Photo: Medyan Dalrieh/Zuma Press
05/24/13 By Rania Abouzeid
Istanbul: While the diplomatic grouping known as the Friends of Syria met in the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday to discuss a U.S.-Russian plan for peace talks, a low-key yet perhaps equally important gathering was being quietly held in Istanbul between Saudi officials and half of the 30 members of the Free Syrian Army’s Higher Military Command, which claims to represent most of the rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The informal talks, which were held at a seaside hotel, marked the first gathering of the rebel group’s Military Command and Saudi officials since, according to senior members of the Military Command, Saudi Arabia stepped up earlier this month to become the main source of arms to the rebels. In so doing they nudged aside the smaller Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which had been the main supplier of weapons to the opposition since early 2012. Saudi officials have simply been meeting with the rebels on their own, without involving the Qataris.
The change is significant because Qatar and Saudi Arabia each favor different rebel factions. The Qataris have backed more Islamist rebel groups, while the Saudis—despite Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative form of government—have opted to support more moderate groups that may have an Islamist hue but are not considered conservative. The strong conservative Islamist current within rebel ranks may be weakened if support is increased to more moderate factions.
The Saudi support for the more moderate rebel groups may seem at odds with Saudi Arabia’s own austere ideology but in the past, when the Saudis have backed ultraconservative Islamist militants (including supporting jihadists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s) they have also experienced blowback domestically, notably when the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was once a Saudi citizen, branded the ruling House of Saud apostates.
In early 2012, the two Gulf powerhouses, which are frequently political rivals, were instrumental in setting up a secretive group that operated something like a command center in Istanbul, with representatives from across Syria tasked with funneling free and vital military supplies through Turkey (with the help of Turkish intelligence and Western backing) and across the border into Syria. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar had representatives in the command center.
A rift in the command center between Qatar and Saudi Arabia emerged in August of last year, with the Saudi and Qatari representatives backing different factions from among the plethora of armed groups on the ground in Syria. By September, when a group of senior military defectors and the Saudi-based Salafi sheikh Adnan al-Arour set up the Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Councils, the command center had more or less crumbled and was superseded by the Joint Command, which was primarily backed by Qatar, while the Saudis continued to pick and choose who they wanted to work with.
The Joint Command did not last long. By December, more than 550 Syrian fighting men gathered in Antalya, Turkey, to elect 261 representatives who in turn voted for the 30 members of the Higher Military Command, the current claimant to the leadership of the Syrian insurgency, although nationwide conservative Islamist groups like the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra are not part of it.
Many of the senior rebel commanders who were gathered on Wednesday – representing the so-called five fronts of the conflict (northern, southern, central/western, eastern and the central city of Homs) – had traveled from inside Syria to attend, although the head of the body, Brigadier General Salim Idris, was in Amman.
The talks aimed to strengthen channels of communication and were an opportunity for the rebels to voice their frustrations with the arming process. “We need to get our house in order,” said one commander, who like all of those interviewed spoke on condition that neither his name nor his area of operations be cited, due to the sensitivity of the meeting. “We are discussing the chaos of the [process of] arming, that there are warlords who accepted weapons and sat back and didn’t fight, they just amassed the weapons. We are sending them [the Saudis] the message that you made mistakes, and so did we. Some people became warlords and aren’t working. Some people are selling weapons, others say they have fighting groups but they don’t.”
All of the commanders TIME spoke to were optimistic that the Saudis would ferry more help to more moderate groups, but few thought the Qataris would stop supplying their favored battalions. “The difference is that the battalions who are against Jabhat al-Nusra will be strengthened,” said one young commander. “A fight with Jabhat al-Nusra is coming, we can no longer delay it.” That’s an unattractive prospect to many in the opposition, which was formed to fight the regime, not fellow rebels.
A Saudi representative in the meeting was at pains to stress that there was no such thing as a “separate Saudi and Qatari path,” according to two participants.
Some field commanders expected a working plan to come out of the meeting, or tangible support in the form of money or weapons they could return to Syria with. The only support that was offered – 300,000 bullets, an undisclosed number of rocket-propelled grenades and tank shells – was earmarked for the raging battle in the rebel-held city of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, where government troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hizballah were battling to wrest control of the strategically important city. The participants in the meeting were also reportedly given $5,000 to cover their expenses, much to the chagrin of several of them who said while they appreciated the Saudis covering their costs they had more urgent uses for the donated funds, including medical care for their wounded — and weapons.
“I’m in shock, I’m embarrassed to go back to my men empty-handed,” said one. “I need ammunition. It’s always promises, promises, but this time I was hoping for something more from the Saudis. Sometimes the Qataris offer you support immediately.”
Still, most of those TIME spoke to were cautiously optimistic that the Saudis would soon funnel more money and weapons their way. One, however, said past experience kept his enthusiasm in check. “I want to know, are we going to open a new page, or not?” The answer cannot come soon enough for Syria’s rebel forces.
05/22/13 By Aron Lund
There’s been some very interesting reports about conflicts within Jabhat al-Nosra, the salafi-jihadi rebel group that has been designated an al-Qaida-connected terrorist organization by the USA and several other countries.The background
If you follow Syria, you’re already familiar with the outlines of this, but here’s the very short version:
In a recorded voice statement released online on April 10, 2013, Jabhat al-Nosra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani confirmed that his group had been created with assistance from the Iraqi al-Qaida wing (called the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI). He also ”renewed” his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the international al-Qaida leader, leaving little doubt that he had been a sworn al-Qaida member all along. At the same time, Abu Mohammed distanced himself from the suggestion that a total merger had been agreed between Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI. This was in response to a statement put out on the previous day (April 9) by the ISI emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had said that both groups would now merge into something called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (let’s abbreviate it ISIS).
In sum, there was no dispute between the Syrian and Iraqi leaders about the fact that Jabhat al-Nosra is an al-Qaida faction ultimately loyal to Zawahiri, but they differed on whether it would be absorbed into a regional umbrella (ISIS) constructed from the Iraqi franchise (ISI) or retain its own separate identity within the international al-Qaida framework.
Syrian opposition groups reacted negatively, including the main Islamist formations, although most tempered their criticism by stressing the positive contributions of Jabhat al-Nosra to the uprising so far. For some responses to the Abu Mohammed and Abu Bakr statements by Islamist groups in Syria, see a previous post of mine on Syria Comment
, and these translations on Hassan Hassan’s site
After Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s strange semi-rebuttal to Abu Bakr on April 10, both groups fell silent, and everybody seemed to be waiting for an explanation. None came. Now, suddenly, several media reports have been published, suggesting that the dispute hasn’t been resolved but is in fact growing worse. In some of these reports, purported Jabhat al-Nosra fighters even talk about the group splitting apart or losing members, although they differ on who is leaving and for what reason.
Phil Sands – who wrote this sadly beautiful last letter from Damascus
a couple of months ago – offers one take on these events in The National
He quotes a Jabhat al-Nosra member from Damascus as saying that ”everyone I know was surprised by the statement; it was more than we’d expected to hear”, meaning the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri. The Jabhat al-Nosra member now worries that there will be clashes between Jabhat al-Nosra and the Western/Gulf backed factions grouped under the FSA label, after Jabhat al-Nosra came out of the closet as an official al-Qaida franchise.
The gist of Sands’s article is that locally recruited and/or pragmatic fighters are upset with Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and al-Qaida, because it will make it harder for them to focus on fighting Assad. (They’re probably right about that.) There’s no claim of an open split in the group, yet, but it does indicate internal tension between locally-minded grassroots fighters and the globalist, Qaida-connected leadership.Claims Karouny
Writing for Reuters
, Mariam Karouny has a much more spectacular take on what is going on. She also quotes people in and close to Jabhat al-Nosra, as well as some rivals to the group.
The narrative that emerges is one of a full-blown split within the group, threatening to unravel the Syrian al-Qaida network. According to this version, Jabhat al-Nosra is now torn between the adherents of Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his Iraqi counterpart and self-styled superior, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In this version, the ISIS project is going ahead despite Abu Mohammed’s objections, and has already incorporated a significant chunk of Jabhat al-Nosra’s organization. Abu Bakr is said to have moved into the Aleppo region to rally his own adherents, while fighters loyal to Abu Mohammed refuse to submit to his dictates or surrender the Jabhat al-Nosra brand. Karouny quotes a Nosra source close to Abu Mohammed al-Joulani as trying to minimize the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and saying that it came about in an “attempt by [Abu Mohammed al-Joulani] to keep his distance from Baghdadi.” According to another Nosra source quoted in the article, ”The situation has changed a lot. Baghdadi’s men are working but Nusra is not working formally anymore”.
