I was held in Iran for 13 months: This is why I think Jason Rezaian may be freed


Everything that's been happening to Jason Rezaian and his family over the past 15 months feels familiar.

Jason Rezaian is a journalist. I'm also a journalist.

Rezaian is from Marin County, Calif. My home is right next door in Oakland, Calif.

I was arrested in 2009 along with my two companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal – while hiking somewhere near Iran's unmarked Western border. I was on vacation from my home in Damascus, Syria.

Rezaian was arrested on July 22, 2014. He is an Iranian-American who was working legally in Iran as the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief.

He was vaguely accused of some sort of espionage, with no evidence ever provided to the public to back that up. Guess what? My friends and I were also vaguely accused of some sort of espionage, with no evidence

My friends and I did nothing wrong. Jason Rezaian has done nothing wrong.

Yet, we were all punished: held incommunicado by the Iranian government in arbitrary, solitary detention – myself for over 13 months, Rezaian for over 15 months now, and my friends for over two years.

So, yes, these cases fit a pattern – not just the arrest, dubious charges and the blatant illegality of imprisonment. It's also often the release that fits that pattern.

Last week Rezaian was found guilty in a closed court. It's not clear for what or for how long – but we do know that Rezaian was sentenced.

After more than two years in prison Shane, now my husband, and our friend Josh were released just two weeks after being convicted and sentenced to eight years for espionage.

In 2009 Roxana Saberi, another wrongfully convicted Iranian-American journalist, was held for over three months, given an eight-year sentence for espionage, then released less than a month later.

So the pattern goes: illegal arrest, allegations of espionage, lengthy, high-profile imprisonment, show trial, conviction, then “humanitarian” release.

Is the Iranian government gearing up for Rezaian's release?

The fact that the trial is nothing but political theater is good for Rezaian. The sentence itself means nothing. Yet there are many variables standing between him and his freedom.

For the Iranian government, imprisoning Americans provides an important kind of security, like money in the bank – a bargaining chip it can use as leverage or to assert pressure in any number of scenarios.

When a hostage has been held too long, he or she decreases in value. When the pressure on and condemnation of the Iranian government reaches a critical point, the hostages become more trouble than they are worth. That's how people get released.

For the Iranian government, the timing of a release of a political hostage is everything. I was released just days before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). My release was timed to soften the president's image in light of the rampant human rights condemnations against him. Shane and Josh were released a year later, again, right before the UNGA and right after Ramadan.

But the UNGA is over. Ramadan is over.

Even more importantly, a historic nuclear deal has completely changed the equation – a deal the Iranian government never would have signed on to if it wasn't ready for the decades-long stalemate between our governments to end.

Not even Congress or hardliners in Iran have been able to kill this deal.

So why is the Iranian government still holding Rezaian?

I feel certain that the nuclear deal bodes well for the four Americans held unjustly in Iran. I also think it creates less incentive for the Iranian government to use hostage-taking as a tactic in the future.

Yet the fact that Rezaian is still sitting in a jail cell reminds me that – though huge leaps have been made towards ending decades of animosity between our countries – this long, terrible chapter of U.S.-Iranian relations has not ended.

There are interests inside Iran that will do anything to stop this normalization from happening, and I wouldn't be surprised if those same forces are the ones blocking Rezaian's release.

While I was being held hostage I felt certain that my freedom – if and when it came – would be calibrated precisely in response to the temperature of unfolding U.S.-Iranian relations. My interrogators told me as much. The Omani negotiators that worked diligently on our case told me as much.

In 2013, this was confirmed publicly when the Associated Press reported that it was a series of secret talks between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials – facilitated and hosted by the Sultan of Oman – that paved the road for the historic agreement over Iran's nuclear program.

“Ironically,” said the AP report, “efforts to win the release of the three American hikers turned out to be instrumental in making the clandestine diplomacy possible.”

October 18 was “Adoption Day,” the day that both sides begin to fulfill their obligations under the nuclear deal.

According to the deal, Iran has to act first: showing good faith by removing centrifuges, reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium, destroying the core of the Arak reactor and expanding inspector access – all of which it hopes to do by December 2015.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government believes implementing these changes could take much longer. Under terms of the deal, Iran will not experience any sanction relief until “Implementation Day,” when signatories are satisfied that Iran has fulfilled its obligations.

It may not be until spring of 2016 before the Iranian people begin to see some economic benefit.

With parliamentary elections in February, President Hassan Rouhani can't afford to wait that long. He therefore has every incentive to cooperate in every way possible in order to hasten the arrival of “Implementation Day” – including softening Iran's image on human rights.

Rezaian, the most high-profile prisoner of the moment, is the obvious choice for a humanitarian release.

The question boils down to this: Does Rouhani have enough power to get this done? Or are his hands tied?

Ultimately, it's Iran's Supreme Leader who makes the decision for a hostage to be released. Ayatollah Khamenei is probably hearing from the hardliners that Iran should continue to hold Rezaian until the United States and world powers fulfill their end of the deal by lifting sanctions.

It's a perverse, cynical equation that has nothing to do with the suffering of an innocent man and his family.

Reading his writing, Rezaian seems like the kind of person who will come out of prison with compassionate, sensible things to say that we could all benefit from hearing.

It really is time to close this chapter on U.S.-Iranian relations; the quicker this deal is implemented, the sooner sanctions are lifted, the better.

I hope Rezaian's case is the last to fit this hateful “pattern.”

I hope this is the end of an era.

I don't know what moment the Iranian government will choose to free Jason Rezaian, but there could be no better moment than now.

Israel believes Syria kept ‘significant’ chemical munitions


Israel believes Syria has retained caches of combat-ready chemical weapons after giving up raw materials used to produce such munitions under pressure from foreign powers, a senior Israeli official said on Thursday.

Summarizing Israeli intelligence estimates that were previously not disclosed to avoid undermining the Syrians' surrender of their declared chemical arsenal, the official said they had kept some missile warheads, air-dropped bombs and rocket-propelled grenades primed with toxins like sarin.

