Wednesday 18 July 2012
Syria: after ‘very good’ meetings in Beijing, Ban voices hope for Security Council unity: Speaking in Beijing today, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he held “very good meetings” on the situation in Syria with China’s President Hu Jintao and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and expressed the hope that the Security Council can reach agreement on a course of action for the situation in the Middle Eastern country.
“I have explained how serious the situation is now and all the leaders in China have also shared my view that this situation is very serious,” Mr. Ban said at a press encounter in the wake of his meetings. “Therefore, I sincerely hope that the members of the Security Council will be able to discuss with a sense of urgency and take collective action with a sense of unity.”
“We cannot go on this way. So many people have lost their lives during such a long time,” he added. “I sincerely hope that Members of the Security Council will be united and take action.”
In a note to journalists, the UN chief’s spokesperson later said that, in the meetings, the Secretary-General also expressed the hope that the Council – of which China is a permanent member – would continue its discussions.
“He hopes that, as a matter of urgency, the Council comes together in a united manner to help end the bloodshed and allow Syrians to begin a political dialogue leading to a Syrian-led transition,” the spokesperson said.
On Tuesday, in his contacts with a number of Governments, the Joint Special Envoy for the United Nations and the League of Arab States for the Syrian Crisis, Kofi Annan, also urged Council members “to unite and take concerted and strong action that would help stem the bloodshed in Syria and build momentum for a political transition,” according to Mr. Annan’s spokesperson.
“The Joint Special Envoy for Syria condemns all bloodshed, and violence in all its forms, and believes that today’s violence only underscores the urgency of decisive Council action,” the envoy’s spokesperson said in a note to journalists today.
Council members are expected to meet on Thursday to discuss the crisis in Syria, which has continued unabated since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 16 months ago. The UN estimates that more than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced.
In addition, the mandate of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) – which recently suspended its regular patrols due to the escalating violence on the ground – ends on 20 July, with Council members expected to decide on its future before then. The Council established UNSMIS in April to monitor the cessation of violence in Syria, as well as monitor and support the full implementation of a six-point peace plan.
The Secretary-General – as well as Joint Special Envoy Annan – has previously spoken of the need for collective and decisive action on the situation in the country.
Earlier in the week, the Secretary-General spoke with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, by telephone, and discussed the “imperative need” for an immediate halt to the violence in Syria. As well, he stressed the importance of the Joint Special Envoy’s discussions in Moscow.
Mr. Annan was in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday. Speaking to the media yesterday, he said that, along with Foreign Minister Lavrov, he had a “very good” discussion with Russia’s President, Valdimir Putin, focusing on what measures need to be taken to end the violence and the killing in Syria and how to proceed with a political transition there.
The Joint Special Envoy has previously noted the importance of a united Council on the Syrian crisis, saying that “if the Council speaks with one voice, that voice is much more powerful than when it is divided.”
In another note to journalists on Wednesday, Mr. Ban’s spokesperson said that the Secretary-General also spoke with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati today, on the situation in neighbouring Syria.
“The Secretary-General expressed strong support for the efforts of the Prime Minister to protect Lebanon’s stability and security,” the spokesperson said. “The Secretary-General underscored the Syrian Government’s responsibility to stop firing into Lebanon, and he expressed regret for Lebanese casualties.”
In addition to recent sectarian violence linked to the conflict in Syria, Lebanon has also been a destination for thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country.
NOW! Lebanon – at one time this was full of reports of peaceful demonstrations, now it’s full of fighting
[local time] 21:42 A number of anti-regime protests broke out in Latakia, Al-Arabiya television reported.
21:32 Nearly 100 people were killed on Wednesday in violence across Syria, including 16 in Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
21:15 UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan urged the UN Security Council to meet and act decisively on Syria, AFP reported.
20:56 Heavy clashes and explosions took place in Jabata in Qunaitra, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
20:56 The Syrian regime has started distributing chemical weapons, Al-Jazeera television quoted defected colonel Abdel Hamid Zachariah as saying.
20:54 Al-Arabiya television is broadcasting live footage of anti-regime protests in Qamishli and Hama.
20:51 Three people were killed and dozens wounded during the Syrian forces’ shelling of Rastan, Al-Arabiya television quoted activists as saying.
20:46 Syrian security forces’ shelling of Damascus’ neighborhood of Al-Hajjar al-Aswad killed 10 people on Wednesday, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
20:34 Syrian security forces’ gunfire killed four people and injured others in Damascus’ Al-Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, Al-Arabiya reported on Wednesday.
20:27 A Syrian Republican Guard brigade opens fire in the Dumar neighborhood close to the Presidential Palace in Damascus, Al-Arabiya television reported.
20:20 Wednesday’s death toll in Syria has risen to 92 people, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
20:20 A number of soldiers defected from the Syrian army in Al-Qadam neighborhood in Damascus, Al-Jazeera television reported.
20:19 Russian leader Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama were unable to resolve their differences on Syria in a phone talk Wednesday following a Damascus bomb attack, the Kremlin said.
20:18 A heavy explosion rocked the Dumar neighborhood of Damascus, Al-Jazeera television reported.
20:17 Syrian activist Amar al-Qorba said on Wednesday that the Syrian presidential jet left Damascus Airport for Latakia, Al-Arabiya reported.
20:09 A heavy explosion rocked Damascus. (S.N.N)
20:07 Syrian forces raided the Midan neighborhood in Damascus, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committee as saying.
19:58 Syrian forces shelled the town of Houla outside Homs, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
19:46 The European Union needs to prepare for a humanitarian crisis in Syria with the potential for displacing huge numbers of people, Cyprus, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said Wednesday.
19:41 Clashes broke out in Aleppo’s Al-Zaraa after 30 military personnel defected from the Syrian army, Al-Jazeera television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
19:39 Al-Jazeera broadcast live footage of an anti-regime protest in Artouz near Damascus.
19:38 Syrian army troops defected in Maarat an-Naaman and Jabal al-Zawiya.
19:37 Clashes broke out between Syrian regime forces and rebels in Zamlaka near Damascus, Al-Jazeera television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
19:32 Thirty soldiers defected in Aleppo’s town of Al-Bab, Al-Arabiya reported on Wednesday.
19:29 Syrian forces shelled the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Moadmiya, Al-Arabiya television reported.
19:25 The UN Security Council postponed a vote Wednesday on a Western-drafted resolution calling for sanctions against Syria following a request from international envoy Kofi Annan, diplomats said.
19:08 The White House said Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “losing control” of his country following a suicide bombing in Damascus that killed three top security chiefs.
19:06 Wednesday’s death toll in Syria has risen to 77 people, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
19:02 Syrian forces shelled the Al-Qadam neighborhood in Damascus, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
19:01 Syrian regime forces shelled Damascus’ Al-Zahara neighborhood and raided the city Al-Shaghour area, Al-Jazeera television reported.
19:00 Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi condemned a suicide bombing which killed three Syrian security chiefs on Wednesday, in a telephone call with his counterpart in Damascus.
18:57 Syrian forces shelled the Damascus neighborhood of Mezzeh, Al-Jazeera television quoted activists as saying.
18:55 Syrian forces surrounded the Sayyida Zaynab neighborhood of Damascus, Al-Arabiya television reported.
18:53 Arab foreign ministers were to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday on the crisis in Syria, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said, after a Damascus bombing on Wednesday killed top security officials.
18:46 Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a bid to narrow the differences between Ankara and Moscow on the Syria conflict amid surging violence.
18:45 The Syrian army shelled Damascus’ Al-Midan neighborhood, Al-Jazeera television reported.
18:39 Helicopters shelled Damascus’ Kfar Soussa, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
18:36 Syrian forces shelled Al-Fateh Hospital in Kafar Batna near Damascus, Al-Arabiya television reported.
18:32 Syrian forces shelled the Jawbar neighborhood in Damascus, wounding a number of people, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
18:18 The Syrian army shelled the Nahr Aisha and Al-Hajjar al-Aswad neighborhoods in Damascus, Al-Jazeera television reported.
