Israel wants to bring injured Aleppo civilians for treatment, Netanyahu says


Israel’s Foreign Ministry is looking for ways to help assist Syrian civilians injured in the country’s civil war, including bringing them to Israel for medical treatment.

“We see the tragedy of terrible suffering of civilians and I’ve asked the Foreign Ministry to seek ways to expand our medical assistance to the civilian causalities of the Syrian tragedy, specifically in Aleppo, where we’re prepared to take in wounded women and children, and also men if they’re not combatants,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday evening during a meeting with foreign journalists.

“We’d like to do that: Bring them to Israel, take care of them in our hospitals as we’ve done with thousands of Syrian civilians. We’re looking into ways of doing this; it’s being explored as we speak.”

Netanyahu said that Israel cannot resolve the crisis in Syria, but “can help mitigate some of the suffering. That is the best that Israel can do.”

Israel has treated many wounded Syrians in hospitals in northern Israel near the shared border with Syria. They are then returned to Syria.

Netanyahu added that Israel will not accept “spillover” from the Syrian war into Israel. The Israeli military has responded to nearly every incident of cross-border mortar or gunfire attacks.

Rumors of summary executions haunt the fall of Aleppo


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Rebel-held eastern Aleppo is collapsing. The residents and insurgents who fought and held out against the Syrian government for five years are being defeated, meter by meter, house by house. When their defenses finally crumble, mass human rights violations and summary executions will follow as the victors administer retribution, analysts are warning.

In recent days, atrocities have already been reported as rebel territory fell. Worse is likely to come as the last few battered square-miles of eastern Aleppo succumb to what is now inevitable. Why? Because this is what happens in a civil war when one exhausted army finally crushes its cornered opponent.

The ‘last stand,’ lauded in Hollywood and in so many military exploits since well before the Alamo, is often anything but glorious. Historians don’t have to look very far back to point to examples of atrocities carried out by combatants who found themselves suddenly powerful and their defeated opponents utterly powerless. 

Government forces are reported to be in control of 98% of the city with the area still holding out being reduced in recent weeks to less than 1 square mile. The BBC reported that 50,000 civilians could be trapped in this tiny space, along with 1,500 rebel fighters. A short-lived ceasefire, that was supposed to enable the evacuation of the remaining enclaves collapsed on Wednesday with the resumption of heavy shelling, less than 24 hours after it was announced. A second ceasefire began Thursday morning, and a convoy of wounded men left the city.

Concern for those trapped inside the shrinking front have been expressed by a number of international agencies and Western governments.

In the last week, hundreds of men who crossed from rebel territory into government controlled areas have gone missing, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told The Media Line. The scale and suddenness of the disappearances is ominous. “[This] was a significantly large number of people who suddenly lost contact [with their families] trying to escape.” It is possible that the men have merely lost communications temporarily in the recent chaos. But there is great concern that they have either been executed or imprisoned and tortured due to the brutality demonstrated by the Syrian regime throughout the conflict, Colville explained.

There are also reports of summary executions taking place as areas of the city change hands. The UN has been informed, by name, of 82 people shot dead in recent days, including 11 women and 13 children. Some appeared to have been executed. Alarmingly, among these names were a large number of people from the same extended family, killed in two different locations. This could be an indication that pro-government forces are targeting specific people and families, singled out as agitators, Colville said. “The fact that it’s happening in two different districts, that triggers alarm bells that this is not coincidental or haphazard,” he explained.

Colville expressed hope that any ceasefire could avoid prolonged bloodshed but suggested human rights violation could still occur as the rebel enclave was evacuated, adding, “I think it’s something that has to be watched like a hawk.”

Some of the worst human rights violations in recent history occurred in similar circumstances, at the end of long bitter conflicts. The Bosnian War fought during the breakup of Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995 was known for its brutality. However, the name Srebrenica stands out among the many sins of that war. The only officially recognized act of genocide to have taken place among all the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the war, Srebrenica is rightly remembered for the 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were murdered by Bosnian-Serb forces while they were supposedly under UN protection.

But in the time before Srebrenica became a crime scene it was a hold out under siege, one of several Bosniak territories that became surrounded by the Bosnian-Serb military and its allies. When a military unit collapses and loses its cohesion, it becomes easy for an enemy to round up and kill the combatants, often along with a large number of civilians who match the age and gender to be fighters. The Geneva Conventions are supposed to stop such practices, but at Srebrenica that wasn’t the case.

Neither was it in the north of Sri Lanka when the country’s military finally defeated the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, bringing to an end three decades of civil war over the group’s desire for an ethnic state of its own. In 2009, towards the end of the war the Tigers’ leadership and fighters were pushed onto a tiny peninsula of land, hidden among a crowd of 350,000 internally displaced Tamil civilians. The LTTE was accused by human rights groups of using non-combatants as human shields, something that did little to deter the Sri Lankan army’s artillery bombardments over a number of months.

When the end finally came and the LTTE collapsed the victor’s justice was bloody and quickly meted out. The documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields shows film – shot by Sri Lankan soldiers as trophy-footage – of large numbers of executed LTTE fighters and commanders. Exact casualty figures for civilian and combatant deaths remain disputed.

This, the atrocities carried out in Sri Lanka and in Bosnia – and now reports suggest in Syria’s Aleppo – are all too common occurrences during civil wars, Alexander Korb, a lecturer in modern European history at the University of Leicester, told The Media Line. Traditionally, civil conflicts have always been more vicious, more personal, as people choose which side to kill and die for, or alternatively, split themselves down sectarian lines from their once neighbors.

“It’s a very emotional conflict. Boundaries between combatants and civilians are extremely grey and this is why there is a lot more atrocities in civil wars than in conventional wars,” Korb said. There is a dark logic to the violence of the winning side also, he noted. “From the perpetrators perspective, this is their rationale. You can’t send enemy fighters home because they will continue to agitate against the regime.” Mass executions solve this problem.

Russian and pro-Assad news sources have been quick to deride such concerns. RT, the Russian mouthpiece news channel claimed that allegations of human rights violations taking place in Aleppo boiled down to Western media saying, ‘someone told us,’ as neither they nor the UN have observers on the ground in Aleppo.

Denial and fake news are an “integral part” of ongoing war crimes during and after conflicts, Korb, who is also the director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, explained. Holocaust denial is possibly the most notorious form of this practice, but is unfortunately not unique. Similar aspersions were made by the Sri Lankan government and Bosnian-Serb leaders. Aleppo is unlikely to be any different.

5 things you can do to help Aleppo


The news from Aleppo is unbearable. Cease-fires that do not hold. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians and a horrific nightmare that is only getting worse. We have known about this epicenter of human anguish for years, and now the stories of profound suffering come to us on a daily basis on the nightly news. I am sick at heart and my soul aches in disbelief that this is happening now. How do we justify our inaction? How do we rationalize what has happened to millions of human beings? Years from now, when asked, “What did you do during the brutal massacre in Syria?” what will be our response?  

This is not the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda or Darfur. Regrettably, we learned little from them. This is 2016 and the epicenter of inhumanity is in Aleppo. We so often lament our inactions of the past yet fail to act when our time comes. We still can do something for the people of Syria and for ourselves. As Einstein once said: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

For many years, during the genocides in Darfur and South Sudan, there were national movements with strong local organizations and individuals speaking out. Although the killing goes on in these places, we can feel that we did a lot as citizens to try to stop the genocide in Darfur. Why has no large and popular national or active local movement, like the Save Darfur Coalition, taken root with voices of conscience speaking out about Syria?  

Is this even comprehensible? Five years ago, Syria had a population of 22 million people. More than half of them have since been forced to flee their homes, been tortured or killed. A human being can never be a statistic. Who can forget the picture of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh pulled from the rubble and sitting in an ambulance waiting to be treated?

We cannot wallow in our guilt, offer pleas that the situation is too complex to understand, ask what difference our actions or words will make. Syrian President Bashar Assad is not a humanitarian; he is a cruel dictator. When he took over from his father in 2000, there were high hopes as he was Western educated as an ophthalmologist in London. Under his leadership, he has been implicated in a multitude of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On Dec. 12, the United Nations confirmed that 82 civilians, including women and children, were murdered in Aleppo. Yes, Aleppo will again be unified but how many more innocent people will be forced from their homes or killed as revenge for the rebellion?

What can we do?  

1. We can write to our congressional leaders that we want them to take immediate action on civilian protection measures. 

2. We can write to the president and our Senate and House leaders to seriously consider sanctions and no-fly zones in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has shared his frustration with the lack of action by the United States.  

3. We can contribute to humanitarian groups that are doing everything they can to help refugees and internally displaced people. Groups such as HIAS, International Medical Corps, the White Helmets — the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated group of rescue workers in Syria — the  International Rescue Committee and many others are doing lifesaving work inside and outside of Syria. (Please always review an organization on Charity Navigator before giving).  

