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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun as a Syrian Air Force fighter bomber fires rockets during an air strike in the village of Tel Rafat, some 23 miles north of Aleppo, August 9. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Syrian rebels receive UK funding, but no weapons

By Staff writer / 08.10.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The British government announced today that it would provide the Syrian rebels with $5 million to buy communications equipment and medical supplies, but the money cannot be used for weapons the rebel forces have repeatedly requested.

Despite the West's reluctance to directly arm the opposition, rebels have made strategic gains in recent weeks, both on the ground and in forcing a change in the way the Syrian Army fights back.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the funds would be used for things like satellite phones, medical kits, and generators, but was insistent that none of it would go toward weapons, the Associated Press reports. He also said that his government would increase its contact with the opposition's political arm to help it prepare for a possible post-Assad Syria. That preparation may be a response to important but subtle rebel gains in recent weeks.

Reuters reports that the drawn-out nature of the battle for Aleppo – and the regime's apparent reluctance to sweep in, overrun the rebels, and massacre residents – have raised speculation that the Syrian Army no longer has enough troops with the skills or morale to do the job.

Analysts acknowledged there could be other reasons: The Army's strategy may be to wear down the rebels and exhaust their ammunition supplies with shelling before going in on foot, it could be afraid of provoking outside intervention by demolishing the city, and it could be trying to figure out how to use its heavy weapons, which need open space to operate, in the rubble-strewn city streets.

But they also said that a fear of defections may be driving the reluctance to move into the city streets, where abandonment would be easier.  

"On paper, the Syrian army is 200,000 strong," said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's.

"But around 170,000 of them are conscripts. They may be between a rock and a hard place, unable to defect but also unwilling to fight – and the Assad regime may not be willing to risk trying to use them."

Rebels who have defected from the army say that the front line is usually manned by Sunni Muslims who may be having a moral crisis about firing on their own people.

The Guardian posited yesterday that rebel troops may be approaching parity with regime forces in terms of capability, if not actual troop numbers or weapon and tank supplies. "We did not have the experience to lay explosives, or any coherent leadership … but this is now changing," rebel fighter Khaldoun al-Omar, told the newspaper. "The battles are looking more like warfare between two armies, even though they far outgun us."

"My sense is that the military balance is shifting," said Jeffrey White, a former US intelligence officer who now comments on Syria for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"People are always looking for the mythical turning point in Syria. There has not been a decisive moment but there has been a change."

White, like others, believes that one decisive factor has been improvements by the FSA's fighters in using what weapons are easily available to them, captured or bought from the army, and improvements in the quality of their leadership despite continued heavy losses among leaders.

"What they have got – like small arms and RPGs – they are using much more effectively," he said. "They are also using captured anti-aircraft systems like the ZU-23s and Dushkas much better."

As a result, Syrian Army casualties are climbing. Regime troops are increasingly relying on air power until the last few days of a fight in order to avoid mass casualties and defections, the Guardian reports. Anti-aircraft weapons would be a true game changer for the rebels, but other countries, fearful they could end up in the wrong hands, seem wary to supply something so powerful.

Also helping the rebels is their control of more and more rural areas, giving them broad swathes of territory through which they can freely transport weapons, food, fuel, and troops. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, rebels now hold their "first substantial enclave of the 17-month uprising": the countryside between Aleppo and the Turkish border, giving them some 30 miles free of government troops. A similar enclave was crucial for Libyan rebels in their own uprising.

Now that they can operate openly in that territory, rebels have been forming de facto local governments and restoring order to the region. Turkey has become more willing to allow people, goods, and weapons across its border now that some modicum of governance is in place.

For fighters desperately trying to keep up supplies of food, fuel and weapons, the ability to freely cross the Turkish border and move between villages without fear of encountering regime forces is a dramatic change.

Earlier in the conflict, supplies were ferried across the Turkish border by horse, or on foot, by smugglers traversing muddy trails while dodging Turkish and Syrian border guards. A local fighter in Azzaz who said he helped smuggle in local rebels' first rocket propelled grenades earlier this year said it took them weeks to negotiate the treacherous route through regime-controlled territory for just two RPGs.

Now, such supply shipments can make the run from the Turkish border to the front line in Aleppo in about 90 minutes.

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Syrians check the damage of a destroyed school after it was hit by an air strike, killing six, in the town of Tal Rifat on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 8. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Iran convenes conference on Syria, vowing to preserve the 'axis of resistance'

By Staff writer / 08.09.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

After numerous failed diplomatic attempts by the United Nations to rein in the violence in Syria, Syrian ally Iran offered up its own solution: a conference of nations with “a correct and realistic position” on resolving the civil war.

The fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad could have destabilizing consequences for the region and Iran, a longtime ally that has largely isolated itself from the West. Iran’s visiting head of national security, Saeed Jalili, said on Aug. 7 that “Iran will not tolerate, in any form, the breaking of the axis of the resistance, of which Syria is an intrinsic part.”

