April 17, 2014 by Acil Tabbara
The exit of Saudi’s spy chief was the result of US pressure over his stance on Syria but does not signal a shift in Riyadh’s goal of toppling the Damascus regime, experts say.
Riyadh, as is usual, did not elaborate on its statement this week that Prince Bandar bin Sultan was being replaced, saying only that the veteran diplomat had asked to step down.
But a Saudi expert said that Washington — irritated for some time by Prince Bandar’s handling of the Syria dossier — had in December demanded his removal.
Prince Bandar was leading Saudi Arabia’s efforts to finance, arm and unify the Syrian rebellion, which after three years of fighting is still far from its goal of overthrowing the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The spy chief’s efforts were especially stymied by US objections to plans to supply the rebels with advanced weapons that could tip the military balance against Assad’s forces, which are increasingly gaining the upper hand on the ground.
Dubbed “Bandar Bush” for his strong links with former US presidentGeorge Bush and his son George w. Bush — forged during the time he served as ambassador to Washington — the Saudi royal has openly criticised the current US administration headed by the Democrats.
He vented his anger in front of Western diplomats when Washington stepped back after threatening a military strike following deadly chemical attacks in August outside Damascus that the West blamed on Assad forces.
One diplomat revealed that Prince Bandar had on that occasion angrily said Riyadh no longer considered the United States to be its principal ally and that it would instead be seeking support from France and other powers.
The influential powerbroker was appointed intelligence chief in 2012.
His last public assignment was a failed attempt in December to press Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon his support for Assad.
Experts underlined Prince Bandar’s encouragement to radical Islamists in Syria, which they said increased security threats already posed to the kingdom by Saudi jihadists.
"Prince Bandar’s aggressive Syria approach highlighted the gap between the expectations he set and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence and operational capabilities," said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"Running a vast and complex effort to help bring down a foreign regime supported by Iran and Russia was simply beyond Riyadh’s ability," he said.
Saudi Arabia’s goal is especially difficult due to the “reluctance of its main Western partner and the conflicting agendas of other important regional players such as Turkey and Qatar,” he added.
Although the Arab heavyweight has supplied the rebels with “arms and rebels,” Hokayem said, it had to deal with armed groups that are “dangerous and undisciplined”.
The Damascus government, on the other hand, enjoys strong support from Iran, which “could count on organised and well-trained proxies and allies,” such as Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, he added.
Diplomats indicated in February that the kingdom had sidelined Prince Bandar from the Syrian dossier, assigning it to Interior Minister Prince Mohamed bin Nayef, known as the kingdom’s iron fist in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
Soon afterwards Riyadh announced tougher punishment for Saudi Islamists fighting abroad, warning that they could spend 20 years behind bars.
"The ballooning number of Saudi jihadists in Syria — with probable negative consequences for the Saudi regime — and the setbacks suffered there contributed to a rethinking and consequently a reshuffling in Riyadh," argues Hokayem.
Saudi analysts insist however that replacing Prince Bandar does not mean a shift in the Saudi position towards the Syrian conflict.
"There is no change. Saudi Arabia wants the fall of Bashar al-Assad,” stressed columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
"There is no such thing as the politics of Bandar. There is government policy as well as directives given by King Abdullah that any intelligence chief would implement,” he said.
For the time being Prince Bandar’s deputy, Yusef al-Idrissi, has been appointed as a caretaker but Saudi sources have said that another member of the royal family is likely to be named to the post.
April 16, 2014 by Nicholas Blanford
A slew of battlefield successes by the Syrian Army and its allies has prompted upbeat assessments from President Bashar al-Assad that his forces are headed for victory in the war against his rebel opponents.
Mr. Assad predicted on Monday that the major battles could be over by the end of the year, while his ally, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, claimed that the Syrian leader no longer faced the risk of being overthrown.
“This is a turning point in the crisis, both militarily in terms of the Army’s achievements in the war against terror, and socially in terms of national reconciliation processes and growing awareness of the truth behind the [attacks] targeting our country,” Assad said.
But a regime victory is unlikely to look anything like pre-war Syria. With vast tracts of northern and eastern Syria remaining in the hands of rebel groups, “winning” could simply mean retaking and holding parts of western Syria that are vital to the regime’s survival.
In the past year, the Syrian Army, supported by Shiite fighters from Hezbollah and Iraq and backed by Russia and Iran, has concentrated its efforts on ousting rebels from Damascus and imposing control on the critical corridor that connects the Syrian capital to the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of the Alawites, a Shiite splinter sect to which Assad belongs.
The regime’s hold on the area not only protects Assad in Damascus; it also safeguards the crucial arms supply route from the Syrian military bases, where weapons are stored, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“I think the war that matters for him [Assad] is the war for western Syria, and with Iranian and Russian help he’s doing quite well. For Iran, the key is to maintain and improve a logistical bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” says Frederic Hof, resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former State Department special adviser for transition in Syria.
In recent weeks, the Syrian Army and Hezbollah have swept through the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, seizing towns and villages in swift succession, effectively restoring regime control over the territory between the capital and Homs and the Lebanese border. However, it is unclear if the Syrian military will then seek to consolidate its hold on western Syria or prepare for offensives elsewhere in an attempt to decisively defeat the rebel forces.
As it is, the Syrian army is overstretched and drained by relentless combat, high casualty rates, and desertions. It was only able to retake tracts of western Syria because of help from Hezbollah and Iraqi paramilitary forces, as well as Russian and Iranian logistical support, analysts say.
If the Assad regime decides to make a push for Daraa province in the south, part of which is held by the rebels, or Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the north, dominated by rebel and foreign extremists, it could leave insufficient troops to garrison Qalamoun and the coast and prevent rebel forces from slipping back into the area.
“It may well be that the war Iran is interested in pursuing – the one that secures for itself and its Syrian vassal that part of Syria important to Iran – is the war Assad thinks may be over by the year’s end,” says Mr. Hof. “I’m not sure that Assad would want to expend the time or effort to reconquer those parts of Syria whose inhabitants he largely holds in contempt.”
April 15, 2014 by AFP
Some 400 men, including rebels and draft evaders from besieged areas of Syria’s city of Homs, who recently surrendered to the authorities, fear they may be held indefinitely, activists said Tuesday.
Evacuations from the battered districts began in February, during a U.N.-supervised humanitarian operation that saw some 1,400 people leave the blockaded rebel areas.
The operation was initially intended to allow women, children and the elderly to leave the areas, where people have been surviving on little more than herbs for nearly two years, but scores of men also left.
Then, some two weeks ago, another 300 men — mainly rebel fighters and draft evaders — also left the siege, including a civilian activist who identified himself as Omar.
"There was a promise that the army defectors (rebel fighters) would be released if they handed in their weapons, and they did. There was talk that we draft evaders would be released too, but till now, there is nothing," said Omar.
He and the other men are all still being held at a former school called Al-Andalus, located in Homs city.
Omar says they are being held in good conditions “but we don’t know anything about what will happen to us. We are waiting and waiting.”
Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, a U.N. source in Syria confirmed that 300 men “left (the siege) spontaneously, without negotiations and without a ceasefire. They are currently in Al-Andalus school.”
The source also said local charities are delivering food to them.
For his part, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi said: “Every day some 10 to 25 men leave (besieged) Old Homs) and hand over their weapons. We welcome them in a hospitality centre for as long as we need to study their situation.”
"Each person has a specific case. Some stay (in Al-Andalus) for two days, others for a week, and others for longer. Last Friday we cleared 54 men."
The governor told AFP he does not know how many men in total are being held in the school.
The detainees’ fears come amid a major escalation of violence against the besieged, rebel areas. For the first time since last summer, the army entered the besieged area on Tuesday, under cover of fire.
Beirut, April 17, 2014 by AFP
Syrian rebels on Thursday attacked one of the largest military barracks in the country, in northern Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"Rebels, including fighters from Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, launched an assault today on the barracks in Hanano in Aleppo," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that the fighting was ongoing.
State media, meanwhile, reported that the army had “foiled an attempt by terrorist groups to infiltrate the barracks” and killed a number of them.
Abdel Rahman said the barracks is one of the largest in Syria.
"It’s strategically important because it’s on a hill that overlooks parts of northern Aleppo," he added.
Once Syria’s economic hub, Aleppo has been divided between regime control in the west and rebel control in the east since shortly after combat began there in mid-2012.
Abdel Rahman said the attack began when “rebels detonated explosives in tunnels they had dug beneath army positions around the barracks.”
State television also reported that the rebels had “detonated explosives in three tunnels around the barracks.”
Abdel Rahman said the barracks overlooks a key supply route for rebels going north into the rest of Aleppo province.
