Terrorism & Security
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Sharp divides among Syrian rebel leaders are already apparent after the first day of an opposition conference in Qatar, casting doubt on US hopes that the meeting will result in a unified opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), the opposition's primary political group that many, including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have called dysfunctional and unrepresentative of rebels on the ground in Syria, began a four-day conference in Qatar on Sunday aimed at overhauling its structure and representation, reports BBC News. The group is under intense international pressure to reform itself, writes the BBC's Jim Muir.
The Syrian opposition is well aware that it is widely regarded as fragmented and ineffective, and that this is becoming more and more an issue as events on the ground gather pace.
The coming days will see the most concerted effort so far to pull the bulk of the opposition together and to create effective and credible structures that the outside world can work with in trying to bring about a transition in Syria.
Secretary Clinton said last week that "the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They can be part of a larger opposition. But that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard."
The Associated Press adds that at the top of the agenda is a US-supported proposal by prominent dissident Riad Seif to set up a new leadership council with some 50 seats, 15 of which would go to current SNC leaders with the remainder being held by Syrian local leaders and rebel commanders who currently have no political say in the SNC but are actively involved in opposition on the ground. SNC chief Abdelbaset Sieda told AP that he believes the SNC should hold 40 percent of the council seats.
Joshua Landis writes on his blog Syria Comment that the political situation is "nearly identical" to that of 1950s Syria, when the US and Britain tried to rally a Syrian opposition against Syria's Baathists, allied with the Soviet Union and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but with no success.
[President] Eisenhower and [British Prime Minister] Anthony Eden did everything they could in 1956 to force Syria’s urban elites to cooperate in a pro-Western coup, but to no avail. The two largest parties in parliament – the People’s Party of Aleppo and the National Party of Damascus [–] refused to cooperate among themselves in order to avoid revolution. Pro-Western Syrian politicians insulted and fought amongst themselves with such ferocity, that Western diplomats pulled their hair with despair as they sought to keep Syria from going “commie.”
When the coup failed, many of Syria’s leading pro-Western notables were accused of treason and fled the country. In 1957, the US sought to carry out another putsch, this time on its own. The “American coup”, as it was named, was no more successful. Some of the CIA operatives in charge of handling the Syrians are still alive. Additional Syrian politicians sympathetic to the West were forced to flee the country. Destabilized by Washington’s failed coup making, Syria announced the creation of the United Arab Republic [a political union of Syria and Egypt] only months later. Nasser become president and carried out wide-ranging land reform in order to destroyed the economic underpinnings of the urban notables that had allied with the West.
Mr. Landis adds that today "the line up of states helping the US in its 'struggle for Syria' has hardly changed. Other aspects that have not changed are the infighting among Syria’s elites and the general resentment and distrust that Syrians share toward the US. It is hard to be optimistic."
Meanwhile, United Nations envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi called on Sunday for the UN Security Council to formally back the "Geneva Declaration," a transitional-government plan developed by then UN envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, reports Al Arabiya. The proposal calls for rebels and the Assad regime to form a transitional government, and leaves unmentioned the role of Mr. Assad in the proposed government.
“Unfortunately, some countries which participated in Geneva don’t speak with the government but only with the opposition and encourage them to fight till victory and this has very negative implications,” Mr. Lavrov said. Russia has consistently backed the Assad regime, and has vetoed several Security Council resolutions on the conflict.
But former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who defected in August, told The Daily Telegraph that Assad has no interest in talks and feels that he can win the Syrian conflict through force.
"We told Bashar he needed to find a political solution to the crisis," he said. "We said, 'These are our people that we are killing.'
"We suggested that we work with Friends of Syria group, but he categorically refused to stop the operations or to negotiate." ...
"Bashar used to be scared of the international community – he was really worried that they would impose a no-fly zone over Syria," he said. "But then he tested the waters, and pushed and pushed and nothing happened. Now he can run air strikes and drop cluster bombs on his own population."
Mr. Hijab said that after the defense minister and the president's brother-in-law were killed in a July bombing, Assad hardened against the opposition.
"My brief was to lead a national reconciliation government," Mr Hijab said. "But in our first meeting Bashar made it clear that this was a cover. He called us his 'War Cabinet'."
"The new minister of defence sent out a communiqué telling all heads in the military that they should do 'whatever is necessary' to win," he said. "He gave them a carte blanche for the use of force."
IN PICTURES - Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
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Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have left a key town between Damascus and the battleground city of Aleppo, hindering the regime's ability to supply its troops. But the rebels' takeover of the town of Saraqeb also appears to have involved war crimes, which were recorded and published online.
Reuters reports that, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Saraqeb and its surroundings are now "completely outside the control of regime forces" after the regime pulled its troops from their last base in the region. The town, located at the crossroads of two major highways (see a map here), is a key strategic point between Aleppo, where rebels and government forces have been fighting since July, and Mr. Assad's stronghold of Damascus. The Observatory's director, Rami Abdelrahman, said that, as a result of losing Saraqeb, the military would be forced to send its supplies to Aleppo via smaller rural roads or via a dangerous road from the east.
