Terrorism & Security
A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
A year ago, African security forces thought they had the Islamist terror group Al Shabab on its back foot. They had captured its key strongholds in Somalia and pushed it into the hinterlands. Al Shabab's defeat was portrayed as imminent.
This week's attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall has made it clear that optimism about the group's demise was misplaced. But many analysts argue the siege signals desperation – a final effort to reverse a decline – rather than some form of resurgence..
Ken Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and a close observer of the militant group, casts the mall attack as the former.
…Shabaab is weakened. It is still one of the strongest armed groups in south-central Somalia, and still capable of daily assassinations and terrorist attacks in Mogadishu, but it is in a state of serious decline. Over the past two years, it has lost control of almost all urban areas and the lucrative revenues from seaports like Kismayo. Its deep internal divisions exploded in armed conflict this year, resulting in the deaths of several of its top leaders and the splintering of the group. Most foreign mujahedeen have become disillusioned and left Somalia. And, most importantly, far fewer Somalis, both in country and in the large Somali diaspora, actively support the group.
The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabaab to reverse its prospects.
Mr. Menkhaus dismisses those who argue that the siege was an effort to prove Al Shabab's "relevance" to Al Qaeda, writing that the Somali group's tendency to stage attacks with high civilian casualties has "appalled" the global terror group.
The goal of the attack is to provoke a backlash in Kenya against ethnic Somalis, Menkhaus writes. Somalia and Al Shabab observers have long worried about an attack on a civilian target in Kenya, but the group has held back to avoid upending the economic interests of hundreds of thousands of Somalis who flocked to Kenya, opened up businesses there and made investments. Had an Al Shabab attack provoked a backlash against Somalis in Kenya, a backlash against Al Shabab in Somalia would have likely followed.
But, Menkhaus writes, if Al Shabab's influence deteriorated enough, experts expected it would lash out in the form of a high-risk terror operation abroad – a last ditch effort to provoke a heavy-handed enyan response that could turn Somalis against their host government and send them into Al Shabab's arms.
Clinton Watts, a fellow at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute, writes at Foreign Policy (subscription required) that Kenyan security forces drove Al Shabab into Somalia's rural interior, but failed to deliver the final blow, allowing the militant group "an operational safe haven" from which it "transitioned from conventional fighting to asymmetric warfare using guerrilla and terror attacks." The goal of this attack is to drum up popular support among disenfranchised Muslims in Kenya and "re-energize" the group, he writes.
Somalis are becoming disillusioned with Kenya's involvement in Somalia and many Kenyans are tiring of the continued military engagement abroad, according to Mr. Watts. The mall attack could cause Kenyans to doubt the utility of the Somalia operation.
Or Al Shabab could be hoping that Kenya responds to the Westgate attack by upping its military involvement in Somalia.
If the attack provokes Kenya to venture deeper into Somalia, al-Shabab hopes it can exhaust foreign forces in an asymmetric campaign of hide-and-seek insurgency. Inciting Kenya's rage and prompting an extended invasion is almost as positive an outcome for al-Shabab as getting the Kenyan military to unilaterally withdraw. Either way, the goal is the same: it's largely a matter of sequencing.
The group has been fracturing since its leader merged Al Shabab with Al Qaeda in 2011, which was followed with a dramatic increase in attacks against civilians. It struggled to attract Western recruits, and began to actively "shun" foreign fighters.
The merger and the uptick in indiscriminate attacks chipped away at the group's popular support and created rifts between leaders.
It's a stretch to say that al-Shabab is reeling, but it's likely ostracized by the al Qaeda core for its very public internal disputes and factionalized by public dissension in the ranks. Needing to distract from killing one of its most celebrated members, a successful and public attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall resets the agenda and helps Godane silence his critics.
But while it seems strong and dangerous now, the health of al-Shabab is difficult to discern. In July 2010, the group claimed credit for a suicide bombing in Uganda that killed at least 74 people. "We are sending a message to Uganda and Burundi," the group's spokesperson said at the time, adding that if the two countries didn't withdraw their troops from Somalia, "blasts will continue." But follow up attacks never manifested.
The telltale sign of whether this is a last gasp or a resurgence is how quickly additional attacks in Kenya follow, according to Watts.
The sophistication of the attack on Westgate and the presence of many obviously non-Somali combatants has security experts wondering if the group had assistance from other militant groups. “This whole thing seems more advanced than anything the Shabab has ever done,” a Western security official told The New York Times.
