Saturday 8 December 2012

Kurds protesting in the rain, today.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: Preliminary death toll for Saturday 8/12/12. Approximately 90 Syrians were killed so far today. The dead: 52 civilians (they include 7 children, 4 of them were killed by the bombardment on the Helk neighbourhood of Aleppo), 26 rebel fighters (20 in Reef Dimashq), 12 regular soldiers.

NOW! Lebanon
[local time] 21:46 At least 78 people were killed on Saturday in Syria, activists reported.
 19:53 Regime forces and rebels are clashing near the Mazzeh military airport in Damascus, activists reported.
 19:53 Syrian regime forces are shelling Edleb and Kafr Nabel, Al-Jazeera reported.
 17:05 A huge explosion rocked the Reqqa district city of Al-Tabaqa, activists said.
 16:19 Syria warned the United Nations on Saturday that rebels may use chemical weapons after they gained control of a factory producing toxic chlorine east of Aleppo city.
 15:25 Syrian troops battled rebels near Damascus on Saturday leaving four fighters dead as the army bombarded opposition strongholds in the south of the capital and on its northeastern outskirts, a watchdog said.
 15:24 Most of them avoid reporters like the plague but in “liberated” northwestern Syria, it is difficult not to run into foreign jihadist fighters, both on the front lines and at rebel bases.

Patchwork of foreign fighters in rebel-held Syria
Most of them avoid reporters like the plague but in “liberated” northwestern Syria, it is difficult not to run into foreign jihadist fighters, both on the front lines and at rebel bases.

“Secrecy shrouding the activities of foreign militants makes it extremely difficult to assess with any accuracy their extent, location and potential ramifications,” the International Crisis Group said in a report.

But while President Bashar al-Assad’s domestic foes have tried for months to downplay the impact of outsiders, now “foreign militants have had more direct involvement, fighting alongside Syrian insurgents,” the Brussels-based group added.

The small town of Atme on the border with Turkey serves as a hub for foreign volunteers in the 21-month insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

They cross from the Turkish city of Antakya, travelling there from far and wide to join the “holy war.”

AFP correspondents have spotted them walking in the alleyways of Antakya’s old bazaar or in cheap hotels near the bus station.

In September, three well-built men were seen in the city wearing North African djellabas (robes) over trousers cut above the ankles in line with the tradition of early Muslims, the mark of hardline Salafists.

The trio stood out with their beards and attire as foreign volunteers rather than locals, while the brand-new trekking boots and backpacks suggested they were probably European converts to Islam.

These days candidates for jihad are more discreet.

They make their way to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli before smugglers guide them across the border to Atme, a key node in the embattled country’s revolt and rallying point for foreign fighters.

An AFP correspondent made the journey into Syria through olive groves and holes in the barbed wire alongside one such fighter. A quiet Egyptian, he said he had made the journey to “help my Muslim brothers.”

Another fighter, 26-year-old Anas from Algeria, was already a war veteran.

He fought in his homeland’s Kabylie region, east of Algiers, as well as in Kashmir. Now, he was on his way to join a rebel Free Syrian Army unit manned by the jihadist Al-Nusra Front near the town of Harem.

Despite the dangers ahead, Anas was happy that he could at least speak French with the AFP correspondent.

For Abdel Taha, who said he hails from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, language has been a problem, as he takes part in the rebel siege of the Sheikh Suleiman army base near the northern city of Aleppo.

A speaker of neither Arabic nor English, he resorts to phrases which cause mirth among his comrades, including “kill the Christians and the unbelievers.” To the AFP correspondent, he asked in a semi-serious voice: “Are you a Muslim?”

In the heavily bombed town of Maaret al-Numan, a Libyan with African features welcomed the AFP journalist at the front line. “Do you speak Italian?” he asked in the European language he knows best, before rushing back into the fray.

In the Jebel Akrad mountains, four Saudi men run the online websites of Islamist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front. They live in an abandoned apartment in the town of Salma, with a rocket-propelled grenade sitting in the living room near a copy of the Koran.

Asked what they are doing in Syria, they replied: “Tourism.”

Back in Atme, black-clad men speaking English, some of them Europeans, others east Africans, can be seen from a kebab shop on the main road. But they are not approachable as they emerge from a nearby Al-Nusra Front house.

At the end of November, more than 100 of them gathered in front of a mosque, under a sea of black Islamic flags after a Palestinian imam had preached to local residents of the benefits of their presence in the town. -AFP

 15:21 British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Saturday said that there is evidence that the Syrian government could use its chemical weapons stocks in its conflict with rebels fighting to oust it.

