Photo: David Enders/MCT
11/30/12 By David Enders
QALAT AL MUDIQ, Syria — Wael Nasrallah has organized more than 100 demonstrations in the past 20 months. On Friday, he led another one in Qalat al Mudiq, a city of about 30,000 in central Syria.
Even with civil war engulfing the country, the peaceful demonstrations that kicked off the rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad so long ago continue, at least in this part of Syria. Often, the target is no longer the Assad regime but the rebels who now rule in many areas.
“It is still necessary because we have demands,” said the 35-year-old Nasrallah, who’s a truck driver by trade. “Today we mentioned two things: We want the revolutionaries to organize electricity service and to organize the distribution of bread.”
In other parts of the country, demonstrators also have called on the rebels to provide security, something Nasrallah and others say isn’t an issue here, and for the international community to provide weapons to the rebels.
In a country where people were generally terrified to speak freely before the rebellion began, the demonstrations are an important advance, activists say, and one people are loathe to lose. People now can discuss what the future holds and generally appear unafraid to criticize the rebels themselves. The rebellion has empowered conservative Islamist groups who’ve done much of the frontline fighting and call openly for a state based on Islamic law, but the demonstration here Friday encompassed a wide range of the opposition’s members, from the conservative to the secular.
Qalat al Mudiq exists in an odd sort of stasis – for months, rebels have controlled the city while the army maintains a base in an ancient citadel that overlooks the city. A cease-fire of sorts prevails, though residents said the army had shelled a demonstration last month and shot at another two days ago.
Qalat al Mudiq is also surrounded by cities and towns that remain loyal to the government, including the majority Christian city of Saqlabiyeh to the south. Despite army checkpoints on the road, people from Saqlabiyeh attended the demonstration here, an echo of the first demonstrations against the government, which consciously highlighted unity between the country’s sects and ethnicities.
“I came here to demonstrate because there are no demonstrations in my city,” said Ibrahim Nader, an English teacher from Saqlabiyeh.
Nasrallah said the demonstrations are important to transmit the demands of Syrians to the newly formed coalition of Syrian opposition figures that increasingly is being recognized by the international community as representatives of the rebellion and a potential beginning for a transitional government should Assad be deposed.
That moment has begun to appear closer as the Syrian government on Thursday and Friday shut down Internet service across the entire country for the first time since the beginning of the rebellion. The shutdown occurred amid heavy clashes in Damascus that closed the airport there.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Friday that Syrian troops had withdrawn entirely from the Sheikh Omar oilfield, the largest in Deir al Zour province in the country’s southeast. Rebels there have been making steady gains this month, as well as taking over a number of military bases across the country and capturing heavy weapons, including tanks and anti-aircraft rockets that were used this week to shoot down a government helicopter and a jet.
"The regime’s offensive capacity is much reduced, and its defensive capacity is also declining now,” said Jeff White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I do not see any way for it to recover, short of massive external intervention – Iran or a desperate resort to chemical weapons, and even those measures would not likely be decisive.
Photo: AP/Bilal Hussein
BEIRUT: Twenty Lebanese men were killed Friday in an ambush by the Syrian army in the town of Tal Kalakh near the border with Lebanon, a Lebanese security source told The Daily Star.
The men hail from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, including the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Mankoubeen, the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added.
Talha Kleib, an activist from Tal Kalakh familiar with the operation, said the Lebanese group was killed between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m Friday.
He added that two Syrians from Tal Kalakh and Abou Al-Mashaib, who acted as their guides, were also killed in the operation.
Kleib said he believed the Lebanese group had been ambushed after it walked a good distance into Syrian territory, adding that he suspected that there may have been a tip off to the Syrian regime “because the guides with them knew the roads well.”
Earlier Friday, Agence France Press, quoting a Lebanese security source and an Islamist leader, reported that 17 young men who went to Syria to fight with the rebels were all killed in a trap in Homs
The security source said he was informed of the deaths of the men "who went to Syria to fight with the rebels and were all killed in a trap in Homs province," which borders Lebanon.
The Islamist leader, for his part, told AFP the young Islamists came from different parts of the city and "left Tripoli this morning [Friday] and were killed in an ambush in Tal Kalakh by regime forces.”
Kleib, the activist, could not confirm whether the group consisted of fighters.
“They were transporting humanitarian aid and I honestly don’t know if there were fighters among them,” he told The Daily Star.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a group of 30 rebels "were caught in an ambush by government troops in the area of Tal Sarin
near the town of Tal Kalakh," AFP reported.
Residents in the northern city of Tripoli told The Daily Star that 17 men were killed and three were kidnapped in the ambush in Tal Kalakh.
The residents said the men were from Tripoli’s Bab Al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, where the majority of residents oppose President Bashar Assad and support the uprising in Syria.