“They are clearly a multinational collection from all over the world,” said Julius Karangi, chief of the Kenyan general staff.
Reports that Americans may have participated in the mall attack have raised concerns about Al Shabab's potential reach into US soil, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
Al Shabab recently attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) for making slickly-produced recruitment videos meant to appeal to Somali-American teenagers in Somali communities throughout the United States.
The video’s “production value is very high. That’s new,” FBI Special Agent Kyle Loven, who is based in Minneapolis, told CNN last month. “Obviously, it’s an attempt to step up recruitment efforts.”
But Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studied (CSIS), argues that the attack did not reflect the level of sophistication exhibited by other terrorist groups, reports the Monitor.
“This was an attack against a pretty defenseless mall on a Sunday afternoon,” she points out.
“The speculation is that Al Shabab leadership wants to make a big, bold show that Shabab is still relevant and still has the capacity for horrific violence,” she adds.
But as horrific as it is, it is not a particularly sophisticated attack requiring “the sort of command and control” seen in other terrorist groups.
That could speak to their ability or inclination to carry out attacks in the United States as well. To date, Al Shabab has had relatively parochial ambitions.
The last major attack the group claimed responsibility for was the 2010 coordinated bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed more than 70 people as they gathered to watch a World Cup game.
Similar to this attack, which militants said was retribution for Uganda military incursion into Somalia to fight Al Shabab in 2011, the Uganda attack was reportedly revenge for the Ugandan government's decision to send troops to Somalia, The New York Times reports.
United Nations special representative for Somalia Nicholas Kay said Tuesday that there was a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to stabilize Somalia and called for additional African troops, Reuters reports. According to him, Al Shabab has about 5,000 members and poses "an international threat."
"Security remains the number one challenge, the control and defeating of al Shabaab is key to this," Kay said at a press conference. "The amount of money that we're talking about that's required for the extra effort in Somalia would be very small. But the cost of walking away would be very expensive."
Samantha Lewthwaite, a British mother of two (or three), has been a fugitive since 2005. There are now British media reports that the so-called White Widow has resurfaced in the Nairobi, Kenya, mall under attack.
A Kenyan government representative said that some of those rescued from the mall had sighted a "white woman" among the hostage-takers. When asked if the woman was Ms. Lewthwaite, “Nothing is being ruled out” was the reply.
The London daily, The Mirror, reported that Al Shabab had praised the White Widow on their Twitter account and boasted that she was with them.
On a site that has been repeatedly closed down, they wrote: “Sherafiyah lewthwaite aka samantha is a vrave (sic) lady! were happier to have her in our ranks!” In another posting they warned: “This is no more than a drill for a bigger event!”
"I suspect this woman Lewthwaite is behind this attack,’ a senior antiterror source told the Daily Mail, as survivors described how a woman in a veil appeared to be commanding the other terrorists as they hunted down and killed non-Muslim shoppers.
Who is Samantha Lewthwaite?
She was the wife of Germaine Lindsay, a man who blew himself up on July 7, 2005, at London's King’s Cross subway station, killing 26 people. At the time, Lewthwaite, denied having any prior knowledge of the attack. Shortly thereafter, she became a fugitive.
Lewthwaite, the 29-year-old daughter of a soldier, hails from Banbridge, County Down, Ireland. She converted to Islam as a teenager, and according to British media reports, has three children with whom she has been on the run.
In December 2011, Kenyan police raided a two-room apartment in Mombasa, Kenya. They found chemicals similar to those used in the July 7, 2005, bombing in London. Lewthwaite was identified as the person who rented the apartment, but she wasn't captured.
However, Jermaine Grant, who is British, was captured at the Mombasa apartment. He faces charges of conspiring to explode devices to hurt civilians, according to Kenyan police. Mr. Grant told police that he was working for Lewthwaite. She faces the same charges as Grant and another man later arrested trying to flee the country.
In March, the London Daily Telegraph reported that Lewthwaite and Fouad Manswab were plotting to free Grant, whose trial was set to begin Sept. 23 (today) in Mombasa. "We know that Fouad is in touch with Samantha Lewthwaite, and they were planning to rescue their accomplice," said Jacob Ondari, the deputy public prosecutor, at the time.
