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10/01/12 By Martin Armstrong and Lauren Williams

Armenian Christians in Aleppo are being dragged in to the increasingly sectarian civil war in the country, straining the leadership’s policy of neutrality. Government shelling and fighting between the forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and the opposition fighters has reached the predominantly Christian neighborhoods of Al-Midan, Suleimaniyah and Azizieh in the center of the city.

On Sept. 11, four Syrian Armenians were killed and 13 wounded when the bus they were traveling on from the airport came under fire.

Initial reports suggested rebels with the Free Syrian Army shot at the bus. Free Syrian Army leadership have denied responsibility and blame government forces for the attack. It remains unclear who was responsible, but the incident has served to highlight growing tensions in the community.

Persistent reports from Armenian Christian residents and media activists in Aleppo say some Christian groups are arming in the city. Several sources told The Daily Star the Armenian leadership turned down a government offer to arm the Armenian Christian community, but say some Armenians are accepting weapons from the regime to join pro-government militia groups known as the “popular committees.”

“They paid around 15,000 Syrian Pounds ($22) to every guy who wanted to join the popular committees,” explained activist George, who asked that his surname not be used, adding that around 400 men had taken up the offer.

“The regime tells them: These terrorists are backed by Turkey and this is your chance for revenge on Turkey.

“In this way they exploit the Christians’ loyalty, but I think it’s failed.”

The Armenian community in Aleppo, numbering some 80,000 and whose roots extend as far back as the first century B.C., has enjoyed broad cultural autonomy and benevolent ties with the Alawite regime – a relationship often cited as part of the government’s policy of courting the country’s ethnic and religious minorities to counter-balance the Sunni majority.

As they moved into central Aleppo, the majority Sunni Free Syrian Army issued repeated assurances that minorities will not be harmed and has called on Christians to join their fight against the government.

However, recent accounts from residents in the city say Islamist fighters are increasingly targeting Christians for their perceived support of the regime.

“They demanded the Armenian community give up those who were joining the shabbiha,” said one man, using a pseudonym of Firas.

On Sept. 14, the leaders of the three Armenian churches in Aleppo – Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Armenian Evangelical – issued a joint statement aimed at clarifying the position of the community:

“As the bloodshed continues unabated in our dear country ... what adds to our anguish are the unsuccessful attempts of presenting the Syrian Armenians as taking part in the armed battles of the current Syrian crisis or trying to actually drag them into such a conflict,” the statement said.

“We reiterate today, that the peaceful co-existence that the Syrian Armenians have cultivated throughout the decades continues ... and it will definitely stay against all kinds of violence and armed collisions.”

Speaking via telephone from Aleppo, spokesman for the Armenian Prelacy of Aleppo Jirayr Reyisian told The Daily Star churches as well as mosques, schools and residential buildings had been damaged by government shelling and in clashes between groups, insisting he did not believe Christians were being targeted.

He outlined the prelacy’s work in providing humanitarian aid and shelter to all victims of the fighting.

“Bombs don’t differentiate between sects,” he said.

On the question of arms in the community, he said “some armed groups are supporting the army and there are some Armenians among them. We have nothing to do with that.”

“We are not worried. We fear the situation for the whole country, for all the people in Syria. But we are not taking sides in this crisis.”

That sentiment was echoed by members of the Lebanese Armenian community, who adopted a policy of neutrality during the Lebanese Civil War.

Hagop Pakradounian, Tashnag party MP for the Metn, notes that as the conflict in Syria has escalated traditional positions of loyalty toward the Syrian state among the Armenian community have been compromised.

“Wherever Armenians have been they have supported the country, the state, but with the mutual killing in Syria now we have seen the abolition of the concept of the Syrian nation as it has descended into civil war,” says Pakradounian. “The idea of Syria has disappeared ... If someone attacks their [an Armenian] family, home or business then they are obliged to defend themselves, not for the government nor the opposition.”

Reverend Paul Haidostian, President of the Haigazian University in Beirut, estimates that approximately 25 percent of Syria’s Armenian population has been displaced by the conflict. While the majority has relocated to areas within Syria less affected by the conflict he says around 2,000 have fled to Armenia and a similar number to Lebanon. Since the majority stay with relatives in the Bourj Hammoud and Ashrafieh areas of Beirut and the town of Anjar in the Bekaa they do not register with the UNHCR or ICRC, making precise numbers difficult to verify.

However, Haidostian is quick to point out the official position of neutrality adopted by the Armenian community in Aleppo, but he fears that the continued escalation of conflict in Aleppo could result in the permanent displacement of the Armenian community:

“I don’t think that the Armenian community is any more vulnerable than other communities,” states Haidostian.

“What worries us in Aleppo, is what has worried us in Iraq and elsewhere, that some displacement trends may be irreversible if the conflict becomes more violent. Minorities often pay a higher price in terms of quantity and quality of existence.”

At the social club of the Armenian Tashnag party in Bourj Hammoud, Ogsen, 56, [an alias] struggled to contain his emotions. He fled to Beirut from Al-Midan just over a week ago, along with his mother and nephew. His brother, paralyzed from the waist down, remains in Syria’s second city.

“We couldn’t take him,” Ogsen says with a shake of his head, recalling his 14-hour journey to Beirut and his fear approaching checkpoints, unsure whether they were controlled by Assad forces or the opposition.

“When a checkpoint was controlled by the army, then I felt relaxed,” says Ogsen, “but if it was an opposition checkpoint I was terrified.”

“I love my country, I love my president but I had to leave,” Ogsen says almost apologetically. “Everyone was leaving. I saw a young girl die in front of my house, a soldier shot her through the head by a sniper. So many people ...,” he tails off, his dark curly hair drooping over his brow as he bows his head toward the floor.

“They call themselves the Army of Freedom but they are terrorists,” he says – the buzzword a constant in his referrals to the opposition to the Syrian president.

Amin, 26, from the Suleimaniyah district of Aleppo similarly uses the word “terrorist” when referring to the Syrian opposition.

Amin arrived in Beirut two months ago after the car factory in which he worked shut down and he was unable to find work.

“I left [Aleppo] because I wasn’t going to wait and die but now I am running out of money. I don’t know if I can stay but I don’t want to go back.”

“Maybe I would return to sell my house but then I would leave. I wouldn’t live there.”


