Archive for June, 2013

Activists: Syrian rebel attack kills 60 Shiites

June 12, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say Syrian rebels have attacked a village in the country’s east, killing dozens of Shiites there, mostly pro-government fighters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 60 died in Hatla village in the province of Deir el-Zour on Tuesday. An activist based in the province says the rebel attack was in retaliation for an earlier attack by Shiites from Hatla that killed four rebels. The activist, Thaer al-Deiry, who identified himself only by his nickname for fear of government retaliation, spoke via Skype on Wednesday.

The Observatory and al-Deiry say many Shiite villagers from Hatla were forced to flee to nearby Jafra. The clashes came a week after Syrian troops backed by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group captured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

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Syrian war enters new phase but no end in sight

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Crispian Balmer

AMMAN/BEIRUT | Mon Jun 10, 2013

(Reuters) – Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are massing around Aleppo in preparation for an offensive to retake the city and build on battlefield gains that have swung the momentum of Syria’s war to Assad and his Hezbollah allies.

Rebels reported signs of large numbers of Shi’ite Muslim fighters flowing in from Iraq to help Assad end the civil war that has killed at least 80,000 people and forced 1.6 million Syrians to flee abroad.

The move to a northern front comes as Syria’s war is increasingly infecting its neighbors – Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel – and widening a regional sectarian faultline between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

For the first time since the start of the uprising in March 2011, an Israeli minister suggested on Monday that Assad might prevail in the war, thanks in large part to support from Shi’ite Iran and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

However, efforts to dislodge rebels in Aleppo will be a much tougher proposition than last week’s capture of the town of Qusair, with military analysts predicting that the conflict will probably drag on for months or years as Assad’s many foes are likely to be galvanized by recent rebel reversals.

Alarmed by Assad’s swift advances and hoping to turn the tide, Washington might decide later this week on whether to start arming the rebels, a U.S. official said.

Assad’s army is preparing to lift sieges on areas close to Aleppo before turning its sights on the country’s second city, according to the semi-official Syrian al-Watan daily

“Any battle in Aleppo will be huge and most certainly prolonged,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

“You have large numbers of rebels in several areas of the city. There will have to be a lot of very close combat fighting that always takes a lot of time and leaves many casualties.”

Rebel brigades poured into Aleppo last July and have more than half the great merchant city under their control. The front lines are largely stable and a growing number of radicalized, Islamist foreign fighters have joined rebel ranks.

PINCER MOVEMENT

Opposition activists and military sources said the army was airlifting troops to Aleppo airport and to the Kurdish area of Ifrin behind rebel lines, as well as reinforcing two rural Shi’ite Muslim enclaves, Zahra and Nubbul, north of the city.

“The regime appears to be making a pincer movement to try and regain the major cities across the north and east of Syria ahead of the Geneva conference,” said Abu Taha, a northern rebel commander, referring to proposed international peace talks.

The United States and Russia hope to hold the conference in Switzerland next month, but Britain has warned that Assad’s recent success might make him reluctant to offer the sort of compromises believed necessary to end the bloodshed.

After appearing to seize the initiative in 2012, the rebels have suffered a series of setbacks this year, with Assad’s demoralized forces significantly bolstered by the arrival of well-trained fighters from the Shi’ite Muslim group, Hezbollah.

Rebels said these guerrillas had played a determining role in the emphatic victory last week in Qusair, which controls vital supply routes across Syria and into Lebanon.

A security source in Lebanon said Hezbollah would continue to assist Assad, but unlike the battle for Qusair, which lies close to its home turf, it might not dispatch its troops north to Aleppo, preferring instead to offer training.

Looking to relieve the growing pressure on Aleppo, rebels attacked on Monday two major military compounds in northern Syria — on the outskirts of the city of Raqqa and the Minnig airport in the adjacent province of Aleppo.

“The rebels have raised pressure … in the last two days to pre-empt any attack on Aleppo,” said Abdelrazzaq Shlas, a member of the opposition administrative council for the province.

Activists said the army had retaliated by bombing Raqqa, killing at least 20 civilians and fighters.