In media reports, Lewthwaite has been variously described as a financier, recruiter, and trainer for Al Qaeda, and the creator of an all-women jihadist squad in Africa. She has been accused of orchestrating grenade attacks at worship centers of "unbelievers of Islam" and believed to be behind an attack on those watching soccer in a bar in Mombasa during Euro 2012. Three people died in that attack. One eyewitness of the latter incident identified her from pictures of the incident.
And the nickname White Widow? The British media are playing off the term "black widow," which has been used by Chechen terrorists to describe women who take part in bombings and assaults after the death of their husbands. Some Al Shabab postings have described Lewthwaite as the "White Sister."
A pair of suicide bombers killed at least 80 and wounded some 120 at a Christian church in the northern city of Peshawar, Pakistan on Sunday. It's being called the largest attack of its kind against Christians in Pakistan.
This is the latest in a series of bombings and assassinations emerging from (and feeding) the political and sectarian discord in this volatile nation situated between Afghanistan, Iran, and India.
Bloomberg notes that an attack of this size is only a portion of the terrorism toll overall in Pakistan:
As many 1,222 people, including 425 police and security officials and 797 civilians, have been killed in 858 terrorist attacks across Pakistan from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, according to statistics presented to parliament by the Interior Ministry this month. That included 25 suicide attacks and 60 bomb blasts.
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Jandullah and the Junood ul-Hifsa - both with past links to the Pakistani Taliban - said they ordered the double bombing in retaliation for US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal north-west. The Pakistani Taliban, however, condemned the attack. Correspondents say the group frequently denies responsibility for attacks which take a heavy civilian toll.
The attack resonated worldwide. The News of Pakistan reports that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack in a statement that also reiterated the UN's solidarity with the Pakistani government's struggle against terrorism and extremism.
The bombing has cast a shadow across recent government attempts to start a peace process with the Pakistani Taliban. The three-month-old government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made peace with the Taliban a priority earlier this month, but the bombing makes talk of a dialogue with militants difficult for the Pakistani public to support. From an Associated Press account of the bombing's aftermath:
"What dialogue are we talking about? Peace with those who are killing innocent people," asked the head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, Paul Bhatti, whose brother, a federal minister, was gunned down by an Islamic extremist in 2011. "They don't want dialogue," said Bhatti. "They don't want peace."
Politician and former cricket star Imran Khan was on the scene in Peshawar, and despite the bloodshed he said he was still hopeful that some sort of long-term solution could be found.
“Those who did this were not humans,” Imran Khan, whose party runs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told reporters outside the hospital in Peshawar. “I don’t think we should give up efforts to find those groups who want to talk. We need to know who wants to talk.”
In the wake of the attack, the government has decreed a three-day period of national mourning, reports The Express Tribune. While announcing the mourning period, Pakistan's federal minister of interior suggested that the government would go to greater lengths to protect Christians from future attacks.
“On a federal level, we have decided to review the protection of the Christian community in the country, who are perhaps considered by the terrorists as soft targets. We have decided to chalk out a bigger plan to brush up security preparations for their houses, community areas and churches.”
The mourning period comes amid widespread protests against the attack and the Pakistani government by members of the country's Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of the country's population. In Peshawar, Bloomberg reports, protesters blocked roads using coffins containing the bodies of those who lost their lives in the attack.
The troubles of Pakistan's Christians in this instance echo but do not precisely parallel the violence waged by Islamists against Coptic Christians in Egypt. In Egypt, the Monitor reported, Christians were blamed for protests that led to the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi; in Pakistan, they have been nominally blamed for the ongoing US drone campaign in the country's tribal areas.
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After more than six decades of strife, a senior adviser to Iran's leadership has signaled the country's openness to a profound and historic strategic change in Iran's relations with the West.
A brief letter from US President Obama offering potential relief from international sanctions in return for a swift agreement regarding Iran's controversial nuclear program has been reportedly answered by an equally brief and amicable note from Iran's moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani. A New York Times story about the exchange of notes:
The 1 1/2-page letter, which the Iranian president answered with a letter of similar length, has kindled hopes that the international charm offensive Iran began after Rouhani's election in June may produce a diplomatic breakthrough. But the differing interpretations of Obama’s letter in Tehran and Washington are a reminder of the political hurdles and the legacy of mistrust that both sides will have to overcome in negotiating a deal.
