Assad: Syrian army can handle Israel


Syria's army is ready to deal with Israel, Syrian President Bashar Assad told an Iranian official on Syrian state television.

“The Syrian people and its army, who have made important achievements by fighting terrorist and Takfiri groups, are capable of confronting Israel's ventures that represent one of the many faces of terrorism targeting Syria today,” Assad said Tuesday during a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to reports.

Assad on the broadcast also accused Israel, as well as Western states, with involvement in the two-year Syrian civil war.

The comments are his first public remarks since alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria over the weekend. The two strikes reportedly targeted long-range missiles sent from Iran for the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah.

His comments came as Internet connections between Syria and the rest of the world were severed. The cutoff remained in effect on Wednesday. It is unknown if there is Internet communication within Syria, Reuters reported.

The BBC cited the Syrian Arab News Agency as saying that the Internet shutdown was the result of a fault in fiber optic cables, but Syrian activists believe the shutdown is deliberate.

U.N. chief ‘deplores’ Syria border clashes


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday he deplores the cross-border shootings from Syria into Turkey and Lebanon ahead of a ceasefire deadline in the yearlong conflict that has pushed Syria to the brink of civil war.

Turkey said two officials working in a refugee camp near the country’s border with Syria were among five people wounded on Monday by gunfire coming from Syria as troops clashed with rebels nearby. Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed television channel said Syrian soldiers fatally shot a cameraman as he stood on the Lebanese side of the border.

“The secretary-general is alarmed by the reports of continued violence and human rights violations in Syria, which resulted in an increased flow of refugees into neighboring countries,” Ban’s office said in a statement.

“The secretary-general strongly deplores today’s fatal cross-border shootings from Syria into Turkey, as well as into Lebanon,” it said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to stop the use of heavy weapons and withdraw troops from towns by Tuesday as part of a U.N.-backed peace plan brokered by U.N. Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Annan has said the government and opposition must stop fighting at 6 a.m. local time (0300 GMT) on Thursday, if Damascus meets its first deadline 48 hours earlier.

The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year in his attempts to crush pro-democracy demonstrations across the country. Syria told the world body last week that 6,044 had died, including 2,566 soldiers and police.

The U.N. Security Council, including China and Syria’s staunch ally Russia, on Thursday unanimously adopted a statement endorsing the deadlines for an end to the Syria conflict and warning Damascus it would consider further steps if it failed to live up to its commitments.

Assad on Sunday said his foes must give written guarantees they would stop fighting and lay down their arms – a demand that was immediately rejected.

“The timeline for the complete cessation of violence endorsed by the Security Council must be respected by all without condition,” Ban’s office said.

Western diplomats have expressed skepticism about Assad’s intentions, noting he has broken previous promises to halt military action against civilian protesters.

Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Trott

Hamas ditches Assad, backs Syrian revolt


Leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas turned publicly against their long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, endorsing the revolt aimed at overthrowing his dynastic rule.

The policy shift deprives Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation. It was announced in Hamas speeches at Friday prayers in Cairo and a rally in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas went public after nearly a year of equivocating as Assad’s army, largely led by fellow members of the president’s Alawite sect, has crushed mainly Sunni protesters and rebels.

In a Middle East split along sectarian lines between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, the public abandonment of Assad casts immediate questions over Hamas’s future ties with its principal backer Iran, which has stuck by its ally Assad, as well as with Iran’s fellow Shi’ite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

“I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.

“We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs,” chanted worshippers at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world’s highest seats of learning. “No Hezbollah and no Iran.

“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

Contemporary political rivalries have exacerbated tensions that date back centuries between Sunnis – the vast majority of Arabs – and Shi’ites, who form substantial Arab populations, notably in Lebanon and Iraq, and who dominate in non-Arab Iran.

Hamas and Hezbollah, confronting Israel on its southwestern and northern borders, have long had a strategic alliance against the Jewish state, despite opposing positions on the sectarian divide. Both have fought wars with Israel in the past six years.

But as the Sunni-Shi’ite split in the Middle East deepens, Hamas appears to have cast its lot with the powerful, Egypt-based Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose star has been in the ascendant since the Arab Spring revolts last year.

HAMAS MAKES ITS CHOICE

“This is considered a big step in the direction of cutting ties with Syria,” said Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian political commentator. Damascus might now opt to formally expel Hamas’s exile headquarters from Syria, he told Reuters.

