Jordan Halts Free Medical Care for Syrian Refugees

November 27, 2014 by Zaman al-Wasl

In another shock to Syrian refugees in Jordan after food vouchers were halted a few weeks ago, the Jordanian government has cancelled all free treatment at the Ministry of Health’s hospitals and clinics.

Syrians were previously treated via the health insurance system; all they needed to do was show the documents from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Jordanian Minister of Health said that decision was issued by the cabinet and had been implemented, and Syrians would be charged directly without any mediators.

The minister confirmed that the Ministry of Health still was owed JOD.34 million in unpaid charges for treating Syrians, from donors and international organizations.

UNHCR has not commented on the decision yet, despite the fact that the decision has put huge financial pressure of Syrian refugees, who cannot even afford food, and raises concerns about children, who account for more than half of all patients visiting health facilities.

Donors who lag in payments for Syrians are considered to be the most responsibile for the situation they put fragile Syrian refugees in.

Russia’s new push for Syria dialogue unlikely to be fruitful

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend a meeting in Moscow, October 21, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (L) and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend a meeting in Moscow, October 21, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV

Moscow/Beirut, November 26, 2014 by Gabriela Baczynska and Sylvia Westall

Fresh Russian efforts to encourage Syrian peace talks are unlikely to make progress because Moscow rejects opposition and Western calls for the swift departure of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow has long-supported Assad, including with arms supplies for Syria, but he has become a more important ally for Russiasince the Arab Spring protests toppled leaders in the Middle East, some of whom had close ties with Moscow.

With its influence in the Middle East weakened and relationship with the West under increasing strain over the conflict in Ukraine, Moscow is trying to restart Syria talks that collapsed in Geneva in February.

Russia says the rise of Islamic State militants, who control large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, has made it urgent to unite all forces against them. But Western diplomats say Moscow is not offering any new solutions.

Moscow has invited Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to visit this week after a similar trip by a former Syrian opposition chief earlier this month. 

"It is important that constructive Syrian opposition forces restart political dialogue with official (representatives of) Damascus in the face of dangerous challenges posed by international terrorism," Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Monday according to agency Interfax.

Russia says cooperating with Damascus is indispensable for fighting “terrorists” on the ground. The United States refused to cooperate with Assad in a campaign of U.S.-led strikes on Islamic State and other groups that started in September.

A Western diplomat who tracks Syria said Moscow had not offered anything substantially new. Moscow had only recently repeated a proposal that Assad stay in power for two years with a provisional government, before presidential elections in which he could stand, the diplomat said. The Syrian opposition, and its U.S. and Arab backers want Assad to step down. 

"To demand Assad’s exit makes no sense now that everyone’s main enemy is Islamic State, and a final destabilization of power in Syria can only benefit them," said Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign policy analyst with close ties to Russian authorities.

Some Western diplomats say Moscow’s initiative may be a sign that President Vladimir Putin is concerned about reports that U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a review of Syria policy.

A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry announcing the Moualem visit said the two ministers would hold talks “against the background of U.S. attempts to monopolize the right to decide on the goals and methods of anti-terrorist operations.”

"There is a nervousness among Syria and its allies… They fear there is something that they cannot control so they want to take the initiative but they don’t want to give any ground," the Western diplomat who tracks Syria said.

Some diplomats said Moscow was trying to show it was not isolated by the Ukraine conflict. 

"This conflict is stalling all U.S.-Russia cooperation or talks on every possible field, including Syria," a Western diplomat in Moscow said.

"What Russia is trying to do is to show that it is relevant, that it is a player that cannot be bypassed." 

BLEAK PROSPECTS

Moscow reiterated its readiness to host Syria peace talks but it is far from clear who would represent the opposition. 

While the West has thrown its weight behind the Turkey-based National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Russia says members of “a wide spectrum of social and political forces of the Syrian society” should take part. 

Moscow has not invited the coalition to take part in any talks, although Russia’s Bogdanov did meet with members in Istanbul six weeks ago and discussed restarting the political process, said Anas Abdah, a senior coalition member.

Since Geneva, increased infighting in the opposition has undermined efforts by rebels to take on government forces. The rebels Washington wants to train and equip to take on Islamic State have lost ground to hardliners.

"Things are much more complicated, the moderate Syrian opposition that used to stand together with the radicals against Assad is further split," analyst Lukyanov said. "Some prefer Assad to what is going on, other still want to fight the regime, yet others have lost any hope for any positive developments."

Moaz Alkhatib, the former head of the opposition coalition, visited Moscow for talks earlier this month.

Although he no longer leads the main opposition in exile, he is seen by diplomats as someone who could play a part in a political solution for Syria. After the meeting Alkhatib said Moscow had suggested hosting a conference to reboot talks. 

He said he attended the meeting with two former high-ranking Syrian army generals who defected earlier in the war, a former Syrian diplomat and the opposition coalition’s envoy to Doha.

"Russia did not offer anything, it just listened to us and we listened to them," Alkhatib told Reuters, saying he had repeated a call for Assad to step down.

"Syria cannot stand up again with this man," he said.

The Syrians also say it is not clear what Moscow wants to achieve from renewed peace talks, a Lebanese political source close to Damascus said.

"Moualem will head to Russia to hear what the Russians have to say and then we will get a clearer idea of it," the source said, adding that Syria did not feel pressured to compromise. "Nobody is willing to talk about Assad and his family leaving."

Moualem will be in Russia on Wednesday and Thursday and may meet Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

In Syria, desperate residents see little hope in U.N. Aleppo truce plan

Boys play with a soccer ball in the al-Klaseh neighbourhood of Aleppo in this November 8, 2014 file photo.  REUTERS/Hosam Katan/Files

Boys play with a soccer ball in the al-Klaseh neighbourhood of Aleppo in this November 8, 2014 file photo. CREDIT: REUTERS/HOSAM KATAN/FILES

Beirut/Gazientep, November 27, 2014

As winter sets in along the front lines of Aleppo, residents are desperate for the sort of relief United Nationsofficials hope a new ceasefire push will soon bring to the war-battered Syrian city. 

The plan, led by the U.N. peace envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, would set up local truces in so-called “freeze zones” to stop fighting and allow aid into rebel districts. 

Residents could certainly use the help. But after nearly four years of conflict and countless failed peace plans, civilians and fighters alike are skeptical.

The initiative is risky for the disparate opposition groups and while the government has stated its interest, diplomats and analysts doubt its sincerity and say Aleppo could face the same fate as the central city of Homs, where government forces have largely regained control. 

"We cannot trust any initiative," said Safi al-Masri, a 25-year-old Aleppo resident. "We consider this initiative far from humanitarian after all the Syrian blood that’s been spilled." 

While other residents and fighters interviewed by Reuters were less categorical in their doubt, saying they would welcome any plan that relieved the city’s suffering, most questioned whether it would come to anything. 

One reason is that too much rides on the battle for Aleppo for both sides. While rebels once believed taking the city — formerly Syria’s commercial hub — would strike a death blow to President Bashar al-Assad’s government, many now fear the opposite: If Assad’s forces push rebels from the city it could devastate the rebellion in the north. 

Rebels, including some from al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, have clung to territory north of Aleppo, keeping lines open between the city’s rebel-held eastern districts and maintaining links to the Turkish border.

They have been able to do so, rebels say, partly because of deals that have prevented the infighting that hobbled them elsewhere, as well as incremental increases in military aid from states opposed to Assad. 

"The situation … has been stable since the fighting factions started coordinating to face the regime on this front and support was directed from the factions specifically to this front," said a 20-year-old rebel who gave his name as Abu Abbas. 

A DIRE SITUATION

In much of Aleppo, however, there is little left to save. Rebel districts have been devastated by months of government bombardment with “barrel bombs,” explosives packed with shrapnel and nails.

Residents say those attacks have eased in recent weeks, but it is unclear why, and hardly anyone expects the lull to last. 

"Now it’s winter and there are no barrel bombs, so we’ve started to work, but tomorrow when summer comes and the barrel bombs return, we’ll go back to being displaced," said Mohammad Helwani, member of a local council in Aleppo. 

De Mistura has taken a different approach to easing this type of suffering than his two predecessors, who quit in frustration after failing to bring the warring sides anywhere close to a deal. 

The envoy has said the proposed “freeze zones” are intended to deliver something tangible to Syrians.

The Syrian government has voiced guarded support for the plan. Assad said it was “worth studying” and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin this week that they agreed on the need to support the initiative.

Yet many question whether either side will accept a deal. Before de Mistura’s visit to Damascus this month, diplomats said government forces could use ceasefires to force surrenders and round up local men as they have in the past. 

Noah Bonsey, senior analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, said rebels would be unlikely to agree any deal that was unpopular with their supporters while the government likely saw the status quo working in its favor.

"In general, the regime agrees to ceasefires to cement a military victory or to enable the movement of supplies or redeployment of forces elsewhere," he said. 

Another complicating factor in any ceasefire talks is the prominence of the Nusra Front. 

Assuming the group would agree to talk, it is blacklisted as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, putting it off-limits for political negotiations, although humanitarian law allows contacts with such groups to secure goals such as a ceasefire. 

A spokeswoman for de Mistura declined to comment on who might be involved in any Aleppo ceasefire talks. “At the moment we are doing a mapping of influences on the ground in Aleppo, and that will help us in the implementation of the plan,” she said.

And while Nusra Front has fought alongside other rebels in Aleppo, the group has become suspicious of Western-backed groups since it was hit by U.S. air strikes during the campaign against Islamic State.

Iranian official slams Assad

Mohammad Ali Sobhani slammed the Assad regime. (image via DP-News.com)

Mohammad Ali Sobhani blamed the Assad regime for . (image via DP-News.com)

Beirut, November 27, 2014

An advisor in Iran’s Foreign Ministry condemned the Bashar al-Assad regime for enacting policies that lead to the internecine fighting raging in Syria, in an unusual salvo of criticism from an official in Damascus’ top regional ally.

“The Syrian crisis started with the detention of youths who went out protesting. This behavior continued until [the uprising] turned into a war,” Mohammad Ali Sobhani told Nameh News in an interview published Saturday.

“Had the government calmed people and played its role, we would not have faced the current political and sectarian [conflict] in Syria,” Iran’s former envoy to Lebanon from 1997 to 2005 added.

Sobhani’s comments come in reference to the early stages of the Syrian conflict, when in the spring of 2011 peaceful protesters would stage demonstrations, most notably on Fridays, in villages and cities across the country.

Syrian security forces violently suppressed these protests, which soon dwindled as armed opposition groups began to coalesce and fight regime troops as the uprising turned into a brutal civil war.

The Iranian diplomat painted a bleak picture of the current situation in Syria, noting the strong fault lines dividing the country.  

“Syria has become divided into fragmented areas, of which the government rules only one. The Kurds rule over a second area, ISIS the third, Al-Nusra Front the fourth, while the Free Syrian Army rules over the fifth,” Sobhani said.

“There is no Syria anymore; the country is fragmented into parts.”

Sobhani was appointed to his current position in the Iranian government following Hassan Rouhani’s accession to the presidency in August 2013.  

The diplomat’s criticism of the Syrian regime is not new. In 2012, Sobhani questioned his country’s policy towards the crisis in Syria and called for it to shift course.

"The entire world is against Syria and we are standing here defending Syria, a country accused of crimes against humanity. We are not playing this game very well," Sobhani told Khabaronline.com.

“Assad’s days are clearly numbered and Iran will lose influence and interest if it doesn’t shift course,” he added.

Iranian messaging

Sobhani’s latest statements can be interpreted as a political message by Iranian moderates aimed at the international community, according to Mustafa Fahs, a columnist for As-Sharq al-Awsat.

“It is a sign from a certain Iranian party to the [international community] that there is a debate on Assad, which can help in the coming six months to alleviate the regional and international pressure on Iran,” he told NOW.

“The Iranians want to give a message through an Iranian official who is not a decision maker, but works parallel to the decision-making process,” the commentator said, adding that “real Iranian decision makers are clear in their support for Assad.”

Fahs explained that Sobhani “comes from a more flexible [political camp in Iran] and is the advisor of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is cooperative with the international community, and is considered one of the reformists in the moderate movement.”

He added that official Iranian silence over Sobhani’s unusual criticism “is a part of Tehran’s policy in sending messages.”

“They want to say that their [support] toward Assad is serious, but it’s not final and is subject to Iran’s interests.”

Time is running out on the Free Syrian Army

Time is running out on the Free Syrian Army

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires his weapon during clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad in the Handarat area, north of Aleppo November. Hosam Katan / Reuters

November 10, 2014 by Taylor Luck

Several weeks into its Syrian air campaign, the US-led coalition has succeeded in disrupting weapons supplies to an armed group, bringing its offensive to a halt and pushing it to the brink of defeat. 

That group is not ISIL, nor is it the Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra, or even one of the smaller bands of Islamist militants roaming around Syria that have fallen under the coalition’s crosshairs. The real victim is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Since the launch of the campaign, FSA commanders say they have been forced to suspend more than 90 per cent of their operations so as not to interfere with coalition air strikes.

This has robbed the group of critical momentum in campaigns outside Damascus and in southern Syria, turning back advances and rendering nearly six months of military gains “wasted”.

FSA’s absence from the battlefield has proven to be a boon for Bashar Al Assad’s regime, which has seized the opportunity to retake several key rebel towns and large swathes of Aleppo. 

As the US and its allies have redirected their military resources and energies to combating ISIL, they have reduced Syrian rebels to an afterthought. 

Absorbed with its war against extremism, the international community has also abruptly abandoned this band of army defectors. As a result, funding for the FSA has been drying up.

The FSA leadership says they have received only 20 per cent of the $10 million (Dh36 million) aid pledged by western and Arab nations at the beginning of the year and 10 per cent of the promised light arms and ammunition.

The funding crisis forced the supreme military council in September to suspend fighters’ monthly salaries, prompting several battalions to raid villages and farms to stave off starvation.

Meanwhile, pledges by the Obama administration to “back and train moderate Syrian rebels” as the coalition’s main ground forces in its war against ISIL have turned out to be little more than vague promises and bold declarations.

The only help extended by the coalition – the training of 15,000 FSA fighters in heavy arms – has also done more harm than good. 

FSA field commanders say the sudden withdrawal of thousands of fighters from the front lines in northern Syria for training in Saudi Arabia resulted in heavy losses for rebel forces outside Aleppo and Idlib. However, the greatest blow to the FSA has perhaps been dealt by the air strikes themselves.

Jabhat Al Nusra has been a main target of coalition missile strikes, with US and Arab fighter jets destroying Al Nusra positions outside of Aleppo, Idlib and along the Syrian-Turkish border. 

By supporting the coalition and reportedly providing them with the much-needed military intelligence, the FSA has severed all ties with the better-funded Al Nusra, with which it had earlier carried out operations across the country.

This perceived act of betrayal has turned revolutionary brothers-in-arms into bitter rivals, with Al Nusra fighters routing their former allies in Idlib and northern Aleppo. 

Devoid of funds and arms, grounded by air strikes and cut off from its allies, the FSA is left with few options.

This explains why more than 400 FSA fighters have reportedly defected to Al Nusra and ISIL since the air strikes began. 

Support is growing within the supreme military council for disbanding the FSA as early as next month should the international community fail to follow through on its aid pledges. The effect of FSA’s demise will be felt beyond Syrian borders. 

By dissolving the group, the coalition will not only lose a key ally, but it will lose the sole moderate force capable of maintaining stability in Syria should the aerial campaign succeed. That would be a loss no amount of air power can compensate.

Muallem: Damascus, Moscow Back U.N. ‘Freeze’ Plan

November 27, 2014 by AFP

The Syrian regime and key ally Russia have agreed to support a U.N. proposal to suspend fighting in the battered northern city of Aleppo, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said.

Muallem’s remarks, reported by state news agency SANA, followed a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and a Syrian government delegation in Sochi, Russia on Wednesday.

"The discussions… looked into the role of U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura. Both sides view (the envoy’s role) in exactly the same way, and support his efforts to freeze the fighting in Aleppo," Muallem was quoted as saying.

De Mistura last month put forward an “action plan” for Syria that proposed to “freeze” fighting in local areas to allow for aid deliveries and to lay the groundwork for peace talks.

President Bashar Assad said earlier this month that De Mistura’s plan was “worthy of study”.

Aleppo, Syria’s devastated second city and former economic hub, is divided between the regime and rebels.

The Sochi meeting was held behind closed doors, and Moscow did not reveal the content of the discussions.

Syrian pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan said Thursday that the meeting “laid the initial vision for a political solution to the Syrian crisis that would bring together several Syrian patriotic sides.”

But it said the process would “require time to materialize” and provided no details about planned steps to end the nearly four-year war.

Earlier this year, two rounds of U.N.-brokered talks were held in Switzerland. Both ended without agreement.

After the Sochi meeting, Russian Foreign Minister said there would be no repeat of the so-called Geneva talks.

"If you think that a conference will be announced similar to the one that was held in… January this year with the participation of 50-odd states, thousands of journalists, bright lights, there won’t be such a conference," Lavrov told reporters.

A former leader of the main opposition National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, is reported to have held talks at the Russian foreign ministry on November 7.

The opposition coalition, which has been internationally recognized but lacks influence in Syria, has voiced skepticism about prospects for progress.

Syria’s conflict began as a peaceful movement demanding Assad’s ouster but escalated into a civil war that has killed more than 195,000 people and forced half the population to flee their homes.

Syria rebels’ aliases grow into new personalities

November 13, 2014 by Raja Abdulrahim

At the hair salon on her wedding day, a fellow bride turned to Tuqaa Afash and asked who her fiance was.

"Abdulkareem Laila," Afash said, expecting that in the tight-knit village on the outskirts of Aleppo, the woman would recognize his name.

"I don’t know him," the woman said.

Afash tried again. “Abu Firas,” she said.

"You’re Abu Firas’ fiancee?" the woman asked excitedly, as if referring to a celebrity. "Everyone was wondering who his fiancee would be. The girls were gossiping about it at school."

Her fiance was no longer Abdulkareem, the quiet young man who couldn’t find a job after graduating and spent months traveling from village to village as a freelance sociology teacher.

Syria rebel spokesman Abu Firas with rebel fighter

Abdulkareem Laila, left, better known as Abu Firas, a spokesman for the Syrian rebel group Islamic Front, shares a meal with rebel fighter Omar Hamoude in Aleppo. (Raja Abdulrahim / Los Angeles Times)

Now he was Abu Firas, spokesman for the Islamic Front, one of the largest rebel groups in Syria, meeting with top-level commanders, visiting front lines and disseminating news about the opposition in the hope of showing that the “revolution” is not over.

For Syrian activists and rebels such as Abu Firas, the noms de guerre they adopted at the beginning of the uprising in 2011 out of fear of the country’s notorious intelligence service have eclipsed not just their real names but also much of their former identities — even as they now live beyond the reach of the Syrian secret police.

Just as the conflict has stagnated, so too have they become stuck in these personas, unable to return to their previous lives or otherwise move on from a war that has left Syrians struggling to adapt to their new reality.

Even his mother, Khadija, now calls him Abu Firas, correcting herself with a smile when she occasionally refers to him by his given name.

Afash, who is now his wife, said, “It’s like they have two personalities.”

::

It was six months into the Syrian uprising, a time when the conflict was marked by protests and not battles. Abu Firas was at an Internet cafe uploading cellphone videos from that day’s demonstrations.

Suddenly security officers pulled up outside. He slipped out just as they were about to raid the cafe but, in his haste, left his ID card behind. On his way home to Anadan he skirted government checkpoints, fearful that his name was already on the wanted list. That night he chose his “activist name.”

"We considered many options; this was the most musical-sounding," said Abu Firas, now 28.

Other than liking the rhythm of the name, which means “father of Firas,” he said it was also different from any name in his extended family, thus avoiding the risk that any similarity would bring.

It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Sometimes I have to wonder, am I thinking as Qusai or as Kassem?  - Syrian opposition activist

In early 2012, when he began appearing on TV, in effect placing himself on a government hit list, he continued using the nom de guerre. By that point, the name had already become well known among Syrians and international viewers of pan-Arab satellite channels.

"If I came out under my real name, that former persona, Abu Firas, would die," he said. "I worked months to establish that name and to be known as a trusted source in Aleppo."

In an uprising that has failed to create any enduring political figures or leaders, these media activists have become the stars of the opposition. Whereas Abu Firas’ townspeople never knew the boy next door, they have gotten to know him as a voice of a revolution gone awry.

His mother isn’t sure what to think of the changes in her son.

"Abdulkareem’s personality was that he used to go to the mosque and he used to teach," she said. "Now he’s Abu Firas, I don’t know …" her voice cracked suddenly and she stopped speaking, instead throwing her hands up.

She looked down at her lap. The war has taken away her shy son Abdulkareem, named after her father. And then there are the more permanent losses: Her older son, Mamoon, was killed late last year in a clash with government forces.

Abu Firas shakes his head when asked whether he would name his son Firas. He plans to name him after his fallen brother.

::

"Qusai was born from a tragedy and deprivation, from a revolution, from death, from chemical weapons and siege," said Qusai Zakarya, an activist from the town of Muadhamiya, on the outskirts of Damascus. "So he has a strong presence inside me. It’s not just a nickname."

Zakarya, 28, whose real name is Kassem Eid, created his alias in 2011 by combining the names of a beloved uncle and an actor who starred in a Syrian soap opera considered groundbreaking in its portrayal of Syrian corruption.

Fleeing Muadhamiya

A Syrian soldier escorts men arriving in Damascus from Muadhamiyah in 2013. Many residents fled the suburb amid reports of starvation during a government siege. (Dusan Vranic / Associated Press)

But it wasn’t until the summer of 2013, after a chemical weapons attack on Muadhamiya and other Damascus suburbs, that the nom de guerretook over his identity. One of the few residents fluent in English, he accompanied a United Nations team investigating the Muadhamiya attack. Soon he became the voice of the town, especially as a government-imposed siege began to claim the lives of residents.

This year, he was finally able to leave Syria, but the new identity has remained with him.

America’s U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, used his testimony under the name Qusai Zakarya to explain her vote in the Security Council to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court. Under that name, he has also appeared as part of a U.N. panel about life under siege and has met with diplomats from the United States, France, Britain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

He traveled across America on a speaking tour, during which he had trouble checking into hotels because his reservations were under his nom de guerre but he presented identification with his real name.

"It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," he said, also comparing it to the Hulk and his alter ego, Bruce Banner. "Sometimes I have to wonder, am I thinking as Qusai or as Kassem?"

As a young man in Damascus, he was a romantic who liked to play soccer and listen to music. He used to binge-watch “Man v. Food” and follow that with episodes of binge-eating shawarma and sweets.

As Qusai Zakarya, he is far from the obscurity, and simple pleasures, of his previous life.

"If you Google Qusai you find hundreds of pages," he said. "If you Google Kassem you find nothing."

::

Tony al-Taieb speaks of his two names in the third person, as if he is watching the identities fight for dominance over a host body.

Like others, the media activist used his real name in the first few months of the uprising, believing it would be a speedy affair like those in Egypt and Tunisia. But as it became clear that it would be a prolonged struggle — and he started receiving death threats on Facebook — he chose an alias.

The 23-year-old, who comes from a prominent and wealthy Aleppo family with multiple business interests, likes to bandy about words such as “marketing” and “branding,” even when speaking of war. He crafted his pseudonym with much the same approach.

A Sunni Muslim whose real name is Qusai Hayani, he chose the name Tony in hopes of encouraging his many Christian friends to join the opposition. Taieb was the surname of a protagonist in an Egyptian film, “I Want My Rights,” that came out after that country’s uprising. "Qusai lived a really fancy life with lots of luxuries and being spoiled," he said. "Tony lived a poor life in a war zone under constant threat."

Living in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, he inhabited the persona of Tony al-Taieb fully, only briefly slipping back to his former self in rare visits to his family in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. But when he left Syria to establish a base for his media company in neighboring Turkey, he was confronted with the need to reconcile the identities.

"It’s like a piece of shrapnel in your mind that keeps bothering you: ‘Who am I?’" he said, sitting at a Starbucks and alternating between coffee and a cigarette. "This shrapnel came when I came to Gaziantep and things began reminding me of my old life: the fancy life, the girls, the bright lights, things that had nothing to do with my life of destruction, my life as Tony."

Even as he insists he has made peace with his dual identities, saying that “Qusai and Tony are the same person,” he continues to struggle with who he is. As a founder and CEO of the Syrian Media Group, which oversees various opposition news services and radio stations, he is Tony al-Taieb on his business cards.

"That’s it — Tony," he said, unprompted. "I’ve become Tony."

Russia Vows Support For Syria’s Bashar Assad

Sochi, November 26, 2014 by Denis Dyomkin and Gabriela Baczynska

Russia said on Wednesday it would support President Bashar al-Assad to combat “terrorism” in the Middle East, indicating there was no new room for compromise on one of they key contentious issues in the Syrian conflict.


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks with Assad’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, on the Black Sea as part of Moscow’s renewed diplomatic push to restart peace talks on Syria.

"We share the view that the main factor driving the situation in the Middle East is the terrorist threat," Lavrov told a joint news conference with Moualem. "Russia will continue supporting Syria … in countering this threat."

Russia has been the key international ally of Assad in the conflict, which is in its fourth year and where the situation on the ground has deteriorated as Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, grabbed large swathes of land.

The last round of talks between Damascus and the opposition collapsed in February over rifts over Assad’s role in any transition out of the conflict. The main Syrian opposition in exile and its Western and Arab backers want him to go.

But Moscow says advances made by Islamic hardliners mean fighting “terrorism” should be the top priority for all “healthy” forces now and says that is not possible without cooperating with Assad.

Lavrov criticized the United States for refusing to do that.

Moualem told the news conference his meeting with Vladimir Putin earlier on Wednesday was “very productive” and that the Russian president confirmed his resolve to develop ties with Damascus and Assad

What Obama Doesn’t Understand About Syria

November 26, 2014 by Noah Bonsey

The current U.S. strategy to destroy the Islamic State is likely doomed to fail. In fact, it risks doing just the opposite of its intended goal: strengthening the jihadis’ appeal in Syria, Iraq, and far beyond, while leaving the door open for the Islamic State to expand into new areas.

This is in large part because the United States so far has addressed the problem of the Islamic State in isolation from other aspects of the trans-border conflict in Syria and Iraq. Unless Barack Obama’s administration takes a broader view, it will be unable to respond effectively to the deteriorating situation on the ground.

The good news is that the White House can still change course — and indeed, President Obama has reportedly requested a review of his administration’s strategy in Syria.In crafting a new way forward, the White House needs to understand three points about the Islamic State and the military landscape in which it operates.

1. Growth is essential to the Islamic State’s future, and its best opportunities are in Syria. 

Demonstrating momentum is crucial to the jihadi group’s ability to win new recruits and supporters. In an atmosphere of sectarian polarization and amid deepening Sunni anger at the use of indiscriminate violence by the Syrian and Iraqi governments and their allied militias, the Islamic State’s primary asset has been its ability to rattle off a string of impressive victories. Its territorial gains project strength, which contrasts starkly with its Sunni rivals, such as the hapless Sunni political figures in Baghdad and the struggling mainstream armed opposition in Syria. Momentum on the battlefield also provides the Islamic State an alluring brand with which to cloak what is, ultimately, its familiar and unappealing product: single-party authoritarian rule, imposed by brutal force and secret police. 

"Be assured, O Muslims, for your state is good and in the best condition," Islamic State "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in his latest audiotape. “Its march will not stop and it will continue to expand, with Allah’s permission.”

Although its propaganda suggests otherwise, in reality the Islamic State has prioritized expansion and consolidation of power in Sunni Arab areas. Insofar as it attempts to seize ground and resources from government and Kurdish forces, it does so on the fringes of their territory or in isolated areas — such as the northern Syrian city of Kobani — that are especially vulnerable. 

The Islamic State has incentive to pick such low-hanging fruit, but it has more to gain from seizing Sunni Arab areas. Each advance in these areas not only contributes to the group’s perceived momentum, but also comes at the expense of local Sunni competitors. This is crucial, because local forces have by far the best track record of beating back the organization in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria. Local Sunni tribes and insurgents routed the group — then known as the Islamic State of Iraq — with American help in 2007 and 2008, and rebel groups drove it from the city of Aleppo and much of northwestern Syria in early 2014.

If the Islamic State is able to sideline such competitors and establish a monopoly on Sunni resistance to hated government and militia forces, it will secure its existence for the foreseeable future. It has already effectively accomplished this in Iraq and now hopes to do so in Syria.

For the Islamic State, the most valuable target for expansion in Syria and Iraq would appear to be the Syrian countryside north of Aleppo. 

For the Islamic State, the most valuable target for expansion in Syria and Iraq would appear to be the Syrian countryside north of Aleppo. Mainstream rebel factions control the area but are overstretched as they seek to hold the Islamic State at bay near the town of Marea while simultaneously fighting to prevent the regime from encircling their forces inside Aleppo city, 15 miles to the south. Should the jihadis escalate their attack on Marea in the near future, rebel forces already struggling to slow regime progress in Aleppo will probably be unable to prevent significant Islamic State gains. 

