Terrorism & Security
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A meeting between Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and opposition group leaders from the Syrian National Council took place in Moscow today to discuss a new UN resolution drafted by Russia, underscoring the importance of Russia's role in helping to ameliorate the Syrian crisis.
Russia, along with China, has been a firm opponent of international efforts to push Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad out of power. The two powers have twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime, despite 17 months of conflict between Syrian authorities and the opposition that has claimed close to 17,000 lives. Russia has long stated it won’t support military intervention in the country.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said yesterday that Russia isn’t “clinging” to Mr. Assad, but that Syria should be left to decide his fate, according to Bloomberg News. "We try to move the Syrian opposition figures toward realistic and constructive positions that can help end the bloodshed," Mr. Bogdanov said, according to Ahram Online.
IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria
Russia’s new draft resolution calls for a three-month extension of the UN mission in Syria, but does not call for sanctions. The US and European members of the Security Council are not likely to be satisfied by this proposal: They have long called for the enactment of Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of sanctions and military intervention (though US officials say they only want to implement on sanctions).
The Security Council has remained starkly divided throughout the course of the Syrian conflict. The UN mission's 90-day mandate ends on July 20, by which point the Security Council must reach a conclusion as to its future before then, according to the Guardian.
Though Russia is not expected to publicly abandon its support for Assad, the Syrian National Council traveled to Moscow in an effort to convince Russia to reconsider its support for the Syrian leader. Russia “is one of the fundamental countries for Syria and plays a big role for us,” said Basma Kodmani, a member of the SNC leadership, according to Russian media outlet RIA Novosti. Ms. Kodmani said the SNC hopes Russia can help “to turn the page of the old regime and transform to the new democratic order,” reports RIA.
“We are discussing a political mechanism for the solution of the Syrian crisis that was proposed by the Arab League and this mechanism should be adopted by the UN Security Council,” [Kodmani] told a news conference in Moscow, adding that SNC is against “the talks with the ruling authorities,” but favors “talks for the implementation of this mechanism under the UN supervision.”
Kodmani said it is necessary to immediately pull out all troops from urban centers in Syria and implement a cease-fire, according to Bloomberg. “We think it’s going to be difficult to have a bilateral process,” she said in Moscow, indicating the need for the continued presence of the United Nations as a third-party facilitator.
But not everyone believes UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan is the right person to continue shepherding negotiations.
Yesterday, Mr. Annan met with leaders in Iran, a longtime Syria ally. He urged Tehran to “be part of the solution,” according to the Associated Press. Annan has criticized Western powers for focusing on Russia as the main obstacle to reaching a peaceful solution in Syria, despite the role that other countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have played in providing arms and funding, according to an interview with French newspaper Le Monde. But a Wall Street Journal editorial casts a cynical eye on Annan's mission.
Mr. Annan won the [Nobel Peace] prize having already praised Saddam Hussein, in 1998, as a man of "courage, wisdom, flexibility," with whom he could "do business." Now he's in Tehran finding new despots to praise in his role as the U.N.'s Special Envoy on Syria.
[...T]he role Iran is currently playing in Syria involves sending snipers and tactical advisers from the terrorist Quds Force to assist Bashar Assad in murdering opponents of his regime. Other assistance is believed to include cash transfers to pay Assad's army, unarmed drones to monitor protestors from the air, electronic monitoring tools to track the opposition online, as well as rifles, ammunition and other military equipment.
We guess it's possible that behind closed doors Mr. Annan is demanding that his Iranian hosts start behaving differently. Somehow we doubt it.
Today’s meeting in Russia follows on the heels of Moscow’s deployment of 11 warships to the eastern Mediterranean. Some of the boats docked in Syria, an act that not only represents Russia’s desire to stay in the center of the decisionmaking process on the Syrian conflict, but also represents the country’s largest display of military might in the region since the Syrian conflict began, according to The New York Times. Syria houses Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
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Egypt's parliament reconvened today in defiance of the order for its dissolution, though it quickly adjourned in a move that could mitigate the potential discord between recently inaugurated President Mohammed Morsi and the military.