Following news of the killings, gunmen were seen roaming the streets of Tripoli as the Lebanese Army deployed heavily around the city to prevent any possible clashes
Source: Daily Star/AFP
11/30/12 By Phil Sands
DAMASCUS // Internet service across Syria was shut down yesterday and the main motorway between central Damascus and the airport was closed, as fighting intensified on the edge of the capital.
Mobile phone services were also patchy at best yesterday adding to the unease in Damascus, which has been bracing for a major battle similar to that in Aleppo.
Acrid black smoke hung above southern Damascus as night fell, with a series of buildings close to the motorway on fire.
By early evening there was a lull in fighting.
The internet, which is entirely under government control and heavily monitored by authorities, has been disrupted routinely in many rebel-held areas since the uprising began in March of last year, especially during army offences, but a nationwide blackout is unusual.
State TV denied the internet blackout was nationwide. It said the cut was cause by a technical failure, only affected some provinces and that technicians were trying to fix the problem.
Syria's information ministry said the airport road had been secured after attacks by "terrorist groups" on motorists. It was not immediately clear whether the road had been reopened.
Throughout the day there was heavy fighting in the south of the capital between loyalist army units and rebels trying to topple the president, Bashar Al Assad
, and a fourth consecutive day of air strikes by military jets on Daraya, about five kilometres from the centre of Damascus.
Sustained artillery barrages were also fired into the area, with tanks and troops facing stubborn residence from the Free Syrian Army.
Government sources had earlier predicted the military offensive in Daraya, where the regime says it faces Al Qaeda terrorists, would be wrapped up by today.
The fighting intensified as the international Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he was unable to move forward with a peace plan unless it was backed by a UN Security Council resolution. Mr Brahimi warned that a ceasefire would only hold if it was overseen by a peacekeeping mission.
Also yesterday, an air raid on Aleppo killed at least 15 civilians in a the rebel-held area of Ansari, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
US technology companies that monitor web traffic reported yesterday that Syria was effectively cut off from the internet.
Akamai, one of the companies monitoring global traffic, said traffic stopped at 12.26pm local time, and that this supported the observation from another IT company, Renesys, "that Syria is effectively off the internet".
The heaviest clashes erupted between troops and rebels in the towns of Babila and Hujaira south-east of the capital, and in Harran Al Awamid, just east of the airport.
Army reinforcements had been sent to the area, according to media reports. The army also went on the offensive across the eastern outer belt of the capital, notably in the towns of Harasta and Douma, and in Eastern Ghuta, the Observatory said.
Official state media also reported operations in the province and said several members of an "armed terrorist group, Al Nusra Front" had been killed in the town of Aqraba.
Despite months of sporadic fighting and crumbling security in Damascus, the city's airport has remained open. But the fighting yesterday prompted both Emirates Airline and EgyptAir to temporarily suspend flights to Damascus.
A senior EgyptAir official said the flight to Damascus scheduled for today had been cancelled and that the airline had scheduled an emergency meeting to look into whether to halt all flights to the Syrian capital. The airport lies on Damascus' southern outskirts, and the surrounding districts have been strongholds of support for the rebels since the start of the uprising.
Source: The National
Photo: Reuters/Samer Abdullah/SNN
11/30/12 By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT: Syrian air force jets bombarded rebel targets on Friday close to the Damascus airport road and a regional airline said foreign carriers had halted flights to the capital.
Activists said security forces clashed with rebels trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad around Aqraba and Babilla districts on the southeastern outskirts of the Damascus which lead to the international airport.
Internet connections and most telephone lines were down for a second day, the worst communications outage in a 20-month-old uprising in which 40,000 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled the country, and millions been displaced.
The mostly Sunni Muslim rebels who are battling Assad, from Syria's Alawite minority linked to Shi'ite Islam, have been making gains around Syria by overrunning military bases and have been ramping up attacks on Damascus, his seat of power.
A resident of central Damascus said he saw black smoke rising from the east and the south of the city on Friday morning and could hear the constant boom of shelling. State television said Assad's forces were fighting rebels in those areas.
An aviation source in neighbouring Jordan said two Syrian Air flights crossed Jordanian air space heading for the Syrian capital on Friday evening and that Damascus airport was open, although international airlines were staying away.
The head of the national airline Syria Air said services were operating according to schedule, state television reported.
Egypt Air and Emirates have suspended flights to Damascus in response to the recent violence and there was no sign that Air Arabia and flydubai had flown scheduled trips on Friday.
"Airlines are not operating to Damascus today," said a Dubai-based airline official.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition monitoring group, said jets were bombarding targets in rural areas around Aqraba and Babilla, where rebels clashed with Assad's forces.
The Observatory's director, Rami Abdelrahman, said the airport road was open, but there was minimal traffic.
A rebel contacted by Reuters who said he was on the airport road said his fighters would not let the airport operate. "We will never open the road. It's still closed and it will remain closed. We will not allow planes to arrive," he said.
