Posts Tagged ‘ White Mist Revolution ’

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.

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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.

Activists: Syrian rebel attack kills 60 Shiites

June 12, 2013

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

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

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

Syrian war enters new phase but no end in sight

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Crispian Balmer

AMMAN/BEIRUT | Mon Jun 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PINCER MOVEMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JIHAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Reuters.

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

EU ends arms embargo against Syrian rebels

Brussels (AFP)

May 28, 2013

The European Union finally agreed Monday to lift its embargo against arming Syrian rebels, after tough talks that exposed sharp differences between Britain and France, champions of the move, and their more reluctant partners.

However none of the 27 European member states intends to send any arms to the rebels in the coming months, for fear of endangering a US-Russia peace initiative for Syria.

After a grueling 12 hours of talks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the deal to lift the arms embargo against the rebels, while maintaining the remainder of a far-reaching two-year package of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Without such a deal, the entire set of sanctions, including an assets freeze on Assad and his cronies, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions, would have lapsed at midnight on Friday.

But the agreement reached by EU foreign ministers in Brussels failed to come underpinned by a tight range of safeguards demanded for both ethical and political reasons by opponents of the long-running Franco-British push to arm Syria’s rebels.

“It was not possible to find a compromise with France and Britain,” said Austrian Foreign Michael Spindelegger, a longtime outspoken opponent of the move.

Austria, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic were reticent about pouring more arms into a conflict that has already cost some 94,000 lives.

To send arms is “against the principles” of Europe which is a “community of peace”, said Spindelegger.

A French official in Paris stressed that “this is a theoretical lifting of the embargo. In concrete terms, there will be no decision on any deliveries before August 1”.

Such a delay will allow for the planned US-Russia sponsored international peace conference on Syria, which it is hoped both the Assad regime and opposition figures will attend, to take place in Geneva in June.

The deal made in Brussels leaves the decision to supply arms to the rebels up to each nation. Ministers nonetheless vowed to stick to safeguards against misuse and to respect EU rules on arms exports.

Hague stressed that Britain, while championing the move, had “no immediate” plans to supply weapons to the rebels fighting Assad.

“None of the member states have the intention of actually providing arms at this stage,” said Frans Timmermans, the Dutch minister who tried to steer a compromise.

“Member states will have to decide for themselves in the future whether they will provide groups with arms in that region.”

But a written vow to respect a joint moratorium on supplying arms until after the planned peace conference in Geneva next month was eliminated in the final deal.

In Istanbul, Syria’s opposition Coalition had urged EU foreign ministers to lift the embargo.

“It’s the moment of truth that we’ve been waiting for for months,” said spokesman Khaled al-Saleh.

Hague said it had been a “difficult” decision for EU partners who believe delivering arms would serve only to fuel the conflict.

“I think it is the right decision,” he added. “It will support political progress on Syria and our attempts to bring together a Geneva (peace) conference.”

Hague said Britain saw only a political solution and a diplomatically supported solution for Syria but that Monday’s ground-breaking decision “sends a very strong message from Europe to the Assad regime of what we think of the continued brutality and murder and criminality of this regime”.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks before the finish to meet in Paris with his Russian and US counterparts, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, over efforts to convene the Syria peace conference in Geneva.

According to a document obtained by AFP, a compromise favored by most nations would have formally postponed the actual delivery of arms until a fresh political decision by all EU members by August 1 “in light of the developments related to the US-Russia initiative”.

“Quite a lot of arms are already going to the wrong hands,” said Timmermans. “The parties to the conflict don’t have a shortage of arms, frankly.”

EU diplomats said Britain had refused to agree to put the decision to the EU a second time by August 1. It wanted the deal to be implemented automatically after a set period.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/EU_ends_arms_embargo_against_Syrian_rebels_999.html.

Syrian rebels shoot down regime helicopter in east

May 06, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels shot down a military helicopter in the country’s east, killing eight government troops on board as President Bashar Assad’s troops battled opposition forces inside a sprawling military air base in the north for the second straight day, activists said Monday.

In the past months, rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad have frequently targeted military aircraft and air bases in an attempt to deprive his regime of a key weapon used to target opposition strongholds and reverse rebel gains in the 2-year-old conflict.

The fighting inside the Mannagh air base in northern Syria came a day after Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the capital, Damascus, setting off a series of explosions as they targeted a shipment of highly accurate, Iranian-made guided missiles believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, officials and activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday posted a video online showing several armed men standing in front of the wreckage. One of the fighters in the footage says it’s a helicopter that the rebels shot down late Sunday in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, along Syria’s border with Iraq.

As the man speaks, the camera shifts to a pickup truck piled with bodies. The fighter is then heard saying that all of Assad’s troops who were aboard the helicopter were killed in the downing. He says Islamic fighters of the Abu Bakr Saddiq brigade brought down the helicopter as it was taking off from a nearby air base in the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said eight troops were killed. On Sunday, rebels occupied parts of the Mannagh military air base after weeks of fighting with government troops who have been defending the sprawling facility near the border with Turkey for months, the Observatory said.

Assad’s warplanes were pounding rebel positions inside the Mannagh air base Monday as clashes between rebels and government forces raged on, the Observatory said, adding there was an unknown number of casualties on both sides.

The rebels moved deep into the air base on Sunday despite fire from government warplanes, capturing a tank unit inside the base and killing the base commander, Brig. Gen. Ali Salim Mahmoud, according to another activists group, the Aleppo Media Center.

The Israeli airstrike on Sunday, the second in three days and the third this year, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles hit a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties. The reports did not specify the number or say if the casualties were civilians or troops.

State-run SANA news agency made no mention of the fighting inside the Mannagh air base. But the agency reported that government troops on Monday regained control of villages along the highway that links the northern city of Aleppo to its civilian airport, the country’s second largest.

Syrian “armed forces restored security and stability to (six) villages” south of the city and along the airport highway, SANA said, calling it a “major strategic victory in the north.” Much of the north has been in rebel hands since the opposition fighters last summer launched an offensive in the area, capturing army bases and large swaths of land along the border with Turkey and whole neighborhoods inside Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

The rebels have for months battled regime troops over the airport complex that includes army bases and a military air field. They’ve captured village and towns along the strategic highway and earlier this year advanced within a few kilometers (miles) miles of the airport, cutting the main road the army has been using to ferry troops and supplies to its bases at the airport.

But last month government troops recaptured the village of Aziza on a strategic road that links Aleppo with its airport and military bases, dealing a huge setback to the rebels unable to hold on to the territory in the face of Assad’s superior fire power.

The Syrian conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011, but eventually turned into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people according to the United Nations.

More than one million Syrians have fled their homes during the fighting and sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Millions of others have been displaced inside Syria.

In Geneva, former war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said a U.N. commission has indications that Syrian rebel forces used nerve agent sarin as a weapon in their fight against Assad’s regime — but no evidence that government forces also used sarin as a chemical weapon.

Del Ponte is on the U.N.’s four-member independent human rights panel probing alleged war crimes and other abuses in Syria. She told Italian-language Swiss public broadcaster SRI in an interview broadcast Sunday night that the indications are based on interviews with victims, doctors and field hospitals in neighboring countries.

The panel’s investigators have “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” said del Ponte.

Associated Press Writer John Heilprin contributed to this report from Geneva.

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