4. We can watch the situation carefully and discuss it with our family and friends. We can make sure that we are vigilant in being informed and doing whatever it takes.  

5. We can do more to increase the number of Syrian civilians being allowed into the U.S.

Most of all, we can see the Syrians as human beings, people like you and me, who deserve medical attention, food, security and a place to live. More than anything, they want something that we can give them: the knowledge that the world cares about them  — and hope.   

Shmuel Zygelbaum, the Polish politician in exile in London during World War II, wrote about the Holocaust:  “It will actually be a shame to go on living, to belong to the human race, if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history.” A year later, he took his own life as his final form of protest. 

We who pride ourselves on uplifting human beings are being called to halt the greatest crime of our time. Can we halt it? I don’t know. Can we show that we have a conscience and that we care? I have no doubt. 


Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco where he teaches Holocaust and Genocide.  He spent two weeks last summer with Syrian refugees in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Two million cut off from running water in Aleppo


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The ongoing battle between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel groups has crippled the infrastructure in Aleppo and left two million residents without running water, according to the UN. The crisis was caused by attacks on the electricity transmission station that pumped water to the eastern and western parts of the city.

“Children and families in Aleppo are facing a catastrophic situation. These cuts are coming amid a heat wave, putting children at a grave risk of waterborne diseases,” UNICEF's representative in Syria, Hanaa Singer told The Media Line. “Getting clean water running again cannot wait for the fighting to stop. Children's lives are in serious danger.”

Dr. Zaher Shaloul, a Syrian-American doctor told an informal Security Council meeting organized by the US that medical facilities in eastern Aleppo are routinely targeted by Syrian bombings, and that people are dying from treatable conditions. “We don't need condemnations, prayers or pointing fingers, we had enough of that. I ask you to meet the people of Aleppo and see them as humans. I have one request, besides saving Shahd, visit Aleppo yourself and meet with its doctors, nurses and patients. If three doctors from Chicago were able to do that, you can do it,” Shaloul told diplomats.

His statement came as the World Health Organization (WHO) said that more than 15 doctors who were outside Aleppo when the government laid siege to the eastern part of mid-July were now unable to return. The organization said that there were at least ten attacks on medical facilities in eastern Aleppo just in July.

Aleppo is just the latest example of the grinding conflict that has left an estimated 500,000 dead in Syria and millions displaced as internal or external refugees. International efforts to end the fighting have failed, and Syria only makes the news when the death toll is even higher than “normal.”

“Syria has become the main arena for influence and gain in the Middle East,” Nir Boms, a Syria expert at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University told The Media Line. “This war is being fought by proxies. This is how world wars are fought today.”

On one side of the conflict is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Iran, Hizbullah and Russia. While many Mideast analysts thought that Assad was on the verge of collapse a year ago, he has since rallied, and with the help of Russian airstrikes, scored some impressive gains against various rebel forces.

The most important of the rebel forces are the al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qa’ida, and the Islamic State which has established a “caliphate” in Raqqa. The US position has been that Assad has carried out atrocities against his people and must leave. At the same time, the US wants to see a transitional administration. Since 2014, the US had conducted airstrikes on Islamic State.

The rebel groups are also supported by Turkey, which has been a conduit for arms and fighters for rebel groups, as well as Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Tensions between these two groups have played out against the background of the Syrian conflict. Turkey and Russia, which used to be close allies, fell out over Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane along its border last year, described by Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a stab in the back.”

The two countries moved toward reconciliation this week, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Moscow this week, his first since an attempted coup last month. The two leaders were all smiles at the visit.

“The region has expectations of us politically. I believe that our solidarity will help toward the resolution of regional problems,” Erdogan said.

One regional power staying out of the conflict is Israel, which has made it clear it has no intention of getting involved. Israel has treated hundreds of wounded Syrians, many of them from various rebel groups, but has not gotten involved in the fighting.

Cynically, some Israelis say that as long as there is inter-Arab fighting, these groups will be too busy to attack the Jewish state. Boms says that there is also fear that the war could spill over.

“This type of war is not good for Israel,” he said. “You don’t want to live in area where there are constant wars.”

For Iran and Hezbollah, a costly week in Syria


A rebel onslaught on the town of Khan Touman near Aleppo last week delivered one of the biggest battlefield setbacks yet to the coalition of foreign Shi'ite fighters waging war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Reports put the death toll among the Iranian, Afghani and Lebanese militiamen as high as 80 in the attack spearheaded by the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. At least 17 of the dead were Iranians, seemingly the highest toll in a battle outside the Islamic Republic’s borders since the Iran-Iraq war.

“Pray for us, we can’t move. There are 83 of us in one room. We’re waiting for artillery backup so we can pull back,” an Iranian fighter wrote in a WhatsApp message, quoted by state-run Iranian website Jaam-e-Jam. “God willing, we are martyred rather than taken prisoner.”

Events in Khan Touman were followed by an even bigger blow to Iran and its allies: news emerged early Friday of the killing of Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who had been overseeing the Lebanese group's military operations in Syria.

It is unclear how such reversals will affect the course of a war that grew out of Arab spring-inspired protests in 2011 calling for democratic change. Before Iran, Hezbollah and Russia came to Assad’s aid, his grip on power appeared to be failing. The commitment of these allies to support him is seen by diplomats and Middle East experts as key to Assad's survival.

Such blows are evidence of the price being paid by Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, and the wide range of adversaries they face in a multi-sided war that has escalated again in recent weeks as U.N.-led diplomacy has foundered.

Israel has not missed the chance to pick off top Iranian and Hezbollah commanders in Syria over the past year or more.

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group established by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, said Badreddine had been killed in an explosion near Damascus airport. One Hezbollah official blamed Israel. The Israeli government has not commented.

Other enemies in the predominantly Sunni insurgency are meanwhile celebrating what they see as Iran's defeat in Khan Touman, which followed the loss of the nearby town of al-Eis.

One security expert close to Damascus described low morale on the government side because hard-won territory had been lost.

One explanation of the reversal could be that there is less Russian air support. Russia has been mounting air strikes in support of Assad for seven months, but it has also been involved in U.S.-backed diplomatic efforts and supported ceasefires.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel fighting in the area said the intensity of recent Russian air strikes had diminished. That could be a source of friction between the alliance supporting Assad, analysts of the conflict say.

SHOCK IN IRAN

The attack by Nusra and its allies on Khan Touman created shockwaves in Iran. Sites linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps published the names and photos of 13 Iranians killed in Khan Touman. Most of them were from a unit of the Guard in Mazandaran province in northern Iran.

But there were concerns among some Iranian officials and military leaders that the report of heavy casualties could sway public opinion against Iran’s involvement in Syria.

A press release from the Revolutionary Guard office in Mazandaran, the province where most of the Iranians killed were based, reflected these concerns.

In order to “preserve calm in society” only information released by their office should be trusted, it said.

Among the Iranians killed was Shafie Shafiee, a commander of the elite Quds force, according to the Tasnim news site, which is affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards. His body was seized by Syrian rebels, according to the another site, ABNA.

Pictures posted by rebels and reprinted by Iranian news sites show closeups of individual fighters killed in the battle. One photo shows what appears to be at least a dozen bloodied corpses lined up in the hallway of a building.

Another set of photos posted by the Syrian opposition show two prisoners of indeterminate nationality, bound and bloodied, being led behind a vehicle.

Mohammad Saleh Jokar, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy committee, said there were not any precise numbers on how many Iranians had been killed or taken prisoner in the Khan Touman “disaster”.

Parliament speaker Ali Larijani called it a crime carried out by “cowardly terrorists” during a ceasefire – an apparent reference to a cessation of hostilities agreement to which the Nusra Front and other jihadist groups are not a party.

“This incident will not go unanswered,” Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council said in an interview with the Young Journalists Club news site this week.

Footage shot from a drone by rebels shows a complex assault on Khan Touman that began with a barrage of rockets or mortars and involved armored vehicles and a tank. A mushroom cloud, apparently caused by a car bomb, is seen erupting near a building.

HEZBOLLAH VOWS TO FIGHT ON

Iran has announced the death of half a dozen generals in Syria, and a much larger number of less senior officers since 2012.

Hezbollah has meanwhile lost four prominent fighters, including Badreddine, a brother-in-law of the group's late military commander Imad Moughniyah.

Badreddine was the most senior Hezbollah figure to be killed since Moughniyah was assassinated in 2008, also in Damascus.

Hezbollah is estimated to have lost a total of around 1,200 fighters in Syria, where its highly trained guerrillas have provided crucial support to the Syrian military.

The group depicts its war in Syria as an existential struggle against ultra-radical jihadists such as the Nusra Front and Islamic State, groups it refers to as “takfiris”.

Speaking at Badreddine's funeral in Beirut's southern suburbs on Friday, deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem said: “Oh martyr we are continuing in the path you chose, in confronting Israel and in confronting the takfiris.”

