Archive for the ‘ Red Lion Revolution ’ Category

Syria rebels say now have ‘game-changing’ weapons

Beirut, Lebanon (AFP)

June 21, 2013

Syrian rebels have recently received new weapons that could “change the course of the battle” against the Syrian regime, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army told AFP on Friday.

The “Friends of Syria” group of countries that support the rebels is expected to announce in Doha on Saturday that it will arm the opposition, FSA media and political coordinator spokesman Louay Muqdad said.

“We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground.

“We have begun distributing them on the front lines, they will be in the hands of professional officers and FSA fighters,” he said.

He did not specify what weapons had been received or when they had arrived, but added that a new shipment was expected in the coming days and recalled that the rebels had asked for “deterrent weapons”.

“That means anti-aircraft weapons, anti-tank weapons, as well as ammunition,” he said.

Senior opposition figure Burhan Ghalioun confirmed that the FSA had recently received “sophisticated weapons” including “an anti-aircraft defense system”.

Another opposition source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the system was “Russian-made” but declined to say which country had supplied it.

The apparent influx of arms comes after the United States said it would provide rebel forces with “military support”, although it has declined to outline what that might entail.

“The weapons will be used for one objective, which is to fight the regime of (President) Bashar al-Assad,” Muqdad insisted.

“They will be collected after the fall of the regime, we have made this commitment to the friends and brotherly countries” that supplied the arms, he said.

On Thursday, Muqdad said rebels needed short-range ground-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs, anti-tank missiles, mortars and ammunition.

Saturday’s Friends of Syria talks in Qatar will be attended by ministers from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

They are expected to discuss military help and other aid for rebels after an onslaught by government forces who have retaken key areas.

“We are optimistic because the international community has finally decided to protect the Syrian people and Syrian civilians and arm the FSA,” Muqdad said.

He added that rebels were expecting “a clear and official announcement by the countries participating (in Doha) on the arming of the FSA”.

“That’s what we are hoping for, that’s what we are waiting for,” he added, declining to say which countries were providing new weaponry.

“We received information that in the coming days, we will receive new shipments of weapons that will change the course of the battle and the equation of death imposed by Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

Muqdad said that FSA chief of staff General Salim Idriss was not expected to attend the Doha gathering.

“For now, our presence is not required” because “all the countries are aware of the clear demands of the revolution after numerous meetings with Idriss.”

Syrian rebels have frequently urged nations that back the uprising to supply them with heavy weapons to tackle the regime.

But their backers, especially in the West, have been reluctant to do so for fear that those weapons could fall into the hands of radical rebel groups such as the Al-Qaeda-allied Al-Nusra Front.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Syria_rebels_say_now_have_game-changing_weapons_999.html.

Rocket near Beirut brings Syrian war closer

June 21, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — A rocket slammed into a suburb of Beirut on Friday, bringing the conflict in neighboring Syria closer to Lebanon’s bustling capital and reviving bitter memories of the country’s own devastating civil war.

With skirmishes between Shiites and Sunnis on the rise around the country, religiously mixed and highly vulnerable Lebanon is increasingly buffeted by powerful forces that are dividing the Arab world along sectarian lines.

There were no casualties from the rocket, which struck a Christian area southeast of Beirut overnight, but the incident raised fears that Lebanon was being sucked into a war that has already paralyzed state institutions and strained its economy with the presence of more than a half-million Syrian refugees.

“This is very, very dangerous,” said Pierre Ashkar, head of a syndicate of hotel owners, referring to the potential damage to the tourism industry from such rocket attacks. He said his daughter and her husband were among scores who have canceled plans to come Lebanon.

“When our kids can’t come to Lebanon, I don’t know how a French, British or even a Saudi and Kuwaiti can,” he told The Associated Press. For the most part, Lebanon has stayed on the sidelines of the Arab Spring, keeping up its appearance as an oasis of relative stability, which has helped its tourism and entertainment businesses.

The Lebanese — and the tens of thousands of expatriates and Gulf Arab tourists who visit every summer — have learned to live with the country’s occasional bouts of upheaval and violence, including huge street protests that followed the assassination of a former prime minister in 2005 and deadly street clashes in 2008, when the militant Shiite Hezbollah group briefly overran parts of Beirut.

Beneath the surface lurk the same forces that devastated the country in its years of civil war, with simmering hatreds still dividing Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, and secular and fundamentalist groups.

