Terrorism & Security
In an apparent double blow to Mexico's most notorious drug cartel, Mexican authorities said they believed they have killed the leader of the Zetas gang and captured a high-ranking lieutenant wanted for more than 300 murders.
The Mexican Navy said in a brief statement late Monday that there were "strong indications" that marines had killed Zetas top man Heriberto Lazcano in a battle in Progreso, Coahuila, reports the Los Angeles Times. After responding to citizens' reports of armed men in the vicinity, a marine patrol came under attack with grenades and gunfire. The marines returned fire, killing two men. Initial forensic tests indicated that Mr. Lazcano was one of the two dead.
The death of Lazcano, if confirmed, would be a massive blow to the Zetas organization, one of Mexico's most fearsome. Lazcano was Mexico's second most wanted man, behind only Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "Chapo" Guzmán. The Mexican and US governments both offer rewards for his capture, of $2 million and $5 million respectively.
Lazcano was an original member of the Zetas, which started out as a paramilitary hit squad for the Gulf cartel before breaking off to work independently, ultimately rising to become one of the most feared gangs in Mexico. Like most of the Zetas founding members, Lazcano was a former Mexican special forces soldier, and thus a cut above the average Mexican gangster. Lazcano has run the Zetas gang since 2004, and in his book "El Narco," journalist Ioan Grillo wrote that Lazcano brought the gang's violence to a new level after he took over, targeting not just victims and rival gangs, but authorities as well.
Taking leadership of the Zetas was Heriberto Lazcano, or Z-3, known by his chilling nickname the Executioner. Hailing from the rural state of Hidalgo, the muscular, thick-necked Lazcano shared a peasant background with his friend and mentor [Arturo] Guzmán, Z-1. Lazcano also joined the army as a teenager and gained promotion to the special forces. When Guzmán defected, the loyal Lazcano was quick to follow. However, Lazcano, who took control of the Zetas at age twenty-eight, proved he was more bloodthirsty than his teacher.
Guards at a penitentiary in Matamoros refused to smuggle in luxuries to some Zetas prisoners. So Lazcano applied pressure. One night, as six prison workers finished a late shift, waiting Zetas abducted them one by one. Hours later, a horrified guard at the prison gates found the bodies of the six employees in a Ford Explorer. They had been blindfolded, hand-cuffed, and shot in the head. The Zetas were showing a new approach for dealing with authorities. Police had once bullied criminals into paying up. Now the worm had turned.
News of Lazcano's possible death came the same day as the Mexican Navy, in a separate incident, announced the capture of Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, a regional Zetas leader known as "The Squirrel," in the city of Nuevo Laredo along the US-Mexican border, reports CNN. Mr. Martinez is best known in the US for the alleged killing of American David Hartley in 2010 on Falcon Lake, located south of Nuevo Laredo along the border, but he is notorious in Mexico for his alleged role in hundreds of other murders, including the 2010 mass execution of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas.
Mr. Hartley and his wife were jet-skiing on Falcon Lake in September 2010 when they encountered several boats with armed men aboard who opened fire on the couple. Hartley was shot in the head, but his wife escaped to the Texas side of the lake. Mexican and US police suspect that the Hartleys encountered a drug deal gone bad.
Although Martinez was not named a suspect by the US officials investigating Hartley's murder, Mexico announced yesterday that he was suspected of involvement in the murder of Mexico's lead investigator on the Hartley case. The Mexican Navy did not further explain Martinez's connection to the Hartley murder, but a US sheriff noted to CNN that Martinez was in charge of the region for the Zetas.
"Based on the information I have, he may have been the one responsible for that area, but not the one responsible for the actual killing," said Sigifredo Gonzalez, sheriff of Zapata County, Texas.
While the capture of Martinez and the alleged killing of Lazcano will likely move ahead those cases the two men were involved in, they do not necessarily mean that the Zetas are cowed. Mr. Grillo, discussing the capture of Gulf cartel leader and Zetas cofounder Osiel Cárdenas, noted hypothetically that if Lazcano was taken off the board, it might trigger an outbreak of violence among the Zetas, and will not diminish the gang's reputation.
When leaders such as Osiel Cárdenas are taken out, their organizations have only become more violent, as rival lieutenants fight to become top dog. Groups such as the Zetas and Familia [Michoacana] have also become powerful because of their brand names rather than the reputation of their capos. Even if Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, the Executioner, is arrested, the Zetas will likely continue as a fearsome militia.