Rebels said that at least one mortar round was fired at the airport during clashes on Thursday.
"We want to liberate the airport because of reports we see and our own information we have that shows civilian airplanes are being flown in here with weapons for the regime. It is our right to stop this," rebel spokesman Musaab Abu Qitada said.
U.S. and European officials said rebels were making gains in Syria, gradually eroding Assad's power, but said the fighting had not yet shifted completely in their favour.
A Damascus-based diplomat said he believed the escalation in fighting around the capital was part of a government offensive which aimed to seal off the state-controlled centre of the city from rebel-held rural areas to the south and east.
Activists say Assad's forces have also been shelling the Daraya district to the southwest of the city, trying to prevent rebels from cementing their hold of an area which could give them a presence in a continuous arc from the northeast to southwest of the capital's outer districts.
"I don't know whether the shelling has succeeded in pushing back the FSA (rebels) - experience shows that they return very quickly anyway," the diplomat said. "We seem to be entering a decisive phase of the Damascus offensive."
Syria's Internet shut down on Thursday, a move which activists blamed on authorities but which authorities variously attributed to a 'terrorist' attack or a technical fault.
Global hacking network Anonymous said it would shut down Syrian government websites around the world in response to a move it said was aimed at silencing Assad's critics.
"As we discovered in Egypt, where the dictator (Hosni) Mubarak did something similar - this is not damage that can be easily or quickly repaired," it said, referring to an Internet outage during the early days of the 2011 uprising in Egypt.
French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said the communications cut was of a matter of "extreme concern".
"It is another demonstration of what the Damascus regime is doing to hold its people hostage. We call on the Damascus regime to reestablish communications without delay," he said.
CloudFlare, a firm that helps accelerate Internet traffic, said on its blog that saboteurs would have had to simultaneously cut three undersea cables into the Mediterranean city of Tartous and also an overland cable through Turkey in order to cut off the entire country's Internet access.
"That is unlikely to have happened," it said.
The conflict in Syria has displaced some 250,000 people in the western city of Homs alone, the UN’s refugee agency said Friday, demanding safe passage for civilians trying to flee the violence.
“This city (Homs) is really in a desperate situation,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told reporters in Geneva, saying that “being displaced inside Syria is a very scary and a vulnerable situation to be in.”
The agency’s partner in Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), had so far registered a quarter of a million people displaced around the city, she said.
A UNHCR team had made a two-day mission to Homs this week, and had reported that “thousands of displaced people (are) living in unheated communal shelters,” Fleming said.
“Half of the city’s hospitals are not functional and there are severe shortages of basic supplies, ranging from medicine to blankets, winter clothes and children’s shoes,” she lamented.
Some of the hospitals had been converted into communal shelters and around 60 percent of the city’s doctors had left, Fleming said, adding that many of the city’s children had not been able to go to school for the past 18 months.
The UNHCR team had during its two-day mission visited two communal buildings, she said, pointing out that in one of them more than 400 families, or some 2,300 people, were crammed together.
“It’s a very, very worrying situation,” she said.
Earlier this month, the SARC estimated that at least 2.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria, while UNHCR said Friday the number of refugees registered in surrounding countries had now risen to 465,000.
Jordan now counted 137,998 registered Syrian refugees, Lebanon had 133,349, Turkey 123,747, Iraq 60,307 and North Africa 9,734, the agency said, stressing that tens of thousands of others are believed to have fled Syria but not yet registered for assistance.
Fleming said her agency was especially concerned at reports from refugees arriving in Jordan who say they were specifically targeted en route.
“UNHCR calls on all sides to ensure that civilians have access to safe passage,” she said, refusing to say who was believed to be targeting the fleeing refugees.
More than 40,000 people have perished since the violence in Syria began in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Source: AFP/Khaleej Times
11/30/12 By Tim Lister and Arwa Damon
The Soviet-made Mi-8 helicopter turns slowly in the blue autumn sky. It appears to be at an altitude of 3,000-4,000 feet, circling above the province of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. Suddenly, there's a streak of white and then an explosion -- as its engine bursts into flames.
Off camera, there are yelps of joy. It is a rare success for the Free Syrian Army: a precious ground-to-air missile has found its target. Trailing black smoke, the helicopter makes a hard landing. It's not known what happened to the crew.
In the last week, the rebels claim to have shot down one plane and two helicopters in Aleppo province. CNN's Arwa Damon went to the crash site of the plane Wednesday, and saw chunks of metal being carted off by locals.
At least one of the pilots appears to have been found unconscious by the rebels after ejecting from the plane. Videos uploaded to YouTube appear to show the pilot with a bandaged head wound.
It's a sign that the rebels are beginning to use the weapons they've seized from military bases to good effect, and are gradually beginning to challenge Bashar al-Assad government's dominance of the skies.