Source: Daily Star

 
 
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Photo: AP
09/30/12

Egypt is currently considering a Qatari proposal for Arab military intervention in Syria to end the 18-month-long conflict there, Seif Abdel-Fattah, aide to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, told the Turkish Anadolu news agency on Sunday.

"Egypt is ready to take part in an Arab intervention in Syria as long as this would not be used as an excuse for international intervention," stated Abdel-Fattah, adding that details of the proposal still required further study.

According to the presidential aide, Egyptian and Qatari officials are expected to discuss the issue "soon," while Turkish assistance in the initiative might also be sought. Abdel-Fattah added that Morsi, during his current visit to Turkey, would try to drum up support for the Qatari initiative with his Turkish interlocutors.

Morsi, now on his first state visit to Ankara as Egypt's president, told members of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party on Sunday that Egypt "supports the people's demand for freedom from oppression and occupation in both Syria and Palestine," stressing Turkey's role as an "important element" in issues of concern to the region.

Addressing the Turkish nation in general, Morsi added: "The Arab world and the Arab Spring need you and your support to achieve sought-for stability."

Qatari officials first tabled their proposal for Arab intervention in Syria at last week's UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

"I think it's better for the Arab countries themselves to intervene due to their national, humanitarian, political and military obligations to do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria," Qatari leader Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani said at the UN.

As for the 'quartet' initiative to resolve the Syria crisis – which includes involving Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – Abdel-Fattah said it was still "too soon" to consider the initiative a failure, pointing out that quartet members states were still hoping to reach a minimum agreement between the warring parties.

He added, however, that "if this agreement means that the Syrian regime – which has killed its own people – remains in its current form, then this would be unacceptable."


Source: Ahram Online

 
 
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Photo: ITN
09/30/12 By Bill Neely

He sat in near darkness and total silence: a young man, with a hard face and a reputation to live up to.

In a city paralysed by fear, he is among the most feared. He is a Syrian army sniper and I'd come to meet him.

The soldier who'd taken me up the staircase and into the gloom of the house on the front line in Homs wouldn't give the sniper's name for fear that his family would be targeted and killed by rebels bent on revenge.

The sniper's nest was almost airless. He said nothing while I was there. He was watching and waiting for his target to appear.

Through a crack in the wall of his top floor firing point, his rifle and telescopic sight were aimed at the balcony of a house already pockmarked with bullet and shell holes.

He'd seen a rebel gunman appear there and quickly pull back an hour earlier. He scarcely registered my presence, so intent was he on the kill. I felt almost queasy watching him; hoping his intended victim would stay hidden.

I left before he fired, but the crack of single shots outside was proof that on the front line of one of the deadliest cities in Syria, this is still a war of snipers; men with the blood of thousands on their hands, the most feared gunmen in a long and deadlocked war.

Out into the blinding light and off, across a back street, past piles of stinking rubbish, three Syrian soldiers ahead, gesturing at me to sprint across the next junction. Head down, I raced for my life to avoid the single shot from the other side. Both regime and rebels use the sniper to lethal effect.

Up again into the darkness of another house, this time to see two snipers, back to back, their gun muzzles inched through small holes in the wall.

Their war is fought across short distances. One of them said his target was a rebel position just 50 yards away. Behind him, the young sniper with the blackened face was aiming for two hundred yards.

Theirs is also a war of fixed positions. Since May, the front line in this district of Homs, Babr Spa, or Lion's Door, has moved just five hundred yards. One hundred yards a month; at the cost of hundreds of lives. The day before, five Syrian soldiers were killed there.

The war in Homs is deadlocked. In spite of the devastating shelling of the nearby district of Babr Amr earlier this year and President Assad's appearance in one of its main squares to confirm its recapture, fierce gun battles are still being fought there.

Syrian troops wouldn't let me get closer. But I could hear everything from a distance; the machine guns and AK47's were firing almost incessantly.

Twice this year,I have crossed the front line to talk to groups of rebels in Homs. They were Syrian almost to a man. That's not how the regime's troops see their enemy.

"Most of them have long beards," one soldier told me. "They're jihadis and foreigners, Turks, Chechens, Saudis."

Another said there were European Muslims among the rebels, "British, Germans, French." The regime routinely refers to them as terrorists. I was asked regularly why Britain was supporting terrorists backed by Saudi Arabia, who wanted to overthrow a secular regime.

It's almost a shock to see civilians in parts of Homs. They don't flinch when shells or shots ring out. I bumped into Saleh Shattour on a sidestreet. He wasn't an old man but he looked old, his face, like his mouth,collapsed in sadness. He said life was very hard now; he couldn't count the number of neighbours who had been killed. When I asked him how he felt in his heart to see his neighbourhood like this he struggled, then broke down. "I have no heart, no heart left. How will this end? God alone knows," he sighed.

The war in Homs is macabre. On one house, a half sized plastic skeleton had been left hanging from a nail. On what I was told was the deadliest junction in the area - you could tell by the speed at which the soldiers sprint across it - a mannequin in a shocking pink dress had been positioned in the middle, as if to mock the rebel snipers on the other side.

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Photo: ITN
But it was the next position on the front line that shocked me. It's one thing to hear about the widespread use of torture in this dirty war, especially by a regime bent on crushing the revolution by whatever means necessary. It's quite another to see the instruments of torture in front of you.

Through holes in walls and houses, I reached a building the Syrian troops said they'd taken from rebels two weeks earlier. What they claimed they'd found there still lay scattered around. It wasn't the bags with Saudi Arabian marking that first caught the eye, it was the meat hooks.

A couple of the soldiers lifted up a makeshift wooden scaffold, took one of the meat hooks and attached it to the underside.They demonstrated how it would work. The prisoner would stand on a stool, be hooked onto the metal - I shuddered to think how - then the stool would be kicked away and he would be beaten as he was hanged.

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Photo: ITN
There were bloodied knives lying around, and other implements that didn't bear too much thinking about. The soldiers claimed this was a rebel torture centre, but they seemed to know how everything worked. At the far end of the building was deep well into which, the men said, the bodies of the dead were tossed.

No side appears to be winning in Homs, the focus of long and bloody fighting. The governor of the city, Ahmad Moneir Mohammed, said he was confident the war would all be over in a month. I suggested that after 18 months of stalemate, that was perhaps optimistic. He wasn't having it. "Eighty per cent of Syria's problem will be solved when Homs is retaken," he said.

But the explosions that detonated for an hour outside the windows of his office gave the lie to any idea that this war is winding down.

