Terrorism & Security
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United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said today that the government agreed to a cease-fire over the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, but Syrian officials almost immediately dismissed his statement, claiming that it was still considering the proposal.
There are high stakes for the potential cease-fire, which is currently the only proposal on the table for ending the 19-month conflict that has killed between 20,000 and 34,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. But there seems to be little optimism that the three- or four-day break in violence will bring about a substantial change.
A cease-fire agreement in April (described as “so fragile it could collapse with a single gunshot,” reported the Associated Press at the time) failed within days, with both rebels and the Army accusing one another of breaking the agreement.
"After the visit I made to Damascus, there is agreement from the Syrian government for a cease-fire during the Eid," Mr. Brahimi told a news conference at the Cairo-based Arab League. Rebel groups have also agreed to the truce “in principle," Reuters reports.
However, an hour after Brahimi's announcement, the Syrian government said it was still "studying" the proposal and would announce its decision tomorrow.
Rebel sources earlier told the news agency there was “little point if it could not be monitored and enforced,” according to a separate Reuters report, and Brahimi’s plan didn’t note the presence of international observers to monitor the cease-fire, according to the first report.
"If this humble initiative succeeds, we hope that we can build on it in order to discuss a longer and more effective cease-fire, and this has to be part of a comprehensive political process," Brahimi said.
Brahimi's announcement follows another bloody day in Syria. One of the few bakeries still operating in Aleppo was shelled yesterday, as about 100 people waited in line for bread, reports the Los Angeles Times. An estimated 20 people were killed and another 50 wounded in the blast in the Masaken Hanano neighborhood.
This was the third day in a row that the opposition-held neighborhood came under Army shelling. Abu al-Hasan, an activist from an Aleppo suburb, told The New York Times that residents in the area were too scared to leave their homes the past few days because of the intense shelling but “finally took the risk in order to buy food for Eid al-Adha,” the widely celebrated holiday that starts at the end of the week. The N.Y. Times notes how important bakeries have become in the three-month battle over Aleppo, Syria’s largest city:
…[B]akeries in rebel-held areas of Aleppo have emerged as vitally important resources that are clearly potential targets for Syrian forces seeking to starve the insurgents and their sympathizers into submission. Many of the bakeries are run by the insurgents, who have learned how to bake bread as part of the war effort.
Nearly a dozen bakeries have been targeted in Aleppo since fighting broke out there. Abu Firas, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Council for Aleppo and its suburbs, told the L.A. Times that the Assad regime has targeted bakeries because it wants “life to stop.”
"They are directly targeting the bakeries because many people gather there. Why are they shelling it? There aren't any Free Syrian Army fighters," Abu Firas said, referring to the main rebel fighting force, also known as the FSA.
The Syrian Army is relying more and more on air strikes as it has lost territory to rebel groups.
"Some of the bombs were so big they sucked in the air and everything crashes down, even four-story buildings. We used to have one or two rockets a day, now for the past 10 days it has become constant, we run from one shelter to another. They drop a few bombs and it's like a massacre," a 20-year-old refugee named Nabil told Reuters at a camp in the Syrian town of Atimah, which overlooks the Turkish border.
Bakeries aren’t the only targets. The BBC reports from the town of Marea near the Turkish border, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, that funeral processions, the weekly market, and other quotidian activities seem just as likely to be targeted by bombs.
Almost everyone we meet has lost someone to the enemy in the sky – here, a boy was shot dead from the air as he rode his motor bike – there, a group of teenage lads were blown to pieces by a bomb dropped from a MiG fighter as they loaded potatoes onto a truck.
There seems to be no object to the random bombing, other than to sow terror.
"It's revenge," says Yasser al-Haji, a businessman from Marea who moved abroad, then returned last year to join the revolution. "Marea was one of first cities to demonstrate.
"It's an economic war, too. Above all, they want to humiliate us for rising up against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad," he adds.
The bakery hit yesterday in Aleppo was housed in a large warehouse, according to Abu al-Hasan who spoke to the N.Y. Times. He says it’s actually unclear whether the bakery was the target.
“The problem is those kinds of missiles are not guided to their intended targets,” he said. “They’re not precise. They fall on random buildings.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there are now more than 358,000 Syrian refugees in the region, according to the L.A. Times. Last week alone more than 5,500 Syrians registered with UNHCR.
“The longer Syrians remain in exile, the more likely they are to seek help as their savings are depleted. Many refugees fled home with few resources because work has been disrupted for more than a year in some areas of Syria,” the LA Times reports.
With a potential cease-fire on the horizon, many are speculating about the future of Syria and President Bashar al-Assad. James Van de Velde, a lecturer at the Center for Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University writes in a commentary for The Jerusalem Post that no regime that follows Assad could be worse, “though it may not be much better in the near term.”