Al Jazeera reports that the parliamentary session lasted only five minutes, beginning after a brief speech from Speaker Saad al-Katatni of the Muslim Brotherhood, who said that the legislative body had gathered only "to review the court rulings, the ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court." Last month the court declared the parliament invalid, prompting Egypt's interim military leaders to dissolve the legislature.
"I want to stress, we are not contradicting the ruling, but looking at a mechanism for the implementation of the ruling of the respected court. There is no other agenda today," he added.
Mr. Katatni then proposed that parliament seek help from an appeals court in implementing the Supreme Court ruling. Parliament approved Katatni's proposal and adjourned. Ahram Online reports that parliament's decision to defer to the courts is being seen as a "possible compromise between the Muslim Brotherhood and Military Council, thus staving off what looked to be a serious constitutional and political crisis."
Parliament will not meet again until the appeals court gives its verdict, according to Ahram Online.
The brief, perfunctory nature of the session appears to at least temporarily put the brakes on the collision course that the military and President Morsi had been on. Morsi's order revoking the dissolution of the parliament directly challenged the military's authority in "a bold and significant step," Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Durham University, told the Monitor. "...This decree reflects Morsi's sense of self-assertiveness and confidence,” he said. “The question is to what extent Morsi can defy the military and challenge their power.”
Morsi's order to reconvene the parliament prompted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hold emergency meetings over the past two days to determine how to respond. And the Supreme Court declared yesterday that its June 14 ruling was final and binding. In addition, Ahram Online reports that yesterday the Judges' Club, an unofficial body of Egyptian jurists, threatened Morsi with legal action should he not revoke his order within 36 hours.
But even in convening parliament, the president and his Muslim Brotherhood allies appear to be paying lip service to the Supreme Court's ruling. Acting presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said today that Morsi's reinstatement of parliament was not in conflict with the order, but was necessary to determine how to comply, according to the Egypt State Information Service.
Monique El-Faizy, a project leader at the World Policy Institute, told CNN that she thought a full-blown conflict between Morsi and the military was unlikely, and that both sides would step carefully. "I think it's the delicate balancing act that we're going to see for a while," said Ms. El-Faizy. "This is all new. Everybody's finding their way."
"We strongly urge dialogue and concerted effort on the part of all to try to deal with the problems that are understandable but have to be resolved in order to avoid any kind of difficulties that could derail the transition that is going on," Clinton told a news conference. ...
She called for "intense dialogue" among all participants "to ensure that there is a clear path for them to be following and that the Egyptian people get what they protested for and what they voted for, which is a fully elected government".
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But support for a negotiated solution with the regime to the Syrian crisis seems to be waning, even among those world powers who steadfastly oppose outside intervention. This could leave Mr. Annan with only the regime and its supporters behind his diplomatic efforts, warned an editorial in the Lebanon-based Daily Star today.
The new agreement comes on the heels of Annan's acknowledgement this weekend to French newspaper Le Monde that his previous plan had failed. “Evidently, we haven’t succeeded,” said Annan, according to Bloomberg.
“Annan was admitting the obvious,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Tokyo. It “should be a wake-up call to everyone. The future to me should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime: their days are numbered.”
But acquiescence from the opposition may be difficult to obtain – the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, criticized Mr. Annan for even meeting with Mr. Assad. An SNC statement said that Syrians "cannot justify these steps," referring to Annan's decision to meet with Assad but not attend a recent opposition conference in Paris, despite a death toll of almost 6,000 since Annan's failed peace plan went into effect in April, The Telegraph reports.
And while the regime's backing of Annan's efforts give it viability on that side, it could hurt Annan's efforts to get others to sign on to the plan. Assad praised the envoy's efforts and heaped blame on others for its failure in an interview with a German television station last week, according to Reuters.
“We know that [Annan] is coming up against countless obstacles but his plan should not be allowed to fail, it is a very good plan,” Assad said. “The biggest obstacle is that many countries do not even want this plan to succeed so they offer political support and continue to provide the terrorists in Syria with arms and money."
