Lebanese Tension, Egyptian Chaos, Iraqi Memories… and all the news from Syria

Posted by Matthew Barber
 

Recent Highlights

Landis on Al-Jazeera

“Damascus could very well look like Aleppo in a year’s time.” — J. Landis

“I think when you discuss the Syrian crisis now … in terms of violence, there is a balanced playing field. The violence which is being perpetrated by the opposition groups, the rebels, is almost on the same scale. There is an element of strategic parity on the ground. I’d just like to say that Damascus is not going to turn into Aleppo … Damascus is actually relatively safe, internally speaking, there’s conflict on the outskirts but the centre of Damascus is relatively safe.” –Danny Makki, the co-founder of the Syrian Youth in Britain

The one moment of agreement between the pro-regime and pro-opposition guests was when they both attacked Dr. Landis’ analysis of the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Both sides continue to maintain either that “Syrians are united with Assad” or “Syrians are united against Assad.”

Syria starts to look like fragmented Libya - “The big regional war that everyone is warning about is already here”

“In its bloodied mud, the struggle is on among the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Russians, Hizbollah, the Al Nusra Front, Ahrar Al Sham, Al Qaeda-linked fighters, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party … as well as the Free Syrian Army – with all its brigades and battalions – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan. And now Britain and France are about to join the fray.”

… “Unwilling to enter a third war in the Middle East, after defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has entrusted the Syrian issue and the arming of the opposition to its two allies, France and Britain, just as it did in Libya,” Atwan said.

“That allows Washington to go around talking about a peaceful resolution based on the nebulous Geneva protocol.”

And now for something completely new… Let’s get the drones ready, seeing as how popular they are everywhere:  CIA plans for drone strikes in Syria – LA Times

The CIA has stepped up secret contingency planning to protect the United States and its allies as the turmoil expands in Syria, including collecting intelligence on Islamic extremists for the first time for possible lethal drone strikes, according to current and former U.S. officials.

…or instead of drones just send in the cavalry: Boston Globe: Commander: Contingency plans under way for Syria

The top U.S. military commander in Europe said Tuesday that NATO is conducting contingency planning for possible military involvement in Syria and American forces would be prepared if called upon by the United Nations and member …

Benjamin J. Rhodes, the man in the White House who produces policy on Syria – NYT – by Mark Landler – Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice

As President Obama prepares to visit Israel next week, he is turning, as he often does, to Benjamin J. Rhodes, a 35-year-old deputy national security adviser with a soft voice, strong opinions and a reputation around the White House as the man who channels Mr. Obama on foreign policy.

… Drawing on personal ties and a philosophical kinship with Mr. Obama that go back to the 2008 campaign, Mr. Rhodes helped prod his boss to take a more activist policy toward Egypt and Libya when those countries erupted in 2011.

Now that influence is being put to the test again on the issue of Syria, where the president has so far resisted more than modest American involvement. After two years of civil war that have left 70,000 people dead, Mr. Rhodes, his friends and colleagues said, is deeply frustrated by a policy that is not working, and has become a strong advocate for more aggressive efforts to support the Syrian opposition.

Administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy, while not enmeshing the United States in a sectarian conflict that many in the White House say bears unsettling similarities to Iraq. Three former officials of the administration — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert Gates and David Petraeus — favored arming the opposition, a position Mr. Rhodes did not initially support.

… Two years ago, when protesters thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo, Mr. Rhodes urged Mr. Obama to withdraw three decades of American support for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. A few months later, Mr. Rhodes was among those agitating for the president to back a NATO military intervention in Libya to head off a slaughter by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

… “The person behind the scenes who played the largest role in the opening to Burma and the engagement with Aung San Suu Kyi was Ben Rhodes,” said Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state who led the negotiations with the Myanmar government.

Engineering a shift in Mr. Obama’s Syria policy is probably more difficult than persuading him to reach out to Myanmar, officials said, given the complexities of Syria, the volatility of its neighborhood, the grinding nature of the conflict, and the president’s deep aversion to getting entangled in another military conflict in the Middle East.

Not only is the United States limiting its support of the Free Syrian Army to food rations and medical supplies, the White House has designated one of the main Sunni insurgent groups, al-Nusra front, as a terrorist organization — a policy that alienated many Syrians because of the group’s effectiveness in fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Colleagues say Mr. Rhodes opposed that decision, which was pushed by intelligence advisers. He also favors equipping the rebels with more robust nonlethal gear and training that would help them in their fight against Mr. Assad’s government, a position shared by Britain and other allies…

The New Yorker – Two Years Later: What the Syrian War Looks Like by Rania Abouzeid

The Yellow Man of Aleppo

What does the Syrian war look like? It looks like shells that crash and thud and thump into residential streets,  sometimes with little warning. It looks like messy footprints in a pool of blood  on a hospital floor as armed local men, many in mismatched military attire and  civilian clothing, rush in their wounded colleagues, or their neighbors.

… What does the Syrian war look like? It looks like significant number of  people who, for reasons of ideology or patronage or fear, believe that Assad’s  regime the best option. It looks like a growing number of people, even those  within the rebel ranks, who eye the increasing clout of Jihadists and other  Islamists and fear what they may turn Syria into.

… What does the Syrian war sound like? It sounds like the women of an extended  family, aunts and sisters, mothers and grandmothers, sitting in a room where  thin mattresses line the walls, discussing what kind of a Syria they want to  live in. They’re in darkness because there’s no electricity.

Mayada, a young, strong-willed, English-literature major, says that, in her  heart, she wants an Islamic state, but she recognizes that in Syria, a  multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian society, that is unlikely. She says an Islamic  state would be “more just.” Her aunt Sarea, who is just a few years older than  her, snickers at her remarks. She won’t live in an Islamic state, she says.  Unless that state is modelled on Turkey, it’ll be an excuse to lock women up in  their homes.

The two women debate the issue for hours, and others chime in. In the end, they agree that an Islamic state is not the best option—not because Islam  doesn’t grant rights to women but because the male clerics who interpret the  religion cannot be trusted.

What does the Syrian war look like? It looks like armed men with little  accountability. It looks like the amateur video of a local character known as the Yellow Man  of Aleppo, an eccentric older man decked out in yellow, from his ivy cap to his  shoes,  being humiliated by young thugs who belong to a unit of the Free Syrian  Army in the northern city. They accuse him of being a government spy, a  fassfoos, in the local slang.

[Aleppo's "Yellow Man" is a mysterious celebrity, a kind of a local cultural treasure, a man who for years has gone about his business in the city wearing only yellow, even carrying yellow prayers beads. When he passes, people often stop him and ask for a picture with him.]

They spit on him, tell him to bark like a dog, make him repeat vulgarities  about Assad’s female relatives. “Take a picture of me pulling his mustache,” a  young, smiling, fresh-faced rebel tells the camera. They take turns plucking out  hairs from his graying blond mustache. “Are you Sunni?” the cameraman asks the  Yellow Man. “Do you like Alawites or do you hate them?” he asks, referring to  the sect that Assad belongs to. “I hate them,” the Yellow Man replies. “Liar!”  one of the young men says as he slaps the old man’s face. Some men may become what they are fighting.

What does the Syrian war look like? It looks like another amateur video, taken from the other side of this  increasingly intractable divide. A man, bloodied and beaten, hands tied behind  his back, is dragged along the gritty asphalt by uniformed, armed government  soldiers. He’s wearing nothing but his white underwear. He cannot even lift his  head, which scrapes along the street. He turns onto his back. “Where are your  wife and children?” one of his tormentors asks, stepping on the man’s face with  his black boot. Somebody asks for a piece of glass to cut the man’s tongue out.  They curse him, mock him, and laugh as they torment him.

“For God’s sake, please, just let me say goodbye to my children,” the man  says, knowing that his end is near. His face is swollen, bloodied. “Will you let  me fuck your wife?” one of his tormentors asks, mockingly. “If you let me, you can see your children.” “No,” the man says, “my wife is my soul, my children are  my soul. My wife is the crown on my head.”

“The crown on your head?” He kicks the man’s head. Others laugh as they  continue dragging him along the street, trying to decide where to dump him.