Iranian officials traveled to Syria this week after rebels kidnapped 48 Iranians. Tehran insists the captured men were religious pilgrims, but the rebels who took responsibility for the kidnapping have said they are members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, wrote in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post yesterday that “Iran seeks a solution that is in the interest of everyone. Syrian society is a beautiful mosaic of ethnicities, faiths and cultures, and it will be smashed to pieces should President Bashar al-Assad abruptly fall. The idea that, in that event, there would be an orderly transition of power is an illusion.”

However, Western diplomats say the conference in Iran was created to not only preserve Mr. Assad’s rule in Syria, but shift the world’s attention away from the ongoing bloodshed there. 

An estimated 17,000 people have been killed in Syria since fighting broke out in March 2011, according to the United Nations. Today Syrian forces shelled Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial hub, and a battleground between regime forces and rebels for nearly a month now. Rebels say neighborhoods were targeted by helicopter fire, reports CNN. The protracted violence has shaken Assad’s hold on the country as diplomats, members of the military, and, most recently, the prime minister have defected.

Amid reports that a ground assault in Aleppo has forced rebels to retreat as ammunition and supplies are running low, The New York Times reports residents received “ominous cellphone text messages asking them to cooperate with the government. One text, signed by the Syrian Army, read: ‘Dear brothers, informing about terrorists means you are saving yourself and your family.’” The regime often refers to rebel fighters as terrorists.

Although Western powers, including the US, and a handful of Arab states are sympathetic to Syria’s rebels, they have not intervened militarily. President Barack Obama reportedly signed a covert directive last week, allowing the CIA and other agencies to offer support for rebel forces, and Obama’s counterterrorism adviser said today that the implementation of a no-fly zone over Syria was not "off the table," reports CNN.

A Western diplomat in Iran said today’s conference illustrated it was “running out of ideas,” Reuters reports. But the International Herald Tribune’s Harvey Morris notes it’s important to look at Syria from Iran’s perspective. In the more than three-decade history of Iran’s Islamic Republic, “Syria is the only state to have consistently stood by it while hostile neighbors and outside powers conspired to bring about its downfall.”

But that doesn’t mean Iran is ready to sacrifice its countrymen for the cause and “fight for Mr. Assad down to the last Iranian," he writes:

To understand the roots of Iranian paranoia, just look at the map. Iran has been steadily encircled by a network of US military bases in the decades since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

 …

The impact of regime change in the Arab World has in fact been largely negative from Tehran’s perspective. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt is closer to Saudi Arabia than it is to Iran. If the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus were to fall, it would mean the loss of a non-Sunni ally.

So, how far will Iran go towards protecting its long-term partner? It will not be happy if Mr. Assad goes. But beyond cash and supplies and the loan of military advisers, there is not much Tehran can do to determine the outcome.

Its best hope might be the emergence of a post-Assad regime that is not openly hostile to its interests, reserving the option of trying to destabilize a successor regime that was.

Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency reports that Hussein Amir Abdollahian, Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, said today’s conference would be attended by representatives of “a remarkable number of interested and influential regional and world states,” according to The New York Times.

That reportedly included China, Algeria, Russia, Tajikistan, Venezuela, Pakistan, India, and six members of the Arab League, although Reuters reports Russia was the only country to confirm its attendance. Just hours before the conference was set to commence, Iran had not disclosed which countries were actually present, reports the New York Times.

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

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In this photo taken on Wednesday, Aug. 8, Egyptians ride a pick-up truck near the Kerem Shalom crossing, a zone where the Israeli, Egyptian, and Gaza borders intersect and where an Egyptian military vehicle that was seized by Islamist gunmen tried to storm the border into Israel on Sunday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Egypt airstrikes in Sinai kill 20 'terrorists' in reprisal for attacks on military posts

By Staff writer / 08.08.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Egyptian military launched its first airstrikes in the Sinai peninsula in decades today, killing 20 “terrorists,” Egyptian state-run media reports.

The airstrikes along the Israeli-Egyptian border came after several Egyptian military checkpoints in the region were attacked overnight and three days after unknown gunmen attacked Egyptian border guards. The incidents have left Egypt lurching to contain the Sinai's growing lawlessness, which has been fostered by the upheaval of post-revolution Egypt and poses an important challenge for the country's new leadership. 

An unnamed Egyptian senior military official told Agence France-Presse that “20 terrorists were killed” in the village of Tumah, near the Gaza border, by Apache helicopter strikes. The military source said the operation was ongoing and other airstrikes have been reported in neighboring villages.

The attacks came the day after a military funeral for the 16 men who were killed by suspected militants on Aug. 5, when gunmen disguised as Bedouins staged an assault on a border post as guards stopped to break the Ramadan fast. The attack was the deadliest attack on Egyptian security forces on the peninsula since Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, according to Reuters. 