Mr. Van de Velde lays out five potential outcomes in Syria, none of which he expects will include Assad:
1. Assad flees and those Alawite members of the regime who remain pledge to join and cooperate with the new (Sunni-dominated) Free Syrian Army (FSA) government (the optimal, ideal, Western-driven future, although sadly there is no evidence the United States is pursuing such an outcome)….
2. Assad resigns at the direction of Russia, which creates a new Syrian government (a Russian-driven future). A UN-Russian plan creates a transitional government made up of FSA members and current regime elements, made possible and heavily influenced by Russia, which wishes to maintain a favored-nation status with the new Syrian government, which affords Russia special influence for pulling Assad. The United States is largely shut out of the new government, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition….
3. Assad flees at the direction of Iran (an Iran-driven future). A UN plan creates a transitional government made up of FSA members and current regime elements, but one that is heavily influenced behind the scenes in Syria by Iran, which wishes to keep Syria a client state and to continue to support Lebanese Hezbollah through Syria. The United States is largely shut out, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition.
4. Assad flees or is killed and leaves behind chaos (a “no one is driving” future). The FSA takes over the country; the Alawites are purged from the new government. There is a scramble among the FSA, al-Qaida in Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran to secure and control Syrian chemical and biological weapons and shape the new government. The outcome of such violence is uncertain. here is no sympathy for the United States, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition.
5. Assad flees or is killed and Alawite members of the SSRC, the Republican Guard and former regime elements – including thousands of private Alawite militia, retreat to the Latakia Province and create a defensive enclave, armed with Syrian regime weapons, perhaps including chemical and biological weapons (a sectarian-driven future) – perhaps the most likely future now....
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The emir of Qatar traveled to Gaza today, becoming the first head of state from any nation to visit the territory since the Islamist group Hamas took power five years ago. The emir is bringing significant offers of aid, furthering the small oil-rich nation's efforts to gain influence around the region.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's visit is pinned to the launch of an aid package earmarked for $254 million to fund reconstruction projects in Gaza – "symbolic" relief for a territory that has been economically and politically isolated by the West and Israel since Hamas took over in 2007. Reuters noted upon the emir's arrival that the original amount was increased to $400 million.
During the emir's four-hour visit, he will inaugurate several projects, among them a housing project, hospital, and renovation of Gaza's major north-south highway, Salaha-Din Road.
This is the "latest example of Qatar’s use of its oil and gas riches and ties to Islamist organizations to expand its regional influence," reports The Wall Street Journal. It has played an active role in the regional uprisings, leading regional efforts to isolate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – it was one of the first countries to close its embassy there – and overthrow former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party presides over the government in the West Bank, said he welcomed Qatar’s aid package, but stressed that he is the official, internationally recognized leader of the Palestinian people, according to The Associated Press.
The two Palestinian territories have been politically divided since the Hamas takeover, and reconciliation efforts have failed repeatedly. Some Palestinians expressed reservations about the emir’s visit and Qatar’s role, fearing that Mr. Thani's visit could deepen the split, The Wall Street Journal reports.
But many Palestinians have expressed uneasiness about Qatar's role, describing it as aggravating their domestic political feud by favoring Hamas over the secular Fatah Party, which runs the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Fatah representatives couldn't be reached on Monday, but the party's Facebook page contained a photograph of the emir with a red line through his face and a caption reading "You are unwelcome. Gaza is not for sale."
"It's political money. It's not innocent money," said Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza economic think tank Pal-Think for Strategic Studies. "Some people think that it will damage reconciliation. It will encourage Hamas and embolden Hamas'' not to compromise with Fatah.
But the United Arab Emirates' Gulf News writes in an editorial that the emir’s visit is an opportunity for mending ties.
It is important that Shaikh Hamad takes the opportunity to urge the Hamas leaders to seek the promised reconciliation with Fatah, so that the Palestinians can once again have a single and unified government with which they will be able to face the Israeli aggression more confidently.
It is also important that Fatah works to implement reconciliation. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has officially welcomed Shaikh Hamad’s visit to Gaza, but he should also take the opportunity to stress on restarting the reconciliation process so that Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza can once again re-unite under one government.
Earlier this year Thani attempted to facilitate a reconciliation, hosting talks between Mr. Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, reports Voice of America. Those talks did not bring about a resolution, but they are indicative of Qatar’s emerging role as a mediator, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last spring.
Qatar offers a powerful combination of money, hotel space, and connections – and is largely devoid of historical baggage.
The government, which aims to increase its international stature, spends millions footing hotel bills for rebels. After agreements are signed, Qatar sweetens the deal with reconstruction and development aid. The Qatari emir and the foreign minister personally invest in building relationships with the various parties.
The talks have had mixed results. But for Qatar, playing host has raised its international profile, helped forge allies in the West, and won praise almost universally. Mediation is proving to be a powerful – and fail-safe – way to boost its brand.
Another Monitor report notes that Qatar's pivot from neutrality to a more activist agenda could result in future challenges for the country.