After fleeing Syria’s war, chef becomes a star in Gaza


 It is a safe bet that no one made it as a celebrity chef following the same path as Wareef Hameedo.

Three years ago, the 34-year-old was running a small restaurant in a mall in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Then it was heavily bombed in Syria's civil war. Members of his family fled to southeast Turkey and he followed shortly afterwards.

In Turkey, he decided he would be better off in Egypt. He sailed to Port Said and ended up working as a chef at corporate banquets in Cairo. Struggling to make ends meet, he faced a decision: risk a journey to Europe or try his luck elsewhere.

“I had to choose whether to ride the death boats to Europe, with an uncertain future, or go to Gaza on the advice of some Palestinian friends,” Hameedo said. Against the odds, he chose Gaza.

In May 2013, he was smuggled through one of the tunnels linking Sinai with the Palestinian territory and joined 1.8 million Gazans trying to make a living in an economy on the brink of collapse, with unemployment nearing 50 percent.

With a degree in mechanical engineering, Hameedo's technical skills might have been useful. But he was determined to make it as a chef, and step by step he pursued the dream, although Gaza was consumed by war between Israel and the militant group Hamas barely a year after he got there.

As well as meeting his wife — a Palestinian journalist who interviewed him about Syrian refugees — he eventually opened his own restaurant with a partner, calling it “Soryana,” or Our Syria, a small place in one of Gaza's best neighbourhoods.

“I saw there were no creative ways of cooking,” he said of his initial impression of Gaza's cuisine. “Only a few places were doing non-traditional things. When it came to Syrian-oriented food, I thought I might have a chance.”

Syrian food is renowned in the Arab world and Hameedo found an eager clientele. “They love our kibbeh,” he said – Syria's national dish of minced beef or lamb and burghul wheat, served baked or fried. “They are crazy about it.”

Fans began asking him to make other Syrian meals that they had heard about in movies or on TV. As his fame spread, a local television station asked Hameedo to make a cookery show. Starting next week, a 30-program series will be broadcast during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Hameedo is smiling now, but the future is uncertain. His passport has expired and there is no Syrian embassy in Gaza to renew it. Unless he gets a new document, he will struggle to see his family in Turkey. Other Syrians who came to Gaza have either taken asylum in Sweden or remain unemployed.

But his culinary enthusiasm is undimmed.

“I have plans,” he said, mentioning the idea of opening another Soryana in southern Gaza, or eventually back in Syria.

Operation Passover: Israeli Rabbi smuggles matzah to Syria’s Jews


By the morning of Feb. 19, Rabbi Abraham Haim had collected more than 300 pounds of Jerusalem-made matzah for delivery to Syria. Boxes of the traditional Jewish crackers were stacked up to the ceiling of his cramped apartment in Bnei Brak, a religious suburb of Tel Aviv.

A few days later, the matzah would travel on a plane with the rabbi to Istanbul, Turkey.

And by late March, just before Passover — “God willing,” said Haim — the matzah, repackaged in label-less brown boxes, will have made the journey, through rain and snow, to a Turkish border town near Aleppo, Syria. Turkish smugglers who work closely with Haim then plan to cross into Syria and hand-deliver the matzah to approximately 50 Jews who, according to Haim, still live in the urban center of Damascus. (Others with connections to the Syrian-Jewish community have put its population even lower, at around 20 people.)

Haim makes this Passover mission every year — “and every year, we have a miracle,” he said, sitting at his dining-room table in Bnei Brak. “I’m speaking by phone with these people, and every year, they tell me they got it, that it arrived.”

So far, none of the matzah shipments has been intercepted by Syrian officials, rebels or terrorists. “But every year,” Haim said, “I’m thinking maybe this is the last year.”

Little has been heard from Syria’s Jews since spring 2011, just before anti-government riots broke out and the current civil war began. At the time, Jewish community leader Albert Cameo — then 70 years old and living with his two sisters — was quoted in multiple news stories, commending Syrian President Bashar Assad for his promise to restore Syria’s fleet of historic synagogues. 

Before the war, Cameo was one of about 200 Jews remaining in Syria, according to Bloomberg News. “Morally, I can’t leave my country and the religious places of worship here,” Cameo told Bloomberg. “I have a duty to preserve our heritage.”

The prior November, Cameo gave a tour of Damascus’ last active synagogue to a Cornell University student who blogged the encounter. Jacob Arem wrote on the New Voices site that two Syrian guards were on duty at the time to protect the Jewish quarter of Damascus’ Old City. “Cameo has not given up hope of a Jewish resurgence,” Arem wrote — and “to prepare itself, the community has purchased abandoned properties in the Quarter and is preserving them in the hope that Jews could return to Damascus after the signing of regional peace deals.”

In the four years since that visit, huge swaths of Syria have been rendered unrecognizable by relentless crossfire between Syrian forces, rebel fighters and foreign terror groups. More than 200,000 Syrians have died — nearly half of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

And although Damascus hasn’t been hit nearly as hard as Aleppo, there have been reports of heavy fighting at its edges and a suffocating government crackdown at its center. “You cannot begin to imagine what’s going on there,” Haim said.

One sure casualty of Damascus has been the 400-year-old Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the city’s Jobar suburb — considered by some to be the holiest Jewish site in Syria. In 2013, the synagogue’s roof was reportedly blown off and its contents looted. And in 2014, rebel forces provided the Daily Beast with photos of the synagogue in total ruins — shelled to splinters, they claimed, by the Syrian regime, as part of its “scorched earth” policy.

The famous Shrine of Elijah, located in the synagogue’s basement, is now thought to be sealed in rubble. “Big miracles happened in this place,” Haim said. “Now, it’s destroyed.”

A silver platter that Haim says was salvaged from the Jobar synagogue — and smuggled out by one of his men — now hangs in his hallway in Bnei Brak. “I’m not sure what this is, but I know it’s from Eliyahu Hanavi,” Haim said. One of the synagogue’s ancient prayer books, too, is in Haim’s possession — wedged between hundreds of others on his bookshelf, which sags from the weight.

Browsing through digital photos taken by his smugglers inside Syria, Haim stopped on a shot of Jewish community leader Cameo in his Damascus office from a few years back. In the photo, Cameo’s desk is decorated with a Syrian army flag and an intimate photo of the Assad family.

Like most of Syria’s religious minorities, “They have a good connection to the government,” Haim said of Syria’s last Jews. But beyond that, he said, “I don’t know if they’re OK, because we don’t have any real connection to them.”

Boxed in by bombing and shelling, and perhaps afraid of breaking their fragile relationship with the regime, Cameo and his sisters are now difficult to reach by phone. But when Haim called them from his cellphone on Feb. 19, they recognized his number and picked up.

Together, Haim and this reporter spoke to Cameo’s sister Rachel in a combination of Arabic, Syria’s native tongue, and Spanish, a hand-me-down from the Sephardic Jews who fled to Syria around 500 years ago, when they were driven out of Spain.

“It’s cold here. It’s so cold today,” Rachel Cameo said over a shaky connection. Asked if she was safe or if she needed anything, Rachel dodged the questions, clearly uncomfortable. But before she hung up, Rachel did ask about this year’s Passover shipment.

“Will there be cheese?” she pleaded.

Haim silently shook his head, “No.” The cheese wouldn’t stay fresh for the weeks-long trip from Istanbul to Damascus, he later explained. Not wishing to upset Rachel, he didn’t share this in the moment — but he did reassure her that the annual shipment of Passover matzah, both plain and chocolate-flavored, was on its way, along with around 10 bottles of kosher wine. “Thank you, brother,” Rachel answered. (“They are speaking according to what someone listening wants to hear,” Haim explained after he ended the call.)

Haim’s annual Passover shipment costs about $6,000 to purchase and transport —money he collects from donors in the Jewish Diaspora, mainly in Brooklyn and London. 

The rabbi, who is Sephardic with Turkish and Iraqi roots, has watched the paranoia surrounding his Passover operation multiply since 2012, when the civil war intensified. That year, the matzah was delivered via one of Turkish Airlines’ final flights between Istanbul and Damascus. Since then, Haim’s men have had to travel by car, and — afraid authorities might search their phones on the way out — are no longer willing to take photos for him.

They do, however, smuggle out the occasional thank-you letter from Rachel, written in French. “ ‘Pray for us’ — she is saying this every time,” the rabbi said. “‘Please, please pray for us.’”

Haim said residents have refused his offers to try to smuggle out more artifacts, nervous they could get intercepted or stolen. “They have connections in the army, but they’re afraid, afraid, afraid,” Haim said.

The small community of Jewish elders has instead chosen to stick out the war and personally guard what’s left of the Jewish-owned infrastructure in Damascus — synagogues, schoolhouses, books, graves.

So, Haim said, the least he can do is help them to uphold kosher law. Along with matzah and wine (and sometimes cheese) for Passover, Haim also sends in an annual load of around 220 pounds of frozen, kosher-cut meat. And every Sukkot, he smuggles in lulavim, etrogim, hadasim and aravot — the four plant species essential to the holiday.