If this is true, we’re talking about a Fukushima-level ideological meltdown in one of Syria’s most important rebel groups.ISIS vs. Jabhat al-Nosra?
Phil Spencer in the Daily Telegraph
makes a similar claim, based on Aleppo sources outside of Jabhat al-Nosra, and says that its fighters are withdrawing from the Aleppo frontlines. An opposition activist in Raqqa is cited by the AFP
. He makes the same case, depicting an Iraqi takeover that is being resisted by a rump faction of Jabhat al-Nosra:The activist said that in Raqa, even within jihadists’ ranks there is division.“The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is becoming more powerful than al-Nusra Front in some areas,” he said.He said the
[Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] had tried to bring the jihadist al-Nusra Front under its full control, but could not.“Now they are two groups, competing against each other for influence,” said the activist, who is well-informed on political developments in rebel-held areas.al-Manara al-Beida clams up
Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nosra’s only approved source of public communications, the online media organization al-Manara al-Beida, has fallen silent since the April 10 release by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani. The ISI’s media wing, al-Furqan, is also out of commission since the April 9 statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (I’m thankful to Aaron Zelin, who helped me check this. His invaluable site Jihadology provides a full list of Jabhat al-Nosra
statements in PDF format, drawn from the main jihadi web forums.)
Jihadi communications can be very irregular indeed, for all sorts of reasons, but the total shutdown of both these media offices simultaneously is such a striking coincidence that of course it is no coincidence. al-Manara al-Beida used to publish a batch of field reports about their (oh! glorious!) victories almost weekly, with occasional video releases and the odd media statement in between. But now, when it seems they would be most eager to explain what is going on, there’s been nothing but ghastly silence for a month and a half.
The only thing we’ve heard from Jabhat al-Nosra since April 10 has come through unofficial channels, like leaders speaking to the media, contrary to their own stated policy. There’s also been two statements purportedly from Jabhat al-Nosra’s section in the Deraa region, published on May 7 and May 22. But they didn’t arrive through al-Manara al-Beida. The Deraa statements aren’t reporting attacks either. Rather, they are an odd-sounding laundry list of complaints and sharia rulings about stuff that the Deraa jihadis are fed up with, such as people spreading rumors, fence-sitting Druze people, out-of-control salafi clerics posing as Jabhat al-Nosra representatives, swindlers scamming jihadis for money, and low-quality recruits from Jordan. As if fighting Assad wasn’t enough! But they include nothing directly related to the al-Qaida brouhaha.Confusion all around
In the absence of any clarification from the actors themselves, nobody seems sure about what is actually going on. Does ISIS exist? Has there been a split in Jabhat al-Nosra? If so, is it between Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his locally recruited followers, who take issue with his declaration of allegiance to Zawahiri? Or is it between Abu Mohammed and the Iraqi emir Abu Bakr, who has mounted an internal coup against his leadership? And to whom would Zawahiri give his blessing, as supreme commander of al-Qaida?
Maybe it isn’t a nation-wide Syrian split, but a division which plays out differently in different parts of the organization? Maybe it’s just a little local rebellion? Or maybe it’s a huge deal, and the undertow from an ISI thrust into Syria will seep back across the border, and onwards through the global Qaida network?
Maybe. Maybe! Or maybe this is all a simple misunderstanding, a little communications mishap which will be sorted out once the three leaders involved – Abu Mohammed al-Joulani of Jabhat al-Nosra, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the ISI, and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaida’s general command – have decided on the proper language for a joint statement.
Despite the fact that both the Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI media wings seem to have been knocked out cold by the April 9-10 controversy, the fighters themselves are still soldiering on. Some Jabhat al-Nosra members are said to have died in the battle in al-Quseir just the other day. And bombs are still going off at an impressive pace in Iraq, leaving little doubt that ISI is still around. Meanwhile, a thin trickle of videotapes in the ISIS name has started to show up online, although not through “official” channels, making it doubtful what or who they really represent. (On the fine Brown Moses blog
, Aymenn Al Tamimi writes a guest post about this.)Un-conclusion
So what to make of it? Oh, I have no idea. And my guess is that no one else does either, despite the tsunami of speculative hypotheses that is already starting to build at the far end of the Internet.
As far as I’m concerned, the only thing we can assume with a reasonable degree of certainty is that (1) the contradictory statements, and (2) the sudden interruption of Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI communications, and (3) the flood of reports about internal discontent and splits is means that there actually is or has been a significant internal disagreement between two or more of these Qaida factions.
And whatever it is, because of (2) and (3), they will now have to deal with rumors and hostile propaganda too. Even if they’ve now sorted it all out, they have a serious public relations crisis on their hands. That’s no small matter in a situation as media-driven as the Syrian conflict.
Perhaps we will now simply get a statement setting the record straight by affirming that Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI either have or haven’t merged into ISIS. And if so, maybe they’ll shutter al-Manara al-Beida and al-Furqan and present a new media wing for them both, explaining the long silence.
If, on the other hand, there are indeed irreconcileable differences between two or more of the players involved, then I guess there will be several statements, which will make for very interesting reading. Zawahiri should have the final word, but he’s off in Pakistan somewhere, and who knows how long he can keep his Mashreqi lieutenants in line after they’ve outgrown him politically and militarily.
At some point we’ll certainly know more about what’s happening, and then we can start to draw conclusions. But right now, we don’t, and we can’t. So let’s just sit here and listen to the eerie silence of al-Manara al-Beida – the sound of one of the worst Syrian communication gaffes since March 30, 2011
Source: Syria Comment
Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
05/23/13 By Aryn Baker
Fighting continued for a fifth straight day in the strategic Syrian city of Qusayr, as opposition forces fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad sought desperately to maintain their slipping grip in a battle that could dictate the direction of the war. As government tanks, artillery and warplanes pounded rebel positions throughout the city, fighters engaged in sniper attacks and small forays against government ground troops seeking to take terrain. Rebel fighters are calling it one of the worst ground battles of the war.
“In some areas the fight is within three-meters diameter, and you are able to hear them yelling and crying in the battlefield,” Abu al-Baraa, a field commander from the Jabhat al-Nusra in Qusayr, tells TIME by telephone from Tripoli, where he is recovering from wounds gained earlier in the week. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra is fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of volunteers, jihadists and opportunists aligned against the regime. Al-Baraa says he is in constant contact with his men at the front. “Now the battle is centralized in the eastern side of Qusayr, and our mujahedin
are teaching [the Syrian government forces] hard lessons which, God willing, they will never forget.” He says his brigade has more than 2,000 fighters willing to sacrifice their lives to prevent Qusayr from being taken back by regime forces. Assad’s supporters are equally ferocious in their desire to retake the city, which has been under rebel control for several months.
Qusayr, a city of 30,000, straddles a key transit corridor between the Syrian capital of Damascus and the coast. Victory in Qusayr allows the regime easy access to the Mediterranean port city of Tartus, where Russian tankers can supply both oiland weapons in case the Damascus airport is destroyed. Tartus is also the entryway to a coastal region dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect — an essential refuge for the President and his supporters should Damascus fall. “No doubt Qusayr is a strategic city for the Rafidah,” says al-Baraa, using a derogatory name for Alawites, meaning rejecters, or apostates. “It is the main city that will allow them to link their state together.”
For the rebels, Qusayr is an important logistics hub. Weapons and supplies can easily be smuggled over the porous Lebanese border, 10 km away, and fighters, like al-Baraa, use safe houses across the border for rest and recovery. Members of Hizballah, an Iranian-linked Shi‘ite militia based in Lebanon, have gone across the border in the opposite direction to help the regime, raising fears of a regional and sectarian conflagration. With more than 80,000 killed in a civil war that has gone on for more than two years, the fight for Qusayr is seen as a pivotal test by both sides. George Sabra, acting head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition based in Turkey, reiterated the importance of Qusayr in a statement calling for reinforcements of men and weapons on Wednesday, citing concerns about sectarian violence and “foreign invaders” from Hizballah and Iran. “Everyone who has weapons or ammunition should send them to Qusayr and Homs to strengthen its resistance. Every bullet sent to Qusayr and Homs will block the invasion that is trying to drag Syria back to the era of fear.”