 Syria’s new opposition coalition will announce the creation of a military council before a Friends of Syria meeting next week, to unify the ranks of insurgents, a top official told AFP on Saturday.
 12:14 More than 63,000 Syrian refugees have fled the bloody conflict in their home country for neighboring Iraq, according to figures released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Saturday.
 11:58 A huge explosion rocked the Damascus neighborhood of Barze but there were no reports of any injuries or deaths, activists said.

Reuters: Syrian rebels elect head of new military command

AMMAN – Syrian rebel groups have chosen Brigadier Selim Idris, a former officer in President Bashar al-Assad’s army, to head their new Islamist-dominated military command, opposition sources said on Saturday.

Idris, whose home province of Homs has been at the forefront of the Sunni Muslim-led uprising, was elected by 30 military and civilian members of the joint military command after talks attended by Western and Arab security officials in the Turkish city of Antalia.

“Saleh is not ideological, but he has been appointed top aides who are close to Salafist rebels,” one of the sources who has been following the meeting said.

The joint command named Islamist commanders Abdelbasset Tawil from the northern province of Idlib and Abdelqader Saleh from the adjacent province of Aleppo to serve as Idris’s deputies, the source said.

The unified command includes many with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Salafists, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Islam. It excludes the most senior officers who had defected from Assad’s military.

Its composition, estimated to be two-thirds from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, reflects the growing strength of Islamist fighters on the ground and resembles that of the civilian opposition leadership coalition created under Western and Arab auspices in Qatar last month.

Absent from the group is Colonel Riad al-Asaad, founder of the Syrian Free Army and Brigadier Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior officer known for his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Asaad and Sheikh were not part of the 263-man meeting in Antalia. Also excluded was general Hussein Haj Ali, the highest ranking officer to defect from the military since the uprising erupted in March last year.

Security officials from the United States, Britain, France, the Gulf and Jordan have been attending the talks, which come days before a conference of the Friends of Syria, a grouping of dozens of countries that have mostly pledged non-military aid to rebels fighting to oust Assad.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; editing by Jason Webb)

BBC:  video –

Activists in Syria say government forces have reinforced their positions in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

There have been clashes around the city in recent days. The opposition says it is increasingly fearing a ground attack on rebel-held areas.

The BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen is in Damascus where fighting has intensified in the last week.

Guardian: William Hague confirms ‘evidence’ of Syrian chemical weapons

8 Dec 2012: Foreign secretary says he has seen some proof that Assad’s forces are preparing to launch chemical attack against rebels

William Hague has said he has seen “some evidence” that Bashar al-Assad‘s regime is preparing to use chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.

The foreign secretary would not give specific details of the intelligence, also seen by the US, but said it was enough to renew warnings to Assad that his regime would face action if they were deployed.

American satellites and other tools have reportedly detected increased activity at several chemical weapons depots in Syria. At least one military base is also said to have been ordered to begin combining components of Sarin nerve gas to make it ready to use.

The Syrian regime has denied any plans to use chemical weapons against it own people.

Speaking to the BBC at a security conference in the Gulf on Saturday morning, Hague was asked whether he had seen proof that Syria was preparing such weapons.

“We have seen some evidence of that,” he said. “We and the US, as I said in parliament this week, have seen some evidence of that and that is why we have issued strong warnings about it. We have done so directly to the Syrian regime.”

Pressed on what kind of evidence he had seen, Mr Hague replied: “We absolutely cannot be specific about that because clearly those are intelligence sources that these things come from.

“But we have seen enough evidence to know that they need a warning and they have received that warning.”

Amid speculation that the regime could be targeted with air strikes, Hague said the use of chemical weapons would be a “major change in situation”.

Hague’s words came amid claims from Russia, Syria’s principal ally in the UN security council, that a series of leaks from the Pentagon and US state department about Assad’s ability to deploy chemical weapons wasbeing used by Obama to underpin threats of military action against his regime.

The claims have been met with incredulity by the Kremlin, which has suggested they are being used as a pretext to increase pressure on Assad and prepare for the use of force.

The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have also stepped up warnings to Syria over its alleged stockpile of chemical weapons.

“I think there is no question that we remain very concerned,” said Panetta. “Very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons. The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns that this is being considered.

“The president of the United States has made very clear there will be consequences, there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people,” Panetta added.

Clinton said Assad would cross “a red line” if he used chemical weapons. She said Washington was concerned that “an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria”.

Yesterday: US uses rumours of chemical weapons to underpin threat of action in Syria

7 Dec 2012: Syria’s ally Russia casts doubt on flurry of leaks from Pentagon and state department that Assad is preparing sarin gas

A flurry of leaks from the Pentagon and US state department accusing Syria of preparing to use chemical weapons is being used by the Obama administration to underpin threats of military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The US claims have been met with incredulity by Syria’s principal ally, Russia, which has suggested they are being used as a pretext to increase pressure on Assad and to prepare for the use of force.

In recent days, NBC News has reported anonymous US officials as saying that Syria has loaded chemical weapons into bombs and that Assad is prepared to use them against his own people.

The New York Times quoted anonymous officials as saying the Syrian military has moved chemical weapons in preparation for their use. One official said: “The activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation.”

Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog reported that the Assad regime has “begun combining the two chemical precursors needed to weaponize sarin gas”.

CNN on Friday quoted a Pentagon official as saying the US had updated its military options for a potential strike against Syria. The official told CNN the US “has all the firepower it needs in the region” to attack Syria if Barack Obama orders it.

The leaks come as the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, step up warnings to Syria over alleged chemical weapons.

“I think there is no question that we remain very concerned, very concerned that as the opposition advances, in particular on Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons. The intelligence that we have causes serious concerns that this is being considered,” said Panetta. “The president of the United States has made very clear there will be consequences, there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people.”

Clinton said Assad would cross “a red line” if he used chemical weapons. She said Washington was concerned “an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria”.

It is not clear if the Pentagon and state department leaks are co-ordinated, but they have had the effect of sharply increasing the pressure on Syria and its allies, particularly Russia, which has resisted outside intervention in the crisis.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, this week accused Washington of inventing a non-existent chemical weapons threat as a pretext for military action – a charge that has echoes of US claims about Iraq before the 2003 invasion.

“As soon as we get these rumours [about chemical weapons] we engage in constructive démarche; when we get confirmation that nothing of that type is happening we share this information with our American colleagues,” Lavrov said.

The alleged chemical weapons threat has been used by Nato’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to justify deploying Patriot missiles in neighbouring Turkey.

NBC quoted US officials as saying the Syrian government had ordered its chemical weapons corps to “be prepared” which Washington interpreted as a directive to begin bringing together the components needed to turn Syria’s chemical stockpiles into weapons.

“The military has loaded the precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, into aerial bombs that could be dropped on to the Syrian people from dozens of fighter-bombers, the officials said,” according to NBC. The military is “awaiting final orders” from Assad to use chemical weapons, US officials told NBC.

CNN quoted a US official as saying they had received fresh intelligence last week “when satellite imagery showed the movement of trucks and vehicles at sites where chemicals and weapons were stored”. “We assume the aircraft are in close proximity to the munitions,” the official said.

Other leaks report that the US is training Syrian rebels to secure chemical weapons they may capture(£.UMIFkrvi_C9) and that the Pentagon has tens of thousands of troops in the region ready to be deployed in Syria if needed.

RT: Britain to press EU partners to amend Syria arms embargo

Britain seeks to blunt an EU arms embargo against Damascus in order to supply Syria’s opposition coalition with non-lethal equipment. Critics of the move, however, have expressed concern that the equipment could fall into other hands.

The UK Foreign Office says Britain will seek an amendment to the embargo next week in a bid to support opponents Syrian President Bashar Assad.

EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss the issue in Brussels on Monday. Last week. top EU diplomats agreed to decrease from one year to three months the renewal period for sanctions against Damascus. The moved was seen as a gesture of support for the Syrian rebels.

London said it seeks to ship non-lethal military gear and training to Syria to aid the rebel forces. Currently, body armor and night vision goggles fall under the arms embargo; the new amendment would permit the shipment of those and similar supplies.

UK Minister of State for Europe David Lidington said on Tuesday in a written statement to parliament that, “Having successfully amended the EU arms embargo (and sanctions package) by setting a three-month renewal period, we will make fresh arguments in support of amending the arms embargo ahead of the March 2013 deadline in a way that offers sufficient flexibility to increase practical support to the Syrian opposition.”

An estimated 40,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it began in February 2011.

What really bothers London is that the final recipients may not be the ones the UK has in mind.

Even the Syrian rebels themselves have been voicing concerns that a large number of foreign fighters battling the Assad regime are actually radical Islamists with links to Al Qaeda.

The West has publicly backed the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a new political opposition group unveiled in Qatar last month. In addition to unifying the Syrian opposition, the coalition was also formed to curb extremism in their ranks.