But according to Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a scholar of Gulf politics at the London School of Economics, "They're losing that [neutral] reputation…. They are playing a very political game, and it could come back to haunt them."
Thani's visit to Gaza riled Israel, which has led the effort to isolate Gaza, imposing strict controls on what can enter the territory.
"We find it weird that the emir doesn't support all of the Palestinians but sides with Hamas over the Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank], which he has never visited," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Telegraph. "The emir has chosen his camp and it is not good."
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An Arab League official says hopes for a cease-fire in Syria over the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha are "weak," as President Bashar al-Assad shows little indication of support for the concept, despite his words in favor of a ceasefire.
Ahmed Ben Helli, deputy secretary general of the Arab League, told Reuters that "The indications that are now apparent and the government's reaction ... do not show any signs of a real desire to implement this cease-fire." The proposal, brought to Mr. Assad and the rebels over the weekend by United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, would entail an end to fighting beginning Oct. 26 and and lasting through the weekend, during the holiday of Eid al-Adha.
"We are days away from Eid," Mr. Ben Helli said. "We hope the situation changes and the government and opposition respond even a little bit to this door for negotiations."
Mr. Brahimi met separately with Syrian rebel leaders and Assad over the weekend, reports Deutsche Welle. Although the opposition is said to be in favor of a ceasefire, DW writes that Assad was less receptive to the idea and conditioned his regime's acquiescence to a political solution to the conflict on an end to foreign powers' arming of the rebels.
Assad called for a "halt to terrorism" as well as "a commitment on the part of certain implicated countries to stop harboring, supporting and arming terrorists" in Syria, state-run television reported.
Violence continued unabated in Damascus and Aleppo over the weekend as Brahimi pushed for a peaceful resolution, reports Al Arabiya. The rebel-controlled town of Harasta, on the outskirts of Damascus, was the scene of ongoing clashes as regime troops attacked the city, killing "scores" of rebels and civilians. And fighting continued across Aleppo, where rebels and regime troops have been clashing for three months. The London-based opposition group the Syrian Observation for Human Rights says that 173 people, including 65 civilians, were killed nationwide yesterday.
The weekend also showed signs that the conflict in Syria is spilling across its borders into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
The New York Times reports that protests broke out in Lebanon yesterday, with isolated clashes with security continuing early this morning, after the funeral of Lebanese security chief and anti-Syrian politician Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed in a car bombing on Oct. 19. The Times writes that the protests "exposed the undercurrent of tension buzzing through Lebanon for much of the 19 months since the uprising began against Mr. Assad’s government. The eruption on Sunday reflected a simmering anger over the killing of Sunni civilians in Syria by allies of Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect."
And early today, a Jordanian soldier was killed when a group of armed militants attempted to cross the Jordanian border into Syria, reports Agence France-Presse. Several of the gunmen were captured, Information and Culture Minister Samih Maaytah told AFP, but not before they killed the corporal.
The border shooting comes on the heels of yesterday's announcement that Jordan had arrested 11 "Al Qaeda" suspects who had planned to launch a coordinated attack on civilian and foreign diplomatic targets in the Jordanian capital of Amman, reports The Daily Telegraph. Using arms smuggled into Jordan from Syria, the militants planned to launch suicide bombings against a pair of shopping malls in Amman. After security forces responded to the attacks, the militants would than assault their primary target, the city's affluent Abdoun district, where many Western diplomats are based.
The 11 suspects are all believed to be Jordanian nationals, and are said to have been instructed by Al Qaeda explosive experts in Iraq. The Telegraph notes that the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, was Jordanian.
IN PICTURES: Reaching a critical juncture in Syria
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China regularly holds maritime drills in the fall, but "sources close to the military" said the drills were related to a territorial dispute that has been the source of recent flare-up between China and Japan, the Financial Times reports.
Japan and China have long been at odds over a string of islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, but tensions ratcheted up last month when the Japanese government agreed to buy three of the islands that were privately owned by a Japanese businessman. The incident brought relations between the countries to a 40-year low and prompted the cancellation of celebrations planned for last month to fete the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in an in-depth report on the dispute last month.
"Relations are worse than they have ever been in 40 years," Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Japanese politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the Monitor. "I don't see much chance of a war; but I think Japan is preparing for one, and we should, too."
The Japanese government said that the intent was not to challenge China, but to prevent the islands' sale to the governor of Tokyo, a vocal nationalist who might have used them to antagonize China. The explanation did not quiet Chinese anger.
The exercises also come on the heels of visits earlier this week by Japanese opposition leader Shinzo Abe as well as two cabinet ministers to the controversial Yasukuni shrine. The shrine, which honors Japan's war dead – among them 14 class A war criminals convicted after World War II – is seen in China as a "symbol of Japan's military atrocities" during its decades-long occupation of much of the region until Japan's defeat in 1945, Bloomberg reports.