But while the military's withdrawal from Saraqeb may be a strategic victory for the rebels, the fighting in the region also appears to have entailed war crimes committed by the opposition. A newly posted video on YouTube shows disturbing footage of what seems to be several rebel soldiers executing unarmed and wounded regime captives. Reuters reports that the executed men were soldiers captured during rebel attacks on three checkpoints around Saraqeb before the withdrawal.
The video footage showed a group of petrified men, some bleeding, lying on the ground as rebels walked around, kicking and stamping on their captives.
One of the captured men says: "I swear I didn't shoot anyone" to which a rebel responds: "Shut up you animal ... Gather them for me." Then the men are shot dead.
Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
Mr. Abdelrahman said the attacks resulted in 28 soldiers killed, including those executed in the video. He also said the killers in the video were members of the Al Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group.
Ann Harrison of Amnesty International told The New York Times that the footage "depicts a potential war crime in progress, and demonstrates an utter disregard for international humanitarian law by the armed group in question." A United Nations Human Rights Council spokesman made similar comments when shown the video, reports Reuters.
Whether or not the executioners in the video were members of Jabhat al-Nusra, jihadists are a growing presence in Syria and are proving attractive to aspiring revolutionaries in the country. The Monitor's Scott Peterson reported yesterday that while the US and other Western nations offer words of encouragement and small arms and communications equipment to Syrians fighting Assad, the jihadis offer weapons and manpower.
"We hoped the American government would help us in our revolution, because it fights for the democratic flag in the world – and toppled Saddam Hussein in the name of democracy," says a Syrian judge who runs a temporary court in a rebel-controlled district of Aleppo. He gave his name as Abu Ibrahim.
"But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did nothing. America failed us," says the secular Syrian, whose tailored suit and pressed shirt contrasted sharply with the motley collection of rebels who man the frontline a few streets away. "This whole thing about jihadists is an excuse not to support us."
"The jihadists in Aleppo are so few, and we take them as a burden. We don't need them, we need their weapons, their fighters," Abu Ibrahim says. "We are ashamed to tell them to get out. They came to fight with us and we must appreciate that. We can't stop them because the West has not come to help."
But the Guardian's Martin Chulov, reporting on foreign jihadist fighters working with native rebels, writes that some rebels think that the jihadists and the Syrian rebels' cooperative relationship may prove to be short-lived.
Bound by social customs that offer wayfarers shelter and hospitality, this rebel unit seemed to sense that trouble is brewing between them and the growing band of global jihadis. Many rebel groups the Guardian spoke to this week said a showdown was looming with the new arrivals.
"I give it six months," said one rebel officer at a checkpoint in the old market place in the central Aleppo suburb of Midan on Thursday. "Maybe a year," said another. "I was in Iraq fighting the Americans and I saw how they changed once they sensed they had power."
"It's so mixed up," said a third young rebel, a defector from Damascus. "And this is just how Bashar wants it."
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced yesterday that a key opposition group could "no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," as Washington attempts to reorganize Syria's various opposition groups into a more representative, more effective structure.
Voice of America reports that Ms. Clinton said that Syria needs a united opposition movement that includes all of the country's ethnic groups and better represents the rebel fighters on the ground opposing President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian National Council, which established its headquarters in Istanbul and is made up largely by exiles and expatriates, is no longer capable of providing the necessary leadership, she said while on an unrelated trip to the Balkans.
"We've made it clear that the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition," she said. "They can be part of a larger opposition. But that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard." ...
"This can not be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes but have, in many instances, not been in Syria for 20, 30, 40 years," said Clinton. "There has to be a representation of those who are on the front lines fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom."
Foreign Policy's blog The Cable reported Tuesday that such a reshuffle of the opposition by the US has been in the works for months, as both the SNC and the US have grown increasingly frustrated with the other – the former at the dearth of support offered by Washington, the latter at the SNC's inability to attract broader support from Syrians, including Alawite and Kurdish minorities. The US hopes that a new council will coalesce at a meeting of dozens of Syrian leaders next week in Doha, Qatar.
"We call it a proto-parliament. One could also think of it as a continental congress," a senior administration official told The Cable. ...
"We have to get [the internal opposition] to bless the new political leadership structure they're setting up and not only do we have to get them to bless the structure, but they have to get the names on it," the official said, noting that the exact structure of the council will be determined in Qatar, not before.
"We need to be clear: This is what the Americans support, and if you want to work with us you are going to work with this plan and you're going to do this now," the official said. "We aren't going to waste any more time. The situation is worsening. We need to do this now."
The call by Clinton to reorganize the Syrian opposition came the same day that China announced its proposal for ending the Syrian conflict through political means. Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported yesterday that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, during a visit from United Nations envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, detailed the four-point plan, which calls for creation of a transitional government of "broad representation." It also entails a cease-fire and international humanitarian aid.
