Archive for July, 2013

Turkey warns Syrian Kurd leader against autonomy plans

AFP – Sat, Jul 27, 2013

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned against any plans for an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria as officials met the leader of the war-torn country’s main Kurdish group Friday.

Turkish government officials held talks with Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is seen as the Syrian branch of Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Erdogan confirmed press reports of the meeting and said the PYD’s “dangerous actions” would be on the agenda.

“They will be given the necessary warnings,” said the prime minister, whose government is negotiating an end to the three-decade insurgency by the PKK.

Syrian Kurds made rapid advances in the north earlier this week, expelling jihadists from a string of villages, as mistrust between Kurds and Arabs grows.

Fighting hit a series of ethnically mixed villages in the northern province of Raqa on the border with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The latest violence in those areas has resulted in the death of three people on the Turkish side of the border, killed by stray bullets of shells.

While Muslim’s PYD has announced plans for a temporary autonomous state in Kurdish areas, the jihadists seek the creation of an Islamic state across Syria.

Kurds make up 10 percent of Syria’s total population, with most living in the north of the embattled country.

Since the outbreak of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad more than two years ago, most Kurds have tried to ensure that their territory remained free of violence.

In mid-2012, Assad’s forces withdrew from majority Kurdish areas, and Kurdish militia became responsible for security there.

Although many Kurds are hostile to a regime that has oppressed them for decades, they have also tried to keep the rebels out of the areas they control in order to avoid sparking a confrontation with the army.

Lebanon imposes new entry controls on Syrians

2013-07-24

Beirut says it will recognize as refugees only those fleeing parts of Syria in bid to reduce friction between Lebanese and thousands of Syrian refugees.

BEIRUT – The Lebanese government imposed new entry controls on Syrians on Tuesday in a bid to reduce friction between the host population and the 600,000 who have already crossed.

Ministers said they had no intention of closing the border to refugees fleeing the devastating 28-month conflict in their homeland.

But they said that in future they would recognize as refugees only those fleeing parts of Syria that have been wracked by violence.

“There is an influx that is not motivated by humanitarian needs,” Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas said.

“The security forces are therefore going to start checking whether those arriving at the border come from a war-ravaged area before regarding them as refugees. Those who do not will be granted entry as ordinary visitors.”

Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Fawr said that from next week special teams would start shutting down the unlicensed Syrian-run businesses that have mushroomed, particularly in the eastern Bekaa valley region near the border.

“A security service team recorded 377 illegal businesses in just six villages in the Bekaa,” he said.

“Any refugee fleeing the killings, hunger and destruction is welcome but they must respect the laws of Lebanon.

“They have the right to work to feed themselves on building sites or other sectors but not in trade or in businesses that require a permit.”

Many Syrian refugees are forced to sleep rough on the streets because they can not afford to rent somewhere to live.

But the presence of 600,000 alongside a population of just four million has sparked mounting friction.

A recent opinion poll found that 54 percent of respondents believed Lebanon should close its doors to the refugees. A full 82 percent said that the refugees were stealing jobs from Lebanese.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60312.

Syrian Kurds score more victories in ongoing battle against Jihadists

2013-07-23

BEIRUT – Syrian Kurds made rapid advances in the north of the country Tuesday, expelling jihadists from several villages, as a gulf of mistrust between Arabs and Kurds grew, a watchdog and activists said.

Tuesday’s fighting hit several villages including Yabseh, Kandal and Jalbeh, which lie in the northern province of Raqa on Syria’s border with Turkey and are home to a mixture of ethnic and religious communities, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It also reported that the Kurds expelled the jihadists from Kur Hassu, Atwan, Sarej and Khirbet Alu villages in the same area, which lies near the majority Kurdish town of Cobany.

In Hasake to the east, Kurdish-jihadist fighting went into the seventh consecutive day in the Jal Agha area and other villages in the majority Kurdish province, the Observatory added.

The latest battles come a week after fighters loyal to the Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG) expelled the jihadist Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) from the strategic Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain in Hasake province.

Ever since, fighting has spread from Hasakeh in northeastern Syria to several hotspots in Raqa province in the north.