Chinese news agency Xinhua said the officials' visit "would further poison bilateral ties" and "added insult to injury," according to Bloomberg.
Drills like those held today are a routine event, but military sources told the Financial Times "this drill could only be read as directed at the island crisis."
“This exercise will simulate a situation where foreign law enforcement vessels obstruct and interfere with our maritime surveillance and fisheries administration vessels on a mission to safeguard maritime rights and enforce the law,” said state media, referring to a statement from the East Sea Fleet which is participating in the drill.
According to the statement, the simulated scenario includes a collision in which the Chinese ships are damaged and some patrol staff are hurt and fall into the water. The East Sea Fleet then “sends a frigate, a hospital ship, a tugboat, advanced fighters and helicopters for support, cover and emergency rescue.”
“With this content, this drill must be seen in the context of the Diaoyu Islands,” said a source familiar with the military’s intentions.
According to Xinhua, the Navy held the exercises with the fishery administration and marine surveillance agency in order to "improve coordination" and their ability to respond to emergencies. Eleven vessels and eight aircraft were involved in the effort.
The Associated Press reports that Japan plans to hold similar drills with the US later this year centered around a theoretical challenge of "taking a remote island back from a foreign intruder."
Multiple experts interviewed by the Monitor said that they don't think either country wants to go to war. The real cause for concern is that it would take little to tip the countries into open conflict with tensions at a slow boil for so long, and both taking steps to intimidate the other.
So far, hostilities have been limited to water-cannon duels, as happened Sept. 24 between Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels. But "when you have that many boats sailing around, the potential for mishap is quite high," points out Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The danger, adds Valérie Niquet, a China analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris, is that a collision, a sinking, or a fatality "could start something that would be difficult to stop," especially since China and Japan have no procedures in place to handle maritime crises.
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A fresh cease-fire proposal for Syria received a much-needed boost today when Iran and Turkey, two regional powers who back opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, declared their support for the plan being shopped around by United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
Although the actual fighting has been limited to Syria, other countries are providing funds, arms, fighters, and de facto safe havens, making outside support for the cease-fire critical to its success.
Mr. Brahimi has spent the week making his rounds of the region to garner support for the cease-fire, which would be slated for the three-day Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha later this month. His hope, The New York Times reports, is that a holiday "universally respected by Muslims could be the basis not only for a pause in the fighting but perhaps the beginnings of a dialogue in Syria."
"We heard from everyone we met in the opposition, and everyone [else] we met that, if the government stops using violence, 'We will respond to this directly'," Brahimi said from Beirut today.
"The Syrian people are burying hundreds of people each day, so if they bury fewer people during the days of the holiday, this could be the start of Syria's return from the dangerous situation that it has slipped and is continuing to slip toward."
Brahimi also warned regional leaders today that the 19-month conflict could not be contained within Syria's borders for much longer. Syrian Army shelling has already landed in both Lebanese and Turkish territory multiple times, Agence France-Presse reports.
"This crisis cannot remain confined within Syrian territory," he told reporters. "Either it is solved, or it gets worse... and sets [the region] ablaze."
With support from Iran and Turkey secured, the next obstacle facing Brahimi is the Syrian opposition's lack of a unified leadership. The Syrian government has cited this as a key reason it has been unwilling to reach any previous agreement with the rebels, saying that even if one representative of the rebels signs an agreement, the number of factions means there is no guarantee of total buy-in from the opposition.
Other countries have put significant pressure on the rebels to put aside their differences. Reuters reports that Qatar and Turkey have brokered an agreement to unite the various factions fighting the Assad regime.
"The agreement has been reached, they only need to sign it now," one anonymous rebel source said. "[Foreign supporters] are telling us: 'Sort yourselves out and unite, we need a clear and credible side to provide it with quality weapons.' "
But it appears that at least some countries are not waiting for greater unity among rebel fighters. The Wall Street Journal reports that video footage of fighting in Syria earlier this week shows rebel forces firing advanced portable antiaircraft weapons – the first such instance in the conflict, according to rebels and regional experts. According to fighters, they have managed to down Syrian Army helicopters.
Weapons that give rebels the ability to shoot down regime aircraft could be a game-changer for a conflict in which regime forces have so far enjoyed vast military superiority, particularly because of the Air Force's ability to bomb rebel positions.
"Northern Syria is awash with advanced antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The situation has changed very quickly," a Syrian who coordinates weapons supplies from outside Syria told the Wall Street Journal.
According to rebels, the weapons, known as man-portable air defense systems (Manpads), were smuggled into the country via Turkey and Lebanon in the past two months, although Lebanon has recently cracked down on weapons smuggling and Turkey has insisted it is not involved in weapons supplying.
IN PICTURES: Inside Aleppo, Syria
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United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Beirut today as part of a tour of the region, advocating a fresh ceasefire in Syria pegged to the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha later this month. However, like plans put forward by his predecessor, Kofi Annan, there is doubt whether the regional, national, and rebel support necessary for success is there.