“They are keeping kosher — it’s crazy,” the rabbi said of Syria’s Jews. Perhaps, he added, because “when someone is in trouble, he’s closer to the faith.” 

Islamic State pulls forces and hardware from Syria’s Aleppo


Islamic State has withdrawn some of its insurgents and equipment from areas northeast of the Syrian city of Aleppo, rebels and residents say, adding to signs of strain in the Syrian provinces of its self-declared caliphate.

The group, which has recently lost ground to Kurdish and Syrian government forces elsewhere in Syria, has pulled fighters and hardware from several villages in areas northeast of Aleppo, they said. But it has not fully withdrawn from area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war using a network of sources on the ground, said Islamic State had redeployed forces from Aleppo province to join battles further east with Kurdish forces and mainstream rebel groups.

Islamic State-held areas northeast of Aleppo mark the western edge of a domain that expanded rapidly in Syria and Iraq last year after the jihadists seized the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Last month, the group suffered its first major setback in Syria since last summer, being driven from the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani by Kurdish militia backed by U.S.-led air strikes. Syrian government forces waging a separate campaign against the group have also inflicted losses on it recently.

“There are tactical withdrawals. It's not a complete withdrawal,” said the leader of a mainstream rebel group, citing contacts in Islamic State-held areas near Aleppo. Other groups had not moved to take the evacuated areas because Islamic State had not fully pulled out, he added.

But he said IS appeared to be preparing for a fuller pullback, saying they had even dismantled a bakery in the town of al-Bab, some 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Aleppo.

“They are still there, but they have pulled out the foreign fighters, the heavy equipment, changed their positions,” the rebel commander said in a phone interview, declining to be identified because it would endanger his contacts in the area.

Four other rebels gave a similar description of the movements by Islamic State, which swept across northern Syria last year buoyed by its lightening advances in Iraq.

The Observatory said Islamic State had sent fighters from Aleppo to reinforce front lines with Kurdish forces and allied Syrian opposition groups that had seized the initiative of the Kobani defeat to launch new attacks on the group.

“The front has expanded,” said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, adding that the jihadist group still had control over a wide expanse of Aleppo province.

Last week, two Islamic State fighters said the group had staged withdrawals from Kobani to redeploy forces to Iraq.

Islamic State is also under pressure from the heaviest U.S.-led air strikes since the start of the year.

At least 70 Islamic State fighters have been killed by an escalation of the strikes since the group released a video showing it burning a captive Jordanian pilot to death last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Residents and activists in Aleppo said they saw Islamic State convoys evacuating several small villages in northeastern Aleppo, and heading eastwards.

“There are villages that have been effectively deserted in the last few days,” said Abdullah Samer al Mashour, a local elder from the prominent Mashhour tribe in the area, citing contacts in the Aleppo area, speaking by phone.

Musa Shaheen, a foodstuffs trader in Aleppo province, said many of his relatives and friends who had joined Islamic State had been killed, and that the group had been “heavily hit” by recent U.S.-led air strikes. He was speaking from Azaz, a rebel-controlled town that has not fallen to Islamic State.

“Ninety percent of the young men who we know have been killed in the last two to three months in the coalition attacks,” Shaheen, who owns several businesses, added speaking via the Internet from the rebel-held border town.

The Observatory has reported that Islamic State is replenishing its ranks using forced conscription in Syria.

The head of one of the allied Syrian opposition groups, a rebel who gave his name as Abu Issa, said they were now pushing with the Kurds to drive Islamic State from Tel Abyad, a town east of Kobani at the Turkish border.

Jewish graves destroyed in Syrian city


Al-Qaida-linked terrorists reportedly demolished several ancient Jewish mausoleums in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

The graves were located in the historical town of Tadif, according to the semi-official Iranian FARS news agency and other Iranian news outlets. The terrorists reportedly belong to the al-Qaida-backed al-Nusra Front.

A tomb said to be that of Ezra the Scribe is located in the town. It is unclear if it was one of the damaged grave sites.

Several religious sites in Syria have been destroyed in the country’s two-year civil war.

In Syria, peaceful demonstrators frustrated


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Khalid Walid spends most of his days drinking coffee and smoking French cigarettes on a dusty Aleppo street corner. With the war shutting down the local university, he no longer attends classes.

The paralysis that plagues Walid, 21, is a far cry from the passion that gripped him and others when the protests in Syria erupted in March 2011. Back then Walid was at the forefront of many of the demonstrations, whipping up the crowds with a bullhorn and rhythmic chants.

As Syria's once peaceful revolution has become a military inferno, however, Walid and other peaceful activists have been crowded out and relegated to the sidelines. Today it is the fighters and the networks that supply them who are at the forefront of the battle.

Things were not always so gloomy for Walid. As the international media hungered for information early on, the engineering student was eager to provide it. A Syrian expatriate group provided him and others with a video camera and satellite Internet equipment. Soon Walid was filming Friday demonstrations, uploading them to the Internet and talking to Western politicians and non-governmental organization (NGO) officials.

“It was great. We were filming, editing, and being interviewed,” he told The Media Line in broken English.  “We were getting word of the revolution to the world.”

But when fighting gripped Aleppo last summer, Walid's role changed dramatically. Documenting protests was no longer so chic. Walid and his cameras were sidelined in favor of the rebel fighter and his Kalashnikov. “The fighters became more important than anyone,” Walid laments. “Everyone wanted to help them, with food, gas, or beds. They needed supplies and the population provided them.”

Today, with the peaceful protests a distant memory and the continual shelling a constant reminder of the daily war, Walid has little to do.

“It's just as bad as before the revolution,” he says as a friends drives by, saluting Walid by honking his horn. “Maybe things are worse now with all the new problems. I don't know; it's just not the revolution we expected.”

Others share Walid's laments. Amal Basma, 19, was quick to latch on to the revolutionary fervor spreading through the Arab world in 2011. The Arabic literature student at Aleppo University gathered her friends and relatives to march in protests. Soon she was organizing women's groups to make posters and coordinating with revolutionary leaders to bring dozens of women to the street demonstrations.

“I saw what was happening in other cities and other countries, like Egypt and Libya,” she tells The Media Line in her cousin's cramped apartment in Aleppo's Haydariyya neighborhood. “I had to do something for my people.”

After rebels liberated the northern border crossings in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, she and other like-minded women travelled to Turkey, where Western NGO activists gave the women courses in organizing and political awareness. “I learned more than in 19 years in Syria,” she says, pulling on her head scarf. “I made so many friends and was so eager to come home and teach others.”

But soon after her return to Aleppo, she was forced to put aside her pen and bullhorn. “The protests stopped,” she complains. “No one was interested in marching anymore. It was all fight, fight, fight.”

The activists' complaints are just one critique of what they say is a revolution gone awry. With the rebel-led Free Syrian Army (FSA) locked in a stalemate with government forces, Al-Qa'ida jihadists pouring in from neighborhood countries and looting and kidnappings prevalent, Syrians are trying to figure out what went wrong with their once pristine revolution.

“We had so much hope when we began protesting,” says Mazin al-Masri, 28. But today we feel our peaceful revolution has been hijacked by gangsters and jihadists. What can we do? Throw stones at both sides?”

That is a sentiment prevailing throughout rebel-controlled Syria. The hope and optimism of the revolution's early days have been replaced by growing gloom and despair.

Syrians angry at Israel


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Khalil Sharif wants everyone to stay out of his country’s business.

“First the foreign jihadists hijack the revolution and now the Israelis,” the 31 year old electrician complained to The Media Line. “Why can’t they leave Syria to Syrians?”

While Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it was behind the attacks on Syrian military installations this week, Syrians had no doubt who was responsible. What they’re not sure about, is what it will mean for the future of the civil war in Syria. On one hand, many are happy to see the regime they are fighting suffer a blow to its esteem. At the same time, Syrians fear the attack could allow President Bashar Al-Assad to marshal support by depicting an imminent Zionist threat.

Syrians are taught to loathe Israel at an early age, learning that it is the Arabs’ mortal enemy which wants to steal all their land and strip them of their cultural heritage. Daily doses of propaganda in papers and television ensure that older generations do not forget the perils Syria faces from what they call an expansionist Israel.

But today, many Syrians in opposition controlled areas have reconsidered their passionately held views about their southern neighbor. Some believe that Israel and the Syrian government are closet allies.

“Why hasn’t Syria attacked Israel in the last thirty years?,” 19 year old Hamid Shadi asked The Media Line at an Aleppo bakery. “How can Syria be Israel’s fiercest enemy if it never fights it?”

Shadi and others believe the two nations are colluding to prevent a rebel victory and that Israel has persuaded its Western allies not to intervene in the conflict.

Such reasoning has led some Syrians to postulate that the Israeli attacks were a ruse to allow the regime to shore up its sinking support in the face of the rebel led Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) revolution.