The Lebanese civil war began in 1975 with clashes between mostly Muslim Palestinian factions and Christian militiamen, and eventually turned into a Christian-Muslim civil war in which external players like Saudi Arabia, Syria and Western countries used the country as a battleground.

The uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad, which began in March 2011, brought sectarian tensions to the surface and has inflamed rivalries. The two countries share a complex web of political and sectarian ties, and Lebanon is deeply divided into pro- and anti-Assad groups, a legacy of Syria’s long dominance of its small neighbor.

Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims mostly back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Syria, while many Shiites support Assad, who is a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Sectarian tensions sharply increased after the Shiite militant group Hezbollah openly joined Assad’s forces in fighting the rebels seeking his ouster. Lebanon has seen repeated bursts of violence, but it has mostly been restricted to border areas and the northern city of Tripoli.

Rockets from Syria fall regularly into towns and villages near the border. Last week, the tensions exploded into street clashes in the southern city of Sidon, suggesting the scope of the fighting was widening.

Friday’s rocket slammed into a valley southeast of Beirut, causing a blast that reverberated across large parts of the city and surrounding mountains. After hours of searching, Lebanese soldiers found the rocket in Jamhour, a Christian area near the presidential palace, the Defense Ministry and the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahyeh, the military said in a statement. Two rocket launchers still holding one rocket also were found about 10 miles (15 kilometers) to the north of the city, also in a Christian town.

It was the second such attack in less than a month. Two rockets hit Dahyeh on May 26, wounding four, hours after the Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah vowed in a speech to help propel Assad to victory.

The gap widened when Hezbollah fighters were instrumental in a recent Syrian government victory as they helped pro-Assad forces regain control of the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

No one claimed responsibility the rocket attacks near Beirut, but rebels in Syria have vowed to retaliate and have sent rockets slamming into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon. Friday’s attack may also have been an attempt to drag Christian areas into the conflict, or perhaps was intended to send a message to Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a Christian.

Rebel groups have warned Suleiman to rein in Hezbollah. Under pressure, the president has been increasingly critical of Hezbollah involvement in Syria; on Thursday, he said the group was making a “mistake” and urged it to leave Syria.

The conflict has paralyzed Lebanese institutions. In downtown Beirut, Lebanese protesters continued a sit-in for a second day Friday near the parliament building to demand elections that originally were scheduled in June. Their chants on both evenings were drowned out by music blasting from a nearby rooftop nightclub, a sign of Beirut’s bon vivant lifestyle struggling to prevail.

Last month, the 128-member parliament extended its term by a year and a half, put off the balloting because of the deteriorating security conditions in the country. The demonstrators, who clashed with police Thursday, say the extension was unconstitutional. They have set up tents, blocking a side road in the city center.

Ali Jammoul, a 22-year-old activist and biology student taking part in the sit-in, said he fears the Shiite-Sunni sectarian hatreds will lead to a cycle of revenge killings even uglier than Lebanon’s civil war, which is believed to have killed 150,000 people.

“The Lebanese are hostage to external dictates. They are spectators waiting to see what is going to happen in the battle (for Syria),” he said, adding that Lebanon, with its weak government, was powerless to stay out.

Ashkar, the tourism official, said Beirut is typically packed in the summer with more than 100 percent capacity but now is at only 40 percent occupancy, most of them business travelers. Hezbollah’s public involvement in the war in Syria, he said, was a big blow to the industry that contributes 20 percent to the national income.

“This is really the worst season” since 1992 after the restoration of the tourism industry following the end of civil war, he said. For the first time in years, all of Lebanon’s hotels, with their 22,000 rooms, are partially closed or operating at reduced capacity, he added.

The tension has risen to a point where politicians on TV talk shows regularly throw invectives, and sometimes water glasses, at each other, or engage in a few fistfights. The violence prompted organizers of Lebanon’s famous Baalbek International Festival to announce plans to move the annual music show out of the ancient city with its Roman ruins because of its proximity to the Syrian border. Earlier this month, 18 rockets and mortar rounds fired from Syria hit the area, about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian frontier.

“The situation in Baalbek does not permit holding the festival, and we are now looking for a new venue,” an official with the festival said Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk to reporters.

At least one participant, American soprano Renee Fleming, has canceled a planned concert at the festival, which is usually held under the towering columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, citing deteriorating security conditions. The festival is scheduled to begin in August.