Mr. Brahimi asked Iranian officials to help broker a truce earlier this week, and yesterday the Syrian government offered “the slenderest of hopes” when a spokesman said it was studying the proposed plan, reports the Telegraph.
“In order to succeed in any initiative, it takes two sides,” said Jihad Maqdisi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman.
A Western diplomat told Reuters that a ceasefire “could open the door to something more sustained" in Syria. "But it's not clear how realistic this idea is. Annan tried and failed to do the same thing," the diplomat said.
Though there are plenty who say the ceasefire is improbable, if not impossible – all international efforts to date to end the 19-month conflict in Syria have failed, with both rebels and the Syrian government ignoring previous ceasefires – some say a pause in the violence that has killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people according to the UN and rebel groups is desperately needed. Kaveh Afrasiabi, author of “After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy,” writes in an commentary for the Asia Times:
A temporary respite is desperately needed for the civilian population throughout the country, many of whom have become refugees or are bunkered inside their homes, as well as by the plethora of stakeholders in the Syrian theater, whose diverse interests may be converging toward a ceasefire.
As the Syrian conflict increasingly tears the country apart and risks the stability of neighboring countries, the timing of Brahimi's new push for a ceasefire is right...
The UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations told Brahimi it could put together a monitoring group of up to 3,000 people who could potentially separate the rebels and the regime in order to ensure fighting doesn’t pick up again after the ceasefire, reports Reuters. However, sending any monitors would require a UN Security Council mandate, and no Western countries have pledged troops yet. A previous observer mission to the country was disbanded because violence prevented them from being able to get out and monitor the situation.
“The Syrian side is interested in exploring this option,” Syria’s Mr. Maqdisi said in reference to the ceasefire proposal, also noting the government was waiting to hear the results of Brahimi’s tour, The Telegraph reports. He will also visit opposition backers Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Syrian regime supporter Iran, as well as Iraq and, as of today, Lebanon.
Syria wants to know if influential countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are on board, and if they will pressure rebel groups “that they host and finance and arm” to abide by such a ceasefire, said Maqdisi.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has accepted two international ceasefire proposals in the past, only to intensify the conflict, according to the Telegraph.
The divisions among rebel groups are another obstacle to the regime putting faith in a ceasefire: It has no guarantee that because one rebel group agrees to the proposal, the others will as well. There are myriad rebel groups, many of which work autonomously and without information sharing, according to a separate AP story, and there is no unified leadership among the rebels.
Today, state-run newspaper Al-Thawra said the biggest challenge to a potential ceasefire is the rebels' lack of unity.
"There is the state, represented by the government and the army on one front, but who is on the other front?" reads an editorial in the newspaper, according to AP.
Others have echoed concerns about the disjointed rebel front, but still say intervention is necessary. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum writes that by focusing on concrete problems, these fragmented groups have an opportunity to unite, and outside nations like the United States have an opportunity to help:
There are no real military options in Syria and I understand the arguments against arming the rebels. To date, the Syrian opposition has failed to coalesce around a single idea, structure or leadership. Nobody wants to pump more weapons into a region already awash with guns, especially if it is not clear who might end up using them or for what purpose. Yet, keeping the distance does not remove the US from the conflict, nor does it absolve America from responsibility for the outcome….
If the West is absent, if we can’t provide moral and material support for a liberal, secular alternative – a constitution that guarantees minority rights, an inclusive political order and an open economic system — then there might not be one at all.
America is not entirely powerless, though. Some areas of Syria, abandoned by the Al Assad regime, are now controlled by local coordination committees. The US should be there to help them – and not just with emergency aid…. [I]t is also possible to start thinking, now, about the economics of post-war Syria, a country whose budget is being drained and whose infrastructure is in ruins. By focusing on concrete problems, the opposition, the rebels and the coordination committees may find that they can unify around the solutions.
Two rebel groups announced yesterday that they have agreed to set up a joint leadership in order to meet the international calls for unity, according to a separate Reuters report.
"The agreement has been reached, they only need to sign it now," one rebel source said. Foreign supporters "are telling us: 'Sort yourselves out and unite, we need a clear and credible side to provide it with quality weapons'."
The new leadership will include FSA leaders Riad al-Asaad and Mustafa Sheikh – criticised by many rebels because they are based in Turkey – and recently defected General Mohammad Haj Ali, as well as heads of rebel provincial military councils inside Syria like Qassem Saadeddine, based in Homs province.
Even if a unified rebel front can be created, outside powers also present hurdles. The UN Security Council has been deadlocked over how to move forward in the war-torn country for months. Russia and China have vetoed three UN resolutions thus far.
"There will never be unity inside Syria unless the countries supporting the revolt agree because each group is supported and backed by (one) country," a rebel source told Reuters.