Why Syria’s Rebels Aren’t Winning)
In a war where journalists have limited access, the propaganda battle of Qusayr is equally vociferous. The government news agency SANA claims to have taken half the city, whereas a local government official from the district governor’s office told the Associated Press that 80% of Qusayr was in government hands. Rebel fighters in the western part of the city, where the fighting is most fierce, told TIME by Skype that the FSA has 60% of the city. “We still control the center of Qusayr and the west,” says activist Abu Islam, speaking from the FSA’s Qusayr media center. As proof, he pointed out that the media center was able to run on generator power and he could speak safely using the Internet. On Twitter, rebels, activists and government supporters traded taunts and crowed over successes. “So far we have the bodies of 50 pigs,” al-Baraa told TIME, using an extremely pejorative term for anyone of the Muslim faith. Then, using a play on words that twisted the meaning of Hizballah, or Party of God, into party of idol worshipers, he said “Hizb el-Lat already lost 70 fighters under the strikes of ourmujahedin
, and if they continue the number will be more than 700.” Others in Qusayr projected weary defiance. One doctor, filmed at a makeshift field hospital where he attended wounded civilians and rebel fighters, said that half the houses in the city had been destroyed, that scores had been injured and that there was a shortage of “everything.” Still, he declared: “We will not surrender, and Qusayr will not fall.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a meeting with the Friends of Syria group in Amman on Wednesday, admitted that the regime had “made some gains in the last few days but this has gone up and down like a seesaw.” Kerry told reporters that Assad was “miscalculating” if he thought the advances would be decisive. But hopeful predictions that the regime is on its last legs are just that — hopeful. For nearly a year observers have spoken of the government’s imminent collapse, only to be proved wrong again and again. As long as Syria has the support of Iran and Russia, it is unlikely to fall no matter how well armed the rebels.
Victory in Qusayr, for either side, will have long-term implications, not just for Syria but for the region. The U.S., Russia and the international community are preparing for a summit next month that hopes to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. By reasserting its military superiority in Qusayr, and by extension the west of the country, before the summit, the regime will be able to transform its military advances into a stronger negotiating position. For Russia this means keeping Tartus, its only warm-water port, in the hands of a close ally, even if the rest of the country falls to the rebels. For Iran, it means keeping a conduit open to its proxy, Hizballah. For that reason alone, Israel will keep a close eye on what happens next in Qusayr. “There are several thousands of Hizballah militia forces on the ground in Syria who are contributing to this violence, and we condemn that,” said Kerry at the Friends of Syria meeting, referring to Qusayr. If the regime can consolidate power from Damascus to the coast in a swath of territory that flanks northern Lebanon and Hizballah’s Lebanese heartland of the Bekaa Valley, the opportunity for weapons transfer from Iran to the sworn enemy of Israel via the Syrian capital will be even stronger. The Israelis have already targeted Syrian military positions three times under the suspicion that they were being used as transit points for weapons destined for Hizballah in Lebanon.
But the greatest risk of a regime success in Qusayr would most likely fall on its vulnerable neighbor, Lebanon. The conflict has already spilled into the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where Alawites and Sunni Muslims have fought pitched street battles, killing 14 since Sunday. Rebel commanders in Syria, and Sunni religious leaders in Lebanon, have hinted at sectarian revenge attacks against Shi‘ites and Alawites on both sides of the border should Qusayr fall, laying the groundwork for a regional sectarian conflict.
05/23/13 By Richard Spencer and Ruth Sherlock
The posters of President Bashar al-Assad hang over the streets of Damascus a little prouder these days.
A few weeks ago, rebel mortars landed on Umayyad Square, the capital's symbolic centre, and the noise of shelling was close and ever-present.
After two years of insurgency, residents said the city's upmarket central boulevards felt besieged for the first time.
The state television building was attacked. Rebels established a chain of control from the north of the city around its eastern side to the fringes of the airport to the south-west. Even analysts who thought Mr Assad would be hard to beat were talking of a last stand on the Qasioun Mountains behind the city.
Photo: Rex Features
Now Mr Assad is fighting back, to despairing rebel admission. Those same analysts suggest he could be in a position to deal an ultimately fatal blow. Even before the current battle for Qusayr on the Lebanese border, he was making small but strategic gains around Damascus, and in the centre of the country.
Mr Assad has reopened the road to Deraa and Jordan, and brought to a halt the sweeping rebel gains in the north, which began last July with the seizure of half of Aleppo and culminated when the opposition, led by the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, swept to the Iraqi border in March.
The German intelligence agency BND, which last year was predicting the regime's imminent collapse, believes Mr Assad could regain the entire south by the end of the year, according to a report leaked to Der Spiegel. Other Western powers appear to think in similar terms.
The regime may not have regained much territory, but it has taken supply lines, allowing it to hit back at will.
Predictions of an Assad victory might be premature, but the political and military opposition are badly divided between Islamists, militants and secular forces. This is likely to be exacerbated if they do not resume the charge.
Photo: David Rose/Telegraph
At a checkpoint on the edge of Aleppo's Old City last weekend, a young man with a Kalashnikov looked disconsolately at a tortoise playing in a pen next to him.
Malek looked 16 but said he was 20, and until four days before he had dreams of being part of a great rebel push south. Guarding someone's pet was rather a comedown.
"I was hit in the knee by shrapnel," he said. "I was in a battle in Sheikh Saeed. The army have taken the construction company building and pinned us down. They have snipers, they have tanks.
"Every time they sense movement they hit it with a tank. In fact if they see a single soldier they hit him with a tank."
Sheikh Saeed is part of the suburban quagmire into which the rebels have sunk. Last November, they started a push to the south of Aleppo, past Sheikh Saeed, towards the airport. But the regime consolidated and has pushed back.
Scores of rebels are dead, or nursing injuries, like Malek.
The first rebel gains last year were relatively easy: the countryside and poor neighbourhoods in big cities such as Aleppo, Damascus and Homs are conservative, their Sunni inhabitants long opposed to the Alawite Assads and their wealthy, metropolitan allies. It is the bits in between, such as Sheikh Saeed and downtown Damascus, that are difficult.
At military bases, rebels and regime fight face to face, with the rebels' greater determination pitted against the regime's better weapons, air support and tactical ruthlessness.
These battles sap rebels' enthusiasm and weaken their numbers, if only by tying them down. In Minegh airbase, north-east of Aleppo, a few hundred Assad men, totally surrounded, have held at bay battalions of two big brigades since August.
Every day, jets drop bombs on the assailants. From inside, the regime shells surrounding villages, helping to engender a disillusion with the revolution even in its heartland.
Then there are the large towns, where rebel lines can become stretched in the face of overwhelming power, as at Sheikh Saeed or, now Qusayr.
Here, the regime not only has support from Iranian advisers and the Lebanese Hizbollah militia, but it does seem to be also for the first time matching the rebels' willingness to fight. The number of defections has declined, and both sides talk of there being a new spirit in Assad's men.
The Syrian armed forces were trained to fight a long-range war, and had no idea how to fight an insurgency, except with its brutal sectarian militia, the Shabiha.
Now the government has created a 60,000-strong volunteer group, the National Defence Force, that can match rebel tactics and fight street by street. "Before we used to guard the neighbourhood around our houses, but now we are more organised. We are participating in military actions," one recruit in Damascus said.
Until the NDF was created, the regime would "retake" a district by sending tanks down the main streets, snapping photographs, and then withdrawing again, leaving the rebels to move back in. Now a combination of urban warfare training and a greater inculcation with "patriotic values", is making a difference. "We are not fighting for Assad," the man said. "The country comes first. He is the best in the world but we still don't fight for him, we fight for the country. Those people want to take us back to the dark ages."
Morale on the opposition side has slumped. Abdulaziz al-Salameh, the political head of Aleppo's biggest brigade, the Tawhid, last August toldThe Daily Telegraph that he would turn the city into Assad's Stalingrad before moving south on Homs and Damascus.
