Archive for December 12th, 2012

US backs new Syrian opposition ahead of conference

December 12, 2012

MARRAKECH, Morocco (AP) — A Syrian opposition spokesman called for “real support” and not just recognition on Wednesday, hours after the U.S. declared that the new Syrian opposition coalition was the “legitimate representative” of its country’s people.

Speaking as the fourth meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People” opened in the Moroccan city of Marrakech, Walid al-Bunni called on the more than a hundred delegates from Europe and the Gulf countries to provide something concrete to help in their battle against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“Recognition is nice, but we need real support,” said Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the conference began. “I will be happy after the conference if we have something for the Syrian people.”

The U.S. move, announced by President Barack Obama late Tuesday, follows that of France and the U.K. The Syrian National Coalition, formed in November during a conference in Doha, Qatar, has been calling for increased international support, including military material for opposition forces battling the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria for nearly two years.

The U.S. and its British allies are not, however, expected to approve military aid, in part over fears of al-Qaida linked rebel units operating in the country. There are also no representatives of the Syrian rebel forces at the conference.

John Wilks, the British special representative to the Syrian opposition, explained that Wednesday’s event was neither a donor conference nor a military aid event but rather an effort to set up opposition institutions so that they could effectively use future aid in a credible manner to administer the areas they control.

“The key point is that they are setting up institutions and money is coming, so it’s a better situation than three months ago — they are happy, we are happy,” he said before the conference began. He said so far Britain had earmarked 50 million pounds ($80 million) of humanitarian aid and 7 million pounds ($11.2 million) non-humanitarian including communications equipment, training and office supplies — but no plans for now for military aid.

“There are big issues concerning legality — intervening in a civil war to overthrow a government is a difficult proposition, to put it mildly,” he said. Obama’s announcement follows his administration’s blacklisting of a militant Syrian rebel group with links to al-Qaida. That step is aimed at blunting the influence of extremists amid fears that the regime may use or lose control of its stockpile of chemical weapons.

The U.S. had been leading international efforts to prod the fractured Syrian opposition into coalescing around a leadership that would represent all of the country’s factions and religions. Yet it had held back from granting recognition to the group until it demonstrated that it could organize itself in credible fashion.

In particular, Washington had wanted to see the group set up smaller committees that could deal with specific immediate and short-term issues, such as governing parts of Syria under their control and putting in place institutions to address the needs of people once Assad is ousted. Some of those committees could form the basis of a transitional government.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to attend the conference, but cancelled following an illness and will be represented by Deputy Secretary of State for the Middle East, William Burns.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday the recognition contradicted earlier international agreements that foresee the “commencement of an all-Syria dialogue” that would include all sides of the conflict, in which more than 40,000 people have died so far.

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Jordan Prince Scorned For Participating In Jewish Event

by Adam Nicky

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Anti-normalization groups up in arms over British fundraiser

AMMAN: Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan found himself in hot water this week after his participation in a Jewish charity event in the UK last month was exposed in local media.

Hassan, the uncle of King Abdullah II, was in headlines for the wrong reasons after he addressed a fundraising event on November 21 for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which Israeli figures also attended. The prince was pictured alongside the organization’s president, Vivian Wineman, and treasurer, Laurence Brass.

In a country where anti-Israeli sentiment runs high and most of the 7.5 million citizens are Palestinians, the move was viewed as a flagrant disregard for public sensitivities. What added insult to injury is the fact that the event was held less than a week after the end of hostilities between Israeli and Hamas in the Gaza Strip which claimed civilian lives on both sides.

In his speech, Hassan insisted that the Jordanian monarchy will remain in power despite the recent large demonstrations against recent price hikes that have rocked the nation.

“We are not in it for prestige,” Prince Hassan told the British guests. “I genuinely feel we are there for the sake of human dignity.”

King Abdullah was originally scheduled to attend the event, but cancelled without giving a reason.

Anti-Israel activists have called on the royal family to distance itself from the prince’s action. The National Anti-Normalization Committee, which lobbies against normal relations with Israel, blasted Hassan.