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Turkey has ceased its shelling of Syria in retaliation for a mortar attack that killed Turkish civilians, but the hostilities have laid bare the fact that, despite cooperation so far, the United States and other Western powers have vastly different concerns and goals than Syria's neighbors when it comes to resolving the Syrian conflict.
With a spillover of fighting into Turkish territory a possibility and the growing rebel and refugee presence in eastern Turkey already sowing some discontent among locals, Turkey feels a much greater sense of urgency to bring about a resolution. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most strident voices of criticism of the Assad regime in Syria, as well as one of the most overt backers of the rebels.
While the US and others have clearly sided with the rebels, their support has been far more careful.
Turkey's parliamentary resolution yesterday authorizing military offensives into other countries prompted a flurry of alarm among Turks and the international community. Officials from Turkey's ruling party have been quick to issue statements reassuring Turks and the international community that the resolution was only a precaution.
"This is not a resolution that licenses war. If you want security and peace, you must be ready for a fight at all times," Huseyin Celik, a lawmaker and spokesman for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "There shouldn't be panic as if there's a war at our doorstep."
The US and United Nations have both condemned Syria's initial attack, but not Turkey's retaliation. "From our perspective, the response that Turkey made was appropriate," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday, according to WSJ. "The intent in sending a very strong message was to deter future aggression."
The UN Security Council "condemned in the strongest terms the shelling by the Syrian armed forces" – a move that required the approval of Russia, which has steadfastly rejected further action against Syria and been reticent to condemn some of its actions.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes in a Washington Post commentary that the attack lays bare the stark differences of opinion between the US and Turkey when it comes to Syria. While the US is treading carefully due to impending presidential elections and war fatigue among Americans, Mr. Erdogan sees its limited response as a sign of "indifference," Mr. Cagaptay writes, noting that Erdogan criticized President Obama for "lacking initiative" last month.
This statement could be a harbinger. Erdogan has a penchant for treating foreign leaders as friends — and losing his temper when he thinks his friends have not stood by him. The more Washington looks the other way on Syria, the more upset Erdogan is likely to get over what he sees as Obama’s unwillingness to support his policy.
To the White House, the Syrian crisis has appeared manageable.
U.S. policy holds that a gradual soft landing could be possible in Syria. The hope is that the opposition groups will coalesce and take down the Assad regime, eliminating the need for hasty foreign intervention — an option that Washington fears could cause chaos.
Ankara, however, wants an accelerated soft landing. Particularly with this week’s strikes, Turkey feels the heat of the crisis next door — Erdogan has reason to believe that time is not on his side.
Apparently, Turkey is being dragged into a bizarre coalition of the willing for regime change in Syria. It’s bizarre, because Turkey is fast heading to becoming a solo coalition of the willing, with several pats on the shoulder from its Western and Sunni allies. We thought that Turkey would become a regional power, not a regional hit man.
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Turkish artillery shelled targets in Syria for a second day in retaliation for a mortar attack that killed five Turkish civilians. But while Turkey is debating authorization of military action in parliament and called an emergency meeting of NATO to discuss the incident, officials say that the government has no plans to declare war.
The Associated Press reports that the Turkish military fired several artillery rounds into Syria early today, according to a witness. Mustafa Guclu, who lives in Akcakale, the Turkish town hit yesterday by Syrian mortars, said they fired five rounds of artillery "after midnight" and another round around 5 a.m. on today. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, several Syrian troops were killed by the Turkish attack, the BBC reports.
The slew of attacks come in response to yesterday's shelling of Akcakale by Syrian mortars, which killed two woman and three children in the worst case of cross-border violence into Turkey since the Syrian uprising began. AP adds that, according to Turkish media, at least 10 others were injured in the attack.
The Syrian mortar shell damaged the door and walls of a house in Akcakale, while shrapnel drilled holes and shattered windows of neighboring houses and shops. Some residents of Akcakale abandoned their homes close to the border and spent the night on the streets. Others gathered outside the local mayor's office, afraid to return to their homes as the dull thud of distant artillery fire rumbled across the town.
According to Russian media reports, Syrian officials told the Kremlin that the attack was a "tragic accident" and not an intentional assault on Turkey, reports Reuters. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, urged Damascus to publicly acknowledge the mistake.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office condemned the attack, saying that Turkey would "never leave unanswered such kinds of provocation by the Syrian regime against our national security." Mr. Erdogan also put forward a bill in parliament that would grant "a one-year-long permission to make the necessary arrangements for sending the Turkish Armed Forces to foreign countries," reports Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News.
Opposition parties condemned the bill as an authorization of war, and are expected to vote against it. But one of Erdogan's senior advisers, Ibrahim Kalin, commented on the military situation on Twitter, saying, "Turkey has no interest in a war with Syria. But Turkey is capable of protecting its borders and will retaliate when necessary."