It is not abating in Damascus, the capital, either. Each time I return to the capital the conflict has bitten deeper. When I arrived this time, plumes of black smoke rose from the southern suburbs, forming a huge arch over a city that echoed to the sound of explosions from the army's bombardment of rebel-held areas.

Once, residents of Damascus believed the fighting would never come their way. Now, there is no-one here who cannot see, and hear, the shelling all around them.

Clusters of tanks sit on main roads. Checkpoints everywhere grind the traffic to a halt. It's a gridlocked city trapped in a deadlocked war.

Two months ago the rebels thought they were on a roll. They had just killed the defence and interior Ministers, and President Assad's brother in law, in a daring bomb attack on a high security building in Damascus. They followed it with a ground assault on both Damascus and Aleppo. Rebels in Aleppo attacked from three sides and took huge swathes of the city, much to their surprise, within two days.

In the capital they quickly dominated half a dozen suburbs; poor, Sunni districts where the revolutionary spirit burns and the regime is loathed. Syria's army was suddenly on the back foot, the regime reeling.

But with the help of hundreds of artillery pieces, mortars and warplanes, President Assad's men have regained the initiative. Suburbs have been effectively sealed, the perimeter saturated with troops. Checkpoints made movement in or out almost impossible.

The resulting destruction I have seen in some areas is extraordinary. Houses bulldozed, blocks of flats collapsed, the splatters of shells marking every building and every road. Neighbourhoods have been destroyed.

In the last few days,the Syrian army and its brutal militias have been, in the words of the state media, "cleansing the areas of terrorists." No-one knows exactly what this entails, but the reports from activists and human rights groups suggest that dozens of men, and in many cases women and children, are being murdered in a drive to inflict collective punishment on any district that has dared to welcome revolutionaries.

The tactic is working.

Rebels withdrew from the suburbs around Hajar Al Aswad, conceding that they'd run out of ammunition and local support. Clearly, many sympathisers who would dearly love to get rid of Assad also fear the terrible revenge of the regime for harbouring rebels in their areas.

A few days ago President Assad appeared on television, smiling broadly with Iran's foreign minister,perhaps content that his men have recaptured much of his capital.

He was probably not smiling just before seven o'clock on Wednesday morning when a loud explosion rattled the windows of homes half a mile away, around the presidential palace. Six or seven minutes later there was another huge blast. The rebels were striking back. They had bombed the headquarters of the army, supposedly one of the regime's most secure buildings. The method as well as the target was significant. The first bomb was detonated outside the side entrance by a suicide bomber in a white van; the second exploded inside the building and after it at least half a dozen heavily armed gunmen began an attack that lasted for more than three hours. The regime says only four guards were killed. The rebels claim dozens died but they often inflate the death toll from their attacks. But the tactics were straight from Iraq,straight from the manual of Al Qaeda.

Syria's Arab Spring revolution is now entering its second winter. It is a very long way from the flag waving, pro-democracy protests of its birth. It is a fully fledged war now, one that has claimed, by one estimate, more than 30,000 lives. August was the deadliest month so far, with the London based group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights putting the death toll at 5,400. That's around one hundred and eighty a day. Last week, the toll has exceeded that nearly every day. The sudden spike in casualties has been blamed on the regime's fightback in Aleppo and Damascus, especially its use of MiG warplanes.

The Assad regime has been accused by Amnesty International and many foreign governments of using the warplanes to bomb residential areas indiscriminately. The pictures emerging from Syrian State television illustrate an Aleppo more like Berlin at the end of the Second World War than the business capital and sophisticated city of six months ago. Reports from the rebel side suggest they are hopelessly outgunned, starved of ammunition and incapable of holding the ground they took with such optimism eight weeks ago.

After the bombing of the army headquarters in Damascus my cameraman colleague,Tony Hemmings, producer Paul Tyson and I had a taste of what many Syrians face.

The nerves of the soldiers were clearly frayed but our presence at the scene tipped many of them over into rage. We were surrounded by a mob of soldiers, secret police, intelligence officials and militiamen in civilian clothing. They wanted to take our camera and the footage we had shot. They didn't want the open humiliation of their charred and smoking command centre shown to the world. Brilliant, quick thinking by my cameraman saw him extract the memory card from the camera and hide it in his underpants.

Secret policemen saw his move, searched his trouser pockets but failed to find the card. We were roughed up, marched off, hands pinned behind us, the camera smashed to pieces as we were taken away. The mob shouted that we were British. A handgun was waved. It was an uncomfortable few minutes. But our ordeal ended when more senior army officers intervened and saw the official visas in our passports.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have not been as lucky. They have been taken away and never seen again. Their families have no idea if they're dead or in one of the hundreds of detention centres in Syria.

And so Syria's war grinds on relentlessly, chewing up its young, stoking sectarian hatreds, multiplying atrocities week by week, spiralling into ever more horrific mayhem.

In Homs, the young, hard faced men sit silently on the top floors of shattered buildings and wait, their fingers lightly on the triggers; time on their hands,death on their minds, victory in their sights.

Theirs is a war of single shots. But it has gone far beyond that now. Up into the cockpits of Russian-made fighter jets, where pilots try to crush the revolution from 10,000 feet. Down to the bowels of feared intelligence buildings where tens of thousands of prisoners are beaten and tortured with the metal bars I saw in Homs. Into the stony ground of Syria, where 30,000 dead now lie. And, finally, to the very doorstep of President Bashar Al-Assad who once declared his country immune from the revolution; a man who must sit now and wonder, as his windows rattle, where his future lies.


Source: Daily Telegraph

 
 
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Photo: Reuters/Shaam News Network/Handout
09/30/12 By Mariam Karoumy

Large parts of Aleppo's covered market, the largest of its kind in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site that traces its history back to the 14th century, have been reduced to ashes as government forces and rebels fight for control of the city.

The historic market was largely undamaged by earlier fighting in Syria's largest city, but in the early hours of Saturday some of its shops caught fire during clashes in circumstances that remain unclear.

The flames spread rapidly, partly because many of the small retail units tucked beneath the market's ancient arches were full of fabric, and have now ravaged at least 1,500 shops and are still burning, activists said.

"It is not only the souk that is burning, my heart is burning as well," said an anti-government activist called Hashem who learnt the craft of jewellery-making in the souk before the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad erupted last year.

The souk's devastation is a reminder of how the 18-month-old conflict - in which both sides are struggling to gain the upper hand and activists estimate 30,000 people have been killed - is destroying Syria's rich cultural and historical legacy as well as the lives of its 22.5 million people.