But Aleppo's front lines are now remarkably close to where they were then. A brief tour of the Great Mosque, seized a month ago, is a tear-inducing reminder of the effects of war, its 11th-century minaret rubble, its arches burnt and smashed, snipers exchanging shots across the alley outside.
What somehow makes it worse is that the mosque is the only territory here that has changed hands in six months.
"If we had more ammunition we could take Aleppo in 20 days," Mr Salameh said. But he does not: support from the rebels' Gulf allies is patchy and uncoordinated, while the West refuses to give weapons at all.
In fact, he says, the air raids that met any advance in the city were so devastating they are now leaving the regime-held areas alone.
The loss of momentum is having a huge effect. One Tawhid figure estimated that 30 per cent of its strength had defected to the better-resourced Jabhat al-Nusra.
Jabhat al-Nusra itself has now split into two factions, in favour and against a merger with al-Qaeda's Iraq arm, but that is little consolation.
"The government is couching this as a straight fight between itself, a moderate secular bastion, and Nusra and al-Qaeda," David Hartwell, senior Middle East Analyst for Jane's, said.
"There are plenty of Syrians who are willing to take that message. Many Syrians have taken a hard look at Assad and at the opposition and they don't draw much hope from the opposition."
Senior British security sources now believe that, in their own terms, rebels risk defeat.
However, they also stress that does not mean Mr Assad will "win", either, in terms of retaking the whole country. The German intelligence assessment also concludes: "The BND does not believe that Assad's military is strong enough to defeat the rebels."
That is because even with Iranian and Hizbollah support, it is hard to see him retaking the large swathe of the north he has lost. At best, he would face a running jihadist insurgency.
The question is, what remains. A likely scenario has him consolidating the centre and his north-western Alawite heartlands, with major rebel areas – one centred on Aleppo allied to Turkey, one in the east run by Sunni militants – maintaining an impoverished, violent, separate authority. The country would divide – or, as Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday – disintegrate.
It is this outcome that supporters of the opposition such as Britain and the US hope to ward off, fearing it would breed a regional sectarian war – as well as marking a success of sorts for Iran. There is no alternative except negotiation, Mr Hague added.
For Mr Assad, that is in itself a victory of sorts - an acceptance that he is still in place, a realisation that by just not losing he is winning.
And that, of course, is one thing the rebels do not accept.
"If the revolution continues for 100 years, and everything is destroyed, we will never leave him in power," Mr Salameh said.
Disintegration it is.
05/23/13 By David Westin
I spent yesterday touring the fifth largest city in Jordan. It's named Zaatari, its population is over 120,000, most of the people who live there are children, and it was founded less than ten months ago. It's a Syrian refugee camp.
What's going on in the desert just south of the Syrian/Jordanian border would break your heart, if its overwhelming scope didn't numb you first. The size of the need is too great to comprehend in full. And these 120,000 people are only a fraction of the Syrian refugees spread throughout northern Jordan -- not to speak of those in Lebanon and Turkey and even in Iraq. More pour in every day.
Zaatari is a city with no sidewalks or trees or parks. It's covered instead with dirt and gravel without a tree or bush in sight under a sun that has already grown hot in May. Row after row of tents are packed in more closely than they're supposed to be because families and even villages want to be close. There is no running water and no regular electricity (other than what some people take through jury-rigged splices into the lines running to outdoor lights set high up on poles through much of the camp). Cooking is done (or supposed to be done) in centralized cooking areas using propane gas. Cinder block latrines are scattered through the camp. And the children are everywhere.
Seeking to meet the enormous needs in Zaatari is a multi-national effort of equally enormous scope and complexity. To create the camp, a large group of private and United Nations NGOs (such as UNICEF and UNHCR), working with the Jordanian government, have cleared an area in the wilderness and conjured this ad hoc city out of shipped-in tents, small trailers, food, water, hard work, and passion.
I went to the camp with Save the Children, on whose board I serve, to see for myself what I've read about only intermittently in the U.S. press
. What is being done by Save the Children and the other NGOs at Zaatari is truly heroic. They're providing the basic essentials through a food allocation system that has each of the 26,000 families come to one of two locations every nine days (according to the size of the family) and carry back to their tent or trailer boxed staples, including rice, lentils, cooking oil, and some canned goods. Bread is distributed daily. Fresh water is trucked in and sewage removed.
Beyond the bare essentials, the NGOs are trying to give the children in the camp a semblance of the life every child needs and deserves. There are two school complexes attended by about 5,000 children -- sadly only a fraction of the school-age children in the camp. I saw beautiful four- and five-year-olds enthusiastically showing up for kindergarten with their Save the Children backpacks and their smiles, led by Jordanian teachers and Syrian volunteers in songs and routines that would fit right into just about any kindergarten anywhere. Young men play soccer on an artificial turf pitch -- the only piece of green I saw, other than three small flowers planted and tended by the kindergartners outside the tents where they go to classes.
There's much for those involved in Zaatari to be proud of. There's an enormous effort being made largely out of the spotlight of world attention simply because it's the right thing to do. But let's not kid ourselves. Much, much more will be needed as refugees continue to flee the conflict in Syria and months drag on as the hot spring sun turns into the even hotter summer sun beating down on the tents and trailers and dirt of Zaatari. The need to engage the tens of thousands of children will become greater and more urgent. The enormous weight of Zaatari falls as well on the Jordanian communities throughout the north, many of which lacked sufficient resources even before this crisis and are now under more strain than ever. The entire country of Jordan is bearing a burden it was not equipped to bear.
And, perhaps most difficult of all, the needs created by the Syrian exodus will go on for years to come. The real test will be whether we have the staying power to support the efforts in Zaatari and elsewhere as months drag into years. But walking the streets of Zaatari leaves no doubt about what's at stake when a generation of children face the upheaval of fleeing a violent conflict, having their education interrupted, and growing up too soon.. The best way to make sure we don't drive more young people toward extremism in the center of what is already one of the most dangerous corners of the world is to do our best to save the children of Zaatari.
Source: Huffington Post
05/22/13 By Matthew Barber
Newly-elected to the Syrian National Coalition, Sheikh Mohammad al-Yaqoubi is moderate, influential, and ready to go to work
From the beginning of the uprising, mainstream Syrian Sunni ‘ulema
—the traditional scholars who have spoken for Islam for centuries and who most Syrians recognize as the quintessential voices for religious interpretation—have been marginalized in the Syrian opposition, as Islamists of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood persuasion steamrolled their way to dominance in both the SNC and the National Coalition. But an emerging Sufi current within the Syrian resistance could soon provide an alternative to Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and change the dynamics of the political opposition.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi has just been elected to the National Coalition, the first figure of the Sufi ‘ulema
to break through the Islamist exclusivity that has kept them out until now. His appointment will be announced shortly at a National Coalition conference. Along with other Sufi sheikhs, al-Ya’qoubi is heading up efforts to solidify a Sufi bloc of political leadership and nationalist-oriented rebel groups fighting in Syria who give allegiance to the leadership of Sufi ‘ulema
. He also supports efforts to train Syrian rebels in Jordan.
Early on in the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood worked to dominate the political opposition. The SNC primarily consisted of parties loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. The National Coalition was later created to break this one-sided disparity, but ended up being dominated by others with Muslim Brotherhood connections, as well.
While this was the reality of the external opposition, an imbalance also formed on the ground inside Syria, as Islamist rebels received more foreign support and rose to prominence. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi feels that the U.S. made the mistake of “leaving of the ‘Syrian file’ to the regional powers,” which allowed this trend to intensify as Gulf powers targeted Islamist groups with their aid. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been primarily involved in arming rebels, but the Saudis recently pulled back their level of support. They have an ambivalent relationship with Islamist movements; on the one hand, they support the proliferation of one of the most extreme and anti-Sufi forms of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world. Simultaneously, they fear Islamist movements such as the MB who pose a political threat to monarchy. As the character of the militarized opposition has evolved increasingly toward Islamism, with a recent climax of Jabhat al-Nusra announcing allegiance to al-Qaida and declaring an Islamic state in Syria
, reports suggested that the Saudis decided to cut off support they had been offering.