Many Lebanese have despaired over the violence and the country’s future. “Half of my family left recently,” said Jammoul, who was among bottle-throwing protesters who clashed with police overnight. “My brother was my comrade in the streets. … I cried when I returned to the streets after a week and he wasn’t next to me, when I got beaten and he wasn’t near me,” he said.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.

Lebanon feeling heat from Syrian war

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Lebanese leaders need to work quickly to prevent sectarian conflict from erupting as the threat from Syria’s war moves closer, the speaker of Parliament said.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Wednesday there were growing concerns about “sectarian strife” in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s political structure is divided along religious lines. Those divisions have been strained by the role Shiite movement Hezbollah has played in Syria’s civil war.

Hezbollah says it is fighting alongside pro-government forces in Syria to protect Lebanon from Syrian rebel groups, some of which are aligned with al-Qaida. Conflict has erupted, however, between pro- and anti-Syria elements near Lebanese-Syrian border.

Berri was quoted by the official National News Agency as calling “for doubling efforts to put an end to such attempts that threaten [to destabilize] the country.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said from Beirut the refugee crisis was compounding the issue for Lebanon. He said Lebanon is on pace to host more than 1 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Guterres said the threat of spillover from the Syrian war “is now becoming a harsh reality” for countries like Lebanon.

“The international community must overcome its divisions and come together to stop the fighting if we want to prevent the flames of war from spreading across the Middle East,” he said in a statement.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2013/06/19/Lebanon-feeling-heat-from-Syrian-war/UPI-95621371656907/.

Assad forces build up for Aleppo offensive

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad are reported tightening a cordon around the northern city of Aleppo, once the country’s commercial heart, in a major offensive against rebels who hold 60 percent of the city.

The regime, dominated by the minority Alawite sect, is massing tanks and artillery around the ancient city that was once part of the famed Silk Road to China, for the coming showdown military analysts say could determine the course of the civil war, now in its third year.

Assad’s troops were greatly buoyed by their capture of the strategic town of Qusair in central Syria’s Homs province June 5 after a three-week battle.

The town, which controls supply routes from neighboring Lebanon, had been held by rebel forces for more than a year, cutting off Damascus from the Alawite heartland in the northwest.

The fall of Qusair after fierce fighting opened the way for the regime to push into central Syria in a drive to recapture territory held by the rebels, including Homs, the provincial capital, and Aleppo, the big prize.

The regime needs to take control of Aleppo to undercut the rebellion that erupted March 15, 2011, and to reassert dominance of Syria’s main population centers.

A rebel defeat in Aleppo would mean a critical and possibly terminal setback for those seeking to end Assad’s rule.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision Thursday to arm rebel forces — although it’s not clear whether arms would include urgently needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles — could make a critical difference if the flow starts quickly.

The U.S. move overturned two years of reluctance by the West to get directly involved in the Syrian fighting, which threatens to spill over into neighboring states like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Indeed, it was the regime’s conquest of Qusair, largely due to fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah who spearheaded the assault, that convinced Obama U.S. aid should be increased from medicine and supplies to include arms.

Much will depend on how swiftly the Americans can start the arms flowing to the rebels through Jordan and Turkey.

Rebels report Syrian warplanes attacked their positions around the contested Kweiras airbase near Aleppo Tuesday amid heavy ground skirmishes.

The regime’s command of the air is a major problem for the rebels, and unless they get surface-to-air missiles they will face serious problems in the looming battle for Aleppo.

The air force has carried out a series of aerial resupply operations in the region in the last two months that rebels have been powerless to prevent.

But it’s not all clear sailing for the regime forces either.

They face major obstacles in the push on Aleppo from well-entrenched rebel blocking positions, which are being supplied with weapons through Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Loyalist forces have seized several villages in Homs province in recent days to consolidate their Qusair victory.

“Troop movements and bombardment patterns suggest the regime will likely stage attacks on rebels in Homs city proper and around the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh along the M5 highway, which leads from the Jordanian border in the south, through Damascus and all the way north to Aleppo,” the U.S.-based global security consulting firm Stratfor says.

Analysts say the regime’s assault on Aleppo may be deferred until there’s a significant loyalist push from the south as well.

“For all the regime’s announcements of an imminent victory in Aleppo, it is important to remember the very significant obstacles,” Statfor stressed. “Many of these are in fact the same that prevented the regime from ousting the rebels from the city in the summer of 2012.”

The rebels are dug in along much of the M5, which the regime would need to control to supply a major mechanized force.

Activists say rebels have already sent blocking forces to key supply routes in anticipation of a regime push northward from Hama province.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah will likely play a key role in the Aleppo offensive as a strike force, as it did in the battle of Qusair.