Aleppo's old city is one of several places that UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, has designated world heritage sites and which are now at risk.

UNESCO believes that five of Syria's six world heritage sites have already been damaged. Other heritage sites include the ancient desert city of Palmyra, the Crac des Chevaliers crusader fortress and parts of old Damascus.

It was not immediately clear how the fire in the market started but activists accused government forces of using incendiary bullets to attack rebels who had taken up positions there after launching a new offensive in the city on Thursday.

"The fighters tried to put out the fire but failed to do so because snipers were shooting at them," another activist said.

"The fire is still raging and at least 1,500 shops have now been burnt down."

The market - Souk al-Madina - comprises a network of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades and was once a major tourist attraction and a busy cosmopolitan trading hub on the ancient Silk Road from China.

Its many narrow alleys have a combined length of 13 km (8 miles) making it the largest covered market in the world and it sells everything from soap to jewellery to clothing.

ANGER TOWARDS THE REBELS

Activists said they were working to try to document the scale of the damage, which it is estimated it will cost millions of dollars to repair.

Some anti-government activists have privately expressed anger towards their own fighters for taking up positions in the old city. "We all know that this is a criminal regime and it will do anything," said one activist who declined to be named. "That is why the fighters had no business being in the souk. Why did they go there?"

But other activists defended the rebels' behaviour.

"The fire spread as far as the Umayyad Mosque, the fighters who managed to stop it from spreading even further," an activist from the city called Yasser said.

"For all those asking why the fighters are in the Old City, we say we have only entered to liberate it"

Rebels said they were involved in heavy clashes in Aleppo on Sunday, saying they had attacked the Neirab military air base. They also reported fighting in Arkoub, east of the city.

The failure of either side to break the military deadlock is reflected diplomatically, with foreign powers divided over how to act. Western states and Gulf Arab countries back the opposition but most seem reluctant to interfere, while Russia, China and Iran back Assad.

Speaking to a conference of the ruling AK party in Turkey, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi - who has said he opposes military intervention in Syria - said he favoured a diplomatic solution facilitated by the Arab League, the United Nations and individual countries across the world.

He said the Syrian people were being "butchered and killed day and night" and that he fully backed their struggle to overthrow Assad.

"We will not be calm, we will not settle down until this bloodshed stops and until the will of the Syrian people to choose their own leader is realised and until this current oppressive leadership disappears," he said.

"This oppressive regime is spilling the people's blood and the Syrian people must gain full liberty."

Activists reported fresh clashes in Damascus suburbs on Sunday and at least eight bodies were reported to have been found in the northern suburb of Barzeh. Clashes were also reported to have erupted in some parts of Homs city.

Syrian state television said a suicide bomber had killed at least four people in the northern city of Qamishli. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least eight members of the security forces had been killed in the explosion which it said targeted a police station.


Source: Reuters

 
 
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Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP-Getty Images
09/29/12By Mike Giglio

As fighting flared in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo on Friday, the country’s rebels billed their latest push there as a decisive one, painting it as the “zero hour” for wresting control of the metropolis away from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

But the top rebel commander in Aleppo, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, told The Daily Beast that the battle for Aleppo will continue to drag on as a long and difficult fight—a view in line with analysts who have predicted that a war of attrition is at hand.

“We’re gaining new ground and we’re hurting the regime,” Okeidi said. “But we don’t have the heavy weapons that the regime has, or the air power or tanks. So what we’re doing is fighting them slowly, and we’re waging a guerrilla war. It’s going to take time."

“We’re not trying to gain control of large areas,” he added. “We’re trying to do as much damage to the regime as we can.”

Experts now say that neither side has the strength to deliver a game-changing blow in the battle for Aleppo. Instead, Assad’s army and the opposition forces seem determined to gradually wear each other down—and it’s increasingly likely that this tactic will give the rebels the upper hand over time.

“I don’t think anyone is in a position to win a decisive victory over the other side,” says Firas Abi Ali, the deputy head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, a risk-consultancy firm in London. “This is a war of attrition, and it’s in the rebels’ interest to fight this kind of war—to slowly wear down government positions, disrupt their forces, and eventually break them. But the rebels don’t have the heavy weapons to break the government forces right now.”

The country’s commercial center, Aleppo has become the focal point of the uprising against Assad, which is now grinding through its 18th month. The city had largely escaped the conflict plaguing rebel nerve centers like Homs, until a surprise rebel push took hold in mid-July. The Syrian regime, which seemed shaken by the unexpected assault, has carried out a brutal campaign to retain its control of the city, battering rebel positions and civilian areas with heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and fighter jets. The rebels, for their part, have refused to be dislodged.

The breakdown of control in Aleppo is usually distilled like this: the rebels own the eastern part of the city, while the government has the west. But dominion can be a fluid thing. “Control in Aleppo is a very slippery concept,” says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Most of the territory is disputed—one side or the other is fighting over it, and neither side fully controls it. The regime can go in and take action with its ground forces, or the rebels can move in and launch offensives. There aren’t many areas that are totally secured.”

The result is a constantly shifting patchwork in the battle for control. “It’s essentially neighborhood by neighborhood, and it really depends on the fighting of the day,” says Shashank Joshi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Britain.

From the start of their Aleppo campaign, Syria’s rebels have called loudly and frequently for international help in the form of heavy arms—in particular, the kind of antitank and antiaircraft firepower that could help decisively turn the tide against the regime’s overpowering advantage there. The lack of these weapons continues to be one of the great weaknesses of the rebel campaign, analysts say. Without adequate firepower, the rebels are unable to make lasting incursions into areas where the regime is hunkered down. Yet the regime also seems unable to muster the strength to wrest Aleppo back under its control, and it must rely on shelling the city from the outskirts and the skies. “The government doesn’t have enough forces to take and hold Aleppo, and the rebels don’t have enough material to take on government forces in the places where they’re fortified,” says Ali, the analyst at Exclusive Analysis. “The government can destroy Aleppo, but they can’t win it.”

Many rebels seem to have a keen understanding of the stalemate. Their intimations that a decisive phase of the battle is underway—they have made similar predictions before—should be viewed as part of the kind of public-relations battle seen in many wars, analysts say. Joshi notes that, as in Libya and elsewhere, “chronically, almost pathologically overly optimistic claims have been the hallmark” of the rebel campaign in Aleppo.