This is what the Syrian war looks like. Every man with a gun is an authority,  and for some the enemy—who was once their neighbor—is no longer a person. How  can a man who has inflicted such harm, and become used to that sort of power,  let it go and step back—especially if others do not?

 

Iraq on the Anniversary of the War

 

Reuters – New Study Details Costs of Iraq War

The U.S. war in Iraq has cost $1.7 trillion with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans, expenses that could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades counting interest, a study released on Thursday said.

The war has killed at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians and may have contributed to the deaths of as many as four times that number… When security forces, insurgents, journalists and humanitarian workers were included, the war’s death toll rose to an estimated 176,000 to 189,000, the study said.

… It was also an update of a 2011 report the Watson Institute produced ahead of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks that assessed the cost in dollars and lives from the resulting wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The 2011 study said the combined cost of the wars was at least $3.7 trillion… That estimate climbed to nearly $4 trillion in the update.

The estimated death toll from the three wars, previously at 224,000 to 258,000, increased to a range of 272,000 to 329,000 two years later.

Excluded were indirect deaths caused by the mass exodus of doctors and a devastated infrastructure, for example, while the costs left out trillions of dollars in interest the United States could pay over the next 40 years.

The report also examined the burden on U.S. veterans and their families, showing a deep social cost as well as an increase in spending on veterans. The 2011 study found U.S. medical and disability claims for veterans after a decade of war totaled $33 billion. Two years later, that number had risen to $134.7 billion.

FEW GAINS

The report concluded the United States gained little from the war while Iraq was traumatized by it. The war reinvigorated radical Islamist militants in the region, set back women’s rights, and weakened an already precarious healthcare system, the report said. Meanwhile, the $212 billion reconstruction effort was largely a failure with most of that money spent on security or lost to waste and fraud, it said.

… “If we had had the foresight to see how long it would last and even if it would have cost half the lives, we would not have gone in,” Bucci said.

Bucci said the toppling of Saddam and the results of an unforeseen conflict between U.S.-led forces and al Qaeda militants drawn to Iraq were positive outcomes of the war. “It was really in Iraq that ‘al Qaeda central’ died,” Bucci said. “They got waxed.”

Iraq War was a terrible mistake and violation of U.N. charter – by Hans Blix for CNN

Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have been long and costly engagements with very mixed results. Since then prudence has held the U.S. back in the case of Libya and so far in Syria.

Christian Science Monitor – Terrorism and freedom fighting along the Syria-Iraq border

When some rebel groups kill Syrian government soldiers, the US applauds. When others do the killing, it’s ‘terrorism.’ Why?  — By Dan Murphy

War is hell, right? Soldiers do whatever they can to win and survive. Officers do whatever they can to shape engagements so that superior numbers and firepower are rained down on an outnumbered enemy. Boobytraps, killing the other guy while he sleeps in his bed, and dropping artillery on his head from a safe distance are all part of a day’s work.

So why did US State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland label the killing of 46 Syrian troops in Iraq last week an act of “terrorism” on Monday?

Aside from the fact that the word “terrorism” has been tortured beyond all semblance of its conventional meaning in the past decade, it’s a comment – deliberate or not – that illuminates the strange, dangerous, and contradictory waters the US is wading into in Syria.

… Syria has been under US sanctions for decades and President George W. Bush’s most hawkish advisers, like Dick Cheney, were eager to invade Syria on the heels of Iraq in 2003.

So the killing of Syrian soldiers by rebels is good, right? Well, not exactly. Depending on who does the killing it can be labelled as terrorism or the actions of a people striving to be free.

…In fact, killing enemy soldiers returning to the battlefield is something the US, like most militaries, has done in all of its conflicts.

… Notice that Iraq is providing at least passive assistance to Assad’s military. It has good reason to, notwithstanding that puts it at odds with US policy. The Shiite-dominated Iraq the US helped create is hated by both homegrown jihadis and their friends across the border. A defeat for Assad would lead to a Sunni-dominated neighbor, certain to be more hostile to Iraq’s interests and potentially a supporter of a reignited Sunni insurgency.

… it’s the US position that looks strange. It spent billions of dollars and the lives of nearly 4,500 soldiers in Iraq, fighting to put down a Sunni insurgency that was described as a grave threat to American interests. Today, the US government policy is assisting a Sunni insurgency in Syria that is not only similar in character to the one put down in Iraq, but has surviving Iraqi veterans of the war serving in it.

MI6 and CIA were told before invasion that Iraq had no active WMD - Tony Blair’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are challenged again: BBC’s Panorama reveals fresh evidence that agencies dismissed intelligence from Iraqi foreign minister and spy chief

Fresh evidence is revealed today about how MI6 and the CIA were told through secret channels by Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister and his head of intelligence that Iraq had no active weapons of mass destruction.

Tony Blair told parliament before the war that intelligence showed Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programme was “active”, “growing” and “up and running”.

A special BBC Panorama programme tonight will reveal how British and US intelligence agencies were informed by top sources months before the invasion that Iraq had no active WMD programme, and that the information was not passed to subsequent inquiries.

It describes how Naji Sabri, Saddam’s foreign minister, told the CIA’s station chief in Paris at the time, Bill Murray, through an intermediary that Iraq had “virtually nothing” in terms of WMD.

Sabri said in a statement that the Panorama story was “totally fabricated”.

However, Panorama confirms that three months before the war an MI6 officer met Iraq’s head of intelligence, Tahir Habbush al-Tikriti, who also said that Saddam had no active WMD. The meeting in the Jordanian capital, Amman, took place days before the British government published its now widely discredited Iraqi weapons dossier in September 2002.

Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who led an inquiry into the use of intelligence in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, tells the programme that he was not told about Sabri’s comments, and that he should have been.

Butler says of the use of intelligence: “There were ways in which people were misled or misled themselves at all stages.”…

Tony Blair Says Iraq Would Be ‘Worse Than Syria’ Now, if Antiwar Critics Had Prevailed

“And if you look at what’s happening in the Arab Spring today, and you examine what’s happening in Syria — just reflect on what Bashar Assad, who is a twentieth as bad as Saddam, is doing to his people today, and the number of lives already lost, just ask yourself, ‘What would be happening in Iraq now if he had been left in power?’ ”

Mr. Blair also told the BBC, “If things continue as they are in Syria today, within a few months — proportionate to the size of the population — more people will have died in Syria than in the whole of the conflict since 2003 in Iraq.”

Time Is Right for Gulf States to Rethink Approach to Iraq By Hassan Hassan | The National

For the Arab Gulf states, the war that began in 2003 was the herald of a new  relationship with Iraq, a country that had long been ruled by a hostile regime,  threatened its neighbours and had briefly subjugated one of them – Kuwait.

But 10 years after the US-led invasion, the picture in Baghdad looks  extremely bleak from this side of the Gulf. An Iraq dominated by the pro-Iranian  Shia is seen as just as threatening as an Iraq led by the Sunni Saddam  Hussein.The mantra in the Gulf is that Baghdad has been handed over to the  Iranians on a golden plate. Some even perceive Baghdad’s special relationship  with Iran as part of a US grand strategy to pit the countries of the region  against each other. Such self-defeating thinking is one reason why Baghdad has  been drifting towards Tehran. It is time for the Gulf states to revisit their  approach to Iraq.

Gulf states do not welcome the fact that Baghdad will probably always be  dominated by Shia politicians. For them, the question is how to subdue Iraq,  rather than how to work with it. They also tend to view Iraq’s relationship with  Iran through a zero-sum mindset: Baghdad can either be an ally against Iran, or  it can be an enemy.

Riyadh does not have meaningful diplomatic representation in Baghdad, despite  repeated Iraqi attempts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at  large. For example, at the beginning of trouble in Syria, Iraq supported almost  all Gulf-led Arab resolutions against the Syrian regime; it began to show  opposition after the Arab Summit in Baghdad in March of last year, to which few  Gulf states sent high-level representation. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have not  tried hard enough to resolve outstanding disputes with Iraq, involving borders  and prisoners. The Arar border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Iraq is still  closed, although Riyadh promised last year to open it for trade.

The key to better relationships is, counterintuitively, a stronger and more  stable Iraq. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has long sought to weaken Iraq to  ensure its own regional standing. Since the Iraq war, Riyadh’s policy has  evolved into attempts to contain Baghdad and push it away from Tehran.