Experts told Hurriyet that the bill did not necessarily mean war.
“Issuing a bill to authorize military operation does not mean declaring a war. It could make a deterrent effect. Issuing the bill as soon as possible would be beneficial for that. If the disturbance [Syria caused on the border] gets worse, Turkey could take action,” retired Gen. Armağan Kuloğlu said.
And while last night Turkey called an emergency meeting of NATO, of which it is part, to review the incident, a military reaction by the alliance seems highly unlikely. The Guardian reports that while NATO ambassadors condemned the attack on Turkey and called for an immediate end to "aggressive acts" by Syria, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance was cool to the idea of getting militarily involved. "Syria is a very, very complex society," he said. "Foreign military interventions could have broader impacts."
The Guardian also notes that yesterday's emergency meeting was called under Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which calls for consultation "whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." Importantly, it did not invoke the weightier Article 5, which declares that "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all" that permits a military response by the entire alliance against the attacking forces. Invocation of Article 5 would likely prelude direct military action by NATO.
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Three powerful explosions went off in the Syrian city of Aleppo today, killing scores of people as the most recent rebel offensive enters its second week, and yet another multilateral effort to curb the violence crumbles.
A Syrian government source said three cars packed with explosives were detonated near an officers' club in Aleppo, killing at least 27 people, reports The Associated Press. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that relies on information from opposition rebels and activists, put the death toll at closer to 40 people, adding that at least 90 others are injured.
“It was like a series of earthquakes ... it was terrifying, terrifying,” one witness told the AP.
The blasts are being called suicide bombings by the government and went off in a main square in a government-held area of the city. A fourth bomb detonated a few blocks away, near the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce. State-run television station Ikhbariya showed footage of the sweeping destruction in Saadallah al-Jabri square, including damaged building facades and one structure that appeared to have been leveled to the ground.
"The area is heavily fortified by security and the presence of shabiha," Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed told the AP, referring to pro-regime militia fighters. Gunfighting reportedly broke out after the blasts.
Car and suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria’s civil war, but they are relatively new in Aleppo, which was spared from violence and destruction for most of the first year of the conflict, according to a second AP report.
The 19-month civil war has claimed between 20,000 and 30,000 lives, according to tallies from the United Nations and activist groups, and calls to halt the violence and humanitarian crisis are mounting.
Meanwhile, a regional effort between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran to mediate Syria's crisis, announced in August, appears to be unraveling, reports Reuters. Saudi Arabia has missed its second meeting in a row, according to the Egyptian foreign minister, hampering their ability to find a solution.
Many questioned the group’s chances of success from the beginning because it consists of Syrian ally Iran and three opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, who would be unlikely to find common ground. The countries agreed on the need for change in Syria, but not necessarily on how to bring about that change, the Egyptian minister told Reuters.
A column by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria notes that the violence unfolding in Syria is straining an already shaky region where countries' borders are often artificial and often encompass competing religious and ethnic groups. Cooperation between these countries is imperative to preventing violence from spreading further and sectarian divides from tearing them apart.
… [C]ould Syria’s neighbors come to recognize that civil war in Syria is not simply an internal affair, but something likely ultimately to undermine the entire state system of the Middle East? If Syria’s neighbors do indeed recognize this, you would expect to see Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the one hand, and Iran on the other trying to find ways to rein in the violence. And there have been moves to form a “contact group” of those four powers to meet. Iran has been eager to join in but so far Saudi Arabia has refused to sit down with the Iranians.
When all is said and done, however, it’s difficult to see how any progress towards a new political order will occur with Bashar al-Assad remaining as Syria’s president. So the first step would have to be for the Iranians to recognize the inevitable and call on al-Assad to leave office.
Sadly, when I asked President Ahmadinejad about this very matter last week, his answer was not encouraging.
The international community also heightened its calls for an end to Syria’s violence after the United Nations General Assembly, where world leaders expressed their dismay but offered no concrete solutions. Some questioned why a powerful country like the United States has yet to step into the fray.
Jeff Goldberg, a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic, says the Syrian rebels are in need of the kind of help and support the United States can provide:
The United States has the capability to efficiently neutralize Syria's air defenses and impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad's attack helicopters. And as Michael Doran and Max Boot pointed out in The New York Times recently, only America can lead a multinational effort to establish safe corridors between the Turkish border and the besieged city of Aleppo. Stable rebel control of Aleppo would spell the end of Assad's regime and its appalling brutality.