“Momentum is everything. They feel that if they can persuade people that momentum is on their side and the tide is turning, that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like rebel PR,” Joshi says. “What we’re seeing now is more intense fighting, but that doesn’t mean there is any greater prospect of the rebels holding any of the ground they take.”

While a big swing in momentum toward the rebels’ side may not be imminent, their campaign to undermine the regime in more deliberate ways could end up paying big dividends down the line. Ali says the rebels have become increasingly effective at disrupting the supply routes that fuel regime forces in Aleppo—challenging key transit points, sabotaging roads with improvised explosive devices—while working to strengthen their own supply chains. “They are slowly pushing government forces to a point where they are unable to resupply by land, and to hold a city like Aleppo using just the airport is simply not enough,” he says.

“Actually what they’re doing now is throwing bread from airplanes,” claims Okeidi, the head of Aleppo’s military council. “Half the bread goes to them, and the other half goes to us.”

One key area to watch in the battle is the airport, Ali notes, pointing out that rebels have been pushing to capture it, and in the process have been able to disrupt things even there.

No matter how the fight for Aleppo plays out, analysts and rebels alike expect the Assad regime to fight to hang onto its power at all costs—meaning the bloodshed could continue for months to come. “Everyone knows this is going to be a long battle,” says a rebel operating in Aleppo who goes by the nickname Abu Laise. “We’re not going to be finished fighting any time soon.”


Source: Daily Beast

 
 
09/29/12 By Karin Laub

A fire sparked by battles between Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops and rebel fighters tore through Aleppo's centuries-old covered market Saturday, burning wooden doors and scorching stone stalls and vaulted passageways. The souk is one of a half-dozen renowned cultural sites in the country that have become collateral damage in the civil war.

The damage to one of the best-preserved old souks in the Middle East was the worst yet to a UNESCO World Heritage site in Syria. Across the country, looters have broken into a historic castle, stolen artifacts from museums and damaged ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra, antiquities officials and Syrian experts say.

The Aleppo market, a major tourist attraction with its narrow stone alleys and stores selling perfume, fabrics and spices, had been the site of occasional gun battles and shelling for weeks. But amateur video posted Saturday showed wall-to-wall flames engulfing wooden doors as burning debris fell away from the storefronts. Activists said hundreds of shops were affected.

"It's a big loss and a tragedy that the old city has now been affected," Kishore Rao, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, told The Associated Press by telephone from Paris.

Most of the other sites recognized as heritage sites by UNESCO, the global cultural agency, are also believed to have suffered damage during the 18-month battle to oust Assad, Rao said. The ancient center of Aleppo — Syria's largest city — has been hit the hardest, he said.

"It is a very difficult and tragic situation there," said Ahmad al-Halabi, a local activist speaking by phone from the area. He said rebels and civilians were trying to control the blaze, but only had a few fire extinguishers.

The fire in the souk erupted late Friday and was still burning Saturday, following fierce fighting between regime troops and rebels trying to drive pro-Assad fighters out of the city of 3 million.

On Thursday, rebels launched what they said would be a "decisive battle" for the city, followed by days of heavy fighting, including shelling and street combat. Amateur video has shown rebels taking cover behind walls and makeshift barriers, attacking regime forces with grenades and assault rifles. Activists reported heavy shelling by pro-Assad troops.

Once considered a bastion of support for Assad, Aleppo has become the focus of the insurgency for the last two months, with rebels taking about half the city. Aleppo would be a major strategic prize: A rebel victory would give Syria's opposition a major stronghold near the Turrkish border, while a regime victory would give Assad some breathing space.

It's not clear what set off the fire in the old market, made of hundreds of stone stalls that line covered alleys with vaulted ceilings. Amateur footage posted online by activists showed flames engulfing the shops and rebels aiming a water hose at the fire. The shops' wooden doors, along with the clothes, fabrics and inside some of the businesses, helped fuel the blaze, activists said.

The market stalls lie beneath the city's towering 13th century citadel, where activists say regime troops and snipers have taken up positions.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 30,000 people, according to activists. It has also wreaked widespread destruction, particularly in recent weeks as regime forces stepped up air strikes and shelling attacks, and rebels fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. Entire neighborhoods in Syria's three largest cities — Aleppo, the capital Damascus and Homs — have been devastated.

A majority of Syria's 23 million people live in a thin western sliver of the country; in this territory, rebels have established positions in rural areas, while Assad's forces are trying to hold on to the cities.

Aleppo's old center was added in 1986 to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. Of the medieval souks in the Middle East, Aleppo's was among the best-preserved, offering visitors a range of architectural styles covering hundreds of years, said Rodrigo Martin, a Brussels expert on Syrian historical sites.

"It was a unique example of medieval commercial architecture," said Martin, a spokesman for a group of experts who monitor damage to Syrian historical sites and cooperate with the U.N. cultural agency.

Some of the other prized cultural attractions have also suffered damage.

Earlier this year, looters broke into Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world's best-preserved Crusader castles, a Syrian antiquities official said at the time. Shelling also damaged the site, said Martin, citing amateur video.

The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra were damaged by fighting, Martin said, according to reports he received from Syria. He said he had seen video that showed sculptures being taken away from Palmyra in a small truck.

The other World Heritage sites on UNESCO's list are the old center of Damascus, one of the most ancient cities in the Middle East; the ancient city of Bosra, once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia; and a group of some 40 villages of north-western Syria that date from the first to seventh centuries.

Rao, the World Heritage chief, said the U.N. agency has asked Syria's neighbors to be on the alert for attempts to smuggle looted objects out of the country. No incidents had been reported so far.

Lesser sites have also been affected in Syria. Regime shelling of neighborhoods where the opposition is holed up has smashed historic mosques, churches and souks in the central Homs province and elsewhere in the country. Looters have stolen artifacts from museums.

Martin said the Syrian regime bears the bulk of the responsibility for the destruction because it signed international agreements to protect cultural sites.

For at least two millennia, cultural sites have been threatened or destroyed by wars throughout the Mideast, Martin said.

"History continues, whatever we do," Martin said. "Mankind can just be really destructive."


Source: AP
 
 
09/29/12 By Bassem Mroue

A woman loses her children, her husband and both legs. A penniless family is forced to flee from Syria back to Iraq. Camps are overflowing with people and with bitterness, and refugees are living in limbo without passports.