Damon reported Thursday: "The FSA controls vast chunks of territory in Aleppo [province]. In a span of 24 hours they brought down a fighter jet and helicopter and took over a major base" in the province.
"What was striking driving through Aleppo, and we were not too far from the city itself, was seeing villages and towns that two months ago one couldn't drive through," Damon reported. "They now have children playing in the streets and shops opening."
"There are some Free Syria Army checkpoints," Damon reported. "This is significant; you see where Assad forces might have been and were but are no longer."
Rebels who recently seized the base of the 46th Regiment some 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of Aleppo told Damon they had captured as many as 300 MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems), about half of which were in working condition.
There is no way of confirming the number. Videos uploaded after the rebels overran the base showed at least 10 large crates of anti-air missiles, each of which would hold two MANPADs.
Eliot Higgins, who tracks the Syrian conflict through dozens of YouTube channels on his blog Brown Moses, says that when the rebels capture "a couple of dozen [MANPADs] it gets exciting; 100 would be quite amazing"
Rebels also showed off captured tanks and artillery pieces, as well as Chinese-made multiple rocket launchers, seized at the 46th Regiment base.
Free Syrian Army brigades are producing "instructional videos" for handling and arming their newly acquired hardware. One video shows a rebel on a rocky hillside opening a large packing crate, assembling a SA-7. Inside, there are two long olive-green tubes with Cyrillic lettering. Over the next three minutes, the rebel assembles the tube and points it skyward.
It is just one of dozens of anti-air missiles or MANPADs that the rebels are thought to have seized. They are mainly Russian-made SAMs -- some manufactured before the young fighters were born.
Videos uploaded to YouTube and evidence gathered on the ground suggest most of the MANPADs in rebel hands are SA-7s, which the Russians call Strela 2s. It is hardly state-of-the-art, having been developed in the 1960s. There have also been occasional sightings of more advanced SA-16s in rebel hands, which Higgins says has a much better targeting system than the SA-7.
But he notes that often these missile systems lack the all-important grip-stock or battery cooling unit, making them inoperable.
Despite the rebels' gradual acquisition of heavy weaponry, much of it is in poor shape and of a certain age. There is no sign that rebel units have been using more advanced anti-aircraft missiles such as the Stinger.
The Washington Post reported this week that rebels had acquired some 40 shoulder-fired missile systems in recent weeks, and some had been supplied by Qatar. CNN has been unable to confirm that.
But, in October, a diplomatic source told CNN's Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson that some rebel groups had a few Western-made anti-aircraft missiles under "close control."
Even so, the government retains vast superiority in firepower. And opposition sources say it's using that firepower in ever more indiscriminate ways.Syrian rebels down jet, take video of bloodied pilot
Higgins notes from the hundreds of videos he has analyzed that "rather than deploying all their most powerful weapons at once the air force appears to have escalated the air war."
He says "L-39s [a Czech-made jet trainer that can also fly combat missions] and OFAB 100-120 bombs [Russian-made fragmentation munitions] appeared after the battle for Aleppo began, and cluster munitions appeared after the Idlib highway was closed."
On Thursday, videos emerged from the city of Aleppo of an airstrike against a neighborhood in rebel hands. They showed the bodies of men, women and children, caked in white dust and blood, being pulled from piles of rubble by frantic rescuers. Above, the top floors of an apartment block have been sheared off, raining lumps of concrete on the street below. Opposition activists estimated at least 15 people were killed.
Other videos uploaded by opposition activists this week show the town of Maarat al Numan, captured by rebels in October, enduring a fourth week of air-raids. The town sits on the main highway linking Damascus with the north, an important artery that is no longer under government control.
Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, tells CNN: "I think the opposition is chipping away at the government's position. I think the opposition strategy is a war of attrition to exhaust the government's forces."
After spending several days among rebel fighters, Damon says that "On the one hand there's a certain sense of anger and frustration with the international community because they feel they have been abandoned. At the same time they haven't lost. They are making major progress and there is a sense of determination and belief that they can do this on their own."
11/30/12 By Craig Timberg and Babak Dehghanpisheh
Syria's civil war went offline Thursday as millions of people tracking the conflict over YouTube, Facebook and other high-tech services found themselves struggling against an unnerving national shutdown of the Internet.
The communications shutdown immediately evoked memories of similar action by Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and sparked fears that President Bashar Assad could be preparing to take even harsher action against Syrian opposition forces, which have recently made significant advances in the battle against the government.
A Syrian official blamed the outages on technical problems. Analysts said it was far more likely that Assad had ordered the Internet and some cellphone connections switched off, though it was possible that a rebel attack had severed crucial cables.
Whatever the cause of the blackout, it was clear that the remarkable window into the war offered by technology had dramatically narrowed for Syrians on both sides of the conflict and the many outsiders following the story. Observers said it signaled the beginning of a dangerous new phase after 20 months of escalating conflict.