Iraq-Syria Overland Supply Routes – ISW

 

Serious Events in Lebanon: Airstrikes, Sectarian Attacks, Refugee Dilemmas

 

Sheikh Assir Tests Supporters’ Loyalty and Lebanese Security

Salafi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir tested his supporters on the night of 13 March by sending out messages that the army was about to breach his mosque, prompting hundreds of Salafis to block roads in Tripoli, Beirut, and Saida.

It all started when soldiers at an army checkpoint in east Saida stopped one Ahmad al-Assir’s supporters, Sheikh Assem al-Arifi, after discovering that his car papers were forged.

Arifi’s driver refused to abide by the army’s orders and fled to Assir’s mosque nearby. In what may have been an attempt to test the readiness of his supporters, Assir fired off text messages and posts on his Facebook page claiming that the army was preparing to assault the mosque.

Despite the small number of people who took to the streets, the incident nevertheless rattled the uneasy peace prevalent in a number of cities, particularly in Saida and Tripoli, where Assir’s supporters and allies tend to be concentrated.

According to army sources, several hundred young men responded to Assir’s call, blocking roads in Saida, Beirut, and Tripoli for a short period of time before being reopened by security forces.

… It is worth noting that the army had begun to implement a security plan at noon the same day, which included establishing permanent checkpoints around the mosque to search all vehicles exiting and entering the area under Assir’s control.

In the northern city of Tripoli, the response to Assir’s call was surprisingly fast as Salafis and groups of armed men descended on Nour Square, threatening to declare jihad against the army if Assir’s mosque was breached.

Notably, the protesters ripped down pictures of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz and replaced them with al-Qaeda banners.

… It is clear that Assir is ratcheting up the pressure on the army as it tightens security measures around his mosque by resorting to panicked text and Internet messages, one of which called on Muslims around the world to picket Lebanese embassies in their respective countries.

Syrian jets hit targets in Lebanon; 4 Sunni clerics attacked and beaten by groups of Shiites

On Sunday night, Mazen Hariri and Ahmad Fekhran, two Sunni Muslim sheikhs at Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon’s highest Sunni religious authority, were attacked by a group of Shiite men shortly after leaving a mosque in downtown Beirut. They were beaten up by Shiites in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Khandak al-Ghamik. Two other Sunni sheikhs were assaulted in another Shiite neighborhood of Beirut in a separate incident. As news of the incidents spread, dozens of people took to the streets, blocking roads in the capital and in the predominantly Sunni cities of Sidon and Tripoli in southern and northern Lebanon.

Trying to contain the fallout, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said those responsible for the attacks were not affiliated with any party. But many Sunnis quickly direct their anger at Hezbollah and Amal, the two main Shiite groups in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Grand Mufti, Mohammed Rashid Kabbani said the attacks were “not a coincidence.” “I’m not accusing any specific faction, but Shiite leaderships in Hezbollah and Amal … must lift the cover on the perpetrators,” he said Monday.

Hezbollah was quick to condemn the attacks and assisted in handing over the suspects to security forces.

Demonstrations had a clearly sectarian tone. “The turban of the Sunnis is stronger than attempts at sedition,” read a poster held up by protesters at a rally in the mainly Sunni Tarik al-Jdideh district in Beirut.

On Monday, Syrian warplanes hit targets along Syria’s border with Lebanon. The state-run National News Agency said the attack hit a remote area near the town of Arsal. The shelling came just days after Damascus warned Beirut to stop militants from crossing the border to fight with rebels. A senior Lebanese official confirmed the fighter jets’ activity along the frontier, but said it was not clear if targets inside Lebanese territory were hit.

Seven suspects were detained Tuesday over the recent attacks on four Muslim scholars, the state prosecutor told The Daily Star, as Shiite and Sunni  religious leaders met to avert further tensions in the country over the affair.

Syrian aircraft target sites in east Lebanon: Arsal official
March 18, 2013, The Daily Star

A recent Syrian threat to target rebels in Lebanon came in response to a French decision to arm those seeking to topple President Bashar Assad, the media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army said in remarks published Sunday. Damascus, in a letter sent to Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry Thursday, warned Beirut it would attack Syrian rebels in Lebanon, reiterating its claims that arms and gunmen were being smuggled from the poorly delineated border. The FSA official also told An-Nahar that Syrian rebels would withdraw from border towns in Lebanon and return to Syria if the Lebanese Army could ensure proper control of the shared border.

Phalange Party calls for help in confronting Syria threats

The Phalange Party called on the cabinet on  Monday  to reach out to the international community  for help in responding  to Syria’s threats, following the  bombing of Lebanese territories by the Syrian air force. … The warplanes entered 1 kilometer into Lebanese airspace and struck the town of Kerbet Younan in the Wadi al-Khayl region of Arsal, where the majority of Sunni Muslim residents support Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, and fired four rockets at a remote section of the border with Lebanon, according to Reuters.

Flood of Syria refugees tries patience of the Lebanese

Many in Lebanon who oppose Bashar Assad at first welcomed the influx, but now say the newcomers are taking their jobs and driving up prices. … Each day, as many as 1,000 Syrians enter Lebanon, a nation of 4.5 million people wedged between Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon, about a quarter the size of Switzerland, sits astride some of the Middle East’s most volatile sectarian and ethnic fault lines.

… Gangs of frustrated Lebanese sometimes curse at Syrian street vendors, accusing them of taking away jobs, says Abu Mohammad, who asked to be identified by his nickname, fearing retribution. Abu Mohammad, who arrived two months ago from war-ravaged Idlib province in northern Syria, hawks oranges along Maarad Street, in a well-off area of Tripoli. He earns about $12 a day, he says, hardly enough to feed his family…

War in Syria Hurts Lebanese Tourism Sector

Lebanon’s tourist industry declined by as much as 15 percent in 2012. … Visitors from the Persian Gulf states, who makeup approximately a third of Lebanon’s tourists, but account for about 60 percent of the tourism spending, have stopped coming. Some are worried about the security situation, others are boycotting Lebanon for political reasons.

 

Weapons

 

BBC – Syria arms ban debate intensifies in Europe, France and Britain call for ending embargo:

… France seems to have made up its mind. “Lifting the embargo is one of the only means left to make things move politically,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared last week.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated that call on Sunday, arguing that there was “a strong case” for lifting the embargo when it comes under review in May.

Germany, on the other hand, is digging in its heels on this issue, but the BBC doesn’t seem to mention that… If you want to know about “Germany’s host of reservations,” you have to read the Der Spiegel article:

…The EU has banned all weapons exports to Syria, whether to the rebels or government forces. The embargo is up for renewal in May, giving EU leaders a swiftly-approaching chance to let it expire. One EU diplomat told news agency Reuters that “nobody really is interested” in ending the embargo, and that “there is no prospect of change any time soon.” Non-lethal military assistance is still permitted.

…German Chanceller Angela Merkel said she had “a whole host of reservations” over ending the arms embargo, adding that her “opinion-making process is not yet complete.” Her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, sounded slightly more receptive to the idea on Thursday…

Austria, whose troops make up part of the UN peacekeeping force in the disputed Golan Heights, has come out against any weapons deliveries to Syrian rebels. Last week rebels briefly kidnapped 21 Filipino members of the UN force, raising concerns about the safety of the 1,000 troops in the region. “One can never rule out whose hands more weapons will end up in, and that’s why I am against this suggestion,” Austrian Defense Minister Gerald Klug told public broadcaster ORF.

US won’t oppose France and Britain’s plans to arm Syrian rebels

The Obama administration lent its support Monday to British and French plans to arm Syria’s rebels, saying it wouldn’t stand in the way of any country seeking to rebalance the fight against an Assad regime supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Rebels and regime trade blame for alleged chemical attack in northern Syria, the first such attack in the conflict, if confirmed.

… No Western governments or international organisations confirmed a chemical attack in Syria, but Russia, an ally of Damascus, accused rebels of carrying out such a strike. The United States said it had no evidence to substantiate charges that the rebels had used chemical weapons.

Human Rights Watch reports Syria using more cluster bombs

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Syrian forces have dropped at least 156 cluster bombs in 119 locations across the country in the past six months, causing mounting civilian casualties.

Syria Rebels Appear to Make Big Weapons Seizure near Aleppo

 

Life for Arab Christians Post-Arab Spring

 

Egyptian Christians say they were tortured in Libya

Dozens of Coptic Christians were tortured inside a detention center run by a powerful militia in eastern Libya, two of the recently released detainees told The Associated Press on Friday amid a wave of assaults targeting Christians in Benghazi and the latest instance of alleged abuse by Libyan security forces. … “They first checked our wrists searching for the crosses and if they found them, we (had to) get into their cars,” said 26-year-old Amgad Zaki… Zaki said a group of men – some in uniform and some in civilian clothes – rounded up Egyptians selling clothes in a market called el-Jareed in Benghazi on February 26. He and other Christians climbed into SUVs that he said carried the sign of Libya Shield One, one of the most powerful militias in Benghazi that is under the command of Islamist and ex-rebel Wassam Bin Hemad.

“They shaved our heads. They threatened to sever our heads in implementation of Islamic Shariah (law) while showing us swords,” said Zaki, who was interviewed on the telephone from his home after returning to Egypt earlier this month. “They dealt with us in a very brutal way, including forcing us to insult our Pope Shenouda,” Zaki said, referring to the former Coptic pontiff who died last year.

He said that during four days of detention they were flogged, forced to take off their clothes in cold weather and stand at 3 a.m. outdoors on floor covered with stones. “I was taken to clean a bathroom, and the man pushed my head inside the toilet and sat on me,” he said. “I was dying every day, and at one point I thought death is better than this.”

Militias have been targeting Christians, women, journalists, refugees and those considered former loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi, who was toppled and killed in Libya’s 2011 civil war. The state relies on the militias to serve as security forces since Libya’s police and military remain in shambles.

Libya Persecutes Copts, Closes Embassy in Egypt

The Maspero Youth Union (MYU) confirmed on Saturday that four Egyptian Copts were detained at a checkpoint on Friday in the Libyan city of Misrata. MYU claims that those detained are being held because they are Christians.

… The Libyan embassy in Cairo, meanwhile, has announced it is suspending all services indefinitely but has not provided a reason.

Islam or death? Egypt’s Christians targeted by new terror group

“It’s not the first time. This is happening every day,” said Adel Guindy,  president of Coptic Solidarity and a member of Egypt’s Coptic community who  travels between Paris and Cairo. “This one incident caught the attention of the  news agencies, but there are worse things happening to the Christians every day  in Egypt,” he said.

Christians have felt increasingly at risk since the fall of former President  Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which resulted in the rise of President Mohammed Morsi  and the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

“It has definitely worsened under the revolution. Once the worst part of the  society surfaced — the Islamists — the Copts are paying a heavy price. The  West doesn’t really feel our pain. It’s a war of attrition,” Guindy said.

… Extremists over the weekend set fire to a Christian Church in the Province of  Fayoum, the second such assault against the town’s Coptic population in a month.  The attackers ripped down the church’s cross and hurled rocks at church members,  injuring four people including the priest…

Family given prison sentence of 15 years for converting from Islam to Christianity

A mother and her seven children have been  jailed for 15 years for converting back to Christianity from Islam in  Egypt. Nadia Mohamed Ali was raised a Christian but  converted to Islam 23 years ago when she married Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab  Mustafa. Following his death, she planned to convert  back to her original faith, along with the rest of her family.

But a criminal court in Beni Suef, in central  Egypt, sentenced them to jail for 15 years last week, according to  reports. Seven other people, who were involved in the case, were also sentenced to five years in jail.

A scared Egyptian Christian friend writes [3/17]: “We know at least one Egyptian minister who got martyred there [Libya] this week. It’s coming to Egypt too. The Muslim Government here has released a new law that enables regular people (that mean Muslim Brotherhood) to form Militias, carry guns, apply law and arresting others on streets. Attached Photo is from an incident that happened in Egypt TODAY. We have been told that people caught two thieves and killed them that way. It’s chaos. A Failed State. Anyone can do anything.

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Another incident also took place today here where they applied hand-cut on street on another place in Cairo. [A large demonstration] is happening RIGHT NOW, here in Mokatam (my neighborhood), 1 mile from my place, where the headquarter of the MB is. Demonstration is very big here now after some young men & women (and even journalists) have been beaten by MB guards. Police alongside with MB Militia are harshly firing tear gas in our area now and also using gun machine. Our office secretary could not make it to office this week due to some sort of civil disobedience on streets. We expect that streets will get to be totally dysfunctional soon.”

The next day (3/18) he wrote: “S. Medhat is 18 years old boy from the Presbyterian church that is located two blocks after where I live, has been taken yesterday along with hundreds protests who were on last night demonstration on my neighborhood, close to MB headquarter. This boy had nothing to do with the demonstration, as well as many others, I believe. He was just coming back home. His family knows nothing about him till now. It’s very common that people disappear in such hot locations and they never return back alive.

American-imported tear gas bombs & gun shooting kept horribly running until 15 minutes to 6 am this morning. Our neighborhood entered the war zone. Children are terrified. We are expecting a climax of this here next Friday.”  Video of the vigilantism in this area

The next day (3/19) he wrote: “Last night a flame of a street war has begun in Shoubra, the 5 million populated district. hundreds of people with guns & swords started killing each other and destroying shops. Do not ask why this is happening. It happens everyday, but media are not allowed to cover the truth. I believe that the west is not really aware of the reality of the situation here, because the US & England want to carry on with supporting the MB regime. I’m so mad with this evil and can not understand why Obama is supporting this. It seems like a plan to destroy the whole area and make other Iraqs. This what already happened in Lybia, Syria and here so far. Personally, between Mokatam (my neighborhood that exploded 2 days ago) and Shoubra, I feel the box is getting squeezed more and more.”

 

al-Raqqa

 

What kind of new structures of authority are developing in Raqqa? According to the following article, the rebels who took the town are implementing security measures and services for the local population, as well as an Islamist justice framework.

The Opposition Takeover in al-Raqqa – By Joseph Holliday and Elizabeth O’Bagy

On March 4, 2013, rebel groups overran government forces in al-Raqqa city, the first provincial capital and only urban center to fall to rebel hands since the start of the uprising. Spearheaded by powerful Salafist groups, including Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya and Ahrar al-Sham, the offensive illustrates the growing strength of Islamists within the rebels’ ranks. The fall of al-Raqqa has reduced regime positions in eastern Syria to the military airbase outside Deir ez-Zour city and a handful of isolated outposts in northeastern Kurdish areas. As the regime’s reach continues to contract, al-Raqqa serves as an important test case for how the opposition will administer territory that they seize from Assad.

As the first Syrian city to fall under rebel control, al-Raqqa poses a major test for opposition governance. Since the rebels seized the city, they have posted guards at state buildings to prevent looting and destruction, returned bread prices to pre-war levels, and opened a hotline that residents can phone to report security issues. Rebel groups are working closely with the local civilian councils to ensure the provision of basics such as food, water, and oil and are working with tribal authorities to maintain electricity and trash collection. They have also established sharia courts to mete out justice and provide a framework for transitional authority.

Loyalists will watch these sharia courts closely and with apprehension to see how the opposition treats former pro-regime elements and minority populations in the city. A video posted after the rebels gained control showed al-Raqqa’s governor and the local Baath party leader praising Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya, the rebel group responsible for al-Raqqa’s capture. Governor Hassan Saleh Jalali stated, “They are fair to those that seek their protection and they safeguard properties and defend civilians.”…On the other hand, several videos posted on YouTube show rebel groups capturing security forces, executing them in public squares, and dragging their dead bodies through the streets in images reminiscent of Qaddafi’s bloody demise. Rebel groups have also attacked several Shi‘a holy sites, including the bombing of the important Shi‘a shrine of Ammar ibn Yassir in northern al-Raqqa city.

These conflicting accounts demonstrate the divisions that continue to hamper the development of the armed opposition and reveal the difficulties rebels face in attempting to govern…the rebel capture of al-Raqqa is largely due to the shifting loyalty of tribal leaders and minimal Syrian military presence, rather than a rebel military victory per se….