"Now the countries are becoming nervous and the Syrian issue has become bigger than they expected and almost out of control."
Accused Bosnian war criminal Radovan Karadzic opened his defense today at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, claiming that he was a "tolerant man" who had done "everything within human power to avoid the war and to reduce the human suffering."
Mr. Karadzic is on trial for 10 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity, including the 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. But reading from a personal statement on Tuesday, the former Serbian leader told the court, "Instead of being accused for the events in our civil war, I should have been rewarded for all the good things I've done," reports BBC News. According to the translation of his statement, those deeds include:
"...that I did everything in human power to avoid the war; that I succeeded in reducing the suffering of all civilians; that the number of victims in our war was three to four times less than the numbers reported in the public; that I proclaimed numerous unilateral ceasefires and military containment, and I stopped our army many times when they were close to victory; that I constantly sought peace and accepted four out of five peace agreements; that I advocated, initiated, and implemented the humanization of the conflict by applying all measures of humanitarian nature; that in addition to my many presidential duties, I personally supervised the supply of humanitarian aid, ceasefires, and the honoring of international law of warfare, and thus I was the address for many successes of humanitarian actions. Also, I proclaimed and implemented many acts of mercy."
Karadzic is accused of being the mastermind behind the Bosnian genocide during the wars fought in the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia. A trained psychiatrist and the first president of the Bosnian Serb government, he pushed a program of "ethnic purity" in the state that led to events like the Srebrencia massacre and tied the West in knots for much of the '90s. He was caught in 2008 in Belgrade, where he had been living in disguise and working at an alternative medicine clinic.
Although Karadzic is only one of several men blamed for the genocide in the Balkans -- along with the late Slobodan Milosevic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, both of whom have also appeared before the court at The Hague -- he is widely believed to be the ideological force behind the campaign, the Monitor reported at the time of his arrest.
Karadzic is particularly hated by Croats and Bosnian Muslims as a "true believer" in Serbian myths and ethnic superiority. Whereas Milosevic came to be understood as a cynical politician who simply wanted to exercise absolute power, Karadzic was seen by his victims as someone who zealously believed in his work.
"Karadzic is probably the most significant character in the saga of genocide in Bosnia," says Paul Williams of the Public International Law and Policy Group in Washington, and an adviser to Bosnia at [the Dayton Peace Accords]. "He is the most heinous figure. Milosevic was a criminal mastermind who didn't really care if he got what he wanted by genocide. For Milosevic, genocide was a means, not an objective. For Karadzic, it was an objective."
Charges against Karadzic and Mladic include genocide and war crimes for, among other things, executing Muslim intellectuals and publicly prominent citizens along the Drina River in 1992, sniping at civilians in Sarajevo, killing 8,000 civilians in the UN-protected Srebrenica "safe area," and holding UN peacekeepers hostage.
During the opening statements of his trial in 2010, Karadzic claimed that the massacres were either self-defense or lies on the part of Bosnians. He accused Bosnians in Sarajevo of shelling their own city and killing their own residents -- then packing the corpses into mass graves at Srebrenica -- in order to create world sympathy and to impugn the Serbs. The Monitor reported at the time that while Karadzic's account conflicted with all the known evidence of the genocide – Sabra Kolenovic, a representative of the Mothers of Srebrenica, said that Karadzic “should be given the Nobel Prize for lying” in his opening statement – some experts think that Karadzic nonetheless believes it.
James Swihart, a US State Department official and later ambassador, who was part of the European desk at the outbreak of the Bosnian conflict, argues that “I think Karadzic believes what he is saying...it's the war on terror...and for him, it is necessary to demonize, call them bad guys. It is despicable when he says it, but it is also being said in a simplistic ‘war on terror’ context today in the US and elsewhere that makes it seem plausible. The Bosnian Muslim identity was never very Islamic, but Karadzic doesn’t see it that way. He sees them as Turks that dominated the Balkans for 500 years.”
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A week after Turkey forced down a Syrian passenger jet allegedly carrying illegal cargo, irking Russia and Syria, Turkey has brought down an Armenian aircraft for inspection in an apparent expansion of a de facto air blockade of Syria from the north.
The Turkish deputy prime minister said today that the Armenian plane, which was reportedly carrying humanitarian aid, passed inspection and was allowed to continue on to Syria, reports Reuters. Unlike the earlier Syrian flight from Moscow, Armenian officials had been informed ahead of time that the aircraft would be subject to inspection, Turkish officials told Reuters. Armenian officials confirmed this to news agency Armenpress.
The plane's grounding appears to be part of an expansion of Turkish efforts to do what it can to prevent weapons from reaching the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Over the weekend, Turkey and Syria each banned the other's aircraft from its own airspace.
Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reports that Armenia and Turkey previously agreed that Armenia would provide humanitarian aid for Syria as long as it allowed Turkey to do a routine security check on every Syria-bound Armenian plane (the most direct flight path between Armenia and Syria passes over eastern Turkey). Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan said the grounding was "nothing extraordinary."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also slammed the United Nations Security Council over the weekend for failing to act on the Syrian crisis in accord with what he says is the world's popular will, writes The Guardian. Mr. Erdogan said that if the council was unable to reach agreement on what to do about Syria because of the opposition of one or two parties to intervention – a thinly veiled reference to Russia and China, which have both vetoed previous Security Council resolutions on Syria – the body should be reformed.
"If we leave the issue to the vote of one or two members of the permanent five at the United Nations security council, then the aftermath of Syria will be very hazardous and humanity will write it down in history with unforgettable remarks," Erdogan said. "It's high time to consider a structural change for international institutions, especially for the UN security council."
The situation in Syria has strained ties between Turkey and Russia, whose relations have been warming since the end of the cold war. Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Voice of Russia that Turkish-Russian relations are "developing on a firm and solid basis," Russia's intransigent support for the Assad regime is at odds with Turkey and much of the world. This may be due to Russian President Vladimir Putin's personal suspicions of the West, The Christian Science Monitor reported last week.
"Russia's ongoing support for Assad is totally ideological," says [Alexander Golts, military columnist for the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal]. "Putin is certain that all this turmoil with the Arab Spring is the result of a CIA conspiracy, and he sees it as his personal duty to struggle against it."
The Monitor also notes that despite Russia's insistence that there were no weapons on board the Syrian plane, the legal situation regarding the jet's grounding remain murky.
"Russia's position is that it's illegal to force a plane to land in this way. It's only done if an aircraft diverges from its assigned route or it represents a threat to the country it's flying over," he says.
"On the other hand, it does seem that if the plane was carrying radar parts from air defense systems, as reported, then that's a military cargo that shouldn't be hauled aboard a civilian plane. Now it's up to lawyers to sort it out," he adds.
In addition, Russia's argument that there were no weapons on board may be beside the point. According to Article 35 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, of which almost every UN member – including Russia, Syria, and Turkey – are signatories, "No munitions of war or implements of war may be carried in or above the territory of a State in aircraft engaged in international navigation, except by permission of such State."
The convention does not define the terms "munitions of war or implements of war," but rather leaves them to be defined by each state per its own regulations.
As a result, while Russia may be correct that the Syrian passenger plane was transporting only radar parts – reportedly for an anti-aircraft system – and not weapons or ammunition, those parts may still run afoul of international law. While weapons and ammo are undeniably "munitions of war," Turkey could argue that an anti-aircraft radar can also be considered an "implement of war," as its purpose is solely military (if defensive).
IN PICTURES: Reaching a critical juncture in Syria
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German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will make an impromptu visit to fellow NATO member Turkey in an effort to tamp down rising tensions between Ankara and Damascus following Turkey's grounding of a Syrian passenger plane alleged to be loaded with ammunition for the Assad regime.
Mr. Westerwelle, who is currently in China, will meet his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, in Istanbul tomorrow to discuss the "escalating" situation between the neighbors, reports Agence France-Presse.
"The Syria situation has escalated. That fills us with the greatest concern," he said. "It is important that no one pours oil on the fire. We are counting on moderation and de-escalation."
Westerwelle said his visit was intended as a "sign of solidarity" with a NATO ally and condemned recent shelling of Turkey, calling it "unacceptable."
"It is important that no one succumb to provocation and that we continue working on a new democratic start in Syria," he said.
Westerwelle also said that he wants "to hear for myself what was behind the forced landing of the aircraft and the confiscation of goods from the plane in Turkey."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that the airliner, forced down two days ago by Turkish jets as it flew from Moscow to Damascus, was loaded with "equipment and ammunitions" for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a charge that Syria and Russia deny, reports the Associated Press.
"Equipment and ammunitions that were being sent from a Russian agency ... to the Syrian Defense Ministry," were confiscated from the jetliner, Erdogan told reporters in Ankara. "Their examination is continuing and the necessary (action) will follow." ...
"As you know, defense industry equipment or weapons, ammunitions ... cannot be carried on passenger planes," Erdogan said. "It is against international rules for such things to pass through our air space."
But Syria's foreign ministry accused Mr. Erdogan of "lies," the BBC reports. "The plane's cargo was documented in detail on the bill of lading and the plane did not carry any illegal material or any weapons," the ministry said. It also challenged him to prove his claims by "show[ing] the equipment and ammunition at least to his people."
Russia's state arms dealer says it had no connection to the flight. "We have no information available about the contents or ownership of any cargo," Rosoboronexport spokesperson Vyacheslav Davidenko told RIA Novosti. "All cargo transport operations by us involving military equipment are always made in accordance with international agreements and Russian law."
As Turkey, Syria, and Russia jockey over the grounding of the airliner, Turkey continues to build up its forces along the Syrian border. The Australian Associated Press reports that Turkey is transferring 60 more tanks to positions in the south, bringing its total in the region up to 250. It also is stationing an additional 15 jet fighters in the area.
