Posted by Joshua on Thursday, November 22nd, 2012
Syria: Rebels shut down key government supply lines
Tom A. Peter | The Christian Science Monitor | Nov 20, 2012
After months of fighting, Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo say that in the past week they’ve captured several critical areas from government forces that may soon give them the upper hand in northern Syria. The new ground will allow opposition groups to strain or potentially cut off supplies to government troops fighting in Aleppo Province….
FSA fighters say the final step to closing off supply lines for the Syrian Army in Aleppo will mean taking control of the city’s airport, which the opposition group says it is now close to doing. As the group takes hold of an increasing share of ground and cuts off more government supply routes, however, it’s confronted with the realities of trying to advance farther with extremely limited supplies.
“We’re trying to cut the supply lines for the regime inside the city,” says Abu Tawfik, a commander of Liwa Tawheed, one of the largest FSA units now fighting inside Aleppo. “The airport is the most important part of the city now. If we can control the airport, we can cut their supplies and win the war here.
The road connecting Aleppo and Damascus is already under rebel control, which means that the regime forces are now almost entirely dependent on resupplying their troops by air. According to FSA fighters, most of the regime forces’ supplies for Aleppo Province are brought to the airport, where they are picked up by helicopter and delivered to the surrounding bases.
The airport is now surrounded on three sides by FSA fighters, but they have so far been unable to capture one area near the airport that is populated by Assad loyalists. Fighting is likely to drag on there for some time to come.
Syria Opposition Aims to Raise $60 Billion for Rebuilding
By Dana El Baltaji and Dahlia Kholaif – Nov 21, 2012 – Blookberg
A coalition of groups battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seeking to raise $60 billion from allied nations to help rebuild the country when fighting ends, an opposition leader said.
Syria will need the money for reconstruction in the first six months after the conflict ends, Syrian National Council leader George Sabra told reporters in Dubai today. The United Arab Emirates may provide funds “soon,” he said…..
BEIRUT: The Tawhid Brigade, a leading Islamist rebel group in the city of Aleppo, announced its support Tuesday for the opposition Syrian National Coalition and its rejection of an Islamic state for a post-Assad Syria.
The announcement was made in a video posted on YouTube, and issued on behalf of the Tawhid Brigade, the Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo, and a Revolutionary Transitional Council for the city.
The speaker, Abdel-Qader Saleh of the Tawhid Brigade, asserts that “a free Syria is a civil state, with Islam as the basis of its legislation, and protection for all components of Syrian society.”
The mention of religion might rattle staunch secularists, but the current Syrian Constitution’s Article 3 stipulates that “Islamic jurisprudence is a primary source of legislation.”
Saleh goes on to say that Tawhid and the two rebel councils “understood” why other Islamist rebel fighters in Aleppo, claiming to represent more than a dozen groups, strongly denounced the newly formed opposition Syrian National Coalition two days earlier.
The Islamist rebel groups had slammed the National Coalition, formed earlier this month in Qatar, as a foreign-imposed “conspiracy” against the uprising against President Bashar Assad, now in its 20th month.
In the earlier video, the Islamist fighters also vowed that a post-Assad Syria would be an Islamic state, which sparked angry reactions by many supporters of the uprising via social media.
Flanked by half a dozen rebel figures, Saleh said the earlier statement was issued due to the “marginalization of revolutionary groups with an actual presence on the ground, which are leading the liberation fight in Aleppo.”
The National Coalition has vowed to be more representative than its predecessor, the Syrian National Council – but has yet to make good on its pledges.
Saleh hinted as much, declaring “support for the Syrian National Coalition, as long as it adheres to the objectives and aspirations of the revolution.”
But he demanded that the coalition widen its scope by including “revolutionary forces” on the ground, specifically by appointing them to the various committees and bodies that the National Coalition has promised to establish, in a bid to become a government-in-exile.
Saleh also supported the “unification of various rebel brigades,” pointing out that they should work toward the goals of “freedom, dignity and toppling the regime.”