“Just when the regime is beginning to lose on the battlefield Israel attacks,” 34 year old accountant Sa’id Bunni tells The Media Line. “And what did it hit? A science research facility. How is that a military target?”

More level headed Syrians were equally perturbed by the attack.  “It will only distract people from our cause,” complained 42 year old landlord Jabir Shufi.  “We need to focus on overthrowing the regime, not sideshows and circuses.”

Shufi and others worry that a regime skilled in turning catastrophes to its advantage will do just that with the Israeli bombings.  “It will make people reconsider who the real enemy is – the Zionists or the regime, the defenders of the Arab cause,” explained 46 year old Anwar Ma’ri.”  Syrians will just get confused.  And they are good at that.”

Such confusion has already afflicted a number of Syrians. “Why is the FSA fighting the only regime willing to stand up to Israel?” asked 25 year old office supply store clerk Muhammad Sabri.  “It should support (President Bashar) al-Assad in his battle instead of fighting him.”

It is a refrain many on Aleppo’s streets echo. “The FSA is helping the Zionists bleed Syria,” said 22 year old fruit vendor Hashim Sadiq.  “This brings us dishonor.”

Despite the close ties between Israel and the United States, few here believe Jerusalem attacked on Washington’s orders.  “(American President Barack) Obama doesn’t need little Israel to do his bidding,” exclaimed 31 year old builder Yasir Umar.

In private homes far from the fears of eavesdroppers, some Syrians expressed reserved approbation.  “Assad does not fear the FSA,” said a man who only asked to be identified as Abu Ahmad. “But Israel scares him. These attacks keep him up at night and distract him from the fight against the FSA.”

Others who endorsed the Israeli strike lamented that Jerusalem did not bomb anything of significance.  “They didn’t take out Assad’s planes,” noted a man who asked that his name be withheld because he was speaking about a sensitive topic.  “They did not destroy his tanks.  So what good is the attack?”

With so many opinions voiced about an attack whose target is shrouded in secrecy, Syrians are unsure of what to think.  And that just might play into the hands of a regime that has portrayed itself as the only side that can provide stability in a land inundated with uncertainty.

Syria says it would not use chemical arms, even against Israel


Damascus will not use chemical weapons against its own citizens, or in the event of war with its neighbor Israel, Syria's Information Minister was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

A senior Israeli intelligence officer said on Tuesday that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons against rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

But the assessment was met with skepticism by the United States which has declared any use of chemical weapons in Syria's two-year-old civil war a “red line” that could trigger intervention.

The Syrian government and rebels each accused the other of launching a chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo last month.

Syria last year acknowledged that it had chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries intervened, a threat that was met with strong warnings from Washington and its allies.

Western countries and Israel have also expressed fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups hostile to them as Assad's authority erodes.

“Even if Syria does have chemical weapons, our leadership and our military will not use them either against Syrians or against Israelis, above all for moral reasons and secondarily on legal and political grounds,” Omran al-Zoubi was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying at a Moscow university.

He said Syria would not resort to chemical weapons even if it had to go to war with Israel and use “all resources”.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Jon Hemming

A Sephardic S.Y. Agnon


In current discourses on modern Israeli literature, the names Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman typically dominate the discussion. But how often do we hear the name Haim Sabato? Who is Sabato, and why is his writing often compared to Nobel Prize-winning Israeli author S.Y. Agnon?

When I first met Sabato, the setting was not the typical book-lined study or corner table at the literary cafe. Instead, it was the beit midrash of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim, where he lives, studies, teaches Talmud — and writes novels.

Born in Egypt and descended from a long line of rabbis from Aleppo, Syria, Sabato is one of the most unique voices in modern Israeli literature. His writing is inspired by Agnon, whose stories he read as a child, and the similarities between the two are striking: Both are religiously observant, both employ a linguistic style that draws heavily from biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, and both tell their stories through a narrator who has a striking resemblance to the author.

But there are major differences, and Sabato pointed them out in — of all places — Beit Agnon (Agnon’s House), where he delivered the annual “Agnon Memorial Lecture” a few years ago. 

“I followed in Agnon’s footsteps in immersing my stories in the traditional sources … but I felt a few layers were completely missing from his language. I wondered, where are the wordplays of the Sephardic kabbalists, what about the homiletics of the Aleppo scholars, the halachic terminology of Moroccan rabbis, the Aramaic translations of Yemenite Jews, and the Ladino scholars of Jerusalem who mix Midrash and Bible, dip it in Rashi, and create Ladino idioms? I was zealous for them, so their language not be forsaken and lost. Who will sketch their profiles, in their language?”

Sabato’s literary journey began with “Aleppo Tales” and, most recently, “From the Four Winds.”

But his second and third books are what distinguish Sabato as a great novelist. In these novels, he writes from a uniquely Sephardic perspective. He tells Israel’s Sephardic story, of immigrants and of scholars. He seeks to demonstrate how Sephardic Jews interacted with and ultimately integrated into the predominant Ashkenazic culture of Israeli society, all the while struggling to maintain their distinct culture and heritage.

“Adjusting Sights” is a classic Yom Kippur War novel; based on Sabato’s own experiences, the narrator — Haim — tells the story of what happened to him and his childhood friend, Dov (a real childhood friend of Sabato’s), during that war. But beyond the powerful narrative of friendship, faith and the turmoil of the Yom Kippur War, Sabato’s story has a deeper message. In the beginning, Haim recounts his childhood as an immigrant from Egypt who now lives in the impoverished neighborhood of Beit Mazmil, just outside of Jerusalem (true to Sabato’s own story — which he returns to and expands in his fourth novel, “From the Four Winds). Haim’s cousin, Shabtai, takes him out to play, and as the two sit on the side of the soccer field talking, they are suddenly surrounded by a group of boys from the neighborhood who shout, “Arabs! Arabs!” Haim bursts into tears, and it is a tough Sephardic boy — Momo and his “gang” — who rescues Haim and Shabtai. 

“These kids aren’t Arabs. They’re talking Arabic because they’re new … no one touches them.”  But as much as Momo is Haim’s protector and he felt a kinship toward him, their life journeys are different. Momo, a Moroccan “tough guy” who knows how to pray and recites Psalms by heart, is thrown out of school for misconduct and resorts to the streets, the fate of many Sephardic immigrants in Israel. Haim is a young Torah scholar who befriends Dov, an Ashkenazi immigrant from Romania. The two go on to yeshiva high school and hesder yeshiva together. Although Haim bumps into Momo (now an officer) during the Yom Kippur War, it is with Dov that Haim shares a tank and fights the war. “Adjusting Sightsis a Yom Kippur War story, but beneath its layers lies the story of a Sephardic immigrant whose blending into mainstream Israeli society came during one of Israel’s most defining moments.

“The Dawning of the Day: A Jerusalem Tale” is Sabato’s ode to Sephardic rabbis and poets (something he began in “Aleppo Tales). Set in the heavily Sephardic Jerusalem neighborhoods of Nahalaot and Mahane Yehuda, this novel features rabbis named Pinto, Hadad and Ventura, and characters named Tawil, Antebi and Mizrahi. But the novel’s main character is a laundry presser named Ezra Siman Tov, whose initials  —  E.S.T.  —  “could also be read as Ezra Sephardi Tahor — Ezra, a pure Sephardi.” Ezra is a Sephardic storyteller who becomes Sabato’s voice to the Ashkenazi world, including to Agnon: “There was once a great writer in Jerusalem. All Jerusalem took pride in him, both during his life and after his death. His fame extended throughout the world. At times, on his walks … he noticed a man with a shining face in the alley near the entrance to the synagogue. The man stood encircled by a group of people who were listening to him and were rapt with attention. The writer too began to listen and his eyes lit up … that storyteller was Ezra Siman Tov.” The irony is that in this scene, Siman Tov tells a Chasidic tale! This is Sabato’s brilliant way of telling Agnon, “I know your stories, but do you know mine?” Siman Tov and “the great writer” ultimately develop a relationship, a reflection of Sabato’s interaction with Agnon’s writings, or of the Sephardic writer who seeks to interface with Israel’s continuously Ashkenazic narrative.

The greatest difference between Agnon and Sabato is not only their ethnic backgrounds, but also their strikingly different outlook on life. Agnon’s novels are filled with cynicism and bitterness. Sabato’s novels are — in his own words — “filled with sparks of light, and instead of the bitter drop of fate [in Agnon’s stories], a hopeful dose of faith.”

Perhaps it’s time for Israeli society to re-evaluate its narrative … and its narrator. 

Ancient Syrian synagogue hit by looting, shelling


Theft and shelling have damaged a 2,000 year-old synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest in the world, Syrian government and opposition activist sources said on Monday.

Syria's historic monuments have increasingly become a casualty of the civil war has killed more than 70,000 people. Parts of Aleppo's medieval stone-vaulted souk have been reduced to rubble, and many ancient markets, mosques and churches across the country are threatened with destruction.