"In some ways, it's a Cyclops stabbing itself in the eye," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. "They're turning the light out on themselves here, which is not good."
The shutdown came amid scattered rebel gains Thursday and intensified fighting that shut down the Damascus airport. In Washington, meanwhile, officials indicated that the Obama administration was moving toward recognizing a newly formed opposition coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The rising popularity of smartphones and the Syrian government's sharp limits on the movements of independent journalists made social media an especially vital source of information about the conflict. The abrupt loss of the technology has caused widespread fear, said Ammar Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"Not everyone will have access" to news about the conflict, said Abdulhamid, who has close ties to Syria's opposition. "There will be panic. There will be fear."
Syrian rebel forces have many satellite phones. But the devices expose users to risk of detection by government forces, and there are not enough of the phones to keep millions of Syrians informed.
"Most of the activists, especially in Damascus, are relying totally on the local Internet services, which are delivered by the Syrian communication companies," said Ahmed Radoun, an activist in Hama who works for an opposition news service. "They want to pressure the activists who rely on the Internet services from the local companies and to limit the news delivery to the TV channels and the news agencies we deal with."
The government has shut down Internet services previously, as well, often in specific regions right before launching attacks. On at least two other occasions, the outages were national in scope.
Omar Abu Laila, a spokesman for the rebel fighters in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, said communications have been down for so long there that the new disruptions will have no impact. "The communication outage did not affect us," he said. "You should report that we're happy the rest of Syria joined us."
Yet, Thursday's blackout — at 12:26 p.m. Damascus time, according to the Internet monitoring company Renesys — set off alarms worldwide. Among the worries: The only Syrian networks still routing traffic into the nation have a history of delivering malware to opposition activists, meaning that they almost certainly are controlled by the government.
The Syrian civil war has played out with unnerving intimacy for viewers of YouTube. Shaky videos delivered images of dead children, the bloodied walls after a massacre and, just this week, the fiery streak of an opposition missile destroying a government helicopter.
Analysts said the image of that attack, which highlighted the opposition's rising military capabilities, may have prompted Assad to cut off communications after months of allowing information to flow with relative freedom.
The government had reason to do so. Its forces used the Internet for some routine communications. Easy access to the Web also helped the government spy on opposition forces, which relied on such technology to communicate. Social media sites, meanwhile, were popular with civilians, and continued access to the sites lent a veneer of normalcy in Damascus, the capital.
Yet most blamed Assad for the Internet shutdown. The main telecommunications cables are controlled by the government-owned Syrian Telecommunications Establishment, and all of the country's Internet providers and cellphone companies rely on the data it provides. Shutting down the flow of information, analysts say, is easy.
"It's a sign that the regime is going to take its gloves off," said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow and Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They're going to make sure they're the only ones who can communicate, or at least they are going to try."
Opposition forces, however, have grown savvy at distributing images from the fighting to keep their cause visible to the world. Rebels operating near international borders, such as with Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, have access to cellphone signals emanating from those countries. Governments backing the Syrian opposition have sent thousands of satellite phones to the rebels; the U.S. State Department says it has sent 2,000 pieces of communications equipment, which could assist in distributing videos even if the Internet remains shut down.
"Syria is going to be an excellent test" of such initiatives, said Andrew McLaughlin, a former top policy official at Google who also worked as a White House technology adviser. "People have been preparing for this day. . . . I'll be glued to my screen for the next 24 to 48 hours to see if that did any good."
Source: Washington Post/Independent
11/29/12 By David Enders
MAYADEEN, SYRIA — Rebels who have laid siege to a Syrian army base near Mayadeen in southeastern Syria have made mortar attacks a regular part of their routine.
Machine shops operated by rebel sympathizers now are turning out dozens of rockets that rebel forces use to pummel Syrian government positions from a distance – a capability that until recently belonged only to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
During their assault on an artillery base near Mayadeen last week, rebels belonging to the Jabhat al Nusra faction raced forward in a captured tank – a wild sight to anyone who has spent the last year tracking rebel groups whose personal weapons often are nothing more than shotguns and aging hunting rifles.
In the past few months, rebels have gained access to heavy weapons that they previously could only dream of – rockets, mortars, cannons and tanks, even portable surface-to-air missiles that in recent days they used to down Syrian aircraft. At the Bab al Hawa border crossing with Turkey on Thursday, about two dozen armored personnel carriers and tanks of various vintage were on display, evidence of recent rebel captures.
Many of the weapons come from Syrian government warehouses on bases that the rebels have overrun or from the rebels’ own shops.
“We’ve fired this five times today,” a rebel using the nom de guerre Abu Omar said as he showed off a mortar tube the rebels had constructed using the barrel of a Syrian army armored vehicle they had destroyed nearby. “We started using these about three months ago.”