At stake in the northern Aleppo countryside is the strategic border territory in the opposition’s heartland. If the Islamic State seizes the area, it would give it control over a key supply line from Turkey and a foothold from which to expand further west. For mainstream rebel forces, the combined human, logistical, and psychological toll of a loss there would be devastating. 

In this context, the current U.S. approach of giving precedence to the Iraqi battlefield while delaying difficult decisions on Syria is at odds with dynamics on the ground. 

2. The twin crises of the Islamic State and Syrian regime are inextricably linked. 

U.S. officials publicly acknowledge that the Syrian regime’s behavior — indeed its very nature — is a primary factor fueling the jihadis’ rise and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces continue to kill far more civilians (and rebels) than the Islamic State does. They also recognize that the role of mainstream rebels will be essential in reversing jihadi gains. Yet in practice, U.S. policy is emboldening Damascus and undermining the very rebels it is ostensibly designed to support.

The U.S.-led coalition’s strikes have enabled the regime to reallocate assets to face mainstream rebels, whose defeat remains the regime’s top priority. Since strikes against the Islamic State began, regime forces have gained ground against mainstream rebels on key fronts in Hama province and in Aleppocity; in the case of the latter, they have done so against the very same rebel groups that are confronting the Islamic State in the nearby northern countryside. 

The targeting in Washington’s air campaign has further blurred the lines between U.S. and regime military strategies. Rather than maintain singular focus on hitting Islamic State targets in eastern Syria, the United States has struckal-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate whose role in combatting the regime and Islamic State has earned it credibility with the opposition’s base, west of Aleppo. On one occasion, the United States also appears to have hit Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi group that has moderated its political platform substantially in recent months and that is broadly viewed as an authentically Syrian (albeit hard-line) component of the rebellion. Washington’s claims that these strikes targeted members of a secretive “Khorasan” cell planning attacks against the United States or Europe are unconvincing in rebel eyes — not least because Washington never publicly mentioned “Khorasan” until the week preceding the first round of strikes.

Such attacks strengthen jihadi claims that the U.S. campaign aims to quietly boost Assad while degrading a range of Islamist forces, and thus they are a significant blow to the credibility of those rebels willing to partner with the United States. For a rebel commander seeking to convince his fighters that cooperation with Washington is in the rebellion’s best interest, American strikes that ignore the Assad regime while hitting Ahrar al-Sham are extremely difficult to explain. Even assuming “Khorasan” poses a threat justifying urgent action, Washington should more carefully weigh the immediate losses jihadis suffer in strikes against the recruiting benefit they derive from rising disgust with the U.S. approach among the rebel rank and file. 

Washington also faces a more concrete operational problem: How can it hope to empower moderate rebels in northern Syria if the regime continues to drive them toward the brink of defeat? The portion of the White House’s policy explicitly designed to strengthen these forces — a $500 million program to train and equip 5,000 fighters over the course of one year — will prove too little, too late to enable them to hold their ground against anticipated escalations by the Islamic State, ongoing al-Nusra Front efforts to expand control within rebel areas, and continued regime onslaughts.

3. For a “freeze” to help, it must be fundamentally different from a “cease-fire.”

U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura is advocating a “fighting freeze” in the pivotal battle between regime and opposition forces in Aleppo. The goal is to relieve the humanitarian disaster in the northern city and allow all groups to focus their resources on combatting the Islamic State. 

De Mistura’s use of the word “freeze” rather than “cease-fire” is important. Cease-fires have been discredited in Syria: The regime has exploited them as a pillar of its strategy, cutting such agreements with rebels to cement a military victory or to withdraw resources in one area in order to shift them to another front. The regime’s significant advantage in firepower has ensured that terms are heavily tilted in its favor — and it has often used egregious violations of international humanitarian law, including sieges and indiscriminate bombardment, to achieve its aims. The cease-fires thus have not led to an overall reduction in the level of violence nationally or in the resolution of legitimate grievances that jihadi groups have proved so adept at exploiting.

A freeze in Aleppo can save lives and aid efforts to combat the Islamic State, but only if it preserves the mainstream opposition’s fighting capacity. 

A freeze in Aleppo can save lives and aid efforts to combat the Islamic State, but only if it preserves the mainstream opposition’s fighting capacity. If it cements regime victory there or enables Damascus to redeploy resources against mainstream rebels elsewhere, it will work to the Islamic State’s advantage. Insofar as the regime is able to gain ground from mainstream rebels, whether by force or truce, it is clearing Sunni competitors from the jihadis’ path.

Yet the regime’s position around Aleppo is so strong, given its progress toward severing the final rebel supply line to the city, that it currently has little incentive to reach any deal that would leave the rebels’ fighting ability intact. Damascus would much prefer to deliver a decisive blow to the mainstream opposition in Aleppo, which would cripple the West’s potential partners and leave only the regime as a supposed bulwark against the jihadis. Rebels recognize this, and given their negative experience with cease-fires elsewhere, even those in favor of a freeze are unlikely to invest political capital in convincing the skeptics in their own ranks unless they see new reason to hope for a fair deal.