But a US official told US News & World Reports that the Chinese plan does not signal any sort of shift in Beijing's support for peace negotiations. The official noted that the plan does not give Mr. Brahimi or any other parties the leverage needed to end the violence in Syria. China has already vetoed several UN Security Council resolutions that would pressure Mr. Assad's regime to end hostilities.
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While leaders across the Middle East were toppled or forced to make concessions amid mass protests in 2011, calls for democratic reform in Bahrain, a tiny island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, were quashed.
But the protests resumed earlier this year. Today, in the midst of heightening clashes between pro-democracy groups and the government, Bahrain temporarily banned all public demonstrations and rallies, the most extreme step taken since imposing martial law during the initial uprisings nearly a year and a half ago.
The move, which threatens legal action against any group seen backing rallies or demonstrations, places heightened pressure on Shiite Muslim groups leading the protests in the Sunni-Muslim-governed nation and could potentially bring about complications with the United States and other Western allies.
Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and the US has been reluctant to take a strong stance against its ally's actions in the past, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
Between 50 and 60 people have been killed since the first demonstrations in February 2011. The New York Times reports that as protesters continue to clash with the government with few results, the “standoff has deteriorated into ever more violent, sometimes deadly confrontations.”
In the last two months, two teenagers have been killed by the security services, and a 19-year-old police officer was killed in what the authorities said was an attack on one of their patrols. Last week, another police officer died of injuries he sustained in April in what the government called a “domestic terrorist attack,” a term frequently used for protests.
Dr. Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the foreign affairs chairman, said the government had little choice but to impose the ban. "Rallies that call for the downfall of the regime and attack the leadership are unconstitutional," Mr. Khalifa said, according to the Gulf Daily News.
"Enough is enough. Misuse of freedom of expression has been going on for a very long time and people are tired," another government official, Abdulrahman Bumajeed, told the newspaper.
However, human rights groups disagree, and Amnesty International called for an immediate lifting of the ban.
“Even in the event of sporadic or isolated violence, once an assembly is under way, the authorities cannot simply declare a blanket prohibition on all protests,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, told The New York Times.
Shiites, who make up nearly 70 percent of the Bahraini population, claim they face systemic discrimination from the government, led by members of the Sunni minority.
“The Sunni monarchy has made a series of concessions – including giving more powers to the elected parliament – but opposition groups say the reforms do little to loosen the ruling family's grip on power,” The Associated Press reports.
The government’s decision to ban demonstrations appears to target the most visible opposition and Shiite political group, Al Wefaq. The group has a rally planned for Friday, AP reports.
The interior minister, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, said rallies are “a major threat to the safety of the public” associated with “violence, rioting, and attacks on public and private property,” according to the Financial Times. Al Wefaq was specifically cited as a repeat violator.
Some say the country has faced little notable pressure to change because the Bahraini government has powerful allies like the US and Saudi Arabia.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, told the Monitor last month that “It's hard to see any real willingness to compromise [on the part of the government], and I think if they're really just expecting the opposition to compromise, it's not likely to be successful. I don't see any real strategy for dealing with the root causes of the unrest.”
“The opposition says the government is not interested in any meaningful reform, resorting instead to continuing repression via police and judicial action, including the jailing of leading rights activists. Attempts to launch a dialogue between the government and opposition have failed,” reports the Financial Times.
Earlier this month the United Nations Human Rights Council recommended Bahrain work to improve its record on freedom of expression. However, Brian Dooley writes in Foreign Policy that the government has taken its own approach to interpreting such guidance.
The Bahraini government seems to understand freedom of expression a bit like Lance Armstrong understands clean cycling. Like Lance, it prefers to play by its own rules and attack critics rather than accept normal standards. The Kingdom has invented a curious definition of free expression where criticizing members of the ruling family on Twitter can land you in court. The Bahraini regime's credibility is as damaged as that of world cycling – the government needs to implement drastic measures that go beyond public relations to restore international trust.
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Nearly a week of violence between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanmar that has killed more than 80 people and forced tens of thousands to flee could jeopardize the country’s fledgling democratic process, observers say.
Fighting between the two ethnic groups, Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, began last June, but the most recent violence started on Oct. 21, just days after Burmese President Thein Sein was reelected as the chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party.
The government reported 84 people dead and another 29 injured in the latest outbreak of violence, but human rights groups estimate that the death toll could be much higher, reports the Associated Press. More than 32,000 people were displaced by the conflict during the past week, with the Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence.
The head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Surin Pitsuwan, put pressure on the Myanmar government to resolve the situation quickly, warning that if the violence is not contained and resolved, it could lead to the radicalization of the Rohingyas. This could not only stress the fragile democracy in Myanmar, but threaten regional security as a whole, report Agence France-Presse and Voice of America.
"If the international community, including ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], are not able to relieve that pressure and pain [the Rohingya] could become radicalized and the entire region could be destabilized,” Mr. Pitsuwan said.