As war rages in Syria, the stream of refugees into other countries shows no sign of stopping. More than 100,000 people fled Syria in August alone — about 40 percent of all who had left since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began last March. And the United Nations refugee agency said Thursday that the number of people escaping Syria could reach 700,000 by the end of the year.

Here, AP reporters tell the stories of refugees and their families from four countries.
___

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Hasna Um Abdou lost her children, her husband and both legs to a mortar.

Now the veiled 38-year-old woman lies in a hospital bed in this northern Lebanese city, with the Quran, the Muslim holy book, on her table. She talks slowly, with pauses, and is visibly trying to hold back the tears. Abdul-Aziz, 3, and Talin, 13 months, were her only children.

"Every time I remember, I feel the pain," she says.

Um Abdou is one of thousands of Syrians who have been wounded in the uprising against Assad and its aftermath. Hundreds of the wounded have been taken for treatment in neighboring countries, mostly to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. More than 74,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon, itself a small country of just 4 million people that is struggling with instability.

Um Abdou and her family fled their village in Homs province in March amid intense shelling, to a second village and then a third. Two days later, it seemed quiet, and they decided to return home. The family rode back on March 31 on a motorcycle, with Um Abdou's daughter asleep in her arms and her son sitting in front of his father.

Then her world fell apart.

Um Abdou keeps hearing the sound not of the mortar, but of the terror.

"I cannot forget the noise of the hearts beating quickly as people gathered around us," she says.

Her daughter died immediately from a shrapnel wound in the head. Her son bled profusely and died minutes later, even as she looked at him. She did not want her husband to know the children were dead, so she said nothing and started to pray.

But her husband was severely injured too -- the shrapnel had blown out his intestines. And Um Abdou looked down to find her own legs hanging slightly from her body.

"The moment I saw myself, I knew that my legs were going to be amputated," she says.

She and her husband were rushed to makeshift hospitals in the Syrian border towns of Qusair and Jousi. With the help of Syrian rebels, she was carried on a stretcher all the way across the border to Lebanon, amid 12 hours of shelling and shooting. Her husband died en route.

Um Abdou's children are now buried in a plot of land in Syria owned by the state. Her husband was buried in the cemetery in Jousi because it was too dangerous to take him back to his hometown.

"Even the dead have no right to be buried," she says.

Um Abdou has undergone four operations in Lebanon, including the two amputations. Her parents and sisters are looking after her, and she displays the green, red, white and black flag of the Syrian revolution in her room.

She knows the pain will be unbearable the day she goes back to Syria and visits the place where her family is buried. In the meantime, she has written a poem in the hospital.

"I lost my children and husband, but my soul is still strong," it reads. "I will keep saying until my last breath, long live freedom."
__

BAGHDAD — The gang of masked gunmen broke into the small apartment near Damascus where Waleed Mohammed Abdul-Wahid and his family had lived for nearly three years. "Are you Sunni or Shiite?" they shouted, as his three children began to cry.

"We are Sunnis!" answered his wife, Wasan Malouki Khalaf.

"Do you know any Shiites who are cooperating with the Syrian government?" the gunmen demanded.

"We do not know any such people," she said. "We are from Baghdad."

The gunmen left. The brief but terrifying invasion sealed the decision Abdul-Wahid had been mulling for weeks: to leave behind an increasingly violent life in Syria and return to Iraq.

More than 2.2 million people fled Iraq during the war and sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and almost half of them ended up in neighboring Syria. Now Syria is plagued with the same sectarian conflict, and many of the same people are on the run a second time. At least 22,000 Iraqi refugees are thought to have left Syria to return to Iraq, despite the dangers they thought they had left behind.

Abdul-Wahid had worked as a deliveryman back in Baghdad, bringing cylinders of cooking gas to both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. Militants kidnapped him outside his Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Azimiyah in 2009 and tortured him for four days. His arms still show the burn scars.

The family packed up and fled to Syria, where they built a new life in a mostly Shiite suburb. The children settled down in school, and the United Nations gave them food and an income. Abdul-Wahid, 49, found a job in construction and started taking medication for the severe depression he had suffered after the kidnapping.

Then the uprising against Assad began, and violence returned to Abdul-Wahid's life. Mortars bombarded their neighborhood, and snipers shot at people in the streets. The last straw was the gunmen storming their home in late July, and asking his daughter if she was Sunni or Shiite.

"She did not reply, because she does not know the meaning of such a question," Abdul-Wahid says.

The bus fare from Damascus to Baghdad cost about $110 for each person. Abdul-Wahid had to ask his brother for money, he says, his eyes filling up with tears of sadness and shame. His family is living in a room in his brother's house.

"I have lost everything now," he says. "I am jobless and penniless...I am even afraid of going outside my brother's house. Now, I have to start from zero."

He plans to go back to Syria when — or if — the violence ebbs. Wasan, his wife, says the shortages of electricity and water in Iraq are unbearable, as is the lack of good medical care, security and jobs.

But Abdul-Wahid is doubtful the violence will end any time soon, or Assad will be ousted from power.

"I think that the armed struggle in Syria will continue for a long time," he says. "He is clinging to power...I think that he will survive."
___

ZAATARI, Jordan — At this Syrian refugee camp opened in the desert just two months ago, anger sizzles in the scorching sun.

It is anger at being crowded with about 32,000 other people onto a parched, treeless strip of land, where the day is too hot and the night is too cold. But it is also a murderous anger among the Sunni Muslims here against the Shiites back home, whom they blame for the war. Many Sunnis oppose Assad's ruling regime, which is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"When I return, I will kill any Shiite I see with my dagger. I will chop him to pieces," shouts Basel Baradan, a bitter 18-year-old farmer who fled the southern town of Daraa with his family in July. He is weeping.

Jordan now hosts an estimated 200,000 Syrians, including those not registered with the U.N. -- the largest number of refugees taken in by any neighboring country. After months of delay, Jordan finally opened its first official refugee camp in July at Zaatari, near the border with Syria.

Already, about 30,000 refugees live at the camp, and they keep coming. This poor desert nation says it can no longer afford to welcome Syrian refugees into its towns and houses.

So they live apart at Zaatari, and they grow angrier. Late Monday, dozens of furious refugees hurled stones and injured about 26 Jordanian policemen, demanding better camp conditions or their return home.

Baradan's father Ghassan, 50, also a farmer, says that with the ubiquitous dust, snakes, scorpions and swings in temperature, living at Zaatari is a "worse struggle than Assad's missiles falling on our heads back home." He too is angry, and blames Shiites under Assad for killing Sunnis.