The Shiite movement, which has fought the Israelis for three decades, has proven to be a staunch ally of Assad’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2013/06/19/Assad-forces-build-up-for-Aleppo-offensive/UPI-13761371648604/.

Saudi to expel Hezbollah supporters over Syria war

June 20, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — In the latest sign of the fissures growing in the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Beirut has announced that the kingdom plans to deport Lebanese who supported Hezbollah, one of Damascus’ key allies.

The warning comes as the Lebanese Shiite militant group takes an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian war, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops in a key battle earlier this month. Saudi Arabia is a strong backer of the mostly-Sunni Syrian opposition trying to remove Assad from power. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It follows the decision earlier this month by the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — to crack down on Hezbollah members in the Gulf and limit their “financial and business transactions.”

Hezbollah says it has no businesses in the Gulf nations. However, there are more than half a million Lebanese working in the Gulf Arab nations, including tens of thousands in Saudi Arabia, some of whom have been living in the kingdom for decades. Many of those Lebanese are Shiites.

Saudi Arabia will deport “those who financially support this party,” Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri told Lebanon’s Future TV late Wednesday. He did not elaborate on whether other actions could be also considered support for Hezbollah.

“This is a serious decision and will be implemented in detail,” Assiri said, without specifying when the deportations would begin. “Acts are being committed against innocent Syrian people.” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour told reporters Thursday he was in contact with Gulf officials over the matter. Hezbollah and its allies dominate Lebanon’s current government, which resigned March 22, but continues to run the country’s affairs in a caretaker capacity.

Syria’s 2-year civil war, which has killed nearly 93,000 people, is increasingly pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria’s neighbors. Assad draws his support largely from fellow Alawites as well as other minorities including Christians and Shiites. He is backed by Shiite Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites.

U.S. officials estimate that 5,000 Hezbollah members are fighting alongside Assad’s regime, while thousands of Sunni foreign fighters are also believed to be in Syria — including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that is believed to be among the most effective rebel factions. Public opinion in Sunni states is often sympathetic to the rebels.

Fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian groups has broken out in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is deepening tensions at home. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who has been increasingly critical of the group recently, said in remarks published Thursday that he is against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and that Hezbollah fighters should return to Lebanon.

“I told them from the start that I am against this act,” he was quoted by al-Safir daily as saying. In Syria, activists reported violence between government forces and rebels in different parts of the country on Thursday, mostly near the capital Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and its commercial hub.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 rebels were killed in a battle with government troops in Aleppo, where the opposition has controlled whole neighborhoods and large swathes of surrounding land since last summer.

Pro-regime media outlets announced earlier this month that troops had launched an offensive to build on the momentum of their Qusair triumph to retake Aleppo and other areas of the north. Another activist group, the Syria-based Aleppo Media Center, said rebels launched an attack on army positions in the city’s Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the government side in the fighting.

Amateur videos showed gunmen shooting and firing rockets at army positions in the neighborhood. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted. Meanwhile, Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group said 40,000 civilians in two northern districts of Damascus in which government forces have been operating are suffering food shortages and lack medical supplies.

“After six months of continuous siege, (and ) military checkpoints … the neighborhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh are at risk,” the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. It said the government forces conduct frequent raids in the two districts and there is fear that such army operations will result in a “massacre.”

Also on Thursday, the Observatory urged the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to intervene and take medicine and food to Aleppo’s central prison. Heavy fighting around the prison has raged for weeks and there have been casualties among the prisoners, the activists said.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said three detainees died this week from tuberculosis and that scabies was spreading in the jail, which holds thousands of prisoners.

The prison, which is besieged by rebels, relies on food and medicine brought in drop-offs by army helicopters. The Observatory said more than 100 detainees have been killed since April when the fighting around the prison began.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels and Kurdish gunmen reached an agreement to end a rebel siege of the northern predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin that triggered a shortage of food and medicine there, the Observatory said.

The Afrin flare-up began when rebels wanted to pass through it to attack the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, controlled by Assad loyalists, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said. After Kurdish groups refused, rebels attacked Kurdish checkpoints and laid siege beginning on May 25.