Though the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar (also called Burma) for decades, they are largely viewed domestically as land-hungry intruders who came illegally from neighboring Bangladesh.
The discrimination against the Rohingya is not only culturally ingrained in Myanmar, but institutionalized as well, according to a second Associated Press report:
Today, the Rohingya also face official discrimination, a policy encouraged by Myanmar's previous military regimes to enlist popular support among other groups. A 1984 law formally excluded them as one of the country's 135 ethnicities, meaning most are denied basic civil rights and are deprived of citizenship.
Neighboring Bangladesh, which also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens, says thousands of Rohingya refugees have sought to flee there by boat. Its policy, however, is to refuse them entry.
"We don't feel safe," a Muslim refugee, Zainabi, told the AP. The fish-seller fled her village with her two sons Thursday after attackers set her home on fire. "I wish the violence would stop, so we can live peacefully."
On Sunday, boats carried refugees toward cramped camps that already house thousands of Rohingyas who fled their homes after a previous wave of violence broke out over the summer. In June, three Rohingya men were accused of raping a Rakhine woman, sparking widespread rioting and leading nearly 80,000 people – mostly Muslim – to flee to nearby camps, reports The Christian Science Monitor.
“I fled my hometown, Pauktaw, on Friday because there is no security at all,” another refugee told AP. “My house was burned to ashes and I have no money left.”
Human Rights Watch released stark satellite pictures showing parts of the area of unrest. One photo was taken on Oct. 9 and shows “hundreds of closely packed houses” and “scores of houseboats along the northern shoreline,” reports the BBC. A second photo, taken on Oct. 25, shows the same 35-acre stretch of land almost entirely absent of houses.
“In one district, with a population of some 3,000, only burnt out poles from the houses and charred stubs of trees were to be seen,” reports the BBC.
President Thein Sein acknowledges the damage, according to his spokesman: "There have been incidents of whole villages and parts of the towns being burnt down in Rakhine state.”
But acknowledging the violence may not be enough. Some fear the country’s failure to address the root cause of violence could exacerbate the crisis.
"These latest incidents between Muslim Rohingyas and Buddhists demonstrate how urgent it is that the authorities intervene to protect everyone, and break the cycle of discrimination and violence," Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director, said in a statement.
Salai Elaisa Vahnie, the executive director of the Burmese American Community Institute, based in the US, notes in the Burmese and Southeast Asian newspaper The Irawaddy that Myanmar’s ethnic conflict is a formidable barrier to democracy.
The continued ethnic conflict in Burma reflects the nature of the political crisis in Burma – deeply rooted in and prolonged by the Burman nationalistic claim that effectively utilized the world’s most reclusive and successive military as a tool to accomplish its goals of ethnic cleansing, a policy which ravaged 60 million people with fear and poverty, killed thousands, and produced millions of refugees.
With the recent positive developments led by President Thein Sein, the international community must continue to recognize that the ethnic issue is at the heart of the country’s problem, and only when this issue has been addressed fundamentally, with constitutional and institutional arrangement, can a stable democratic state that respects human rights and embraces peaceful co-existence in diversity be realized. That is when Burma, in real sense and substance, can be considered a democratic state that is capable of positively contributing to regional and world peace, stability and economy.
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Syrian opposition activists report that jets fired on several spots throughout the country yesterday, signaling decisively the demise of a United Nations-brokered cease-fire, which was broken by skirmishes almost as soon as it began last week.
Both sides have repeatedly broken the agreement since it began, with the government placing the blame on "terrorists" and the rebels saying they couldn't trust President Bashar al-Assad to uphold the cease-fire while his troops continued to stage strikes throughout the country. Reuters writes:
Syrian authorities blame "terrorists" for breaking the truce and the opposition says a ceasefire is impossible while Assad moves tanks and uses artillery and jets against populated areas.
A statement by the Syrian military said "blatant" rebel violations proved they want to "fragment and destroy Syria".
"These terrorist groups must be confronted, their remnants chased and an iron fist used to exterminate them and save the homeland from their evil," the statement said.
Reuters adds that in Damascus, residents reported bombings in several suburbs, as well as two car bombs. There were also air strikes in the provinces of Deir al-Zour, Idlib, and Aleppo, the latter two of which are mostly under rebel control on the ground. Activists also reported fighting in the city of Aleppo.
The BBC reports that according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group, at least 110 people were killed yesterday alone, the third day of the cease-fire – 39 civilians, 34 rebel fighters, and 35 government security forces.
The Telegraph reports that death estimates for the second day of the cease-fire were somewhere between 91 and 114 – far lower than at the height of fighting, but still not a good sign for the chances of an extension of the break in fighting.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Syria who brokered the agreement, is expected to reopen talks at the UN Security Council, which backed the cease-fire. However, it is unclear what options he is left with after both the government and the rebels made it clear there would be no total compliance with this agreement.