Saleh ended by invoking the Islamic phrase “glory to God, his Prophet and the believers.” However, this is immediately preceded by the leading secular slogan of the uprising, namely “Long live a free and glorious Syria,” which is absent from the rhetoric of many hard-line Islamist factions fighting the regime.
The clarification of the stance by the Tawhid Brigade, seen as one of the leading, and staunchly “Islamist” rebel factions, was carried widely on pro-uprising Facebook pages, representing various parts of the country…..
Syria now running a war economy as conflict spreads
Wed, Nov 21 – By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – At a rebel-controlled border crossing in northern Syria, camps housing thousands of refugees trying to flee the country occupy an area that less than two years ago was usually crammed with lorries queuing to pass through customs.
The capture of Bab al-Hawa, previously a throughfare for exports from Turkey and the Gulf to the rest of the Middle East and Europe, highlights the loss of transhipments through Syria as conflict has spread, causing a sharp drop in income from customs duties.
Plunging public revenues are a sign of the fiscal pressures Damascus is facing in the wake of the 20-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which has crippled industrial output and oil production and triggered a sharp depreciation in the Syrian currency.
As the government focuses on trying to overcome the rebels it is directing economic resources to Assad supporters by maintaining high subsidies, increasing public sector wages and stockpiling wheat and other staple goods – on top of having to increase defense spending.
That is putting a severe strain on public finances, raising the risk that the authorities will eventually have to resort to printing money to support the economy, something Damascus has long tried to avoid for fear of fuelling hyperinflation and further social unrest.
Finance Minister Mohammad Juleilati, unveiling next year’s budget last month, announced a 13 percent rise in public sector salaries and a 25 percent increase in subsidies on food, fuel, power and agriculture.
“This is a war budget in which the bulk is spent on the army and state employees to keep the government machinery going so that it continues to function, especially in the areas that are still under its control, and to show that the state is still on its feet,” said Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist.
He was involved in policymaking before the crisis but has since fled the country.
Juleilati’s 2013 budget was 4 percent larger than this year’s at 1.38 trillion Syrian pounds ($19.62 billion) despite plummeting revenues, notably from oil, which used to account for 45 percent of budget income. Now it contributes only 20-30 percent, economists estimate, as oil production has halved since the crisis to around 200,000 barrels a day.
“Revenues have deteriorated and the authorities have used up their reserves and what is keeping them afloat is some financial aid from Iran and possibly Russia,” said Seifan.
The budget, moreover, does not fully reflect the state of the economy or government finances given secrecy surrounding military spending and a flourishing unofficial economy in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians pay no tax on income from working in small workshops, doing seasonal agricultural work or conducting illicit smuggling.
Sanctions imposed by Western countries banning the import of arms from Syria and blocking the Assad government’s access to Western financial systems are aimed at choking off the money Assad needs to fund the Syrian military.
Seifan estimates that Syria’s gross domestic product shrank by at least 30 to 40 percent last year due to the collapse of tourism, which used to account for 11 percent of GDP, and the drop in oil output which previously contributed 23 percent of GDP.
A near 65 percent drop in the Syrian pound since the crisis began has sent the cost of importing fuel and other goods surging and shortages are also evident.
“The shortages in gasoline and diesel are mainly due to rising demand by the army,” said a Syrian civil servant working in a non-defense ministry, interviewed via Skype.
The government’s budget deficit had been a manageable 3-5 percent of GDP before the crisis but the 2013 budget forecasts a 745 billion Syrian pound deficit, or nearly a quarter of the country’s pre-crisis GDP of $50 billion-$60 billion.
Subsidies on a range of goods from diesel to electricity to sugar and rice consume almost 40 percent of government spending while electricity costs eat up around 15 percent of the budget.
Sanctions against money transfers meanwhile have depleted remittances from Syrians living abroad, whose transfers of $800 million annually had provided a social safety net. Their loss has added to the plight of a population where military conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands and reduced many towns and city districts to rubble.
Bankers in Damascus reported in June that the authorities had already released new cash, printed in Russia, into circulation to ensure the payment of public sector salaries and expenses, although Syria’s central bank denied such a move…..
Economists say it may soon be forced to print money on a much bigger scale.