However, columnist Joe Klein writes in Time magagzine that many of the regional tensions stem from past foreign interference: States in the Middle East have very artificial borders, largely drawn by colonial powers.
Six years ago, long before the carnage, Syria's Bashar Assad told me he was extremely worried that "his" Kurds would break off and join Iraq's semiliberated northern province to form a greater Kurdistan. Who knows how the Kurds in Turkey and Iran would react to such an entity?
This is the real challenge the US faces in the region that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindu Kush. The problems in Afghanistan have their roots in a line drawn by the British in 1893 that amputates Pashtunistan – like Kurdistan, a coherent region – into Afghan and Pakistani pieces. The patch of sand called Jordan was a gift to Britain's Hashemite allies in World War I. Israel, too, is a figment of the Western imagination, although – contra Ahmadinejad – it does have ancient roots in the region and has transformed itself into one of the world's strongest democracies, a real place, a true nation (as is Iran, by the way).
It would be nice to have a real discussion about these issues, which may define the next era of US foreign policy.
“Syria’s problems will not stay inside Syria,” writes Mr. Zakaria. “Syria is a multi-sectarian society with shared identities with groups in other countries. As a result, the sectarian tensions that are being unleashed there are also spilling over from Syria’s borders.”
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Heavy shelling rocked Damascus and other towns today, just a day after the closing of the week-long United Nations General Assembly meeting, where world leaders spent countless hours calling for an end to the deadly Syrian crisis and Syria’s foreign minister accused members of trying to impose colonial policies on his country.
Anti-government activists reported shelling in Daraa, Idlib, and the Damascus suburb of Douma today, and at least 17 people were killed this morning as a result of the violence, according to the opposition's Local Coordination Committees of Syria. Fierce fighting in Aleppo, which began in the city's Souk al-Medina over the weekend and continued into yesterday, left the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, smoldering.
At the close of the General Assembly yesterday, no diplomatic resolution was reached on Syria, despite more than seven days of speeches where “Syria was discussed by one country after another,” reports the Associated Press.
From Albania, whose diplomats said Syrians “are suffering a primitive bloodshed by a regime that has irreversibly lost its legitimacy to lead,” to Zambia, whose diplomats said, “Humanity has again been embarrassed by this unnecessary carnage,” there were few speeches that didn’t include some criticism of the conflict, which has now entered its 19th month and killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people, according to the UN and activists.
But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem countered the many calls to end Syria’s civil war in a speech in front of the General Assembly yesterday, where he accused “some well-known countries” of pursuing “new colonial policies based on political hypocrisy,” and supporting terrorism in Syria, according to Syria's state-run Day Press News. The Syrian government often refers to rebel fighters in the country as terrorists. Mr. Moallem continued:
Perhaps, worse of all, is to see permanent members of the Security Council, who launched wars under the pretext of combating terrorism, now support terrorism in my country....
For more than one year now, my country has been facing organized terrorism, that affected our citizens, our human and scientific resources, national establishments, and also much of Syria's historic and archeological landmarks through terrorist bombings, assassinations and massacres, looting and sabotage activities that horrified citizens in many parts of Syria.
Moallem said calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down were "blatant interference in the domestic affairs of Syria, and the unity of its people and its sovereignty," though he did call for dialogue with the rebels, which was derided by George Sabra, an opposition spokesman for the opposition umbrella organization, the Syrian National Council.
"From day one, the regime played the same tune, call[ing] for political solution while ordering mass killing all across the homeland. They keep putting themselves in a political corner ... while their military keeps its systematic killing spree, murdering hundreds of innocent men and women every single day," Mr. Sabra told CNN.
Following sideline talks with Moallem yesterday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “stressed that it was the Syrian people who were being killed every day, and appealed to the government of Syria to show compassion to its own people,” according to the UN press office.
In one of the more shocking claims, Moallem also noted that refugees fleeing Syria had been duped by neighboring countries that were trying to create an artificial crisis in order to receive international aid.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to neighboring countries to escape violence since the conflict broke out. With fighting showing no sign of abating, thousands of Syrian refugees are stuck along the Turkish border in poor conditions, waiting to enter overcrowded camps in Turkey, reports CNN. In Jordan, where the government is struggling to cope with the 100,000 Syrian refugees who have already arrived, most locals oppose allowing more into the country, reports The Christian Science Monitor.
A Taliban-claimed suicide attack killed 14 people – including 3 NATO soldiers – and injured 37 civilians in eastern Afghanistan following a weekend in which the US death toll in the conflict surpassed the 2,000 mark and continued to raise concerns over "insider" attacks by Afghan forces on Western troops.