Special Report: How Syria’s Islamists govern with guile and guns

By Oliver Holmes and Alexander Dziadosz
RAQQA, Syria | Thu Jun 20, 2013
(Reuters) – The Syrian boys looked edgy and awkward. Three months ago their town, the eastern desert city of Raqqa, had fallen to rebel fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Now the four boys – clad in tight jeans and bright T-shirts – were whitewashing a wall to prepare it for revolutionary graffiti.
“We’ll make this painting about the role of children in the revolution,” one of the boys told two journalists.
A white Mitsubishi pulled up and a man in camouflage trousers and a black balaclava jumped out and demanded that the journalists identify themselves. He was from the Islamic State of Iraq, he said, the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda linked to an Islamist group fighting in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra.
The boys kept quiet until the man pulled away, and then started talking about how life has changed in the city of around 250,000 people since the Islamists planted their flag at the former governor’s nearby offices.
“They want an Islamic state, but most of us want a civilian state,” the boy said. “We’re afraid they’re going to try to rule by force.”
As he finished his sentence, the same white car roared back round the corner. This time two men, both in balaclavas and holding Kalashnikov assault rifles, stepped out.
“Painting is forbidden here,” one fighter said. The graffiti was too close to the group’s headquarters. One of the boys made a brief, almost inaudible protest.
“We’re sorry,” the fighter said. “But painting is forbidden.” His comrade stroked his long beard and said: “We are not terrorists. Don’t be afraid of us. Bashar is the terrorist.
The encounter captures an important shift underway in rebel-held Syria. Using a mix of intimidation and organization, alliances of Islamist brigades are filling the vacuum in areas where Assad’s army has withdrawn and more secular rebels have failed to provide order, a 10-day visit to rebel-held Syria by Reuters journalists showed.
The Islamist groups include al Qaeda affiliates and more moderate partners, so the nature of their rule is complex. They administer utilities, run bakeries and, in a town near Raqqa, operate a hydroelectric dam. They are also setting up courts and imposing punishments on those judged transgressors.
The United States and other Western powers support the Syrian National Coalition, a group of opposition figures based in Cairo. But the coalition has very little influence on the ground in Syria, so locals are increasingly turning to the Islamists as their best alternative to chaos.
“WE DRESS NORMALLY”
Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham aim to create an Islamic mini-state in rebel-held territory, and Jabhat al-Nusra ultimately envisions a wider Islamic caliphate.
U.S. and European security officials say Jabhat al-Nusra is being financed by wealthy families from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Syrian Islamist rebels say foreign fighters bring in money and that Syrian expats and Gulf-based individuals who want to overthrow Assad are helping them. Members of Ahrar al-Sham, which has fewer foreign fighters than Jabhat al-Nusra, told Reuters that they make money through business ventures and by taking over banks.
So far the Islamists have won sympathy from many residents in Raqqa – including those who oppose their vision of a narrow moral code and an Islamic caliphate – with their apparent restraint.
Billboards put up by Jabhat al-Nusra show a figure in full veil and tell women “you are like a pearl in your chastity.” Yet unveiled women can still walk openly on Raqqa’s streets and one resident said he had no problem getting whiskey, as long as he drank it in private.
One evening in June, residents held an exhibit of homemade crafts to raise money for poor families. Men and women mingled as music played over a stereo system.
Reema Ajaji, a veiled women who helped organize the event, said the media had unfairly maligned Jabhat al-Nusra. “They’re called terrorists, and we don’t accept this,” she said. “They’re our sons. Us and them, we’re one thing. They defend us, and we defend them.”
She waved around the room, indicating the women in brightly colored headscarves and dresses, some unveiled. “We dress as we want. Do you see these girls?” she said. “Everyone is free to choose.” If Jabhat al-Nusra had wanted to impose their law on people, they would have shut down the exhibition, Ajaji said.
Other residents pointed to the university, which shut for about a month after rebels took the city but is now operating more or less normally. Inside the gated campus, young men and women chatted in the hallways and shared meals in the packed cafeteria. Armed groups are not allowed to enter.
Ahmed Jaber, a 22-year-old chemistry student and member of the student union, said some 80 percent of students were attending classes and exams were going ahead. Life in Raqqa had improved over the past few months, he said, although there were disputes between Islamist brigades and more secular units.
“It’s in everyone’s interests to resolve these differences,” Jaber said. After the rebels took Raqqa, some residents held protests to demand a civilian state. Others, siding with Jabhat al-Nusra, called for an Islamic government. But since then, they have agreed to hold protests calling only for Assad’s downfall.
“After the hell of the regime, we consider this an excellent situation,” Jaber said. “Yes, there’s a security vacuum, there’s chaos, and sometimes there are disputes. But it’s much better than before.”
Selwa al-Janabe, a veiled 27-year-old student, said the Islamists’ ideology was beside the point – at least for now.
“I’m worried about something bigger than hijab or niqab,” she said, referring to the Islamic headscarf and the fuller veil, which covers the face. The important thing now, Janabe said, was “liberation and freedom. Real freedom.”
Mohammed Shaib, a 26-year-old member of a secular activist group, said he was skeptical of the Islamists but saw no alternative for now. “Right now we’re working under the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” he said.
“WE HAVE OTHER GOALS”
Ask anyone in Raqqa who runs the town, and they’ll usually tell you it’s Ahrar al-Sham, an umbrella group of conservative Islamist factions which has taken the most active interest among fighting groups in the problems of civilian administration.
The group, which works closely with Jabhat al-Nusra, has taken to calling itself a “haraka,” or “movement,” rather than a “liwa,” or “brigade.” The point, members say, is to make clear the struggle for Syria is not just about waging war.