“We condemn Prince Hassan’s participation as it represents free service to the Zionist enemy and harms national causes as well as the prince himself and the royal family,” read the organization’s statement.

“This is a provocation of the feelings of all Jordanians,” added the statement, which was overlooked by most pro-government media.

It is rare for the organization to criticize a member of the royal family.

At least one editor at a major Arabic-language daily confirmed to The Media Line that it received instructions from security authorities to ignore the statement about the prince due to what he said was “sensitive times.”

Activist Dr. Anis Khasawneh vilified the prince and called for an apology.

“What I find astonishing is that the prince challenges the feelings of Jordanians by collecting donations for Israel. Why does he act in such an arrogant manner?” he asked.

Khasawneh said Hassan was poised to become leader of Jordan in the past and ended up helping the enemies of the entire Arab nation.

Government sources played down the significance of Hassan’s involvement in the event and tried to defend the prince’s action, insisting that his participation was designed to lobby for the resumption of peace talks and put pressure on Israel to commit to its political obligation, as part of a dialogue between religions.

The official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the prince left the meeting before Israeli officials took to the podium to address the audience, and had only “scorning words for Israel’s actions in the peace process.”

Although Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, dealing with Israeli officials remains a social and political taboo, with several lobby groups campaigning against improving ties between the two countries.

At least two major labor organizations also object to normalization with Israel. Opposition parties, including the Islamist movement, draw support from Jordanians who are against the peace treaty with Israel.

Hamzah Mansour, president of the National Anti-Normalization Committee and secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, expressed his disappointment over the prince’s actions.

“I urge all Jordanians – the honorable ones – to end dealing with this enemy. The Israelis have no interest in talking. They only understand the language of the sword,” he said in response to diplomatic ties between Jordan and Israel.

“We must scrap the peace treaty because Israel has no interest in making peace,” he told The Media Line.

Meanwhile, the National Anti-Normalization Committee has accused brokers of doing business with Israeli firms that buy Jordanian products and sell them under Israeli labels. Figures from the Jordanian Department of Statistics show that exports to Israel during the first eight months of 2012 stood at some $48 million, a drop from $54 million in 2011. Imports increased from $65 million to $69 million during the same period.

In Amman’s bustling central fruit and vegetable market, farmers and brokers had mixed views about dealing with Israel. Some said they would rather throw their produce into the garbage than sell it to Israelis. Others believe they have no choice due to limited markets.

Abu Emad, a 56-year-old broker, said he sells to whoever pays the most in his auction.

“The government did not find us new markets. The Syrian crisis was a disaster for us. Now we have to sell to anyone,” he said, before starting an auction of newly-arrived olives.

“The prince did what he had to do. He’s a politician and Jordan cannot survive if officials do not talk to all kinds of people, including Jews,” he concluded.

Copyright © 2012 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

Extremists among Syrian rebels who seized base

December 11, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels including Islamic extremists took full control of a sprawling military base Tuesday after a bloody two-day battle that killed 35 soldiers, activists said. It was the latest gain by opposition forces bolstered by an al-Qaida-linked group that has provided skilled fighters but raised concerns in the West.

The Sheik Suleiman military base was the second major base captured in the north by the rebels, who also are making inroads farther south toward the capital, Damascus. In other violence, dozens of people were reported injured or killed in Aqrab, a village in central Hama province, in a series of explosions. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the bloodshed, citing activists in the area, but had no immediate death toll or details on who was to blame.

Fighters from jihadi groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, were among those doing battle in the rebel ranks as they took control of Sheik Suleiman base, near the northern city of Aleppo, according to the Observatory and other activists.

The presence of the jihadi groups has raised concerns in the U.S. and other nations that are supporting the opposition in Syria but do not want to see extremists gain power in the region. The U.S. this week blacklisted al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization and said the group was part of al-Qaida in Iraq.