At least 70, most of them jihadists, have been killed in eight consecutive days of Kurdish-jihadist fighting, said the Observatory.

“What we are seeing is the spreading of fighting between Kurds and jihadists westwards, across areas that are home to both Arab and Kurdish communities,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Though the fighting is between jihadists and organized Kurdish forces, there is “a growing gulf between Kurdish and Arab residents of these areas,” Abdel Rahman said.

“The battle is morphing from a fight between the YPG and the jihadists to a struggle between Kurds and Arabs as a whole.”

Prior to the outbreak of the 2011 revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the Kurds suffered for decades from marginalization and oppression at the hands of the Syrian regime.

When the revolt erupted, one of the first measures taken by Assad was to grant the Syrian nationality to Kurds who had up until then been deprived of this right.

Then, starting mid-2012, Assad’s forces withdrew from Kurdish regions which now are run by local Kurdish councils.

The Kurds, who represent about 15 percent of the Syrian population, have since walked a fine line, trying to avoid antagonizing either the regime or the rebels.

But as abuses by jihadist groups in areas that have fallen out of Assad’s control mounted, the Kurds announced they would seek a temporary autonomous state and establish a constitution.

The speedy developments have brought to the surface a deep-seated mistrust that has been heightened by the Syrian opposition’s failure to adequately represent Kurdish groups, activists say.

“There hasn’t been real trust at the political level since the start” of the revolt, Syrian Kurdish activist Havidar said via the Internet.

“We (Kurds) all stood by the revolution but unfortunately the Syrian opposition… has played games with the Kurds… and marginalized them,” Havidar said.

As a consequence, “there is a very obvious divide now” between Kurds and Arabs, he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60293.

Syria rebels seize strategic regime bastion in Aleppo

2013-07-22

BEIRUT – Syria’s rebels on Monday seized the strategic town of Khan al-Assal, a regime bastion in the northern province of Aleppo, a monitoring group said.

They also took two villages located southeast of Aleppo, as they advanced towards cutting off the army’s supply route to Syria’s second city.

Khan al-Assal was the last regime bastion in the west of Aleppo province, which lies on the Turkish border, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The town lies on a road linking the province to the western part of Aleppo city where rebels have stepped up their bids to break a year-long stalemate and take control of areas still in regime hands.

Large swathes of northern and eastern Syria are in rebel control, while much of central and southern Syria is squarely held by regime forces.

“Opposition fighters have taken control of the town of Khan al-Assal, which is strategically located in the west of Aleppo province,” said the Britain-based Observatory.

The rebel Ninth Division, which is deployed in the western part of Aleppo city, also announced it had captured Khan al-Assal in an online video.

“We the leadership of the Ninth Division announce that the town of Khan al-Assal has been completely liberated,” a rebel commander said in a video posted on YouTube.

The Observatory said clashes also raged on the southern outskirts of Khan al-Assal.

The rebels had tried for several months to advance on Khan al-Assal.

The town’s biggest battle took place in March, when the rebels took control of the police academy and temporarily seized several other positions.

The eight-day battle killed 200 rebels and government forces.

Both sides also traded accusations that chemical weapons were used in Khan al-Assal and killed around 30 people, according to toll released in March by the Observatory and the regime.

The rebels also seized on Monday the villages of Obeida and Hajireh southeast of Aleppo city, the Observatory said.

The takeover comes amid a rebel attempt to cut off the army’s main supply route linking Hama in central Syria to Aleppo in the north.

Meanwhile in Damascus, the loyalist air force staged two strikes against the eastern district of Jobar, home to sizeable pockets of resistance to the army, the Observatory said.

It also reported violence in southern Damascus and said the entrance to the Yarmuk Palestinian camp had been closed, a day after an army assault on rebel positions in the district.

Monday’s violence comes a day after at least 232 people were killed across Syria, said the Observatory, adding the toll was one of the highest in the 28-month conflict.

Some 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011, according to Observatory figures.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60275.

