Archive for January 10th, 2014

Syrian opposition group on brink of collapse

January 09, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Two weeks ahead of an international peace conference on Syria, the country’s main Western-backed opposition group stands on the brink of collapse, dragged down by outside pressures, infighting and deep disagreements over the basic question of whether to talk to President Bashar Assad.

The crisis in the Syrian National Coalition raises further doubts about the so-called Geneva conference, which is set to open Jan. 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. The prospects for a successful outcome at the talks appear bleak at best: Assad has said he will not hand over power, and the opposition — if it decides to attend — is in no position to force concessions from him.

The U.S. and Russia, which support opposing sides in the conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people, have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the table for negotiations aimed at ending the war. But with the fighting deadlocked, neither the government nor the rebels showed any interest in compromise, forcing the meeting to be repeatedly postponed.

Now that a date has been set and invitations sent, the decision on whether to attend is placing immense strain on the Coalition. “Geneva is proving to be a road to ruin for the so-called moderate opposition, both the political and military aspects,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

The various competing factions that make up the Coalition are under intense international pressure to attend, Shaikh said, all the while knowing that “if they do, they may very well be entering into a very ill-defined and ill-prepared conference that may not produce anything that they can show to their brethren inside Syria, and further diminish their credibility.”

The issue of credibility has haunted the Coalition since its creation just over a year ago. The umbrella group was forged under international pressure for a stronger, more united body to serve as a counterweight to the extremist forces fighting the Assad government.

But the Coalition has never coalesced into the unified and effective leadership outside powers, including the United States and its Arab allies, envisioned, while the rebels and activists inside Syria have accused the opposition-in-exile of being ineffectual and out of touch.

Some of the Coalition’s struggles have not been entirely of its own making, and the decision of whether to attend the peace conference has laid bare the group’s internal contradictions. The Coalition was never an organic organization that enjoyed broad popular support inside Syria from activists and fighters. Its legitimacy has always flowed from its foreign patrons.

The group could have boosted its credibility with its detractors inside Syria by securing concrete international support — especially weapons — from its allies. But those sponsors routinely balked, fearful that any arms they provided might fall into the hands of the Islamic extremists who have become a dominant force among the armed opposition.

The failure to deliver sapped any goodwill the Coalition might have been able to curry with the fighters, activists and civilians inside Syria. It all began to publicly unravel in September when nearly a dozen of the most prominent rebel factions publicly broke with the coalition and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council. Many more have since followed suit.

Those fighters flatly reject negotiations with the regime. In order to be credible with them, the Coalition must also reject peace talks, but doing so would mean shrugging off the demands of its international allies.

In a sign of how divisive the issue is, the Coalition held five days of meetings over the past week to decide whether to go to Geneva. The gathering descended into chaos, with members storming out in protest. Eventually, the Coalition postponed its decision until at least the middle of next week — less than a week before the peace conference is to begin.

Since then, the number of people who have at least temporarily suspended their membership now stands at 45, said the Coalition’s representative in Qatar, Nizar al-Hrakey. “The walkout was a culmination of many misgivings people have had … for a long time, which have led us to a dead end with the Coalition,” al-Hrakey said by telephone from Istanbul. “This includes its operations, its makeup and decision-making process. Last but not least were the disputes over Geneva.”

Coalition chief Ahmed al-Jarba sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying the group would go to Geneva without getting the OK from the Coalition’s general council, al-Hrakey said. “This was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Veteran Syrian opposition figure Haitham Manna said he expected the Coalition to splinter ahead of the peace conference. “I always said the Geneva conference will be the end of the Coalition,” he said. “The group has an explosive makeup.”

Despite the existential threat to the Coalition, its patrons have kept up the pressure to go to Geneva. In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius pushed for the Coalition to attend, saying the conference was the only hope for creating a transitional government and ultimately ending the fighting.

“We’re asking one and all to make an effort to participate,” Fabius said. “And then, if Geneva comes together, which we want, there will be a second difficulty, which is to achieve concrete results.” As diplomats have maneuvered to try to make Geneva happen, the violence of the war has continued unabated.

On Thursday, a car bomb exploded near a school in the village of al-Kaffat in the central province of Hama, killing at least 17 people, Syria’s state news agency said. The explosion occurred amid continuing infighting in northern Syria between rebel brigades and an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The extremist group has alienated other factions by using brutal tactics to implement its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and by kidnapping and killing of opponents.

A consortium of rebel groups began attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Friday, and weeklong clashes have killed hundreds of people in what has become a war within the war in Syria.

Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Syria rebels seize al-Qaida base in Aleppo

January 08, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Wednesday seized control of a hospital in the northern city of Aleppo that was used as a base for the area by their al-Qaida rivals, activists said.

The capture of the hospital was a boost for the rebels, who only the day before saw 20 of their fighters killed in an al-Qaida suicide car bombing in the northern city of Darkoush, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It also underscores the intensity of the rebel infighting that has raged for days between Syrian rebels and their one-time allies, fighters from the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Also in Aleppo, the Observatory said a series of government airstrikes in two rebel-held suburbs late on Tuesday night killed 19 people. There were no further details. The government in Damascus did not comment on the bombings.