Yesterday was the Assad regime's worst day of military losses in terms of personnel yesterday. Ninety-two soldiers were killed, according to tallies from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and reported by AFP. In addition, 61 rebels and 81 civilians died yesterday.
The organization adds that another 14 were killed in a rebel attack in Daraa today.
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Turkey forced a Damascus-bound passenger plane suspected of ferrying Russian weapons to Syria to land at an Ankara airport yesterday, just hours after a Turkish military commander said Turkey would respond more strongly to Syrian bombardments in its territory.
The Syrian-owned Airbus A-320 passenger plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus and carrying 30 passengers was grounded last night based on intelligence that it was shuttling “non-civilian cargo,” reports Reuters.
Syria accused Turkey of “air piracy” following the incident, Lebanon’s al-Manar TV quoted Syrian Transport Minister Mahoumd Said as saying, according to a separate Reuters report. The station quotes Mr. Said as saying that the landing “contradicts civil aviation treaties."
After a five-hour inspection and confiscation of cargo, Turkey allowed the plane to continue on to Syria, reports Russian news agency RIA Novosti. There have been varying accounts of what Turkey may have found on board, but no definitive statement from Turkish officials on what, if anything, they found.
"Some Turkish media reports stated that there were parts for radio stations used for military purposes, while NTV television channel said there was an object that could be a part of a missile," RIA Novosti reports.
The episode has escalated already heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria, which have been exchanging sporadic fire across their 566-mile shared border since last week, when a Syrian mortar killed five people in Turkey after several days of shelling. It is unclear if the original cross-border violence was intended or the result of misaimed shots.
The grounding of the aircraft also strains the relationship between Turkey and Russia. Moscow has been one of the few countries to stand by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the course of the 19-month conflict, and has used its veto power on the United Nations Security Council to block multiple resolutions that would have allowed stronger action against the regime, including laying the groundwork for international intervention.
The Financial Times reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin postponed a scheduled trip to Turkey next week, which could have been an opportunity for Turkey to persuade Russia to temper its support for the Assad regime.
“If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way, not to mention using a civilian aircraft,” the official told Interfax. Because Russia hasn’t suspended its military-technological cooperation with Syria, there is no reason to avoid using official channels, the source noted.
Russian authorities demanded an explanation for the grounding of the flight, which was carrying 17 Russian passengers.
“Russia insists that the Turkish authorities must explain their conduct regarding Russian citizens and prevent similar incidents in the future,” Russian consulate spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement. “Turkish authorities denied without explanations and in violation of the bilateral consular convention a meeting of the diplomats with the Russian citizens."
Turkey had already stated it would not allow military or cargo planes carrying weapons into Syria to use its airspace, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News. Turkey said it would continue investigating Syrian civilian planes using its airspace in the future if needed.
"We exercised our rights, and we will exercise them again tomorrow if required," Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said.
Although Turkey is taking action to prevent Russian weapons from reaching the Syrian Army, its own border with Syria has become a conduit for weapons for the Syrian rebel forces, although the Guardian reports that the weapons and supplies are starting to become scarce.
The rivalries of Arab and Gulf politics, divisions between the west and Russia, fear of Syria's bloody crisis spreading beyond the country's borders to drag in Iran or Lebanon all make supplying arms to the rebels a sensitive and murky issue.
Now, it seems, the supply is drying up. On Aleppo's frontlines, there is still no sign of the heavy weapons for which the rebels have pleaded. Ammunition is running low. "They are giving us enough to keep this fight going, but not enough to win it," complained Abu Furat, a commander. "I'm sure that's not going to change until after the American elections. I'm not sure everyone can survive until then."
There is growing concern that tensions between Syria and Turkey could explode into a war between the two countries, even if neither country wants an open conflict. The Atlantic’s Robert Wight lists four reasons why the two countries could be moving in that direction, even if they don't want to. The Guardian sums them up:
1. Turkey could decide that war is preferable to the alternatives of an influx of more refugees and Kurds using the ongoing civil war to carve out an autonomous region in Syria.
2. A Turkish-Syrian war could draw the US into the conflict making such a move more attractive to some influential backers of American intervention.
3. Syria will continue attacking the Turkish border to stop the supply of weapons to rebels. "The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy" Wright says.
4. In a way Turkey is already at war with the Syrian regime by supplying weapons to rebels.
But opinion polls show that the majority of Turks are opposed to going to war with Syria, and Turkish opposition to war is deeply entrenched, Lehigh University's Prof. Henri Barkey told the Financial Times – despite Ankara's recent claims that it would retaliate with greater force in the event of another deadly attack on Turkish soil.
“The image of Turks fighting in the Middle East is wholly contrary to the idea of the country as a paragon of stability,” Mr. Barkey said.
IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria