PicturePhoto: David Enders/MCT
05/31/13 By Hannah Allam and Roy Gutman

WASHINGTON — The United States is withholding $63 million that it had pledged to the main Syrian opposition organization because the Obama administration is frustrated with the group’s disarray and is searching for more credible partners to support in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad, knowledgeable officials said Friday.

The decision not to fund the Syrian Opposition Coalition contrasts sharply with the Obama administration’s continued public expressions of confidence in the group, which has been central to U.S. policy on Syria since last fall and which the administration recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

But U.S. officials said privately that they are fed up with the group’s inability to organize, appoint a government-in-exile or reach decisions on a wide range of issues. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to more freely discuss sensitive diplomacy.

State Department officials are fond of repeating that they’ve pledged $250 million in nonlethal aid to boost the Syrian opposition. In reality, however, only a fraction of that – roughly $54 million – has been delivered, and almost none of it has gone directly to the coalition because “it’s obviously been a very unstable organization,” as one official put it.

“We have not given them money to go off and spend precisely because of the instability,” the official said.

Officials insisted the plan wasn’t to give up on the coalition. But they said that Secretary of State John Kerry was mulling greater support of rival opposition factions such as the rebels’ military command and grassroots civil society organizations inside Syria.

State Department officials also were said to be incensed at the coalition’s announcement Friday that it wouldn’t attend U.S.-Russian sponsored peace talks in Geneva. The coalition blamed its refusal to attend on the “invasion of Syria” by Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

But analysts said the refusal looked particularly truculent, especially after Assad suggested in a Lebanese television interview Thursday that he might personally attend.

“If Assad sends someone and they don’t, it doesn’t look good for them,” said Leila Hilal, a Syria specialist and head of the Middle East task force of the New America Foundation, a Washington research institute.

A widening of the U.S. search for opposition partners might well be welcomed inside Syria, where many deride the coalition members as foreign-backed exiles who’ve been outside Syria, in some cases, for decades, and who haven’t shared the hardship of the past two years of conflict.

Some Syrians have expressed outrage at the spectacle of politicians haggling for days over how many members the coalition should include while their compatriots are living under a ferocious regime counteroffensive that’s reversed many of the rebels’ military victories.

“It’s been a fiasco. People in Syria are so upset with them,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a Washington-based activist with the Syrian American Council who just returned from the coalition’s conference in Istanbul. “In a post-Assad era, this can be healthy. We want people to compete for votes and to debate. But, right now, it’s disastrous.”

In February, Kerry announced that the United States would provide $63 million in direct support for the then-fledgling coalition, whose formal name is the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. In April, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, told a congressional hearing that the $63 million would be used to “help counter extremists,” a reference to Islamist groups that were outperforming moderates forces in both military actions and the delivery of humanitarian aid in many areas.

“It will help us weigh in on behalf of the moderates,” Ford testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And it will enable the coalition to move ahead in attracting more support as it develops a political transition process.”

But the coalition leaders never got their act together, U.S. officials said, so the funds were never delivered. The entire $63 million remains in the United States instead of being dispersed in Syria, where community leaders in opposition-controlled territories say people are suffering because of the lack of basic services. Part of the money was intended to be delivered in grants, with the idea of coalition leaders parceling them out to needy communities to build the coalition’s credibility on the ground.

“If U.S. policy rests on this coalition, it’s a very bad thread,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, said in an interview.

“This coalition will never, in my view, be the executive body we were hoping for,” Shaikh added, noting that its main legitimacy comes from the international community – not from Syrians.

Only Friday did the coalition barely avoid collapse with an 11th-hour agreement in Istanbul to add 51 new members – mostly liberals and moderates to act as a counterweight to the domination of the group by members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

That decision took eight days to reach – five more than scheduled for the entire conference – and the coalition then postponed until June other pressing matters, such as selecting a new leader and naming an interim government that ideally would be poised to take charge in the case of Assad’s ouster.

Under relentless international pressure, chiefly by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Britain and France, the coalition early Friday added 43 members in addition to eight whose membership had been approved earlier in the week.

In a bid to dilute the Islamist influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s bloc, the Saudis threw their support behind Michel Kilo, a Syrian Christian who arrived in Istanbul with a list of 37 additions to the coalition membership. The 63 members of the group balked, saying it amounted to a takeover.

The coalition was willed into existence in November, after the United States announced that it no longer had confidence in another opposition group, the Syrian National Council, which also was dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood remained the dominant group in the new coalition.

The Obama administration is not the only international supporter of anti-Assad efforts to express frustration with the coalition during its recent marathon conference.

During the coalition’s conference in Istanbul, Eric Chevalier, France’s envoy to Syria, dressed down the group after it agreed to expand its membership by just eight seats. During the rant, caught on video and posted online, Chevalier said the group was undeserving of international help. “There was an agreement, between the leaders, 22. You end up with eight. There is a problem,” he said.

Coalition members can be seen in the video wandering off into the hotel lobby, muttering in Arabic: “Where are the arms?”


Source: McClatchy

 
 
06/01/13

Syrian rebels braced on Saturday for a new assault on their beleaguered stronghold of Qusayr by the army and its Hezbollah allies, who were bolstering positions north of the town, a watchdog said.

Fears of another move on the town renewed concerns about the fate of an unknown number of civilians still trapped there, including an estimated 1,000 wounded.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon demanded that both sides allow civilians to flee.

Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog, told AFP that "there are ongoing clashes in northern Qusayr, and the opposition fighters are fighting with everything they've got.

"Regime forces are reinforcing the sites that they have north of the city, including Dabaa airport and Jawadiya," he added.

The group said at least 15 tanks were massed north of Qusayr, a key strategic prize for both the regime and the rebels.

It sits on the route linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast, and lies near the Lebanese border, providing a key rebel conduit for weapons and fighters.

The Syrian opposition said on Friday that rebel reinforcements had reached the area.

The fight for the town, which began nearly two weeks ago, has raised fears about the safety of thousands of civilians.

Abdel Rahman, whose watchdog relies of a network of activists, doctors and lawyers on the ground, said around 1,000 wounded people were trapped inside Qusayr.

"The medical situation is very bad," he said.

In New York, UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged "all sides to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties," spokesman Martin Nesirky said in a statement.

"He also reminds the government of its responsibility to protect civilians who come under its control, including from the threat of militias. He calls on the warring parties to allow trapped civilians to escape the town."

The opposition Syrian National Coalition saluted rebels in Qusayr, including the reinforcements.

"The heroes of the Free Syrian Army prove every day that they are worthy of the responsibility that the people have entrusted them with," it said.

"The people will continue their struggle to liberate their land, whatever it takes, and will force Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from all of Syria."

The powerful Lebanese Shiite group, a staunch ally of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, has dispatched thousands of fighters to help put down the uprising that began more than two years ago with peaceful protests.

Some members of Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community have also crossed the border to fight alongside the Sunni-led rebels, encouraged by local clerics.

Late on Friday, influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi urged Sunnis throughout the region to follow suit and join the Syria uprising.

"Every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that (must) make himself available" to support the Syrian rebels, the cleric said at a rally.

"Iran is pushing forward arms and men (to back the Syrian regime), so why do we stand idle?" added Qaradawi, a controversial figure who has millions of supporters, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite an official policy of neutrality on the Syria conflict, Lebanon has found itself increasingly embroiled in its neighbour's civil war.

On Saturday morning, at least six rockets fired from Syria struck the Bekaa region, causing no injuries.

And Lebanon's National News Agency reported that unidentified gunmen opened fire overnight at a Shiite shrine in Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold also in the Bekaa.

The continued fighting has raised concerns about the prospects for a peace conference expected to convene in Geneva this month to seek a political solution to the conflict.

The Coalition reiterated on Saturday that "the immediate halt of military operations by regime forces, Hezbollah and Iran are the primary conditions for participation in the conference".

And Ban warned that, as preparations for the conference intensify, all parties to the conflict "will be held accountable for any acts of atrocity carried out against the civilian population of Qusayr".

In other developments, the Observatory said an Islamic court in the northern city of Aleppo had executed the commander of the Mohammed's Army Brigade and one of his aides on charges of murder, theft and bribing local residents.

The group also reported the execution of a man accused of helping government forces, saying his body was hanged in a local square in Damascus province.

In the capital itself, the Barzeh district came under heavy shelling as regime forces battled rebels.

The Observatory said at least 55 people had been killed throughout the country on Saturday -- 27 civilians and 28 rebels.


Source: AFP/Now Media
 
 
PicturePhoto: Reuters/Rami Bleible
06/01/13 By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT: Syrian troops and Hezbollah guerrillas besieging the border town of Qusair fought with rebels on Saturday as the United Nations warned all sides they would be held accountable for the suffering of trapped civilians.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting was taking place inside Qusair and in villages around it, largely controlled by President Bashar al-Assad's forces who have cut off access to the town.

Rebels have pleaded for military help and medical aid for the hundreds of people wounded in the onslaught by government forces, who are also fighting back fiercely around the capital Damascus and the south and center of the country.

The battle for Qusair is happening as the United States and Russia seek to overcome deep differences over Syria and bring the two sides to the negotiating table for a political solution to the civil war in which 80,000 people have been killed.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was monitoring the battle for Qusair "with the gravest concern" and called on both sides to allow civilians to escape the town, usually home to 30,000 people.

"The eyes of the world are upon them, and ... they will be held accountable for any acts of atrocity carried out against the civilian population of Qusair," a U.N. statement said.

U.N. emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said they were alarmed that thousands of civilians may be trapped in Qusair.

"We understand there may also be as many as 1,500 wounded people in urgent need of immediate evacuation for emergency medical treatment, and that the general situation in Qusair is desperate," they said in a joint statement.

The Observatory, an anti-Assad network that monitors the violence in Syria through medical and security sources on the ground, said at least one person was killed during fighting inside Qusair and that Assad's troops were being reinforced ahead of a possible assault on the remaining rebel-held areas.

Rebels also tried to attack the nearby Daba military air base, seized by the army on Wednesday, and fought Assad's troops around Daba village, it said.

The two-week battle for Qusair is aimed at securing supply routes near the Syrian-Lebanese frontier, which both sides accuse the other of using to bolster their forces inside Syria.

For Assad, seizing Qusair would also allow him to cement control of a belt of territory between the capital Damascus and his stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

The prominent role of guerrillas from Lebanon's Shi'ite group Hezbollah has angered rebels, who have threatened to take the battle into Lebanon unless Hezbollah withdraws.

Early on Saturday at least seven rockets were fired into Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley from rebel-controlled Syrian territory, security sources said.