“There is, to my mind, still in the hands of Syria a significant residual capability … that could be used in certain circumstances and could be potentially very serious,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

While saying Israel had a “high degree of confidence” in its information, he declined to give figures for chemical weapons allegedly kept by Syria, citing secrecy concerns as well as the possibility some had been destroyed or used by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

“What we are saying is that there are a number of questions here that still have to be clarified, still have to be looked at very closely” by international inspectors, the official said.

Israel is an old foe of its northern Arab neighbor and in April 2013 its intelligence service was the first to accuse Assad's regime of using chemical weapons against areas held by Syrian rebels in the on-going civil war.

Western powers soon echoed the charge and Washington threatened Damascus with air strikes.

Assad agreed to give up the chemical arsenal, which Damascus had previously not acknowledged having. However, he denied his forces had used them and accused rebels of such attacks.

International diplomats told Reuters this week that Syria had revealed a previously undeclared research and development facility and a laboratory to produce the ricin poison.

Those disclosures appeared to support Western assertions in recent months that the Assad regime had not been fully transparent in detailing its chemical weapons program.

GAME-CHANGER

The Israeli official said the 1,300 tonnes of mustard gas and precursors for sarin and VX surrendered by Syria largely matched Israeli assessments of its total stockpile of such materials. The shelf-life of any deployable munitions held back was limited given the chemicals' deterioration, he added.

Those assessments appear to contribute to overall Israeli relief at the Syrian chemical disarmament, even if Assad has reneged in part. The Israeli official voiced confidence that “our deterrence” – usually a coded reference to Israel's superior military and assumed nuclear arsenal – would continue to keep Damascus in check.

Using chemical weapons against Israeli targets, even on a small scale, “wouldn't be a game-changer, it would be a game-ender” for Syria, the official said.

He was less sanguine, however, when asked about the possibility that Islamic State insurgents in Syria and Iraq might get hold of Assad's remaining chemical weapons.

Israel had no indication that this had happened, he said, indicating Israeli intelligence knew where Assad's remaining chemical arms were kept and that these sites were still safe – something he declined to confirm or deny directly.

“I haven't seen any information that they (Islamic State) have received them. I would not be surprised if they are interested, though, in receiving them,” he said.

While using higher-yield munitions like air-dropped bombs might be beyond the insurgents, they could easily launch attacks with “a bunch of grenades with sarin” if this became available, the official added. He noted Israel's concern at the entrenchment of Islamist rebels along its ceasefire line with Syria in the occupied Golan Heights.

According to regional sources, Israel has on several occasions bombed sites in Syria to thwart the suspected handover of conventional weapons from Assad to allied Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. Israeli officials have not formally confirmed carrying out the strikes but say they are poised to take similar action to prevent insurgents getting chemical weapons.

“When we have seen things that we are concerned about, whatever has been done has been done, and that's it. We have been very careful not to be sucked in. So that policy will continue,” the Israeli official said.

Additional reporting by Anthony Deutch in The Hague; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer

Report: Israel attacked two targets in Syria


Israel attacked two targets in Syria, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya network reported.

The attacks in Latakia and Damascus on Wednesday night targeted SA-8 portable missiles that were to be transferred to Hezbollah in northern Lebanon, according to the report published Thursday evening, which cited unnamed sources. The missile shipments were destroyed, according to the report.

Syria had not responded to the report of the attacks by Thursday night.

Thursday’s report came after news of a massive explosion Wednesday at the Latakia air base, where advanced anti-aircraft missiles produced in Russia are believed to be stored. Israeli drones were reported to have flown in Lebanese air space earlier in the day.

Israel carried out a July 5 air attack near Latakia, a major Syrian port city, targeting advanced anti-ship cruise missiles sold to the Syria government by Russia, according to reports in The New York Times and other news sources.

In January, Israel reportedly struck a weapons convoy in Syria carrying Russian-made missiles en route to Hezbollah. In May, Israel reportedly hit Syrian missile stockpiles on two occasions.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the attacks, though U.S. officials have identified Israel as the attacker in all three incidents.

Across enemy lines, wounded Syrians seek Israeli care


Not a hundred miles from Damascus, a Syrian rebel lies in a hospital bed, an Israeli sentry at the door. Nearby a Syrian mother sits next to her daughter, shot in the back by a sniper.

What started this year as a trickle is now a steady flow of Syrians, scores of civilians and fighters wounded in the civil war and being discreetly brought across the Golan frontline into Israel — a country with which Syria is formally still at war.

For all the advantages it brings of excellent medical care, it is a journey fraught with risk for those who fear the wrath of President Bashar Assad's government.

“There was one man, where I am from, who was treated in Israel. The regime forces killed his three brothers,” the teenage girl's mother said. “They will kill my sons and my husband if they ever find out we were here.”

For fear of retribution back home, Syrians in Israeli clinics who spoke to Reuters asked not to be named.

The woman's 16-year-old daughter, whose wounds have left her paralysed in both legs, lies stone-faced as an Israeli hospital clown juggles and dances, trying in vain to raise a smile.

[Related: Jews helping Syrians: Never invited, always welcome]

For the past month, she has been at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, about 50 miles west of the U.N.-monitored ceasefire line in the Golan Heights that has kept Israeli and Syrian forces apart since they fought in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

A few weeks ago, a battle was raging in her home village between Assad's forces and rebel fighters. There was a lull, her mother said, and the girl opened the front door to see if it was safe out. Her aunt told her to shut it again because there was a sniper in the house opposite. As she did so, he shot her.

“I saw her falling to the floor, in all the blood,” her mother recounted. “I was terrified I was going to lose her. I said 'Please, I don't want to bury my children one by one'.”

The girl was rushed to a rebel field hospital, where Syrian medics removed a bullet lodged in a lung. But they could not provide the further care she needed. The girl, they said, should be taken across the border, to Jordan or to Israel.

“We would get Israeli television channels in my village. I knew that medicine here is advanced,” the mother said. “In Jordan I would have to pay for it and we do not have enough money. Here it is free.”