Reuters reports that the suicide bomber struck Monday during a NATO patrol in the eastern city of Khost. In addition to the three soldiers killed, four police, an Afghan interpreter, and six civilians died in the blast. At least 37 civilians were injured, according to Provincial Governor Abdul Jabar Nahimi.
A witness told Reuters that the suicide bomber was wearing a police officer's uniform when he detonated his explosive-laden motorcycle. The witness said that a patrol of US soldiers was in the vicinity at the time. A NATO spokesperson would only confirm that there had been a suicide bombing.
Reuters notes that while the Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, the group is quick to claim any attack that results in the deaths of foreign soldiers.
The attack comes just two days after the 2,000th American died in Afghanistan in a clash between US and Afghan soldiers southwest of Kabul. The attack, which appears to have been the result of a misunderstanding after a US patrol was fired upon, ended in the deaths of two Americans – a soldier and a civilian contractor – and three Afghans. The New York Times reports that while initially described as a "green-on-blue" insider attack, the incident may have been a more traditional friendly-fire episode.
Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman for the governor in Wardak Province, where the fighting occurred, said the deaths came “after a clash ensued between two sides following a misunderstanding.” An Afghan official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to release details, said that a mortar shell had landed amid the American unit, killing a soldier and a civilian contractor and wounding several others. The Americans thought it came from a nearby Afghan National Army checkpoint on a hill overhead and attacked it with small arms and rockets, killing three and wounding three of the seven soldiers there, the official said.
The Wardak provincial police chief, Abdul Qayoum Baqizoi, said the fight broke out when an Afghan soldier among seven soldiers at the checkpoint opened fire on the Americans; in the ensuing gun battle, three Afghan soldiers were killed, including the one who fired first. “We still don’t have a clear picture of what happened,” Mr. Baqizoi said. He quoted the lone Afghan soldier who was unhurt as saying, “ ‘I heard some noise and verbal argument and suddenly heard the shooting and then one of the coalition soldiers threw a hand grenade so I fled from the check post and hid myself behind our Humvee.’ ”
The Times notes that the US unit was small and not partnered with any Afghan forces, which may have exacerbated the confusion.
Regardless of the nature of Saturday's incident, it comes amid a recent spate of insider attacks that have raised public concerns over US and NATO partnerships with locals in Afghanistan. The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that while the US has seen a consistent drop in the rate of fatalities starting last year, attacks by Afghan soldiers and police on NATO forces have become a high-profile problem with no obvious solution.
“It gets at the very core of trust between coalition forces and the Afghans, and it’s very difficult to counter,” says David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who commanded US and international forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
Citing findings that show insurgent infiltration accounts for only a quarter of insider attacks, with personal disputes accounting for another quarter and the rest having unclear motivations, Mr. Barno says stopping the attacks will be difficult.
“You can come up with a counter-intelligence program and take a number of other measures to help find Taliban infiltrators, but if three out of four attacks are related to cultural misunderstandings, outbursts, or friction perhaps related to 11 years of exposure between the coalition and Afghans that’s much more perplexing and much more difficult to deal with,” he says.
In an interview with 60 Minutes recorded before Monday's attack, Gen. John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan, expressed his frustration about insider attacks and warned that more should be expected.
Lara Logan: You're in a tough spot right now. Can you explain why the sudden increase in these attacks?
Allen: Well, I'm mad as hell about them, to be honest with you. We're going to get after this. It reverberates everywhere, across the United States. You know, we're willing to sacrifice a lot for this campaign. But we're not willing to be murdered for it.
Lara Logan: At a certain point, if these attacks continue, the American people are going to say, "We've had enough." Right? "Why are we training these people if they're murdering us?"
Allen: Well, that may be, in fact. It may be the voice right now that we're hearing. The key point is for us to understand that the vast majority, the vast majority of the Afghans, and you've lived with them, you understand these people, they're with us in this. They understand right now the severity of this problem and the urgency of what's happening. And there have been Afghans who've been killed trying to save our forces when these attacks have been underway. Because that was the only reaction that they could've taken, was to try to save us at that moment of attack. ...
Lara Logan: Should Americans brace themselves for more attacks? Is this going to continue?
Allen: It will. The enemy recognizes this is a vulnerability. You know, in Iraq, the signature weapon system that we hadn't seen before was the IED. We had to adjust to that. Here, I think the signature attack that we're beginning to see the – is going to be the insider attack.