“If they don’t get enough loans from their allies Russia and Iran they will print money and the pound will just jump from 100 to 200 to 300 against the dollar,” said Seifan.
“The state is afraid of printing money because it will create a social time bomb,” he said. “But it could be increasingly forced to do so to pay the army’s salaries.”
Things are changing in northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-majority Hassake province.
Gradually, the swoops and curves of Arabic script on storefronts and street signs are being replaced with the Latin characters that Syria’s Kurds write their own language in — an act that was illegal just a few months ago. So too are the soldiers of the Damascus regime being replaced with Kurdish militiamen and the reins of governance taken up by the local groups….
“The oil located in the Hassake region is not good quality oil, but these fields are the only fields which have seen an increase in their output in the last few years and most of Syria’s remaining oil reserves are in this region,” said Jihad Yazigi, the editor of The Syria Report, a publication that analyzes the country’s economy.
Getting exact figures on capacity during a civil war is understandably difficult. In Hassake’s main oil town, Rmeilan, a production manager from the government’s state oil company, the Syrian Petroleum Company, said that before the war the nearby fields were producing 166,000 barrels per day (bpd). As of September, due to the civil war and international sanctions on Syrian oil, only 80,000 bpd were being produced, he said, on condition of anonymity to protect his safety. It is estimated that the area has enough oil to maintain pre-war production levels for at least two decades.
The Hassake region is not exclusively Kurdish. While it is difficult to be certain as the Syrian government does not include Kurdish as an ethnic group in national surveys, they are estimated to make up more than 60 percent of the region’s population. And while much of Hassake is in the hands of Kurdish groups, the main oilfields remain controlled by the government’s forces.
But sanctions have mostly halted Syria’s export of oil and forced foreign companies such as Total, Gulfsands and Royal Dutch Shell to halt their activities in the country. With oil revenues low and the government locked in an increasingly bloody civil war, there is a possibility that the regime could lose its ability to control the country’s oil.
“Syria’s oil business is in shambles,” said Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and a Syria expert, adding that the government has lost the ability to plan its oil output strategically. “The Syrian government is not in long-term planning mode, it is planning day by day,” he said. “It is really directing its attention to the big population centers and denying the opposition a stable safe haven within Syria.”
For Syria’s Kurds, grabbing the oil fields in the northeast could be a golden ticket, allowing them to bankroll autonomy in one form or another. “If you manage to produce and sell 50,000 barrels per day, you can sustain the life of one to two million people quite easily,” Yazigi said…..while Kurdish groups might want to take control of the oil, they would likely face obstacles. “I think that the central government — and any future central government — will be willing to send tanks to take control of this region,” said Yazigi….
“I think they have autonomy already, we don’t have to talk about it in the future tense: They’ve taken it, the state has collapsed, they’re running their own affairs pretty much,” said Landis. “Obviously, a lot depends on how long this state of affairs drags on — the longer it drags on, the better it is for Kurds.”
Yazigi has a more pessimistic view. “I think there is a desire from the Kurds to be more autonomous, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to have extended rights that go beyond speaking their language and teaching it,” he said.
At present, it does not look likely that whoever comes out on top will be sympathetic to giving the Kurds more autonomy.
“The Arab opposition has been willing to make noises about greater autonomy but it doesn’t want to commit itself anything like recognizing national rights for Kurds,” said Landis….
According to Landis, the gist of the message that the Free Syrian Army is sending the Kurds by entering their areas and engaging in battles is that “you don’t get to become Switzerland and be neutral; there is no Switzerland in Syria and if you side with the government we’re going to make you feel the pain.” Detractors of the PYD have accused the group of being aligned with the Assad regime, though the organization denies this and says it is against the government.
Militarily, with only several thousand fighters, the PYD’s forces are outnumbered and see hostile threats on all fronts. Still, they are readying their militias for possible confrontations to protect what they have gained.
“We are organizing ourselves, our people, to be ready for everything, for every possible situation by this regime or a future regime,” said Saleh Mohammed, the leader of the PYD. “Even if there is any invasion by Turkey, we are ready for it.”
