Archive for September, 2013

Syrian refugees land in Italy

(By Emily Backus) (ANSA) – Rome, August 26 – More Syrian refugees landed on Italian shores over the weekend in a humanitarian crisis that appears to be spilling even into Europe’s lap.

Ninety-eight refugees from Syria on Saturday were intercepted by a patrol of Frontex, the European agency for cooperation and management of EU borders. They were aboard a ship at sea about 40 miles south of the Sicilian coastal town of Porto Palo. Twenty-five children and eight women were aboard. The Syrian refugees were among hundreds this weekend alone from distressed countries – Tunisia, Eritrea and Somalia – who risked their lives in dodgy vessels to be rescued near or found on Italian shores. Syrians have featured all summer long among migrants daring the sea from various parts of the Middle East and Africa, who are generally placed by Italian authorities in migrant detention centers for identification, processing, and possible expulsion. On a visit to the migrant island of Lampedusa last month, Pope Francis asked God to forgive European policy makers’ indifference while hailing immigrants’ efforts to seek better lives.

He also asked to mourn the many lives lost at sea.

Last week the UNHCR and UNICEF in Geneva said one million children have fled fighting in Syria, about three quarters of whom are under age 11. In the words of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the survival and well-being of an entire generation of innocent children is at stake.

“The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures.

Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatized, depressed and in need of a reason for hope,” he added. Children account for over half of the two million refugees who have fled Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Syrians are arriving in North Africa and, embarking across the sea to Europe ever more often.

The price paid by Syrian children in the conflict – now in its third year – is enormous.

In addition to the one million child refugees, there are some two million displaced children in Syria. The UN estimates that at least 7,000 children have been killed in the conflict, while child refugees are often exposed to threats such as forced labor, early marriage and sexual exploitation.

Source: La Gazzeta.

Link: http://www.lagazzettadelmezzogiorno.it/english/syrian-refugees-land-in-italy-no647898/.

French military preparing for Syria operation

August 29, 2013

PARIS (AP) — France said openly Thursday for the first time that its military is preparing for a possible operation in Syria — but President Francois Hollande stopped short of announcing armed intervention over a suspected chemical weapons attack.

Expectations have been mounting that the United States, France and Britain are preparing military action against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime after an apparent poison gas attack in Syria on Aug. 21. U.N. experts are currently in Syria investigating what happened.

Hollande does not need French parliamentary approval to launch military action that lasts less than four months. He appears to have a stronger hand than his U.S. and British counterparts, who are facing some resistance at home to a Syrian intervention amid questions over the attack.

While Hollande has spoken firmly against Assad’s regime, the French military has been quiet about its plans. On Thursday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “The Armed Forces have been put in position to respond” if the president commits French forces to an international intervention in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that France and its allies are preparing an “indispensable” response and that it should be “thought-out, proportionate and firm.” Hollande on Thursday stressed the importance of a political solution and making the Syrian opposition a stronger alternative, notably with increased firepower.

“We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration,” Hollande said after meeting Syrian opposition leader Ahmad al-Jarba.

France has a dozen cruise missile-capable fighter aircraft at military bases in the United Arab Emirates and the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. France’s military was at the forefront of the NATO-led attacks on Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and led an intervention against extremists in Mali earlier this year.

French military officials confirmed that the frigate Chevalier Paul, which specializes in anti-missile and air-air capabilities, as well as the hulking transport ship Dixmude, had set off Thursday from the Mediterranean port of Toulon as part of normal training and operational preparations — but denied reports that the move was linked to a Syrian intervention.

Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

Senator warns Hizbullah may have chemical weapons; Jordan’s king could be toppled

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

WASHINGTON — The administration of President Barack Obama has been warned that Syria’s chemical weapons could be dispersed and that Jordan could collapse.

A leading senator said the Hashemite kingdom was under tremendous strain from the civil war in neighboring Jordan. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Jordan’s King Abdullah could not bear the huge Syrian refugee population as well as threats from Iran and Al Qaida-aligned rebels.

“You ask me about my biggest fear would be to lose the king of Jordan for prolonged war, that the Al Qaida elements of the rebels could wind up seizing the chemical weapons cache, that Assad would share chemical weapons or advance Russian weapons with Hizbullah, which would be a direct threat,” Graham said.

Over the last few months, Graham has repeatedly warned of Jordan’s vulnerability. In July, the senator told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Abdullah said in 2012 that the influx of Syrian refugees — now reported at more than 650,000 — could destroy his regime. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he shared that concern.

“Will [Abdullah] be in power a year from now?” Graham asked Dempsey. “I have met with him and he is concerned with the demographic change. He told me last year he did not think he will be there in another year because there will be a million Syrian refugees destabilizing Jordan. Do you agree with that?”

“That is his concern,” Dempsey replied.

Earlier, Graham said Abdullah could not face an emboldened regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The senator urged Obama to use Jordan and Turkey to neutralize Assad’s military, backed by Iran and Russia.

“So the balance of power is really now on Assad’s side,” Graham told a television roundtable on June 13. “And if we don’t do more than add AK-47s into the mix, he will continue to win. And the king of Jordan is going to become toast.”

One option raised by Graham was the use of Jordan and Turkey to establish a no-fly zone in Syria to protect Sunni rebels. Graham cited the U.S. deployment of F-16 multi-role fighters and PAC-3 air and missile defense systems in the kingdom.

Graham, in close contact with Abdullah, envisioned the fall of the Hashemite kingdom and its replacement by an Al Qaida-aligned regime.

He said Washington must ensure the departure of Assad for regional stability.

“But if the war lasts six, four months, Jordan’s going to go,” Graham said. “And Israel’s going to be surrounded by a Syria on fire, Jordan more radical, and Egypt becoming more radical. The whole region’s about to blow up. And our foreign policy to me, I don’t understand it. Whatever it is is not working.”

Source: World Tribune.

Link: http://www.worldtribune.com/2013/08/27/senator-warns-hizbullah-may-have-chemical-weapons-jordans-king-could-be-toppled/.

Israel airlifts 450 Ethiopians to the Jewish state

August 28, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli authorities have completed what they say is the final large airlift of Ethiopian immigrants, ending decades of efforts to bring the remnants of an ancient community to the Jewish state.

Tali Aronsky, spokeswoman for the semi-official Jewish Agency, says 450 people arrived Wednesday. They are Falash Mura, a community whose ancestors converted from Judaism to Christianity under duress about 100 years ago, but managed to keep some Jewish customs.

Aronsky said the airlift caps a three-year operation that brought in 7,000 Falash Mura. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews live in Israel. Many arrived in secret airlifts in 1984 and 1990. Small numbers of Falash Mura remain behind in Ethiopia. Dozens of their relatives held a protest at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem Wednesday to demand Israel bring them over.

Israel pushes forth with settlement plans

August 26, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel pushed forward Sunday with plans to construct 1,500 apartments in east Jerusalem in a move that could undermine recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

City spokeswoman Brachie Sprung said city officials had approved plans to lay down infrastructure for the project. She called the move a “standard and bureaucratic process” and said final government approval was still required. Actual construction is still years away, she said.

Still, the move comes just after Israelis and Palestinians resumed talks after a five-year stalemate. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is one of the thornier issues separating the two sides.

The city is pushing development in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, a project that has also raised tensions with the U.S. Israel first announced the plans in 2010 during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, sparking a diplomatic rift with Washington that took months to mend.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem following its 1967 war with its Arab neighbors and claims the area as an inseparable part of its capital. The Palestinians also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state. About 200,000 Jews and roughly 250,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem, which is home to sensitive Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.

While Israelis consider east Jerusalem enclaves neighborhoods like others in the city, the international community doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of the area and rejects the areas as illegal or illegitimate settlements.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi accused Israel of playing a “dangerous game” by moving ahead with the plans. “It seems they’re pushing ahead with infrastructure as though this is not a basic part of settlement activity!” she wrote in an email.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment.

Israeli navy grapples with defending Med gas fields

Haifa, Israel (UPI)
Jul 26, 2013

Amid signs Israel’s effort to patch up relations with one-time ally Turkey is in difficulties, the prospect of exporting gas from offshore fields to Europe via a pipeline under the eastern Mediterranean to Turkey would seem to be dimming.

That suggests more interest in a liquefied gas system aimed at lucrative exports to Asia via the Red Sea.

Either way, Israel’s navy is trying to figure out how best to protect the Jewish state’s expanding gas industry– and if current plans work out, oil production as well — from a wide spectrum of security threats that seem to be growing by the day amid the violence convulsing the Middle East.

Israel’s Globes business daily reports the navy’s at odds with the Defense Ministry over two bids to supply naval vessels from Germany and South Korea.

It seems the navy’s top brass decided in April in favor of the German vessel, while the ministry favors the South Korean even though it’s $105.4 million more expensive.

Globes said if the ministry decides to put the issue to tender, “it means a delay of almost three years in protecting the gas rigs, protection which was supposed to be ready this year.”

The navy has said it needs a minimum of four 1,200-ton patrol-class warships to protect the offshore platforms, of which there are likely to end up being at least 20, up to 80 miles off Israel’s coastline.

These will need to be armed with a range of weapons systems to counter different kinds of attack — armed speedboats, torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, frogmen, suicide strikes, possibly even suicide air attacks.

The navy estimates the system will cost $700 million, plus $100 million more annually to maintain — this at a time the Defense Ministry’s having to make hefty budget cuts.