Most of the rockets landed in empty fields. No one was hurt but some buildings were hit by shrapnel.

It was the first time the area, about 60 km (35 miles) east of Beirut, had been struck by rockets.

Several barrages have fallen in the northern Bekaa Valley and on Sunday two rockets were fired at the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Beirut after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed his fighters would battle in Syria to victory whatever the cost.


Source: Reuters

 
 
PicturePhoto: Yuri Gripas/Reuters
06/31/13 By Haroon Siddique, Richard Norton-Taylor, Shiv Malik and Dan Roberts

Peace talks in Geneva between Syria's warring parties are almost certain to be postponed after further diplomatic setbacks on Friday, as Russia announced its intention to ship more weaponry to the Assad regime.

Heavy fighting continued on the ground in Syria, where it emerged that a British man and American woman had been killed, apparently while fighting with the rebels in Idlib, in the north, earlier this week.

The US and Russia had together conceived the Geneva talks between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition, raising hopes that the two superpowers, long at odds over the civil war raging in the country, could at last make some progress in curbing the violence.

But after the Syrian National Coalition leader George Sabra ruled out taking part while civilians were being killed and "in light of Hezbollah and Iran's militia's invasion of Syria", diplomats admitted that the talks would not take place in early June as scheduled. They remain hopeful that they will go ahead, probably in July or August.

However, the US and Russia's differences were once more brought into stark relief with the news that Russia's MiG aircraft maker is finalising an agreement to ship at least 10 fighter jets to Syria. MiG's director general, Sergei Korotkov, said a Syrian delegation was in Moscow to discuss the details of a new contract for the delivery of MiG-29 M/M2 fighters.

The US has already criticised Russia for agreeing to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, a deal that has prompted alarm in neighbouring Israel.

"It is not helpful to have the S-300 transferred to the region while we are trying to organise this peace [conference] and create peace," the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said at a joint news conference with Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, in Washington.

"We ask them again not to upset the balance within the region with respect to Israel," Kerry added. "The weaponry that is being provided … has a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region and it does put Israel at risk. It is not, in our judgment, responsible because of the size of the weapons, the nature of the weapons and what it does to the region in terms of Israel's security, so we hope that they will refrain from that in the interests of making this peace conference work."

More than 80,000 people have been killed in the fighting in Syria, according to the UN. On Friday, Syrian TV reported that the British man, Ali Almanasfi, 22, from Acton, west London, was killed, alongside an American woman and another unidentified westerner, on Wednesday. Syrian TV posted a picture of Almanasfi's passport and graphic pictures of his body were posted on the internet.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We understand that a British national has been killed in Syria. Their family have been informed and we are providing consular assistance."

Scotland Yard confirmed that his family had filed a missing persons report on 4 February, and it is understood the report contains the family's fears that he may have travelled abroad.

At the flat where Almanasfi's mother and sister live, his family were visited by two police officers but refused to comment on reports of his death.

Almanasfi's brother-in-law Kusai Noah said he was stunned about the news of his death. "He didn't tell anyone that he'd gone … we didn't know that he was going anywhere," he said. "He disappeared. We made a missing report for the police. This was a couple of months back."

Syrian TV identified the dead American woman as Nicole Mansfield, 33, from Michigan. "I'm just devastated," her aunt, Monica Mansfield Speelman, told Reuters. "Evidently, she was fighting with opposition forces." Speelman said the FBI had informed the family on Thursday afternoon.

Their deaths came amid growing concerns about the increasing prominence of jihadist groups within the rebel fighters. The most powerful, Jabhat al-Nusra, pledged allegiance to al-Qaida in April. The uprising against Bashar al-Assad began with peaceful protests in March 2011 but has since erupted into a bloody civil war. Assad maintained from the start that he was fighting against "terrorists", including foreign jihadists.

Almanasfi was known to MI5 along with other British citizens who have gone to Syria to fight with different rebel groups, intelligence sources made clear on Friday.

British counter-terrorist officials, almost certainly including MI5 officers, are said to have tried to persuade him not to go. "We do try and stop people from going. We have to do it by persuasion as we can't stop them from going to France or Turkey," a Whitehall source said.

Most Britons going to fight in Syria travel via France or Turkey. Between 70 and 100 are believed to have gone so far but it is difficult to be precise as nothing may be known about them before they make for Syria.

British security and intelligence officials describe the number of British citizens or residents going to fight for rebel groups, including those supporting al-Qaida, as "worrying".

The UK and France have faced criticism for forcing the EU to end an embargo on arms sales to Syrian rebels, with concerns raised that they will only prolong the conflict and inevitably fall into the hands of jihadists, despite the UK's insistence that if weapons are sent they will only go to the "good" rebels. Hours after the UK and France's actions at the EU meeting of foreign ministers on Monday, Russia announced delivery of the S-300 missiles to Syria. The deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, argued that the delivery of the S-300 system had been previously agreed with the Syrian government in Damascus and would be a "stabilising factor" that could dissuade "some hotheads" from entering the conflict.


Source: Guardian

 
 
06/01/13

The Syrian army backed by Hezbollah fighters bolstered its positions in the embattled opposition stronghold of Qusayr on Saturday, as rebels prepared for a renewed assault, raising fears for trapped civilians.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition issued a statement saluting rebel fighters in the town, including new battalions that have arrived in recent days.