With Syria’s eastern oilfields in rebel hands, a brisk business in pirated crude grows
By David Enders, McClatchy Newspapers
SHAHEL, Syria — Syrian rebels have captured two of the three major oilfields in the country’s southeastern Deir al Zour province and are extracting oil that they say is helping to support their rebellion
“We are at the beginning of winter, and people need oil to run the bakeries and to heat their homes. The weather is very cold here,” said a rebel leader here who, for security reasons, identifies himself by his nom de guerre, Abu Mohamed.
The capture of the fields is another blow to the Syrian government’s attempt to offset inflation and shortages of various goods in the areas it still controls. It also has set off a booming oil trade in this impoverished area. Dozens of trucks wait in line 24 hours a day to fill up at rebel-held wells, which produce a light crude that can be burned without refining, though the result is dense smoke. Some farmers insist the unrefined crude can be used to power farm equipment, though it seems primarily to be used for heat….
Among the groups profiting from the wells are Jabhat al Nusra, whose members have won admiration from some Syrians for their effectiveness as fighters against the government while inspiring fear and suspicion in others because of their calls for a Syrian state based on Islamic law and their alleged links to al Qaida.
Rebels have also said they are planning a push into Hasaka province to the north, the country’s other major source of crude oil.
Abu Mohamed said that two of the three main fields around Deir al Zour – the captured fields are known as al Warde and Taim – are under rebel control, and that rebels would capture the third, Sheikh Omar, after they found engineers who could operate the wells.
Rebels said locating engineers had been a challenge because most of the people who were employed in the oil sector in Syria were Alawites, the religious minority to which President Bashar Assad belongs and who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. Virtually all of the armed rebels in Syria are Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of the country’s population. A main rebel grievance is that the country’s political, economic and military elites have been dominated by Alawites for decades.
It appears the antagonism between Kurds and Islamist FSA fighters is heating up. Nearly 40 dead from fighting in Ras Al-Ain, is indicative of a hot firefight.
Jihadist rebels in standoff with Syria Kurds: NGO
Thursday, 22 November 2012
Hundreds of Kurdish militiamen massed in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain on Thursday in a mounting standoff with mainly jihadist Arab-led rebels who had seized much of the town from government forces, a watchdog said.
It was the latest in a string of largely peaceful drives for control of mainly Kurdish inhabited areas of the northeast and northwest that neighboring Turkey fears has given succor to the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) it has been fighting for nearly three decades.
The Turkey-backed rebels of the Free Syrian Army accuse the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of having links to the PKK, which has been fighting for self-rule just across the border in southeastern Turkey since 1984, and charge that it is in cahoots with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The PYD insists its fighters are entirely Syrian but Washington has backed Ankara in insisting that Syria will not be allowed to become a rear base for the PKK in the face of the 20-month uprising against Assad’s iron-fisted rule.
The standoff between the Kurds and the Arab-led rebels — most of whom the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said were drawn from hardline Islamists opposed to the new opposition coalition recognized some Arab and Western states — highlighted a growing dilemma for the rebels’ supporters.
Some 200 fighters from the Al-Qaeda loyalist Al-Nusra Front and 100 from the allied Ghuraba al-Sham advanced on Ras al-Ain, backed by three tanks they had captured from the Syrian army, the Observatory said.
They were faced by 400 Kurdish militiamen in the northeastern town which has already been largely deserted by its residents, thousands of whom have poured across the border into Turkey, the Britain-based watchdog and residents said.
Youth Bulges and the Social Conditions of Rebellion
By: Jack A. Goldstone | Feature
Commentary on generational conflict and the radicalism of youth goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Such conflict is probably always present to some degree in every family and every generation. Yet the coalescence of individual youthful impatience with the ways of the older generation into social movements of rebellion or revolution is something that happens more rarely and only when certain economic, political and social conditions prevail.
Mountaintop Town Is a Diverse Haven From Syria’s Horrors
By JANINE DI GIOVANNI, New York Times, November 21, 2012
MALOULA, Syria — In a country clouded by conflict, where neighbors and families are now divided by sectarian hatred, this mountaintop town renowned for its spiritual healing qualities and restorative air is an oasis of tolerance. Residents of the ancient and mainly Christian town — one of the last places where Western Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken — vowed at the beginning of the Syrian conflict 20 months ago not to succumb to sectarianism and be dragged into the chaos….