The woman declined to say exactly how she and her daughter reached the Israeli lines in the Golan so that soldiers could transport them to hospital. She did say that Syrian rebel fighters helped them reach the area of the Israel-Syria front.

BORDERS

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war which began in 2011. According to the United Nations, more than 2 million refugees have fled the country, most to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey. Of the population of about 20 million, one third is displaced, either inside or outside Syria.

Israel refuses to accept refugees from a country with which it is still technically at war. But it does provide medical care and, always concerned to counter the negative image it has in most of the Arab world, it has made no secret of doing so.

The Nahariya hospital has treated more than 80 Syrian patients since March, around the time the Israeli military began taking in wounded Syrians who reach its lines seeking help.

The army does not reveal how the Syrians are brought over, nor whether it coordinates with rebels or others who deliver them into Israeli hands. “This is a very sensitive issue and people's lives are at stake,” a military spokeswoman said.

U.N. military observers based along the 45-mile ceasefire line did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967 and much of its population, many of them from the Druze sect, resettled beyond the ceasefire line in Syria. A small Arab Druze community remained under Israeli occupation and has kept in contact with relatives inside Syria.

The Israeli army has set up a field hospital on a mountain ridge that overlooks a cluster of Syrian villages on the plain.

Gunfire and explosions from battles there often sound across the frontline fence. Some wounded Syrians who have reached the boundary have been treated at the Israeli field hospital and then sent back. Others are transported to hospitals in Israel.

“We don't know how they come in,” said Shukri Kassis, a doctor at the Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli town of Safed, 25 miles from the Syrian frontline. “We just get notified by the army doctors that they are bringing them here.”

Kassis said his clinic had taken in more than 90 Syrians since February. The Israel government declines to give a total figure for how many have been treated in its hospitals.

EXECUTION

Staff at Nahariya said one man they treated had survived his own execution. He was shot at close range in the back of the head. Another young woman was shot in the head by a sniper.

Both are now back in Syria, their fate unknown. “It is very hard for us, after they go back, not knowing what happens to them after they return,” said Naama Shachar, head nurse at the children's intensive care unit in Nahariya.

In another ward, a man in his 20s sat up in bed staring down at his thigh, his lower leg now gone. He said he was a fighter in the Free Syrian Army. He was shot in a battle with Assad's forces a few weeks ago. He did not say where.

He recalled medics at a rebel field hospital trying to save his left leg but had no memory of how he got to Israel, a journey long enough for gangrene to turn his flesh black.

“I remember waking up in the emergency room,” he said. “The doctor said that to save my life they must amputate my leg and he asked me to sign the consent.”

The International Red Cross visits patients and offers assistance in contacting families. Some patients say they have sent word back home. Others fear that any message revealing their whereabouts would endanger their relatives.

The 16-year-old's mother has had no contact with her six other children left behind. “I worry about them all the time, if they are safe or not. There is no phone, only God to pray to,” she said, pointing upwards as her eyes welled up with tears.

FRIEND OR FOE

Israel has not taken sides in the Syrian war. Assad, allied with Israel's arch-enemy Iran, is also helped by fighters from Lebanese militia Hezbollah, another long-time foe. But those they combat worry Israel too. Among the rebels are al Qaeda-linked Islamists, also no friends of the Jewish state.

At the hospitals, the army stations military police outside the rooms of most male patients. Many of these, staff said, have come in with wounds most likely sustained in combat. At Ziv, doctors checking one fighter's pockets found a hand grenade.

“They could be al Qaeda. We just don't know,” one staff member said, adding that the men were being guarded for their own safety too – in case of disputes among patients.

With many Israeli medical staff being native Arabic speakers, communication with Syrian patients presents little problem. And many of the wounded and relatives have responded to a welcoming environment by modifying hostile views of Israel.

“For us, Israel was always the enemy,” one Syrian woman from the southern city of Deraa said at Ziv, where she and her eight-year-old daughter were being treated after being caught in an explosion. “Thank God, I am happy here. I am well treated.”

The Free Syrian Army fighter said word of Israeli treatment was spreading back home: “I was happy when I found I was here,” he said. “Most fighters know they will get good care in Israel.”

Medical staff say they make no distinctions among those they treat and some have formed close bonds with Syrian patients:

“In medicine there are no borders, no colour, no nationality,” said Oscar Embon, director general of the Ziv Medical Center in Safed. “You treat each and every person and I am proud that we are able to do this.”

Obama sees possible breakthrough in Syria weapons proposal


U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday he saw a possible breakthrough in the crisis with Syria after Russia proposed that its ally Damascus hand over its chemical weapons for destruction, which could avert planned U.S. military strikes.

But Obama, speaking in a series of television interviews, remained skeptical and pushed ahead to persuade a reluctant and divided Congress to back potential U.S. action, saying the threat of force was needed to press Syria to make concessions.

In an extraordinary day of diplomacy over the war-wracked Middle Eastern country, Russia seized on an apparently throwaway public remark by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to fashion a new approach that could save face for all sides.

“My preference consistently has been a diplomatic resolution to this problem,” Obama told NBC. He said an agreement for Assad to surrender his chemical weapons to international control would not solve the “underlying terrible conflict inside of Syria.”

He added: “But if we can accomplish this limited goal without taking military action, that would be my preference.”

“It's possible that we can get a breakthrough,” Obama told CNN, although there was a risk that it was a further stalling tactic by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has presided over more than two years of civil war.

“We're going to run this to ground,” he said. “John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”

In Congress, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid pushed back a Senate test vote on possible U.S. strikes that had been scheduled for Wednesday as lawmakers evaluate the Russian plan.

The vote is still expected this week, and a more contentious vote would later be held in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Obama has argued that Assad, fighting to continue his family's four-decade rule, must be punished for what Washington says was a poison gas attack on rebel areas that killed over 1,400 people on Aug. 21.

The dramatic diplomatic twist in weeks of high-tension international wrangling came when Kerry was asked by a reporter during a visit to London whether there was anything Assad's government could do or offer to stop a U.S. military strike.

“Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week – turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting. But he isn't about to do it and it can't be done.”

The State Department later said Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons, which Assad denies his forces used.