And in Lebanon, the conflict spilled over, with rocket fire once again landing in the eastern Bekaa region.

"There are ongoing clashes in northern Qusayr, and the opposition fighters are fighting with everything they've got," Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog, told AFP.

"Regime forces are reinforcing the sites that they have north of the city, including Dabaa airport and Jawadiya," he added.

The group said at least 15 tanks were massed at government-held points north of Qusayr, which is considered a key strategic prize by both the regime and the rebels.

It sits on the route between the capital Damascus and the coast, and lies near the Lebanese border, providing a key rebel conduit for weapons and fighters.

The Syrian opposition said Friday that rebel reinforcements had reached the area.

The fight for the town, which began nearly two weeks ago, has raised fears about the safety of thousands of civilians still trapped inside.

Abdel Rahman, whose watchdog relies of a network of activists, doctors and lawyers on the ground, said around 1,000 wounded people were trapped inside the town.

"The medical situation is very bad," he said.

The Syrian National Coalition, the key opposition umbrella group, praised the rebel forces in the town.

"The heroes of the Free Syrian Army prove every day that they are worthy of the responsibility that the people have entrusted them with," the group said.

"The people will continue their struggle to liberate their land, whatever it takes, and will force Hezbollah to withdraw its forces from all of Syria," it added.

The Lebanese Shiite group, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, has dispatched fighters to help put down the uprising that began more than two years ago with peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Some members of Lebanon's Sunni community have also crossed into neighboring Syria to fight alongside the Sunni-led rebels forces, encouraged by local clerics.

Late Friday, influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi urged Sunni Muslims throughout the region to follow suit and head to Syria to join the uprising.

"Every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that (must) make himself available" to support the Syrian rebels, the cleric said at a rally.

"Iran is pushing forward arms and men (to back the Syrian regime), so why do we stand idle?" added Qaradawi, a controversial figure who has millions of supporters, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite an official policy of neutrality on the Syrian conflict, Lebanon has found itself increasingly embroiled in its neighbor's civil war.

On Saturday morning, at least six rockets fired from Syria landed in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region, causing no injuries.

Lebanon's National News Agency meanwhile reported that unidentified gunmen opened fire overnight at a Shiite shrine in Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold also in the Bekaa region.

The continued fighting has raised concerns about the prospects for a peace conference expected to convene in Geneva this month to seek a political solution to the conflict.

The Coalition reiterated on Saturday that "the immediate halt of military operations by regime forces, Hezbollah and Iran are the primary conditions for participation in the conference."

At least 114 people were killed throughout violence in Syria on Friday, including 45 rebels, 40 civilians and 29 government troops, the Observatory said.


Source: AFP/Now Media
 
 
PicturePhoto: The Daily Star/Stringer
05/31/13 By Mirella Hodelb

HERMEL, Lebanon: Compact trucks packed with men wearing military gear and SUVs with pictures of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallahfill the narrow and damaged streets of Lebanon’s Al-Qasr, just kilometers away from Syria’s war-ravaged city of Qusair.

Since the battle for Qusair erupted earlier this month, the Hermel village of Al-Qasr, in northeast Lebanon, has become a transit point for hundreds of Hezbollah fighters traveling to Qusair to support Syrian government forces against rebels in one of the most controversial episodes of the Syrian conflict.

The public outcry and international condemnation of Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the Syria battles seem to have left the party’s fighters undeterred and made them even more determined to pursue what they refer to as their “jihadi duties.”

Hermel residents speak of “wait-lists,” because thousands of Hezbollah members and supporters are waiting to enroll in the fighting in Syria.

“Sayyed Hasan has received thousands of letters from people soliciting his approval to join the fight in Syria,” said Mahdi, a Hezbollah fighter who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym in line with his party’s strict policy of secrecy.

During a speech Saturday, the Hezbollah leader said thousands would respond to the party’s call for jihad, but added that not everyone was eligible to join his party’s military wing due to requirements involving family status and training.

“Believe me, many people are really pissed off because they still haven’t been allowed to fight,” the 40-year-old Mahdi smirked.

In his speech, Nasrallah said fighting against Syrian rebels was aimed at safeguarding the resistance and its only sponsor in the Arab region – embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad – as well as defending all Lebanese communities against hard-line Islamist “tafkiri” groups.

Those, like Mahdi, who have fought in Syria, acknowledge that the Syrian rebels have been capable fighters and that for the first time, Hezbollah is facing an enemy of the same ideological caliber and with the same kind of training.

“One must say that they are very well trained and very well-equipped,” Mahdi said. “They own state-of-the-art sniper guns; this is how they’ve hunted down our fallen comrades.”

The frequency of funerals for Hezbollah fighters who have died in Syria significantly increased after the battle of Qusair. Countless posters of “Hezbollah martyrs” line the north-south Bekaa Valley highway that leads to Baalbek.

Coffins wrapped in the party’s yellow flag are being laid to rest in the Baalbek region and south Lebanon on a near-daily basis, and the funeral ceremonies are referred to as “weddings” for the fallen fighters.

“We must celebrate the martyrdom of those who died,” said Jawad, 30, a fighter who recently returned from Qusair and earlier saw duty guarding the Sayyida Zeinab shrine in Damascus. “God honored them by choosing them to die while fighting for a righteous cause.” Jawad maintained that the rebel Free Syrian Army was “totally powerless,” arguing that the extremist Nusra Front was leading the fighting.