Amidst the developing system following the rebel victory, it appears that at least some rebels are leaving. Here’s an interview with Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyye, the group that an earlier video showed holding the muhafiz and Ba’ath party leader. In this video, the leader mentions meeting with the city council to collaborate on “civil life.” But he also claims that they are about to move on to fight elsewhere مقابلة مع أمير جبهة الوحدة والتحرير الاسلامية:

This raises another question: If the rebels themselves are implementing “Islamic courts,” how do they decide who stays and who goes on to the next front? Even if this group is leaving for the next battle, another source says that there are over 30 different rebel groups operating just within Raqqa.

In addition to discussing the vulnerability of the dam, the following article claims that tribal approval was not a factor in the takeover of al-Raqqa:

Raqqa: The Potential Disaster On the Euphrates

Raqqa was completely absent from the news concerning the demonstrations and subsequent daily battles that raged in Syria beginning in the spring of 2011. The city lived in a relative state of calm even as neighboring cities Hasaka and Deir al-Zour became engaged in the popular movement…

Raqqa’s calm may have been what brought hundreds of thousands of people fleeing battle zones to take refuge in the city. Many came from Homs and Deir al-Zour. The influx constituted an enormous humanitarian and economic drain on this city in the poorest of Syrian provinces.

Raqqa, the hometown of the late short-story writer Abd al-Salam al-Ujaily, had suffered from years of extreme drought. This was exacerbated by the economic policies of the government, and resulted in an unprecedented migration from the countryside around Raqqa to slum neighborhoods on the fringes of major cities. The severity of the crisis in Syria’s Upper Mesopotamia region grew to a point that it drew the attention of the United Nations, while the regime turned a blind eye to events and revoked previously adopted subsidies on fuel prices.

Raqqa, with a pre-conflict estimated population of 220,000, underwent large-scale growth half a century ago; this growth was further enhanced by the 1968-1873 building of the Euphrates Dam 50 kilometers northwest of the city. Lake Assad was thus created behind the dam, close to the ancient Jaabar Castle…

…many of its rural inhabitants and youth migrated elsewhere before it fell under the control of armed opposition groups, specifically Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, who had previously stated that they would not enter the city for fear that doing so would endanger the lives of its inhabitants and displaced people living there. But the groups later changed their minds and entered Raqqa, declaring it under their control … They also announced that Islamic brigades would patrol the city streets in order to protect property from gangs of looters.

It was very interesting to see many of the city’s inhabitants cleaning its streets, and reopening their shops, while adamantly maintaining that no public institutions were ransacked. This came at a time when all activity ceased at governmental institutions which had become the target of regime airstrikes.

The issue of clans and the Euphrates

Raqqa is perhaps one the main areas in which the regime wagered on tribes and clan alliances for protection, while the opposition bet on provoking tribal sensitivities and driving clans into taking part in the armed conflict to overthrow the regime. But both sides failed to realize that the reality on the ground was far different than what they expected. All information coming out of Raqqa points to tribal authority being completely absent and ineffective; this appears to be an effect of there being a large number of clan members and divisions between different clans either supporting or opposing the regime.

Clans therefore did not play any role at all in the opposition takeover. On the contrary, the armed opposition’s military operations to take control of Raqqa began in Aleppo and its eastern countryside, passed through the Tel Abyad border crossing with Turkey, and reached the Tishrin Dam and then the Euphrates Dam. They quickly and easily took control of these sites, until the central prison was encircled and they entered the city.

Throughout these events, tribalism was nonexistent or severely muted when compared with what took place in Hasakeh in the north or in Deir al-Zour. The lack of tribalism occurred despite a series of meetings held by the regime with clansmen aimed at mobilizing them in its favor, and despite early opposition efforts to drum up tribal grievances.

In addition to the tribal issue, Raqqa’s importance lies in its location along the course of the Euphrates River. The region is also home to three dams: the Baath Dam, the Tishrin Dam and the Euphrates Dam. The latter was considered one of the most important state-run projects of the 1970s, when it was erected using Soviet expertise in order to regulate water flow and generate electricity for the surrounding area, all the way to Aleppo. Its electricity-generating capacity is 824 megawatts. The dam is the largest of its kind in the country, measuring 60 meters in height and extending for 4.5 kilometers. Its artificial lake, Lake Assad, contains 11.7 billion cubic meters of water.

The real problem lies in the dam’s weak internal structure; as a result, any missile launched by either belligerent party could destroy or damage it, if the Baath or Tishrin dams were also hit. Such an eventuality would lead to a flood that would drown a large portion of the surrounding countryside, in addition to an electricity shortage that no one in the area wishes.

 

Opposition

 

A Syrian Opposition Voice Says Country is Victim of a Global Proxy War – Watch video here: Democracy Now speaks with Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist and member of the Syrian Civil Democratic Alliance who is meeting with Security Council members about possible political solutions to the conflict.

“There is a systematic effort to marginalize people like us inside Syria and focus only on the armed rebels — they are the ones stealing all the headlines,” Turkmani says. “There are certain actors, regional and international, who see this as proxy wars … It’s a struggle over Syria, over power, and the Syrians are falling victims to that.”

We continue our discussion with Turkmani and are also joined by Reese Erlich, freelance foreign correspondent who discusses Saudi Arabia’s  involvement in the Syrian conflict. The Saudi monarchy is involved in arming “the most ultra-conservative, ultra religious” Syrian rebel groups, Erlich says.

The National – America’s “Shift” Towards Syria’s Rebels is a Dangerous Illusion

This “shift” would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. This change in position  will do nothing to accomplish the original goal for which the Friends of Syria  group was formed: hasten the end of the Syria conflict. Rather, it will only  serve to maintain the horrible, bloody stalemate already established across the  country.

Moaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), is once again in the spotlight. It appears that the Syrian cleric turned opposition leader has become a bigger annoyance to his allies than his foes.

… the Syrian opposition coalition, as an heir to the Syrian National Council, seems to be carrying the same problems as its forerunner: an excess of divergent attitudes and expectations.

Syrian rebel official backs an interim government – AP

…In Istanbul, Gen. Salim Idris, head of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, told reporters that the rebel fighters with the Free Syrian Army will work under the umbrella of an interim government and protect its members.

“We recognize the coalition as our political umbrella and we hope this government can be formed unanimously and that this government will exercise its powers in all of Syria,” he said. “We consider it the only legal government in the country.”

…Idris’ comments also sought to portray his group, the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Free Syrian Army, as the most widespread, powerful and organized rebel formation in Syria. It remains unclear, however, how many of the hundreds of rebel brigades fighting Assad’s forces follow Idris’ commands or receive support from his group.

Some of the most effective rebel groups are Islamic extremists who have developed their own support networks. One of them, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been designated a terrorist group by the United States and is said to be linked to al-Qaida…

High-ranking Syrian general defects from army

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ezz al-Din Khalouf announced his defection from Assad’s regime in a video aired Saturday on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel. It showed him sitting next to his son, Capt. Ezz al-Din Khalouf, who defected with him.

The elder Khalouf said that many of those with Assad’s regime have lost faith in it, yet continue to do their jobs, allowing Assad to demonstrate broad support. “It’s not an issue of belief or practicing one’s role,” he said. “It’s for appearance’s sake, for the regime to present an image to the international community that it pulls together all parts of Syrian society under this regime.”

 

Rebels

 

Attempted estimate of boundaries of control (NYT):

NYT – It is impossible to determine precisely where the boundaries of control lie in Syria. But an analysis of news reports and videos posted online indicates that rebels are stronger in the north and northeast, while the government holds the center of most of Syria’s largest cities and the west.

 Click on the map to expand for detail and description

Rebel forces overtook a Syrian military intelligence complex in the south near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

…On Sunday battles broke out in the southern Damascus suburb of Sbeineh, a residential area on the main road leading south into Hauran after opposition fighters stormed a compound housing shabbiha militia, activists in the capital said.

Dozens of people were killed and wounded in the fighting and in ensuing army shelling in the town, they added. Rebel brigades overran last week a missile squadron in Khan Sheihoun, a town southwest of Damascus on the road to the Golan, and seized an army barracks.