RUSSIAN PROPOSAL

Less than five hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had put what sounded like Kerry's proposal to his visiting Syrian counterpart during talks in Moscow. Walid al-Moualem said Damascus welcomed the Russian initiative – while not spelling out whether Syria would, or even could, comply.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has blocked U.N. action against Assad and says Obama would be guilty of unlawful aggression if he launches an attack without U.N. approval.

Lavrov said: “If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons … makes it possible to avoid strikes, then we will immediately get to work with Damascus.”

Lavrov said Russia was also urging Syria to eventually destroy the weapons and become a full member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Rebels fighting Assad's forces on the ground, where hundreds are being killed by conventional bullets and explosives every week, dismissed any such weapons transfer as impossible to police and a decoy to frustrate U.S. plans to attack.

Kerry later called Lavrov to tell him that while his remarks had been rhetorical and the United States was not going to “play games,” if there was a serious proposal, then Washington would take a look at it, a senior U.S. official said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took up the same theme, saying that he might ask the Security Council to end its “embarrassing paralysis” over Syria and agree to act.

Asked about Lavrov's proposal, Ban said: “I'm considering urging the Security Council to demand the immediate transfer of Syria's chemical weapons and chemical precursor stocks to places inside Syria where they can be safely stored and destroyed.”

Britain and France, permanent members of the Security Council with Russia, China and the United States, both tentatively welcomed the Russian proposal.

WEAPONS BANNED BY 1925 TREATY

U.N. chemical weapons inspectors were in Damascus at the time of the August attack, which Assad and Putin have blamed on rebel forces. Ban said that if the evidence they were able to gather – after lengthy bargaining over their movements with Syrian officials – proved the use of toxins, the world must act.

Syria, which has never signed a global treaty banning the storage of chemical weapons, is believed to have large stocks of sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agents – the actual use of which is banned by a 1925 treaty to which Damascus is a signatory.

White House officials were skeptical of the feasibility of the Russian proposal. Syria is a battleground where access for foreign experts would be dangerous. And it would be very hard to verify whether all sites had been sealed.

Years of cat-and-mouse maneuvering between U.N. weapons inspectors and Saddam Hussein in neighbouring Iraq show how difficult it might be to enforce any arms control orders on a timetable that would satisfy Washington in the midst of a war.

Qassim Saadeddine, a rebel commander in northern Syria and a spokesman for the Supreme Military Council of Assad's opponents, said: “It is a trap and deceitful maneuver by the Damascus regime and will do nothing to help the situation.

“They have tons of weapons hidden that would be nearly impossible for international inspectors to find.”

Putin, however, would see major diplomatic advantages to any plan that bolstered Russia's role in brokering international settlements and thwarted strikes in which Obama may have French military support.

CONGRESSIONAL LOBBYING

Obama said he was pressing ahead to secure approval in Congress for limited and targeted strikes against Syria, aware of the strong opposition of most Americans after a decade of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I don't think that I'm going to convince … the overwhelming majority of the American people to take any kind of military action, but I believe I can make a very strong case to Congress, as well as the American people, about why we can't leave our children a world in which other children are being subjected to nerve gas,” he said on PBS.

Kerry said he was confident of the evidence that the United States and its allies had presented to support their case that Assad's forces used poison gas, a charge that Assad denies.

But Kerry said he understood wariness among Americans lingering from accusations against Saddam that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later proved to be false.

A survey by the newspaper USA Today found majorities of both houses remained uncommitted – reflecting broad and growing public opposition to military action.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Monday showed Americans' opposition to a U.S. military strike against Syria was increasing. The poll, conducted Sept. 5 to 9, indicated that 63 percent of Americans opposed intervening in Syria, up from 53 percent in a survey that ended Aug. 30.

Tapping into concerns in the West about the role of Islamist militants in the rebel forces, Syrian Foreign Minister Moualem said: “We are asking ourselves how Obama can … support those who in their time blew up the World Trade Center in New York.”

Assad himself warned of reprisals – if he were attacked Americans could “expect every action”, he told CBS television.

Brent crude oil futures sank more than 2 percent on Monday, as the prospect of a wider war in the Middle East appeared to recede. “This has thrown some sand into the wheels of military preparation in the U.S.,” said Michael Lynch of Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

“At the very least, it means the debate is going to be stalled while we wait and see if it works out.”

Inside Syria, government forces launched an offensive to wrest back control of a historic Christian town north of Damascus on Monday, activists said. In the past six days, the town of Maaloula has already changed hands three times between Assad's forces and rebels, some of whom are linked to al Qaeda.

Writing by Alastair Macdonald, Claudia Parsons and David Storey; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Jim Loney

Pope, in Syria peace appeal, calls for end to spiral of death


A somber-looking Pope Francis made an impassioned appeal before 100,000 people on Saturday to avert a widening of Syria's conflict, urging world leaders to pull humanity out of a “spiral of sorrow and death.”

Francis, who two days ago branded a military solution in Syria “a futile pursuit”, led the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world.

“Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!” Francis said at the midpoint of a five-hour prayer service. Police and the Vatican estimated a crowd of about 100,000 in St Peter's Square.

The United States and France are considering military action against Damascus to punish President Bashar Assad for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria's civil war that killed hundreds of people. Assad's government denies responsibility.

A number of people held up Syrian flags and placards reading “Hands off Syria,” and “Obama, you don't have a dream, you have a nightmare”. But they were not allowed into St Peter's Square, in keeping with the pope's intention for a religious service.

The service was punctuated by music, prayer, the reciting of the rosary and long periods of silence in which the participants were asked to meditate on the need for peace to vanquish the destruction of war.

“We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death!” said Francis, who wore his simple white cassock instead of ceremonial robes to the service.

“At this point I ask myself: Is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”

He then asked “each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it!”

When he announced the prayer vigil last Sunday, Francis asked Catholics around the world to pray and fast and invited members of other religious to take part in any way they saw fit in the hope that a wider war could be averted.