“They [rebels] are powerful not only because they apparently have very good training and very sophisticated weaponry,” Jawad said, citing the brutality of Chechen fighters among the ranks of the Nusra Front.

“Nusra is strong because [the fighters] are fearless. I can sense that from the way they launch raids against us,” Jawad continued. “It’s like they really don’t care if they die. They are ruthless and fearless.”

Both Jawad and Mahdi confirmed that many of their comrades were killed in ambushes that were strikingly similar to tactics Hezbollah originally devised when it fought the Israeli army in south Lebanon during the occupation and later on during the 2006 summer war.

“There’s a kind of irritating familiarity,” Jawad noted. “Hezbollah taughtHamas all those tactics to fight the Israelis. Hamas apparently decided to transfer their experience to takfiri groups.”

This demonstrates, according to Jawad, that Hezbollah did not have a sectarian agenda.

“We transferred our experience to a Sunni group – Hamas – and they used it train groups that are now fighting us,” he said.

Hamas, a long-term ally of Assad, shifted sides soon after the uprising erupted, leaving its Damascus headquarters and later openly pledging support to the rebels.

Signs of a rift between the two former allies are slowly becoming palpable in Lebanon too. Tension is increasingly surfacing between the Beirut southern suburbs, the party’s stronghold, and the surrounding refugee camps Sabra, Shatila, and Burj al-Barajneh.

In the past month, the tranquility of the southern suburbs and its neighboring camps has been repeatedly breached by shootouts between Shiite and Palestinian gunmen.

Abbas, a member of the pro-Assad popular committees in the string of border villages located in Syria but inhabited by Lebanese Shiites, said the battle was imposed on Hezbollah.

“Rebels terrorized, threatened and attacked us, but Hezbollah begged us to keep our composure until they started launching rockets at Hermel,” said Abbas, 45. “If Hezbollah hadn’t intervened at some point we would have taken up arms and supported the Syrian army to get rid of [the rebels].”

He said Hezbollah’s policy was to fight the rebels inside Syria so as to avoid cross-border fighting.

“The borders are quasi nonexistent,” he said. “Imagine if neighbors started shooting at each other from each side of the border. Fighting would be uncontrollable and then we’d be facing a real disaster.”

When they were in Qusair, the Hezbollah fighters, who were interviewed separately in Beirut and Hermel, said some of the practices of the Nusra Front fighters left them “speechless.”

Besides the booby-trapped hideouts they leave behind, Nusra fighters have a disconcerting night-time ritual, they said.

“At night they burn the corpses that have accumulated during the day,” Abbas said.

“I still can’t find an explanation for this: What are they trying to do? Why are they hiding the identities of their fighters?” Jawad wondered.

Asked whether they felt they betrayed their initial cause by fighting fellow Arabs and Muslims in Syria instead of focusing their efforts against their primary enemy, Israel, Mahdi was categorical: “Israel and takfiris pose the exact same danger.”

While Jawad acknowledged that the comparison between Hezbollah’s roles in Syria and Israel was legitimate, he said his party was fighting for an equally crucial cause.

“Takfiris have no respect for the land or for human dignity. They are doing monstrous things,” Jawad said. “At least Israelis put our martyrs in coffins and number them.”


Source: Daily Star

 
 
Picture
05/31/13 By Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has prevailed over its small but ambitious Gulf neighbor Qatar to impose itself as the main outside force supporting the Syrian rebels, a move that may curb the influence of Qatari-backed Islamist militants.

Though governments in neither Riyadh nor Doha would provide official comment, several senior sources in the region told Reuters that the past week's wrangling among Syria's opposition factions in Istanbul was largely a struggle for control between the two Gulf monarchies, in which Saudi power finally won out.

"Saudi Arabia is now formally in charge of the Syria issue," said a senior rebel military commander in one of northern Syria's border provinces where Qatar has until now been the main supplier of arms to those fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

The outcome, many Syrian opposition leaders hope, could strengthen them in both negotiations and on the battlefield - while hampering some of the anti-Western Islamist hardliners in their ranks whom they say Qatar has been helping with weaponry.

Anger at a failure by one such Qatari-backed Islamist unit in a battle in April that gave Syrian government forces control of a key highway helped galvanize the Saudis, sources said, while Qatari and Islamist efforts to control the opposition political body backfired by angering Riyadh and Western powers.

The northern rebel commander said Saudi leaders would no longer let Qatar take the lead but would themselves take over the dominant role in channeling support into Syria.

"The Saudis met leaders of the Free Syrian Army, including officers from the Military Council in Jordan and Turkey, and have agreed that they will be supporting the rebels," he said after attending one of those meetings himself.

Prince Salman bin Sultan, a senior Saudi security official, was now running relations with the Syrian rebels, backed by his elder brother, intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan.

Qatar also gave ground in the political field, accepting finally, late on Thursday, that the National Coalition should add a non-Islamist bloc backed by Saudi Arabia.

"In the end Qatar did not want a confrontation with Saudi Arabia and accepted the expansion," said a source close to the liberals who were allowed to join a body which the United States and European Union want to become a transitional government.

The rebels, whose disunity has been a hindrance both in the field and in maneuvering for a possible international peace conference in the coming weeks, still face a huge task to topple Assad, who has long labeled his enemies Islamist "terrorists" and has his own powerful allies abroad, notably Iran and Russia.