In the Le Monde interview, Annan also criticized Western powers for heaping criticism on Moscow for their obstruction of international action while making little mention of either Iran or Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all of whom are suspected of fueling the conflict with arms and money, according to an earlier Reuters report.
“Russia has influence, but I don’t think that events will be determined by Russia alone. What strikes me is that there is so much talk about Russia and much less about Iran, and little is said about other countries that are sending money and weapons,” Mr. Annan said. “All these countries say they want a peaceful solution, but they undertake individual and collective actions that undermine the very meaning of [UN] Security Council resolutions,” he added.
Yesterday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the Syrian rebel forces are steadily gaining strength and could soon be capable of staging a "catastrophic assault" on the regime. She urged a negotiated resolution to avert such an outcome.
“The sooner there can be an end to the violence and a beginning of a political transition process, not only will fewer people die, but there is a chance to save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault that would be very dangerous not only to Syria but to the region,” Ms. Clinton told a Tokyo news conference.
She appeared to be referring to the possibility of Syrian rebels launching such an assault on state institutions rather than to any outside intervention.
“There is no doubt that the opposition is getting more effective in their defence of themselves and in going on the offence against the Syrian military and the Syrian government’s militias. So, the future ... should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime,” Ms. Clinton added.
“The sand is running out of the hour glass.”
In the editorial published today, The Daily Star wrote that continued efforts to negotiate with Assad are, at this point, making the UN an "accomplice" to the Assad regime and described his return to Damascus to meet with Assad, despite an admission that his previous plan had failed, as adding "insult to injury."
Reaching a conclusion the rest of the world had seemingly already arrived at, Annan this weekend admitted that, “Evidently, we have not succeeded.”
But rather than follow that admission up with an announcement that the mission will cease operations, surely the next logical step, Annan actually returns to the scene of the crime, to continue flogging this dead horse.
Whether due to miscalculations, personal political ambitions, or a mixture of both, the mission has now become an accomplice in the enduring regime-sponsored destruction of Syria and its people. And the sooner the UN withdraws the mission, the better, for this act might finally prompt the international community to sit up and create alternative, effective methods to end the massacres, something US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at Sunday when she remarked that Annan’s acknowledgement “should be a wake-up call for everyone.”
Appeals to the regime, and to President Bashar [al-]Assad himself, whom Annan was due to meet Sunday evening, are no longer enough. A regime which kills its own people, destroys its cities, ruins its economy, makes refugees of its citizens and which can count its remaining international friends on one hand, is not a regime which will make compromises and agree to concede power.
In what could be the biggest defection from Bashar al-Assad's regime since the start of the Syrian uprising, a senior general and friend of the president has fled the country and is making his way to Paris, according to multiple reports.
The BBC reports that Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, a commander in Syria's elite Republican guard, escaped his home in Damascus, where he was under a form of house arrest, and fled to Turkey in the past few days. General Tlas reportedly split with the regime out of frustration with its deadly crackdown on the opposition. The BBC writes that it is unclear what Tlas's intentions are, but notes that Paris is currently hosting a conference of more than 100 countries that are attempting to resolve the violence in Syria.
Tlas's defection has been confirmed by sources both inside and outside Assad's regime. The pro-government website Syriasteps cited a Syrian official acknowledging Tlas's departure, reports the Daily Telegraph, though the official dismissed Tlas's escape as "not mean[ing] anything." And two other officials, one a Syrian rebel, the other an American, both confirmed Tlas's defection, reports Al Jazeera.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity from Washington, said, "General Tlas is a big name and his apparent decision to ditch Assad hurts, even though it probably didn't come as a surprise".
"Tlas lately seems to have been on the outs, but he's got charisma and some smarts. If he joins the insurgents, that could be significant," the official said.
Joshua Landis of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma wrote on his blog, Syria Comment, that his eyewitness sources say Tlas's home in Damascus was being ransacked on Thursday.