But the gas fields, currently estimated to contain around 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, are vital strategic assets that will earn an estimated $60 billion in export revenue over the next two decades.

Discussions between Israel and Turkey to end a rupture triggered by the Israeli naval commandos killing nine Turks when the navy intercepted a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip have deadlocked amid some acrimony, despite the personal intervention of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Jerusalem Post Thursday quoted Israeli officials with knowledge of the deliberations as saying the Turks ” are not interested in a diplomatic reconciliation, but rather in humiliating it and bringing to its knees.”

There had been hopes the prospect of the undersea pipeline from Israel’s gas fields for eventual delivery to Europe, cutting its dependence on Russian gas, would bring the two military powers back together as U.S. allies in a region undergoing profound change.

But security experts say the Turkish option, which involves infrastructure outside Israeli waters, is less secure than the main alternative, establishing a floating liquefied natural gas plant within Israel’s security envelope.

Abraham Sofaer, former adviser to Noble Energy of Texas which discovered Israel’s gas fields and is the majority stakeholder, told an energy conference in Tel Aviv: “Since distribution and transportation infrastructure are the most vulnerable aspects of oil and gas production, additional infrastructure and transport requirements beyond Israel’s control could increase risks significantly.”

He stressed nearly 70 percent of terrorist attacks on oil and gas facilities in 1999-2005 targeted pipelines and transport networks, while only 15 percent hit production facilities.

By using a floating LNG plant, he said, “all security efforts would be concentrated at the drilling platform and FLNG facility, thereby reducing other, greater risks in natural gas production and transportation. Experts regard the risks of protecting vessels transporting LNG significantly lower than those of protecting pipelines and other stationary facilities.”

David Wurmser, founder and head of Washington’s Delphi Global Analysis Group, observed in a recent paper Israel “will likely send the bulk of any gas it exports eastward,” possibly from Eilat on the Red Sea, thus avoiding the Suez Canal.

“The new gas trade … will echo the shift already under way in Israel’s export patterns more broadly as Israel’s economy increases trade with Asia while deceasing trade with Europe.

“This new energy trade and expanding hydrocarbon exports to Asia will coincide with and reinforce Israel’s broader plan to offer a strategic alternative to the Suez Canal,” Wurmser noted.

Source: Energy-Daily.
Link: http://www.energy-daily.com/reports/Israeli_navy_grapples_with_defending_Med_gas_fields_999.html.

Insight: Syria’s opposition considers national rebel army, Islamists angered

By Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT | Sun Aug 25, 2013

(Reuters) – Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.

The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.

Chaos among opposition forces and al-Qaeda’s growing role are barriers to any intervention.

Plans for an army are still under wraps but details began emerging earlier this month before the gas attack. It has the blessing of the rebels’ patron Saudi Arabia, which took over as the main regional backer of Assad’s foes earlier this year.

“It is very serious. It will be a proper army. The future of Syria depends on this move,” said a senior member of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, which hopes to set up the force.

Momentum behind the new force comes from Saudi Arabia and Western nations who, alarmed by the growth of radical Islamists in rebel-held areas, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian Coalition, hoping it could help stem their power.

“Once we get the (battle)field organized, then everything will be organized,” he said. “This will be the army of the new Syria. We want to integrate its ranks and unify the sources of funding and arms,” the Syrian National Coalition member said.

Saudi Arabia has prevailed over Qatar to impose itself as the main outside force supporting the Syrian rebels, in part to counter the influence of Qatari-backed Islamist militants.

Riyadh has put forward $100 million as preliminary funding for a force planned to be 6,000 to 10,000 strong, rebels say.

Sources in the Coalition said the aim was to form a core of several thousand well-trained fighters that would also serve as the base for a bigger national army once Assad was toppled, avoiding a military vacuum and anarchy.

More than two years of a revolt-turned civil war have turned Syria into a magnet for jihadists from across the world, fuelling fears foreign military assistance might fall into the hands of fighters hostile to the West.

That has served only to strengthen the hand of Islamist brigades whose regional backers, many of them private Gulf donors, have been more forthcoming with support.

In recent weeks, al Qaeda-linked groups attacked several Alawite villages in the coastal province of Latakia, Assad’s stronghold. They also seized a strategic airport in Aleppo province that Syrian rebels failed for months to take.

Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front, both of which acknowledge the authority of al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahri, are now the ultimate rulers in many rebel-held towns.

The authority of the Supreme Military Council – the latest body that Western and Gulf powers have promoted as a moderate, unified rebel command – is increasingly challenged by radical Islamists and foreign jihadists, most recently when an Iraqi Islamist killed one of its senior commanders.

The Military Council demanded that the man, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, be arrested, but he remains at large, playing a prominent role in rebel campaigns.