Mahmoud Diab, the Sunni imam of the town, said: “Early on in this war, I met with the main religious leaders in the community: the bishop and the mother superior of the main convent. We decided that even if the mountains around us were exploding with fighting, we would not go to war.”
Born and raised in Maloula, Mr. Diab, who is also in Syria’s Parliament, sat in the courtyard of his mosque, shadowed by olive and poplar trees and a fading poster of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, whom he supports. “It’s a sectarian war, in politics, it’s another name,” he said with a shrug. “But the fact is, there is no war here in Maloula. Here, we all know each other.”….
Government forces bombarded a local shift hospital in Aleppo, Sha’ar neighborhood, killing many. (video)
Supporters of President Bashar Assad speak with U.N. monitors who were arriving in the town in May. The monitors have since left.
After 20 months of violence in Syria, acts of reconciliation are scarce.
When one took place earlier this month in the town of Tel Kalakh, near the border with Lebanon, it touched off a fierce debate.
The man at the center is Ahmad Munir Muhammed, the governor of Homs, who has long been known as a loyalist of embattled President Bashar Assad.
However, Muhammed made an official visit to Tel Kalakh, where the majority of neighborhoods are controlled by the rebels.
With the rebels guaranteeing his safety, the governor drove into Tel Kalakh in early November to see a city where revolutionary flags flutter from most mosques. He was reportedly shocked by the devastation from army bombardments and paramilitary attacks on this border town.
His visit was approved by the rebel commander of Tel Kalakh, Abdul Rathman Wallo. The men were even photographed together.
Tangible benefits followed. The Syrian Red Crescent delivered humanitarian aid to the besieged civilians. More than a dozen Syrian soldiers who had defected, men wanted by the Syrian regime and some of them seriously wounded, were allowed to slip across the border to Lebanon for medical treatment.
Media Reports Ignite A Debate
Syrian state TV covered the event and reported the governor’s promise to resume “all public services to guarantee the return of the families affected by terrorism.” State television also declared this reconciliation a victory over “terrorists” who tried “to sabotage and make [Tel Kalakh] a lifeless city.”
The Syrian regime refers to all armed groups as “terrorists.” But no amount of propaganda could erase the image of the governor holding cordial talks with the “terrorists.”
The details of the event were also recounted in As-Safir, a Lebanese newspaper, which described the events as a “surprising scene.” The governor was quoted as saying he was “putting an end to Syrian bloodshed” and would take similar steps in all the towns under his authority.
So how was the visit viewed elsewhere in the country? The competing narratives began as soon as the visit became public.
The governor “shook hands with murderers,” screamed the pro-government media, accusing him of nothing less than embracing al-Qaida in Syria. He “surrendered” Tel Kalakh, according to those who consider any recognition of the Sunni rebels an existential danger to Assad’s rule and to the surrounding Alawite villages. The reaction shows the difficulty of any negotiated settlement to end the crisis.
But this unusual meeting also appears to be recognition of reality.
“Life must go on. They are pressed by the reality on the ground,” says a former Syrian government official who spoke on condition on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the meeting.
The rebels of Tel Kalakh took up arms after peaceful protesters were targeted by the security police and the army, the former official said.
In May 2011, at least 40 civilians were killed when police opened fire and soldiers blasted the town with tank-mounted machine guns. Hundreds more were arrested.
Within days, almost half the Sunni Muslim population had fled over the river frontier into Lebanon. The Syrian regime stepped up the retribution with relentless bombardments, but the village did not change its mind. It continued to support the rebels.
The rebels maintain a strong presence in Tel Kalakh, though the damage is massive….
Turkey Finds It Is Sidelined as Broker in Mideast
By Tim Arango | The New York Times
“Turkey’s new foreign policy has but one premise, to become a regional actor,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “To this end, Ankara needs to have persuasive power on all countries of the region. In the past decade, Ankara has won that power with the Arabs but lost it with the Israelis.”