The border unrest and escalating reports of militant and criminal activity in the Sinai region are seen as a test for Egypt’s new president, its first Islamist head of state. The Washington Post reports:

Morsi is under heavy pressure to endorse a crushing crackdown on militants in the Sinai, but any missteps or abuses could trigger a backlash from Islamists, his main political base.

On Tuesday, Morsi stayed away from the military funeral for the 16 slain soldiers – a conspicuous absence for a leader whose thorny relationship with the military is being closely watched. Angry Egyptians heckled and tried to assault Prime Minister Hesham Kandil when he arrived for prayers before the funeral, prompting his security detail to whisk him out.

[W]hile Morsi’s victory in Egypt’s first free presidential election marked a watershed moment for Egyptian Islamists after decades of repression, it also set up a potential standoff between his government and religious extremists, who are willing to launch attacks against the state in order to further their own agenda.

“Those who carried out this crime will pay dearly,” Morsi said, according to the Guardian. “Clear orders have been given to our armed forces and police to chase and arrest those who carried out this assault on our children. The forces will impose full control over these areas of Sinai.”

No group has taken credit for the attack.

The airstrikes today followed overnight clashes between armed men and Egyptian security forces at numerous checkpoints in the region, including Arish and neighboring Rafah, reports Reuters. One checkpoint has been targeted 28 times since the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak began, according to the state-funded Middle East News Agency.

Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilad, an Israeli defense ministry bureau chief, said the Egyptian military was determined to expunge terrorism in Sinai. “If they don’t remove and uproot [terrorism], it will continue to strike,” Mr. Gilad told Israel Radio today

But Mona Zamalot, an anti-militancy activist in the city of al-Arish, told the Washington Post she fears militants will move into the Sinai's towns if the government and military crackdown continues. “If the militants stay in the desert and mountains, they will fall,” she said. “They want to go into the cities.”

Ms. Zamalot said an Egyptian military official told her that the men believed to be behind the border post attack “want victory or martyrdom.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for Egypt’s efforts to strengthen security in the Sinai and State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the US was committed to improving counter-terror work in Egypt and ensuring Israel’s security. Mr. Ventrell added that those in the region would feel comforted when Egypt’s new Islamist government and neighboring countries fully establish working relations.

Daniel Nisman, an intelligence officer at a security company in Tel Aviv, wrote in an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal that the US should start making its aid to Egypt conditional, based on Egypt's efforts to stamp out extremists inside its borders.

In the security vacuum that ensued since Hosni Mubarak's ousting, militant groups from Gaza and elsewhere swarmed into the Sinai Peninsula, quickly establishing a mini-Afghanistan on the Mediterranean. Amongst the sand dunes and jagged mountains, these militants found fertile breeding ground for their extremist ideology, quickly radicalizing the native Bedouin tribesmen who were long considered second-class citizens under the Mubarak dictatorship.

In the Sinai Peninsula, a strict counter-terrorism doctrine must be enforced upon Egypt, requiring the new leadership to provide tangible results in reigning in militancy within their borders. It would serve the Obama administration well to correct its approach toward post-revolution Egypt.

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In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency (SANA) on Sunday, Aug. 5, Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab (c.) speaks under the portrait of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Damascus, Syria. Hijab defected and fled to neighboring Jordan, a Jordanian official and a rebel spokesman said Monday. (SANA/AP)

Rebels, observers dispute importance of Syrian prime minister's defection

By Correspondent / 08.07.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A day after Syria’s highest-ranking defector to date left the embattled government of President Bashar al-Assad, Syrians and the international community alike are at odds over how big an impact it will have on the conflict there.

Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab fled the country overnight, arriving in Jordan early yesterday morning. Through his spokesman, he called the Syrian government a “terrorist regime." It remains unclear where Mr. Hijab is now, but some reports have placed him in Qatar, one of the biggest supporters of the Syrian opposition.

Rebels were quick to paint the defection as a major step forward for their cause.

“This is a proof that the political basis of the regime is collapsing,” said Samir Nachar, a leader of the Syrian National Council, according to The New York Times. “This is the momentum we needed to tell the political and military elite that it is time for them to jump off the sinking ship.”

While immediately inspiring for many rebels, it remains uncertain how much momentum Mr. Hijab’s defection will provide Syrian rebels and how deep it will cut into the Assad regime. Long-time Middle East journalist and commentator Robert Fisk writes that the defection is symbolic but not a “body blow” to Assad.

“Like the generals and diplomats who have preceded him into exile, the Prime Minister was a Sunni Muslim, and it is the Alawite minority within the Baath Party and the government upon which Bashar relies. They still stand loyally behind him,” wrote Mr. Fisk.