“From the very beginning we wanted to create justice and security, things like distributing bread. This was a founding idea,” said Abu Muhammed al-Husseini, the 30-year-old head of Ahrar al-Sham’s political office in Raqqa.
The group helps provide electricity and water and its fighters secure grain silos, while others ensure that supply chains, from wheat fields to bakeries, function smoothly.
Much of the town still works as it did before the area was taken by rebels, Husseini said. “There are some groups that only care about fighting, we have other goals,” he said. They include making sure services are provided “side by side with the armed campaign against Bashar.”
He said Ahrar al-Sham had no major disagreements with Jabhat al-Nusra, who differed with them more on “operational details.” He declined to discuss what the future government of Syria might look like, but said Islam “has a vision for building a society.”
Of all the public services the rebels have set up, the Sharia Authorities, which function as a rudimentary justice system, are the most central. They help provide essential services and are the closest thing rebel-held areas have to a government.
The authorities are generally staffed by older men from the area. Community leaders hold discussions and appoint members from their own ranks, some members said. Each of the area’s largest fighting brigades sends representatives, who often work as civilians at the body. Islamist brigades tend to be represented much more heavily than secular groups, both because of their relative size and prowess and because they were among the first to get involved in setting them up.
For many Westerners, the term “sharia” can carry connotations of oppressed minorities, curtailed women’s rights, and punishments like stoning, lashing and beheading. But for Syrians in the conservative Sunni regions that rebels control, the perception is very different.
In part, rebel-run courts have been successful because much of what they deal with is mundane. They handle financial disputes, provide forms of property registration and, in some cases, licenses for exporting and importing goods to and from rebel-controlled territory.
Even with serious crimes, most courts are not imposing harsh punishments because of a provision in Islamic law that such penalties can be suspended or lightened during wartime. Almost all cases are resolved by the payment of a fine to the victim or by a light jail sentence.
A Sharia Authority member in Raqqa who called himself Abu Omar stressed that the body did its best to be fair; it was not strictly Islamist and it worked regularly with non-Islamic groups. He flipped through a file of resumes of applicants for the emerging police force, noting they were nearly all university graduates, and said a Christian headed its wheat bureau. “We benefit from debate with all groups,” he said.
Nevertheless, the influence of Islamists on the courts is unmistakable.
ORDER OUT OF CHAOS
In Salqin, a town in the northwestern Idlib province, Samer Raji is deputy head of the police. He said the main local rebel brigades, apart from Jabhat al-Nusra, sent officers to staff the police force of 30 men; but he added that the police sometimes called on the Islamist group as a “last resort” to enforce their rulings.
“One call from the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra to the commander of a brigade with a wanted man and he’ll show up at court.” He pointed to an unresolved case of a van being stolen, saying that Jabhat al-Nusra could be called on to get it back.
Members of the rebel-run authorities say the brigades are accountable to them, but fighters have sometimes taken the law into their own hands and their punishments can be severe.
In Aleppo on June 10, Islamic State of Iraq fighters executed a 15-year-old boy in front of his parents for making a comment they regarded as heretical, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad monitoring group. The Observatory quoted witnesses as saying gunmen whipped the boy, Mohammad Qataa, then brought him to a wooden stand and shot him in the face and neck.
“Whoever curses even once will be punished like this,” witnesses quoted an Islamic State of Iraq member as saying, according to the Observatory report.
The Islamist influence is notably strong in rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Jabhat al-Nusra has set up in the old children’s hospital there, hanging a black flag bearing the Islamic declaration of faith in white calligraphy: “There is no god but God and Mohammad is His prophet.”
The local Sharia Authority, which Aleppans simply call “the Authority,” is housed in the old national hospital next door. One sign outside warns that unveiled women will not be allowed to enter.
Inside, men and women shuffled through dark, cramped corridors, clutching papers. Abu Baraa, a 22-year-old fighter from Ahrar al-Sham who now works to register the names of prison inmates, told Reuters the court “doesn’t have limits,” and could arrest anyone who does something wrong. Such decisions are up to an executive body composed of members from each of the area’s four main brigades, including Jabhat al-Nusra.
Abu Baraa said the authority worked to the tenets of ultraconservative Islam and, while it had so far refrained from most harsh punishments, he hoped it would become stricter after the war. In some cases, people had been sentenced to lashings, he said, and three men were imprisoned for a couple days after they were caught drinking.
Asked about rape cases, he said he could only think of one, which was unresolved. The man was denying it, and so the court was investigating, asking about the woman’s reputation.
“If she is a good person, the girl, she wouldn’t accept to get laid with someone strange,” he said in English.
What goes on in this building, and the ambitions of people such as Abu Baraa running this nascent government, show what the future in rebel-controlled regions in Syria might look like.
Aleppo’s authority had started with around a dozen people who “wanted to do justice,” Abu Baraa said. Now it has about a dozen branches in the city and several more across Aleppo province. Eventually, Abu Baraa said, he hopes it will become the state.
“There has to be someone in charge,” he said. “We all were from Ahrar al-Sham. And then the other brigades joined us, and we were bigger and bigger. That’s how things work. You start small and get bigger and bigger.”
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Richard Woods and Simon Robinson)
Source: Reuters.