“That's very scary, very scary,” said Lennie Tallud, a clinical lab scientist visiting St Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Asked whether she thought prayers would make a difference, she said: “Definitely, for sure. No doubt. I think it would – 100 percent.”

Services were held by Christians around the world, including in Jerusalem, Assisi and Milan in Italy, in Boston and Baghdad.

 

MUSLIMS PRAY WITH POPE

Yaha Pallavicini, a leader of Italy's Muslim community, attended the prayer service with other Muslims.

“Praying for the intention of peace is something that can only help fraternity and, God willing, avoid more war,” he told Reuters. “As Muslims who want peace we have to work so that the values of faith and dialogue prevail over the destruction of peoples.”

In his address, the pope, who for most of the service sat silently behind an altar on the steps of the largest church in Christendom, stressed the power of prayer to change the world.

“This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!” he said.

“Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation,” he said.

His words struck a personal chord with Marina Verkotenh, a pilgrim from Russia. “I think it's very important for all the people to unite here at this square and to bring together all our forces to unite and to pray, and also to bring attention to all the people who decide this question, these important questions about war and peace,” she said.

At least one senior U.S. clergyman publicly expressed reservations about President Barack Obama's campaign for military action against Syria.

“As Congress debates a resolution authorising military force in Syria, I urge you instead to support U.S. leadership for peace. Only dialogue can save lives and bring about peace in Syria,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said in a message sent to U.S. senators from Florida and to his representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Additional reporting by Noreen O'Donnell in New York, editing by Mark Heinrich)

Russia warns of catastrophe if Syria reactor hit by U.S. strike


Russia said on Wednesday that a military strike on Syria could have catastrophic effects if a missile hit a small reactor near Damascus that contains radioactive uranium.

The Foreign Ministry called on the U.N. nuclear agency to urgently assess the risk as the United States considers military action to punish Syria's government for an alleged gas attack.

“If a warhead, by design or by chance, were to hit the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR) near Damascus, the consequences could be catastrophic,” a ministry statement said.

It said nearby areas could be contaminated by highly enriched uranium and that it would be impossible to account for the nuclear material after such a strike, suggesting it could fall into the hands of people who might use it as a weapon.

Russia urged the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency secretariat to “react swiftly” and present IAEA members “an analysis of the risks linked to possible American strikes on the MNSR and other facilities in Syria”.

Moscow has been the most powerful ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, shielding him from tougher U.N. resolutions and warning that a Western military attack on Syria would raise tensions and undermine efforts to end the country's civil war.

The Vienna-based U.N. agency had no immediate comment on the Russian statement. The IAEA said in a report to member states last week that Syria had declared there was a “small amount of nuclear material” at the MNSR, a type of research reactor usually fuelled by highly enriched uranium.

Nuclear expert Mark Hibbs, of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said the MNSR was a very small reactor and there would not be a lot of nuclear material there.

But he said there could be “a serious local radiation hazard” if there was irradiated nuclear material in the reactor and it was dispersed by a weapon strike.

Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector, said the core of such a reactor typically has 1 kg of highly-enriched uranium, much less than the 25 kg that would be sufficient to build an atomic bomb.

“Thus for nuclear explosive purposes it is of a limited value,” he said in an e-mailed comment. Any radioactive contamination, he added, “would be a local problem”.

In 2007, Israel bombed a desert site in Syria that U.S. intelligence reports said was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor geared to producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Syria said the site, at Deir al-Zor, was a conventional military facility.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Tom Pfeiffer

U.S. readies strikes, Syrians prepare for attack


People in Damascus stocked up on supplies on Wednesday and some left homes close to potential targets as U.S. officials described plans for multi-national strikes on Syria that could last for days.

United Nations chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs, looking for evidence of what – and who – caused an apparent poison gas attack that residents say killed hundreds of people a week ago.

But as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that President Bashar Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.

Syria's government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the United States, Britain and France and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders”.

Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its al Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred Western powers from arming Assad's foes – but they say they must now act to stop the use of poison gas.

Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorize military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians – a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China.

The United States and its allies say a U.N. veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a maneuver to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, NATO and Turkey also condemned Assad.

Washington has repeatedly said that President Barack Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order.

A senior U.S. official said strikes could last several days and would involve other armed forces: “We're talking to a number of different allies regarding participation in a possible kinetic strike,” the administration official said on Wednesday.

Western armies are expected to wait until the U.N. experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires in four days, and Secretary-General Ban said they need four days work.

A second U.S. official said objectives were still being defined but that the targets could be chosen to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in future. Washington was confident it could handle Syrian defenses and any possible reprisals by its allies, including Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

INVESTORS, RESIDENTS ALARMED

With only the timing of an attack apparently in doubt, oil prices soared to a six-month high. World stock markets were hit by jitters over where the international escalation of Syria's civil war might lead – however much Obama and his allies may hope to limit it to a short punitive mission.

Neighboring Turkey, a NATO member, put its forces on alert. Israel mobilized some army reservists and bolstered its defenses against missile strikes from either Syria or Lebanon.

Syria's envoy to the United Nations said he had asked Ban to have the team investigate three new attacks by rebel groups.

People in Damascus, wearied by a civil war that has left the capital ringed by rebel-held suburbs, braced for air strikes.

In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among civilian neighborhoods, some were leaving home in the hope of finding somewhere safer, though many doubted it was worth it: “Every street, every neighborhood has some government target,” said a nurse in the city center. “Where do we hide?”

At grocery stores, shoppers loaded up on bread, dry goods and cans. Bottled water and batteries were also in demand.

TIMING CALCULATIONS

Numerous factors, including weather and assessments of Syrian air defenses, may affect the timing of strikes. Analysts expect cruise missiles to be launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean. Aircraft could also play a role, as may forces from other NATO powers, notably Britain and France.

Obama is waiting for a U.S. intelligence report, though its findings are in little doubt. U.S. officials have already blamed Assad for the attacks on August 21.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled parliament to debate the Syria crisis on Thursday. He should be able to secure cautious support, despite widespread misgivings among Western voters about new entanglements in the Muslim world. But British action is unlikely before lawmakers have had their say.