Assad appointed Hijab as prime minister this June and threatened to kill him if he didn’t take the job, reports the Associated Press. Shortly after taking office, he began making plans to leave the country, sending family members out of Syria and eventually fleeing to the border with his wife and children.

The United States has not directly involved itself in the Syrian conflict, but American officials have been vocal about their opposition to the Assad regime. The US also appears to be increasing indirect and clandestine support to Syrian rebels, banking on their ability to topple the regime. An official from the State Department said that Hijab’s defection is evidence that the Syrian government is “crumbling.”

Its days are numbered, and we call on other senior members of the regime and the military to break with the bloody past and help chart a new path for Syria — one that is peaceful, democratic, inclusive, and just,” a senior State Department official told the Washington Post.

Meanwhile fighting rages on in Syria with most violence focused on Aleppo, the nation’s largest city. Government forces continue to shell the city and have sent reinforcements, bringing the total of Syrian troops in the area up to 20,000, reports Al Jazeera. Though many neighborhoods in Aleppo have seen fierce clashes, some reports indicate that the Syrian military may be biding its time before launching a major assault. With 2.7 million residents, United Nations officials have urged both sides to be cautious about inflicting civilian casualties.

“I urge the parties to protect civilians and respect their obligations under international humanitarian law. Civilians must not be subjected to shelling and use of heavy weapons,” said Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, the head of the UN observer mission in Syria.

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An Israeli soldier walks past a burned Egyptian military vehicle that was seized by Islamist gunmen in a deadly cross-border assault on Sunday, after it was towed to an Israeli army base just outside the southern Gaza Strip August 6. Islamist gunmen killed at least 15 Egyptian police on Sunday and seized two military vehicles to attack a crossing point into Israel, the deadliest incident in Egypt's tense Sinai border region in decades. (Amir Cohen/REUTERS)

Sinai attack presents Egypt's Morsi with first security challenge (+video)

By Correspondent / 08.06.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi vowed his nation’s military will regain “full control” of the Sinai Peninsula following an attack on Egyptian border guards that left at least 16 people dead and seven injured yesterday.

The attack is Mr. Morsi's first security crisis, and also poses a diplomatic challenge – his predecessor, ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, worked closely with Israel on security matters in the Sinai. Israeli officials have made repeated warnings about deteriorating security in the area since the Egyptian revolution.

Militants dressed in traditional Bedouin clothing reportedly attacked Egyptian border guards as they stopped work at sunset to break the Ramadan fast. The militants managed to then hijack armored vehicles and sought to launch a cross-border attack against Israel. The fighters breached the border before Israeli forces stopped them, killing the eight attackers. Mr. Morsi has already met with the military leaders to discuss a response.

“Those who carried out this crime will pay dearly,” said Mr. Morsi, according to the Guardian. “Clear orders have been given to our armed forces and police to chase and arrest those who carried out this assault on our children. The forces will impose full control over these areas of Sinai.”

The attack sparked major concerns in Israel, where officials have expressed worries about the security of the Sinai after the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. During a segment on Israeli army radio, Yoav Mordechai, the senior Israeli military spokesman, alleged that the Sinai has “become a hothouse for world terrorism because of the weak control exercised” by Egypt, reports the Telegraph.

Speaking to the Israeli Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committee today, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the attack a “wake-up call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands,” reports Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Although the attackers’ identity remains unknown, Mr. Barak said they were linked to a jihadist group.

An Egyptian official told Egypt’s Al-Ahram that authorities suspect the militants entered Egypt from the Gaza Strip. Egyptian authorities have closed the border crossing in response. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has condemned the attacks and closed the smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt, Reuters reports.

As Egyptian officials work to reassert their control of the Sinai, Al Jazeera reports that the increased security profile is already evident.

“The entire border area has been sealed with very heavy security on all the roads leading up to Sinai, and not just the border area,” reported Al Jazeera's Rawya Rageh.

Egyptian security forces surrounded the town of Rafah, one of the main Egyptian towns along the border with Israel, early this morning in an effort to stop any remaining gunmen from escaping, reports the BBC. Morsi has also said that his forces are pursuing those behind the “cowardly” attacks, and he is confident they will apprehend those responsible.

Keeping the Sinai peninsula demilitarized is the cornerstone of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. When Egyptian forces sent extra tanks to reinforce their troops on the Sinai last year, Israel had to agree to the terms.

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Members of the Free Syrian Army ride on pick-up trucks in Aleppo's district of Salah Edinne, August 1. (Abdel Razzak al-Halabi/Reuters)

Aleppo on the verge of full-scale battle as UN vote on Syria looms

By Staff writer / 08.03.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The United Nations peacekeeping chief yesterday announced that the big showdown in Aleppo between the Syrian Army and rebel forces is imminent, as hopes for international mediation in Syria sank to their lowest level yet with the resignation of the diplomat charged with implementing a peace plan.