Regime forces have advanced around some of the eastern outskirts of Aleppo city, reopening its international airport to the east.
The air force has also waged a relentless campaign against eastern parts of the city, including dropping explosives-packed “barrel bombs.”
Damascus, April 17, 2014 by AFP
Candidates for Syria’s presidential election can begin registering on April 21, when the date for the vote will be announced, a government source told AFP on Thursday.
"On Monday April 21, the Council of the People (parliament) will meet to open registration for presidential candidates and set a date for the election," the source said.
Syria’s government has insisted it will go ahead with presidential elections this year before the end of President Bashar al-Assad’s term on July 17.
But it is unclear how it will do so during a raging civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people over the past three years, displaced nearly half the population and seen the regime lose control of large swathes of territory.
The vote will be Syria’s first multi-candidate elections, after a new constitution did away with the old process of presidential referendums.
Assad has all but said he will stand, and is expected to easily win the vote.
New electoral regulations, including a requirement stating that candidates must have been living in Syria for the last decade, will exclude prominent opposition figures who live in exile.
The government’s plan to hold the vote has drawn criticism from much of the international community, with UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warning it could jeopardize further peace talks.
Syria’s opposition has insisted that Assad can have no role in the country’s future and his departure from office is one of their key demands.
Damascus, April 17, 2014 by AFP
In the Bab Tuma district of Syria’s capital Damascus, Fadi Mayal dreams of returning home to the ancient Christian town of Maalula which was retaken by government forces this week.
But he and many other residents chased out when rebel forces including jihadists entered the town in September fear it may still be too early to go back.
The Syrian army recaptured Maalula on Monday, saying it had restored “security and stability” to the picturesque hamlet where 5,000 people lived before the war began in March 2011.
"I would love to go back and celebrate Easter there, but it’s still a bit early," said Mayal in the capital’s Christian district of Bab Tuma.
"I’ll go back, that’s for sure. My father is buried there," added the 42-year-old building contractor.
"But there are still sleeper cells in Maalula."
On Monday, as the army worked to recapture the town, three employees of Al-Manar, the television channel of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, were killed there.
An AFP correspondent who was in the town on Monday saw widespread destruction.
The Al-Safir hotel, which rebels had used as a base, was almost completely destroyed, its facade collapsed.
Downhill from the hotel, the Mar Sarkis Greek Catholic monastery was also damaged, its walls pierced by mortar rounds, and icons and other religious objects strewn on the ground inside.
Mayal said he saw his own house burning in a video that rebels posted on YouTube.
He suspects it was targeted because he had put up a picture of President Bashar al-Assad, but he is still eager to return to Maalula.
"Social life is different here in Damascus, and because of the crisis work is scarce," he said.
Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced inside or outside the country by the conflict that began in March 2011.
More than 150,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
- Feast of the Cross -
Antoinette Nasrallah, a 35-year-old Maalula native wearing sunglasses and white jeans, said she felt “great joy” when she heard that the Christian town had been “liberated.”
"But I’m saddened by the destruction of the churches," she added.
She too hopes to be able to return as soon as possible.
"We want to spend next summer there," she said.
"Celebrating the Feast of the Cross there on September 14, as we do every year, has become a dream."
Built into a dramatic cliff, and full of churches, convents and monasteries, Maalula is considered a symbol of Christian presence in the Damascus region.
Its residents are renowned for speaking Aramaic, the language Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken.
"I hope with all my heart that the situation will go back to how it was before," Nasrallah said.
"We’re afraid of forgetting Aramaic. We don’t know when we’ll be able to go back home."
Maalula’s residents, who are mostly Greek Orthodox Christians, have found refuge in and around Damascus, which is around 55 kilometers (35 miles) from their home town.
Some are afraid of returning even after the army recaptured Maalula, traumatized by their flight and worried about the destruction to their homes.
"The houses were looted and some were burned," said Diab Bahkit, a 62-year-old.
But others said they were ready to head back immediately, including one man who refused to give his name but said he wanted to “defend” his town and religion.
"I’m going back to Maalula as soon as possible – I won’t stay here a minute more," he insisted.
He said fighters had tried to “destroy Maalula, especially its religious establishments.”
And a mother from the town, living in a single room in Damascus with her husband and four children, said she too was ready to return straight away.
"If they allow us, we’ll go back immediately," the 50-year-old said, declining to give her name.
"Life is hard here. We’re living on aid, and it’s hard to come by," she added.