Declining aid, however, has ironically resulted in the end of much of the support that nationalist-oriented rebels were receiving, and many rebels have complained
that the remaining contributions from Qatar
are reaching only the Islamist fighters. Continuing trends solidifying Islamist domination of both the political and military oppositions have further weakened the desire of the international community for intervention in Syria, though the fact that several regions are now controlled by al-Qaida-linked groups has prompted some to call for the preparation of a drone strategy for Syria, prompting fears that it will end up looking like another Afghanistan.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi’s entrance into the political opposition marks a development running counter to the dominant Islamist trend. Al-Ya’qoubi is respected as one of the leading scholars and Sufi clerics in Syria, and has beenranked
as the second-most influential Muslim religious figure of the country. The brand of Islam he represents is expressed in a statement of sympathy
he issued following the Boston Bombing. He studied in the West and is fluent in English and Swedish.
like Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi served for centuries as the interpreters of Islamic sources and traditions, but after the fall of the last Islamic empire, the process of modernization that accompanied the rise of the nation state presented a challenge to their role of traditional authority. The erosion of their power was further aggravated by the emergence of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood who introduced new interpretations of Islamic texts, contrary to the classical traditions that had existed for centuries.
Under the Ba’athists, some of Syria’s ‘ulema
became seen as coopted figures who stayed close to the regime and lent it legitimacy. Others however, remained at arm’s length from the regime, and when the uprising began, they asserted their criticism of it, as did Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi. In addition to his widespread recognition among Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims, his credibility is bolstered by being the cleric who issued the first fatwa
against Bashar al-Assad, in July of 2011.
After publically criticizing the regime’s violence against demonstrators in two sermons delivered at mosques in April and May 2011, he fled Syria and issued his fatwa
against the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi represents the kind of moderate, traditional Islam that most Syrians are familiar with, the Islam challenged by both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Though taking an unambiguous stance against the regime’s violence, injustice, and terror, he also continues to exert his influence encouraging rebels to avoid terrorism through fatwas
condemning tactics such as car-bombings, kidnapping, landmines, the killing of prisoners, and violence against non-combatants politically aligned with the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi has combatted the fatwas
of extremist clerics who have called for the targeted sectarian killing of Alawite women and children by issuing his own fatwas
prohibiting the killing of civilians of the Alawite minority. He maintains a very clear position defending the rights of all minorities, including those condemned by extremists as heterodox.
Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi also differs with the Islamist agenda to “Islamize” Syria’s laws. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups promote a kind of activism that seeks to implement a greater degree of Islamic law in the state. The growing use of “Islamic law” by Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups in territory controlled by rebels likely prompted the announcement by Mu’az al-Khatib of an effort to introduce a “code” of Islamic law sanctioned by the opposition that the rebels could implement—an apparent attempt to assuage this desire manifesting in a stampede toward “shari’a
” while ensuring that such a law would be relatively moderate. Where does Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi stand on this issue? He thinks Syria’s current family laws are just fine, and are already sufficiently compatible with the shari’a
. He also believes that legal reform should not be pursued before a constitutionally-based committee can be formed which would tackle any needed changes, after
the regime has fallen and a new Syrian government has been created.
Despite being well-known in Syria and playing an important role in the history of the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi ‘ulema
like him have been excluded from the political opposition. Desperation following the slow, groaning crisis of the opposition’s ineffectiveness, as well as fears that figures like al-Ya’qoubi may band together and form an alternative opposition have led to his appointment to the National Coalition, following a letter he drafted to Mu’az al-Khatib, signed by 25 Sufi sheikhs and containing an ultimatum about the need for their participation in the political process.
One obvious question is: what level of real influence will the Sheikh have? Does his participation mark the beginning of a trend, or will he merely be the NC’s token member of the ‘ulema
In addition to having already played an important role throughout the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi leaders have been building influence lately, working together for about six months to form an umbrella organization for rebel groups comprised of Sunnis and Sufis aligned with Syria’s mainstream values, rather than Islamist agendas. The organization is called the Movement for Building Civilization. He and his peers have produced a charter document which rebels groups can sign, pledging agreement with a set of foundational principles, including:
- Removing the regime while not destroying the state—protecting public institutions;
- The rejection of revenge, retaliation, and execution during the uprising, keeping the trials of war criminals for after the collapse of the regime and the establishment of a new government;
- After the collapse of the regime, rebel groups should cease to carry arms and their members should return to civilian life or join the national army;
- All ethnic and religious communities are to be defended as equal citizens under the law;
- No ethnic or religious group is to be held responsible for the crimes of the regime;
- A future Syrian government must operate according to a separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers;
- The future government must be a democracy of political multiplicity and the 1950 Constitution should be in effect during the interim period until a new parliament is elected and a new constitution is agreed upon.
Many young sheikhs who joined the Syrian uprising are frustrated with their lack of options regarding conservative political movements to be aligned with. The three main options are Salafis, Hezb al-Tahrir, and Muslim Brotherhood movements, none of which well-represent mainstream Syrian Sunnis who look for the legitimacy of ‘ulema
leadership. This concern was a primary motivation for the creation of the Movement for Building Civilization. Al-Ya’qoubi and the sheikhs he works with are in contact with over 200 rebel groups who consult them regarding principles, goals, and methods, but many of these groups are disillusioned with the inability of the Sufi and ‘ulema
leadership to offer them any kind of practical monetary support. Lacking funding, groups that would like to follow moderate figures of the ‘ulema
will remain vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist forces.
The formation of a Sufi bloc within the opposition could provide an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, one that would represent far greater numbers of Syrians. Sheikh Ya’qoubi has stated that he supports a government in which the Muslim Brotherhood can operate, but that he opposes a monopoly of any one faction. He told me in a recent conversation: “We may have to deal with an Ikhwaani prime minister in the future Syria. That is democracy. But the real question is: will the government be of all one color, or will it be inclusive?”
There’s no question about which demographic will win this war: the next power in Syria will be Sunni. And the question goes beyond “how big” a Sunni win will occur. The real question is: which Sunni group’s brand of Islam will define the political paradigm of the new state? The influence of ‘ulema
who respect Syria’s diversity, promote a tolerant social sphere, and support an inclusive government structure will be extremely important in the nation’s future, and the international community should be in conversation with them.
Source: Syria Comment
05/23/12The interviewee is a young fighter from Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist Sunni group in Syria affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq. A former teacher and then tiler, he is dressed in well-ironed black trousers, a white shirt and a black turban. A gun rests on his lap. He is accompanied by an older man, who appears to be judging him on his answers. Both are Syrian and ask not to be named because they do not have permission to speak to the press. How has Jabhat al-Nusra become so powerful?
The reason is the weakening of the other groups. Jabhat al-Nusra gets the advantage because of our ideology. We are not just rebels; we are doing something we believe in. We are not just fighting against tyranny; Bashar Assad is only part of our fight. The other groups are only a reaction to the regime, whereas we are fighting for a vision.What is that vision?
We are fighting to apply what Allah said to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. We are fighting so people don’t look to other people but only to Allah. We don’t believe in complete freedom: it is restricted by Allah’s laws. Allah created us and he knows what is best for us.What future do you see for Syria—or do you even see a Syria in the future?
We want the future that Islam commands. Not a country with borders but an umma
[worldwide Islamic community of believers] of all the Muslim people. All Muslims should be united.Syria has long been known for its sectarian diversity. How do you view the other sects?
The other sects are protected by the Islamic state. Muhammad, peace be upon him, had a Jewish neighbour, for example, and he was always good to him. But the power and authority must be with the believers [Sunnis], not the unbelievers.What about other Sunnis who are more moderate than you?
We will apply sharia
law to them.What about Alawites?
Allah knows what will happen to them. There is a difference between the basic kuffar
[infidels] and those who converted from Islam. If the latter, we must punish them. Alawites are included. Even Sunnis who want democracy are kuffar
as are all Shia. It’s not about who is loyal and who isn’t to the regime; it’s about their religion. Sharia
says there can be no punishment of the innocent and there must be punishment of the bad; that’s what we follow.Did you lose or gain fighters following the announcement that you are linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq?