18:14 UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan asked the UN Security Council to delay a vote scheduled for Wednesday on a Western-drafted resolution calling for sanctions against Syria, British diplomats said.
18:10 Syrian forces shelled the Al-Hajjar al-Aswad neighborhood of Damascus, A-Jazeera television reported.
18:04 With President Bashar al-Assad’s regime reeling from a bomb attack that killed three top commanders, the United States turned the screw government further Wednesday with sanctions against dozens of ministers.
18:01 Al-Jazeera television reported on Wednesday that helicopters opened fire on people in Damascus’ Jawbar neighborhood.
17:58 Sixty Syrian military personnel defected from the regime in Homs’ Deir Baalba, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Local Coordination Committees as saying.
17:37 Al-Arabiya television is broadcasting live footage of the deployment of the Free Syrian Army in the Al-Qadam neighborhood of Damascus.
17:46 Al-Arabiya television is broadcasting live footage of clashes between Syrian regime forces and rebels in Al-Hajjar al-Aswad neighborhood in Damascus.
17:40 Russia on Wednesday demanded the arrest and strict punishment of those behind a Damascus “act of terror” that killed three top Syrian security officials in a suicide bombing.
17:37 Al-Arabiya broadcasts live footage of deployment of Free Syrian Army members in Damascus’ neighborhood of Al-Qadam.
17:28 A UN Security Council vote scheduled for Wednesday on a western-drafted resolution calling for sanctions against Syria will probably be pushed back by at least one day, diplomats said.
17:27 Al-Arabiya is broadcasting live footage of anti-regime protests in Edleb.
17:23 A “celebratory” anti-regime protest started in the city of Tadef near Aleppo following the death of top Syrian officials earlier in the day. (S.N.N.)
17:22 US Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser discussed the Syrian crisis and the threat of unrest spilling into nearby countries with Iraqi leaders on Wednesday, he told journalists.
17:11 Al-Arabiya is broadcasting images showing a “celebratory” anti-regime demonstration in Daraya in the Damascus district.
17:09 Syrian security forces killed 57 people on Wednesday, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
17:02 Regime militants stabbed to death a number of people in the Al-Aassali and Al-Qadam neighborhoods of Damascus, Al-Jazeera quoted activists as saying.
16:54 Shabiha groups attacked the Al-Qadam and Al-Aasali neighborhoods of Damascus, Al-Arabiya television reported.
16:50 Dozens of Syrian special forces troops defected in the Damascus neighborhood of Al-Qaboun, Al-Arabiya television reported.
16:40 Heavy gunfire was heard in Baghdad Street in central Damascus, SNN reported.
16:36 Syrian regime soldiers belonging to the Third Armed Division defected in Damascus, Al-Arabiya reported.
16:36 Syrian regime forces withdraw from areas around Maaret an-Naaman, a town outside Edleb, Al-Arabiya reported.
16:33 Syria’s rebel Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for a deadly Damascus attack on Wednesday that killed two top regime figures, the defense minister and the president’s brother-in-law.
16:33 US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made an urgent call Wednesday for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down amid an escalation of violence “rapidly spinning out of control.”
16:31 Al-Arabiya is broadcasting footage of rebel Free Syrian Army troops deploying in Al-Sabina area of Damascus.
16:27 French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday that a suicide bombing that killed two top Syrian security officials showed the urgent need for a political transition in the country.
16:24 Syrian colonel Hafez Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, was reportedly killed Wednesday in the Damascus explosion, Al-Arabiya television reported.
16:17 Syrian state TV is broadcasting live footage of clashes in the Al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus.
16:15 Syrian state television confirmed that General Hassan Turkmani, head of the regime’s crisis cell, was among those killed in a bomb attack on National Security headquarters in Damascus on Wednesday.
16:05 More than 100 Syrian regime soldiers defected in Homs, Al-Jazeera reported.
16:03 General Zaki Lula defected Wednesday from the Syrian army, Al-Jazeera television reported.
15:56 German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the suicide attack in Damascus on Wednesday, that reportedly claimed the lives of top officials, underlined the “urgent” need for a new UN resolution on Syria.
15:52 Russia on Wednesday said a decisive battle was in progress in Syria and rejected a Western-backed UN resolution on the crisis as it would mean taking sides with a revolutionary movement.
15:47 A Syrian army commander in Damascus, Mohammad al-Bardan, defected along with the soldiers under his command, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
15:31 British Foreign Secretary William Hague said a suicide bombing that killed two top Syrian security officials on Wednesday showed the need for a UN resolution to end the crisis.
15:24 Syrian regime forces withdrew Wednesday from the Al-Midan neighborhood of Damascus, Al-Arabiya television quoted the Free Syrian Army as saying.
15:17 Fahed Jassem al-Freige was appointed as a defense minister after death of Dawoud Rajiha in an explosion in Damascus, Syrian state TV reported.
15:09 Explosions hit the headquarters of the 4th battalion of the Syrian regime forces in Damascus, Al-Jazeera reported.
14:59 Syria will “continue fighting terrorism” after officials killed in a Damascus blast, AFP reported state TV as saying Wednesday.
14:49 France on Wednesday denounced Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s struggle to stay in power as futile and raised concerns about mounting violence in the conflict-torn country.
14:45 A number of Palestinian refugees living in Damascus have joined the uprising in Syria, according to activists and rebels, with some taking up arms alongside rebel Free Syrian Army fighters.
14:41 Syria is tipping into chaos and collapse, and a strong UN Security Council stand is needed to push for the creation of a transition government, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday.
14:33 Heavy clashes took place in Damascus neighborhoods, Al-Arabiya reported on Wednesday.
14:27 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law was killed in a suicide bombing in Damascus on Wednesday that targeted National Security headquarters, state television said.
14:14 Syrian state TV on Wednesday denied that Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar was killed in the deadly explosion that rocked the heavily guarded National Security headquarters in Damascus.
14:11 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that a “decisive battle” was taking place in Syria, AFP reported.
14:09 A personal bodyguard of the “crisis team” detonated the explosive device in Damascus on Wednesday, an opposition spokesperson said.
13:55 Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar was killed in the explosion that targeted the National Security building in Damascus.
13:52 The rebel Free Syrian Army head has echoed fears that President Bashar al-Assad might resort to using chemical weapons to try to rescue his embattled regime, Al-Bayan newspaper reported on Wednesday.
13:43 Syrian Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat was seriously injured in a Damascus explosion, Al-Manar television reported Wednesday.
13:26 Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha was killed in a Damascus explosion, Syrian state TV said Wednesday.
13:12 Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad as-Shaar and Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha are likely among the wounded in the explosion that hit the National Security building in Damascus, Al-Manar television reported.
13:06 The suicide attack that hit a Damascus security building targeted ministers and security officials, AFP reported Syrian state TV as saying Wednesday.
12:32 The death toll in Syria rose to 30 people on Wednesday, Al-Jazeera quoted activists as saying.
12:31 A Russian ship that tried to supply attack helicopters to Syria last month before being forced back will dock in Saint Petersburg in coming days, its owners said on Wednesday.
12:16 Four people were killed and 15 injured in the shelling of Daael in Daraa, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying on Wednesday.
12:11 Syrian TV said on Wednesday that a suicide bomber targeted a Damascus security building, AFP reported.
12:03 Six-hundred refugees arrived in Turkey on Wednesday, including two defecting army generals, Al-Arabiya quoted an unnamed Turkish official as saying.
11:41 UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday urged the Security Council to act to stop the bloodshed in Syria, after holding talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing hours ahead of a vote on fresh sanctions.
11:38 Russian President Vladimir Putin was due Wednesday to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss differences on Syria as UN Security Council prepared to vote on the conflict.
11:15 Columns of black smoke rose over the Syrian capital on Wednesday after the city was hit by another night of clashes between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, an activist group said.
10:54 Two Syrian brigadier generals crossed into Turkey overnight, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told AFP Wednesday.