Banned by deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has moved to the centre of public life. It is the ideological parent of Hamas, which was founded 25 years ago among the Palestinians, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims.

Shi’ite Hezbollah still supports the Assad family, from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, which has maintained authoritarian rule over Syria’s Sunni majority for four decades but now may have its back to the wall.

Hamas, however, has been deeply embarrassed among Palestinians by its association with Assad, as the death toll in his crackdown on opponents has risen into the thousands.

In Gaza, senior Hamas member Salah al-Bardaweel addressed thousands of supporters at a rally in Khan Younis refugee camp, sending “a message to the peoples who have not been liberated yet, those free peoples who are still bleeding every day.”

“The hearts of the Palestinian people bleed with every drop of bloodshed in Syria,” Bardaweel said. “No political considerations will make us turn a blind eye to what is happening on the soil of Syria.”

ANTI-ISRAEL AXIS WEAKENED

The divorce between Hamas and Damascus had been coming for months. The Palestinian group had angered Assad last year when it refused a request to hold public rallies in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria in support of his government.

Hamas’s exile political leader Khaled Meshaal and his associates quietly quit their headquarters in Damascus and have stayed away from Syria for months now, although Hamas tried to deny their absence had anything to do with the revolt.

Haniyeh visited Iran earlier this month on a mission to shore up ties with the power that has provided Hamas with money and weapons to fight Israel. It is not clear what the outcome of his visit has been, though the tone of the latest Hamas comments is hardly compatible with continued warm relations with Tehran.

Rallies in favor of Syria’s Sunni majority have been rare in the coastal enclave but on Friday it seemed the Islamist rulers of the territory had decided to break the silence.

“Nations do not get defeated. They do not retreat and they do not get broken. We are on your side and on the side of all free peoples,” said Bardaweel.

“God is Greatest,” the crowd chanted. “Victory to the people of Syria.”

Hamas-Hezbollah relations have been good in the past. But Hamas did not attack Israel when it was fighting Hezbollah in 2006 and Hezbollah did not join in when Israel mounted a major offensive against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009.

Anything that divides Hamas and Hezbollah is likely to be welcomed by Israel, which has been watching warily recent moves by Hamas to reconcile differences with its Palestinian rivals in Fatah, the movement of President Mahmoud Abbas.

There was no immediate Israeli comment on Friday’s speeches.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Cairo; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Don’t confuse Assad and Gadhafi


Think kiwis and kumquats. While it is true that they are both fruits, the similarities between them end right about there. So, too, the similarities between Libya and Syria.

There are no significant parallels that can be extrapolated from the overthrow in Libya to the unrest and potential for overthrow in Syria.

Yes, each country was ruled by a thugocracy. And each country has been run by a despot who is representative of only a very small segment of the population. Bashar Assad of Syria is an Alawite while the majority of the country is Sunni, and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi is from the tribe of Gadhaffiyah — one of the 140 tribes that compose Libya.

And that’s where the parallels end.

It’s the differences between the countries that are more glaring than their similarities. That’s what makes it almost ludicrous to even think about applying the lessons learned from Libya to the events that are still unfolding in Syria.

The first and most important difference between Libya and Syria is weaponry. The opposition in Syria has almost no weapons; the opposition in Libya is well armed. They are not well trained and their weapons are not of the highest caliber, but compared to the paltry supply the Syrians have, the Libyans boast impressive firepower.

The second and almost as important difference is military intelligence. The opposition in Libya benefited from the aid of British and French special forces and intelligence operatives and from intelligence gathering provided them by the United States, France and England. The opposition in Syria is on its own. In addition to having no weapons and training, they have no friends lending them military support or feeding them crucial intelligence.

While the world cheered on Libyan opposition forces, Syria’s opposition forces have few friends, no leverage and no power. They are cannon fodder for the Syrian military.

Col. Muammar Gadhafi was almost universally disdained — his rhetoric, his female bodyguards, his total disregard for human life, his active participation in acts of terror. Over the years, Gadhafi successfully offended and alienated so many people, not only in the West and but also in the Arabic world, that even Arabs wanted to oust him. He also considered himself to be an African rather than an Arab, and that also greatly upset his Arab-leader colleagues.

In the West there was a wall-to-wall coalition supporting the ousting of Gadhafi. That support spread to significant parts of the Arab leadership. Even the Arab League called for the fall of the Libyan dictator.

Assad, on the other hand, is a gentlemanly despot: educated, a physician, forced to obey his father’s orders and take up the mantle of thugocracy after the death of his brother. The beginnings of the uprising against Assad were almost totally ignored by the world media.

There has yet to be any orchestrated international protest or public outcry censoring or criticizing Assad. There are no Syrian groups in exile pushing for their freedom or lobbying for their cause on the airwaves. In contrast, there was an almost constant barrage of Libyans in exile begging for international assistance and keeping their cause alive in the media.

President Obama did just recently call for Assad to step down, but the United States still maintains diplomatic representation in Syria. The U.S. ambassador to Syria has not been recalled and neither have the ambassadors from most European countries, with the exception of Italy. And only a couple of Arab states followed Saudi Arabia’s lead when they yanked their ambassadors. The Arab League has just asked Syria to stop killing innocents, which is hardly an indictment of the heinous acts Assad is perpetrating and pales in comparison to the way in which they vilified Gadhafi.

The Arab League ousted Gadhafi and seated the Libyan opposition in his place.

The 140 different tribes in Libya are each fighting for autonomy. While there are family and tribal linkages in Syria, the greatest divisive force in that country is the religious divide. Sunnis constitute 74 percent, the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population; then come the Shiites at 12 percent; and then Assad and his fellow Alawites, a break-off from Shiia tradition, at 9 percent. Although Assad’s Alawite may be the minority religious tribe in Syria, they comprise a very significant and loyal part of the army.

There are only two viable ways for the Syrian revolt to succeed. The opposition needs either international intervention or for Sunni elements within the army to defect and join their cause. There are no other alternatives.

Unfortunately for the Syrian opposition, those are both long shots. Given the current international economic crunch, it is too risky for the West to take on another mission like the one they engaged in with Libya. Do not expect a no-fly zone in Syria like the one in Libya. And unless there is a serious incentive and worthwhile push, there will be no defections from the Syrian army.

Gadhafi has gone underground and may not turn up again. Assad remains in power, and he is not about to leave Damascus anytime soon. He is reaping the fruits of his and of his father’s brutal labor.

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

AJC, ADL press U.N. for firmer action against Syria


A U.N. Security Council statement condemning Syria’s crackdown on dissidents was inadequate, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League said.

In its statement Wednesday, the United Nations condemned the “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities.” It also called on for those responsible for the violence to be held accountable.

The AJC and ADL said the U.N. reaction to the human rights violations being committed by President Bashar Assad’s regime did not go far enough.

“The Syrian people deserve more empathy and firmer action by the U.N.,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement the same day. “Regrettably, several of the Security Council members have chosen to ignore their anguish.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, issued a statement urging the U.N. to make it “unambiguously clear to President Assad that unless he reverses course, the international community will impose immediate consequences on his repressive regime.”

The global Jewish community has joined Syrian opposition groups and other human rights organizations in urging the United Nations to take an even stronger stance against the brutal crackdown.

The U.N. statement was the first response from the world body to the crackdown in Syria since the country began using military force against protesters in mid-March. However, it does not have the weight of international law and carries no penalty against Damascus if the violence continues.

China and Russia have led the opponents of a Security Council resolution that would enact penalties against Syria’s energy sector. The U.S. and its allies have backed such a measure.

Presidents Conference’s Hoenlein, Assad meet in Damascus


Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.

Hoenlein said the meeting Monday was at the invitation of Syria and not, as had been reported originally by the Israeli media, at the behest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I went to Damascus on an important humanitarian issue to the Jewish people,” Hoenlein told Haaretz. “Netanyahu did not ask anything from me, and any attempt to link me to the diplomatic process with Syrian is manipulation.”

He would not elaborate on his mission other than to say it involved the restoration of synagogues and was “for the good of the Jewish people.”

Hoenlein did not return JTA’s request for comment.

The Presidents Conference is the foreign policy umbrella for U.S. Jewish groups.

Netanyahu has refused to renew talks with Syria where they left off under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who had indicated that a comprehensive peace would include Israel’s return of the Golan Heights.

+