“There is a big loss of lives, but the aim is to deflate the morale boost that the regime received after Qusair and not allow it to go to Geneva as a victor,” Shlas said.

But in a worrying development for the rebels, Shlas said there were reports of militiamen loyal to Iraqi Shi’ite Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr streaming into Syria to bolster Assad’s forces.

Their arrival would underline the increasingly regionalized nature of the war following Hezbollah’s entry into the fray.

JIHAD

Lister, who monitors Sunni Muslim Jihadist forums, said it seemed a growing number of Sunni men appeared ready to take up arms in Syria with the mainly Sunni rebel forces.

“If you believe what you read in the forums, then there are a lot of people heading to Syria to take up the fight,” he said, adding that there were also a growing number of death notices for foreign fighters appearing on the web, including six in one day last week.

Israel, which shares a tense border with Syria, has regularly predicted the fall of Assad. But on Monday, Minister for Intelligence Yuval Steinitz offered a very different view.

Speaking to foreign reporters in Jerusalem, he said Assad’s government “might not just survive but even regain territories”.

Western nations, including the United States, have said Assad must stand down, but have thus far refused to arm the rebels, worried the weaponry might fall into the hands of radical elements, including groups tied to al Qaeda.

On a visit to Aleppo earlier this month, a Reuters correspondent saw a marked increase in the number of hardcore Islamist groups, who seemed to have gained ascendancy over the more moderate Free Syrian Army that led the initial combat.

Rebels in the city also seemed more focused on resolving day-to-day issues rather taking the fight to Assad.

“The biggest problem we have is thievery. There are thieves who pretend to be rebels and wear rebel clothes so they can steal from civilians,” said Abu Ahmed Rahman, head of the Revolutionary Military Police in Aleppo, an organization set up to resolve disputes between rebels and civilians.

But there were also signs of anti-Assad forces digging in, preparing for an eventual army onslaught.

“This conflict has no discernable end point at the moment,” said Lister.

(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Aleppo and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/10/us-syria-crisis-future-idUSBRE9590P520130610.

Al-Qaida leader scraps Syria, Iraq branch merger

June 10, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida’s leader has tried to end squabbling between the terror network’s Syrian and Iraqi branches, ordering the two groups to remain separate after an attempted merger prompted a leadership dispute between them.

This came as Syrian rebels battled Monday in a renewed push to capture a government air base in the north, while the regime was said to be preparing for a major offensive to retake opposition-held areas in the province of Aleppo.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV reported that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged leaders of the Iraqi al-Qaida branch and the Nusra Front in Syria to end their disagreements and “stop any verbal or actual attacks against one another.”

The TV said al-Zawahri’s call came in a letter sent to the station and posted on its website late Sunday. The letter’s authenticity could not be independently verified. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said it also acquired a copy of the letter but did not provide other details.

Al-Zawahri’s call could also reflect a bid to carve out a more significant role for al-Qaida in the Syria civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, is the most powerful rebel force fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

In April, al-Qaida in Iraq said it had joined forces with the Nusra Front, forming a new alliance called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Hours after the announcement, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani appeared to distance himself from the merger, saying he was not consulted. Instead, he pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri.

In Sunday’s letter, al-Zawahri chastises the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying he announced the merger without consulting al-Qaida’s leadership. He also admonished al-Golani for publicly distancing himself from the merger.

“The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished,” al-Zawahri said, adding that Nusra Front will remain an independent branch of al-Qaida. Al-Baghdadi and al-Golani are to stay on as leaders of their respective branches for another year, after which the al-Qaida leadership will decide whether they will keep their posts or be replaced.

Assad’s government in April seized upon the reported merger to back its assertion that it isn’t facing a true popular uprising but a foreign-backed terrorist plot. The merger had also caused friction among rebels on the battlefield who feared the announcement would further discourage Western powers discussing funneling weapons, training and aid toward rebel groups and army defectors.

On Monday, rebel forces advanced inside the sprawling air base of Mannagh near the border with Turkey, activists said. The Observatory said rebels captured a building inside the base, which has been under siege for months. The opposition’s Aleppo Media Center said rebels destroyed several army vehicles and captured the observation tower.