“When we capture weapons from the government, we study them and copy them,” Abu Omar said. “We also learn how to make things from the Internet.”
For its part, the Syrian military also is using increasingly heavy munitions, particularly bombs dropped from jets and helicopters, a development that as much as anything is responsible for the enormous surge of refugees and displaced people that international aid organizations have reported in recent weeks. Millions of Syrians who once felt relatively safe in their homes as they waited out government shelling now have fled in the face of airstrikes that can bring down multistory buildings.
The result, ironically enough, has been a drop in civilian casualties in recent weeks, compared to highs over the summer, as people flee rather than risk being buried in the rubble.
The increase in weaponry has changed the dynamic of the conflict here, helping to even the two sides and spurring a rebel push that has seen several government bases overrun in recent weeks. U.S. officials have noted the rebel successes in continuing to decline to provide weapons.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, at a forum in Washington on Thursday, said that the recent gains made by Syrian rebels "are absolutely real. That said, there is no sign right now of any kind of political deal to be worked out between the opposition groups and the regime. Which means the fighting is going to go on."
"Arms are not a strategy. Arms are a tactic. We think that a military solution is not the best way for Syria," Ford said.
The rebels’ ability for the first time in the conflict to use weapons such as rockets and mortars may be more significant to the rebel advance than the few instances when they’ve downed Syrian government aircraft with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Indeed, rebels besieging an artillery base inside Mayadeen last week had deployed a pair of anti-aircraft missiles, waiting to ambush a helicopter that had been flying in supplies for the besieged soldiers daily. In the end, though, the helicopter didn’t show, and the rebels took the base after the 150 Syrian soldiers abandoned it under fire after days of rebel bombardment.
Rebels stress that their homemade weaponry is far more accurate now than it was just a few months ago, when rebels admitted rockets they made often misfired wildly.
“We tested the rockets before we used them, and they are 90 percent accurate," said a weapons manufacturer who uses the nom de guerre Abu Ammar, who does his work in the same machine shop he’d used before the war to manufacture baking equipment.
"We know the rockets are effective because we heard the soldiers talking about them on the radio after we began using them," said a rebel commander who was visiting Abu Ammar’s shop and who declined to give his name.
Abu Ammar said that he had learned to manufacture the rockets from manuals obtained by the rebel military council in Deir al Zour, the province in which Mayadeen is located. "They are Qassem rockets," he said, referring to a type of rocket widely used by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip to attack targets inside Israel.
Perhaps underscoring their effectiveness, the factory in which Abu Ammar works was targeted by an airstrike minutes after he gave journalists a tour.
Despite claims of accuracy, recent rebel mortar attacks in Damascus, intended for the presidential palace and military targets, have killed civilians.
“Considering the amount of long-ranged weapons now being used by the rebels, including artillery and howitzers as well as multiple-barrel rocket launchers, mortars and rockets, it’s hard to imagine that their use in urban areas won’t result in an increase in civilian casualties,” said Elliot Higgins, who writes about the weaponry used in Syria at Brown Moses Blog.
But it is doubtful rebels will abandon the weapons. Rebels in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, said earlier this month that their ability to shell government positions in response to government shelling had resulted in less government shelling.
“They think now before they shell us,” said a rebel commander in Aleppo who also used the nom de guerre Abu Ammar.
The rebels even have found benefit in the Syrian government’s increasing use of cluster munitions, a weapon whose use soared across Syria in October, according to Nadim Houry, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Cluster munitions, which break into hundreds of smaller bomblets before impact, have been outlawed by many countries as many of the bomblets frequently fail to explode and often kill civilians later on. Government aircraft used cluster munitions at least twice during fighting between rebels and government troops that had been sent to relieve the artillery base in Mayadeen last week.
But the unexploded cluster munitions also are retrieved and repurposed by the rebels in rockets and car bombs.
The Syrian government also is learning to improvise. One weapon that has spread fear in rebel-held areas is referred to simply as a “barmeel” – Arabic for barrel. The bombs consist of explosives, sometimes manufactured from fertilizer, that are packed into a metal cylinder and fitted with a simple fuse. Once the fuse is lit, the bomb is pushed out of a helicopter toward its target.
Theories for why the government is using such weapons range from a shortage of weaponry to the possibility that such bombs, which are often simply dumped out of the back of a helicopter, don’t require trained pilots to deploy them. They also allow the helicopters dropping the bombs to hover at altitudes that make it difficult for rebels to shoot them down. As a result, they are highly inaccurate.
Not every new weapon the rebels deploy is sophisticated. Members of the same group of fighters in Aleppo who said their mortar attacks were effectively reducing the government’s shelling also showed a reporter videos of fighters using a giant slingshot. Many fighters use homemade periscopes, sometimes mirrors fitted onto pieces of cardboard taped together, when laying siege to government positions.