Tlas's defection is particularly noteworthy because of his place in the highest echelons of the Syrian government. Tlas is a friend of President Assad's, and commander of a brigade of Syria's Republican Guard, an elite force headed by the president's brother, Maher al-Assad. Tlas's father, Mustafa, served as Syria's defense minister from 1972 to 2004.
The BBC writes that Tlas's father, now retired, is currently reported to be in Paris.
And The Daily Star of Lebanon notes that unlike most of Assad's regime, who are members of the minority Alawite sect, the Tlas family is part of Syria's Sunni majority, and that Tlas's defection "may reflect an erosion of support for the president among wealthy Sunnis."
Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, described the defection, if confirmed, as “significant.”
“He is/was, a commander of an important key regime protection unit, and closely associated with the regime,” White told The Daily Star via email.
“[It] could be a signal that the Sunni officers sticking with the regime so far are beginning to reconsider their options. [It] will be a concern to the regime of course, and could set off a witch-hunt with further damage to the cohesion of the army.”
The Guardian's Martin Chulov said that Tlas was not "a direct member of the inner sanctum, but he was certainly taken into the confidence of the inner sanctum," and that despite the Syrian government's dismissal of Tlas's defection, "it does matter."
He was one of the most trusted members of the Sunni community within the government. [Tlass] came from Rastan which has been particularly heavily hit. He had been known to be disaffected for some months and there had been rumours that he was under virtual house arrest.
[The defection] was the talk of the town this morning. We were out and about with various rebels in southern Turkey. They all knew about it and it had emboldened them. They thought that it would potentially be a lightening rod for other senior officers still inside Syria.
The Guardian notes that another general also defected from Syria in the past three days, according to a Turkish government official. Although not named, the general is from an engineering division, the official said.
Reuters reports that supply trucks began entering Afghanistan Thursday, after border security was given the green light to open the way. Security officials “received their orders today, and now two trucks have crossed the border into Afghanistan,” said Imran Raza, a customs official.
Supply vehicles remain stalled elsewhere in Pakistan though, reports the BBC, whose correspondent says that NATO trucks are still awaiting the all-clear in the port city of Karachi. The BBC's Aleem Maqbool says that drivers there are not aware of any supply trucks that have left the city to travel to the Afghan border.
Pakistan had long predicated the reopening of the Afghan border on an apology from the US for its attack on the Pakistani military's post at Salala, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. But while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly apologized on Tuesday for the attack, it appears that the Pakistani government also convinced the US to draft a written agreement of each side's obligations. The Express Tribune of Pakistan reports that as part of a "package deal" to reopen the border, the US and Pakistan would draw up a "black and white" agreement on areas of cooperation, in order to avoid future incidents.
A Pakistani official familiar with the development revealed that the US was initially reluctant to negotiate such an accord since the existing ‘vague’ arrangements served its purpose. However, Islamabad managed to convince Washington on the issue during intense discussions aimed at breaking the deadlock on Nato supply lines, the official added. ...
“Salala like incidents had been taking place for years and the reason was a lack of written agreement,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
“It was important that we put an end to this practice and it is only possible if we have clear agreement with the US,” the official added.
Such an agreement might tamp down criticism of the deal within Pakistan. A Pakistani opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Wednesday lambasted the decision to reopen the border, calling it "a source of degradation and humiliation for Pakistan," reports the PakTribune. Mr. Khan noted that parliament, to whom the government had earlier referred the border issue, had demanded that the US cease drone strikes and withdraw covert personnel as a condition of reopening the border. But neither condition appears to have been met, Khan said.
"If they had to surrender and compromise so easily, what was the point in first blocking the NATO routes and then referring the matter with great pomp and show to parliament for ultimate decision," he said.
But even with the Afghan-Pakistani border reopened, logistics remain a huge issue for NATO forces in Afghanistan, particularly as they begin to withdraw. The Washington Post reports that even with Pakistan's cooperation, NATO will still have to move at least a third of its materiel overland, on railways, and roads that cross former Soviet republics to the north of Afghanistan.