IN PICTURES - Inside Afghanistan: Remnants of America's longest war
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Syrian rebel fighters have launched what they described as a "decisive" battle in Aleppo, bringing "unprecedented" clashes to the streets of the city as they try to wrest certain neighborhoods from government control.
Their goal is not to liberate the whole city, but to regain control over parts of the city the Free Syrian Army has lost, a local FSA commander told the Guardian. The offensive was launched at 4 p.m. yesterday, he said, speaking by phone from the city.
We wanted to [surprise] the Syrian army which had started to creep forward towards the southern neighbourhoods. The Tawheed brigade was enticing the Syrian army forward to face all the fighting brigades in the city.
We have been reconsidering this a battle for a week. The plan to launch the battle today was top secret, and now the mosques in Aleppo are praying for the FSA.
There are 6,000 fighters of the Tawheed brigade taking part in the battle now, in addition to a few other brigades like al-Fatah and Ahfad al-Fatiheen for the Turkmen. We have prepared good ammunition for the battle, we have confiscated a lot of weapons from Masaken Hananou belonging to the Syrian army. We have Russian weapons used by the regime and we will use them against the Syrian army.
Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its commercial capital, has been the site of fierce fighting for more than two months now, but the FSA and government troops have been locked in a stalemate for several weeks, the Associated Press reports.
"The fighting is unprecedented and has not stopped since Thursday. The clashes used to be limited to one or two blocks of a district, but now the fighting is on several fronts," said [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Residents in the central districts of Sulimaniyeh and Sayyid Ali, previously spared the worst of fighting, also told AFP that the violence and mortar fire from rebels was "unprecedented".
"The sound from the fighting and the gunfire has been non-stop. Everyone is terrified. I have never heard anything like this before," said a 30-year-old resident of Sulimaniyeh who only identified himself as Ziad.
"This is the first time I have seen something like this in Sayyid Ali. Normally there are two or three mortars. But last night the intensity was unprecedented," another resident told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, as the country experienced one of its deadliest days yet on Wednesday, the United Nations announced that if Syrians continue to flee at the same rate they have been, it expects the number of registered refugees to more than double by the end of the year, reaching 710,000, according to The New York Times.
“This is not business as usual,” [Panos Moumtzis, the agency’s regional coordinator for Syrian refugees,] said. He appealed for $488 million to finance international relief efforts that have been overwhelmed by the speed and scale of the refugee flow.
The flight of Syrian refugees has repeatedly overrun United Nations estimates. Now, with security deteriorating further in Syria, refugees are leaving the country at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a day.
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Yesterday was one of the deadliest days in Syria so far, with a human rights group reporting more than 300 people killed, including 14 in a high-profile rebel attack in the heavily fortified city of Damascus that has led some to wonder if fighting has shifted away from commercial hub Aleppo.
In a report released today, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that yesterday's 300-plus death toll included 55 people in the rural areas around Damascus and at least 40 more shot in the town of al-Dhiyabia near the capital, writes Reuters. Reuters adds that other activists put the al-Dhiyabia toll, reportedly the result of a massacre committed by members of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as high as 107.
A new report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also released today, says that the conflict has displaced nearly 300,000 Syrian refugees, and will displace up to 700,000 by the end of the year.
The Syrian Observatory's tally also included 14 people killed in the twin bombing attack on Syria's military headquarters – and the following gun battle – in Damascus yesterday morning, about which new details and video have since emerged.
Syrian state television aired CCTV footage, republished by the Daily Telegraph, of what it says were the two explosions. The first explosion appears to have been a suicide car bomb by the side of the road outside the military base; the video shows a white van pulling up to the curb and then exploding, with no one in its immediate vicinity. An indeterminate amount of time later in the same video, another explosion is visible behind a building in the compound beyond the roadside. The cause of the second explosion is not clear.
But activist Samir al-Shami told Reuters that the explosions were the result of a suicide car bomb followed by a second car bomb on the perimeter of the military base.
"Then the fighters went inside and clashed with security inside, while some of the men started to torch the building," he said.
That tallied with accounts from residents who heard gunfire and smaller blasts after the first explosions.
"The explosions were very loud. They shook the whole city and the windows of our house were shuddering," one resident reached by telephone said.
In an article for Time, Rania Abouzeid cautions that the attacks in Damascus are not a sign that the battle will soon be shifting to the capital from the primary battleground of Aleppo.