At Abu Ammar’s workshop, a half-built, 15-foot-tall catapult made of steel stood outside his machine shop.
“We’re working on making a carriage so that it is mobile,” he said.
Source: Bellingham Herald
11/29/12 By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
CAIRO: The Syrian opposition made progress on Thursday toward forming a transitional government at the first meeting of their new coalition in Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as an overwhelmingly powerful kingmaker, delegates said.
In a sign of its strength within the leadership of the opposition, the Brotherhood and its allies pushed for the adoption of an internal constitution that allows choosing the prime minister and the cabinet with a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds majority.
Since the coalition was set up in Qatar earlier this month with Gulf and Western support, the Brotherhood has swiftly assembled a de facto majority bloc, according to insiders keeping tabs of changes in the membership of the coalition.
The meeting in a luxury Cairo hotel, now in its second day, was held behind closed doors.
"It looks like the internal constitution will be pushed through without any real discussion. The Brotherhood has Qatar behind it and they are getting what they want," one delegate said on condition of anonymity.
The formation of a transitional government could encourage greater Western backing for the 20-month revolt against four decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his later father, President Hafez al-Assad.
The bloody repression of an armed Islamist uprising against the elder Assad's rule in the 1980s killed many thousands of Brotherhood followers, as well as leftists, and forced many Syrians to leave the country.
Membership of the Brotherhood became punishable by death and the movement was decimated, to the point that the Brotherhood announced in 2009 that it was 'suspending' opposition to Assad.
The revolt in March last year revived the Brotherhood's fortunes and opened more sources of financing for the organisation from exiled conservative Syrians.
But independent delegates at the Cairo meeting said the process by which a transitional government is being pushed through does not bode well for a democratic future for Syria.
"The West is sending a signal that it is ready to accept the Brotherhood as the only guarantee of stability other than Assad. It has not learnt from what happened in Egypt. I am afraid Syria will become like Iran, rather than a democracy," said one of them, speaking on condition of anonymity.
France, Britain, Turkey and Gulf Arab states have already recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States has been more cautious.
U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said on Thursday Washington "strongly, strongly, strongly" supports efforts to develop the coalition. "We would like to see them continue to develop as an organisation, as a coalition. They are making real progress and I expect that our position with them will evolve as they themselves develop," he said in Washington.
Conspicuously absent from the Cairo discussions was Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, the coalition's president, a popular Damascene preacher who is increasingly seen as a religious figurehead who is respected inside Syria and an interlocutor with outside powers, rather than a hands-on leader.
Aware they could quickly lose credibility with rebels and opposition activists inside Syria, the 60 delegates postponed possibly divisive discussions on the final membership of the coalition and began talks on an internal constitution as a first step toward forming a transitional government.
Liaison between the coalition and rebels has been assigned to former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, the highest ranking official to defect since the revolt, coalition sources said.
Hijab, a lifelong apparatchik in Assad's Baath Party before his defection, is also being touted as a possible prime minister but his history in Assad's Baath Party could exclude him.
Rima Fleihan, one of a handful of minorities in the coalition, said the government will be small at first, perhaps with four to five members.
Fleihan said the coalition will make it clear that any government it appoints will reject any deal to negotiate a transitional period in Syria unless Assad steps down, a condition not included in international proposals to solve the crisis that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
"The coalition will have nothing to do with any political process that includes talks with the regime, keeps Assad and his security apparatus and does not hold him and his cohorts accountable for 50,000 Syrians dead," she said.
Fleihan, from Syria's Druze community, had previously resigned from the Syrian National Council (SNC), the first major opposition grouping formed in Istanbul last year that became dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The SNC won scant international support. A Western and Gulf backed effort produced the new coalition earlier this month.
The coalition is holding its first full meeting in Cairo ahead of a conference of the Friends of Syria, a grouping of dozens of nations that had pledged mostly non-military backing for the revolt but who are worried by the influence of Islamists in the opposition.
Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated power in Syria since the 1960s, has painted the opposition as Sunni extremists and al Qaeda followers and presented himself as the last guarantor for an undivided Syria.
Sources at the meeting said the coalition could eventually raise its membership from around 60 to 80 to include more minorities and Sunni figures who were overlooked.
But Michel Kilo, a veteran Christian opposition campaigner and a member of the coalition has not attended the Cairo meeting. The main Kurdish political bloc, the Kurdish National Council, has also refused to join.
Source: Reuters/Chicago Tribune
11/29/12 By Ashley Fantz
More than 90% of the Internet was shut down in Syria Thursday as rebel clashes with Bashar al-Assad's forces were reported near the Damascus airport.
It's not the first time the Web has been blocked in the war-torn country, but the move toward the airport could be highly significant, said retired U.S. Army Gen. Mark Kimmitt, who worked as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs under President George Bush.
Damascus, the capital, is the seat of al-Assad's power. It is also home to many Syrians who belong to the Alawite sect. The al-Assads are Alawite.