Baradan lived most of his life exchanging visits and sharing meals with Shiite neighbors. But he grew increasingly resentful in recent years because he thought the Shiites were getting more food and money, and were supported by Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation.

"Sunni Muslims have no respect in Syria and we fled here to find ourselves confined to this dirty prison," he sighs, puffing on his cigarette under a once-white tent, yellowed from the desert sun and heat.

The thirst for revenge that is palpable at the Zaatari camp does not bode well for Syria's future.

Baradan's tent is marked with the Arabic scribbling "Get out, Assad." Outside, a group of young Syrians lines up to fill buckets with drinking water. One of them, Mohammad Sweidan, 17, wears a green T-shirt with an Arabic emblem that reads: "Proud Sunni."

"Shiites and Alawites are not Muslims," he says. "They should be killed because they are infidels, who are killing the Sunnis, the true believers and followers of Islam."

Under Baradan's tent, his 46-year-old wife says she worries about ending up stateless, like Palestinian refugees displaced in wars with Israel. She cries as she cooks lunch on a small gas stove.

"I never thought we would become refugees like them," says the woman, who calls herself Um Basel after her eldest son, in keeping with conservative Muslim tradition. Her husband interrupts. "Even the Israelis do not treat the Palestinians the way Assad is treating Sunnis in Syria."

In a corner, Basel too is crying as he gazes at video on his cellphone of his 9-month-old nephew, Rabee, left behind in Daraa with his family.

"What is keeping me going is this video," he says, tearfully. "I can't wait to see Rabee again. I miss him dearly."
___

CAIRO, Egypt — Syrian refugee Mohammad B.'s passport expired a few weeks ago, making official what he has long known: He no longer has a country.

The 26-year-old had nowhere to renew his passport. The Syrian embassy in Cairo was closed after protests. The embassies in Libya and Tunisia had switched loyalty to the opposition and could no longer issue passports. And the embassy in Algeria simply told him to go back to Syria.

That was not an option.

In Syria, Mohammad had been studying to become an English teacher. He fled in May 2011 after he was shot in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising. The bullet pierced his upper lip, broke his teeth, ripped through his cheekbone and exited near his temple. The deep, jagged wound identified him as an anti-government protester, which in Syria marked him for death.

At first all the protesters wanted was a new mayor and better amenities. Mohammad was hopeful.

"I didn't want to leave my country, I wanted it to get better," says the soft spoken young man with a ponytail and a right eye that droops slightly from his wound. He uses only his first name because he fears for the safety of his parents, both government employees in Daraa.

On April 25, the military clamped off the main road into Daraa. Then, he says, security forces started firing into the crowd of about 50 people with large machine guns.

A bullet sliced Mohammad's lip. He waved his hands for help, and a car came to his aid. A cellphone video he was shooting at the time, seen by The Associated Press, records the sound of a hail of bullets popping off the metal.

"It was very painful," Mohammad recalls. "I thought: Today is my last day....And the driver thought I was dead."

When he got home, his family fled to hide with relatives in the countryside. He stayed in bed for a week, unable to eat. Then he made the most difficult decision of his life: He had to leave Syria immediately.

He had never left Syria before. He chose Egypt because he would not need a visa, and knew a friend there.

Egypt does not share a border with Syria, and only about 1,700 Syrian refugees have registered there, according to the United Nations' refugee agency. However, the agency estimates the real number is closer to 95,000.

Mohammad's family gave him about $1,000 in cash, all they could spare. He put on dark sunglasses, wrapped a headdress over his face and prayed all the way to the airport. The bus passed a gauntlet of 25 checkpoints.

At the airport, he was detained for questioning but slipped interrogators a $300 bribe. He headed for his plane, sure he would be back.

Instead he is still in Cairo, with no money. He lives in a rundown apartment where eight people share three rooms.

With the help of a German-based aid group, Mohammad has had four operations for his face. His doctor says he will need more.

In February, one of Mohammad's five brothers made his way to Egypt, via Jordan. Bashar, 21, suffers from psychological problems after being shut in the house for a year watching the violence on TV. His presence both helps and hurts Mohammad.

"I feel like I have a family, but on the other hand, it made my life more difficult," Mohammad said. "He doesn't work."

Mohammad cannot legally work or study either. But he is teaching Arabic and translating for journalists. He also is considering starting a Web-based service to collect videos, photos and other documentation of the rebellion from citizens back home.

He talks with his family in Syria most days by phone or Skype. They never discuss politics. Since he left, security forces have gone to his house twice looking for him.

"I am worried all the time about my family and friends," he says. "When I check on them, I just want to know they are still there."

Above all, Mohammad longs to go home, study and have a good career. None of that is possible while he is stranded in Egypt with an expired passport.

"I just want to stop this bloodbath," he says. "I don't know how."

Mroue reported from Tripoli, Lebanon; Yacoub and Jakes from Baghdad, Iraq; Marjorie Olster from Cairo, Egypt; and Jamal Halaby from Zaatari, Jordan.


Source: AP
 
 
Picture
09/29/12

Iraq's foreign minister has proposed a two-stage plan to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict together to discuss a political transition in the hope of ending the 18-month war that has killed more than 30,000 people.

Hoshyar Zebari said he made the proposal at a ministerial meeting of 20 countries mainly opposed to the government of President Bashar Assad. The closed meeting of key members of the Friends of Syria was chaired by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby.

"The discussions were very good," he said. "I think everyone...recognised the need for a political transition - no pre-conditions - not to adopt maximalist positions."

The first stage would be to bring together the countries that endorsed a blueprint leading to a political transition that was adopted in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 30 to now focus on implementing its planks, Mr Zebari said.

The second stage would be to invite representatives of the government and the opposition, both inside and outside Syria, to a conference in a neutral country outside the Middle East.

He said international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would have to carry the plan forward.

At the Geneva meeting, the five veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council who are deeply divided over Syria joined other key countries interested in Syria to approve a broad framework that would require both the opposition and the Assad regime to agree to a new interim government for the country, leading to elections.

The plan also would require Syrian security forces to have the confidence of both sides.

The Geneva meeting was called by Mr Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, after Russia and China had vetoed two Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to stop fighting and start negotiations. Moscow and Beijing vetoed a third resolution that raised the threat of sanctions against Assad on July 20.