Iran to send 4,000 troops to aid President Assad forces in Syria

SUNDAY 16 JUNE 2013

World Exclusive: US urges UK and France to join in supplying arms to Syrian rebels as MPs fear that UK will be drawn into growing conflict

Washington’s decision to arm Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has plunged America into the great Sunni-Shia conflict of the Islamic Middle East, entering a struggle that now dwarfs the Arab revolutions which overthrew dictatorships across the region.

For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims and all of its enemies are Shiites. Breaking all President Barack Obama’s rules of disengagement, the US is now fully engaged on the side of armed groups which include the most extreme Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East.

The Independent on Sunday has learned that a military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years. Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel.

In years to come, historians will ask how America – after its defeat in Iraq and its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for 2014 – could have so blithely aligned itself with one side in a titanic Islamic struggle stretching back to the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohamed. The profound effects of this great schism, between Sunnis who believe that the father of Mohamed’s wife was the new caliph of the Muslim world and Shias who regard his son in law Ali as his rightful successor – a seventh century battle swamped in blood around the present-day Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kerbala – continue across the region to this day. A 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, compared this Muslim conflict to that between “Papists and Protestants”.

America’s alliance now includes the wealthiest states of the Arab Gulf, the vast Sunni territories between Egypt and Morocco, as well as Turkey and the fragile British-created monarchy in Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan – flooded, like so many neighboring nations, by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – may also now find himself at the fulcrum of the Syrian battle. Up to 3,000 American ‘advisers’ are now believed to be in Jordan, and the creation of a southern Syria ‘no-fly zone’ – opposed by Syrian-controlled anti-aircraft batteries – will turn a crisis into a ‘hot’ war. So much for America’s ‘friends’.

Its enemies include the Lebanese Hizballah, the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus and, of course, Iran. And Iraq, a largely Shiite nation which America ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority in the hope of balancing the Shiite power of Iran, has – against all US predictions – itself now largely fallen under Tehran’s influence and power. Iraqi Shiites as well as Hizballah members, have both fought alongside Assad’s forces.

Washington’s excuse for its new Middle East adventure – that it must arm Assad’s enemies because the Damascus regime has used sarin gas against them – convinces no-one in the Middle East. Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

For the real reason why America has thrown its military power behind Syria’s Sunni rebels is because those same rebels are now losing their war against Assad. The Damascus regime’s victory this month in the central Syrian town of Qusayr, at the cost of Hizballah lives as well as those of government forces, has thrown the Syrian revolution into turmoil, threatening to humiliate American and EU demands for Assad to abandon power. Arab dictators are supposed to be deposed – unless they are the friendly kings or emirs of the Gulf – not to be sustained. Yet Russia has given its total support to Assad, three times vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that might have allowed the West to intervene directly in the civil war.