The damage has so far been light at the Jobar Synagogue, built in honour of the biblical prophet Elijah, according to Mamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria's antiquities department.

“Local community officials say the place's sanctity has been violated and there were thefts but I cannot verify the nature of the thefts without investigation,” Abdulkarim told Reuters by telephone.

“Four months earlier they (Jewish authorities) tried to go in and were prevented from entering due to the presence of fighters.”

He said that authorities believed looters have mostly stolen gold chandeliers and icons dating back 70 to 100 years.

But Abdulkarim said he doubted that thousands of priceless manuscripts had been stolen from the synagogue as most of them, including Torahs in filigreed silver cases, had already been moved to the synagogue inside Damascus's Old City, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Jobar Synagogue is inside a run-down outer district of Damascus called Jobar, which was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds of years until the 1800s.

Rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad began moving into Jobar last July and the area has suffered heavy shelling from government air strikes and artillery since then.

Pro-Assad groups blame rebels for damage to Syria's heritage, while the opposition blames the government. Video has shown both sides destroying ancient castles and shrines with shelling, gun battles and targeted explosions.

NO SITES SPARED

“Jobar has been shelled by Assad's forces for more than 60 days … There is no building that has been spared by the shelling in Jobar, whether it is holy or not,” said opposition activist Mohammed al-Shami, who lives in the area.

“But luckily many artefacts from the synagogue were removed by a local council in Jobar and are now being stored for safety,” he said, speaking by Skype.

Other Jewish sites remained unharmed and in government hands, according to the Syrian official Abdulkarim.

“We deal with these (synagogues) in their archaeological value as we are dealing with a mosque or church, no differently. It is part of our heritage. Jewish culture is preserved,” he said.

Abdulkarim said Jews still living in Damascus were storing Jewish artefacts in the Old City's Jewish Quarter at a synagogue that dates back to the Ottoman era and where Syria's tiny Jewish community, only a few dozen, still prays.

The Jobar site, built atop a cave where the prophet Elijah was believed to have hidden from persecution, has been a place of pilgrimage for Syrian and Arab Jews.

Activists said at least six mortars had hit the synagogue, but that damage was still minimal.

Video published by opposition groups in early March showed damage to the concrete outer walls surrounding the synagogue and a pile of rubble next to the entrance, which is marked with an inscription in Arabic, Hebrew in English.

Reporting by Erika Solomon and Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Jon Hemming

Did Bashar Assad use chemical weapons?


Marea, Northern Syria — Ahmad Jabir gesticulated wildly when he heard the news. “This regime is crazy,” the 24 year old rebel fighter shouted. “When will the international community realize it will kill us all with gasses like the chemical weapons it fired today?”

Throughout Northern Syria, rumors that chemical weapons were used in an Aleppo neighborhood have everyone on edge.  Many worried that there would be no shelter from a regime that has unleashed all its weapons against a helpless population. But some confident voices emerged arguing the regime may have finally crossed a red line that will trigger international intervention. Amongst the fear and uncertainty, most simply believe that the episode is merely the latest proof that the world has abandoned Syrians to face their fate alone. 

In the city of Marea, news of last week’s attack on the Aleppo neighborhood of Khan Assal trickled in slowly. Rumors initially circulated that hundreds had died when the regime of President Bashar Assad launched a rocket armed with chemical weapons.

“It’s a massacre,” 31 year old Muhammad Shadi told The Media Line at a falafel stand.  Residents panicked, with a number of the few remaining families packing their belongings to head to Turkey. 

But as the day progressed and more details emerged, residents calmed down. News that only 26 died rather the hundreds many here claimed had perished eased fears. And when foreign governments issued statements that no use of chemical weapons was detected, people resumed their daily routines. 

The United States was quick to douse the claims.

“I have no information at this time to corroborate any claims that chemical weapons have been used in Syria,” Pentagon spokesman George Little declared.  Not all Western nations agreed.

“It is clear for us here in Israel” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told CNN. 

Ever since the Syrian revolution devolved into an armed conflict, the international community has worried the regime would use its chemical weapons against the rebels.  Syria is believed to have the fourth largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world including mustard gas, Sarin and VX. According to former Israeli National Security Adviser, Uzi Arad, Syria has 1,000 tons of chemical agents. A dose of VX as small as 10 milligrams is considered lethal.

For more than a year, American President Barack Obama has warned the Syrian government that employing its arsenal of chemical weapons would have dire consequences.

“We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said in August 2012.

Rebels are hoping that he will act on those warnings. Ever since the Syrian military began strafing and shelling civilian areas, the opposition has urged the international community to intervene in the conflict. 

“Bashar is digging his own grave,” 21 year old fighter Jasim Bunni told The Media Line.  “Obama will not let him slaughter Syrians with these horrible weapons.”

The American president did not disappoint him. “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer… The international community has to act on that.” Obama said in Jerusalem last week.

His strong words stirred hope in fighters whose confidence has been dashed by months of battlefield deadlock and low morale.

“If Obama gives us weapons, we can enter Damascus in a week,” exclaimed 23 year old Samir al-Hamawi in the nearby city of al-Bab. “We just need some help.”

Civilians who have borne the brunt of a war that has played itself out in populated areas were just as optimistic.  “This is Bashar’s gift we have been waiting for,” said Mustafa Sa’id, a 39 year old mechanic. “America and France promised us they would strike at him for this.”

But others who had seen previous hopes dashed by the international community’s inertia were less sanguine.

“No one will save us from this monster,” lamented 43 year old grocer Tariq Faris. “We are alone in a war that is destroying our lives.  Your nations speak a lot but do not act.”   

It is a refrain often heard in Syria.  As the death toll grows higher with the passing of every day, Syrians are slowly losing the small remaining hope that outside powers will intervene to stop the killing.  They no longer have faith that the glamorous international conferences and bold statements by presidents and leaders will save them.  For in the lion’s den that is Syria, they have come to realize that they can only count on themselves to end their nightmare.

Alleged chemical attack kills 25 in northern Syria


Syria's government and rebels accused each other of launching a deadly chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday in what would, if confirmed, be the first use of such weapons in the two-year conflict.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who has resisted overt military intervention in Syria, has warned President Bashar al-Assad that any use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.” There has, however, been no suggestion of rebels possessing such arms.

Syria's state television said rebels fired a rocket carrying chemical agents that killed 25 people and wounded dozens. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said 16 soldiers were among the dead.

The most notorious use of chemical weapons in the Middle East in recent history was in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja where an estimated 5,000 people died in a poison gas attack ordered by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 25 years ago.

No Western governments or international organizations confirmed a chemical attack in Syria, but Russia, an ally of Damascus, accused rebels of carrying out such a strike.

Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, said his government would send a letter to the U.N. Security Council “calling on it to handle its responsibilities and clarify a limit to these crimes of terrorism and those that support it inside Syrian Arab Republic”.

He warned that the violence that had engulfed Syria was a regional threat. “This is rather a starting point from which (the danger) will spread to the entire region, if not the entire world,” he said.

The United States said it had no evidence to substantiate charges that the rebels had used chemical weapons.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said it was not in a position to confirm the reports, adding that if either side used such weapons it would be a “grave violation of international law”.

Britain said its calculations would change if a chemical attack had taken place. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said it would “demand a serious response from the international community and force us to revisit our approach so far”.

BREATHING PROBLEMS

A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack.

“I saw mostly women and children,” said the photographer, who cannot be named for his own safety.

He quoted victims at the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital as saying people were dying in the streets and in their houses.

The revolt against four decades of family rule started with peaceful protests two years ago but descended into a civil war after Assad's forces shot and arrested thousands of activists and the opposition turned to armed insurgency.

Assad is widely believed to have a chemical weapons arsenal.

Syrian officials have neither confirmed nor denied this, but have said that if it existed it would be used to defend against foreign aggression, not against Syrians. There have been no previous reports of chemical weapons in the hands of insurgents.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi said rebels fired “a rocket containing poison gases” at the town of Khan al-Assal, southwest of Aleppo, from the city's southeastern district of Nairab, part of which is rebel-held.

“The substance in the rocket causes unconsciousness, then convulsions, then death,” the minister said.

But a senior rebel commander, Qassim Saadeddine, who is also a spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo, denied this, blaming Assad's forces for the alleged chemical strike.

“We were hearing reports from early this morning about a regime attack on Khan al-Assal, and we believe they fired a Scud with chemical agents,” he told Reuters by telephone from Aleppo.

MILITANT GROUPS

Washington has expressed concern about chemical weapons falling into the hands of militant groups – either hardline Islamist rebels fighting to topple Assad or his regional allies.

Israel has threatened military action if such arms were sent to the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Zoabi said Turkey and Qatar, which have supported rebels, bore “legal, moral and political responsibility” for the strike – a charge dismissed by a Turkish official as baseless.