Syria opposition hails EU’s blacklisting Hezbollah

July 23, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group on Tuesday welcomed an EU decision to place the military wing of Hezbollah on the bloc’s terror list as a “step in the right direction,” and called for the Lebanese militant group’s leaders to be put on trial for their role in the Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, has sent its fighters to bolster President Bashar Assad’s forces in their assault on rebel-held areas in Syria. The group was instrumental in helping government forces seize the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last month, and its members are believed to be fighting alongside regime forces in the central province of Homs.

The Shiite group’s role is highly divisive in Lebanon and has outraged the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting in Syria to topple Assad. The EU’s 28 foreign ministers placed Hezbollah’s military wing on its terror list on Monday after prolonged diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and Israel, which consider the group a terrorist organization.

Some European countries had pushed for EU action, citing a terrorist attack in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian. Hezbollah’s military wing was accused of involvement, an allegation it denied. In March, a criminal court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island.

But several EU nations have pointed to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria as further reason for the move. The Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition umbrella group, hailed the EU decision but stressed the need for European countries to take “concrete steps that would contribute to stopping the militia’s involvement in Syria.”

“We call for Hezbollah leaders to be put on trial for the terrorist crimes they committed on Syrian territory,” the SNC said in a statement. It did not say where they should face trial, and the prospects of senior Hezbollah figures ever appearing in a courtroom to answer for the Iranian-backed group’s role in Syria appear dim.

Iran, meanwhile, said the European Union’s decision was “strange” and “uncalculated” and said it serves Israel’s interests. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi told a news conference in Tehran Tuesday that the designation won’t change Hezbollah’s “popular and justice-seeking identity.”

In Syria, an al-Qaida-linked group warned civilians to stay off a road linking central Syria with the northern province of Aleppo, declaring it a military zone, as the rebels try to cut one of the regime’s main routes for supplying its forces in the north, activists said Tuesday.

The warning comes a day after rebels went on the offensive in Syria’s north, seizing three villages in the province where a military stalemate has been in place since last summer. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center said that Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, is threatening to target any vehicle using the road starting Wednesday. A copy of the warning was posted online.

The regime uses the route to ferry supplies to its forces in the north because the rebels already have severed the main north-south highway that connects Damascus with the embattled city of Aleppo, where regime forces have battled rebels in vicious street fighting for a year. The desert road was paved and opened by regime forces earlier this year.

The statement, which was stamped with the Nusra Front emblem, said the Syrian military “opened this road to civilian cars and trucks when in fact it is a military road.” “There are daily clashes and military operations there. Holy warriors have booby-trapped the road,” it said, instructing civilians not to use the road and claiming that the army will be using them as “human shields to cover its movements.”

If the rebels succeed in cutting the road, it will be a major blow to the regime, making it more difficult to bring in military reinforcements as well as other supplies to Aleppo province, most of which is under rebel control.

Jordan King in Egypt: First visit by Arab leader since Morsi’s ouster

2013-07-20

After being among first leaders to congratulate Egyptians, King Abdullah II arrives in Cairo amid heightened political tensions.

CAIRO – Jordan’s King Abdullah II arrived in Cairo on Saturday, in the first visit by a head of state to Egypt since ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, state media reported.

The monarch had been among the first leaders to congratulate Egyptians after the army overthrew Morsi following mass protests calling for him to resign.

Abdullah, who faces challenges at home from Islamists, was met at the airport by military-backed interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, the official MENA news agency reported.

Both Jordan and Egypt have been key mediators between Israel and the Palestinians, which the United States says have agreed to lay the groundwork to resume peace negotiations.

Abdullah is likely to discuss the renewed talks with Egypt.

But his visit may also be aimed at conferring legitimacy on the new military-installed regime, which is fighting a public relations war abroad to burnish its credentials as a legitimate regime.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=60232.

In Jordan, the Arab Spring Isn’t Over

JUL 19 2013

DAVID ROHDE

The country’s leadership must realize that growing authoritarianism won’t foster stability.

Amman, Jordan — After the Egyptian army toppled President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the U.S. Congress expressed the sentiment of many in Washington.

“The army is the only stable institution in the country,” he said.

In the Western media, Arab Spring post-mortems proliferated, including a 15-page special report in The Economist that asked, “Has the Arab Spring failed?” The answer: “That view is at best premature, at worst wrong.”