ISLAMISTS OPPOSED

Rebel commanders contacted by Reuters in Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa, Homs and Damascus said they feared the new army would deepen divisions among rebels and lead to further infighting. Comments from Islamists played into those fears.

“The real goal behind this army is that they want to fight Islamists,” said a commander of a powerful Islamist brigade in Idlib province. “It’s an open game. They will not announce it now or immediately, but this is the long term for it … We will not join, for sure. Not only us, but many others, too.”

A source in Aleppo close to al-Nusra Front said: “With every passing day, those living outside are becoming tools to the West … They fear Islam and see it as the enemy. Unfortunately, some Syrians are falling into this trap.”

Western-backed rebels say the new structure might be modeled on U.S.-backed militias, known as “Awakening Councils”, which drove al Qaeda from Iraq’s Anbar region six years ago.

The leader of one moderate Islamist brigade, which operates in several parts of the country, said he supported the proposal, but would not say if his fighters would join.

Leaders of more radical groups see it as a Western-backed plot to fight them. “They are undermining the work of all of us. They want to throw it in the bin, as if it never happened,” said a senior commander in Homs province.

Opposition political sources were careful not to portray the new army as a challenge to Islamists, but a senior official said it would only welcome them if they left their brigades.

“This will be an army like any other army in the world. When you join it you leave your beliefs outside. Islamists can join as individuals, not as Islamists.”

The new body is not an alliance of brigades, as in previous attempts to unify insurgency groups; individual fighters will be expected to leave their units to sign up.

The Homs commander said that showed the real intention was to dismantle the Islamist units. “This thing is very suspicious,” he said.

Many Syrians initially welcomed the Islamists for bringing order to the chaos of rebel-held territories, but growing resentment of their puritanical rule could win popular sympathy for any new force that challenges them.

Activists in the northern, rebel-held provinces, where Islamists are most powerful, say those criticizing the Islamists are threatened or imprisoned.

“We have challenged Assad when he was strong, and now we are being bullied by radicals who are not even Syrians in our Syria,” said an activist in Aleppo who declined to be named.

With weapons and money flooding into the country, a class of warlords has emerged, including Islamists, who have grown powerful on arms deals and oil smuggling. Activists in the north complain of high levels of theft, bullying and thuggery.

“With this army the Coalition will have a military force on the ground, one that is composed of the best Syrian fighters,” said a Syrian rebel commander in a powerful brigade that has fighters across Syria.

Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba “wants to strike with an iron fist”, he said, adding that the Saudi-backed Jarba wanted all weapons entering Syria to be overseen by his coalition.

However, the al Qaeda-linked rebels control many border crossings in the north, giving them strong influence over what enters the country and who gets hold of it.

The proposed new force must also overcome the same skepticism many fighters feel towards the Military Council.

A rebel commander in the north-eastern Raqqa province, voicing widely shared views, dismissed the body as ineffective and subject to foreign influence.

“They do not have a presence on the ground. They left us on our own. When we need them, they are not here, and then they come and ask us: Where are you getting your funding from? Well, not from you for sure.

“They are only performing external agendas. They don’t know what is happening inside; their people tell them Islamists are the enemies, you need to fight them to get funding, so they come to us and they say: Yes, let’s fight Islamists.”

LAUNCHING FROM THE SOUTH

Sources say the army will be launched, at a date yet to be fixed, in Deraa, the southern province that was the cradle of the 2011 uprising and where the presence of jihadists is still relatively weak.

Jordan is now playing a bigger role in helping the rebels and is more flexible in allowing weapons to enter the southern front, the sources said. A military operations room to oversee the battle in the south is now in Jordan and includes Saudi, Syrian and American officers.

One of the sources said Manaf Tlas, a senior army officer and former friend of Assad who defected last year, is also a member of the joint operation room. He is close to Jarba and has good ties to Saudi Arabia. His name has been floated as the chief of the new army.

But many rebels distrust Tlas because he waited months before defecting, and his father served as defense minister under Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, for three decades.

A Coalition official declined to say whether Tlas would head the new army but said he would welcome him having a role. “The man has been an advocate of this from the beginning.”

However, an Islamist commander in Aleppo said Tlas’s leadership would be “another reason why we will not join”.

In the meantime, most agree that the disparate groups should work together, at least in temporary alliances against Assad’s troops. But they share a skepticism that the new group will ever see the light of day, or have much impact if it does.

“During this revolution we have seen many great ideas and many great attempts destroyed because of mismanagement. The Free Syrian Army is an example of this. As long as the roots of the problems are not solved, then nothing will change.”

“They are all failed projects; there is no awareness among those leading this revolution and also there is no clear strategy. In addition to this you have got the hesitation from the West. As long as this continues, this will be a failed project.”

(Editing by Dominic Evans, Will Waterman and Philippa Fletcher)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/25/us-syria-rebels-idUSBRE97O07I20130825.