Zoabi told a news conference that Syria's military would never use internationally banned weapons.

“Syria's army leadership has stressed this before and we say it again, if we had chemical weapons we would never use them due to moral, humanitarian and political reasons,” he said.

Syrian state TV aired footage of what it said were casualties of the attack arriving at one hospital in Aleppo.

Men, women and children were rushed inside on stretchers as doctors inserted medical drips into their arms and oxygen tubes into their mouths. None had visible wounds to their bodies, but some interviewed said they had trouble breathing.

An unidentified doctor interviewed on the channel said the attack was either “phosphorus or poison” but did not elaborate.

A young girl on a stretcher wept as she said: “My chest closed up. I couldn't talk. I couldn't breathe … We saw people falling dead to the floor. My father fell, he fell and now we don't know where he is. God curse them, I hope they die.”

A man in a green surgical mask, who said he had been helping to evacuate the casualties, said: “It was like a powder, and anyone who breathed it in fell to the ground.”

“PINK SMOKE”

A rebel fighter in Khan al-Assal, about 8 km (5 miles) southwest of Aleppo, said he had seen pink-tinged smoke rising after a powerful blast shook the area.

Ahmed al-Ahmed, from the Ansar brigade in a rebel-controlled military base near Khan al-Assal, told Reuters that a missile had hit the town at around 8 a.m. (0600 GMT).

“We were about 2 km from the blast. It was incredibly loud and so powerful that everything in the room started falling over. When I finally got up to look at the explosion, I saw smoke with a pinkish-purple color rising up.

“I didn't smell anything, but I did not leave the building I was in,” said Ahmed, speaking via Skype.

“The missile, maybe a Scud, hit a regime area, praise God, and I'm sure that it was an accident. My brigade certainly does not have that (chemical) capability and we've been talking to many units in the area, they all deny it.”

Ahmed said the explosion was quickly followed by an air strike. A fighter jet circled a police school held by the rebels on the outskirts of Khan al-Assal and bombed the area, he said.

His account could not be independently verified.

Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in Vienna he had no independent information about any use of such arms in Syria.

Fighting continued elsewhere, with rebels firing mortar bombs into central Damascus, residents and pro-Assad media said.

Security forces have reinforced the center of the capital – home to state offices and the residences of government officials – but rebels pushing into the outskirts of Damascus are staging increased attacks on districts in the heart of the city.

Syrian rebels said on Monday they had fired mortar bombs at the presidential palace, Damascus International Airport and security buildings to mark the second anniversary of the uprising that has left at least 70,000 dead.

A government-run station, Addounia TV, said “terrorists”, a term Assad's supporters use for the rebels, fired bombs at “civilian areas of Damascus, including near the Saudi embassy”. It said there were casualties but gave no details.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Frerik Dahl in Vienna, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Mohammed Abbas in London and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Michael Roddy

Sixty-five found executed in Syria’s Aleppo, activists say


At least 65 people were found shot dead with their hands bound in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday in a “new massacre” in the near two-year revolt against President Bashar Assad, activists said.

Opposition campaigners blamed the government but it was impossible to confirm who was responsible. Assad's forces and rebels have been battling in Syria's commercial hub since July and both have been accused of carrying out summary executions.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday the fighting had forced more than 700,000 people to flee. World powers fear the conflict could increasingly envelop Syria's neighbors including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, further destabilizing an already explosive region.

Opposition activists posted a video of a man filming at least 51 muddied male bodies alongside what they said was the Queiq River in Aleppo's rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood.

The bodies had bullet wounds in their heads and some of the victims appeared to be young, possibly teenagers, dressed in jeans, shirts and trainers.

Aleppo-based opposition activists who asked not to be named for security reasons blamed pro-Assad militia fighters.

They said the men had been executed and dumped in the river before floating downstream into the rebel area. State media did not mention the incident.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which says it provides objective information about casualties on both sides of Syria's war from a network of monitors, said the footage was evidence of a new massacre and the death toll could rise as high as 80.

“They were killed only because they are Muslims,” said a bearded man in another video said to have been filmed in central Bustan al-Qasr after the bodies were removed from the river. A pickup truck with a pile of corpses was parked behind him.

STALEMATE

It is hard for Reuters to verify such reports from inside Syria because of restrictions on independent media.

Rebels are stuck in a stalemate with government forces in Aleppo – Syria's most populous city which is divided roughly in half between the two sides.

The revolt started as a peaceful protest movement against more than four decades of rule by Assad and his family, but turned into an armed rebellion after a government crackdown.

About 712,000 Syrian refugees have registered in other countries in the region or are awaiting processing as of Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency Said on Tuesday.

“We have seen an unrelenting flow of refugees across all borders. We are running double shifts to register people,” Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters in Geneva.

On Monday, the United Nations warned it would not be able to help millions of Syrians affected by the fighting without more money and appealed for donations at an aid conference this week in Kuwait to meet its $1.5 billion target.

Speaking ahead of that conference, Kuwait's foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah said on Tuesday there was concern Syria could turn into a failed state and put the entire region at risk.

Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières said the bulk of the current aid was going to government-controlled areas and called on donors in Kuwait to make sure they were even-handed.

MISSILES

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, insurgents including al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters captured a security agency after days of heavy fighting, according to an activist video issued on Tuesday.

Some of the fighters were shown carrying a black flag with the Islamic declaration of faith and the name of the al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.

The war has become heavily sectarian, with rebels who mostly come from the Sunni Muslim majority fighting an army whose top generals are mostly from Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad has framed the revolt as a foreign-backed conspiracy and blames the West and Sunni Gulf states.

Fighting also took place in the northern town of Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, between rebels and Kurdish militants, the Observatory said.

In Turkey, a second pair of Patriot missile batteries being sent by NATO countries are now operational, a German security official said on Tuesday.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands each committed to sending two batteries and up to 400 soldiers to operate them after Ankara asked for help to bolster its air defenses against possible missile attack from Syria.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Kuwait, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Syrian fighting decimates tourism industry


Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. International flights into and out of the capital continued despite throughout 20-months of fighting between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the rebels seeking to depose him. But as of Friday, the flights have stopped.

The decision was taken and all flights were cancelled when government jets bombed rebel positions close to the airport. EgyptAir announced on Sunday that it would resume flights to Damascus, but that did not appear to happen. The Egyptian flag-carrier had been operating daily flights between Cairo and Damascus, as well as several weekly flights from Cairo to Aleppo.

Ali Zein El-Abedeen of EgyptAir told The Media Line that flights to Aleppo were resumed on Monday, but the flight to Damascus did not take off.

In any case, the nation’s tourism industry, an important sector in quieter times, has — not surprisingly — been decimated by the fighting, which has left more than 40,000 Syrians, many of them civilians, dead. Tourism was responsible for five percent of Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011, and directly supported 270,000 jobs according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Arab tourists do not need visas to visit Syria, and more than three million traditionally come annually for family visits or on business.

“I used to go to Syria for a week every month,” Adnan Habbab, the owner of Nawafir Tours in Jordan told The Media Line. “There are 3,000 archaeological sites in Syria alone.”

It takes just two hours to drive, or 25 minutes to fly between Amman and Damascus. Habbab’s agency marketed week-long tours of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to Europeans and sold between 10,000 and 12,000 packages every year. They even opened two hotels in Damascus. Now, he says, he has laid- off  90 of his one hundred employees.

“We lost millions of dollars in profit,” he said. “Since May 2011, everyone has cancelled their trips to Syria.”

The American government has issued a stern warning against travel to Syria.

“The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Syria and strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately,” the warning says. “This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning dated August 1, 2012, to remind U.S. citizens that the security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with an increased risk of kidnappings, and to update contact information.
No part of Syria should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, including kidnappings.”

While several foreign airlines including Air Arabia and Fly Dubai, in addition to EgyptAir, had been operating flights to Damascus, they had cut their numbers significantly during the past few months. Only a handful of flights were landing in Damascus even before the current stoppage.

“Damascus has always been a place where flight service has been incredibly volatile,” Toby Nicol, the communications director for the World Travel and Tourism Council told The Media Line. “Ettihad Air was due to resume flying next month, and Air Dubai still lists flights to Syria, but I have no idea of who is currently flying.”

Nicols says that he has not visited Damascus and does not plan to in the near future.

“It’s one of those places where I always meant to go but never got around to it,” he said. “Now it will probably have to wait for at least 18 months.”

There seems to be no end in sight for the fighting in Syria. Turkish officials said Syria resumed an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain, near the border with Turkey. They said two bombs hit a Syrian security building that had been captured by the rebels.

The officials said shrapnel from the bombing landed on Turkish territory but no one was injured.

In Aleppo, Syrian rebels bogged down in sniper war


Plucking up his courage, a young boy ducks and darts down a bullet-scarred street in Aleppo, as a rebel with a megaphone shouts directions.