Here in Jordan, Arab Spring inspired protests demanding King Abdullah II cede power to an elected government has petered out. A crackdown on the media that shut down 300 websites last month elicited little protest.

“We are witnessing a swift return to a police state,” said Labib Kamhawi, an opposition figure accused last year of violating a law that bars Jordanians from defaming the king. “You will find everything controlled.”

Yet analysts, opposition members and former government officials say that the Arab Spring has paused here — not ended. The underlying economic issues which prompted the protests that toppled governments across the Middle East and North Africa remain in place. Arab rulers and U.S. officials are both mistaken if they think they can rely on generals and regents to produce long-term stability.

“The political energy that was released around the Arab world and Jordan in 2011 has not dissipated,” said Robert Blecher, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group. “The problems that gave birth to the Arab uprisings have not been solved.”

What, then, is happening in Jordan? Simply put, Jordanians look north to Syria and southwest to Egypt and are frightened by what they see. Brutal civil wars and street clashes have tempered the desire for rapid change. Though Abdullah limits speech here, he is not nearly as brutal as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And events in Egypt have made young, secular Jordanians loathe to live under the Muslim Brotherhood. In short, Jordanians are waiting.

“I’m less aggressive toward the king because I saw what the Islamists could do, I see what is happening in the region,” said Alaa Fazzaa, the editor of one of the shuttered websites. “I’m waiting for the right time to attack.”

In a region where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, the economic problems are colossal. And a younger generation bent on economic opportunity and basic political rights will not accept a permanent return to authoritarianism. Jordan is a case in point.

The global economic slowdown halved economic growth in Jordan from 6 percent to 3 percent over the last three years. Jordan’s official unemployment rate is 12.5 percent, with youth unemployment estimated to be twice that. More than 550,000 Syrian refugees have flooded the foreign-aid-dependent, oil- and water-starved desert kingdom of 6 million.

Oraib al Rantawi, the director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies here, said that the biggest concerns that Jordanians express in opinion polls are not political.

“The top five priorities for Jordanians are economic,” he said. “You will find political reform on number 10 or number 11.”

To his credit, Abdullah, 51, is one of the most liberal monarchs in the Middle East. After he ascended to the throne in1999, he was widely hailed as a modernizer. Yet in recent years, his reforms have slowed and popularity ebbed.

A March profile of the king published in The Atlantic provoked fury in Jordan. In the piece, which the palace disputed, the king was quoted as disparaging intelligence chiefs, the Muslim Brotherhood, tribal elders, U.S. diplomats, regional leaders and his own family. He said local politicians had failed to take advantage of reforms he enacted and mocked one nascent party’s social and economic manifesto.

“It’s all about ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I’m in his tribe,'” the king said in the Atlantic story. “I want this guy to develop a program that at least people will begin to understand.”

But critics insist Abdullah’s reforms are illusory. Jordan has a prime minister and an elected lower house of parliament, but the regent can fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament at will. In the past five years, he has sent six prime ministers packing.

Luckily for Abdullah, Jordan’s wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is proving as politically clumsy as its Egyptian brethren. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood boycotted legislative elections this year. A decent turnout allowed Abdullah to declare the elections credible and left the country’s largest opposition group without a voice in parliament.

At the same time, as fighting rages in Syria and Secretary of State John Kerry pushes for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Washington needs Abdullah. Calls for reform from Washington have grown muted of late.

“In 2011, they were saying do reform and do it quick,” said Blecher, the ICG analyst. “The message is much weaker now.”

Vast economic problems remain in Jordan. Next month, the government will carry out a long delayed, International Monetary Fund-mandated increase in electricity prices. When an IMF required cut in fuel subsides was enacted last fall, riots erupted.

Believing that kings and generals can bring instant stability to today’s Middle East is fanciful. Abdullah must enact sweeping economic reforms, crackdown on corruption and begin to cede power to an elected government. And Washington should encourage him every step of the way.

The clock cannot be turned back in the Middle East. In the short term, more turmoil lies ahead. In the long-run, growing economies, not growing authoritarianism, will foster stability.

Source: The Atlantic.

Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/07/in-jordan-the-arab-spring-isnt-over/277964/.