Details on both letters are scarce, as are what sort of concessions Iran would need to make in order to find fast relief from economically stifling international sanctions that have contributed to the painful inflation, shortages, and unemployment that rank among the country's most serious domestic issues. As outlined on the US Treasury Department website, US sanctions on Iran include an import embargo that dates back to US President Ronald Reagan, an order signed by President Bill Clinton prohibiting US involvement in oil development in Iran, and a 2008 ban on "U-turn" bank transfers that originate and end with non-Iranian foreign banks but involve Iran.
Efforts to broker a deal on Iran's nuclear program have long remained elusive. But the newly elected Iranian President Rouhani has matched his reputed private interest in reaching some kind of settlement with public statements: He told NBC two days ago that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons, and that he has sufficient political clout to reach a deal with the West on Iran's program, saying: "We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem."
"From my point of view, the tone of the letter was positive and constructive," Rouhani said of the note he got from the White House congratulating him on his June election, in which he defeated five hard-liners.
"It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future. I believe the leaders in all countries could think in their national interest and they should not be under the influence of pressure groups. I hope to witness such an atmosphere in the future."
The nature of Iran's nuclear program makes developments with Rouhani significant: Led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran has sunk years of money and political capital into the idea of becoming a nuclear power, much to the irritation of the US, Israel, and Europe. A persistent campaign of sabotage and assassination has been waged by Western powers (and Israel) against the program, making the clandestine fight to slow Iran's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons capability one of the world's most gripping ongoing dramas of covert operations and public rhetorical warfare. A Daily Telegraph story detailing Iran's efforts to boost its nuclear capacity and Western efforts to derail those efforts notes:
Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, disclosed last year that his service played a key role and, but for those efforts, Iran might have achieved nuclear weapons capability as early as 2008.
The CIA began its own sabotage operation codenamed “Olympic Games.” Perhaps the most effective blow was struck in 2010 when the Stuxnet computer virus was infiltrated into Natanz, causing hundreds of centrifuges to spin out of control and explode.
Although the flare-up of hostility relating to Iran's nuclear program defines American relations with the country's current government, tensions between Iran and the West date back many years, climaxing in the early 1950s with the joint US-British engineering of a coup against democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Moassadeq. Mr. Mossadeq's ouster and replacement with Mohammad Reza-Shah Pahlavi touched off a complicated series of events that culminated in 1979 with the Iranian revolution that put power into the hands of anti-Western religious hardliners led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The news about Iran comes as its ally Syria has indicated willingness to turn over its stock of chemical weapons in return for a cancellation of threatened US air and/or missile strikes against the besieged regime of its current president, Bashar al-Assad. But that deal is far from certain – Russia's role as a diplomatic intermediary has been problematic, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.
A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
Here’s more evidence that the Syrian civil war may be mutating into something messier: Turkey shut a border crossing into Syria after an Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group clashed with fighters from the more secular-leaning Free Syrian Army.
That jihadi elements are actively fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces is no secret to anyone paying attention. While the US and its allies—Western and Arab—have put their faith, funding, and to some degree, weaponry, in and to the FSA, many observers (not the least of which is Russia’s Vladimir Putin) have warned that the growing presence of jihadis from Iraq, Chechnya, Jordan and elsewhere threatens to send the conflict careering into dangerous new territory. At least one such group, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been slapped with a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” designation by the US State Department.
The fighting this week between FSA units and the al-Qaida-allied Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is giving yet more credence to those fears, sending ripples of worry through policy makers’ minds from Ankara to Amman. According to many press reports, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS - sometimes called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), on Thursday pushed other rebel groups out of the northern Syrian town of Azaz, close to the Turkish border. The town is a key conduit for people and supplies coming in and out of Syria.
There is no definitive estimate of the numbers of Al Qaeda linked fighters in Syria. New research from the British defense consultancy IHS Jane’s puts estimates of the number of al-Qaeda-linked fighters at about 10,000— or around one-tenth of the overall estimated number of insurgents fighting to topple Mr. Assad.
The research was done by Jane’s analyst Charles Lister who a few weeks earlier predicted that internecine rebel warfare was inevitable.
The debate over Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and who was responsible for using sarin gas in an attack last month has fixated the public for weeks now, momentarily eclipsing the discussion over what some are calling called Syrian blowback.
The UN Security Council this week will continue to haggle over a resolution to take control of and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons. The devil is very much in the details, but if the seizure and destruction ever happens, it will be a small bright spot amid a violent and chaotic situation.