The Army and rebels have been fighting fierce, small-scale clashes in Aleppo for three weeks as both sides ramp up for an all-out battle for the city.

"The focus is now on Aleppo, where there has been a considerable buildup of military means, and where we have reason to believe that the main battle is about to start," said Herve Ladsous, under-secretary-general for UN peacekeeping operations, CNN reports. (See the Monitor's report of the street battles in Aleppo last week.) 

IN PICTURES – Inside Aleppo

Cellphone service to the city has been cut off, making it difficult to discern fully what is happening on the ground, but Army planes have been shelling parts of the city and rebels have seized tanks from a military base, turning them on regime troops. Capt. Ammar Al-Wawi of the Free Syrian Army told CNN that the Army has also been using fighter jets on sections of the city.

Diplomatic attempts to halt the violence, already weak, were dealt a further blow with the resignation yesterday of UN special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, who voiced his frustration with the competition and blame game that has paralyzed the UN Security Council as he stepped down, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"The increasing militarization on the ground and the clear lack of unity in the Security Council have fundamentally changed the circumstances for the effective exercise of my role," he said. "The bloodshed continues, most of all because of the Syrian government's intransigence and continuing refusal to implement the six-point plan, and also because of the escalating military campaign of the opposition—all of which is compounded by the disunity of the international community." 

He is not the only world leader who seems to be done with trying to work out a solution to the Syrian conflict through the proper international channels: Security Council President Gerard Araud yesterday said that the group should turn its focus to humanitarian issues, CNN reports. "The divisions in the council are very deep. I think its irreconcilable in political terms," he said. "Maybe we should work on [the] humanitarian situation, which is becoming disastrous. At least the Security Council would be useful," Mr. Araud added.

"The risk is that some countries have drawn the conclusion that it is over, that the Council is impotent on Syria," Araud said, according to CBS News

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Britain will begin providing "a great deal" of "practical" support for the opposition forces in coming weeks, although he ruled out providing weapons. Britain was one of the countries backing a mediated solution to the Syrian conflict, but Mr. Hague said that the UN had not been able to "handle it well," BBC reports. 

Mr. Annan should not be blamed for his failure to bring about any progress in Syria, the Guardian argues in an editorial. The so-called Annan peace plan, backed strongly by council members, it says, was doomed to fail from the start because neither the Army nor the increasingly militarized opposition ever seriously considered pausing their assault. There is no point in Annan's successor picking up its mantle, the Guardian writes.

Try as one might to concoct a scenario where the six-point Annan plan for a negotiated political transition may one day be resuscitated – a successor will be found as envoy and, as Annan says, the plan is the security council's, not his – it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his resignation marks the end of diplomacy in Syria. It is a landmark moment.

Some argued almost from the start that Annan, one of the world's most seasoned diplomats, only made things worse. The means, in the form of a ceasefire, offered loyalist troops a respite, while the end, a political process became a free get-of-jail-card for Bashar Assad. The Annan plan, it was said, exemplified the gap between expectation and delivery that Assad exploited with murderous intent. 

The undoing of the Annan plan surely lay not so much with the plan itself – there never was any other real alternative to stop a brutally repressed civilian insurrection turning into a civil war – but in the UN security council that approved it.

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the trouble with Annan's peace plan, which included a cease-fire and a political transition plan that would include some members of the Assad regime in the next government, is that it "came too late." Compounding that was the "mounting feud" between the Western council members – US, Britain, and France – and Russia, which had the two sides vociferously opposing each other at the council, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"I don't believe that Kofi Annan can be blamed for hoping that Assad might have behaved differently," Mr. Cordesman said. "But the fact is that this entire effort came late. The whole idea that observers could keep the peace was very, very optimistic from the start."

Despite the UN's unquestionable failure to bring about any progress on the ground in Syria and the growing belief that the window for diplomacy is firmly closed, the General Assembly is preparing to vote today on a resolution "reprimanding" Syria for using heavy weapons on civilians, according to the WSJ.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata, reporting from the outskirts of Aleppo, reports that "the rebels take very little interest in what is going on at the UN. The fighters on the front lines in the battle to wrest Syria's largest city definitively from the control of Assad's regime say the UN has proven itself of little help to their cause."

IN PICTURES – Inside Aleppo

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A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his rocket-propelled grenade launcher during a fight with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in downtown Aleppo August 1. (Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS)

Battle for Aleppo enters third week as Syrian rebels hold on

By Staff writer / 08.02.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Syrian rebels gained ground today near Aleppo when they turned a captured tank against a Syrian Army airbase. As fighting nears the end of its second week in Syria’s largest city, this increase in rebel artillery could raise morale for a group that is believed to be far outgunned by military forces.