Mr Zebari said the tone of the Friends of Syria meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly's annual ministerial session was positive and pragmatic. "Before it was very difficult to present such ideas," he said. "Really now, everybody is becoming more and more concerned and more realistic."


Source: UKPA

 
 
09/29/12 By David Stringer and Diaa Hadid 

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Efforts to draw together the fragmented foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad could lead to direct talks between the leader's regime and his opponents, a key official said after talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on Friday proposed plans to broker discussions for a political transition in Syria — amid the paralysis at the U.N. Security Council which has cast a pall over the annual gathering of world leaders in New York.

Zebari told The Associated Press in an interview that he made the offer to bring together Syria's regime and opposition at a meeting Friday between nine representatives of anti-Assad groups and the Friends of Syria — a coalition which includes the United States, the European Union and the Arab League.

He acknowledged that the U.N. and Arab League joint envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, would need to take the plan forward.

Establishing a more coherent opposition is seen as a means of increasing pressure on the Syrian leadership amid Russia and China's decisions to veto three Western-backed resolutions aimed at forcing Assad to end the violence.

Rebels on Friday made their broadest assault yet to drive Assad's forces out of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. Activists claim that since the 18-month-old conflict began, more than 30,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

Syria's opposition has been criticized as hopelessly fractured and unable to coalesce around a transition plan that was adopted by members of the U.N. Security Council in Geneva over the summer, though Western officials say they are beginning to see tentative signs of progress.

Revolutionary councils in cities including Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al-Zour are becoming increasingly organized, U.S. officials insist. In Idlib, in northwestern Syria, and Deir al-Zour, in the country's east, the local councils are taking charge of municipal duties, restoring power supplies and cleaning streets.

Talks Friday focused on efforts to boost cooperation between the rival groups, provide them with millions of dollars more in non-lethal equipment, and help them cement authority in areas freed from the Assad regime's control.

"It is encouraging to see some progress toward greater opposition unity, but we all know there is more work to be done," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the meeting.

Mouaz Moustafa, a 27-year-old activist with the Washington-based "Coalition for a Democratic Syria," which lobbies on behalf of the civilian councils and was involved in the talks, said the local groups could provide the roots of a post-Assad Syria if they are supported with funding.

"It will be undermined if it's not coupled with financial support," he said. "You have civilian councils right now. If you don't help them, you miss an opportunity. Without money, they lose credibility, viability and power."

He said in one instance, France had supplied about $13,000 to the Maarat al-Nuaman civilian council, in northwestern Syria, which allowed them to clean streets, rebuild a bread factory and pay for policemen.

Moustafa said the councils were crucial for the country to re-emerge under civilian rule. If they failed, it would risk emboldening military commanders to create their own fiefdoms in liberated areas, or Islamic extremists — better armed and with money — to set up their own power centers.

U.S. officials acknowledged the importance of helping civilian activists, rather than fighters, to prepare to provide services when the country's leadership falls.

"People with guns who don't know how to have bread baked are quickly going to lose credibility on the street. People with guns who can't make the lights come back on are going to quickly lose credibility on the street," said a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the talks.

During talks Friday, Clinton pledged $15 million in new non-lethal equipment — mainly communications equipment — and $30 in million humanitarian assistance to Syria's opposition. In total, the U.S. has offered $130 million in humanitarian supplies and about $40 million in equipment such as including satellite-linked computers, telephones and cameras. Britain and France have also offered millions of dollars worth of aid supplies and equipment.

At the General Assembly on Friday, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu warned of the risks that Syria's civil war could spread to other Middle East nations. "The Syrian regime deploys every instrument to turn the legitimate struggle of the Syrian people into a sectarian war, which will engulf the entire region into flames," he said.

On Saturday, nations including Uruguay, Denmark, Portugal, Sudan and Angola were scheduled to address the assembly.


Source: AP/Bloomberg
 
 
Picture
Photo: AP
09/28/12 By Selah Hennessy

LONDON — An investigation into alleged war crimes in Syria will continue for at least six more months after theUnited Nations Human Rights Council condemned violations by government forces and rebel fighters.

The council's Commission of Inquiry (COI) says it is collecting a body of evidence that points to war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria from both sides.

It blames government forces and militias aligned with them for the majority of abuses but also found abuses by rebel forces.  It says it has detailed the names of individuals and units responsible for alleged crimes

Seeking justice 

The United States ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said it's critical that justice prevail.

"The work or the COI is important because as they continue to document the names of individuals responsible for these crimes and violations," she said. "They help ensure that this will not be a case where impunity prevails, but rather that those responsible for these crimes against the Syrian people will face justice and accountability."

Deaths Across Syria, map dated September 26, 2012
​​Friday’s vote means the independent expert panel will have another six months to investigate abuses in Syria. The commission’s staff and resources are also set to be boosted.

The resolution was presented by Morocco and was supported by 41 member states.  China, Russia, and Cuba opposed the resolution and three other members abstained.

Syria’s ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui rejected Friday’s resolution.

He says the draft resolution does not reflect the reality on the ground.  It is based on accusations which are, in many cases he says, purely fictitious.

Panel investigators have been unable to enter Syria and have carried out their investigations in neighboring countries, including interviewing Syrian refugees.

Possible prosecutions

Nadim Shehadi, an expert on Syria at the London-based research group Chatham House, told VOA that the investigations could lead to prosecutions.

“It's very significant because the Human Rights Council is in a way a preparation for further international action, which would involve the International Criminal Court (ICC)," said Shehadi.

But Shehadi says the international community may not be ready to take what he calls that “final step” for international court intervention.  He says that like Kofi Annan, the former U.N. envoy to Syria who resigned after failing to resolve the crisis, some in the international community still hope for productive dialogue.

"The final step to go to the ICC would signify to the regime that all lines of communication with it are now cut," he said. "There is no going back.  There is no possibility of re-engagement with the regime.  And I think that is the hesitation, because in the international policy there is still a residual of the 'Annan plan,' which is engagement with the regime and dialogue with the regime.”

Still, court involvement is complicated.  Syria has never ratified a treaty that established the ICC. 

The treaty does say that the U.N. Security Council can initiate an ICC investigation.  But two of Syria’s allies, China and Russia, sit on the 15-member council and would have the power to veto an ICC investigation into alleged war crimes in Syria.

Both nations have blocked initiatives in the U.N. Security Council to further punish the Syrian regime over its 18-month-long crackdown on dissent and opposition forces.


Source: VOA