Further south, in the old centre of Deraa, Hauran’s main city, situated at the border with Jordan, rebels were trying to take the Omari mosque, scene of killings at a pro-democracy demonstration on March 18, 2011 that sparked the national revolt, but security forces positioned at a nearby post office were fighting back, activist Thaer al-Abdallah said from Deraa.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague interview with Sky News, said on Sunday that Britain has “taken no decision at the moment to send arms to anybody in Syria”. He said sending arms to the opposition had to be weighed against the risks of “international terrorism and extremism taking root in Syria, the risks of Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan being destabilised, and the risks of extreme humanitarian distress.”

A Glimpse of Post-Assad Syria: Inside Aleppo’s New Islamic Justice Committees

For nearly three months, a rumor has been spreading through Aleppo: whoever faces hardship, however small, can go to a hearing of the “Committee for the promotion of good deeds and support of the oppressed.”

There, in this northern neighborhood of the country’s largest city, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are “enforcing justice” and “asserting the rights” of the ever growing number of people who are deeply distressed… It’s not quite a courthouse, but almost. It’s not quite social services either. It’s not even a political space – the only thing it is is religious. … In this administrative desert, it takes pragmatism, improvisation and incredible willpower to launch initiatives. The day after the Bab Salama customs office was taken over by the FSA in Aug. 2012, a new customs stamp was already in effect, stamping documents with “Syrian Arab Democracy.” You would think a brand new regime – even temporary – would choose a truly symbolic name, the fruit of much debating, brawling or even quick brainstorming. Think again. “The group who had the stamp made in Turkey came up with it,” says an official at the border’s press office.

A member of the committee announces that the candidates have to go through a selection process. “You mean we need connections, just like before?” shouts a barber. The committee member adds that there are
criteria and a test. “What kind of test?” asks the pastry seller. “You will be questioned on religion: what are alms, what is purification,” the man answers. Silence.

…It is the turn of a woman. She stands, smiles cheekily. She doesn’t overdo it, because just like everyone else, she has come to ask something. “Look at you, you can’t even wear your veil right, your hair is showing,” says the president of the committee. Abu Souleyman, 50, is one of the people who became famous during the revolution. Here, everyone knows Souleyman, an educated man from a poor but charitable family. In the 1980s, his father and brother were arrested and tortured – they were accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood party… The sheik sighs and says what really peeves him are the Western journalists who ask the same questions over again: “Will you be cutting hands off? Will you be stoning women?” He says he is for a softer Islam.

A Chinese jihadist in Syria - FP

In… “A message of victory to the people of China from the Mujahidin Brigade Front,” a Chinese man talks about his conversion to Islam. He introduces himself as Yusuf (the subtitles say Bo Wang) and says that he studied in Libya and helped the Libyans fight their “revolutionary” war. “Now I’m in Syria,” he says, as a song that imagines global Islamic dominion plays in the background.

Rival Islamists Loom Large Over Syria

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Assad’s regime recruited around 3,000 religious Sunnis to organize jihadi militias and take their fight to the embattled country. When they returned, many were imprisoned in the suburban Damascus  Sednaya Prison.

It was in these jail cells, where the regime violently put down a summer 2008 rebellion, that five groups combined under the name of the Syrian Liberation Front.

The front included: Fajr al-Islam, led by a doctor who fought in Iraq; Kataeb al-Haq, headed by a blind fighter named Abu al-Farouq; Suqour al-Sham, commanded by a man known as Abu Issa; Ahrar  al-Sham, whose leadership is unknown; and Al-Tawhid Battalion, the military arm of the Muslim Brotherhood  led by Abdel-Qader Saleh.

Assad ordered the release of the Islamist prisoners some two years ago, shortly after the uprising in Deraa, and the Syrian Liberation Front  took to the battlefield, believing peaceful demonstrations would not be enough.

… The Nusra Front, with its much discussed ties to Al-Qaeda, was formed from the Syrian Liberation Front’s Ahrar al-Sham, as well as the Al-Ouma Brigades and the Ahrar Deir al-Zor Battalions. It is led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who some have said is a Jordanian related to the slain senior Al-Qaeda  figure Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Others claim he is a Syrian Salafist from Damascus.

Top general urges caution on Syria options, rebels By Phil Stewart, WASHINGTON | Mon Mar 18, 2013

(Reuters) – The United States has a less clear understanding of Syria’s opposition than it did last year, the top U.S. military officer said on Monday, in comments likely to disappoint rebels hoping that America might be inching toward a decision to arm them.

“About six months ago, we had a very opaque understanding of the opposition and now I would say it’s even more opaque,” said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dempsey, who is President Barack Obama’s top uniformed military adviser, said he would also advise extreme caution when deliberating any military options in Syria – saying the conflict posed “the most complex set of issues that anyone could ever conceive, literally.”

“I don’t think at this point I can see a military option that would create an understandable outcome,” Dempsey told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “And until I do, it would be my advice to proceed cautiously.”

Tabler (WINEP)

More assertive action is needed to cultivate influence with armed groups. There is still time to provide lethal and nonlethal U.S. assistance directly to the rebels — the sooner this happens, the better Washington’s chances of containing the crisis and shaping a better future for the Syrian people.

Jeffery White (WINEP)

There is no visible indication that the Supreme Military Council exercises any command on the ground.”…one analyst studying funeral data for regime soldiers calculated that an average of forty are killed per day, with two to three times that number wounded and unable to return to duty. In short, the regime is slowly exhausting itself, while the rebels, like rising water, are gradually shrinking its islands of control.

 In Syrian Clash Over ‘Death Highway,’ a Bitterly Personal War By C. J. CHIVERS, March 14, 2013

It is a bitterly personal war, in which Islamic and more secular fighters share an immediate goal: to protect their own families, an ambition they accuse the West of not adequately supporting….In all, 50 rebels have been wounded and 20 killed in the contest for this tiny place in the past six weeks, according to Fadi Yasin, a spokesman for one of Soqour al-Sham’s battalions….“Out of my experience in 18 months of constant battles and fighting, I have seen that bravery arrives at a specific point in some fighters, for those who are well connected to God,” he said. “They believe in their fates, and that everything comes from God.”

Islamic law comes to rebel-held Syria – Washington Post – The Washington Post’s Liz Sly and David Ignatius look back at bloody war in Syria. As the conflict rages on, in the rebel-held areas of Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra is widely identified as the leading force behind Islamic laws.

The evidence was incontrovertible, captured on video and posted on YouTube for all the world to see. During a demonstration against the Syrian regime, Wael Ibrahim, a veteran activist, had tossed aside a banner inscribed with the Muslim declaration of faith.

And that, decreed the officers of the newly established Sharia Authority set up to administer rebel-held Aleppo, constitutes a crime under Islamic law, punishable in this instance by 10 strokes of a metal pipe.

The beating administered last month offered a vivid illustration of the extent to which the Syrian revolution has strayed from its roots as a largely spontaneous uprising against four decades of Assad family rule. After mutating last year into a full-scale war, it is moving toward what appears to be an organized effort to institute Islamic law in areas that have fallen under rebel control.

Building on the reputation they have earned in recent months as the rebellion’s most accomplished fighters, Islamist units are seeking to assert their authority over civilian life, imposing Islamic codes and punishments and administering day-to-day matters such as divorce, marriage and vehicle licensing.

Numerous Islamist groups are involved, representing a wide spectrum of views. But, increasingly, the dominant role is falling to Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States for suspected ties to al-Qaeda but is widely respected by many ordinary Syrians for its battlefield prowess and the assistance it has provided to needy civilians.

Across the northeastern provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqah, where the rebels have been making rapid advances in recent weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken the lead both in the fighting and in setting out to replace toppled administrations. It has assumed control of bakeries and the distribution of flour and fuel, and in some instances it has sparked tensions with local fighters by trying to stop people from smoking in the streets.

Islamic administration

These days, the bomb-scarred former hospital has taken on the semblance of a wartime city hall, with people milling in and out seeking permits to carry a gun or transport fuel through checkpoints, complaining about neighbors, reporting thefts and informing on people suspected to be regime loyalists.

At the gate, a guard dressed in a black shalwar kameez, the tunic-and-pants outfit traditionally worn in Pakistan but alien to Syria, refuses admittance to women unless they are clad in an abaya, a full-length cloak, something that is common in conservative Syrian communities but is far from ubiquitous.

Inside, in a sparse, dingy office, a burly man who identified himself as the head of the authority and gave his name as Abu Hafs, received what he said was the first journalist to be admitted to the facility. Seated beside him was a slight, heavily bearded man with a scholarly air who did most of the talking but who refused to give his name because, he said, he was speaking on behalf of Abu Hafs.

…The codes applied are “derived from the Islamic religion,” the spokesman said, but the most extreme Islamic punishments, such as cutting off the hands of thieves, are not imposed because Islamic law requires that they be suspended during war.

Instead, he said, sentences of five to 40 lashes for offenses such as drug abuse, adultery and theft are handed down, so that wrongdoers can return to their families, which otherwise might be deprived of wage earners if they were kept in prison. “It is not a big punishment, and we don’t use heavy pipes — they are small pipes — to tell him off,” the spokesman said.

Rival activists vexed

Inevitably, however, the assertion of Islamic laws is sparking tensions with the more secular opposition activists, who look askance at the creeping Islamization of the revolution that they say they started…

 

Israel & Iran

 

Obama’s first visit to Israel: Israel will ask Obama during his upcoming visit to use airstrikes on Syria in the event that Syrian missiles are transferred to Hezbollah

“What I hear over and over again from Israeli generals is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable,” a western diplomat said…

The Israeli perspective

Israel, apparently following notification to the Obama administration, bombed a shipment of “game-changing” missiles earlier this year before they could cross the Syrian-Lebanese border. The Soviet-made advanced missiles could cripple Israel’s ability to carry our surveillance flights over Lebanon to spot terrorist activity. Worse, the Israel Air Force would be at a serious disadvantage if Hizbullah were to start bombing northern Israel again, as it did in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

… “These missiles are not just a problem for Israel,” a senior Israeli official told the London newspaper. “They include [anti-ship] missiles, and who has the biggest navy in the Mediterranean?” – a reference to the US. Israeli military…

Jewish Student at Hebrew University visits Jabhat al-Nusra: In Syria I learned that Jews must support the opposition

“Nusra is being funded by Sunni Muslim millionaires in the Gulf states that want to hijack our struggle for democracy and turn it into a Sunni-Shia battle for power” one Syrian pro-secular advocate explains. The lack of secular support is so evident that “secular militias will pretend to be extremists just to gain funding from a Gulf backer. They will post YouTube videos saying and doing jihadist actions even if they don’t hold these beliefs.”

In the town of Kfar Nabul, the battle of ideology is particularly evident. The al-Nusra Front is attempting to wrest control from the newly established civilian councils, however they are meeting resistance. Pro-secular activists held an anti-Nusra rally in the town square, with one banner reading:

“WORLD! YOUR CARELESSNESS PRODUCED EXTREMISTS LIKE ASSAD. NOW WE NEED EXTREMISTS TO GET RID OF YOUR PRODUCTS.”

Where do Jews stand in all of this? Since the birth of Israel, Syria has been the most virulent enemy and detractor of the Jewish state. The Syrian people have been indoctrinated by an intensive anti-Israel propaganda campaign leading them to hugely distrust Israeli government and to a lesser extent the Jewish People. But now is an extremely important time in the Syrian mindset. For Syrians, everything they have been taught by the Assad regime is in question. In essence they are in a state of limbo. Consequently, the secularism that Assad’s Ba’ath party instilled is also in question.

The Jewish and Israeli people must show that they support the Syrian people; that they are not alone and that even in the supposed “Little Satan,” we hear their cries and feel their pain.

Iran and Hezbollah ‘have built 50,000-strong force to help Syrian regime’ Says Israeli

Major General Aviv Kochavi said Iran intended to double the size of this Syrian “people’s army”, which he claimed was being trained by Hezbollah fighters and funded by Tehran,…He said the Syrian regular army was crumbling, claiming that several successive recruitment drives had failed, realising only 20% of their targets as young men had fled rather than join up. The International Institute of Strategic Studies yesterday reported that from a notional strength of 220,000, the army had withered to a core of about 50,000 the regime could rely on. The Institute for the Study of War in Washington estimated the loyal core at 65,000.

Israel has warned the UK and France against arming Syrian rebels, arguing there will be no guarantees that sophisticated weapons such as portable anti-aircraft missiles will not ultimately find their way to al-Qaida affiliates and other extremist groups, and be turned against Israel.

Israeli military intelligence chief says Iran hopes to prolong life of Assad regime and maintain influence after his fall

Iran states that “differences over Syria” shouldn’t harm its regional ties and relations with other states

U.S. and Saudi Arabia present united front on Syria and Iran

 

Women

 

al-Jazeera – The Story of Um Jaafar: female sharpshooter (Arabic) – أم جعفر من صاحبة صالون تجميل الى قناصة ثائرة

Syria’s women refugees market handicrafts

 CNN – Asma al-Assad makes rare public appearance to attend “Mother’s Ralley”

The event was a fundraiser for mothers of “martyrs,” or government soldiers, killed in the two-year war… “The regime is trying to telegraph that it’s business as usual and she is a way to do that,” said Andrew Tabler, an American expert on Syria who once lived in the country and interacted with the first family.
“Not only is this a sign that she’s standing by her man, but that the core of the regime is not cracking.” “This stunt shouldn’t disguise the fact that the regime is firing missiles in Damascus at their own population,” Tabler added. “The photos are a gesture of confidence that the international community will not crush them and that (the Assads) will be able to keep hold of some level of control of the country.”

 

Jordan

 

Anxious over al-Qaeda in Syria, Jordan remains neutral

Jordan’s official position towards the revolution in Syria used to be more daring in the beginning, leaning more to the opposition and declaring support for the Syrians’ legitimate demands of freedom and
democracy but, though no official statements have been made that say otherwise, the kingdom insistently advocates a political solution to the crisis.

Jordan, a home for thousands of jihadists Salafis with open borders with Syria extending to more than 400 kilometers, is concerned mostly about Syria fundamentalist groups growing into a large and highly trained fighting and ideological force, fearing that Jordanian Salafis, Syrians and Arabs with past jihadists leanings may extend the Islamist militants’ so-called “holy war” to other countries.

News reports carried by local and international news agencies have cited Syrian jihadist Salafi groups as pushing to carry out military acts in Jordan and other countries and this, coupled with the belief that the Jordanian jihadist Salafi movement is now the largest foreign contributor of militants to Syria, stands behind the kingdom’s concerns about the Syrian revolution and its neutral position.

Jordan’s King Finds Fault With Everyone Concerned

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has “no depth,” … Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is an authoritarian who views democracy as a “bus ride,” as in, “Once I get to my stop, I am getting off,” … And he said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is so provincial that at a social dinner he once asked the monarchs of Jordan and Morocco to explain jet lag. “He never heard of jet lag,” King Abdullah said…

The era of Arab monarchies is passing, King Abdullah said. “Where are monarchies in 50 years?” he asked. … Stopping the Islamists from winning power was now “our major fight” across the region, he said. …

And he accused American diplomats of naïveté about their intentions. “When you go to the State Department and talk about this, they’re like, ‘This is just the liberals talking, this is the monarch saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is deep-rooted and sinister,’ ” King Abdullah said. His job, he said, is to dissuade Westerners from the view that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The war in Syria: Can Jordan keep out of it for ever? The civil war is hotting up on Syria’s southern front Mar 16th 2013 | RAMTHA |Economist

….They say the fighting in the south is becoming more intense because of the acquisition of captured weapons and an increase of military defections from the regime. But outside backing, though still limited, is helping, too. Jordan and Israel, wary of turmoil spreading into their countries, have sought to prevent their borders from becoming conduits for weapons and fighters, as has happened with Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. But it is being whispered that late last year Saudi Arabia, one of the Gulf states that backs the rebels, moved its operations from Turkey to Jordan, annoyed with Qatar’s and Turkey’s enthusiasm for Muslim Brotherhood-minded groups. Since then, say the rebels, Jordan has covertly let through the occasional limited but well-directed shipment of weapons, including anti-tank missiles. There are reports of training on Jordanian soil. Jordanian officials deny any such involvement.