Wednesday’s bombing is a psychological boost to the rebels, but what will it translate to on the ground? Is it a precursor to a sustained fight for Damascus? That’s unlikely given that Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its commercial hub, is still being fought over – a situation that has lasted for two months now. There, streets, and street corners, continue to regularly change hands, the to-ing and fro-ing eroding the social and material infrastructure of one of the world’s oldest cities. Aleppo’s battles are very parochial fights, sometimes over a patch of a single street, but they have vast national implications and until a decisive blow is dealt, either to the rebels or the loyalists, it’s unlikely that the overstretched rebels will make a sustained push for the capital.
The New York Times notes that the rebels around Aleppo have made inroads toward negating the Assad regime's major military advantage: its air power. CJ Chivers writes that the rebels, using infantry armed mostly with rifles, have been able to lay siege to Abu ad Duhur Air Base south of Aleppo. The troops have had enough success at shooting down aircraft – at least two MIG fighters have been brought down – that the Syrian Air Force has stopped fights to and from the base.
“We are facing aircraft and shooting down aircraft with captured weapons,” said Jamal Marouf, a commander credited by the fighters with downing the first MIG-21 here. “With these weapons we are preventing aircraft from landing or taking off.”
For the rebels, managing to deny the use of this airfield has undermined the government’s ability to exert its full authority in some parts of the country. It has also improved the morale of fighters who remain severely outgunned.
The rebels’ boldness, and their success, have not been painless. The army units inside the base have tanks, artillery and mortars. When attacked, the soldiers often respond by firing barrages of high-explosive rounds into the nearby town, in what amounts to a tactic of collective punishment against civilians. The effects are evident in the center of town, where block after block of buildings have been shattered. “This is the army, taking revenge,” said another fighter, Abu Razaq.
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Syrian rebels bombed Army headquarters in Damascus today in the second consecutive day of attacks on government troops and facilities in the city – underscoring the rebels’ ability to carry out assaults on centers of President Bashar al-Assad’s power, despite ongoing targeted strikes by the Syrian Army.
The attack comes just days after the Free Syrian Army (FSA) announced that it was going to move its top officials from Turkey to parts of rebel-held Syria. "The plan is that all the leadership of the FSA will be based in Syria soon, either in Idlib Province or Aleppo Province," a rebel source told Reuters over the weekend.
Though rebels now control parts of Syria, they still face constant air and ground attacks by government forces.
This morning, two large bomb blasts went off in Damascus, according to Information Minister Omran Zoabi. He said one may have gone off inside the military compound, something that could indicate inside help, reports the Guardian. The blasts were felt throughout the city – with buildings one kilometer (a half-mile) away shaking “violently” at the force – and were followed by a “fierce gun battle,” reports the BBC. Diplomats told the news agency this was the largest explosion they’ve heard in months.
The FSA took responsibility for the attack, and said dozens of people died as a result of the blasts. Syrian officials said, however, that there was only “material damage.” After the attack, Mr. Zoabi told the Associated Press:
I can confirm that all our comrades in the military command and defence ministry are fine.
Everything is normal. There was a terrorist act, perhaps near a significant location, yes, this is true, but they failed as usual to achieve their goals.
The Syrian government often refers to rebel fighters as terrorists. Meanwhile, exiled activist Ammar Abdulhamid interpreted the attack in a very different way:
Assad’s grip over Damascus has become tenuous at best. Rebels are able to conduct bombings and attacks even in the most secured areas aided by informants embedded within Assad’s own security establishment. The battle of Damascus is set to begin at earnest soon, in what promises to be a very bloody development.
The conflict in Syria has been a central theme this week at the United Nations, as world leaders try to find a path toward ending the violence. French President François Hollande told the General Assembly that outside military intervention was needed to protect rebel-held zones. President Assad “has no future among us,” President Hollande said.
President Obama noted in his address to the General Assembly that the future of Syria “must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people,” and the emir of Qatar called on all Arab nations to form a coalition to intervene in Syria.
“We have used all available means to get Syria out of the cycle of killing, but that was in vain,” the emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly. “In view of this, I think it is better for the Arab countries themselves to interfere out of their national, humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria.”
Though the emir’s proposed military approach goes directly against the UN’s calls for resolving the conflict – which has killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people according to the UN and watchdog groups – through mediation and negotiations, it is an approach some say is time to explore 18 months after the increasingly deadly conflict began.
According to USA Today contributor and Truman National Security Project fellow Lionel Beehner, many in the international community seem to approach the conflict through the lens that Assad and his regime are floundering. As Assad gives all he can to hold on to power, the conflict rages on, and “Some Western policymakers have noted that this could be the desperate tactic of a regime in its final throes,” Mr. Beehner writes. But that “raises the question: Can Bashar Assad succeed?”