The prospect of a Group of Twenty summit in St. Petersburg next Thursday may also weigh in calculations over timing any strikes. Russian host President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states.

“The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted on Wednesday. Western leaders in the G20 may prefer to have any strikes on Syria completed before the summit starts.

As diplomats from Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States met at the United Nations, Moscow said Britain was “premature” in seeking a Security Council resolution for “necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russia and China might veto the move but added: “It's time the U.N. Security Council shouldered its responsibilities on Syria which for the last two and a half years it has failed to do.”

A senior Western diplomat said: “Of course there will be a Russian veto, but that's part of the objective – to show that we tried everything and the Russians left us no choice.

“The Americans want to go quickly.”

INTERNATIONAL LAW

China's official newspaper also criticized on Wednesday what it saw as a push for illegal, Iraq-style “regime change” – despite U.S. denials that Obama aims to overthrow Assad.

The U.S.-led NATO alliance said evidence pointed to Assad's forces having used gas, calling it a threat to global security.

Ban's special envoy for Syria, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, said “international law is clear” in requiring Council authorization for any military action. But Western leaders say precedents, including NATO's bombing of Russian ally Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war, allow them to protect civilians.

There was tension between the United Nations and Western governments. One U.N. official said: “The U.N. is annoyed and feels the Western powers haven't shared data or evidence with them, which is a problem. It kind of undercuts U.N. authority.”

Rebel fighters and opposition activists showed the inspectors homes in the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka that had been hit by last week's gas release. The experts also tested and interviewed survivors in hospital, as they did on a first trip on Monday that came under sniper attack.

Amateur video showed the convoy of white U.N. jeeps driving along a road, accompanied by rebels. One pick-up truck was mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. Gunmen leaned from the windows of another. Bystanders waved as the vehicles passed.

Syria's civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011 and driven millions from their homes, many crossing borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

It has heightened tensions between Assad's sponsor Iran and Israel, which bombed Syria this year, and has fuelled sectarian bloodshed in Lebanon and in Iraq, where bombs killed more than 70 people on Wednesday alone.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that U.S. action would be “a disaster for the region”.

Additional reporting by Wiliam Maclean and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Osborn in London, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Yeganeh Torbati and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Anthony Deutsch and Thomas Escritt in The Hague, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman and David Stamp

Israel worried about fate of Syria’s conventional arsenal


Syria's advanced conventional weapons would represent as much of a threat to Israel as its chemical arms, should they fall into the hands of Syrian rebel forces or Hezbollah guerrillas, Israeli sources said on Tuesday.

Such concerns suggest that Israel, which has signaled heightened readiness over the last week to react militarily if it thinks Damascus is losing control of its chemical arsenal, could also intervene over Syria's Russian-supplied missiles.

“It's clear that unconventional weaponry is a very grave matter. But when you look at the overall, relevant arsenal, Syria has new, advanced (conventional) weapons of a kind you don't find elsewhere in the Middle East,” a source briefed on Israeli defense planning told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

A former Israeli national security adviser, Uzi Arad, said in a radio interview on Monday that Syria – where President Bashar al-Assad is battling a 22-month-old armed uprising – had 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents.

Israeli officials have also voiced concern about Syria's advanced Russian-supplied weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

Israel fears that should such weapons fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, this could dent the Jewish state's superiority in any future confrontation.

During a 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israel had complete air dominance during countless bombing runs over southern Lebanon, though it was surprised when one of its ships off the Lebanese coast was hit by a cruise missile, killing four servicemen.

Addressing an international aerospace conference on Tuesday, Israeli air force chief Major-General Amir Eshel described Assad's military arsenal as “huge, part of it state-of-the-art, part of it unconventional”.

“Syria is the most salient example of a country in the process of disintegration, where none of us has any idea what will happen the day after,” he told a conference at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.

COVERT WARFARE

Israel and NATO countries say Syria has stocks of various chemical warfare agents at four sites. Syria is cagey about whether it has such arms but insists that, if it had, it would keep them secure and use them only to fend off foreign attack.

Syria is widely believed to have built up the arsenal to offset Israel's reputed nuclear weapons, among other reasons. Some Israeli experts fear the logic of mutual deterrence would not hold for sub-national Islamist militant groups involved in the rebellion in Syria.

The United States and other world powers have also warned of the danger posed by Syria's chemical weapons.

In his speech, Eshel did not address mounting speculation that Israel could launch preventive strikes in Syria, though other military brass has said such an option was feasible.

But Eshel said the air force was involved in what he termed “a campaign between wars”, working with Israeli intelligence agencies in often covert missions. He did not elaborate other than to blame arch-adversary Iran for the lion's share of weapons supplies to Israel's regional enemies.

Sudan, a conduit for arms to the Palestinian Gaza Strip via Egypt, blamed Israel for an attack last October on a weapons factory in Khartoum. Israel also operates regularly in the skies over Lebanon.

“This campaign is 24/7, 365 days a year,” Eshel said. “We are taking action to reduce the immediate threats, to create better conditions in which we will be able to win the wars, when they happen.”

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Three bombs target Syrian Interior Ministry


A car bomb and two other explosives went off at the main gate of the Syrian Interior Ministry in Damascus on Wednesday, causing some deaths, state television said.

It did not give figures on casualties. Lebanon's al-Manar television, which supports Hezbollah, said four people were killed and more than 20 wounded in the explosions.

The ministry is in Kafar Souseh, an area of the Syrian capital that borders the central Ummayad Square and is contested between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

A resident said she heard sirens and shooting after a “huge explosion”. The pro-government TV station Al-Ikhbariya aired footage of concrete rubble, blood on the floor and a 2-meter-wide hole in the road.

Rebels have made gains on the outskirts of Damascus recently but relied on hit and run attacks and bombs in the centre of the city, often on state security buildings or areas loyal to Assad, such as Jaramana, where twin bombs killed 34 people in November.

A July 18 bomb attack that killed four of Assad's closest aides, including his feared brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, was followed shortly by an insurgent advance into the city but they were later pushed back.