10:10 Thirteen people were killed in Syria on Wednesday, mostly in Homs and Daraa, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
8:59 MORNING LEADER: Rebels declared the battle to “liberate” Damascus has begun as heavy fighting raged across the city on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Russia said an agreement is possible for a UN resolution on the crisis and peace envoy Kofi Annan said the 16-month crisis, increasingly described as a civil war, was at a “critical time.”
8:10 A leading Syrian opposition group warned Tuesday it will look for “alternative” ways to confront President Bashar al-Assad if the UN Security Council does not pass a resolution threatening sanctions.
UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council delayed until Thursday a vote on a Western-backed resolution that threatens Syrian authorities with sanctions and is aimed at ending the 16-month conflict, diplomats said on Wednesday.
International envoy Kofi Annan earlier had requested that the vote, which was planned for later on Wednesday, be postponed because he wanted to “ensure all efforts were made for U.N. Security Council to speak with one voice and agree on concerted pressure,” Britain’s U.N. mission said on Twitter.
“We will be voting tomorrow morning,” Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters on Wednesday.
The 15-member Security Council needs to decide the future of a U.N. observer mission in Syria before its mandate expires on Friday. The council approved the mission’s deployment to monitor a failed April 12 ceasefire under Annan’s six-point peace plan.
But the permanent five veto-wielding members of the Security Council — the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France — are deeply divided over whether stronger action should be taken.
Britain, the United States, and France, along with Germany, want the council to threaten Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and his government with sanctions in a bid to halt the violence, but Russia and China are against such a move.
Russia, a key ally of Syria, has refused to engage in negotiations on the Western-backed resolution that would extend the U.N. observer mission in Syria for 45 days and place Annan’s peace plan under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, diplomats say.
Chapter 7 allows the council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention. U.S. officials, however, have said they are talking about sanctions on Syria, not military intervention.
“We had a useful discussion but I wouldn’t call it a negotiation,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after further talks between the permanent five members. When asked if she expected any new proposals from Russia, she said: “No.”
SLIDING INTO CHAOS
Russia has said it would block the Western-backed resolution because it does not believe it should be placed under Chapter 7. Russia and China have already twice vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to pressure Assad to halt the violence.
“A possible vote has been postponed until tomorrow,” said Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, without commenting further.
Russia has also put forward a resolution to extend the U.N. mission for 90 days, but it does not contain a threat of sanctions. It was not clear when or if Russia planned to put its draft resolution to a vote.
“We have very clearly told our Russian and Chinese friends ‘we are ready to negotiate,’ French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters. “The framework is well defined, it’s a Chapter 7 resolution with a threat of sanctions.”
The Western-backed draft resolution specifically threatens Syrian authorities with sanctions if they do not stop using heavy weapons and withdraw troops from towns and cities within 10 days of adoption by the Security Council.
“We want to give diplomacy a chance, but of course there has to be meaningful engagement on the side of Russia and China with our resolution,” Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig said.
“Syria is sliding into chaos. We have been warning about such a development all along. The responsibility for that development falls squarely with the Assad regime,” he said.
A suicide bomber killed Syria’s defense minister and two other top military officials in Damascus on Wednesday, security sources said, the worst blow to Assad’s high command during the rebellion.
“We condemn all kinds of terrorist actions,” China’s U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong told reporters, adding that he hoped the council could reach consensus on what action to take on Syria.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Paul Simao)
The suicide bomber who attacked a crisis meeting of Bashar al-Assad’s security officials on Wednesday did more than just kill and wound some of Syria‘s most senior figures.
He blew apart the inner circle of trusted kin that the Syrian president has relied on to control every aspect of the state he inherited from his father, and was counting on to crush the 16-month-old rebellion against him.The bomber, apparently an insider and possibly a trusted bodyguard, struck at the daily meeting attended by ministers and senior security officials as battles raged inside Damascus, within sight of the nearby presidential palace.
Three of Assad’s top commanders – Defense Minister Daoud Rajha, Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and Hassan Turkmani, a top military official – were killed in the blast.
Shawkat in particular was a pillar of Assad’s rule. Intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar were also wounded.
On the ground, the security forces reaction was swift. As Damascus vowed to retaliate for the bomb attack, its forces hit rebel positions across the capital. Analysts said the response heralds more bloodshed to come.
“It is a serious blow to Assad. It will weaken Bashar but it is not necessarily good news for the opposition too,” said Patrick Seale, the biographer of Assad’s father, Hafez. “It is likely to make the regime much more violent, ruthless and brutal. It will become more savage.”
He said the chances of a negotiated transition of power were now even more remote.
The Assad family that has ruled Syria for four decades is struggling for its life against a growing rebellion. Before the attack on Wednesday officials close to Assad described a tight inner group determined to fight its way out of the crisis, even as support for the government falls away.
At its head is President Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000 and who friend and opponent alike say appears increasingly detached from reality, convinced he is fighting a conspiracy against him and Syria.
He drew around him a tight circle of family and clan members, and a security establishment staffed mainly by adherents of the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong, a branch of Shi’ite Islam in a country that is three quarters Sunni.
“Even those who love him feel he can no longer provide security,” said Ayman Abdel-Nour, an adviser to Assad until 2007 and now an opposition figure. “They think he is useless and living in a cocoon.”
“He thinks of himself as God’s messenger to rule Syria. He listens to the sycophants around him who tell him ‘you are a gift from God’. He believes that he is right and that whoever contradicts him is a traitor. Many of his close friends and advisers have either left him or distanced themselves from him.”
In response, Assad has taken charge of a military crisis unit and takes all the daily decisions, from the deployment of army units to tasks assigned to the security services, as well as mobilization of the Alawite Shabbiha, the militia accused of a series of massacres in the past two months.
“Bashar remains the center. He is involved in the day-to-day details of managing the crisis,” said a Lebanese politician close to the Syrian rulers. “He set up an elite unit led by him to manage the crisis daily.”
In this unit, intelligence chief Hisham Bekhtyar was responsible for security coordination, Rajha was minister of defense, Shawkat, the president’s powerful brother-in-law, was deputy defense minister. Alongside them are Ali Mamlouk, special adviser on security, Abdel-Fattah Qudsiyeh, head of military intelligence, and Mohammad Nassif Kheyrbek, a veteran operator from the era of Assad’s father.
“KILL OR BE KILLED”
Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and Syria’s second most powerful man, commands the main strike forces.
“Maher is directly involved in the confrontation on the ground and is in direct contact with every one of them. He has direct military responsibilities,” the Lebanese politician said.
As the rebellion gains ground, Assad’s inner circle is beginning to realize it faces a serious crisis. “In the hierarchy of the authorities you don’t see a noticeable change,” he said. But “you hear more realistic language. The prestige and standing of the regime has been scratched”.
Abdel-Nour, the former Assad adviser, paints a darker picture of the inner circle. He stresses that there is nothing autonomous about the way government units operate, whether the shelling of opposition neighborhoods by Maher’s armored columns or the killing of villagers by the Shabbiha militia. All units are under Bashar’s command and many have family ties.
Each region has its own Shabbiha leader and many of the central cities are led by Shabbiha men related to Assad.
The 46-year-old Assad said last month that Syria was at war and ordered his government to spare no effort in pursuit of victory against rebels he has described as terrorists.
Drawing parallels with his earlier profession as an eye surgeon, he said: “When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound do we say to him: ‘Your hands are covered in blood’?”
“Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”
Some long-time observers of Syria’s secretive politics believe Assad’s attempt to keep tight control of his forces will not necessarily protect him from being toppled internally if it looks as though he cannot prevail militarily.
Patrick Seale said: “Assad is a front man for a big security establishment of 300,000 regular army. He has a small clique that supplies him with information.
“They might still mount a coup against him and that remains his big threat.”
After 16 months, the conflict has reached the seat of Assad’s power in Damascus. Government forces and opponents are fighting with the ferocity of those who know what awaits them if they lose.
“There is war in Syria: either kill or be killed,” said the pro-Syrian Lebanese politician.
A Western diplomat added: “They are fighting like a pack of wolves.”