Those routes carry strategic risks of their own. Access to the transit lines depends on the whims of several authoritarian Central Asian leaders as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, a longtime nemesis of NATO. Moreover, the cost of shipping goods along the northern routes is about triple that of the much-shorter Pakistani lines.
The only other option for departing landlocked Afghanistan is by air — an even more expensive alternative, costing up to 10 times as much as the Pakistani ground routes.
The Post notes that the northern routes are seen as a hedge against the possibility of Pakistan shutting its supply routes again.
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The Syrian government has created an “archipelago” of 27 torture facilities throughout its country, according to a report released today by Human Rights Watch. Relying on interviews with more than 200 former detainees, the report offers the most comprehensive view to date of torture and abuse committed by the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Thousands of people are believed to have been tortured by the government since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, but the report is the first to offer a detailed view of the problem.
“The systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture that Human Rights Watch documented clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity,” wrote the report’s authors.
The 81-page report recorded more than 20 distinct methods of torture, including beatings, often with batons; electrocution; detainees being forced to hold stress positions for extended periods of time; and mock executions. By publishing the details of these findings, the report’s authors say that they hope those behind them will now realize that they “will have to answer for these horrific crimes,” reports the Guardian.
IN PICTURES – Conflict in Syria
Although women, children, and elderly people were also tortured, most victims were young men between 18 and 35 years old, reports The New York Times. In one 31-year-old victim’s account, he was stripped naked when interrogators set to work on him.
“Then they started squeezing my fingers with pliers. They put staples in my fingers, chest and ears. I was only allowed to take them out if I spoke. The staples in the ears were the most painful. They used two wires hooked up to a car battery to give me electric shocks. They used electric stun guns on my genitals twice. I thought I would never see my family again. They tortured me like this three times over three days,” said the victim, a man from near Idlib in northern Syria.
Most of the torture was conducted by Syria’s four main intelligence agencies – Department of Military Intelligence, the Political Security Directorate, the General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. Each intelligence agency has a headquarters in Damascus and regional branches throughout the country, reports Al Jazeera.
“The reach and inhumanity of this network of torture centers are truly horrific,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch in an article by the BBC. Alluding to Russia and China’s record of blocking United Nations Security Council resolutions against the Syrian regime, he added, “Russia should not be holding its protective hand over the people who are responsible for this.”
Despite China and Russia’s efforts to block an international intervention in Syria, today's report has drawn strong words from other international leaders. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a stern warning after the report saying that his country and its international partners would go to great lengths to ensure those responsible for the acts described in the report were brought to justice, reports The Independent.
“It highlights the horror of what is happening. The scale of the barbaric acts that are being carried out by the regime against the population is appalling. This Human Rights Watch report should act as a clear warning. There should be no impunity or hiding place for those committing these crimes,” said Mr. Hague. “Those responsible for systematic and widespread human rights violations should not delude themselves: we and our international partners will do everything we can to ensure that they will face justice.”
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Islamists in northern Mali have drawn both domestic and international condemnation after they destroyed seven historic tombs and the door to an ancient mosque in Timbuktu over the weekend. The shrines to the saints are important to local Sufi Muslims, but Mali’s Islamists say that such religious landmarks constitute idolatry.
Mali has been unstable since a military coup sparked fighting in March. Much of the country is still in grave turmoil, with Islamist group Ansar Dine now in control of the north. In the face of such an uncertain future, the United Nations’ cultural agency just last week listed Timbuktu as an endangered world heritage site.
The group is already facing harsh international criticism for the attack, which is likely to result in alienation on the global stage, as happened to the Taliban in March 2001 when they blew up 6th century Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province.
“My message to those involved in these criminal acts is clear: stop the destruction of the religious buildings now,” said Fatou Bensouda, an ICC prosecutor, according to AFP. “This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate.”
Timbuktu’s monuments, particularly the Koranic Sankore University, are symbols to many in Mali of the Timbuktu’s golden age in the 15th and 16th century, writes UNESCO, the UN's cultural body. At the time, Timbuktu was a center for scholarship, spirituality, and Islamic theology in Africa.