Washington and EU powers have been reluctant to send arms, partly for fear of them reaching anti-Western rebels, including some aligned with al Qaeda. But Britain and France this week ended an EU arms embargo and tighter, Saudi supervision of supply channels could make it easier for London and Paris to start sending weapons if planned peace talks fail.

SAUDI CONTROL

Describing the shift in military supervision, several sources from the political and military leadership of the Syrian opposition and a Saudi source said that anyone, whether a state or among wealthy Arabs who have been making private donations to the rebel cause, would now need the Saudi princes' approval over what is supplied to whom if they wish to send arms into Syria.

Qatari help was still expected. But a division between a Qatari sphere of influence on the northern border with Turkey and a Saudi sphere on the southern, Jordanian border was over.

"The goal is to be effective and avoid arms getting into the wrong hands like before," said a senior Saudi source. "Saudi and Qatar share the same goal. We want to see an end to Bashar's rule and stop the bloodshed of the innocent Syrian people."

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are close allies in many respects: both armed by the United States, as Sunni Muslims they share an interest in thwarting Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran and its Arab allies - Shi'ites in Iraq and Lebanon and Assad's Syrian Alawites. Both also want to preserve the absolute domestic power of the ruling dynasties and Western demand for their vast energy resources.

But their interests diverge, particularly over Qatar's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups viewed with suspicion by Western powers and in Riyadh. As in Syria, Qatar has delivered extensive financial and other support to Islamists who have risen to prominence in Egypt and Libya as a result of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests of 2011.

Keen to punch above its weight in the world, independent of its dominant Saudi neighbor, Qatar hosts both a major U.S. air base and influential Islamists exiled from other Arab states; while preserving autocracy at home it has also aided liberals abroad, not least through its Al Jazeera satellite TV channel.

Saudi Arabia, whose king enjoys special status with the Sunni rebels as guardian of the holy city of Mecca, has long been suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the Cold War, it lent it support as a counterbalance to leftist Arab nationalism which threatened the traditional Gulf monarchies. But the U.S.-allied kingdom now sees political Islam as a graver threat.

Riyadh's view of Syrian Islamist rebels is also influenced to some extent by its experience backing Arabs who flocked to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s; some returned home, like the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, to wage a campaign of violence intended to topple the house of Saud.

"FINAL STRAWS"

Two events finally prompted Saudi Arabia and the United States to lose patience with Qatar's Syrian role - one on the battlefield and another among the political opposition in exile.

In mid-April, Assad's troops broke a six-month rebel blockade of the Wadi al-Deif military base on Syria's key north-south highway, after a rebel brigade that was seen as close to Qatar broke ranks - exposing fellow fighters to a government counterattack that led to the deaths of 68 of their number.

A rebel commander, based near Damascus and familiar with the unit which buckled, said its failure had been due to its leaders having preferred using their local power to get rich rather than fighting Assad - a common accusation among the fractious rebels:

"Qatar's bet ... failed especially in the Wadi al-Deif battle. The regime managed to break through them after they became the new local warlords, caring for money and power not the cause," the senior commander told Reuters. That battlefield collapse infuriated Qatar's allies in the anti-Assad alliance.

"The straw that broke the camel's back was the failure to take over Wadi al-Deif camp," the commander said.

In diplomatic struggles, Western nations were angered by the appointment by the opposition in mid-March of Ghassan Hitto as the exiles' prime minister. He was seen by Western diplomats as Qatar's Islamist candidate and Hitto's rejection of talks with Assad's government was seen as a block to negotiating a peace.

For one Western diplomat familiar with deliberations in the Friends of Syria alliance that backs the rebels, choosing Hitto was "the final straw" in galvanizing the Western powers behind the move to rein in Qatar by promoting Saudi leadership.

"They wanted to clip the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood," the Syrian commander from the north said.

For Saudi Arabia and its Western allies, concerned that the fall of Assad might mean a hostile, Islamist state, Qatar's flaw was an enthusiasm for winning the war - as it helped Libyan rebels do in 2011 - without ensuring how any peace might look.

A Syrian rebel military source who has been close to Saudi officials expressed it thus: "Qatar tried to carve out a role for itself. But it did so without wisdom: they had no clear plan or a view of what would happen later. They just want to win."


Source: Reuters

 
 
06/01/13

BEIRUT: Eighteen rockets and mortars rounds from Syria slammed into Lebanon on Saturday, the largest cross-border salvo to hit a Hezbollah stronghold since Syrian rebels threatened to retaliate for the Lebanese militant group's armed support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The rockets targeted the Baalbek region, the latest sign that Syria's civil war is increasingly destabilizing Lebanon. On Friday, the Lebanese parliament decided to put off general elections, originally scheduled for June, by 17 months, blaming a deteriorating security situation in the country.

In Qatar, an influential Sunni Muslim cleric whose TV show is watched by millions across the region, fanned the sectarian flames ignited by the Syria conflict and urged Sunnis everywhere to join the fight against Assad.

"I call on Muslims everywhere to help their brothers be victorious," Yusuf al-Qaradawi said in his Friday sermon in the Qatari capital of Doha. "If I had the ability I would go and fight with them."

"Everyone who has the ability and has training to kill ... is required to go," said al-Qaradawi, who is in his 80s. "We cannot ask our brothers to be killed while we watch."