CIVIL WAR; PROXY WAR
While facts on the ground often cannot be verified because independent media are largely excluded from Syria, the conflict is now seen by observers to have changed from an uprising in poor towns and villages to a civil war that has reached the streets of the capital.
It has also become a proxy war pitting Russia and Shi’ite Muslim Iran, which back Assad, against Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which are arming and funding the Sunni rebels. The rebels now include the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors joined by Sunni youths, al-Qaeda style Jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and local pro-democracy Sunni liberals.
Weapons are being smuggled across the borders from Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
“Syria … is clearly right now a battleground for proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, reflecting a centuries-old conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni powers,” said Ayham Kamel of Political Risk consultancy Eurasia.
While the rebels inside Syria are gaining ground, the Syrian political opposition in exile remains bogged down in factional divisions and is losing influence.
The government is meanwhile losing its ability to spread fear. Defections of senior officers and officials have accelerated in recent weeks although the backbone of the military remains intact due to Alawite solidarity.
“The Syrian regime is slowly and totally sinking. I don’t know what the timeline will be. It is becoming difficult for the state to control the country. It is like a fire engine, they extinguish one fire and find that another fire has started in another place,” said a senior Western diplomat.
GOVERNMENT CONTROL SLIPPING
Many Sunni officers, police and security staff have either defected or are not reporting for duty. Those manning traffic and police checkpoints are mainly Alawites, who can be recognized by their accent, residents say.
Responsibility for defending the Assads is falling on the mainly Alawite battalions led by Maher, Bashar’s brother.
In outlying cities and on the outskirts of the capital, residents say the only sign of any government presence is tanks and armored personnel carriers stationed on main roads. Traffic and ordinary police are nowhere to be seen.
Residents stood in disbelief at the sight of rebels manning checkpoints, blocking streets and clashing with government troops in Damascus. “A few days ago, we would have said this was impossible. It is a dangerous indication,” said a resident reached by telephone.
Government forces are scared of entering some rebel areas and they use artillery and helicopters gunships to bomb rebel positions, Syrians reached by telephone say.
Close watchers of Damascus say while the authorities’ power has been eroding they doubt that the lightly armed rebels can defeat an army, backed with Russian-made tanks, armored personnel carriers and warplanes.
“Bashar and his regime have been profoundly destabilized but there is some doubt whether he can be toppled by the rebels for all the following reasons: Russia’s protection, a divided opposition and no appetite for military intervention,” said Assad biographer Patrick Seale.
But he added: “No regime can last forever … I cannot see a peaceful settlement for the moment. I can see a bloody stalemate, more shooting, more killing. The situation is very bad, chaos and insecurity are everywhere. Kidnapping, killing and hostage-taking, ethnic-cleansing are rife,” Seale said.
He said Assad’s officer corps would not give up on him unless they feel they will have a role in a post-Assad Syria.
Despite the carnage and the failure so far of international peace efforts, Western diplomats said aLibyan-style military intervention is off the table, because of geopolitical complications and fear of a regional conflagration.
“Libya is different from Syria … Russia (is) involved on the ground and backing Assad. Iran is providing a lot of financial and military help for the Assad regime,” the Lebanese politician said.
Russia and Iran, Abdel-Nour said, are not just supplying Assad with weapons. They are also providing equipment to intercept the communications of the Free Syrian Army.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Assad’s government would be held responsible if it failed to safeguard its chemical weapons, which Western and Israeli official have said have been moved from storage sites.
The focus of the United Sates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is to try and entice senior officials and officers to split from the Assad circle to weaken his hold on power.
“At some point, they will feel that there is no way out and they have to abandon the boat before it sinks,” said the Western diplomat.
Many observers say in the absence of outside military intervention, the conflict could slide into a full-scale civil war that would further weaken the Assads, bring in new players and force an internationally sponsored transfer of power.
“The regime has not lost full control. We will transition into civil war. The opposition has become a lot more powerful and capable at the military and financial level with the help of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey,” said Ayham Kamel of Eurasia.
“Incrementally, the regime will become weaker,” he said. “Change will come in two ways: either through a shift in the balance of power in the conflict, or though a prolonged civil war, or through a negotiated compromise and international transition plan sponsored by the US and Russia,” he added.
“Even if Bashar goes it doesn’t mean that someone will take over,” he added, suggesting that the country will collapse into sectarian anarchy.
In the meantime, the authorities have upped their game, using tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships against rebels waging what they call “The Battle of Damascus”.
“The question Damascenes ask has changed from before,” one resident said. “They no longer ask if the regime will fall but when?
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Giles Elgood)
Syria’s defence minister, President Assad’s brother-in-law and the head of the crisis management office are killed in a suicide bombing, state TV says.
The president’s defence minister, brother-in-law and head of his crisis team were at a meeting at national security headquarters in Damascus.
No footage has yet emerged of the attack in which the national security chief and interior minister were also said to have been wounded.
It comes as rebels claim to have launched an offensive on the capital.
For the past three days, rebels have fought with troops in several parts of the city, declaring their operation, entitled Damascus Volcano, a final battle for the capital.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a jihadist group calling itself Lord of the Martyrs Brigade both said they were behind the security headquarters bombing.
Security sources say the suspected bomber worked as a bodyguard for members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle.
As events in Damascus unfolded, a UN Security Council vote on a Western-sponsored resolution threatening Syria with tougher sanctions was postponed until Thursday following a request by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
Condemning the violence, Mr Annan urged members of the Security Council to take strong, concerted action to help stem the bloodshed.
“The terrorist explosion which targeted the national security building in Damascus occurred during a meeting of ministers and a number of heads of [security] agencies,” state TV said.
The BBC’s Lina Sinjab in Damascus says none of the windows of the building appears to be broken. There is no sign of extra security, she adds.
Gen Daoud Rajiha had been defence minister for less than a year, serving previously as chief of staff, and was on a US blacklist for his role in the suppression of dissent.
He was believed to be an Orthodox Christian – a rarity in the Alawite-dominated Syrian military and government.
Gen Assef Shawkat was married to Mr Assad’s sister Bushra and considered a top security chief and a member of the inner circle of the regime.
He is the closest person to the president to be killed so far and his loss is a triple blow for the ruling family, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says.
Gen Hassan Turkomani was a former defence minister and assistant to the vice president as well as being in charge of President Assad’s crisis management office
The Syrian government’s information minister Omran Zoab, said the attack was cowardly
A long-standing senior member of the ruling Baath party and a Sunni Muslim, unlike many in the Syrian elite, he was put in charge of the security forces’ crisis team when the uprising began in 2011, opposition activists said.
Hisham Ikhtiar, director of the National Security Bureau, and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, were among those hurt in the attack, state TV said.
Witnesses at the site of the bombing, in Rawda district, said journalists were banned from approaching.
The defence minister has been replaced by Gen Fahd Jassim al-Furayj, chief of staff of the armed forces, state TV reports.An armed forces’ statement read out on TV said Syria was “more determined than ever” to fight terrorism and wipe out “criminal gangs”.
Whoever thinks that killing top commanders “can twist Syria’s arm… is delusional”, it said.
But the BBC’s Jim Muir, in neighbouring Lebanon, says the rebels now clearly believe victory is within sight, and the deaths will give them even greater heart.
Earlier, activists reported more clashes during the night in several areas around the south-west of Damascus.
They said the government had brought more troops and armour into some districts, and that several people had been killed in clashes and bombardments.
A rebel spokeswoman, Susan Ahmad, told the BBC the entrances to Damascus were closed on Wednesday morning.
“Now tanks are storming into al-Qaboun [district], shelling everything, shelling residential houses, shooting every moving thing and they are trying to arrest people and kill.
Activists have also posted on the internet pictures of what they say is a barracks on the heights overlooking the city engulfed in flames.
They believed it had been hit by fire from FSA rebels, and said the barracks was involved in providing security for the presidential palace complex below.
State media said security forces fought off attacks by small groups of armed terrorists in the city.
Western journalists are under heavy restrictions in Syria, making it difficult to verify the claims of either side.