Activists also reported clashes around the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, besieged by rebels for a year. Aleppo-based activist Mohammed al-Khatib said military reinforcements, including Hezbollah fighters, have been sent to parts of Aleppo, including the two Shiite villages and north-western parts of the city. He said the government was using helicopters to reinforce its positions and resupply in those areas.

The Shiite military group has openly joined the fight in Syria and was key in assisting regime forces in recapturing the strategic town of Qusair last week. Syrian state-run media and the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV have said the regime is preparing an offensive reportedly named Operation Northern Storm to recapture Aleppo.

Moved by the Assad regime’s rapid military advance, the Obama administration began discussing Monday whether to approve lethal aid for the beleaguered rebels, and U.S. officials said a decision could come later this week.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the intense preparation for a siege on Aleppo “reaffirms the urgent need for the international community to focus its efforts on doing all we can do to support the opposition as it works to change the balance on the ground.”

Opposition leaders have warned Washington that their rebellion could face devastating and irreversible losses without greater support. Also Monday, a roadside bomb lightly damaged a van that was heading from Lebanon to Syria, Lebanese security officials said. The van was hit by the bomb, detonated remotely, in the eastern Bekaa valley but kept driving toward the border, crossing into Syria, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. There appeared to be no casualties in the bombing.

Syria’s conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Lebanon is bitterly divided over the war next door, with gunmen from rival religious sects fighting on opposite sides of the conflict. Lebanese Sunnis mostly back the opposition while many Shiites in Lebanon support Assad. The Syrian regime is dominated by members of the president’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah forces have taken an increasingly prominent role in Syria’s fighting and were key in helping Assad’s troops capture the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon, following weeks of battles with rebels.

On Monday, Syria’s Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij said Qusair’s capture last week was a “main point toward restoring security and stability to every inch of our nation.” In apparent retaliation by the rebel side, scores of rockets have been fired from Syria into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon.

Senior Hezbollah official Sheik Nabil Kaouk said it will not change it position on Syria, regardless of “how much local, regional and international pressure increases” on the Lebanese group.

Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.

Anti-Hezbollah protester killed in Lebanon

June 10, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Men wielding batons and wearing yellow arm bands evoking Lebanon’s Hezbollah attacked protesters outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut Sunday during a rally against the militant group’s participation in the Syrian civil war. One protester was killed, a senior Lebanese military official and witnesses said.

A military statement said the protesters had just arrived at the embassy area when clashes broke out and a civilian opened fire. The embassy is in a predominantly pro-Hezbollah area. Witnesses saw men wearing yellow armbands — the color of Hezbollah’s flag — attacking the protesters with batons. It was unclear if they were affiliated with the militant Shiite group, and the identity of the gunman was unknown, a senior security official said.

The official identified the man killed as a 28-year-old member of the small Lebanese Option Party, which had called for the anti-Hezbollah protest. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The Syria conflict is increasingly spilling over into Lebanon, home to a fragile mosaic of more than a dozen religious and ethnic groups. Hezbollah’s overt participation in the conflict, backing forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad in a successful campaign to drive rebels out of Qusair near the Lebanese border, heightened tensions.

The Obama administration could decide this week to approve lethal aid for the Syrian rebels, officials said Sunday. Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip Monday to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in White House discussions, said officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement Sunday that it backed the Lebanese Red Cross in evacuating since Friday 87 Syrians seriously wounded in the fighting in Qusair to hospitals in Lebanon.

The leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said during the battle for Qusair that he would side with Assad until the rebels are defeated. Assad’s Syria is Hezbollah’s main ally and supplier of weapons.

Gunmen from rival religious sects have gone to Syria to fight on the rebel side. Rebels have threatened to target Hezbollah’s bases in Lebanon. Clashes in northern Lebanon between rival Lebanese groups since last month claimed more than 28 lives, and rockets have targeted Hezbollah strongholds.

Hezbollah’s rivals have increased their criticism, deepening a political stalemate and postponing elections for 17 months. The Lebanese Option Party is headed by a Shiite politician, Ahmad El Assaad, who has long been opposed to Hezbollah. Sunday’s clash outside the Iranian Embassy marked rare fighting between two opposing Shiite groups.