He denounced Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as "more infidel than Christians and Jews" and Shiite Muslim Hezbollah as "the party of the devil."

He said there is no more common ground between Shiites and Sunnis, alleging that Shiite Iran — a longtime Syria ally that has supplied the regime with cash and weapons — is trying to "devour" Sunnis.

The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, has taken on dark sectarian overtones. It has escalated from a local uprising into a civil war and is not increasingly shifting into a proxy war.

Predominantly Sunni rebels backed by Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are fighting against a regime that relies on support from Alawites, Shiites and Christians at home, and is aided by Iran and Hezbollah. The Syria conflict is also part of a wider battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.

Sunni fighters from Iraq and Lebanon have crossed into Syria to help those fighting Assad, while Shiites from Iraq have joined the battle on the regime's side.

Sectarian tensions rose sharply when Hezbollah stepped up its involvement in the war in mid-May by joining a regime offensive against the rebel-held Syrian town of Qusair, about 10 kilometers (six miles) from Lebanon. The town has since become one of the war's major military and political flashpoints, with international concern growing over civilians believed to be trapped there.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nation's two top officials dealing with human rights and humanitarian issues said they were alarmed by reports that thousands of civilians are trapped in Qusair and that hundreds of wounded people are in urgent need of medical care.

The U.N. officials called for a cease-fire to allow the wounded to be evacuated. They said more than 10,000 people have fled to two nearby towns and need food, bedding, water and medical care.

The Red Cross said it has requested access to Qusair and is prepared to enter the city immediately to help the civilians there.

Syria's political opposition cited Hezbollah's role in the war and the dire situation in Qusair as reasons for not attending peace talks with the regime in Geneva, which the U.S. and Russia had hoped could be launched at an international conference this month.

Qusair has also become a rallying cry for rebels demanding Western weapons shipments, with the commander of the main Western-backed rebel group warning this week the town could fall soon if such arms are not delivered.

A regime victory in Qusair would deal a demoralizing blow to the rebels and solidify Assad's control over the central province of Homs, the linchpin linking the capital Damascus with the Alawite strongholds on the Mediterranean cost.

For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon. Rebels have sent reinforcements to the town to try to stem the regime advances. Both sides have suffered heavy casualties.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah's role in Syria set off a mounting backlash from the rebels who threatened to target the militia's bases in Lebanon if the militant group does not withdraw its fighters.

Over the past week, Syrian rebels have fired dozens of rockets on Lebanon's northeastern region of Hermel, across the border from Qusair, but Saturday's attack was the first on the Baalbek region, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Sixteen rockets and mortar rounds hit Baalbek early Saturday, igniting fires in fields but causing no casualties. Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the villages of Yanta, Brital and Saraeen were among the areas struck. Lebanon's National News Agency said two more rockets hit the Baalbek area on Saturday evening.

Also Saturday, gunmen opened fire on a Shiite shrine in the town of Baalbek in an attack that could worsen frictions between Lebanon's Shiites and Sunnis. The shrine of Sayida Khawla, a great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, was attacked shortly after midnight, a security official said.

Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon, itself plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, which began as mostly peaceful protests against Assad's regime but later degenerated into all-out civil war.

Some Lebanese Sunnis support the Syrian rebels, while some Shiites back Assad's regime. In the majority Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, Sunnis backing the rebels and Alawites supporting Assad have repeatedly fought each other with rockets and grenades.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has firmly linked the militia's fate with that of the Assad regime, but in a speech last week also pledged to keep the fighting out of Lebanon.

Still, a senior Hezbollah commander, Nabil Kaouk, said Saturday that "we will not be silent and will not stand idle" in the wake of Syrian rebel attacks on Hezbollah targets. He spoke during a memorial service for a slain Hezbollah fighter and his comments were carried on the website of Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV.

Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, said he believes Hezbollah has made a strategic decision that the battle is in Syria, not Lebanon. "If Hezbollah is provoked, I don't expect it to allow itself to fall into the trap" of responding, he said.

At the same time, the al-Qaradawi comments "are pouring fuel on a raging fire," Gerges said.

The cleric is "putting a sectarian stamp on an essentially geostrategic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran," he said.


Source: AP/USA Today
 
 
PicturePhoto: AFP/Fabrice Cobbrini
05/31/13

A group of doctors working in war-torn Syria said Friday its members had seen dozens of patients suffering from what they believe are chemical weapons attacks, saying the number seemed to be rising.

"We have dozens of cases of people hurt in what seems to be chemical attacks, especially civilians," Tawfik Chamaa, a founding member of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), told AFP.

The organization, which has dozens of doctors in field hospitals across Syria, said 97 percent of the victims were civilians, and that the cases were mainly concentrated in the suburbs of Damascus.

Referring to a list of 34 suspected attacks, compiled by the group Syrian Human Rights Watch in Cairo, Chamaa said the attacks appeared mainly to be carried out by fighter jets, helicopters and long- and mid-range missiles.

"And it's the regime that is in possession of these weapons," said Chamaa, a Swiss doctor of Syrian origin, adding that the frequency of the attacks appeared to be accelerating.

"Since 2013, we have seen a huge increase in these attacks, and in recent days attacks with chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus are happening practically on a daily basis," he said.

One of the group's doctors, oncologist Mousa al-Kurdi, who works in Cambridge in Britain, told reporters in Geneva that he had seen four patients first hand who he was certain were suffering from a chemical attack.