The crux of the American dilemma in Syria is thus clear: Degrading jihadi groups requires empowering mainstream Sunni alternatives, but doing so may prove impossible unless Damascus (or its backers in Tehran) can be convinced or compelled to dramatically shift strategy. For now, the regime treats the Western-, Arab-, and Turkish-backed opposition as the main threat to its dominance in Syria and treats the Islamic State as a secondary concern that the United States is already helping to deal with. Iran has done nothing to suggest that it objects to the regime’s strategy; instead, it is enabling it.

Damascus and Tehran appear to believe that achieving regime victory is simply a matter of maintaining the conflict’s current trajectory.This view, however, is shortsighted and would yield an unprecedented recruiting bonanza for jihadi groups. If Washington wishes to prevent this — and the unending cycle of conflict that it would perpetuate — it must better balance its Iraq and Syria strategies, refine its airstrike tactics, and find ways to change calculations in Damascus and Tehran.

Qatar runs covert desert training camp for Syrian rebels

Doha, November 26, 2014 by Amena Bakr

At a desert base, Gulf state Qatar is covertly training moderate Syrian rebels with U.S. help to fight both President Bashar al-Assad and Islamic State and may include more overtly Islamist insurgent groups, sources close to the matter say.

The camp, south of the capital between Saudi Arabia’s border and Al Udeid, the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, is being used to train the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other moderate rebels, the sources said.

Reuters could not independently identify the participants in the program or witness activity inside the base, which lies in a military zone guarded by Qatari special forces and marked on signposts as a restricted area.

But Syrian rebel sources said training in Qatar has included rebels affiliated to the “Free Syrian Army” from northern Syria.

The sources said the effort had been running for nearly a year, although it was too small to have a significant impact on the battlefield, and some rebels complained of not being taught advanced techniques.

The training is in line with Qatar’s self-image as a champion of Arab Spring uprisings and Doha has made no secret of its hatred of Assad.

Small groups of 12 to 20 fighters are identified in Syria and screened by the Central Intelligence Agency, the sources said. 

Once cleared of links with “terrorist” factions, they travel to Turkey and are then flown to Doha and driven to the base.

GROUND FORCE 

"The U.S. wanted to help the rebels oust Assad but didn’t want to be open about their support, so to have rebels trained in Qatar is a good idea, the problem is the scale is too small," said a Western source in Doha.

The CIA declined to comment, as did Qatar’s foreign ministry and an FSA spokesman in Turkey.

It is not clear whether the Qatari program is coordinated with a strategy of Western and Gulf countries to turn disparate non-Islamist rebel groups into a force to combat the militants.

Such efforts have been hampered by Western hesitancy about providing significant military aid, because it could end up with extremists. Gulf states dislike the West’s emphasis on fighting Islamic State. Assad is the bigger problem, they say.

"Moderate rebels from the FSA and other groups have been flown in to get trained in things like ambush techniques," said a source close to the Qatari government who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic.

"The training would last a few months, maybe two or three, and then a new group would be flown in, but no lethal weapons were supplied to them," one of the sources said.

SCREENING PROCESS

As the war against Assad has dragged on, frustrated rebels asked their trainers for more advanced techniques, such as building improvised explosive devices (IEDs), requests which were always denied.

"They complain a lot and say that going back they need more weapons or more training in IEDs but that’s not something that’s given to them," said a Qatar-based defense source.

The Qatar project was conceived before the declaration of the hardline Islamic State, when militants belonging to its predecessor organization were not regarded as an international security threat.

The group’s rise in Syria and Iraq has hampered the rebellion: Moderate groups cannot fight Assad when the better-armed Islamic State seeks their destruction as it strives to build its “caliphate”.

In recent weeks, the Qataris, disappointed by lack of progress in the fight against Assad, have started to consider training members of the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist rebels less militant than Islamic State or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, but stronger than the FSA.

None have been trained as yet, but Qatar has sought to identify candidates, the sources say.

Some analysts say screening Islamic Front fighters would be harder than FSA rebels, since some Islamists have switched between various groups.

ISLAMIST NETWORK

Training fighters from Islamic groups could displease fellow Gulf state the United Arab Emirates, which dislikes Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s international Islamist network.

But Saudi Arabia, which shares the UAE’s mistrust of the Brotherhood, is more indulgent of moderate Islamist forces when it comes to fighting Assad, diplomats say.

Asked about the Qatari training, a Saudi defense source said: “We are not aware of this training camp, but there’s one thing we agree on: Assad needs to go and we would not oppose any action taken towards that goal.”

To Qatar, ousting Assad remains a priority and youthful Emir Sheikh Tamim has said that military efforts to tackle Islamic State will not work while the Syrian president remains in power.

A source who works with rebel groups said Qatar had delivered weapons, mostly mortar bombs, to the Islamic Front and some FSA brigades about two months ago and had paid some salaries for Islamic Front groups.