Will rebel infighting give Assad’s forces the upper hand in their effort to crush the insurgency? Do this week’s successes by Al Qaeda-linked groups along the Turkish border foreshadow similar efforts to come, as Mr. Lister predicts?
No one knows, but one thing’s sure: the Syrian war is likely going to get worse before it gets better.
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The decision of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff to forgo a planned October state visit to the United States is being portrayed by the White House as a mutually decided-upon postponement. Worldwide, however, that view gets little play: The cancellation is seen by many as a dismissal of the US in response to revelations about its wide-reaching National Security Agency surveillance programs.
The Associated Press framed the decision as the latest in a series of bad jolts for President Obama:
"The real issue becomes, How does this affect American influence in the world?" said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Is American influence knocked down a few notches as a result of this?" He called Rousseff's action "almost unheard of."
The most recent NSA program in question is the hacking of Brazil's oil company, Petrobras, which came to light as part of the leak of classified documents by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden. President Rousseff said on Monday that such spying amounts to industrial espionage, and was quoted by Reuters as saying: "Clearly, Petrobras is not a threat to the security of any country."
Rousseff's office pointed to its need for answers to the NSA's involvement in Brazil in canceling the important diplomatic event, reports The Hill's Global Affairs blog:
“The two presidents decided to postpone the state visit since the outcome of this visit should not be conditioned on an issue which for Brazil has not been satisfactorily resolved,” Rousseff’s office said.
“The illegal interceptions of communications and data of citizens, companies and members of the Brazilian government represents a serious act which violates national sovereignty and is incompatible with democratic coexistence between friendly countries,” it said.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the October visit would have touched on issues important to US interests:
Rousseff planned to have a deal ready for Obama that would allow the US to use the satellite launching base Alcântara in the northeastern state of Maranhão, a site to which the US has long sought access, Brazilian media reported. An accord signed by the former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 2000 was so favorable to the US – allowing, for example, exclusive access to parts of the base where Brazilians would be prohibited to enter – that Brazil’s congress never approved the deal.
The NSA spying revelations are also believed to have set back US efforts to close a deal to sell Brazil $4 billion in Boeing fighter jets. “We cannot talk about the fighters now.... You cannot give such a contract to a country that you do not trust,” a Brazilian official said in August, speaking on the condition of anonymity with Reuters.
The Brazilian Globo television network program on Sunday that touched off Rousseff's response also reported that the NSA hacked other companies (including Google) and France's foreign ministry, both revelations with potentially serious repercussions for the US government. A visit to Globo's news page suggests a country consumed by NSA revelations: Stories on Snowden's nomination for a human rights prize, the White House regretting the cancellation of Rousseff's trip, and details about the now-frosty relations between Rousseff and Obama still dominate the site.
About that prize: the fact that Mr. Snowden was nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament (the EU's only directly elected body) while he has been called a traitor by prominent US politicians, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, demonstrates how divisive and explosive his allegations have been.
The EU nomination cites Snowden for "leak[ing] details of mass surveillance programs to the press," precisely the same action referred to by a Fox News analyst who in June called for Snowden to be put to death.
With communications technology and surveillance of all sorts spreading and constantly increasing in sophistication, affairs like the leaks of Snowden, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Julian Assange, and others will undoubtedly multiply along with their resulting complications.
And as can be expected when major news happens on the international stage, domestic concerns aren't far from the fore. Rousseff is fighting for re-election next year in a race that has been energized by a public protest movement that emerged spontaneously this June. Much as protests rocked Turkey earlier this year and the Occupy movement became a part of the discourse surrounding the 2012 US presidential election, the fast-moving Brazilian protests focused attention on inequality and spending on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and instantly became a political factor.
Rousseff enjoyed personal popularity ratings in the 70s earlier this year, but those dropped to 49.3 percent in July. Her numbers have recovered to 58 percent, according to a Reuters report earlier this month, but she's still seen as vulnerable to rising inflation and presidential challengers whose popularity grew during the protests. The scuppered US trip could be a game-changer, shifting focus to Rousseff's perceived strength in the face of foreign interference, playing on themes of patriotism and anger about the rise of the global, Internet-boosted surveillance apparatus.
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The Syrian Army today accused Turkey of deliberately trying to escalate tensions after a Turkish fighter jet “hastily” brought down a Syrian military helicopter along the unstable frontier, highlighting the increasingly uneasy relationship between the two.