United Nations, April 15, 2014 by Somini Sengupta
Members of a deeply divided United Nations Security Council spent two hours on Tuesday morning looking at pictures of mutilated, skeletal corpses that were said to have been taken by a former Syrian Army photographer.
Some victims, who were allegedly detained by the Syrian government, had been starved for weeks, which explained why ribs poked out and abdomens looked like sunken valleys, a forensic pathologist told the Council. One person appeared to have been strangled by a metal belt from an automobile engine. The ankles of several were scarred; the pathologist said they had probably been shackled and starved, so that the skin had lost all strength.
These and more photographs were shown to the Council in an effort by France to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. They were part of a collection smuggled out of Syria by a defector known by the code name Caesar. An international panel of experts hired by Qatar, one of the Syrian government’s staunchest critics, found the photographs to be authentic and Caesar to be credible. Aside from the pathologist, Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton, the panel included a forensic imaging expert and three war crimes prosecutors.
From left, David Crane, a prosecutor; Gérard Araud, the French envoy; and Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton, a forensic pathologist, discussed photographs. Credit Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
New details on Tuesday emerged about Caesar and his photographs. His job was to chronicle the deaths of detainees during the Syrian conflict. For two years, he took pictures of the dead as his job demanded. He also made copies of each photograph, smuggling them to a member of the opposition. His own death was faked so that he could escape the country.
Dr. Hamilton, a career forensic pathologist with the British Home Office, said that out of 55,000 pictures, he had vetted only 5,500 representing roughly 1,300 victims, mostly men of fighting age.
David Crane, one of three prosecutors on the panel, said he had been skeptical when first informed of the archive. “This all seemed too good to be true,” Mr. Crane, who prosecuted the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, told reporters after briefing the Council.
“Most of these thugs don’t write this stuff down,” he added.
The photographs, he said, provided direct evidence of “widespread industrial killings.”
The photographs are something of a mixed blessing for the Council. If authentic, they are gripping evidence of torture by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Even so, the prospects of prosecution in the short term seem slim. Syria’s principal ally on the Council, Russia, wields veto power.
Russia chose to send a midlevel diplomat from its mission, Igor Panin, to Tuesday’s briefing, which was closed to reporters. Mr. Crane said later that Mr. Panin had questioned him as if they had been in a court of law, asking pointedly about the veracity of the evidence and how it was obtained and stored. The Russian Mission declined to comment.
The French ambassador, Gérard Araud, said it would be weeks before a resolution would be drafted.
“We know the Security Council is divided. We know it’s practically impossible to get a decision from the Security Council,” he said, adding that he hoped all 15 members would be moved by the horrors captured in the pictures.
“There are times when we must speak out,” he said. “We must appeal to human conscience.”
The United Nations has not independently verified the authenticity of the images. But its own human rights investigations have reported evidence of torture inside government detention centers along with executions by Islamist groups fighting to topple the Assad government.
Diplomats who attended the session said that what was most unusual about it was the total silence that followed the experts’ briefing. No one rushed to speak.
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said later in a statement: “Nobody who sees these images will ever be the same. The perpetrators of these monstrous crimes must be held accountable, and the international community must unite in the face of such horrors.”
Whoever took the pictures was vigilant about record-keeping. Some corpses were photographed along with what Dr. Hamilton said appeared to be their identity cards. Those cards and faces were blurred. Dr. Hamilton said he had seen nothing like the archive in his career.
But Mr. Crane said no investigation into war crimes in Syria could focus on one side, no matter how solid the evidence. “A credible justice mechanism has to take into account all sides,” he said. “This is not about Assad. This is not about the other side.”
He added, “There’s nobody not culpable anymore.”
April 11, 2014 by Aron Lund
On March 22, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy met in Beirut with Lebanon’s minister of industry, Hussein Hajj Hassan, who also represents Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Iranian-backed Shia Islamist movement. The group doesn’t only influence Lebanese policy via the government; it is also fighting in Syria alongside Iranian special forces and Iraqi Shia militias to prop up the government of President Bashar al-Assad. And it’s doing quite well at that.
Hezbollah Says Assad Won
Recent army advances in Syria around Aleppo and Homs and in the Qalamoun area have been presented by the Hezbollah leadership as steps on the road to victory. The group’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, now claims that “the danger of the Syrian regime falling has ended.”