Rebels fighting al-Assad's forces and possibly winning at or near the airport "would have a psychological affect," Kimmitt explained. "The civilians in Damascus will feel cut off from the outside world."
The Alawites, he said, understand there are very few alternatives other than staying in Syria now, but if rebels take the airport, they would likely feel trapped. Some will go on about their lives, a coping mechanism, he said. Some will flee to neighborhood countries, while others may actually choose to take a stronger position in defending al-Assad.
Strategically, Kimmitt noted that most of the military's aircraft are being flown out of bases elsewhere in the country.
The road to Damascus International Airport was shut down because the rebels and the military were fighting on the outskirts of the city, said the opposition-supporting, London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Egypt Air is canceling flights to Syria starting Friday, said Egypt Air spokesman Mohamed Rahma.
The airline cited a "deteriorating situation" around the Damascus airport, a Cairo airport official said, according to Egyptian semi-official news agency Al-Ahram.
On the other side, government-run TV ran an urgent banner saying that the road to Damascus International Airport had been secured after "terrorists" attacked cars.
Al-Assad's regime has routinely blamed terrorists for the violence in the country.Internet blocked
Also Wednesday, most Internet access in Syria was shut down, according to the Internet monitoring group Renesys
It was not clear who was behind the latest outage, but the government has intermittently cut off Internet access several times in the past two years.
Opposition activists often transmit updates about the civil war in reports and images on the Web.
Syria state TV reports that the government's minister of communications said maintenance workshops were working on "fixing the blackout in the main communication and Internet network in a number of Syrian provinces."
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said that in response to government Internet-related actions, the United States has given "a thousand pieces of non-lethal equipment -- largely communications gear" to help opposition activists get around the cyber roadblocks.
He spoke in Washington on Wednesday about the humanitarian situation in the country. He talked to CNN Thursday.
"The Syrian government has been monitoring (the Internet) for years. They have been using the Internet with Iranian assistance to track opposition activists, arrest and kill them," Ford said.
"That is the reason why our non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, we put a special emphasis on communications equipment precisely to help the Syrian people tell the world what is going on inside Syria," he said.
"A lot of the pictures that you see on the nightly news are from communication equipment that we supply to very brave and very dedicated opposition activists inside Syria," Ford said. "We have provided over a thousand pieces of non-lethal equipment -- largely communications gear to help them get around the restrictions on the Internet that the Syrian government imposes."
But Kimmitt, asked by CNN to respond to Ford's comments, said he thinks the gear that United States has provided has not been enough.
"I think it's an attempt on the part of the (Obama) administration, albeit it has an insufficient amount of support for the rebels," the former general said. "What side of history are we going to end up?
"To suggest a thousand pieces of equipment has made a difference -- I would turn back to the number of casualties we've seen."
About 40,000 civilians have been killed since the first protests began in March 2011 against al-Assad's government, according to the opposition Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria
. Meanwhile, more than 380,000 Syrians have fled the violence and become refugees in countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, the United Nations reports.
The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, the group that speak for the rebels, said Thursday that at least 20 people were killed and more than 80 wounded in an airstrike in a residential area, the Al-Ansari district in Aleppo.
Most of the wounded were children, they said.
An anti-Assad activist in Aleppo uploaded videos of the attack. One shows children being dug out of rubble and rushed away. In another video on older man appears dazed as he carries the remains of a bomb.
He says: "This is a gift from Bashar to the people of Al-Ansar district. Look at the building over there. Two floors have been destroyed, and this is part of the rocket that destroyed these buildings."Rebels claim to shoot down military aircraft
On Wednesday, villagers in northern Syria picked pieces of a downed fighter jet from an olive grove after rebel fighters claimed to have shot down three government aircraft in 24 hours.
Al-Assad's government has relied increasingly on air power to battle the 21-month-old revolt against it, and witnesses said a cheer went up when the jet went down near Aleppo.
"We want to take this ... to show them in the other villages," a man who identified himself as Abu Dargham told CNN as he showed off two twisted chunks of metal. "Let them see what happened to these planes."
The downed plane's tail was largely intact, but the fuselage was in pieces and the type of aircraft was not immediately identifiable. Locals picked it apart, some of them stuffing pieces into bags as a tractor hauled away what appeared to be an engine. Cheering children were piled on the tractor as it drove away.
Witnesses said two fliers ejected from the plane before the crash. One was found unconscious and taken to a makeshift clinic, while villagers said they were still searching for the other late Wednesday.
Rebels posted two videos online to support their claims. One shows rebels carrying an unconscious man wearing what looks like a military pilot uniform, while another includes footage of medics bandaging a bloodied and moaning man.
"Here is the pilot who was shelling houses of civilians!" someone says off-camera. "The heroes of Darret Ezza shot down his plane!"