Syria says its helicopter crossed into Turkish airspace Monday while monitoring for terrorists in rebel strongholds along the border. Turkey says it repeatedly warned the helicopter, which had traveled more than a mile beyond its territory. The countries share a 560-mile border, and some 500,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkish soil, reports Reuters.
“The hasty response from the Turkish side, especially as the aircraft was on its way back and was not charged with any combat missions, is proof of the true intentions of [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s government toward Syria to increase tensions and escalate the situation on the border between the two countries,” according to a statement by the Syrian Army published by the state news agency, reports the Financial Times.
Turkey has been one of the strongest critics of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown. It is openly opposed to Mr. Assad and has supported rebel groups, allowing weapons and supplies to cross the Turkish border. Prime Minister Erdogan has said his country won’t “tolerate any violation of the border by Syrian forces,” reports The Associated Press.
This isn’t the first dispute Syria and Turkey have had over airspace. In June 2012 Syria shot down a Turkish aircraft it said violated its airspace, but at the time both sides said they did “not want to escalate an incident that has the potential to explode into a regional conflict,” reported a separate AP story. Syria called it an accident, not an attack. In October that same year, Turkey grounded a Syrian passenger flight, again heightening tensions.
According to Reuters, after the downing of the Turkish jet:
Erdogan said the military's rules of engagement had changed and that any Syrian element approaching the border would be deemed a threat and be treated as a military target.
Turkey has bolstered its defenses and deployed additional troops on its border with Syria in recent weeks, with convoys of military vehicles ferrying equipment and personnel and additional short-range air defenses set up.
The Turkish government "assumed this would be a very fast process [and] wanted to have some stake," so began a "proactive involvement” in the conflict, Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul told The Christian Science Monitor of the conflict last year. “Actually, this calculation turned out to be wrong." Prof. Kalaycioglu said. "Now we are into this mess up to our waists, probably, if not our neck.”
Time’s Piotr Zalewski writes that the current situation along the border is “far from what the Turks had in mind” just four years ago.
In late 2009, at the height of its detente with Syria, the Ankara government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted visa requirements for Syrian nationals and floated plans for future energy cooperation, investments, as well a free trade zone. Less then four years later, with its southern neighbor gripped by war, and with Turkey openly calling for the US to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad‘s regime, the border has become a flashpoint. The area — expected to be a crossroads for traders, business people and tourists — now teems with refugees, smugglers and insurgents.
Responding to yesterday’s incident, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglusaid said, “nobody will dare to violate Turkey’s borders in any way again,” according to Turkish state-run news agency Anatolia. “The necessary measures have been taken,” Mr. Davutoglusaid said.
He said Turkey “expects no retaliation” from Syria, though it “is ready for all possibilities,” according to state-run A-news TV.
This week’s back and forth between Syria and Turkey coincided with the release of a damning report by the United Nations on chemical weapons use in Syria in August.
The report did not blame Assad’s government or rebel fighters, but Western powers have “jumped on evidence in the report — especially the type of rockets, the composition of the sarin agent, and trajectory of the missiles — to declare that Assad's government was responsible. Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, disagreed,” according to a separate AP story.
Syria’s main opposition group called for “swift international response,” to the reports findings.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
The United Nations team that traveled to Syria to investigate accusations of use of chemical weapons will release its highly anticipated report today, potentially removing one of the biggest challenges to ongoing negotiations: the lack of evidence from a source that has not chosen a side in Syria's war.
The US and Russia – the de facto representatives of the international community's opposing positions – agree that a large-scale chemical weapons attack occurred in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21. But the US firmly believes that the Syrian regime was behind the attack, while Russia has accused the rebels of carrying it out in order to raise support for foreign intervention. President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly denied any use of chemical weapons.
But ABC News reports that the UN report will likely not point fingers at either side, leaving an essential question unanswered.
The UN inspectors' primary task was simply to confirm the attack occurred and if so, identify the agent used – assigning a perpetrator was not a main goal. However, the paper will reportedly suggest that only Assad's military has the capability to carry out such a wide-scale strike.
Regardless of whether the report identifies who is to blame, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said Friday it will be "an overwhelming report" and that the Assad government has "committed many crimes against humanity."
"Therefore, I'm sure that there will be surely the process of accountability when everything is over," he said.