“There is a practical Syrian reality that the West should deal with—not with its wishes and dreams, which proved to be false,” added Hezbollah’s deputy leaderNaim Qassem in an interview a few days ago. Qassem claims that the West must now choose to either “have an understanding with Assad, to reach a result, or to keep the crisis open with President Assad having the upper hand in running the country.”
The Need for a Settlement
These are big words, but on the ground the situation isn’t quite so rosy for the Hezbollah leaders. All sides are paying copiously in blood and treasure to sustain their role in the war. That includes Hezbollah and Lebanon itself, which is slowly succumbing to the tensions generated by the Syrian war, as well as Hezbollah’s Iranian paymasters, who are not only funding Shia militias and arms deliveries but also stuck with the bill for Assad’s fuel needs.
The Syrian government itself is in awful shape after three years of conflict, now heavily reliant on outside support and unruly sectarian militias. The army seems unable to advance decisively despite having a clear military edge over the insurgents, partly because of a severe lack of manpower due to defections, sectarian polarization, and territorial losses. As things stand, it appears unlikely that Assad could ever muster enough troops and resources to recapture and stabilize the entire country. More likely, he could fortify his hold over “useful Syria”—the coastal areas and the Lebanese border, Damascus, Aleppo, and the major cities of western, southern, and central Syria, including key energy infrastructure—but that won’t end the war.
Today, the most realistic way to restabilize Syria, with or without Assad, is for foreign states to try to gradually impose a series of deals that would draw in enough credible actors on both sides to dampen the fighting and isolate radical holdouts, then try to consolidate this under some form of live-and-let-live political arrangement. The leaders of Hezbollah, itself born out of fifteen years of civil war in Lebanon, must surely realize this. The question is if their Iranian backers do.
An Iranian Peace Plan?
In an article in the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar, the journalist Sami Kleib—who hasstrong connections to the Assad regime—claims that the meeting between Fahmy and Hassan was in fact part of a broader albeit discreet Egyptian-Iranian dialogue, partly focused on the war in Syria. According to Kleib, Iran has even suggested a political settlement consisting of four points:
- A comprehensive cease-fire at a national level.
- Forming a national unity government consisting of the regime and the internal Syrian opposition.
- Laying the grounds for a new regime by transferring presidential powers to the government whereby the government will enjoy wide-ranging powers in the years to come.
- Preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections.
Kleib writes that the Egyptian side found the plan weak “because the other side might reject it”—and the Egyptians would be right to think so. While points 1, 3, and 4 are virtually identical to what was proposed in the Geneva communiqué of June 2012, which later formed the starting point of the Geneva II conference on peace in Syria, the phrasing of point 2 is a deal breaker.
Who Should Be in a Unity Government?
Alone among the nations involved in Syria’s war, Iran wasn’t admitted to the Geneva II talks earlier this year, largely because the United States objected to Tehran’s refusal to formally endorse the Geneva communiqué.
If Kleib’s article accurately represents the Iranian point of view, the nature of the national unity government would be the main sticking point. The Geneva communiqué states that such a government should be made up of pro- and anti-Assad members appointed by mutual consent at the peace talks. In practice, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other states have promoted the exile-basedNational Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces as Assad’s key counterpart at the talks, and they have tried (with limited success) to connect rebel groups on the ground to this structure.
Iran wants to restrict participation even further to only include the “internal opposition.” That phrase is typically used to mean the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a small unarmed gathering of secular-leftist opposition groups that have allied with the powerful Kurdish militias of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD by its Kurdish acronym. Presumably, Iran would also see the “internal opposition” as including regime cronies like Qadri Jamil, a former member of Assad’s cabinet.
Not a Viable Opposition Leadership
While these groups could definitely serve a useful role in a national unity government, they are currently (with the exception of the PYD) absolutely powerless on the ground. To make things worse, the Syrian government has made a habit of arresting and kidnapping members of the National Coordination Body to keep it in line politically, with not so much as a peep of protest from the Iranian government. As a result, the National Coordination Body has never been able to function as an internal leadership, and it now has zero influence over the armed rebels and street movements with which Assad needs to negotiate if talks are to have any impact on the ground.
For Iran to claim that an internal opposition thus defined could make up the anti-Assad component of a unity government is either dishonest or delusional. It’s not a peace plan; it’s a recipe for continued war. And until Iran and all the other governments currently fanning the flames of war in Syria have accepted that no peace plan can work without a critical mass of armed actors on both sides, Syria’s slow collapse into Somalia-style anarchy will continue.