Page Fortna, a Columbia University political science professor who has authored books on peacekeeping and cease-fires, wrote presciently in Foreign Policy in the early hours of the agreement that "a few days of relief" will be useful and that there was the possibility of an agreement helping to build "a sliver of trust momentum toward a permanent end," but the factors working against that are myriad in a temporary cease-fire.
All cease-fires are fragile, but temporary ones face a structural problem that makes them more fragile than most. As the end of the ceasefire period nears, there is an incentive to go on the offensive prior to the expiration date in order to gain an advantage over the other side. The other side is aware of this, however, and has an equal incentive to move against its adversaries, who, in turn, know this, and so have an incentive to attack even sooner, and so on and so forth. Not surprisingly, temporary ceasefires with a fixed expiration have a tendency to unravel.
This problem can be mitigated if both sides know that it would be clear who broke the ceasefire first – provided there are real costs to doing so.
But this is a do-it-yourself ceasefire – there will be no monitors to observe compliance, since the UN withdrew its observer mission over the summer. As a result, if fighting resumes, it will be difficult for outsiders to tell who started what. The military incentives to strike first, coupled with plausible deniability, thus make it less likely that the truce will hold through the holiday weekend.
Professor Fortna warns that the more times mediation attempts fail, the higher the hurdles to peace become each time around. The best way to make a cease-fire durable is to put peacekeepers on the ground to hold accountable whoever breaks the agreement first.
The UN has already set in motion another attempt at a monitoring mission; the last one was called off because the violence became too great for them to work.
Peacekeeping missions are notoriously dysfunctional – chronically underfunded and underequipped; they tend to arrive late and are plagued by force interoperability problems. And yet, they are surprisingly effective. Why is this so? Impartial observers make it more costly to violate the terms of a ceasefire (or a more comprehensive peace deal) by providing information to the international community about who is or is not living up to commitments. They also provide the same information to the local population. So to the extent that the parties are vying for both international and domestic legitimacy, their presence makes returning to war more costly and maintaining a ceasefire more likely.
IN PICTURES: Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
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Just hours after the Syrian cease-fire took hold, reports of its violation began to emerge. Two previous truces in the 20 month conflict did not last, but there is hope that this most recent cease-fire will provide a long-enough pause in the fighting to begin negotiations to end the conflict.
But both sides have attached caveats to their agreement to a cessation of violence – which has already killed nearly 35,000 people, according to the opposition, and displaced hundreds of thousands – eroding the likelihood that it can hold.
The Syrian Army warned that although it agreed to the cease-fire, it would respond to rebel attacks, while the rebel forces – who lack a unified leadership – gave varying answers about how much they would respect the agreement.
"Syrian armed forces will, however, reserve the right to reply to terrorists attacks, attempts of armed groups to reinforce or resupply, or attempts to infiltrate from neighboring countries," the Army said in a statement, according to BBC.
Col. Ahmed Hijazi, who identified himself as the chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, the rebels’ primary fighting force, said the rebels wouldn’t agree to a cease-fire because it was skeptical of the regime’s compliance. "The regime is used to treachery and scheming," Colonel Hijazi said, according to the BBC. "It is not to be trusted."
Meanwhile, rebel spokesman Brig. Methqal Husani al-Btaish al-Neemeh laid out conditions for a cessation to fighting: freedom for all prisoners, an end to air strikes, an end to the siege on the city of Homs, and a promise not to use the pause in fighting to re-arm. None of those conditions have been met.
One of the first breaks in the cease-fire seems to have happened near Aleppo, when Syrian government troops fired on anti-government activists attempting to stage a demonstration, The Washington Post reports. Emboldened by the government’s agreement to the cease-fire, Syrians staged similar protests across the country, reminiscent of the large Friday protests that sparked the uprising-turned-civil-war in the first place, but which have largely ceased amid the violence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were “fierce clashes” in northern Idlib province, reporting that fighters with rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra Front, one of the factions that said it would not observe a truce, attacked a Syrian Army checkpoint. The Army retaliated by shelling a nearby village.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s attack highlights one of the key challenges of any agreement in Syria: The Free Syrian Army, the main rebel fighting force, and the Syrian National Council, the political entity that represents many of the anti-regime groups, can only nominally control the many factions of the vast opposition movement. Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the many that the FSA has been unable to bring under its wing.
According to the Post, Mustafa al-Sheik, commander of the FSA’s military council, told Al Jazeera that if the Syrian Army stopped its shelling campaign, the rebels would obey the cease-fire. But later in the interview he seemed to acknowledge he couldn’t make that promise.
“For now, no one can speak for the armed opposition,” Mr. Sheik said. “It only listens to the Syrian will.”
Tony Karon speculates in Time that the true intent of the cease-fire isn’t a pause in fighting – that perhaps even United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who brokered the agreement, accepts that neither side intended to keep its promise – but to make clear who the parties for a final agreement might be.