Foreign Policy reported on Sept. 13 that, according to an unnamed Western official, the UN team has a "wealth" of evidence that Mr. Assad used chemical weapons.
The inspection team… will not directly accuse the Syrian regime of gassing its own people, according to three UN-based diplomats familiar with the investigation. But it will provide a strong circumstantial case – based on an examination of spent rocket casings, ammunition, and laboratory tests of soil, blood, and urine samples – that points strongly in the direction of Syrian government culpability.
"I know they have gotten very rich samples – biomedical and environmental – and they have interviewed victims, doctors and nurses," said the Western official. "It seems they are very happy with the wealth of evidence they got."
However, Western diplomats told Foreign Policy that while the report would "strengthen the case" against the regime, it would "not fundamentally alter the course of diplomatic efforts to contain chemical weapons in Syria."
Such diplomatic efforts accomplished a substantial achievement yesterday, with US and Russian officials reaching an agreement on Syria's chemical weapons program, calling for an inventory of the country's stockpile within a week and a complete elimination of the program by mid-2014. A follow-up UN resolution will lay out a framework for how Syria can first secure, then destroy its chemical weapons.
The Associated Press reports that the onus to keep the deal viable is on Assad. The US and France have both been emphatic that a military strike against Syria remains on the table if he drags his feet. “If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” said US President Obama yesterday, and French President François Hollande said, “The military option must remain; otherwise there will be no pressure."
While the agreement was hailed as an achievement, the reception was muted. An unpopular, seemingly imminent military strike on Syria has been averted, but the deal offered a "lifeline" to Assad, Reuters reports. And although the agreement will strip the regime of its chemical weapons arsenal, which it has relied on in order to deter attacks by domestic and regional enemies, it implicitly designates him as the primary negotiator for Syria still, despite losing control of much of the country and waging a war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
… [I]n the short term at least the Russian initiative, which Syria announced it would accept on the eve of the president's 48th birthday last week, was a gift for Assad.
It lifts the immediate threat of U.S. military action and secures his government an indispensable role over the coming months in assisting the destruction of chemical stockpiles.
"You're looking at a re-legitimized regime here. Not just Assad but the whole entourage," said Ayham Kamel, an analyst at the Eurasia consultancy group. "For the foreseeable future the government of Syria has become the key interlocutor for the international community".
The Washington Post reports that while international attention was focused on negotiations, the intensity of the fighting shot up. The weekly death toll, which had plummeted "into the low dozens" in the days after Obama's statement that he was prepared to strike, jumped back up into the hundreds.
Warplanes dropped bombs over far-flung Syrian towns that hadn’t seen airstrikes in weeks, government forces went on the attack in the hotly contested suburbs of Damascus, rebels launched an offensive in the south, and a historic Christian town changed hands at least four times.
At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria… .
The poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the suburbs of Damascus last month accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the deaths in the 21 / 2-year-old Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, both sides are stepping up conventional attacks in the absence of any sign of a broader settlement.
The possibility of a US strike "may have held in check some of the more violent impulses of a well-armed government," The Washington Post reports. With that off the table – for now – the regime is newly emboldened.
The fierce debate over chemical weapons has also eclipsed the brutality of the regime's initial response to an unarmed uprising, as well as the deep internal divisions and complex alliances that have made this such a bloody war, The Washington Post notes. It also fails to address any endgame questions: whether Assad should remain in power and how to end conventional fighting.
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Fighting between Muslim separatists and government troops spread to a second island in the southern Philippines today, while a hostage standoff entered its fourth day, raising fears that an insurgent threat is on the rise there.
Flames engulfed homes and periodic gunfire echoed across Zamboanga city on the island of Mindanao, where a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has held some 170 hostages since Monday, according to Reuters and Associated Press.
"We don't want any civilian casualties," Army spokesman Domingo Tutaan said at a news conference. "[We] want that this incident in Zamboanga to be resolved immediately or as soon as possible."
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The conflict began on Monday after the MNLF tried to raise a flag in Zamboanga’s city hall, declaring independence from the national government, police told The New York Times. Rebels say it was a peaceful march, but Steven Rood from the Asia Foundation said he’s skeptical.
The separatist MNLF movement was founded in 1971 with the aim of creating an independent Muslim state in the predominantly Catholic nation. The group signed a peace deal with the government in 1996, though there have been splinter groups, like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed its own peace deal with the government last October. That 2012 deal raised high hopes, reported The Christian Science Monitor. More than 120,000 people have been killed and 2 million displaced over the four decades of conflict.