Throughout the conflict, the Syrian opposition has functioned as a loose network of groups, occasionally antagonistic to each other.

“The danger in Syria is there is no single leader of the opposition, there are at least 20,” political analyst and author Martin McCauley told RT.

“Therefore, if Bashar Assad leaves power, Syria then falls apart as those 20 may fight one another for power.”

On December 7, Syrian rebels held a meeting in Turkey – attended by representatives of the US, UK and French secret services – in which 30-member unified opposition coalition was created. The coalition is reportedly dominated by Islamists with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism, an extreme movement within Salafi Islam. Moderate Syrian opposition members, including renegade former officers of the Syrian Army, are largely unrepresented.

Free Syrian Army spokesperson Fahd al-Masri has denounced the new Syrian coalition as controlled by Islamists and foreign powers.

“In the end of the day it is going to be the Syrians who are going to decide, not Britain, France and the US,” McCauley said. “The trouble for Britain is they cannot identify the eventual winners – which militia should you support, what would be the interests of that militia when they take power.”

“Britain wants to play a role in Syria after the Assad regime falls because there is a lot of business to be done there so they would like to be involved,”McCauley told RT. “Britain wants to back the winning side. They would provide increasingly more offensive weapons.”


US starting to understand the reality of terrorist threat in Syria – Russian diplomat

By including the Jabhat al Nusra group in the list of foreign terrorist organizations it proves Washington understands the terrorist threat in Syria, claims the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister.

The main problem with the opposition in Syria is that it is often impossible to draw a line between them and terrorists as both groups refuse to start a political dialogue with the authorities, Gennadiy Gatilov said in a Twitter post.

The announcement was made after reports the U.S. State Department is due to list the al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat al Nusra in Arabic as a foreign terrorist organization. The announcement is likely to come within the next week, before the Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco scheduled for December 12.

According to various reports, Jabhat al Nusra is very similar to Al Qaeda or even is a branch of the organization. It was this group that claimed responsibility for the October terrorist attack in the city of Aleppo that killed at least 27 people.

Thousands of US troops arrive near Syrian shore on USS Eisenhower: The USS Eisenhower, an American aircraft carrier that holds eight fighter bomber squadrons and 8,000 men, arrived at the Syrian coast yesterday in the midst of a heavy storm, indicating US preparation for a potential ground intervention.

While the Obama administration has not announced any sort of American-led military intervention in the war-torn country, the US is now ready to launch such action “within days” if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decides to use chemical weapons against the opposition, the Times reports.

Some have suggested that the Assad regime may use chemical weapons against the opposition fighters in the coming days or weeks.

The arrival of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the 11 US Navy aircraft carriers that has the capacity to hold thousands of men, is now stationed at the coast of Syria, DEBKAfile reports. The aircraft carrier joined the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, which holds about 2,500 Marines.

“We have (US) special operations forces at the right posture, they don’t have to be sent,” an unnamed US official told The Australian, which suggested that US military troops are already near Syria and ready to intervene in the conflict, if necessary.

If the US decides to intervene militarily in Syria, it now has at its disposal 10,000 fighting men, 17 warships, 70 fighter-bombers, 10 destroyers and frigates and a guided military cruises. Some of the vessels are also equipped with Aegis missile interceptors to shoot down any missiles Syria might have at hand, according to DEBKAfile.

“The muscle is already there to be flexed,” a US official told the London Times about the US military’s presence outside of Syria. “It’s premature to say what could happen if a decision is made to intervene. That hasn’t taken shape, we’ve not reached that kind of decision. There are a lot of options, but it [military action] could be launched rapidly, within days.”

The move comes after NATO made a significant strategic decision Tuesday to deploy Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems in Turkey on the border of Syria where opposition groups have the stronghold. The defense would be able to protect Turkey from potential Syrian missiles that could contain chemical weapons, as well as intimidate Syrian Air Force pilots from bombing the northern Syria border towns, which the armed rebels control. Syria is thought to have about 700 missiles.

“The protection from NATO will be three dimensional; one is the short-range Patriots, the second is the middle-range Terminal High Altitude Air Defense [THAD] system and the last is the AEGIS system, which counters missiles that can reach outside the atmosphere,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

DEBKAfile’s anonymous military sources claim the THAD and Aegis arrived at the Syrian coast aboard the USS Eisenhower.

“The United States now stands ready for direct military intervention in the Syrian conflict when the weather permits,” the news source wrote.