The absence of any external monitoring personnel or established protocols for disengagement, much less any enforcement mechanism, is a clear sign that the Eid al-Adha truce plan is largely an effort to have the combatants make a symbolic commitment to the idea of a future political settlement. Having honed his reputation in decades of mediating such intractable conflicts as the civil wars Lebanon and Afghanistan, Brahimi is not so naive as to believe Syria’s can be ended any time soon; instead, he’s establishing lines of communication with all sides, making sure that the Syrian combatants and their foreign sponsors will know where to turn when one or the other is ready to sue for peace. That moment, though, will likely be some time in coming.
“Brahimi is not making the same mistake as his predecessor in the mediator’s role, Kofi Annan, in pretending he can solve the conflict any time soon,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “Instead, he’s establishing himself as a go-between, knocking on the doors of all the players inside Syria and outside, looking for the lowest common denominators that can change the dynamic without making optimistic claims. And the fact that he’s got the major actors saying ‘yes’ to a cease-fire even when we all know they mean ‘no’, is a sign that the Syrian parties remain concerned to maintain international backing.”
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The Sudanese government is blaming Israel for an explosion at a munitions plant in Khartoum early yesterday morning that Israeli media say was owned by Iran's Revolutionary Guard and made arms for Hamas.
The Sudan Tribune reports that Ahmad Bilal Osman, Sudan's media minister, said in a press conference yesterday that the government had proof that Israel was behind the explosion that destroyed the Yarmook military factory and killed two people around midnight.
The Sudanese minister said that their accusation against the Jewish state did not come out of thin air but was based on evidences and accounts of eye witnesses confirming that four planes that entered the country from the east had destroyed factory using high technology that jammed radars at Khartoum airport.
Osman dismissed the possibility that neighboring South Sudan or internal rebel groups were behind the attack, saying only Israel has the kind of high technology with which the attack was carried out.
The minister of media said in his press conference in Khartoum that 60 percent of Al-Yarmook ammunition factory was completely destroyed while 40 percent was partially destroyed. He revealed that the government had plans to relocate the factory to an area outside of the capital “but the Israelis knew this and decided to attack preemptively.”
Mr. Osman also said that the factory made small arms, and was not involved in assembly of advanced munitions, such as nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
Opposition sources in Sudan claim that the Yarmook factory was owned by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which has a history of involvement in Sudan in order to supply Hamas with arms, reports Haaretz.
In recent years, several reports published in the Arab media said that Iran's Revolutionary Guard built weapons manufacturing plants together with the Sudanese government.
However, their military cooperation does not end with the establishment of one military plant, and even senior Sudanese officials have not denied in the past that Iran has military factories on their land.
In fact, according to foreign reports, the arms factories that Iran built in Sudan were meant to arm Hamas. In the past, European media reported that Iran has sent men from the Republican Guard in order to train the Sudanese army.
Residents of Khartoum confirmed to Reuters that they had heard planes or missiles before the explosions that destroyed the factory, although reporters were unable to assess the damage to the factory itself because the Sudanese military blocked off the plant after the blast.
"I heard a sound like a plane or missile and then the sky was lit up and a huge explosion occurred," a resident who declined to be identified said. "There was a big fire and several subsequent explosions."
Two other residents said buildings near the plant had suffered minor damage.
Israeli officials declined to comment on the accusations. The Globe and Mail reports that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “There is nothing I can say about this subject,” and Israeli defense official Amos Gilad did not reply directly when asked on Israeli army radio about Israel's involvement in the attack, although he did call Sudan a "dangerous terrorist state" that is "supported by Iran," reports Agence France-Presse.
BBC News diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus writes that while Sudan has yet to offer any proof of Israel's involvement in the explosion, the claim "is by no means as outlandish as it might sound. For a bitter secret war has been going on for a number of years between Israel and Hamas, with Sudan apparently very much one of the battlegrounds."
US diplomatic cables have revealed alleged arms smuggling networks running through Sudan. In January and February of 2009 there were two mystery air attacks on convoys in the Sudanese desert. More recently, in April last year, there were reports that a senior Hamas figure, thought to be responsible for arranging arms supplies, was killed near Port Sudan.
The Sudanese government said that Israeli attack helicopters had destroyed the car in which two individuals were travelling. Again there is no confirmation of any of this and the Israelis are saying nothing.
Israel's Ynetnews notes that according to an Al Hayat report, the US embassy in Khartoum was closed yesterday, which some in Sudan say is an indication that the US had foreknowledge of the apparent attack on the Yarmook factory.
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United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said today that the government agreed to a cease-fire over the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, but Syrian officials almost immediately dismissed his statement, claiming that it was still considering the proposal.
There are high stakes for the potential cease-fire, which is currently the only proposal on the table for ending the 19-month conflict that has killed between 20,000 and 34,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. But there seems to be little optimism that the three- or four-day break in violence will bring about a substantial change.