The official Lebanese National News Agency said the army cordoned off the area of the clashes in southern Beirut. The private Al-Jadeed Lebanese TV said a girl who was protesting was also wounded. The station said the protester who was killed was shot twice in the leg, once in the back, and was hit on the head with a baton.

The protest at the embassy coincided with another small rally in downtown Beirut also criticizing Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria’s conflict. Dozens of protesters, including many Syrians, converged on Beirut’s central Martyrs Square where a large banner read: “Rejecting Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria.”

“Those fighting in Syria are not Lebanese. Their culture, their flag, money and weapons are Iranian,” said Saleh el-Mashnouk, an ardent critic of Hezbollah. “We are here to erase the shame that struck Lebanon because of them.”

Lebanese protester Samara el-Hariri, 31, said Syria’s war is hurting Lebanon’s economy and increasing sectarian tension. “My country is stricken,” she said. Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, has strongly backed Assad, who belongs to a Shiite offshoot.

The fighting in Syria has claimed more than 80,000 lives and displaced several million people. Beside Lebanon, it has also threatened to spill into neighboring countries, like Israel and Turkey. In Syria, fighting between government troops and rebels raged in different provinces, including near the capital, Damascus, and in the northern Aleppo province. Pro-regime media outlets said that after securing control of Qusair, government forces are preparing to move to recapture the contested city of Aleppo next. Activists said there were no signs of a new push on the city or its surrounding areas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of Syrians inside the country for information, said six regime fighters were killed in clashes in Aleppo. The city has been carved up into areas controlled by rebels and the regime, and families have been displaced by shelling.

The Observatory also documented a rare case of a public killing of a 15-year-old youth by Islamist rebel fighters in the city of Aleppo. The center said the gunmen detained Mohammed Kattaa late Saturday, accusing him of being an “infidel” for mentioning Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in vain.

The witnesses told the center the gunmen overheard the teenager arguing with a colleague, telling him that he would not lend him money even if “Muhammad comes back to earth,” a common phrase used to describe an impossible task.

The men then brought Kattan back to the coffee shop where he works, with his shirt over his face and his back covered in marks from whips, the witnesses told the Observatory. The militants threatened the same punishment for anyone who commits blasphemy, the witnesses said. Then they shot the boy in front of his parents and a crowd before fleeing the scene.

It was not clear which rebel group the gunmen belonged to. Rights groups have warned against rising abuses by rebel fighters, including killing of captured regime soldiers or allied fighters. Kattan’s case was a rare example of rebels killing a civilian for blasphemy.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Yasmine Saker, and Bradley Klapper in Washington, contributed to this report.

Austria to quit U.N.’s Golan force over Syria violence

By Crispian Balmer

BEIRUT | Thu Jun 6, 2013

(Reuters) – Austria said on Thursday it would pull out of a U.N. force on the Golan Heights after battles between Syrian troops and rebels there, in a blow to a mission that has kept the Israeli-Syrian war front quiet for 40 years.

Israel, anxious for the international mission to remain in place, worried that the Golan could become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by Islamist militants fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“While appreciating Austria’s longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

But the departure of the Austrians, who make up about 380 of the 1,000-member United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), threatens the whole operation.

“Austria has been a backbone of the mission, and their withdrawal will impact the mission’s operational capacity,” said U.N. spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero.

“The members of the Security Council expressed their deep concern at the risk that all military activities in the area of separation conducted by any actor pose to the long-held ceasefire and the local population,” the U.N. council said in a statement.

The Security Council will meet on Friday to discuss the Austrian withdrawal. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the council president this month, said peacekeeping officials were meeting with contributing countries to see whether any states would be willing to offer troops to replace the Austrians.

“We consider UNDOF to be an extremely important mission,” Lyall Grant said. “We support it and we want it to continue.”

Anti-Assad rebels briefly seized the crossing between Israel and Syria, sending U.N. staff scurrying to their shelters before Syrian soldiers managed to push them back and reassert their control of Quneitra.