We’re with anything that represents real Islam, whether al-Qaeda or otherwise. If there is a better group, we’ll go with them instead. The effect of the announcement is that now we know our friends and our enemies. The good people will come to our side and the bad people will leave.Many, maybe most, Syrians do not share your views. Do you care?
It would be great if the Syrians were with us but the kuffar
are not important. Abraham and Sarah were facing all the infidels, for example, but they were doing the right thing. The number with us doesn’t matter.Which other rebel groups do you see as acceptable? Ahrar al-Sham, another Salafist group, criticised your links to al-Qaeda.
I think only 5% of the battalions are against the Islamic vision. Ahrar al-Sham are a mixture of Islamists and people who like Allah so we are not sure about their vision. We are very clear as the Prophet, peace be upon him, made it very clear to us. Other groups have good beliefs but we are the only committed ones.Will the differences lead to clashes, as have happened in some places? And how would you react if Western powers decide to arm other rebel groups?
If the arms reach people who will fight Assad and Hizbullah that’s okay. If they use them against us, then that’s a problem. We’ll avoid fighting [other groups] if we can. The West wants to ruin Syria.How hard is it to become a member of Jabhat al-Nusra?
We examine those who want to join. First you must be loyal to the idea of Jabhat al-Nusra. Second, you must get a recommendation [from someone in the organisation]. Third, you go to a camp to be educated and practice, and take the oath of loyalty to the emir [the group’s leader].Do you plan to carry out operations against the West in the future?
There is no permanent friendship and no permanent enemy. We’ll do whatever is in the interest of Muslims. The first duty on us is to fight the kuffar
among us here in the occupied Muslim lands. The next duty will be decided later.Do you have contact with the Syrian regime?
If it is in the interest of the Muslims, such as for gas or water, then we have no problem. These matters are in the hands of the emir.Your presence helps the regime which has long tried to portray the opposition as extremist. What do you think about that?
The regime maybe benefits but in the end we’ll show all humans, Syrian and otherwise, the way, and true Islam.What are your views of women?
The woman in Islam has a special role. She is respected as a wife, a sister, a mother, a daughter. She is a jewel we should preserve and look after. In the West they gave women freedom but they use them and don’t respect them. The woman is to use in adverts. We don’t have an issue with the woman working according to her mind and body. But not jobs that humiliate. Jewellery is okay on women, but not on men, and not too much. Make up should be just for your husband. You can wear coloured clothes and show your face. [The older man disagrees, saying women should cover their face and hands.]Shouldn't men also cover up to avoid women looking at other people's husbands?
Our women ask the same question. Some men can’t control themselves and the woman is the source. It’s easier to prevent abuse. The men’s role is to go out and work. Man’s brain is bigger than the woman’s—that’s scientifically proven. Men’s brains have different areas for speaking and thinking, but women’s don’t which is why women they say what they think.What if your interpretation of the Koran is wrong?
There are two types of verse. Firstly ones that are stable and unchanging, such as head-covering. Secondly ones on which people can differ, such as the rule demanding ablution after touching a woman. Does that mean touching her skin or intercourse? Opinions can differ.Do you consider any Islamists too radical, like the Taliban, for example?
There are people committed to Islam and then those far from it. No one committed is too radical. We haven’t met anyone from the Taliban but they seem good Muslims because they defended their religion and the occupation, they kicked out the enemy and applied sharia
.Did you study religion?
I was poor but I read the Bible, and lots of Jewish and Islamic books. My head and heart told me to accept the Koran and the Sunna
[accompanying religious texts]. Islam is different because it has a complete view of life, society, politics, economics—it is a complete system.We hear there is a split inside Jabhat al-Nusra about your links to al-Qaeda. Do you disagree about that or other matters?
There are small differences, but when we give loyalty, we obey.
05/23/13 By Basma Atassi
A former scientist for the Syrian chemical weapons programme said the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has enough of the nerve agent sarin to "eradicate the whole of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo".
Speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity after he fled from Syria, the chemist added that the regime is not likely to unleash its chemical stockpiles unless it “no longer cares about the world knowing".
"If the regime is to fire a Scud-B with a chemical warhead filled with sarin, the missile would create a chemical cloud in the atmosphere that is 3km long and 500m wide, which could be fatal to all people under it," the chemist said.
He claims that the regime has only used sarin nerve gas in small quantities to halt rebel advances in four towns in the suburbs of Damascus, in Aleppo’s Sheikh Maksoud district, in Idlib's Saraqeb town and in Homs' al-Khalidiyeh district.
"The intention was to incapacitate rebels and force them out of strategic areas, while keeping the deaths among their ranks limited," the chemist said, who added that he was speaking out "to dispel the myths on chemical weapons in Syria".
Al Jazeera was able to verify his former position at the chemistry institute of the Centre for Scientific Studies and Research (CSSR), Syria’s main agency for the development and enhancement of weaponry. It has been reported that a CSSR site in the Damascus suburb of Jamraya was targeted twice earlier this year by Israeli airstrikes.Syria's stockpile
The Syrian government has managed to keep information about its chemical weapons largely beyond the reach of outsiders, and to keep its scientists under heavy surveillance, even keeping some under 24-hour guard.
The exiled chemist says Syria’s stockpile comprises 700 tonnes of sarin agent, at least 3,000 aerial bombs that could be filled with chemical agents and more than 100 chemical warheads for Scud missiles.
Consistent with other intelligence reports, the chemist said that Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal also contains mustard gas and what experts describe as the deadliest of all nerve agents, VX.
Some Western intelligence agencies believe that Syria also has access to tabun nerve agent, but the chemist said these reports are untrue.
The regime and rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons on several occasions, and the issue has come to dominate recent debate about the two-year-long conflict.
While the US and Britain say they have "credible evidence" that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, and Turkey said its hospitals treated patients exposed to chemical attack, a UN human rights inquiry said it had "no conclusive findings on use of chemical weapons". Weaponisation of sarin
The chemist said he fled the country before December 23, 2012, when the first claims emerged about the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh, in the city of Homs. The neighbourhood is strategic because it divides Sunnis and largely pro-government Alawites.
A diluted mix of sarin and isopropyl alcohol was likely used in December 2012, according to the scientist, but he cast doubt on the claims of the regime and rebels that chemical weapons were used in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo on March 19.
Sarin is a colourless and odorless liquid. "When medics report [a] very disgusting smell, the way they did in Khan al-Assal, it is obvious it’s not coming from chemical weapons," the chemist said. "The fact that patients only suffered from suffocation and no other symptoms further confirms that it was not sarin."View map of suspected chemical weapons use here
The chemist said what was likely fired was military-grade tear gas, used as a substitute for chemical agents. The chemist explained that during the two-year conflict, the regime has experimented with mixing different gases - like sarin and tear gas - in order to create a mélange of symptoms that would make the cause hard to identify.
"When opposition activists report different kinds of symptoms resulting from the different gases, it becomes hard to believe them. Some opposition fighters report a burning sensation in the eyes, raising the question as to whether this was tear gas or nerve gas," the chemist said.
Salman al-Sheikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, said that mixing different gases is a way for the regime to test the "red line" set down by US President Barack Obama, which - if crossed by the use of chemical weapons - could require firm action by the international community. But once the regime found no serious international response, it carried on with the use of chemical arms in different strategic areas, he said. Supervisor 'forcibly held'
The exiled chemist said plans to use chemical agents against rebel forces were formed in December 2012, just after the disappearance of his former supervisor, a CSSR scientist. The chemist believes his supervisor is currently being forcibly held by the regime to find solutions to stabilise sarin in small munitions like cannon shells.
Assad’s military is believed to have long-range weapons systems capable of delivering chemical weapons via warheads on ballistic missiles, or through bombs dropped by aircraft.
Members of the supervisor’s family and two of his colleagues at the CSSR told Al Jazeera that he was kidnapped in December, but they refused to elaborate on who might have abducted him or why, citing security concerns. Al Jazeera is withholding the name of the supervisor for security reasons.
The exiled scientist estimates the number of CSSR employees at around 9,000 people, with up to 6,000 working in rocket development and around 300 in chemical weapon development. None of the staff are authorised to speak to the media or reveal the nature of their work. Their movements are heavily scrutinised by the Syrian regime.