MNLF-leader Nur Misuari says his group is not behind the events this week, reports CNN, though the government disagrees.
“Nur Misuari is denying his involvement, but all indications point to his running this operation in Zamboanga City from the very beginning,” military spokesman Col. Rodrigo Gregorio told The New York Times.
Reuters reports that "Muslim Moro make up the largest non-Christian group in the Philippines, at around 10 percent of a total 97 million Filipinos.”
Zamboanga city mayor Maria Isabell Climaco said the rebels are calling for the United Nations to come in and broker and end to the fighting.
According to the AP:
The four-day crisis has virtually paralyzed Zamboanga, a lively trading city of nearly a million people, with most flights and ferry services suspended. Communities near the clashes resembled a war zone, with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings. A mosque and its minaret were pockmarked with bullet holes.
Today’s attack on the nearby island of Basilan is believed to be led by a separate group, the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, reports the AP.
Moro rebels joined the Abu Sayyaf in Thursday's attack. [Army Col. Carlito] Galvez said that the Abu Sayyaf, which is a violent faction of the Muslim separatist rebellion, was trying to take advantage of the hostage standoff in Zamboanga “to try to improve its influence and mass base support.”
According to Time, “[p]reviously, the MNLF has been involved in hostage crises from which they have been allowed to walk away. But the current standoff in Zamboanga, with at least four civilian casualties, is the most severe carried out by the group since 1996. ‘There will be demands for accountability,’ says Rood, “but the negotiations will be very tough.’”
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When Russia succeeded in getting Syria to agree to put its chemical weapons under international control, it was hailed as a diplomatic victory that could avert war. But as negotiations begin today on a proposed United Nations resolution to place Syria's stockpile under outside surveillance, a new diplomatic impasse has cropped up.
Russia strongly objects to American and French demands for a UN Security Council resolution that would lay out "very severe consequences" if Syria doesn't give up all its chemical weapons. The Kremlin is also against the wording of the proposed resolution, which blames an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus on the regime and requests the matter be taken to an international court, Associated Press reports.
“[Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov noted that France’s proposal to accept a Security Council resolution… blaming the Syrian authorities for the possible use of chemical weapons is inadmissible,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Russian news outlet RIA Novosti.
Russia and the US are at odds over who was behind the attack outside Damascus that allegedly killed more than 1,000 people. Neither side has made its full array of intelligence public, instead expecting the public to trust that they are working off of reliable evidence.
This difference of opinion is evident in each country's media. While much US coverage has been based around the assumption that the Syrian regime was behind the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, the Russian government's news station RT urges viewers to consider that the rebels could have carried it out and cast doubt on the reliability of US intelligence.
The US Administration has blamed the Syrian government for the alleged chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21. Washington has maintained it has the intelligence to prove it, but has so far refused to make public a single piece of concrete evidence that would link the Assad regime to the deadly incident.
On Sunday, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee released a series of 13 videos showing what is purported to be proof of chemical weapons use in Syria. The disturbing images of the victims of the alleged attack were earlier shown during a closed-door briefing to a group of senators, as Obama is trying to get authorization from Congress for the military strike on Syria. The administration told senators that the authenticity of the videos was verified by the intelligence community, reported CNN, which first aired the graphic material.
The videos depict scenes of convulsing children, men vomiting and struggling to breathe, and also what appeared to be dozens of dead bodies wrapped up in white sheets, lying side by side. But the footage still does not provide an answer to the question of who was behind the attack. The Syrian government and the opposition forces point the finger of blame at each other.
And in an interview with former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, RT casts doubt on the veracity of the intelligence being cited by US officials.
Quoting Mr. McGovern, the outlet reports that "the intelligence gathered against Syria’s Assad was manufactured by elements within the spy community in order to mislead the US President to take punitive action" and that "CIA Director John Brennan is perpetrating a pre-Iraq-War-type fraud on members of Congress, the media, [and] the public.”
In its live updates on Syria, RT reports that today Russia presented to the UN Security Council its evidence that both the Syrian government and the rebels have chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Russian outlet Pravda reports that Duma deputy Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the international affairs committee, said that both sides have chemical weapons and cites a July 2013 McClatchy story about a 100-page Russian report provided to the UN that "contained evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Aleppo in March 2013."