In the Middle East, there is cynical disbelief at the American contention that it can distribute arms – almost certainly including anti-aircraft missiles – only to secular Sunni rebel forces in Syria represented by the so-called Free Syria Army. The more powerful al-Nusrah Front, allied to al-Qaeda, dominates the battlefield on the rebel side and has been blamed for atrocities including the execution of Syrian government prisoners of war and the murder of a 14-year old boy for blasphemy. They will be able to take new American weapons from their Free Syria Army comrades with little effort.

From now on, therefore, every suicide bombing in Damascus – every war crime committed by the rebels – will be regarded in the region as Washington’s responsibility. The very Sunni-Wahabi Islamists who killed thousands of Americans on 11th September, 2011 – who are America’s greatest enemies as well as Russia’s – are going to be proxy allies of the Obama administration. This terrible irony can only be exacerbated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adamant refusal to tolerate any form of Sunni extremism. His experience in Chechnya, his anti-Muslim rhetoric – he has made obscene remarks about Muslim extremists in a press conference in Russian – and his belief that Russia’s old ally in Syria is facing the same threat as Moscow fought in Chechnya, plays a far greater part in his policy towards Bashar al-Assad than the continued existence of Russia’s naval port at the Syrian Mediterranean city of Tartous.

For the Russians, of course, the ‘Middle East’ is not in the ‘east’ at all, but to the south of Moscow; and statistics are all-important. The Chechen capital of Grozny is scarcely 500 miles from the Syrian frontier. Fifteen per cent of Russians are Muslim. Six of the Soviet Union’s communist republics had a Muslim majority, 90 per cent of whom were Sunni. And Sunnis around the world make up perhaps 85 per cent of all Muslims. For a Russia intent on re-positioning itself across a land mass that includes most of the former Soviet Union, Sunni Islamists of the kind now fighting the Assad regime are its principal antagonists.

Iranian sources say they liaise constantly with Moscow, and that while Hizballah’s overall withdrawal from Syria is likely to be completed soon – with the maintenance of the militia’s ‘intelligence’ teams inside Syria – Iran’s support for Damascus will grow rather than wither. They point out that the Taliban recently sent a formal delegation for talks in Tehran and that America will need Iran’s help in withdrawing from Afghanistan. The US, the Iranians say, will not be able to take its armor and equipment out of the country during its continuing war against the Taliban without Iran’s active assistance. One of the sources claimed – not without some mirth — that the French were forced to leave 50 tanks behind when they left because they did not have Tehran’s help.

It is a sign of the changing historical template in the Middle East that within the framework of old Cold War rivalries between Washington and Moscow, Israel’s security has taken second place to the conflict in Syria. Indeed, Israel’s policies in the region have been knocked askew by the Arab revolutions, leaving its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hopelessly adrift amid the historic changes.

Only once over the past two years has Israel fully condemned atrocities committed by the Assad regime, and while it has given medical help to wounded rebels on the Israeli-Syrian border, it fears an Islamist caliphate in Damascus far more than a continuation of Assad’s rule. One former Israel intelligence commander recently described Assad as “Israel’s man in Damascus”.  Only days before President Mubarak was overthrown, both Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called Washington to ask Obama to save the Egyptian dictator. In vain.

If the Arab world has itself been overwhelmed by the two years of revolutions, none will have suffered from the Syrian war in the long term more than the Palestinians. The land they wish to call their future state has been so populated with Jewish Israeli colonists that it can no longer be either secure or ‘viable’. ‘Peace’ envoy Tony Blair’s attempts to create such a state have been laughable. A future ‘Palestine’ would be a Sunni nation. But today, Washington scarcely mentions the Palestinians.

Another of the region’s supreme ironies is that Hamas, supposedly the ‘super-terrorists’ of Gaza, have abandoned Damascus and now support the Gulf Arabs’ desire to crush Assad. Syrian government forces claim that Hamas has even trained Syrian rebels in the manufacture and use of home-made rockets.

In Arab eyes, Israel’s 2006 war against the Shia Hizballah was an attempt to strike at the heart of Iran. The West’s support for Syrian rebels is a strategic attempt to crush Iran. But Iran is going to take the offensive. Even for the Middle East, these are high stakes. Against this fearful background, the Palestinian tragedy continues.

Source: The Independent.

Link: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-to-send-4000-troops-to-aid-president-assad-forces-in-syria-8660358.html.