The UN Security Council had been due to vote on a new round of sanctions against Syria and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov tweeted that there was a “dangerous pattern” of militant attacks coinciding with Security Council meetings on Syria.
UN chiefs, who have until Friday to renew the mandate for observers in Syria, have been trying to persuade China and Russia to agree tougher measures on Damascus.
President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the crisis by telephone on Wednesday. But, according to Interfax news agency, although they agreed on a final goal they disagreed on how to reach it.
Opposition groups say as many as 16,000 people have died in Syria since protests against President Assad began in March last year.
Analysis – Jim Muir BBC News, Beirut
The Syrian crisis appears to have moved onto a new level.
In the space of two days, some of President Assad’s inner circle of power, including his brother-in-law, have been killed, an army barracks overlooking the presidential palace has been engulfed in flames, and clashes have been moving closer to the heart of the capital.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the end is imminent, as opposition circles and armed rebels on the ground clearly believe.
The battle for Damascus has barely begun. If it remains a purely military affair, the regime still has a daunting superiority in weaponry and manpower.
But with international diplomacy effectively paralysed, the pressure within the crisis seems to be building up, to an intensity where more surprises may be expected.
Latest developments in Syria as Russia says ‘decisive battle’ is under way and Leon Panetta warns country is ‘spiralling out of control’ …
Syria rebels kill top chiefs of Assad regime in Damascus bomb strike: 18 Jul 2012: Three key figures reported dead amid mass troop defections and rumour of flight to Russia of Bashar al-Assad wife …
Syria‘s uprising entered uncharted territory after rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad killed three of his top security chiefs in a devastating bomb attack in the heart of Damascus – the single worst loss for the government in 16 months of increasingly bloody struggle.
Mass defections of soldiers and a rampage by pro-regime militiamen were reported in the capital amid a swirl of rumours, including one that Assad’s wife, Asma, had fled to Russia and another that troops were being issued with gas masks, raising fears of the use of chemical weapons.
The president’s whereabouts was also unclear, with one unconfirmed report that he had been wounded and left Damascus for Latakia on the coast.
Reports from Damascus on Wednesday described loud explosions, gunfire in the streets, attack helicopters firing and clouds of smoke over residential areas.
Earlier, Syrian state TV confirmed the deaths of Assef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and the deputy head of the armed forces, and his closest security adviser, as well as Dawoud Rajha, the minister of defence and the regime’s most senior Christian figure. Hassan Turkmani, his crisis management chief, was also killed.
Other leading figures, including the interior minister, Mohammad Shaar, and the intelligence chief, Hisham Bekhtyar, were wounded and being treated in the capital’s al-Shami hospital. Uncertainty about the precise circumstances of the attack immediately gave rise to feverish speculation about possible internecine killings which the regime could blame on its enemies.
Explosions were also reported from the headquarters of the army’s 4th Division in Damascus – the regime’s elite unit commanded by Assad’s brother, Maher.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said a “decisive battle” had begun in Syria. Lavrov also made it clear that Moscow would oppose a draft UN security council resolution threatening punishment if Assad did not implement the UN-backed peace plan promoted by Kofi Annan.
The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, said Syria was now “rapidly spinning out of control”.
In Syria, the Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network, said 102 people had been killed in fighting across the country.
The morning attack on the headquarters of Syria’s national security council in the al-Rawda area was the most audacious yet by anti-Assad rebels, who have been fighting sporadically in parts of the capital for the past four days. Syrian television said it was a suicide attack, and it was rumoured that the suspected killer may have been a bodyguard for Rajha or another member of Assad’s inner circle. One pro-regime source in Damascus told the Guardian it was possible a bomb could have been planted on the premises.
The attack certainly appeared to be a deadly blow to the heart of the regime after two recent high-level defections – by a senior Republican Guard commander and Syria’s ambassador to Iraq.
Syrian state television said foreign-backed “terrorists” had carried out the attack. The country’s armed forces said in a statement that Syria was “determined to confront all forms of terrorism and chop off any hand that harms national security”.
“The opposition has hit the jackpot,” said Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House in London. “The consequences are too big to digest. It may provoke more violence by the regime. Everyone is revising their calculations.
“People will be deciding whether to defect or not and the Russians will be wondering if they have backed the wrong horse,” he said.
The attack was claimed by the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group. “God willing, this is the beginning of the end of the regime,” its commander, Riad al-Asaad, told AP in a telephone interview from Turkey. “Hopefully, Bashar will be next.” An Islamist group called Liwa al-Islam also claimed responsibility.
Syrian state television, which was uncharacteristically quick to report the news, also said the military wouldcall up its reserve forces on Thursday morning. Replacements for the three dead men were quickly announced.
General Fahd Jassem al-Freij, Rajha’s replacement, denied reports on Arab satellite television channels about military defections in Idlib and Damascus and explosions at 4th Division HQ.
Rumours spread wildly in the hours after the incident, though much information was impossible to verify. According to one pro-government source, FSA rebels began moving around in pick-up trucks to demonstrate that they controlled parts of the city. Ba’ath party members had been executed by FSA men, the source said.
Damascus residents contacted by the Guardian said there had been no audible blast or visible damage at the site. Other Syrian sources suggested – without offering any evidence – that the three security chiefs might have been killed by the regime to forestall a possible coup or remove potential replacements for Assad.
“Either the generals were preparing a coup or if not there must be an intelligence operation here,” said one Syrian analyst.
There were also widespread reports of defections in central Damascus as well as in the cities of Homs and Hama. Activists reported that several tanks had been abandoned near the centre of the capital and that several combat units had defected en masse. These reports could not be confirmed.
One activist, Omar al-Dimashki, said large numbers of troops and plainclothes police were deployed in the streets after the bombing, with snipers taking up positions on high buildings.
Shawkat, married to Assad’s sister Bushra, was one of the most feared figures in the president’s inner circle and had won the support of the clan’s influential matriarch, Anisa. He was one of three central figures in the regime crackdown, along with Assad himself and his brother, Maher. As Syria’s overall security chief, he had key input into all military and intelligence operations. He is known to have survived an attempt to poison him in late May when a cook contaminated food that had been prepared for him and key members of the national security ministry.
Abu Hamza, of the Free Syrian Army, told the Guardian at the time that rebel forces were trying to recruit aides of regime figures to carry out future attacks. “We have had some success with this,” he said. “Some have been with us for a long time and have not yet been given orders to move.”
Shawkat had also been a key point-man with Iran and with Hezbollah. Since the uprising started he had chaired key strategy meetings and had driven the regime’s uncompromising and aggressive military response to the escalating dissent.
Rajha, a former general and an Orthodox Christian, was appointed defence minister last year in an apparent attempt by the Alawite-dominated regime to appoint a minority figure to a key job.
Prospects for any kind of negotiations between the government and rebels, always slim, have now all but disappeared.
Pro-regime Syrians appeared deeply shocked. “A lot of pro-Assad people are really panicking,” said an opposition activist. “Now they sound really nervous.”
Assad supporters admitted the attack was a serious blow. “This will not be the end of the regime in any way,” said a member of Assad’s Alawite community. “But it is serious and people are traumatised at the fact that the opposition managed to assassinate these people. But government supporters want the government to be firm and show it is still in control. The Syrian government is not usually impulsive.”
This is an interesting article: Guardian: The Syrian opposition: who’s doing the talking?
The media have been too passive when it comes to Syrian opposition sources, without scrutinising their backgrounds and their political connections. Time for a closer look …
A nightmare is unfolding across Syria, in the homes of al-Heffa and the streets of Houla. And we all know how the story ends: with thousands of soldiers and civilians killed, towns and families destroyed, and President Assad beaten to death in a ditch.
This is the story of the Syrian war, but there is another story to be told. A tale less bloody, but nevertheless important. This is a story about the storytellers: the spokespeople, the “experts on Syria”, the “democracy activists”. The statement makers. The people who “urge” and “warn” and “call for action”.