The destruction of the landmarks and the threat to destroy more has caused considerable outrage among Malians.
“I think this kind of madness of Ansar Dine is horrible. All the place for history in Timbuktu, this is not Sharia. Even if you see what they did, the destruction in Timbuktu, maybe the mosque, the big mosque, the cemetery for person who died, they said is no good – who tell them that? Who tell them it is not in the Koran? We never see that,” said Mahamadou Hima Dit Nourou in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. Nourou is among the tens of thousands Malian refugees who fled to neighboring Niger.
Government officials in Mali have called on the international community to take measured steps and make a concerted effort to stop Ansar Dine from destroying any more cultural landmarks. Yesterday Malian officials made an emotional appeal to the UN for help, at one point declaring, “God help Mali.”
“Mali exhorts the UN to take concrete steps to stop these crimes against the cultural heritage of my people,” said Fadima Diallo, Mali’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, according to the Telegraph. “I am pleading for the international community's solidarity.”
Sufi shrines are a popular target of Islamist hardliners, with Egypt and Libya also seeing the destruction of Sufi shrines this year, reports Reuters. Ansar Dine is made of Salafist Muslim fighters, many of whom come from other countries such as Nigeria and Algeria. The Malian group is an ally of the Al Qaeda splinter group, MUJWA, and now controls about two-thirds of the northern Mali.
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The prospects for the emergency meeting on Syria slated to begin tomorrow looked dim Friday, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying that his country's war is an "internal issue which has nothing to do with foreign countries."
The United Nations Security Council members and Turkey are gathering in Geneva to discuss UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan's plan for an interim unity government for Syria. Yet BBC reports that Mr. Assad said in an interview with Iranian state TV, broadcast yesterday, that "foreign pressure will not have an influence on our stance. We have been under pressure for a long time, and it did not have an effect in the past, and it will not have any influence in the future." The interview was recorded last week.
The red lines set out by Assad, the opposition, and foreign powers may scuttle Mr. Annan's plan before the meeting even begins. The opposition has said it will not stand for a government that retains Assad, while Russia, whose opposition to international action against the regime has been the key obstacle since the conflict began, announced in would not endorse a transition plan that required Assad to step down.
According to the BBC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday: "We will not support and cannot support any meddling from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of the president of the country, Bashar al-Assad."
Despite the seemingly irreconcilable positions, Annan said today that he is "optimistic" that the Geneva talks would end with acceptable progress, and dismissed news reports suggesting that the gap between Russia and the rest of the parties at the meeting is too large to bridge, according to The New York Times. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that it was "very clear" that all the parties to the meeting are on board with Annan's proposal, according to the Associated Press.
Annan has not yet proposed a formal transition plan; the intention is to lay out the parameters at the meeting. But details of the proposal began leaking out earlier this week, angering Russia, according to the Times.
Hints of Mr. Annan’s possible route to a diplomatic compromise emerged Wednesday when Reuters quoted unidentified diplomats as saying Russia and other powers supported his idea of a Syrian government of national unity that would include opposition figures but exclude those whose participation would undermine it — language that clearly was meant to refer to President Bashar al-Assad. But details were vague.
Part of the purpose of the meeting, a diplomat based in Geneva said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, is to uncouple the process of achieving a cease-fire from the increasing demands that Mr. Assad’s government be held to account for human rights abuses, which a United Nations panel said Wednesday have continued on “an alarming scale.”
“I consider it a sign of an unscrupulous approach to diplomacy that there are leaks to the press about certain formulas, certain ideas, that are being recommended as part of a final document by specific countries,” Mr. Lavrov said.
Bloomberg reports that, according to three UN officials, all of the meeting participants agreed to an outline of a unity government plan from Annan. “The conflict must be resolved through peaceful dialogue and negotiation alone,” the outline, which Bloomberg obtained, says. “Conditions conducive to a political settlement must now be put in place.”