“We hit the airport using a tank that we captured from the Assad army. We attacked the airport a few times but we have decided to retreat at this time," Abu Ali, a rebel fighter, told Reuters.

The United Nations observer mission in Syria says it is concerned about escalating violence in Aleppo, citing the use of jets by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the addition of heavier weaponry to the rebels’ cache. Earlier this week NBC News reported that the Free Syrian Army rebel forces acquired nearly 25 surface-to-air missiles via Turkey. 

“The last 72 hours saw a significant increase in the level of violence,” said Sausan Ghosheh, UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) spokesman in Damascus

Reuters reports that the rebels say they have taken control of three police stations this week as they try to consolidate their hold on key areas of Aleppo. They have been met by heavily armed government forces who are working to drive the rebels out of the city. Yesterday a statement by President Assad said the battle for Aleppo will determine the “destiny of our Homeland.”

Cell phone service was reportedly cut off yesterday evening, prompting speculation that the military is planning to ratchet up its offensive. But it could also be an effort to hinder one of the rebels' less traditional strategies for victory: winning the media war.

The Monitor’s Scott Peterson was in Aleppo earlier in the week, where he observed the important role mobile phones and cameras are playing in the Syrian conflict.

This fight has been defined in Syria by endless images shot by mobile phone and volunteer videographers who know the importance of winning the media war.

Every fighter seems to have at least one mobile phone, used to speak with families, Skype girlfriends, and even advise Syrian soldiers how to defect to the opposition. Some note the difference a generation can make to the fate of their challenge against the government – and providing video evidence of atrocities and war crimes that are corroding the legitimacy of the regime.

Civilians are increasingly caught in the middle of the fighting, Ms. Ghosheh of the UN observer mission said. Nearly 200,000 people are believed to have fled Aleppo since fighting began July 20. According to the UN, 3 million Syrians are in need of food aid, and half of them will need “urgent and immediate” assistance in the next three to six months.

Spikes in violence lead to spikes in refugees, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UN and partner organizations have increased their calls for international humanitarian aid as the conflict has fallen deeper into civil war, but they have only been able to raise $64 million in international support – 33 percent of their target goal, according to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

And while most attention is on Aleppo, where the largest battle is raging, violence continues elsewhere. Government troops swept through a Damascus suburb yesterday, reportedly targeting unarmed civilians.  

According to Reuters:

"When the streets were clear we found the bodies of at least 35 men," a resident, who gave his name as Fares, said by phone from Jdeidet Artouz, southwest of Damascus.

"Almost all of them were executed with bullets to their face, head and neck in homes, gardens and basements."

Syrian state television said "dozens of terrorists and mercenaries surrendered or were killed" when the army raided Jdeidet Artouz and its surrounding farmlands.

Tomorrow, the fighting in Aleppo will enter its third week, and some are saying now is the time to intervene. The Wall Street Journal writes in an editorial that Assad seems unlikely to fall from power anytime soon and is trying to win at any cost. Now is the time to do more than wait, WSJ writes:

All the more reason, then, for the US to intervene now, when it might be able to do so decisively and at relatively low risk. Boots on the ground are not necessary. Merely stationing an aircraft carrier 50 miles off the coast of Syria and notifying the Assad regime that it will clear the skies over Aleppo of Syrian planes and helicopters would be a warning the regime's pilots would prefer not to test.

If that seems excessively interventionist, consider the alternatives. One is that Assad could win the battle of Aleppo… That would present the U.S. with the unpleasant choice of either accepting Assad remaining in power or intervening more directly to help the beleaguered opposition.

A second alternative is a drawn-out battle for Aleppo that would, almost inevitably, turn into a full-scale humanitarian disaster…. Then there's the possibility that the fighting in Aleppo could have an inconclusive result, leading to a drawn out civil war. That is the scenario U.S. planners now seem to anticipate. But that only increases the potential for greater regional instability.

But there are others who say the moment has passed, and that it’s too late to intervene in Syria. Foreign Policy’s Aaron David Miller writes:

Don't believe any of it. The time for guilting the United States into expensive and ill-thought-out military interventions has passed. Indeed, the reasons to intervene in Syria – the hope of defusing a bloody religious and political conflict and dealing the Iranian mullahs a mortal blow – are just not compelling enough to offset the risks and the unknowns.

The reality is that Syria is in the middle of a complex internal struggle with a divided opposition, regional players with diverse agendas, and competing great powers. There's no single force on the ground – or constellation of outside powers – that can impose order. For the United States to enter the fray as a quasi-combatant would make matters more complicated, not less. Sure, US President Barack Obama could take down the Assads by force – but he would do an enormous amount of damage in the process and end up being forced to rebuild the country. Remember the Pottery Barn rule ["you break it, you buy it]? That's the last thing America needs.