By funnelling aid—including $60m from America and clothes, phones and food from Britain—directly through the Supreme Military Council, which liaises with local military councils, the rebels’ backers hope to keep their favoured groups under control. Deraa’s rebels are banded into numerous battalions but are less fractious than their peers in the north. The rebel leadership was able to secure the release of the UN hostages within a week. “The fight has been more contained,” explains Ahmed Naama, who heads Deraa’s rebel military council. The southern rebels are generally more moderate, too. Though some Jordanian extremists have travelled north to fight, Jabhat al-Nusra, the most devout and fiercest Islamist group, which may have as many as 10,000 men in the north, still has only a small presence in the south…..

 

Human Interest

 

al-Jazeera: Turkey’s Alawites sympathize with the Syrian regime, distrust Turkey

 

A journalist takes a road from Damascus after five years by Phil Sands

…My friend explained what had happened. His ID card had the name of his home village, a community in Sweida province inhabited exclusively by members of the Druze minority.

The army officer, an Alawite – another of Syria’s minority groups, from which the regime’s ruling clique is drawn – liked the Druze and saw them as allies in a battle against Sunni Muslim rebels, who in his view are terrorists. That interpretation of wartime alliances in Syria saved us.

“We were lucky. We got through because I’m Druze,” my friend said. “Everything is sectarian now. If I were Sunni, I’d be in jail and you’d be in trouble.”

The sectarian divisions that are ubiquitous in Syria now extend even to the roads. The road into Damascus is partitioned by concrete blast barriers, with the right-hand lane officially designated for civilian traffic and the left-hand lane for military and government traffic. But Alawites always travel on the left, regardless of their job, and so it has been universally dubbed the “Alawite lane” by locals. It’s a sadly tidy metaphor for an evolving conflict that has destroyed so many lives, and that will destroy so many more.

The Prophet of Aleppo” - a profile and interview with novelist Nihad Sirees, on his recent English translation of The Silence and the Roar, Aleppo, and his view of literature and the revolution – from Newsweek

 

Still More

 

Syria Is Melting Away By Nicholas Burns | The Boston Globe

…Why, then, is Washington hesitating? One reason is that the options are all bad. But at the very least, the United States could lean on other countries to match US economic assistance and ensure more gets to rebel-held areas where suffering is greatest. France and Britain want to arm moderate rebel groups to accelerate Assad’s departure and gain influence with the people most likely to replace him. This will force the Obama team to think again about the wisdom of staying on the sidelines and failing to lead on a major international crisis. And, if Washington does not join Europe, Turkey, and the Arabs in supplying more decisive military aid to the rebels, it will leave us with the unpalatable option of trying once again to negotiate with a cynical Russian government for a political deal that might end up favoring Assad.

The failure of the United States to move resolutely down either path is striking. Sometime soon, the United States will have to choose, especially as the death toll mounts and the moral imperative of action overwhelms our caution….

Few protests on 2nd anniversary of Syrian uprising

Shahad, a teenager from Zabadani, a battered Damascus suburb that witnesses daily shelling, recalled that she used to memorize the Qashoush songs and eagerly await the town’s protests, where up to 5,000 people would take part every Friday. “They were nice days,” she said, declining to give her full name for security reasons. “Now there are no protests and no school, just shelling.”

Pro-regime “Syrian Electronic Army” hacks into Human Rights Watch’s Twitter feed and website

Young Syrians who fled to Cairo struggling to remain engaged with the Syrian uprising from Egypt

British charities launch first joint Syria appeal

Four British charities have publicly admitted for the first time that they are operating inside Syria on the eve of a major appeal for the stricken Middle Eastern nation which is being launched tomorrow by the Disaster Emergency Committee.

Jerusalem Post: Report: Defected Syrian officer seeks to auction archives 2013-03-18

Sources in the Syrian opposition claim that a defecting former Syrian intelligence officer is seeking to auction the intelligence archives of the former Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, according to a report published Saturday …

 

New Resources

 

Time: The Destruction of a Nation: Syria’s War Revealed in Satellite Imagery

Report by Joseph Holliday – The Assad Regime: From Counterinsurgency To Civil War

The conflict in Syria transitioned from an insurgency to a civil war during the summer of 2012. For the first year of the conflict, Bashar al-Assad relied on his father’s counterinsurgency approach; however, Bashar al-Assad’s campaign failed to put down the 2011 revolution and accelerated the descent into civil war. This report seeks to explain how the Assad regime lost its counterinsurgency campaign, but remains well situated to fight a protracted civil war against Syria’s opposition.

Short paper by Professor Edith Szanto (American University of Iraq) on sectarianism in Syria and the Twelver shi’a community at the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab

Under the Ba’ath, post 1963, Hafez al-Asad promoted both ethnic and religious minorities. For instance, he instituted Ahmad Kuftaro, a Kurd, as the grand mufti of Syria… This alliance between Kuftaro and Asad complicates the presumption of simplistic Alawi-Sunni cleavages.

In 1974, the Lebanese Shi‘i cleric Musa al-Sadr gave a fatwa which declared Alawis Shi‘is. This fatwa marked the beginning of the alliance between Twelver Shi‘is and Alawis. At the same time, it positioned Isma‘ilis in opposition to Alawis and aligned Isma‘ilis with Sunnis. Again,this complicates the assumption that all minorities back the Alawi Syrian regime.

…In 1973, the exiled Iraqi Ayatollah Hasan Shirazi built the first Shi‘i seminary roughly 200 meters north of the shrine. When the Syrian Uprising intensified in Sayyida Zaynab in 2012, the first cleric who was shot and killed was the representative of Hasan Shirazi’s seminary…

The Syrian Uprising: Two Years On – Jadaliyya – Excellent collection of articles this week.

Ways you can help Syrian refugees: Australian site has compiled list of organizations working with refugees

Comments (203)


Pages: « 1 2 3 4 [5] Show All

201. AIG said:

“43 people died yesterday. Do you think none of their families receiving their bodies for burial will not recognize the cause of death being a gun shot or an explosion? Will all of them remain silent if it were a gun shot?”

Yes, because they do not want to end up like their relatives. Assad’s regime has terrorized the Syrian people and is continuing to do so. I am sure that if these people were killed with a shot to the had, their families were given a comprehensive “talk” before they got back the bodies.

On the flip side, if ONE family says that their member was shot to death, would that be enough for you to admit that the regime did it? Or will you say they were influenced by the opposition to lie? We know the answer, don’t bother.

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

March 22nd, 2013, 9:51 am

 

202. Hopeful said:

#195 Ghufran

The people in denial are those who keep blaming others for the problems they created themselves. The mess in Syria is created by Syrians through decades of brutal dictatorship, hollow slogans and ideologies, and backward educational systems (especially religious education: hiding the fact that Islam has many flavors and sects only encourages extremism on all sides)

I am glad the various Syrian opposition factions are distancing themselves from this hideous murder. It shows that they are against these kinds of acts, and for that, they deserve my respect. I do hope that they continue to speak forcefully in the future against these kinds of acts. I have yet to hear a single person within the regime structure criticize the excessive use of force by the regime against rebels and civilians alike.

Ghufran, revolutions are never clean. You have the right to “not like” the Syrian revolution, but you, and no one else, could have prevented it. Syrians of all stripes should now unite to conclude this terrible period in our history as soon as possible, by working on removing the two diseases from our society: dictatorship and sectarianism.

Thumb up 11 Thumb down 7

March 22nd, 2013, 9:52 am

 

203. AIG said:

“43 people died yesterday. Do you think none of their families receiving their bodies for burial will not recognize the cause of death being a gun shot or an explosion? Will all of them remain silent if it were a gun shot?”

Yes, because they do not want to end up like their relatives. Assad’s regime has terrorized the Syrian people and is continuing to do so. I am sure that if these people were killed with a shot to the had, their families were given a comprehensive “talk” before they got back the bodies.

On the flip side, if ONE family says that their member was shot to death, would that be enough for you to admit that the regime did it? Or will you say they were influenced by the opposition to lie? We know the answer, don’t bother.

Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

March 22nd, 2013, 9:52 am

 

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