But al-Nusra fighters appear to be among the most effective fighting forces on the rebel side, spearheading many of the recent gains. The U.S. terror designation freezes any assets members of al-Nusra may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bars Americans from providing the group with material support. It’s largely symbolic because the group is not thought to have holdings or support in the United States, but officials hope the penalties will encourage others to take similar action and discourage Syrians from joining.

The administration took further action Tuesday against extremists on both sides, with the Treasury Department setting separate sanctions against two senior al-Nusra leaders and two militant groups operating under the control of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Two commanders of the pro-regime shabiha force also were targeted.

“We will target the pro-Assad militias just as we will the terrorists who falsely cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition,” said David S. Cohen, the department’s sanctions chief. The battle for Sheik Suleiman military base ended when the rebels took over the site’s main compound and warehouses that housed a military research center. They had first breached the base perimeter on Sunday afternoon, after weeks of fighting with soldiers loyal to Assad, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria. The Observatory said 35 soldiers were killed but did not give figures on rebel casualties.

Also Tuesday in Aleppo — the country’s largest city and commercial center — four mortar rounds hit the predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of Sheik Maksoud, killing 11, including three children and two women, and wounding a dozen other people, the Observatory said.

The reports of violence could not be confirmed as the government restricts independent reporting in the country. The conflict started nearly 21 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

Western officials have raised concerns that an increasingly desperate Assad might unleash his chemical weapons stockpiles against rebels in an act of desperation. Last week U.S. officials said there was evidence that Syrian forces had begun preparing sarin, a nerve agent, for possible use in bombs.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday the Syrian government seems to have slowed preparations for the possible use of chemical weapons against rebel targets. Speaking to reporters flying with him from Washington to Kuwait, Panetta suggested the threat was no longer escalating, although he was not specific about any Syrian military preparations.

“At this point the intelligence has really kind of leveled off,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way.” Asked whether he believed Assad was heeding Western warnings against using chemical weapons, Panetta said: “I like to believe he’s got the message. We’ve made it pretty clear. Others have as well.”

He noted that the Assad regime is coming under increasing pressure from rebel forces. “Our concern is that if they feel like the regime is threatened with collapse, they might resort to these kinds of weapons,” he said.

Syria is believed to have a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons, including sarin and mustard gas, although its exact dimensions are not known. Syria is not a signatory to the 1997 Convention on Chemical Weapons and thus is not obliged to permit international inspection.

The government in Damascus has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons, while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people. “Syria doesn’t own any internationally banned weapons, whether chemical, nuclear or biological,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told Al-Manar TV, a station owned by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is a Syrian ally. “Even if Syria possessed such weapons, it will not use them for moral reasons.”

He said Western statements are similar to those that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq that accused Saddam Hussein of hiding weapons of mass destruction. After the U.S.-led invasion, no such weapons were found.

The Obama administration is getting ready to tighten its ties to Syria’s main opposition group, the newly formed Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, at an international conference on the crisis in Morocco this week. The move will pave the way for greater U.S. support for those seeking to oust Assad while the administration tries to blunt the influence of extremists.

Jabhat al-Nusra is a shadowy group with an al-Qaida-style ideology whose fighters come from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Balkans and elsewhere. Many are veterans of previous wars who came to Syria for what they consider a new “jihad” or “holy war” against Assad.

But several hundred fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra — Arabic for “the Support Front” — have also been a valued addition to rebel ranks in the grueling battle for control of Aleppo. The group also has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings on Syrian government targets.

Jabhat al-Nusra is the largest grouping of foreign jihadis in Syria, and the rebels say they number about 300 fighters in Aleppo, as well as branches in neighboring Idlib province, the city of Homs and Damascus. U.S. and Iraqi officials also have said they believe members of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq have crossed the border to join the fight against Assad.

Also Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees registered by the United Nations in the Middle East and North Africa has surpassed half a million. The figure is climbing by more than 3,000 per day, UNHCR said. According to UNHCR’s latest figures from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and North Africa, more than 500,000 Syrians are either already registered or in the process of being registered.

Associated Press National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Kuwait City. AP writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report from Sidon, Lebanon.

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