Russia denied any sort of agreement. A foreign ministry official told Bloomberg that it made an alternative proposal and won't back a plan that forces Assad to step down. But two UN diplomats said that despite public statements that Russia remains opposed to regime change, a shift has occurred behind closed doors because "Russia is keen to engineer a soft landing to raise its standing in the region by acting as a peace broker."
Russian anger stems from the fact that "the Russians do not like to have deals they are cutting in private to be exposed in public" before they are ready, Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation in New York, told Bloomberg. “They are very concerned that their so-called partners on the other side may be leaking it to force their hands to do more than what they have signaled they were ready to do.”
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World leaders are scrabbling for purchase, calling an emergency meeting in Geneva as the Syrian conflict descends into a full-fledged war. With President Bashar al-Assad's pronouncement two days ago that the conflict is now a war, it seems any modicum of restraint is likely over.
The United Nations Security Council (the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China) and Turkey will gather in Geneva this weekend for a meeting to discuss a plan for an interim government in Syria that was hastily announced late yesterday by UN/Arab League special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan.
Human rights monitors say that the past week has been the bloodiest in the 16-month uprising-turned-civil-war. Almost 160 were killed yesterday alone, according to Agence France-Presse.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to the meeting after speaking with Mr. Annan about his plan and determining that it provided a good foundation for talks, State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, according to CNN. Negotiations have so far mostly ended in deadlock between Russia and the US, Britain, and France (with China following Russia's lead). A peace plan crafted by Annan earlier this year has been left in shreds.
Ms. Nuland would not disclose any details about the negotiations or address whether Russia has softened its opposition to either a political transition directed by outside powers or further action against the Assad regime. She said only that "our litmus test for whether we thought this meeting should go forward, as we've been saying for many days now, was that we expected we could make concrete progress," according to CNN.
Ms. Clinton will travel to Russia tomorrow to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two countries have been on opposing sides on just about every element of an international response to Syria's uprising. To Washington's consternation, Moscow has continued its arms sales to Syria, defending them as being based on pre-existing contracts and/or only for defensive purposes.
The two most recently clashed over the list of countries invited to the Geneva meeting. Russia wanted Iran, a key ally of Assad, in attendance, which the US rejected. Saudi Arabia, whose presence was desired by the US, seems to have been left out in a concession to Russia, who has insisted in equanimity in negotiations. As the logic goes, if Iran is to be excluded by the US for backing Assad, then Saudi Arabia, which has been widely accused of arming the rebel forces, should also be left out.
Annan said last week that he considered Iran's participation essential, decrying the rivalries between the US and Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran that have so far blocked it, Tony Karon writes in Time Magazine. “I have made it quite clear that I believe Iran should be part of the solution,” Annan said in Geneva last Friday. “If we continue the way we are going and competing with each other, it could lead to destructive competition and everyone will pay the price.”
Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, was careful to say that Moscow's agreement to attend the meeting was not a guarantee that it would accept Annan's plan – only that it agreed to it as a basis for discussion, according to AFP.
Annan's interim government would include officials for both sides. Concrete details beyond that are either undisclosed or undecided, although a UN diplomat told AFP that it would not include any officials whose inclusion "might jeopardize the transition 'or undermine efforts to bring reconciliation'."
"The language of Annan's plan suggests that Assad could be excluded but also that certain opposition figures could be ruled out," a second UN diplomat told AFP, noting that there isn't anything in the plan to specifically exclude him either.
A senior member of the Syrian opposition said today that the opposition would only agree to a transition plan if it explicitly requires Assad to leave power before the unity government is formed, Reuters reports.
"The proposal is still murky to us but I can tell you that if it does not clearly state that Assad must step down, it will be unacceptable to us," said Samir Nashar, an executive member of the international Syrian National Council. "If the proposal said Assad must step down, then the idea of allowing other members of the current government to participate could be open to discussion."
But those fighting on the ground took a harder line. A Free Syrian Army fighter in Homs told Reuters that they could not accept the plan, period, and that the time for peace-making was long past. "This is just a new labyrinth. It is new silliness for us to get lost in and haggle over who can participate and who can't," said the fighter, Ahmed.