It’s a tale about some of the most quoted members of the Syrian opposition and their connection to the Anglo-American opposition creation business. The mainstream news media have, in the main, been remarkably passive when it comes to Syrian sources: billing them simply as “official spokesmen” or “pro-democracy campaigners” without, for the most part, scrutinising their statements, their backgrounds or their political connections.
It’s important to stress: to investigate the background of a Syrian spokesperson is not to doubt the sincerity of his or her opposition to Assad. But a passionate hatred of the Assad regime is no guarantee of independence. Indeed, a number of key figures in the Syrian opposition movement are long-term exiles who were receiving US government funding to undermine the Assad government long before the Arab spring broke out.
Though it is not yet stated US government policy to oust Assad by force, these spokespeople are vocal advocates of foreign military intervention in Syria and thus natural allies of well-known US neoconservatives who supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq and are now pressuring the Obama administration to intervene. As we will see, several of these spokespeople have found support, and in some cases developed long and lucrative relationships with advocates of military intervention on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The sand is running out of the hour glass,” said Hillary Clinton on Sunday. So, as the fighting in Syria intensifies, and Russian warships set sail for Tartus, it’s high time to take a closer look at those who are speaking out on behalf of the Syrian people.
The Syrian National Council
The most quoted of the opposition spokespeople are the official representatives of the Syrian National Council. The SNC is not the only Syrian opposition group – but it is generally recognised as “the main opposition coalition” (BBC). The Washington Times describes it as “an umbrella group of rival factions based outside Syria”. Certainly the SNC is the opposition group that’s had the closest dealings with western powers – and has called for foreign intervention from the early stages of the uprising. In February of this year, at the opening of the Friends of Syria summit in Tunisia, William Hague declared: “I will meet leaders of the Syrian National Council in a few minutes’ time … We, in common with other nations, will now treat them and recognise them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”
The most senior of the SNC’s official spokespeople is the Paris-based Syrian academic Bassma Kodmani.
Bassma Kodmani of the Syrian National Council. Photograph: Carter Osmar
Here is Bassma Kodmani, seen leaving this year’s Bilderberg conferencein Chantilly, Virginia.
Kodmani is a member of the executive bureau and head of foreign affairs, Syrian National Council. Kodmani is close to the centre of the SNC power structure, and one of the council’s most vocal spokespeople. “No dialogue with the ruling regime is possible. We can only discuss how to move on to a different political system,” she declared this week. And here she is, quoted by the newswire AFP: “The next step needs to be a resolution under Chapter VII, which allows for the use of all legitimate means, coercive means, embargo on arms, as well as the use of force to oblige the regime to comply.”
This statement translates into the headline “Syrians call for armed peacekeepers” (Australia’s Herald Sun). When large-scale international military action is being called for, it seems only reasonable to ask: who exactly is calling for it? We can say, simply, “an official SNC spokesperson,” or we can look a little closer.
This year was Kodmani’s second Bilderberg. At the 2008 conference, Kodmani was listed as French; by 2012, her Frenchness had fallen away and she was listed simply as “international” – her homeland had become the world of international relations.
Back a few years, in 2005, Kodmani was working for the Ford Foundationin Cairo, where she was director of their governance and international co-operation programme. The Ford Foundation is a vast organisation, headquartered in New York, and Kodmani was already fairly senior. But she was about to jump up a league.
Around this time, in February 2005, US-Syrian relations collapsed, and President Bush recalled his ambassador from Damascus. A lot of opposition projects date from this period. “The US money for Syrian opposition figures began flowing under President George W Bush after he effectively froze political ties with Damascus in 2005,” says the Washington Post.
The CFR is an elite US foreign policy thinktank, and the Arab Reform Initiative is described on its website as a “CFR Project” . More specifically, the ARI was initiated by a group within the CFR called the “US/Middle East Project” – a body of senior diplomats, intelligence officers and financiers, the stated aim of which is to undertake regional “policy analysis” in order “to prevent conflict and promote stability”. The US/Middle East Project pursues these goals under the guidance of an international board chaired by General (Ret.) Brent Scowcroft.
Peter Sutherland pictured at the Bilderberg conference. Photograph: Hannah Borno
Brent Scowcroft (chairman emeritus) is a former national security adviser to the US president – he took over the role from Henry Kissinger. Sitting alongside Scowcroft of the international board is his fellow geo-strategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who succeeded him as the national security adviser, and Peter Sutherland, the chairman of Goldman Sachs International. So, as early as 2005, we’ve got a senior wing of the western intelligence/banking establishment selecting Kodmani to run a Middle East research project. In September of that year, Kodmani was made full-time director of the programme. Earlier in 2005, the CFR assigned“financial oversight” of the project to the Centre for European Reform (CER). In come the British.
The CER is overseen by Lord Kerr, the deputy chairman of Royal Dutch Shell. Kerr is a former head of the diplomatic service and is a senior adviser at Chatham House (a thinktank showcasing the best brains of the British diplomatic establishment).
In charge of the CER on a day-to-day basis is Charles Grant, former defence editor of the Economist, and these days a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a “pan-European thinktank” packed with diplomats, industrialists, professors and prime ministers. On its list of members you’ll find the name: “Bassma Kodmani (France/Syria) – Executive Director, Arab Reform Initiative”.
Another name on the list: George Soros – the financier whose non-profit “Open Society Foundations” is a primary funding source of the ECFR. At this level, the worlds of banking, diplomacy, industry, intelligence and the various policy institutes and foundations all mesh together, and there, in the middle of it all, is Kodmani.
The point is, Kodmani is not some random “pro-democracy activist” who happens to have found herself in front of a microphone. She has impeccable international diplomacy credentials: she holds the position ofresearch director at the Académie Diplomatique Internationale – “an independent and neutral institution dedicated to promoting modern diplomacy”. The Académie is headed by Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former head of the DGSE – the French foreign intelligence service.
A picture is emerging of Kodmani as a trusted lieutenant of the Anglo-American democracy-promotion industry. Her “province of origin” (according to the SNC website) is Damascus, but she has close and long-standing professional relationships with precisely those powers she’s calling upon to intervene in Syria.
And many of her spokesmen colleagues are equally well-connected.
Another often quoted SNC representative is Radwan Ziadeh – director of foreign relations at the Syrian National Council. Ziadeh has an impressive CV: he’s a senior fellow at the federally funded Washington thinktank, the US Institute of Peace (the USIP Board of Directors is packed with alumni of the defence department and the national security council; its president is Richard Solomon, former adviser to Kissinger at the NSC).
In February this year, Ziadeh joined an elite bunch of Washington hawks to sign a letter calling upon Obama to intervene in Syria: his fellow signatories include James Woolsey (former CIA chief), Karl Rove (Bush Jr’s handler), Clifford May (Committee on the Present Danger) and Elizabeth Cheney, former head of the Pentagon’s Iran-Syria Operations Group.
Ziadeh is a relentless organiser, a blue-chip Washington insider with links to some of the most powerful establishment thinktanks. Ziadeh’s connections extend all the way to London. In 2009 he became a visiting fellow at Chatham House, and in June of last year he featured on the panel at one of their events – “Envisioning Syria’s Political Future” – sharing a platform with fellow SNC spokesman Ausama Monajed (more on Monajed below) and SNC member Najib Ghadbian.
Ghadbian was identified by the Wall Street Journal as an early intermediary between the US government and the Syrian opposition in exile: “An initial contact between the White House and NSF [National Salvation Front] was forged by Najib Ghadbian, a University of Arkansas political scientist.” This was back in 2005. The watershed year.
These days, Ghadbian is a member of the general secretariat of the SNC, and is on the advisory board of a Washington-based policy body called the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS) – an organisation co-founded by Ziadeh.
Ziadeh has been making connections like this for years. Back in 2008, Ziadeh took part in a meeting of opposition figures in a Washington government building: a mini-conference called “Syria In-Transition”. The meeting was co-sponsored by a US-based body called the Democracy Council and a UK-based organisation called the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD). It was a big day for the MJD – their chairman, Anas Al-Abdah, had travelled to Washington from Britain for the event, along with their director of public relations. Here, from the MJD’s website, is a description of the day: “The conference saw an exceptional turn out as the allocated hall was packed with guests from the House of Representatives and the Senate, representatives of studies centres, journalists and Syrian expatriats [sic] in the USA.”