A cease-fire agreement in April (described as “so fragile it could collapse with a single gunshot,” reported the Associated Press at the time) failed within days, with both rebels and the Army accusing one another of breaking the agreement.
"After the visit I made to Damascus, there is agreement from the Syrian government for a cease-fire during the Eid," Mr. Brahimi told a news conference at the Cairo-based Arab League. Rebel groups have also agreed to the truce “in principle," Reuters reports.
However, an hour after Brahimi's announcement, the Syrian government said it was still "studying" the proposal and would announce its decision tomorrow.
Rebel sources earlier told the news agency there was “little point if it could not be monitored and enforced,” according to a separate Reuters report, and Brahimi’s plan didn’t note the presence of international observers to monitor the cease-fire, according to the first report.
"If this humble initiative succeeds, we hope that we can build on it in order to discuss a longer and more effective cease-fire, and this has to be part of a comprehensive political process," Brahimi said.
Brahimi's announcement follows another bloody day in Syria. One of the few bakeries still operating in Aleppo was shelled yesterday, as about 100 people waited in line for bread, reports the Los Angeles Times. An estimated 20 people were killed and another 50 wounded in the blast in the Masaken Hanano neighborhood.
This was the third day in a row that the opposition-held neighborhood came under Army shelling. Abu al-Hasan, an activist from an Aleppo suburb, told The New York Times that residents in the area were too scared to leave their homes the past few days because of the intense shelling but “finally took the risk in order to buy food for Eid al-Adha,” the widely celebrated holiday that starts at the end of the week. The N.Y. Times notes how important bakeries have become in the three-month battle over Aleppo, Syria’s largest city:
…[B]akeries in rebel-held areas of Aleppo have emerged as vitally important resources that are clearly potential targets for Syrian forces seeking to starve the insurgents and their sympathizers into submission. Many of the bakeries are run by the insurgents, who have learned how to bake bread as part of the war effort.
Nearly a dozen bakeries have been targeted in Aleppo since fighting broke out there. Abu Firas, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Council for Aleppo and its suburbs, told the L.A. Times that the Assad regime has targeted bakeries because it wants “life to stop.”
"They are directly targeting the bakeries because many people gather there. Why are they shelling it? There aren't any Free Syrian Army fighters," Abu Firas said, referring to the main rebel fighting force, also known as the FSA.
The Syrian Army is relying more and more on air strikes as it has lost territory to rebel groups.
"Some of the bombs were so big they sucked in the air and everything crashes down, even four-story buildings. We used to have one or two rockets a day, now for the past 10 days it has become constant, we run from one shelter to another. They drop a few bombs and it's like a massacre," a 20-year-old refugee named Nabil told Reuters at a camp in the Syrian town of Atimah, which overlooks the Turkish border.
Bakeries aren’t the only targets. The BBC reports from the town of Marea near the Turkish border, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, that funeral processions, the weekly market, and other quotidian activities seem just as likely to be targeted by bombs.
Almost everyone we meet has lost someone to the enemy in the sky – here, a boy was shot dead from the air as he rode his motor bike – there, a group of teenage lads were blown to pieces by a bomb dropped from a MiG fighter as they loaded potatoes onto a truck.
There seems to be no object to the random bombing, other than to sow terror.
"It's revenge," says Yasser al-Haji, a businessman from Marea who moved abroad, then returned last year to join the revolution. "Marea was one of first cities to demonstrate.
"It's an economic war, too. Above all, they want to humiliate us for rising up against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad," he adds.
The bakery hit yesterday in Aleppo was housed in a large warehouse, according to Abu al-Hasan who spoke to the N.Y. Times. He says it’s actually unclear whether the bakery was the target.
“The problem is those kinds of missiles are not guided to their intended targets,” he said. “They’re not precise. They fall on random buildings.”
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there are now more than 358,000 Syrian refugees in the region, according to the L.A. Times. Last week alone more than 5,500 Syrians registered with UNHCR.
“The longer Syrians remain in exile, the more likely they are to seek help as their savings are depleted. Many refugees fled home with few resources because work has been disrupted for more than a year in some areas of Syria,” the LA Times reports.
With a potential cease-fire on the horizon, many are speculating about the future of Syria and President Bashar al-Assad. James Van de Velde, a lecturer at the Center for Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University writes in a commentary for The Jerusalem Post that no regime that follows Assad could be worse, “though it may not be much better in the near term.”
Mr. Van de Velde lays out five potential outcomes in Syria, none of which he expects will include Assad:
1. Assad flees and those Alawite members of the regime who remain pledge to join and cooperate with the new (Sunni-dominated) Free Syrian Army (FSA) government (the optimal, ideal, Western-driven future, although sadly there is no evidence the United States is pursuing such an outcome)….
2. Assad resigns at the direction of Russia, which creates a new Syrian government (a Russian-driven future). A UN-Russian plan creates a transitional government made up of FSA members and current regime elements, made possible and heavily influenced by Russia, which wishes to maintain a favored-nation status with the new Syrian government, which affords Russia special influence for pulling Assad. The United States is largely shut out of the new government, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition….