“Syrian researchers who work with chemical weapons are not known to people at the street level, nor to the ministries, nor to the general army,” the chemist said.Army loyalty
Scientists in the chemistry institute work in close collaboration with two secret army units, 451 and 452, which handle chemical weapons and have the responsibility for securing stockpiles.
General Zaher al-Saket, the former head of the chemical warfare administration in the Syrian Army’s 5th Division, who defected last month, told Al Jazeera he was one of the candidates set to be promoted to Unit 451. But the regime wanted to make sure all those handling chemical weapons were loyal to the regime, so "they chose Colonel Mohammad Ali Wannous, because he was an Alawite", Saket said.
It is not known exactly when chemical weapons production in Syria began. The chemist said that all infrastructure and equipment to produce the nerve agent sarin was provided to Syria by what was then West Germany. As for VX, the chemist said that Syria in the 1990s used the expertise of Armenian specialists trained in the Soviet Union before its collapse.
Allegations of foreign assistance to Syria’s chemical weaponisation are difficult to assess due to the heavy veil of secrecy surrounding the programme.
“The project was developed with national hands”, the chemist said, adding that he did not see evidence of cooperation from Iran or North Korea.
The scientist said the regime had convinced him that the weapons he was working on were for self-defence against Israel. "It was our dogma that we were creating the equivalent of Israel’s nuclear weapons," the chemist said. "Never were we told that the weapons could be used inside the country."
Source: Al Jazeera
05/22/13 By Edward P. Joseph and Elizabeth O'Bagy
In a situation as complex as Syria’s, the search for parallels is understandable. Indeed, the current effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry to reach a diplomatic settlement draws its inspiration from the Dayton Agreement, which ended another seemingly intractable civil war in Bosnia. Concerted diplomacy backed by air strikes achieved a settlement within a matter of months in Bosnia. So, could the Bosnia model end the bloodshed in Syria?
On the surface, the similarities are compelling. As President Obama has done in Syria, President Clinton strenuously avoided becoming involved militarily in Bosnia. In both situations, an arms embargo helped freeze into place a substantial advantage for the dominant regime. Fearing a quagmire if it got involved, the Clinton administration was ambivalent even about its own proposal to lift the arms embargo and conduct air strikes, and was palpably relieved when European capitals rejected it. Washington then, as now, emphasized humanitarian relief for the million plus refugees and internally displaced, while some arms shipments went through to the beleaguered Bosniak Muslims behind the scenes (ironically, some of these shipments were facilitated by Iran.)
Then, something changed. By 1995, the administration realized that the cost of inaction in Bosnia, particularly the potential damage with NATO allies, was greater than the risk of intervention. Meanwhile, U.S. investments in the Croat and Muslim armies began to pay off. The two launched a ground offensive later that year that combined with NATO air strikes to send the Serbs into panicked retreat. With the situation on the ground closely aligned with a proposed fifty-fifty territorial split under the peace plan, the United States launched the talks in Dayton, Ohio that ended the war.
Recognizing the growing risks in Syria—which are far more serious than anything seen in the Balkans—the administration has thrown itself into the effort to forge a diplomatic settlement. But the effort is already running into obstacles. Moscow just announced that it is impossible to convene the Syria conference this month, as was the goal. This is not surprising. What’s missing is the crucial precondition to diplomacy in Bosnia: changing the situation on the ground. It was Washington’s build up of Croat and Muslim forces, along with NATO air strikes and tightening sanctions, that brought the humbled Serbs to the negotiating table.
In Syria, the dynamics are moving in the opposite direction. The Assad regime has advanced in strategically important locations in the areas around Homs that link Damascus to its most important supply routes along the coast while the opposition, suffering from a lack of resources, has struggled to maintain control of the main Aleppo-Damascus highway, thus reopening ground resupply routes to the regime. Assad has also been able to rely more directly on Hezbollah, whose deeper involvement has provided reinforcements to key battle areas, including Qusayr, a key town in Homs province, revitalizing Assad’s forces. To make matters worse, the opposition is increasingly led by radical Islamists, some of whom have allied with al-Qaeda, further strengthening the regime’s narrative that it is fighting “terrorists.”
This raises the question whether the U.S.-Russian peace conference—even if it succeeds in the daunting task of bringing the parties to the table—will achieve anything. The war in Bosnia saw many international parleys in Geneva that led nowhere. There were dozens of ceasefires, most of which immediately dissolved. If a “new Dayton” peace conference over Syria is to achieve a settlement, or even a lasting ceasefire, then the situation on the ground will have to change, concentrating the minds of President Assad and his inner circle. This is a far more difficult task given the regime’s intense personal investment in the conflict. By contrast, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic proved to be an opportunist, who by 1995 was willing to trade the interests of hard-line Bosnian and Croatian Serbs for sanctions relief.
Washington’s hope is that Moscow will intensify the pressure on Assad, but it is unlikely the Syrian President will kowtow to the Russians. He has far more stalwart and significant backers in Iran. And it is unlikely that Moscow will turn up the heat on Assad to the boiling point. Russia is far closer to the Assad regime than it ever was to the Serbs, who mostly served as an occasional foil to NATO and widening American influence in the Balkans.
While the Clinton administration was able to rapidly unify the pliable Bosniak Muslims and Croats, Washington confronts a fractious opposition in Syria over whom it has limited influence. Secretary Kerry struggled to get key opposition leaders, who are disappointed with U.S support, to meet him in Rome earlier this year. Exacerbating the task, regional actors like Turkey and Qatar, on one side, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan on the other, have each backed favorites in the opposition. The fact that the United States, in a nod to Russia, has softened its demands on Assad will not make it any easier to herd the opposition towards a unified position. Indeed, with radical Islamists ascendant among opposition forces, it is questionable whether any deal that the regime would accept at the moment would be respected by the most prominent opposition forces on the ground.Muddled Sectarian Divisions
Two other factors are missing in Syria that proved crucial to ending the war in Bosnia: a sense of exhaustion, and widespread ethnic separation. While the population in bitterly contested Syrian urban centers like Aleppo may be deeply fatigued, it is not clear that even after two years of war that there is a critical mass of war weary citizens, either among the opposition or government supporters, who are ready to throw in the towel. Syria’s population is more than five times larger than Bosnia’s, diminishing the relative impact of the comparable number of casualties and displacements, horrifying as this suffering has been..
Bosnia immortalized the term “ethnic cleansing,” as Serbs herded hundreds of thousands of Muslims out of areas necessary to create a Serb proto-state. In Syria, ethno-sectarian cleansing has been far less systematic and far less prominent a feature of the conflict. This is mainly because “cleansing” holds a far different and less central purpose. Rather than expel Sunnis from Alawi strongholds like Baniyas, the regime exploits and creates sectarian divisions to shore up support, recruit fighters and exploit sectarian tensions. As the rebels close in on the coast, the regime hopes that such massacres will deepen sectarian tensions and pit Sunni and Alawites against each other, thereby convincing the Alawites they need to fight alongside the Assad regime for their survival.
The growing perception that Assad is creating an Alawi stronghold by cleansing Sunnis from Syria’s coastal region is not supported by the evidence to date. Population movements are complex in Syria; in some cases, opposition supporters have actually moved their families into government-controlled territory for the simple reason that it is safer—a phenomenon that did not exist either in the Balkans or in neighboring Iraq, which also saw massive sectarian expulsions. While creating an Alawi state might be attractive to Iranian proxies and Alawi militias, it would represent failure for the regime. The Alawites have been fighting to get out of the mountains and into Damascus ever since Syria’s independence. The fact that Assad has done little to lay the groundwork for an Alawite state suggests that he has no intention of leading his people back to those mountains.
If Assad is not pursuing a citadel like the Republika Srpska for Alawites, then the primary basis for the Dayton settlement—the near fifty-fifty division of territory—disappears. Instead, cutting a peace agreement in Syria will require much more subtle approach to supplying group security in a country with relatively mixed population centers ripped open by sectarian fighting. Indeed, the singular focus on Bosnia-style population separation has obscured potential openings to exploit such as burgeoning divisions within the Alawi community.Owning the Problem
Implementing an eventual Syria peace agreement will be far more challenging than in Bosnia, where the fear of NATO peacekeeping forces, led by a U.S. commander, was near wholesale, and where the immediate security task was separating the warring factions along clearly defined lines (as noted, the population was already largely separated.) In the zeal for diplomacy in Syria, the obligation to support an eventual agreement with American boots on the ground should not be forgotten.