At least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria's uprising, which started in March 2011 with street protests which were met with gunfire by Assad's security forces, and spiraled into the most enduring and destructive of the Arab uprisings.

Reporting by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Syrian rebels battle army near Damascus


Syrian rebels clashed with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad near Damascus airport on Tuesday, battling for the capital's outskirts after 20 months of conflict which the United Nations said has driven half a million people from the country.

Fighting near the airport, 12 miles south-east of Damascus city center, is part of a broader confrontation between Assad's forces and rebels who hold a near continuous arc of territory from the east to the southwest of Assad's power base.

“There were very heavy clashes since yesterday in the town of Haran, on the eastern side of the airport, and there has been intermittent fighting in the Aqraba area by the airport,” said rebel spokesman Mussab Abu Qitada.

“The rebels are trying to maintain an encirclement of the airport. They are also still surrounding the Aqraba air base, on the international airport road,” he said by Skype from Damascus.

The center of the capital, shielded for months from the violence which has killed 40,000 people since March 2011, echoed to the sound of shelling from Monday evening, residents said.

The shelling appeared to be directed from the Qasioun mountain range, overlooking northern Damascus, towards the rebellious southern suburbs.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have made military gains against the forces still loyal to Assad, many of them from Syria's Alawite religious minority. The rebels have seized military bases across the country in the last month and are starting to encircle the capital, where power cuts and food shortages are hurting residents bracing for winter.

“We are barely surviving,” said a woman in the Midan district who would only identify herself as Umm Ahmed. She said she queued in vain from 6 a.m. until midday at bakeries which ran out of bread before she could buy any at the normal price, leaving her looking for supplies at much inflated rates.

“If I want to buy it on the street, the black market price is 150 lira (about $2) – three times the cost,” she said. “We are living without electricity and water, and the food is very expensive.”

Central Damascus has been suffering up to 12 hours of power cuts a day, residents say. Movement around the city, peppered with security checkpoints, is increasingly difficult and soldiers, security forces and local vigilantes are everywhere.

HALF A MILLION REFUGEES

The conflict started with street protests inspired by uprisings across the Arab world. Demonstrations were met with gunfire by Assad's forces and spiraled into the most protracted and destructive battle of the Arab uprisings.

The fighting has driven hundreds of thousands of Syrians into neighboring countries and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday more than half a million were either registered or awaiting registration in the region.

Lebanon is now host to 154,387 registered Syrian refugees, Jordan has 142,664, Turkey 136,319, Iraq 65,449 and North Africa 11,740, UNHCR said in a statement issued in Geneva. In addition, there are more than 1.5 million Syrians who fled violence in their homes and are displaced in safer areas within the country.

Large numbers of Syrians have also crossed into neighboring countries but have not yet come forward to register for refugee status and assistance, it said. These include about 100,000 in Jordan, 70,000 each in both Turkey and Egypt and tens of thousands in Lebanon, it said, citing government estimates.

Assad's political and armed opponents, dogged by splits and rivalries throughout their battle to end his family's 42-year rule, have established a more unified political opposition and military command, hoping to win international recognition and stronger support on the battlefield.

Abu Moaz al-Agha, a leader and spokesman of the powerful Ansar al-Islam Gathering which includes many Islamist rebel brigades, said the new, Islamist-dominated military command elected in Turkey at the weekend deserved more foreign backing.

“What we need now is the heavy weapons and we expect to get them after the formation of this. The anti-armour and anti-aircraft weapons are what we are expecting,” he told Reuters by Skype from Turkey before heading on a trip to the Gulf.

“The Qataris and the Saudis gave us positive promises. We will see what will happen,” he said, adding that officials from Western countries, who also attended the meeting in Turkey, had not mentioned arming the rebels but talked about “sending aid”.

The new political opposition coalition, formed in Qatar last month, will meet officials from countries mostly opposed to Assad in Morocco on Wednesday, hoping for a clear recognition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf states have already granted the formal recognition. The European Union, in a meeting on Monday, moved a step closer towards recognition and the United States has suggested it could also endorse the coalition.

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Is Syria bluffing on chemical weapons?


As rebel forces move closer to Damascus, there are reports of activity in Syrian chemical weapons sites, raising fears in the region that Syria could use those chemical weapons. NBC News reported that the Syrian army has loaded bombs with precursors of Sarin nerve gas which could then be loaded onto planes.

Syrian officials dismissed the report as ludicrous.

“Syria stresses again, for the tenth, the hundredth time, that if we had such weapons, they would not be used against its people. We would not commit suicide,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Maqdad said.

Despite his denials, U.S. officials issued harsh warnings about the consequences if Assad does decide to use them.

“Our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons, or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a news conference after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

“And so as part of the absolute unity that we all have on this issue we have sent an unmistakable message that this would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account.”

The warnings come as the 20 months of fighting between Assad loyalists and rebels reached the outskirts of Damascus.

There is little question that Syria has large stocks of chemical weapons, although they have never officially acknowledged them. Syria is not a signatory to the chemical weapons treaty.

Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at Chatham House in London, believes that Syria is trying to send a message to the West that keeping the Assad regime in power means more stability for the region.

“When Syria says it would never use chemical weapons against its own people, the subtext is that they would use it against an invading force,” Shehadi told The Media Line. “They also imply that if the regime falls there is a high risk of these substances falling into the wrong hands. The regime is trying to frighten the West.”

Syria’s neighbors are also nervous. Israel fears Syria could give some of the chemical weapons to Hizbollah, the guerilla group in south Lebanon. Israeli officials admitted they are nervous.

“We are closely following the reports on chemical weapons in Syria,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line. “These reports are of obvious concern for all neighboring countries including Israel. Possible use of these weapons is absolutely unacceptable.”

The Atlantic magazine reported that Israel has asked Jordan for permission for a green light to attack Syrian chemical weapons facilities, but Jordan said “no.” The report said Israel could go it alone but does not want tensions with its neighbor.

A senior Israeli official would not confirm the report, but did say “there is close coordination with the Americans over the chemical weapons issue.”

Some Israeli analysts say it is doubtful that Syria would use chemical weapons, even if the regime was on its last legs.