3. Assad flees at the direction of Iran (an Iran-driven future). A UN plan creates a transitional government made up of FSA members and current regime elements, but one that is heavily influenced behind the scenes in Syria by Iran, which wishes to keep Syria a client state and to continue to support Lebanese Hezbollah through Syria. The United States is largely shut out, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition.
4. Assad flees or is killed and leaves behind chaos (a “no one is driving” future). The FSA takes over the country; the Alawites are purged from the new government. There is a scramble among the FSA, al-Qaida in Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran to secure and control Syrian chemical and biological weapons and shape the new government. The outcome of such violence is uncertain. here is no sympathy for the United States, given the perception that the United States was indifferent to the opposition.
5. Assad flees or is killed and Alawite members of the SSRC, the Republican Guard and former regime elements – including thousands of private Alawite militia, retreat to the Latakia Province and create a defensive enclave, armed with Syrian regime weapons, perhaps including chemical and biological weapons (a sectarian-driven future) – perhaps the most likely future now....
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The emir of Qatar traveled to Gaza today, becoming the first head of state from any nation to visit the territory since the Islamist group Hamas took power five years ago. The emir is bringing significant offers of aid, furthering the small oil-rich nation's efforts to gain influence around the region.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's visit is pinned to the launch of an aid package earmarked for $254 million to fund reconstruction projects in Gaza – "symbolic" relief for a territory that has been economically and politically isolated by the West and Israel since Hamas took over in 2007. Reuters noted upon the emir's arrival that the original amount was increased to $400 million.
During the emir's four-hour visit, he will inaugurate several projects, among them a housing project, hospital, and renovation of Gaza's major north-south highway, Salaha-Din Road.
This is the "latest example of Qatar’s use of its oil and gas riches and ties to Islamist organizations to expand its regional influence," reports The Wall Street Journal. It has played an active role in the regional uprisings, leading regional efforts to isolate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – it was one of the first countries to close its embassy there – and overthrow former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party presides over the government in the West Bank, said he welcomed Qatar’s aid package, but stressed that he is the official, internationally recognized leader of the Palestinian people, according to The Associated Press.
The two Palestinian territories have been politically divided since the Hamas takeover, and reconciliation efforts have failed repeatedly. Some Palestinians expressed reservations about the emir’s visit and Qatar’s role, fearing that Mr. Thani's visit could deepen the split, The Wall Street Journal reports.
But many Palestinians have expressed uneasiness about Qatar's role, describing it as aggravating their domestic political feud by favoring Hamas over the secular Fatah Party, which runs the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Fatah representatives couldn't be reached on Monday, but the party's Facebook page contained a photograph of the emir with a red line through his face and a caption reading "You are unwelcome. Gaza is not for sale."
"It's political money. It's not innocent money," said Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza economic think tank Pal-Think for Strategic Studies. "Some people think that it will damage reconciliation. It will encourage Hamas and embolden Hamas'' not to compromise with Fatah.
But the United Arab Emirates' Gulf News writes in an editorial that the emir’s visit is an opportunity for mending ties.
It is important that Shaikh Hamad takes the opportunity to urge the Hamas leaders to seek the promised reconciliation with Fatah, so that the Palestinians can once again have a single and unified government with which they will be able to face the Israeli aggression more confidently.
It is also important that Fatah works to implement reconciliation. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has officially welcomed Shaikh Hamad’s visit to Gaza, but he should also take the opportunity to stress on restarting the reconciliation process so that Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza can once again re-unite under one government.
Earlier this year Thani attempted to facilitate a reconciliation, hosting talks between Mr. Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, reports Voice of America. Those talks did not bring about a resolution, but they are indicative of Qatar’s emerging role as a mediator, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last spring.
Qatar offers a powerful combination of money, hotel space, and connections – and is largely devoid of historical baggage.
The government, which aims to increase its international stature, spends millions footing hotel bills for rebels. After agreements are signed, Qatar sweetens the deal with reconstruction and development aid. The Qatari emir and the foreign minister personally invest in building relationships with the various parties.
The talks have had mixed results. But for Qatar, playing host has raised its international profile, helped forge allies in the West, and won praise almost universally. Mediation is proving to be a powerful – and fail-safe – way to boost its brand.
Another Monitor report notes that Qatar's pivot from neutrality to a more activist agenda could result in future challenges for the country.
But according to Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a scholar of Gulf politics at the London School of Economics, "They're losing that [neutral] reputation…. They are playing a very political game, and it could come back to haunt them."
Thani's visit to Gaza riled Israel, which has led the effort to isolate Gaza, imposing strict controls on what can enter the territory.
"We find it weird that the emir doesn't support all of the Palestinians but sides with Hamas over the Palestinian Authority [in the West Bank], which he has never visited," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Telegraph. "The emir has chosen his camp and it is not good."