replace it.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).