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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen in Jubar near Damascus on Tuesday, July 31. (Courtesy of Shaam News Network/Reuters)

Assad honors Syrian Army as it faces defections, and existential threat

By Staff writer / 08.01.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

President Bashar al-Assad commemorated the 67th anniversary of the founding of Syria’s Army today as the military fights "a prolonged civil war” with rebel forces and struggles to hold on to its soldiers.

"The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle," Mr. Assad said in a written statement, heralding the Army as a point of pride for Syrians and the “homeland’s shield” against terrorist gangs – the government's terminology for rebel fighters – and criminal plots. The president has not spoken publicly since he lost three members of his inner circle in a bombing in Damascus close to two weeks ago, according to BBC

CNN provided further comments from his address

"The enemy is among us and is using inside agents to destabilize the country and the security of its citizens," President Bashar al-Assad said, according to state-run media.

Al-Assad added that the enemy "continues to drain our economic and scientific resources in an attempt to weaken us and prevent us from determining our own future."

"Today, as every day, our people look to you as you defend their honor and dignity and give the nation back its stability and give the people a sense of security and comfort and morale," the president said.

The conflict began in March 2011, when Assad’s troops began a brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-government protests that swept the region in the winter and spring of 2011. As the uprising turned violent, armed rebel groups began to emerge. Seventeen months into the conflict, at least 17,000 lives have been lost, according to the United Nations. Rebels put the loss of lives closer to 20,000.

As violence has heightened, Army defection has become common. Former members of the military make up “the bulk of defectors,” putting the balance of power in Syria in limbo, reports The Economist.   

In Beirut, one young Syrian who was about to be conscripted describes how he paid a $1,000 bribe to get out of the country; others follow illegal paths into Turkey. Louay Mokdad, an activist who works with the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, reckons that 500 to 1,000 soldiers are leaving the Army each day, some deserting and others defecting to the armed opposition. Others who want to flee stay put in order to pass on information to the rebels. This whiff of treachery in its ranks must worry the government the most.

But the Syrian Army isn’t the only one with splintering support. Members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most prominent opposition group and the one that has been representing the rebels abroad, have left the SNC to form their own organization.

“The Syria National Council was ineffective and produced no results,” said Haythem Al-Maleh, a founding member of the new Council for the Syrian Revolution, according to CNN. The new group's primary goal is to create a transitional government.

A growing number of opposition groups have emerged over the past year and a half as rebels try to overthrow Assad and his regime and to garner international support for their efforts. The Syrian Expatriates Organization put out a call for unity among rebel groups in June, saying all rebel forces must “work together to expedite the toppling of the regime, and to protect our people in Syria from its brutality,” reports CNN.

Meanwhile, rebel groups and the Syrian Army are vying for control of Aleppo. Yesterday rebels took hold of at least two area police stations that were previously used as Army outposts, according to the New York Times. The Army is reportedly attacking rebel positions from a military base on the outskirts of the city as the two groups fight to establish a hold on neighborhoods near the center of the city.

According to the Monitor’s Scott Peterson, who was in Aleppo over the weekend, the stakes are high in Syria's largest city, which was spared from violence until just two weeks ago.

The Battle of Aleppo may prove a pivotal point when the history is written of Syria's fateful civil war, which could bring to an end the Assad family's 42-year dynasty and change strategic balances across the Middle East. The result of the first two days of the assault, witnessed by the Monitor in the Salaheddin enclave, indicate that far more blood will be shed before either side can declare "victory."

Aleppo was late to join the uprising and until recently was a reliable supporter of the regime. Losing it to the rebels would "demonstrate severe government weakness," Mr. Peterson wrote last week

Tens of thousands of people have fled the fighting in Aleppo, leaving nearby schools overflowing with refugees. But many more are trapped in the city and unable to leave for a safer refuge, reports The Los Angeles Times.

Pickups and cars filled with families and their belongings have been streaming out as rebel gunmen battle government forces.

But not everyone has been able to leave. The United Nations reported Tuesday that thousands remain trapped in the sprawling city of more than 2 million… The crisis in the city is becoming ever more dire, say aid workers, who fear a looming humanitarian catastrophe. Bread is in short supply; people are waiting in lines for hours to grab what is available. Gasoline, if it's available, is prohibitively expensive. Cooking oil is hard to find….

"The situation is extremely tense and volatile," said Rabab Rifai, spokeswoman with the International Committee for the Red Cross in Damascus, the capital.

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers a specch in Jerusalem, Sunday, July 29. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

From Iran to China, Romney's comments in Israel earn him international criticism

By Correspondent / 07.31.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Adding to the already loud din of criticism of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after he said Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, China today said Mr. Romney’s “hawkish remarks” could spark conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Romney's remarks totally neglect historical facts and are actually irresponsible if he just meant to appeal to voters at home,” wrote Xinhua, China’s official state news service. “[A]ny words that favor any party to the conflict regardless of history and reality are irresponsible and unfair for Palestinians who are in a less powerful position in the peace talks. They may even result in a much worse situation in this region by intensifying the differences between the two sides.”