“Assad knew that Western intelligence agencies would pick up the movement at the chemical weapons sites,” Eldad Pardo, an expert on Syria at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line. “The regime is trying to intimidate the insurgents and make it an international issue.”

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.

Securing Syria chemical weapons may take tens of thousands of troops


The United States and its allies are discussing a worst-case scenario that could require tens of thousands of ground troops to go into Syria to secure chemical and biological weapons sites following the fall of President Bashar Assad’s government, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

These secret discussions assume that all of Assad’s security forces disintegrate, leaving chemical and biological weapons sites in Syria vulnerable to pillaging. The scenario also assumes these sites could not be secured or destroyed solely through aerial bombings, given health and environmental risks.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to explain the sensitive discussions, said the United States still had no plans to put boots on the ground in Syria. President Barack Obama’s administration has, in fact, so far refused to provide lethal support to the rebels fighting to oust Assad’s regime and the Pentagon has played down the possibility of implementing a no-fly zone anytime soon.

“There is not a imminent plan to deploy ground forces. This is, in fact, a worst-case scenario,” the official said, adding U.S. forces would likely play a role in such a mission.

Two diplomatic sources, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said as many as 50,000 or 60,000 ground forces may be needed if officials’ worst fears are realized, plus additional support forces.

Even a force of 60,000 troops, however, would not be large enough for peacekeeping and would only be the amount required to secure the weapons sites – despite some of the appearances of a Iraq-style occupation force, the diplomatic sources cautioned.

It is unclear at this stage how such a military mission would be organized and which nations might participate. But some European allies have indicated they are unlikely to join, the sources said.

The White House declined comment on specific contingency plans. Spokesman Tommy Vietor said that while the U.S. government believes the chemical weapons are under the Syrian government’s control, “Given the escalation of violence in Syria, and the regime’s increasing attacks on the Syrian people, we remain very concerned about these weapons.

“In addition to monitoring their stockpiles, we are actively consulting with Syria’s neighbors – and our friends in the international community – to underscore our common concern about the security of these weapons, and the Syrian government’s obligation to secure them,” Vietor said.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

POTENTIALLY DOZENS OF SITES

While there is no complete accounting of Syria’s unconventional weapons, it is widely believed to have stockpiles of nerve agents such as VX, sarin and tabun.

The U.S. official said there were potentially dozens of chemical and biological weapons sites scattered around the country.

Securing them could not be left to an aerial bombing, which could lead to the dispersion of those agents, the official said.

“There could be second-order effects that could be extremely problematic,” the official said of aerial bombing.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that it was important that Syrian security forces be held together when Assad is forced from power, citing, in particular, their ability to secure chemical weapons sites.

“They do a pretty good job of securing those sites,” Panetta said in an interview with CNN in July. “If they suddenly walked away from that, it would be a disaster to have those chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, hands of Hezbollah or other extremists in that area.”

The United States, Israel and Western powers have been discussing the nightmarish possibility that some of Assad’s chemical weapons could make their way to militant groups – al-Qaeda style Sunni Jihadi insurgents or pro-Iranian Shi’ite Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah.

Some Western intelligence sources suggested that Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, both close allies of Syria, might try to get hold of the chemical weapons in the case of a total collapse of government authority.

Syria began to acquire the ability to develop and produce chemical weapons agents in 1973, including mustard gas and sarin, and possibly also VX nerve agent.

Precise quantities and configurations of chemical weapons in the Syrian stockpile are not known. However, the CIA has estimated that Syria possesses several hundred liters of chemical weapons and produces hundreds of tons of agents annually.

The Global Security website, which collects published intelligence reports and other data, says there are several suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

Analysts have also identified the town of Cerin, on the coast, as a possible production site for biological weapons.

Editing by Warren Strobel

Druse students return to Golan from Damascus


Dozens of Druse students studying in Syria returned to their Golan Heights homes.

The students, who had been studying at a university in Damascus, crossed from Syria into Israel on Tuesday through the Kuneitra crossing. They had received permission to return two weeks ago.

Their crossing was delayed after concerns by the ruling government of President Bashar Assad that the Druse students would assist the rebels’ cause, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Druse lawmaker Ayoub Kara, deputy minister for development of the Negev and Galilee from the Likud Party, assisted in the negotiations to return the students to Israel.

Kara’s office told the Post that he is facilitating aid to Syrian refugees and has been in contact with Syrian government officials considering defection.

Syrian government control of Damascus weakening, Israel says


Syrian government control of Damascus is slipping and President Bashar Assad has redeployed troops from areas near the Israeli border to bolster his forces around the city, Israel’s army intelligence chief said on Tuesday.

“The Syrian military is acting very brutally, which shows the regime is desperate. Its control of Damascus is getting weaker,” Major-General Aviv Kochavi told a parliamentary committee, according to a Knesset spokesman who briefed reporters on his remarks.

“Assad has moved many of his forces that were in the Golan Heights to the conflict areas,” Kochavi said. “He’s not afraid of Israel at this point, but primarily wants to bolster his forces around Damascus.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Hamas reportedly leaving Damascus


Hamas is reportedly thinning its ranks in Damascus as pan-Arab pressure builds on the Syrian regime.

Diplomats said this week that the Palestinian Islamist group, which has long had its headquarters in the Syrian capital, has been quietly relocating staff to Gaza following the Arab League decision to suspend Syria over its bloody crackdown on anti-regime protestors, according to news reports.

A Hamas spokesperson denied the report, according to the Jerusalem Post.

According to the diplomats, Hamas has been leaving quietly to avoid Syrian state scrutiny as well all that of Iran, an ally of Damascus and a financial backer of Palestinian terrorist groups. Another Islamist militia supported by Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has emphasized that its alliance remains sound.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah lauded Syria as a “resistance regime” during a surprise appearance Tuesday before ecstatic crowds of Shi’ite supporters in Beirut. Nasrallah has kept largely out of view since the 2006 war with Israel.

“Every day we are growing in number, our training is getting better, we are becoming more confident and our weapons are increasing,” he said.