The day opened with a keynote speech by James Prince, head of the Democracy Council. Ziadeh was on a panel chaired by Joshua Muravchik (the ultra-interventionist author of the 2006 op-ed “Bomb Iran”). The topic of the discussion was “The Emergence of Organized Opposition”. Sitting beside Ziadeh on the panel was the public relations director of the MJD – a man who would later become his fellow SNC spokesperson – Ausama Monajed.
Along with Kodmani and Ziadeh, Ausama (or sometimes Osama) Monajed is one of the most important SNC spokespeople. There are others, of course – the SNC is a big beast and includes the Muslim Brotherhood. The opposition to Assad is wide-ranging, but these are some of the key voices. There are other official spokespeople with long political careers, like George Sabra of the Syrian Democratic People’s party – Sabra has suffered arrest and lengthy imprisonment in his fight against the “repressive and totalitarian regime in Syria”. And there are other opposition voices outside the SNC, such as the writer Michel Kilo, who speaks eloquently of the violence tearing apart his country: “Syria is being destroyed – street after street, city after city, village after village. What kind of solution is that? In order for a small group of people to remain in power, the whole country is being destroyed.”
Ausuma Monajed. Photograph: BBC
But there’s no doubt that the primary opposition body is the SNC, and Kodmani, Ziadeh and Monajed are often to be found representing it. Monajed frequently crops up as a commentator on TV news channels.Here he is on the BBC, speaking from their Washington bureau. Monajed doesn’t sugar-coat his message: “We are watching civilians being slaughtered and kids being slaughtered and killed and women being raped on the TV screens every day.”
Meanwhile, over on Al Jazeera, Monajed talks about “what’s really happening, in reality, on the ground” – about “the militiamen of Assad” who “come and rape their women, slaughter their children, and kill their elderly”.
Monajed turned up, just a few days ago, as a blogger on Huffington Post UK, where he explained, at length: “Why the World Must Intervene in Syria” – calling for “direct military assistance” and “foreign military aid”. So, again, a fair question might be: who is this spokesman calling for military intervention?
Monajed is a member of the SNC, adviser to its president, and according to his SNC biography, “the Founder and Director of Barada Television”, a pro-opposition satellite channel based in Vauxhall, south London. In 2008, a few months after attending Syria In-Transition conference, Monajed was back in Washington, invited to lunch with George W Bush, along with a handful of other favoured dissidents (you can see Monajed in the souvenir photo, third from the right, in the red tie, near Condoleezza Rice – up the other end from Garry Kasparov).
At this time, in 2008, the US state department knew Monajed as ”director of public relations for the Movement for Justice and Development (MJD), which leads the struggle for peaceful and democratic change in Syria”.
Let’s look closer at the MJD. Last year, the Washington Post picked up a story from WikiLeaks, which had published a mass of leaked diplomatic cables. These cables appear to show a remarkable flow of money from the US state department to the British-based Movement for Justice and Development. According to the Washington Post’s report: “Barada TV is closely affiliated with the Movement for Justice and Development, a London-based network of Syrian exiles. Classified US diplomatic cables show that the state department has funnelled as much as $6m to the group since 2006 to operate the satellite channel and finance other activities inside Syria.”
A state department spokesman responded to this story by saying: “Trying to promote a transformation to a more democratic process in this society is not undermining necessarily the existing government.” And they’re right, it’s not “necessarily” that.
When asked about the state department money, Monajed himself said that he “could not confirm” US state department funding for Barada TV, but said: “I didn’t receive a penny myself.” Malik al -Abdeh, until very recently Barada TV’s editor-in-chief insisted: “we have had no direct dealings with the US state department”. The meaning of the sentence turns on that word “direct”. It is worth noting that Malik al Abdeh also happens to be one of the founders of the Movement for Justice and Development (the recipient of the state department $6m, according to the leaked cable). And he’s the brother of the chairman, Anas Al-Abdah. He’s also the co-holder of the MJD trademark: What Malik al Abdeh does admit is that Barada TV gets a large chunk of its funding from an American non-profit organisation: the Democracy Council. One of the co-sponsors (with the MJD) of Syria In-Transition mini-conference. So what we see, in 2008, at the same meeting, are the leaders of precisely those organisations identified in the Wiki:eaks cables as the conduit (the Democracy Council) and recipient (the MJD) of large amounts of state department money.
The Democracy Council (a US-based grant distributor) lists the state department as one of its sources of funding. How it works is this: the Democracy Council serves as a grant-administering intermediary between the state department’s “Middle East Partnership Initiative” and “local partners” (such as Barada TV). As the Washington Post reports:
“Several US diplomatic cables from the embassy in Damascus reveal that the Syrian exiles received money from a State Department program called the Middle East Partnership Initiative. According to the cables, the State Department funnelled money to the exile group via the Democracy Council, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit.”
The same report highlights a 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Syria that says that the Democracy Council received $6.3m from the state department to run a Syria-related programme, the “Civil Society Strengthening Initiative”. The cable describes this as “a discrete collaborative effort between the Democracy Council and local partners” aimed at producing, amongst other things, “various broadcast concepts.” According to the Washington Post: “Other cables make clear that one of those concepts was Barada TV.”
Until a few months ago, the state department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative was overseen by Tamara Cofman Wittes (she’s now at theBrookings Institution – an influential Washington thinktank). Of MEPI, she said that it “created a positive ‘brand’ for US democracy promotion efforts”. While working there she declared: “There are a lot of organizations in Syria and other countries that are seeking changes from their government … That’s an agenda that we believe in and we’re going to support.” And by support, she means bankroll.
This is nothing new. Go back a while to early 2006, and you have the state department announcing a new “funding opportunity” called the “Syria Democracy Program“. On offer, grants worth “$5m in Federal Fiscal Year 2006″. The aim of the grants? “To accelerate the work of reformers in Syria.”
These days, the cash is flowing in faster than ever. At the beginning of June 2012, the Syrian Business Forum was launched in Doha by opposition leaders including Wael Merza (SNC secretary general). “This fund has been established to support all components of the revolution in Syria,” said Merza. The size of the fund? Some $300m. It’s by no means clear where the money has come from, although Merza “hinted at strong financial support from Gulf Arab states for the new fund” (Al Jazeera). At the launch, Merza said that about $150m had already been spent, in part on the Free Syrian Army.
Merza’s group of Syrian businessmen made an appearance at a World Economic Forum conference titled the “Platform for International Co-operation” held in Istanbul in November 2011. All part of the process whereby the SNC has grown in reputation, to become, in the words of William Hague, “a legitimate representative of the Syrian people” – and able, openly, to handle this much funding.
Building legitimacy – of opposition, of representation, of intervention – is the essential propaganda battle.
In a USA Today op-ed written in February this year, Ambassador Dennis Ross declared: “It is time to raise the status of the Syrian National Council”. What he wanted, urgently, is “to create an aura of inevitability about the SNC as the alternative to Assad.” The aura of inevitability. Winning the battle in advance.
A key combatant in this battle for hearts and minds is the American journalist and Daily Telegraph blogger, Michael Weiss.
One of the most widely quoted western experts on Syria – and an enthusiast for western intervention – Michael Weiss echoes Ambassador Ross when he says: “Military intervention in Syria isn’t so much a matter of preference as an inevitability.”
Some of Weiss’s interventionist writings can be found on a Beirut-based, Washington-friendly website called “NOW Lebanon” – whose “NOW Syria” section is an important source of Syrian updates. NOW Lebanon was set up in 2007 by Saatchi & Saatchi executive Eli Khoury. Khoury has been described by the advertising industry as a “strategic communications specialist, specialising in corporate and government image and brand development”.