The two main rebel camps in Syria fighting against President Bashar Assad’s troops — a chaotic array of rebel brigades and the al-Qaida-linked group — turned their guns on each other last Friday. The clashes have since become the most serious rebel infighting since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

The rebel-on-rebel fighting began after tensions, which had simmered for months, erupted into the open after reports that the al-Qaida fighters had tortured and killed a popular doctor. It has since spread from the northern province of Aleppo to nearby Idlib and to the province of Raqqa. At least 300 people have been killed in the infighting, said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Observatory.

The clashes add another layer of complexity to the Syrian conflict, less than three weeks ahead of a planned international peace conference to try to resolve the civil war. Syrian rebels seized the hospital in Aleppo’s Qadi Askar quarter that the al-Qaida fighters had overrun months ago and used as their main compound or base for the area, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.

The Observatory said there were reports, still unconfirmed, that dozens of detainees held by the extremists had been freed. One of the most pressing issues in the rebel infighting is the fate of dozens of Syrian and foreign reporters, media activists, aid workers and civilians abducted and held by the al-Qaida fighters since they fanned into the area in March.

There are fears for the fate of the detainees as the fighting rages and as the al-Qaida group seeks to extoll revenge on their rivals. On Tuesday, the Observatory and other groups reported that at least four activists detained in the Aleppo hospital had been killed.

As the rebel infighting continued, so did clashes between Assad’s forces and rebels. In Douma, a town close to the Syrian capital of Damascus, three people and a child were killed and several were wounded after a government airstrike targeted a house on Tuesday, reported the Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees.

Dramatic footage of the aftermath of the strike was uploaded to social media networks. It corresponded with the Associated Press’ reporting of the event. “Be patient, little one, be patient!” a man is seen in one video, calling out to a child who was heard wailing under the rubble of a smashed house. Other men are seen furiously digging to pull out the victims.

Minutes later, a toddler screams as he is seen being pulled out from under the rubble. Another man is seen carrying a dust-covered, lifeless small body to nearby medics who then try to resuscitate the child.

Syrian schools to start teaching Russian as second foreign language next year

Monday, 06 January 2014

The Syrian Ministry of Education has decided to teach Russian as a second foreign language starting from next year. After learning English as a first foreign language in primary school, students will be able to choose between learning Russian and French as a second foreign language from the seventh to the twelfth grades, the ministry announced on its website.

The Syrian Education Minister, Hozan Al-Waz, said: “the ministry has completed all preparations to teach Russian as a second foreign language in a number of schools starting from the next academic year, preparations that included designing the teaching curriculum and recruiting the teachers.”

The medium of instruction in Syrian schools is Arabic, the country’s official language. English is taught as a first foreign language starting from the first grade, while French is taught as a second foreign language starting from the seventh grade.

Moscow is currently the most prominent ally of President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and has used its “veto power” three times at the UN Security Council to prevent adopting resolutions that condemn the regime in the civil conflict that has been ravaging the country for nearly three years.

The Syrian regime violently confronted a strong protest movement in 2011, which then turned into a bloody conflict claiming the lives of more than 130 000 people according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Syrian aircraft strike kills 10 in rebel town

January 07, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists say a government airstrike has killed 10 civilians in a rebel-held town in the country’s north.

Two activist groups — the Aleppo Media Center and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — said Tuesday that the dead in the strike on the town of Bzaa included children. The strike happened on Monday. The town of Bzaa lies in a rebel-held area of the northern Aleppo province.

Activists say Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have killed hundreds in bombing of rebel-held areas there in recent weeks. The strike came amid the most serious infighting between Syrian rebels in the north. Activists say rebel-on-rebel clashes intensified Tuesday, as an alliance of opposition brigades tries to rout fighters from an al-Qaida-linked group from the north.

Syrian rebels clash with al-Qaida-linked fighters

January 05, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian opposition fighters battled rival rebels from an al-Qaida-linked faction across parts of northern Syria on Sunday, as deep fissures within the insurgency erupted into some of the most serious and sustained violence between groups opposed to President Bashar Assad since the country’s conflict began.

The clashes, which broke out on Friday and have spread to parts of four provinces, pit an array of moderate and ultraconservative Islamist brigades against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an extremist group that has become both feared and resented in parts of opposition-held areas for trying to impose its hardline interpretation of Islam.

The fighting did not appear to be a turn in unison by Syrian rebel groups against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, activists and analysts said, but rather an outburst of violence against the al-Qaida-linked group in certain communities where tensions with other opposition factions were already simmering.

In a reflection of the fragmented and localized nature of much of the fighting in Syria’s civil war, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant continued to cooperate with rebel factions against government forces in other parts of the country.

But in some corners of opposition-held northern Syria, the backlash against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has been brewing for months. The group, which analysts say boasts more than 5,000 fighters, many of whom are foreigners, elbowed its way into rebel-held areas in the spring, co-opting some weaker armed opposition groups and crushing others as it consolidated its grip on new turf.