The four, all from the same family, had been brought to his field hospital from their home in Saraqeb, where a total of 26 people were injured and four died in a suspected sarin attack on April 29, according to Syrian Human Rights Watch.

The first woman to arrive was the 50-year-old mother of eight, he said.

"She was completely unconscious, some evidence of froth on her mouth, no surgical injury whatsoever," he said, going on to describe her "red eyes, very hot... muscle twitching [and] I've never seen pupils so constricted, almost non-existent".

Soon after, the woman's 19-year-old daughter-in-law, who was nine months pregnant, and two of her sons, aged 34 and 14, were brought in, all with similar symptoms.

Lacking the equipment to treat victims of chemical attack, the team arranged for their transfer across the border to Turkey -- the first such patients to be taken out of the country, Kurdi said.

The 50-year-old woman died just minutes after arriving at the Turkish hospital, while the three others survived.

Chamaa called this case a unique opportunity for the international community to gain clear proof of chemical weapons use, since numerous samples were taken from all four patients in Turkey. The body of the woman who died remained there.

A commission set up by UN chief Ban Ki-moon to probe whether such weapons have been used has not been able to enter Syria.

"We have informed the international chemical weapons experts of these four cases so that they can take samples," Chamaa said, but adding that his organization had not received any clear response and did not know if tests had been carried out.

The UOSSM, meanwhile, has no doubt chemical weapons were being used.

"These clinical elements can only indicate, with 99 percent certainty, an attack with toxic gas," Chamaa said, saying all the symptoms pointed to sarin gas poisoning.


Source: AFP/Now Media

 
 
PicturePhoto: Reuters
05/31/13

The US and Germany have called on Russia not to supply Syria's military with an advanced missile system they say could prolong the conflict there.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the delivery of Russian weaponry would have a "profoundly negative impact" and put Israel's security at risk.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged Moscow not to hinder the chances of mooted peace talks.

In Syria, fierce fighting continued on Friday around the key town of Qusair.

Dozens of opposition fighters reached the town on Friday to bolster it against an offensive involving government forces and militants from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

One opposition activist told the BBC the humanitarian situation in the town near the Lebanese border was worsening, with 800 wounded people needing treatment.

'Unified' government

Mr Kerry and Mr Westerwelle held talks in Washington a day after Mr Assad said a Russian contract to supply the S-300 surface-to-air missile defence system was being implemented, without confirming any deliveries.

The S-300 is a highly capable system that, as well as targeting aircraft, also has the capacity to engage ballistic missiles.

Two Russian newspapers on Friday quoted defence sources as saying that it was unclear if any of the missile system would be delivered this year.

Mr Kerry called on Russia not to upset the balance in the region by providing weaponry to the Assad regime, "whether it's and old contract or not".

"It has a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region and it does put Israel at risk," he said.

"We hope that they will refrain from that in the interests of making this peace process work," he said.

He added that he was convinced the Syrian opposition would take part in US and Russian-backed talks expected to be held in Geneva next month. Russian and American officials are set to meet next week to prepare the ground for the peace conference.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says a lot more needs to be done for the opposition to be in any kind of shape to attend any conference in a coherent manner.

He says that, by contrast, the Syrian government appears unified and confident.

Mr Assad said on Thursday that Syria would "in principle" attend the peace conference in Geneva if there were not unacceptable preconditions.

In an interview with Lebanon's al-Manar TV, which is owned by Hezbollah, he warned that Syria would respond in kind to any future Israeli air strikes.

Qusair crisis

Meanwhile, Syrian state television said troops and Hezbollah fighters had captured the Arjun district of Qusair on Thursday.


An attempt to get wounded people out of the town on Friday had failed, an opposition activist told the BBC, as the convoy had come under attack, with nine people killed.

The source said 30,000 people were still in Qusair, 80% of which was under rebel control, although these figures cannot be independently verified.

"There is no water at all, because the Assad regime controls the water supply, and there has been no electricity for four months," he said.

More than 80,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million have fled Syria since the uprising against Mr Assad began in 2011, according to UN estimates.

  1. The long-range surveillance radar tracks objects over a range of 300km (185 miles) and relays information to the command vehicle, which assesses potential targets.
  2. A target is identified and the command vehicle orders the engagement radar to launch missiles.
  3. Launch data is sent to the best placed of the battalion's six launch vehicles and it releases two surface-to-air missiles.
  4. The engagement radar helps guide the missiles towards the target. It can guide up to 12 missiles simultaneously, engaging up to six targets at once.


Analysis

Jim Muir BBC News, Beirut

After 40 years of tight dictatorship in Syria, it is not surprising that the opposition is finding it hard to produce a coherent, representative leadership to face off against a tough regime team in the proposed Geneva conference.

What was meant to be a three-day meeting of the opposition coalition in Istanbul turned into eight days of in-fighting that has failed to achieve its stated goals of electing a new leadership, approving an interim government and taking a clear position on the Geneva proposal.

After initially saying it would go to Geneva with conditions, the opposition now says it will not go as long as Hezbollah is fighting at Qusair. That buys it time for the great deal of work, and doubtless wrangling, that will be needed to construct a plausible delegation for the talks, and more meetings will be held early next month.

By contrast, the regime side is unified and coherent, and has decades of negotiating experience to draw on. The opposition risks a severe defeat in the talks, unless it gets its act together very seriously.


Source: BBC