The attendant risks— improvised explosive devices and suicide terrorism—will put a premium on getting an array of regional actors like Turkey and Jordan, who bring both cultural savvy and substantial experience in UN peacekeeping, to take a prominent role in any peace implementation effort in Syria. Russia, too, can play an instrumental confidence-building role with the Alawite community and others who have supported the regime. But, as in Bosnia, U.S. leadership will be essential in large part to prevent squabbling among regional players, each of whom has backed favorites in the conflict.
In sum, the parallel between Syria and Bosnia is highly useful—not as a ready template for ending the war so much as for understanding the prerequisites to achieving that goal. To achieve a Dayton-like outcome, diplomacy will require change on the battlefield. That means that there is probably no avoiding some degree of military involvement, either in the form of supplying weapons, or preferably, intensified training of opposition forces along with sustained air strikes that decimate the regime’s core military assets.
Of course, going down the road of military escalation will complicate diplomacy, potentially antagonizing the hoped-for partnership with Russia. But this need not prove fatal. First, the revelation that Moscow recently provided Assad with sophisticated antiship missiles equipped with advanced radar—precisely to boost its capabilities against potential U.S. or NATO naval activity—proves that the Russians recognize the centrality of the military balance on the ground. The U.S. would be naïve not to accept this reality and tilt that balance back in the direction of the opposition. Second, the sine qua non
for joint diplomacy over Syria is not full coordination of activities, but rather a U.S.-Russian condominium on what the outcome should look like. Any U.S. military support should be strictly aimed at achieving an outcome that is consistent with the shared American and Russian interest in ending the fighting in Syria without a decisive sectarian winner or loser. In the final analysis, Moscow’s options are also not rosy in Syria, and therefore, pragmatism may rule the day.
As much as he detests the idea, it may be that, like President Clinton in Bosnia, President Obama may end up “owning” some considerable portion of the Syria problem. Better to move forward with the clear lessons from Bosnia in mind, than to use half-measures or delay only to find the options far more constrained down the road.
Source: National Interest
05/22/13 By Michael Weiss
The United States pretends to believe that Russia is a credible partner in resolving the Syrian crisis. Russia cannot believe its luck and carries on as before, but with a greater sense of impunity.
According to The New Times
(an independent Russian journal), when Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Moscow earlier this month and was first forced to wait two hours to meet with a bored and fidgety Vladimir Putin, he really had only one pressing matter to discuss: the imminent transfer of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Bashar al-Assad. Damascus had already deposited $100 million of $900 million to Vnesheconombank (VEB), a Russian state-owned financial institution now known for issuing refunds, in partial satisfaction of a 2010 contract for the sophisticated air defense system. The New Times
quoted an unnamed London source as saying: “The main discussion [between Kerry and Putin] naturally took place in the closed portion of the talks. The Russians let the Americans know that the contracts for the S-300s and other weapons would be fulfilled.”
If true, this would mean that Kerry’s now notorious joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at which the dead-on-arrival plan to resuscitate a year-old peace initiative was mooted, occurred with the Americans’ full knowledge that the Kremlin’s position on Syria had, if anything, only hardened over time. Kerry, meanwhile, was the one to hint that the U.S. was ready to scupper its precondition for renewed negotiations with the Syrian regime; namely that Assad must renounce power. However much this self-abasing performance was later downplayed or “clarified” by the State Department, the signal to the Russians was clear: we’ll do practically anything to bring you on board.
And so the Kremlin wasted no time in thanking the U.S. for its solicitousness. In addition to reiterating the viability of the S-300s sale, and apparently speeding up its fulfillment, Moscow began deliveries to Syria of improved versions of the Yakhont anti-ship missiles, “outfitted with an advanced radar that makes them more effective,” in the phrasing of The New York Times
. About a dozen Russian warships have also been deployed to the Mediterranean in a demonstration of “muscle flexing,” as one U.S. official put it to the Wall Street Journal
Russia’s military retrenchment has coincided with further anti-American humiliations. Last week, the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB), captured Ryan Fogle, an American embassy official in Moscow, who was alleged to be a CIA agent. Although his mugshot made him look like a stable boy just pulled off a farmer’s daughter, Fogle was said to be on the prowl for FSB recruits, a task for which he evidently required a compass, a dated map of Moscow, and a cellular phone that would have been cutting edge technology in 1998. As Fogle was being “PNGed,” it emerged that a previous CIA operative, Benjamin Dillon, had been expelled from Russia in January. Now comes a fresh report that a former U.S. embassy official and prominent anti-corruption attorney, Thomas Firestone, was detained for 16 hours at Sheremetyevo airport almost as Kerry’s plane was arriving on the tarmac. Russian intelligence had unsuccessfully tried in March to recruit Firestone, formerly honored by their government for his help with financial crimes. So he too now had to leave the country.
“Russians have always been loyal to their old friends, and Assad is one of those guys who has been known to the Russian authorities for so many years,” Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general told me. “This loyalty and support is quite understandable. It is based not so much on geostrategic interests but on an allegiance to a man who never betrayed or let the Russians down.” Hafez al-Assad, whom Kalugin met, “was a man one could do business with” and the same thinking evidently applies among fellow Chekists (both past and present) to Hafez’s second son, Bashar.
Under-reported yet of interest, Kalugin argued, is the presence of Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council who arrived in Washington this week primarily to discuss Syria. Patrushev has long been rumored to be the Kremlin’s point-man on the conflict, a fact that ought to further underscore Russia’s unwavering orientation. He was the director of the FSB, the successor of the KGB, when its agents blew up (or attempted to blow up) apartment buildings in and around Moscow in 1999, all as a pretext for launching the Second Chechen War. Anyone suspicious of some of the car bombings that have occurred in Syria since January 2012, particularly those followed by the instantaneous appearance of state media and the recurrence of the same “eyewitnesses,” would therefore do well to bear this portfolio in mind when weighing Moscow’s long-game.
Also integral to Putin’s calculation is the history of Soviet-Syrian relations, which was not the uninterrupted feast of reason and flow of the soul as it is sometimes made out to be. In fact, that history is filled with mutual suspicion and recrimination and as a fall-back countermeasure against bilateral discord, the Russians spied on and infiltrated the Syrian military and political establishments with one overriding objective. As Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin observe in The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World
, a book based on the unprecedented cache of Soviet intelligence archives Mitrokhin smuggled into the West, part of the Soviet strategy for sowing anti-Western paranoia in Syria was to convince Syrian intelligence of attempted CIA (and West German BND) plots.
For all their projected complaints about an American “Cold War mentality,” the Chekists still hedge their bets and try to persuade an already paranoid Assad of plans for U.S. aggression, which all available evidence suggests doesn’t yet exist.
Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services and - not unrelatedly - its organized crime syndicates, wrote recently that the SVR (Russian’s foreign intelligence agency) was dispatching a “contingent of the highly-secret Zaslon unit” to Syria. “Formed in 1998, Zaslon is tasked with covert missions abroad ranging from protecting officials in dangerous environments to conducing assassinations,” Galeotti notes. “It numbers some 280 operators, who are trained and equipped to the highest standards.” Zaslon operatives were the personal detail for Mikhail Fradkov, the SVR director, when he traveled to Damascus last year. They often deploy wearing civilian clothes or the uniforms of other units, including those of embassy staff. Galeotti argues that they would likely be dispatched to Syria because Russia was beginning to suspect that the Assad regime was close to collapse, and therefore wanted to safeguard its personnel. Yet this deployment comes as the regime is actually gaining militarily against the rebels (thanks to Iran and Hezbollah), and at the same time that the Kremlin is both redoubling its efforts to fortify Syria against foreign intervention, as well as otherwise behaving as if it were the chief arbiter of Syria’s future. Sending the elite of Spetsnaz to Damascus might be extra protection for a worst-case scenario, but it might also be Putin’s way of telegraphing reassurance to his ally: ’Not to worry. The Americans are up to their old tricks again, but we won’t be fooled, and when it comes to standing by our friends - remember, our red lines are ones we intend to enforce.’
Source: Now Media