China also took issue with Mr. Romney’s claim that he would move the US embassy to Jerusalem, something American officials have long avoided doing because the move would imply Israeli sovereignty of the long contested city.

Romney has been previously criticized for his weakness on foreign policy, but China’s response to his remarks may indicate international concerns that, if elected, the Republican candidate could bring renewed instability to the world stage.

Already, Romney’s remarks have raised ire among Palestinians who have accused him of being racist for saying the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians is due to cultural reasons. Comparing the situation to that between the US, Mexico, Chile, and Ecuador, Romney told those gathered at a fundraising event that the gap in the gross domestic product per capita between the two groups was due to cultural reasons, neglecting to mention the economic impact of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it's this: Culture makes all the difference,” said Romney. “As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

The figures Romney cited also appeared to be at odds with most Western estimates, reports Reuters. Romney said Israelis per capita GDP is $21,000 and Palestinians $10,000, while most other estimates place it closer to $31,400 and $2,900, respectively.

Palestinians were quick to react, with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat calling the remarks “a racist statement that shows a lack of knowledge.” He went on to say, “Everyone knows that the Palestinians cannot reach their full potential given the Israeli restrictions imposed on them.”

Romney’s comments also drew the attention of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who accused the American presidential contender of “kissing the foot” of Israel and asked why he would make “concessions to get some pennies for (his) campaign?” Romney has been firm in his backing of Israel’s alleged efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, reports the Associated Press.

So far, Romney has not sought to amend his remarks, reports The New York Times. His campaign staff did not respond to questions about whether Romney believes Israeli trade restrictions on Palestinian areas has affected economic growth. Meanwhile, the Obama camp has used the opportunity to question Romney’s ability to represent the US in the Middle East in such a way that "American credibility and influence in the Middle East depend on 'us being seen as an honest broker.'”

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Residents look at damaged buildings at Marat al-Numan near the northern province of Idlib, Syria, July 27. (Shaam News Network/REUTERS)

As Syrian government gains ground in Aleppo, it loses its people (+video)

By / 07.30.12

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Reports out of Aleppo indicate that Syrian government troops launching an assault on the city have so far been unable to retake rebel-held neighborhoods there, despite the use of heavy weapons such as tanks and helicopter gunships.

Yesterday Syrian state media reported government victories in two Aleppo neighborhoods, but activists denied the reports, telling The Associated Press that there has been only "fierce shelling" and some fighting on the ground.

But the regime remains much better armed than the rebels. The leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group, requested countries ignore United Nations Security Council opposition and provide heavy weapons that would allow the rebels to actually fight back against the regime's superior weaponry, Reuters reports.

"The rebels are fighting with primitive weapons... We want weapons that we can stop tanks and planes with," SNC chief Abdelbasset Seida said in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. "Our friends and allies will bear responsibility for what is happening in Aleppo if they do not move soon."

The brutality of the regime's offensive to retake Aleppo will be the beginning of the end of President Bashar al-Assad's rule, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday, according to Reuters.

"If they continue this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's own coffin," Mr. Panetta told reporters.

"What Assad has been doing to his own people and what he continues to do to his own people makes clear that his regime is coming to an end. It's lost all legitimacy," he said, adding, "It's no longer a question of whether he's coming to an end, it's when."

Valerie Amos of the UN humanitarian affairs agency said yesterday that 200,000 people have fled Aleppo and nearby areas in just the past two days, and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby voiced concerns that war crimes are being committed in the city, CNN reports. 

Comments from residents in Damascus back up Panetta's claim. The government has reasserted control over the Syrian capital, but the success has come with a cost from the public, Reuters reports.

"To begin with I was with the regime, for sure," said Ahmed, from one of the southern suburbs where the Army, backed by helicopters and tanks, launched its counteroffensive. "But now, no, the regime must go. Take what they want with them, but they must go."

The Christian Science Monitor's Scott Peterson heard similar accounts of turning points when in Aleppo last week.

Abu Omar, for example, says he left his special forces unit while deployed to a rebel-held area of northwest Syria.

“They gave us orders to kill the people who don’t have a gun, but who just went out of their homes and shouted ‘freedom,’” says Abu Omar. “There were girls and little boys killed. I was just shooting in the sky. If we don’t shoot, they take us to jail, or kill us there.”

Likewise, Abu Hamza left the Syrian police after being ordered to shoot people as they left Friday prayers in the coastal town of Latakia after they began shouting “God is great.”

“My moral sense wouldn’t let me do it,” Abu Hamza recalls. He still carries his police ID card. “My father and brother go to mosque and shout in Aleppo every Friday. How could I shoot such people in Latakia? These people are family.”

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