That infighting has left scores dead on both sides, and has undermined the broader rebel movement’s efforts to oust Assad. It also has strengthened the government’s position ahead of an international peace conference for Syria expected in just over two weeks.

For the West, meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as well as another al-Qaida-linked group, the Nusra Front, has been a source of concern, and a major reason that support in Washington and other Western capitals has dwindled in recent months.

Some in northern Syria originally welcomed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for imposing a degree of order on the villages and towns that fell under its control. But the group alienated many by employing tactics deemed brutal even by the standards of Syria’s bloody conflict. Its fighters have beheaded captured government fighters, and kidnapped anti-Assad activists, journalists and civilians seen as critical of its rule.

The latest and most serious bout of infighting began Friday after residents in the northern province of Aleppo accused members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant of killing doctor Hussein Suleiman.

The newly created Islamic Front, an umbrella group of powerful, mostly ultra-conservative Islamic fighters, issued a statement ordering the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to hand over the doctor’s killers so they could stand trial. The extremist group did not, sparking clashes between the factions in Aleppo province.

Fighting quickly spread to rebel-held areas of the northeastern province of Idlib and the central province of Hama. On Sunday, the violence expanded again, with clashes in the town of Tabaqa in Raqqa province, said Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

But much of the heaviest fighting Sunday took place in pockets of Aleppo province. In the town of Manbij, rebels seized a compound garrisoned by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, activists said. The Observatory said fighters from the al-Qaida-linked group used car bombs, a tactic usually reserved for attacking government forces, for the first time to defend its territory.

In the town of Tal Rafaat north of Aleppo city, insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ambushed a rebel convoy, killing at least 14 fighters from the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade, which is a member of the Islamic Front, the Observatory said.

The Observatory’s Abdurrahman also reported heavy fighting in the town of Atareb, in several neighborhoods of Aleppo city itself, as well as in areas of Hama and Idlib provinces. In total, at least 59 fighters — nine of them from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — were killed Sunday, according to the Observatory.

The Nusra Front, which despite its al-Qaida-links has more of a Syrian bent and is seen as more moderate than the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has been trying to mediate an end to the clashes, Abdurrahman said.

Some activists hailed the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as a second “revolution,” but it seemed unlikely that the battle against the extremist group could unite the constellation of rebel brigades who have failed to forge a unified command over the nearly 3-year conflict against Assad.

While the outburst of fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is certainly significant, its current impact on the trajectory of the broader Syrian conflict is unclear. At the moment, it doesn’t appear to have wider repercussions, said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center who closely follows the conflict.

“For now, this simply represents three days of inter-factional fighting with an overtly anti-ISIS foundation,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “Should ISIS launch a determined counter-attack, then this could come to represent a definitive moment in the Syrian conflict.”

“No matter what takes place in the coming days and weeks, ISIS will remain in Syria in some form, and should it be entirely isolated by all other key fighting groups in Syria, it’s actions will likely become even more harsh than before,” Lister said in emailed comments.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is the rebranded version of al-Qaida’s Iraqi affiliate, which emerged in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province following the 2003-U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Last week, the group’s fighters seized control of the key Anbar town of Fallujah, scattering Iraqi government forces. It also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that targeted a Shiite-dominated Beirut neighborhood.

The Western-backed Syrian opposition in exile has welcomed the fighting against the Islamic State, as it sees the group as hijacking its efforts to overthrow Assad.

Associated Press writers Yasmine Saker and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.

African migrants march in Israel demanding rights

January 05, 2014

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — About 10,000 African migrants marched in Israel’s financial center of Tel Aviv Sunday and gathered in front of City Hall in their largest demonstration yet to demand work rights and better treatment from the Israeli government.

Over the past eight years, roughly 60,000 African migrants, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, have crossed into Israel from Egypt either to escape war and hardship or to seek work. The influx has placed Israel in a tough situation with many believing that the Jewish state, founded in part as a refuge for Holocaust survivors after World War II, has a responsibility to help the downtrodden, while others fear that taking in so many Africans will threaten the country’s Jewish character.

Chanting “we are refugees, we need asylum,” the protesters asked the government to allow them to stay. Organizers announced that they have embarked on a three-day strike to protest a crackdown on migrants and called on the government to allow them to work legally.

“This protest is over our rights as human beings. We are not treated like humans,” Muttasem Ali from the Darfur region of Sudan said in Hebrew in an interview with Channel 2 TV. Many migrants have found their way to the impoverished neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. The area has so many migrants that Israelis have renamed it “little Africa” and the influx has caused tension with locals who accuse them of being responsible for rising crime rates.

The government has scrambled to stop the flood of migrants by erecting a fence along the 130-mile (220-kilometer) Egyptian border and a massive detention center in the remote southern desert. The government has offered incentives for them to leave but is unable to deport most of them because they would face harm if they returned to their countries of origin.