Weiss told NOW Lebanon, back in May, that thanks to the influx of weapons to Syrian rebels “we’ve already begun to see some results.” He showed a similar approval of military developments a few months earlier, in a piece for the New Republic: “In the past several weeks, the Free Syrian Army and other independent rebel brigades have made great strides” – whereupon, as any blogger might, he laid out his “Blueprint for a Military Intervention in Syria”.
But Weiss is not only a blogger. He’s also the director of communications and public relations at the Henry Jackson Society, an ultra-ultra-hawkish foreign policy thinktank.
The Henry Jackson Society’s international patrons include: James “ex-CIA boss” Woolsey, Michael “homeland security” Chertoff, William “PNAC” Kristol, Robert “PNAC” Kagan’, Joshua “Bomb Iran” Muravchick, and Richard “Prince of Darkness” Perle. The Society is run by Alan Mendoza, chief adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on transatlantic and international security.
The Henry Jackson Society is uncompromising in its “forward strategy” towards democracy. And Weiss is in charge of the message. The Henry Jackson Society is proud of its PR chief’s far-reaching influence: “He is the author of the influential report “Intervention in Syria? An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards”, which was repurposed and endorsed by the Syrian National Council.”
Weiss’s original report was re-named “Safe Area for Syria” – and ended up on the official syriancouncil.org website, as part of their military bureau’s strategic literature. The repurposing of the HJS report was undertaken by the founder and executive director of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC) – one Ausama Monajed.
So, the founder of Barada TV, Ausama Monajed, edited Weiss’s report, published it through his own organisation (the SRCC) and passed it on to the Syrian National Council, with the support of the Henry Jackson Society.
The relationship couldn’t be closer. Monajed even ends up handling inquiries for “press interviews with Michael Weiss“. Weiss is not the only strategist to have sketched out the roadmap to this war (many thinktanks have thought it out, many hawks have talked it up), but some of the sharpest detailing is his.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
The justification for the “inevitable” military intervention is the savagery of President Assad’s regime: the atrocities, the shelling, the human rights abuses. Information is crucial here, and one source above all has been providing us with data about Syria. It is quoted at every turn: “The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told VOA [Voice of America]that fighting and shelling killed at least 12 people in Homs province.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is commonly used as a standalone source for news and statistics. Just this week, news agency AFP carried this story: “Syrian forces pounded Aleppo and Deir Ezzor provinces as at least 35 people were killed on Sunday across the country, among them 17 civilians, a watchdog reported.” Various atrocities and casualty numbers are listed, all from a single source: “Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.”
Statistic after horrific statistic pours from “the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” (AP). It’s hard to find a news report about Syria that doesn’t cite them. But who are they? “They” are Rami Abdulrahman (or Rami Abdel Rahman), who lives in Coventry.
According to a Reuters report in December of last year: “When he isn’t fielding calls from international media, Abdulrahman is a few minutes down the road at his clothes shop, which he runs with his wife.”
When the Guardian’s Middle East live blog cited “Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” it also linked to a sceptical article in the Modern Tokyo Times – an article which suggested news outlets could be a bit “more objective about their sources” when quoting “this so-called entity”, the SOHR.
That name, the “Syrian Observatory of Human Rights”, sound so grand, so unimpeachable, so objective. And yet when Abdulrahman and his “Britain-based NGO” (AFP/NOW Lebanon) are the sole source for so many news stories about such an important subject, it would seem reasonable to submit this body to a little more scrutiny than it’s had to date.
The Observatory is by no means the only Syrian news source to be quoted freely with little or no scrutiny …
The relationship between Ausama Monajed, the SNC, the Henry Jackson hawks and an unquestioning media can be seen in the case of Hamza Fakher. On 1 January, Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer: “To grasp the scale of the barbarism, listen to Hamza Fakher, a pro-democracy activist, who is one of the most reliable sources on the crimes the regime’s news blackout hides.”
He goes on to recount Fakher’s horrific tales of torture and mass murder. Fakher tells Cohen of a new hot-plate torture technique that he’s heard about: “imagine all the melting flesh reaching the bone before the detainee falls on the plate”. The following day, Shamik Das, writing on “evidence-based” progressive blog Left Foot Forward, quotes the same source: “Hamza Fakher, a pro-democracy activist, describes the sickening reality …” – and the account of atrocities given to Cohen is repeated.
So, who exactly is this “pro-democracy activist”, Hamza Fakher?
Fakher, it turns out, is the co-author of Revolution in Danger , a “Henry Jackson Society Strategic Briefing”, published in February of this year. He co-wrote this briefing paper with the Henry Jackson Society’s communications director, Michael Weiss. And when he’s not co-writing Henry Jackson Society strategic briefings, Fakher is the communication manager of the London-based Strategic Research and Communication Centre (SRCC). According to their website, “He joined the centre in 2011 and has been in charge of the centre’s communication strategy and products.”
As you may recall, the SRCC is run by one Ausama Monajed: “Mr Monajed founded the centre in 2010. He is widely quoted and interviewed in international press and media outlets. He previously worked as communication consultant in Europe and the US and formerly served as the director of Barada Television …”.
Monajed is Fakher’s boss.
If this wasn’t enough, for a final Washington twist, on the board of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre sits Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defence University in DC – “the premier center for Joint Professional Military Education (JPME)” which is “under the direction of the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
If you happen to be planning a trip to Monajed’s “Strategic Research and Communication Centre”, you’ll find it here: Strategic Research & Communication Centre, Office 36, 88-90 Hatton Garden, Holborn, London EC1N 8PN.
Office 36 at 88-90 Hatton Garden is also where you’ll find the London headquarters of The Fake Tan Company, Supercar 4 U Limited, Moola loans (a “trusted loans company”), Ultimate Screeding (for all your screeding needs), and The London School of Attraction – “a London-based training company which helps men develop the skills and confidence to meet and attract women.” And about a hundred other businesses besides. It’s a virtual office. There’s something oddly appropriate about this. A “communication centre” that doesn’t even have a centre – a grand name but no physical substance.
That’s the reality of Hamza Fakher. On 27 May, Shamik Das of Left Foot Forward quotes again from Fakher’s account of atrocities, which he now describes as an “eyewitness account” (which Cohen never said it was) and which by now has hardened into “the record of the Assad regime”.
So, a report of atrocities given by a Henry Jackson Society strategist, who is the communications manager of Mosafed’s PR department, has acquired the gravitas of a historical “record”.
This is not to suggest that the account of atrocities must be untrue, but how many of those who give it currency are scrutinising its origins?
And let’s not forget, whatever destabilisation has been done in the realm of news and public opinion is being carried out twofold on the ground. We already know that (at the very least) “the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department … are helping the opposition Free Syrian Army develop logistical routes for moving supplies into Syria and providing communications training.”
The bombs doors are open. The plans have been drawn up.
This has been brewing for a time. The sheer energy and meticulous planning that’s gone into this change of regime – it’s breathtaking. The soft power and political reach of the big foundations and policy bodies is vast, but scrutiny is no respecter of fancy titles and fellowships and “strategy briefings”. Executive director of what, it asks. Having “democracy” or “human rights” in your job title doesn’t give you a free pass.
And if you’re a “communications director” it means your words should be weighed extra carefully. Weiss and Fakher, both communications directors – PR professionals. At the Chatham House event in June 2011, Monajed is listed as: “Ausama Monajed, director of communications, National Initiative for Change” and he was head of PR for the MJD. The creator of the news website NOW Lebanon, Eli Khoury, is a Saatchi advertising executive. These communications directors are working hard to create what Tamara Wittes called a “positive brand”.
They’re selling the idea of military intervention and regime change, and the mainstream news is hungry to buy. Many of the “activists” and spokespeople representing the Syrian opposition are closely (and in many cases financially) interlinked with the US and London – the very people who would be doing the intervening. Which means information and statistics from these sources isn’t necessarily pure news – it’s a sales pitch, a PR campaign.
But it’s never too late to ask questions, to scrutinise sources. Asking questions doesn’t make you a cheerleader for Assad – that’s a false argument. It just makes you less susceptible to spin. The good news is, there’s a sceptic born every minute.