The rebel attack appeared to be an attempt to regain some momentum after Assad’s forces, backed by well-trained Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, on Wednesday seized control of Qusair, a town on a vital supply route close to Lebanon.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Paski said: “We’ve been very clear about our concerns over regional instability caused by the crisis in Syria. This is of course another example of that, and we continue to call upon all parties to avoid any action that would jeopardize the long-held ceasefire between Israel and Syria.”

Meanwhile, Russia announced it has deployed a naval unit to the Mediterranean Sea in a move President Vladimir Putin said was to defend Russian security, as Moscow faces off with the West over its support for Assad’s government.

“This is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation,” Putin said.

Syrian government troops and their allies have won a string of successes in recent weeks, boosting Assad at a time when the United States and Russia are struggling to organize a peace conference aimed at ending the civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

Looking to ram home their victory, Assad’s troops have turned their fire on villages northeast of Qusair, where hundreds of rebels and civilians were holed up, prompting one group of activists to issue a desperate plea for rebel support.

“God has given us the strength to persevere, but until when only God knows. We beg you to move as quickly as possible to rescue us,” said a message posted on social networking sites.

Shortly afterwards, Syrian television announced that the army had “restored security and stability” to one of the villages in its sights – Debaa.

France, which earlier this week accused Assad of deploying nerve gas in the civil war, said on Wednesday the situation on the ground needed to be “rebalanced” after the fall of Qusair, but did not say how that could be achieved.

Russia said it was concerned that allegations of gas attacks might be used as a pretext for foreign intervention.

“I do not rule out that somebody wants to use it to state that a red line has been crossed and a foreign intervention is necessary,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow with his German and Finnish counterparts.

QUAGMIRE

Western countries have shown little appetite for getting sucked into the Syrian conflict, but there is also a clear aversion to letting Assad, heavily backed by Shi’ite Iran and their Hezbollah associates, emerge victorious.

France and Britain last month pushed the European Union to drop its ban on arming the rebels, who are mainly Sunni Muslims. London and Paris have not yet said if they plan to arm the fighters. They wanted the ban lifted to apply pressure on Assad.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was negotiating with Syria to reach areas surrounding Qusair to deliver medical assistance to the wounded. Humanitarian groups have estimated that up to 1,500 people might need help.

“Today the conflict is extremely fragmented, and this is one of the biggest operational challenges for the ICRC,” said Robert Mardini, the head of Red Cross operations in the Middle East.

Qusair lies along a corridor through the central province of Homs, linking the capital Damascus to the coastal heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Many rebels and civilians fled the town early on Wednesday, heading to the villages of Debaa, 5 kilometers (3 miles) northeast, and Buwayda, another 7 km in the same direction.

“We have a large number of civilians and wounded in Buwayda,” said activist Mohammed al-Qusair.

Russia, which has thrown its weight firmly behind Assad West, cautioned Damascus that the conflict could only be resolved through diplomacy.

“The undoubted military success of the government forces should not in our opinion be used by anyone to create the illusion about the possibility of solving all the problems faced by Syria by force,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

With sectarian divisions widening in the region, the leader of Sunni Islamist group Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Syrians to unite against Assad and thwart what he called U.S. plans to set up a client state to safeguard Israel’s security.

NEIGHBORING PROBLEMS

The longer the civil war has continued, the more neighboring countries have felt the spillover.

Two men died after a gunfight with Lebanese soldiers near the Syrian border early Thursday, while the Turkish military said one Turkish soldier was wounded in a clash with gunmen who were part of a group of about 500 people trying to reach Turkey.

Israel, which has kept a wary eye on the Golan Heights, exchanging sporadic fire with assailants and warning of swift retaliation should its forces come under attack, said it expected the United Nations to maintain the monitoring mission.

Austria defended its decision to leave, saying it could no longer justify its troop presence.

“Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said in a statement.

Japanese and Croatian troops also have left the UNDOF in recent months, while the Philippines has said it might leave after Syrian rebels held its peacekeepers captive.

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, Michael Shields in Vienna and Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations.; Writing by Christopher Wilson; Editing by Jim Loney)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/06/us-syria-crisis-idUSBRE9530VE20130606.

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