“Don't turn right! Stay left, stay left. Now go, run, run!”

A sniper shot cracks out, and the boy's dangerously bright pink shirt disappears behind a row of charred buses dragged across the road for cover. But the bullet misses, and fighters at the other end of the street burst into cheers.

In Syria's largest city, rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad have found ways to destroy government tanks and have managed to hold their positions despite attacks by jets and helicopters.

But four months into their campaign to take Aleppo – much of it a jungle of concrete tower blocks – many are pinned down by pro-Assad snipers on the rooftops of the front line and even inside rebel areas.

The local stalemates drag on and on.

“When a sniper sets up in a building, that's it, we could be stuck for weeks trying to find just one guy,” said Abu Saif, a 23-year-old rebel in jeans and a camouflage vest.

In late July, rebels armed with assault rifles and homemade rockets fought their way into Aleppo and took control of much of the east of the city in days.

Since then, their advances have been contained by government forces and they have been unable to take the city center, becoming trapped between the airport east of the city and western neighborhoods where soldiers and pro-Assad militia are camped out.

Their last offensive, billed beforehand as a “decisive battle”, only served to bring the ancient souk and the 8th-century Great Mosque into the fray, without gaining much ground for the anti-Assad fighters.

As rebels guide another civilian past the sniper, a young man watching nearby shakes his head.

“They say they liberate a street. But nowadays, I don't consider it in rebel control if there is a sniper in there,” he said, asking not to be named. “If you can't move openly in the areas that are supposed to be yours, you are not free.”

Assad's better-armed forces appear to have most of the sniper rifles being used in the war. The rebels too have a few of the high-accuracy weapons, but are mostly armed with assault rifles much less lethal at long range.

DYING CHEAPLY

A fighter jet gracefully circles over Aleppo before swooping down to bomb a rebel district, unleashing deafening blasts.

There are still eruptions of such full-blown conflict between Assad's forces and the rebels who have been struggling to topple him for more than 19 months.

But increasingly, the war is one of slow attrition.

The Bustan al-Basha district of the city is a wasteland of collapsed apartment blocks where rebels have only advanced a few blocks in recent weeks.

When sniper shots are fired at his bombed-out shelter, fighter Najmeddine carries on puffing on a cigarette as he shoots back with his unit's one anti-aircraft gun.

The fire isn't returned, and he groans and walks away.

“Look at us! This has become a sniper war now, and it is so boring!” he shouts in frustration. His fellow fighters chuckle and stretch out on the blasted sidewalk.

“This is just a sign that this war could take years. It took us weeks to get to this corner from five blocks away,” sighs Najmeddine, wiping sweat from his graying moustache and peering around the corner. Snipers nearby have blocked his unit's advance on a security force building for days.

The material cost of rebel advances in neighborhoods like Bustan al-Basha has been high. Water from burst pipes floods streets littered with shards of concrete and tangles of wires. Entire walls dangle from high corners of shattered buildings.

The human cost has been worse. The major battles here have ended, but civilians and rebels are still gunned down daily by the snipers.

“What's hard about that is that you don't want your fighters to die cheap. We want to die in battle, not like that,” said Ammar, a 34-year-old rebel with scarred and bruised arms. His leg twitches nervously as he shouts at his comrades to stop crossing exposed areas.

Nearby, Najmeddine goes in to take another shot. He has lost two fingers in these back-and-forth gunbattles, but says it hasn't hurt his determination to fight.

“I can still shoot,” he says.

Down the road, rebels burn tires, hoping to obscure a sniper's view and warn civilians away.

But some residents have business too urgent to wait. A bullet-holed pickup truck, with a bleeding man laid in the back, veers around the burning tires, forcing two rebels to jump out of the way, and speeds across a bridge as gunfire cracks out.

Rebels said they driver might have been trying to get the bleeding man to hospital.

“Did he make it?” a passerby asks the fighters. A gunman stares down the road and shakes his head, replying: “Only God knows.”

Editing by Oliver Holmes and Andrew Roche

Suicide car bombers strike in heart of Aleppo, killing 48


Three suicide car bombs and a mortar barrage ripped through a government-controlled district of central Aleppo housing a military officers' club on Wednesday, killing 48 people according to activists.

The coordinated attacks hit just days after rebels launched an offensive against President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria's biggest city, leading to heavy fighting and a fire which gutted a large part of its medieval covered market.

The state news agency SANA said suicide bombers detonated two explosive-laden cars in the main square, Saadallah al-Jabiri, which is lined on its eastern flank by the military club, two hotels and a telecoms office.

The explosions reduced at least one building to a flattened wreck of twisted concrete and metal, and were followed by a volley of mortar bombs into the square and attempted suicide bombings by three rebels carrying explosives, it said.

Another bomb blew up a few hundred meters (yards) away on the edge of the Old City, where rebels have been battling Assad's forces.

State television showed three dead men disguised as soldiers in army fatigues who it said were shot by security forces before they could detonate explosive-packed belts they were wearing. One appeared to have a trigger device strapped to his wrist.

Another pro-Assad station, al-Ikhbariya TV, broadcast footage of four dead men, including one dust-covered body being pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building and loaded onto the back of a pickup truck.

The facades of many buildings overlooking the square were ripped off and a deep crater was gouged in the road. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 48 people were killed, mostly from the security forces, while SANA put the death toll at 31.

Wednesday's attacks in Aleppo followed last week's bombing of the military staff headquarters in Damascus, another strike by Assad's outgunned opponents against bulwarks of his power.

In July, rebels killed four of Assad's senior security officials including Assad's brother-in-law, the defense minister and a general in a Damascus bombing which coincided with a rebel offensive in the capital.

Government forces have since pushed rebel fighers back to the outskirts of Damascus. But they have lost control of swathes of northern Syria as well as several border crossings with Turkey and Iraq and failed to push the fighters out of Aleppo.

A pro-Assad Lebanese paper said on Tuesday that Assad was visiting the city to take a first-hand look at the fighting and had ordered 30,000 more troops into the battle.

Many rich merchants and minority groups in Aleppo, fearful of instability, remained neutral while protests spread through Syria. But rebels from rural Aleppo swept into the city in July and still control districts in the east and south.

REGIONAL CONFLICT

Opposition activists say 30,000 people have been killed across the country in the 18-month-old uprising, which has grown into a full-scale civil war with sectarian overtones and threatens to draw in regional Sunni Muslim and Shi'ite powers.

Sources in Lebanon said seven members of Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim militant group Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian president, were killed inside Syria on Sunday in a rocket attack. Three were killed instantly while four others were wounded and died subsequently, they said.

The sources said the Hezbollah fighters were operating in the border area, monitoring the flow of weapons into Syria from Lebanon.

Hezbollah's website and television station said the group held funerals this week for two fighters killed while performing “jihadi duties”, but gave no further details.

Hezbollah has given strong public political support to its ally in Damascus but has not confirmed a military presence on the ground in Syria – wary of inflaming sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where many Sunni Muslims support the anti-Assad rebels.

The mainly Sunni rebels are supported by Sunni powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and have attracted Islamist fighters from across the Middle East to their cause.

Assad, from the Alawite minority which is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, is backed by Iran and Russia.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Tuesday NATO and world powers should not seek ways to intervene in the war or set up buffer zones between rebels and government forces.

He also called for restraint between NATO-member Turkey and Syria, after tensions flared when a mortar round fired from inside Syria struck the territory of Turkey. Ankara has threatened to respond if the strike were repeated.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned that hostilities in Syria could engulf the region and accused some Syrians of trying to use the conflict to settle scores with Tehran.

Ahmadinejad said that a national dialogue and elections – rather than war – were the only way to solve the Syrian crisis.

Efforts to address the conflict at the United Nations have been blocked by a standoff in the Security Council between Western powers seeking a tough stance against Assad and Russia and China, which fear a U.N. resolution against Syria would be the first step towards military intervention.

An Egyptian attempt to bring together Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia to search for a regional solution to the crisis also appeared to be going nowhere after Saudi Arabia stayed away for a second time from a meeting of the four countries.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Laila Bassam in Beirut, Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Angus MacSwan

Syria security forces shoot dead 16 as Sunni city of Aleppo sees first killing


Security forces shot dead 16 protesters at several demonstrations across Syria on Friday demanding the removal of President Bashar Assad, a main activists’ group coordinating protests said.

The deaths included the first protester to be killed in Syria’s second city, the commercial hub of Aleppo, the Local Coordination Committees said in a statement.

The group said it had the names of the 16 civilians, among them three killed in Damascus suburbs and eight in Homs, a city of one million people where the presence of tanks and troops has not stopped people from holding big protests demanding political freedom and an end to Assad’s autocratic rule.

Syrian human rights campaigner Ammar Qurabi said Central Security personnel had shot dead one demonstrator in Aleppo when they fired at several hundred protesters in Saif al-Dawla, a major street in the city center.

Read more at Haaretz.com.