Some have assumed that Assad's fall is a foregone conclusion. But few have asked: What if he succeeds? Barring a major intervention, the balance of power will likely remain in Assad's favor. The Free Syrian Army cannot defend population centers with its current arms or finances. The U.S. has signaled it will not intervene, unless Assad uses chemical weapons, an unlikely scenario. The longer civil wars drag on, the more likely the government prevails.
After the success of the troop surge in the Iraq War, Americans seem to believe that winning hearts and minds is the sole path to victory in counterinsurgencies. But most autocratic regimes care little about winning over populations. They care about eradicating the enemy and remaining in power. Indeed, an Assad stalemate would be catastrophic…. It would embolden Assad, and push his regime even further into the hands of Iraq and Iran, which would further divide the Arab world along sectarian lines. Finally, it would provide a dangerous template for future regimes dealing with popular uprisings: Just hold out long enough, employ indiscriminate force and victory will be assured.
The use of such indiscriminate violence by the Assad regime suggests the civil war in Syria has entered a new stage. While this kind of counterinsurgency could widen the opposition and draw more opprobrium from abroad, this might not be enough to unseat Assad, short of a Libya-style intervention. Hence, Washington would be wise to have a plan in place should Assad win the war.
• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.
As the United Nations General Assembly Debate kicks off in New York today, the 18-month-old protracted conflict in Syria is expected to take center stage, particularly after calls by the UN envoy to Syria for the international community to change its approach to the civil war.
“The situation in Syria is dire and getting worse by the day,” Lakhdar Brahimi said after his first report to the Security Council as UN envoy yesterday, according to The New York Times. Mr. Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, took over for Kofi Annan as UN envoy to Syria three weeks ago.
“There is a stalemate; there is no prospect today or tomorrow to move forward,” Brahimi said, noting that now that he’s learned more about what is happening inside Syria, he hopes “we will find an opening in the not too distant future.” According to the Times, Brahimi found that President Bashar al-Assad hoped to return to "the old Syria" rather than move toward marked political change:
“I refuse to believe that reasonable people do not see that you cannot go backward, that you cannot go back to the Syria of the past,” Mr. Brahimi said at the news conference. “I told everybody in Damascus and elsewhere that reform is not enough anymore, what is needed is change.”
Still, he stressed that he did not have a specific new plan, but was relying on the never-implemented six-point peace plan, basically a cease-fire, first proposed by Mr. Annan, as well as a communiqué calling for a political transition that many nations, including Syria’s staunch supporters Russia and China, signed off on in June.
Rebels have increasingly targeted security sites and other symbols of the regime’s power, including a bombing that killed four senior-level government officials in July, reports the AP. Today, the rebels expected high casualties after the bombing, but were unable to confirm reports of deaths, Reuters reports.
“There were several officers present, and we are hoping they will be part of a large number of killed in this operation,” Abu Moaz, a leader of Ansar al-Islam, one of the rebel groups attempting to overthrow President Assad in Syria, told Reuters.
At least 60 people, including 27 civilians, 22 soldiers, and 11 rebels, were killed in the violence in Syria yesterday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In addition to high death tolls – the UN estimates more than 20,000 people have been killed in the conflict thus far – Brahimi noted in his report to the Security Council yesterday an impending threat of food insecurity after a bad harvest in Syria this year, the “medieval” torture enacted on detainees, and damage to all but 200 of the 2,200 schools in the country, according to Agence France-Presse.
The impact that the civil war has had on children is a big concern as well. The Syrian Observatory on Human Rights estimates some 2,000 kids have been killed in the conflict.
British-based charity Save the Children launched a story-telling project today highlighting how the conflict has uniquely affected the youngest echelons of Syrian society. The CEO of Save the Children, Justin Forsyth, wrote an opinion in the Telegraph today noting:
Our teams on the ground, working with refugees who have fled the horror of war, hear stories of children who have seen loved ones killed in front of them, of children being used as human shields, of instances of torture where children have been hung from the ceiling and beaten, of schools being targeted, and in one case, of a six year old who was tortured and denied food and water until he died.
Their experiences confirm Syria’s war is proving devastating for children.
Some blame the ongoing violence on the international community’s inability to come together on a resolution.
"Children should be going back to school, but instead they are suffering extreme violence," said Abdel Rahman from the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, who also noted children are being traumatized by the violence. "This would not be possible were the international community not silenced by its paralysis.”
Some 120 heads of state are gathering in New York for the UN General Assembly, and although questions about Syria have caused numerous stalemates in the past – Russia and China have vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions – many hope today’s debate will provide an opportunity for the emergence of new ideas on drawing down the conflict.