Mr. Karon writes in Time that the US-Russia antagonism leaves little room for optimism about the Geneva talks bringing about any change, or even ending with anything concrete. There are no signs that either party will change elements of its position that the other considers a deal breaker.
Indeed, the parties that will meet with Assad in Geneva have different ideas on resolving the crisis, but none appears to have decisive leverage to bring to bear in order to shape its preferred outcome. The U.S. insists that the conflict can’t be resolved while Assad remains in power; the Russians point out that Washington has no credible plan for dealing with the fallout that would follow the regime’s precipitous collapse. For much of the past year, officials in Washington have speculated that Russia might break with Assad, but the passage of time has made those claims look Pollyannaish.
Indeed, Russia’s willingness to push back against U.S. plans for tackling the Syrian crisis were evident in its effort to support Iran being invited to Annan’s conference. The U.S. nixed that idea, meaning that the conference that will be held in Geneva will be more limited in its scope and ambition. And nobody is expecting an outcome that makes much difference what even Assad himself now calls a “state of war” in Syria.
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last night pronounced his country to be in a state of war and told a new government to spare no effort in achieving a victory.
"We live in a real state of war from all angles," Mr. Assad said in a speech broadcast on state television, according to Reuters. "When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war."
The comment, made during a speech to his newly appointed cabinet, is Assad's first pronouncement of war; he has previously dismissed Syria's conflict as an armed insurgency led by foreign militants. News organizations and international leaders, including some at the United Nations, began describing the conflict as a civil war weeks ago.
But the rebel forces now number between 10,000 and 15,000, according to US estimates, and they have stepped up their campaign, staging bolder, higher-impact attacks, CNN reports. They've also benefited from several high-level defections from the Syrian Army.
Today, gunmen stormed the headquarters of pro-government TV station Al-Ikhbariya south of Damascus, leaving seven people dead and kidnapping several more before blowing up station buildings, the Associated Press reports. "What happened today is a massacre, a massacre against the freedom of the press," Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi said in comments broadcast on state-run Syrian TV. "They carried out a terrifying massacre by executing the employees."
Meanwhile, the outskirts of Damascus are home to the site of some of the fiercest fighting the capital area has seen. Violence so close to the center of the capital – roughly five miles from the city's oldest open air markeplace and downtown – has been rare. Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the Globe and Mail that today's fighting marked the first time the regime forces have used artillery in such proximity to Damascus.
The fighting happened close to bases of the elite Republican Armed Guard units. That rebel forces were willing to fight so close to their main bases is "unprecedented" and possibly an "indicator of increasing prowess," according to The Globe and Mail.
But US intelligence officials told Reuters that despite the military defections and the rebels' growing strength, Assad's "inner circle" remains strong and they see no sign that the regime will fall anytime soon. The more likely scenario is that the conflict, already ongoing for 15 months, will continue.
"Our overall assessment ... would be that we are still seeing the military regime forces fairly cohesive, they've learned some lessons over the last year and a half about how to deal with this kind of insurgency," an official said. "Both sides seem to be girding for a long struggle. Our sense is that the regime still believes it can ultimately prevail or at least appears determined to try to prevail and the opposition at the same time seems to be preparing for a long fight."
The head of United Nations peacekeeping operations said yesterday that the situation remained too dangerous for the UN monitoring mission in Syria, which suspended its work earlier this month, to resume operations, Syria's Day Press News reports.
Russia agreed yesterday to attend a meeting in Geneva with the rest of the permanent UN Security Council members and Kofi Annan, the UN-appointed mediator for Syria. Mr. Annan has been attempting to broker an end to the fighting for months. He crafted a peace plan that failed rapidly and spectacularly, despite the fact that both the government and rebels agreed to its terms.
That Moscow – which has been at loggerheads with Britain, the US, and France for remaining an ally of the regime – agreed to attend gives the Geneva meeting some substance, the Globe and Mail reports. Iran, another Assad ally, could also be invited. If the US accepted Tehran's involvement – something it has not supported so far – it would signal a new level of concern about the situation on the ground in Syria.