Syrian rebels to Russia: Stop bombing us


An alliance of Free Syrian Army-related insurgent groups said on Monday it was skeptical about a Russian proposal to help rebels, and that Moscow must stop bombing rebels and civilians and withdraw its support for President Bashar Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday the Russian air force, which has been bombing insurgents in Syria since Sept. 30, would be ready to help the “patriotic” Syrian opposition.

“Their words are not like their actions. How can we talk to them while they are hitting us?” Issam Rayyes, spokesman for the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters.

Russian warplanes have bombed a number of FSA-affiliated groups in northern areas of Syria since intervening in the war on the side of Assad. The Russian air force is providing air cover for several major ground offensives being waged by the Syrian army and allied Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

Rayyes added that there was no contact between the rebels and the Russians, clarifying an earlier remark to the BBC that the rebels had not turned down a Russian offer. “There is no offer, there is no communication,” Rayyes said. 

“We don't need the help now, they should stop attacking our bases and then we can talk about future cooperation,” Rayyes said in his earlier BBC interview.

His comments echo the views of other Syrian rebels towards the Russian statement, with Assad's opponents suspicious that Moscow is working purely to shore up its ally. 

The Southern Front alliance operates mostly near the border with Jordan and Israel – an area thus far not targeted in the Russian air strikes, but where the rebels are continuously fighting the Syrian army and allied militias.

The FSA is a loose alliance of groups, some of which have received military aid from Assad's foreign enemies. They are often led by former Syrian army officers and espouse a nationalist vision for the country.

Such groups have, however, been eclipsed in much of Syria by jihadists including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State group – the stated target of the Russian intervention in the war.

U.S. considers air strikes, action with Iran to halt Iraq rebels


The United States said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in the Middle East.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.

The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups who oppose what they say is oppression by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite.

Joint action between the United States and regional Shi'ite power Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Iran's 1979 revolution, demonstrating the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an “existential threat” for Iraq. Asked if the United States could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: “I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive.”

As for air strikes: “They're not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” he said. “When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.”

The Pentagon said that while there might be discussions with Iran, there were no plans to coordinate military action with it.

Britain, Washington's ally in the 2003 war that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, said it had reached out to Iran in recent days. A U.S. official said meetings with Iran could come this week on the sidelines of international nuclear talks.

Iran has longstanding ties to Maliki and other Shi'ite politicians who came to power in U.S.-backed elections.

ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on mediaeval Sunni Muslim precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq's Maliki and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It considers Shi'ites heretics deserving death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it last week.

Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures from Saddam's era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.

ISIL fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another town on Monday, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks, adding to an arsenal of U.S.-provided armor they have seized from the disintegrating army.

Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to try to provide cover for retreating troops.

“It was a crazy battle and dozens were killed from both sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the bodies,” said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby city of Falluja, largely held by insurgents since early this year.

Overnight, the fighters captured the mainly ethnic Turkmen city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq after heavy fighting on Sunday, solidifying their grip on the north.

“Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi'ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” said a city official.

Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main city, which ISIL seized last week at the start of its push. Fighters then swept through towns and cities on the Tigris before halting about an hour's drive north of Baghdad.

Iraq's army is holding out in Samarra, a Tigris city that is home to a Shi'ite shrine. A convoy traveling to reinforce the troops there was ambushed late on Sunday by Sunni fighters near the town of Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.

An Iraqi army spokesman in Baghdad reported fighting also to the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the enemy had been killed over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.

OBAMA WEIGHING OPTIONS

President Barack Obama pulled out all U.S. troops in late 2011 and rules out sending them back, although he is weighing other options such as air strikes. A U.S. aircraft carrier has sailed into the Gulf along with a warship carrying 550 marines.

The only U.S. military contingent on the ground is the security staff at the U.S. embassy. Washington said on Sunday it was evacuating some diplomatic staff and sending about 100 extra marines and other personnel to help safeguard the facilities.

The sprawling fortified compound on the banks of the Tigris is the largest and most expensive diplomatic mission ever built, a vestige of the days when 170,000 U.S. troops fought to put down a sectarian civil war that followed the 2003 invasion.

Iraqis now face the prospect of a replay of that extreme violence, but this time without American forces to intervene.

Potential cooperation between the United States and Iran shows how dramatically the ISIL advance has redrawn the map of Middle East alliances in a matter of days.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected last year, has presided over a gradual thaw with the West, including secret talks with Washington that led to a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear program. But open cooperation against a mutual threat would be unprecedented.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that London had already made overtures to Tehran in recent days. A U.S. official said talks over Iraq between U.S. and Iranian officials could take place this week in Vienna, where both sides are attending nuclear negotiations.

SAUDI FEARS

Any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over Iraq could anger U.S. allies Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's main Sunni power, said it rejected foreign interference in Iraq, and blamed Baghdad's “sectarian and exclusionary policies” for fuelling the insurgency.

ISIL fighters' sweep through the Tigris valley north of Baghdad included Saddam's hometown Tikrit, where they captured and apparently massacred troops stationed at Speicher air base, once one of the main U.S. troop headquarters.

A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone. Captions said they were army deserters captured as they tried to flee fighting. They were shown being transported in the backs of trucks, led to an open field, laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures, the black ISIL flag can be seen.

“This is the fate of the Shi'ites which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures reads.

ISIL said it executed 1,700 soldiers out of 2,500 it had captured in Tikrit. Although those numbers appear exaggerated, the total could still be in the hundreds. A former local official in Tikrit told Reuters ISIL had captured 450-500 troops at Speicher and another 100 elsewhere in Tikrit. Some 200 troops were still believed to be holding out in Speicher.

Washington has urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to create unity, but the prime minister has spoken more of retaliation than reconciliation. He was shown on television on Monday meeting military chiefs, vowing to crush the uprising and root out politicians and officers he blamed for betraying Mosul.

“We will work on purging Iraq of the traitors, politicians and those military men who were carrying out their orders,” he said. “Betrayal and treason have made us more determined and strong, and I swear a sea of men will march to put an end to this black page in Iraq’s history.”

Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq based mainly in the south, have rallied to defend the country, turning out in their thousands to join militia and the security forces after a mobilization call by the top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani.

A leading Sunni cleric, Rifa al-Rifaie, said Sistani's call amounted to sectarianism. Sistani is known as a moderate who never called his followers to arms during the U.S. occupation.

“Sistani, that lion, where was he when the Americans occupied Iraq?” Rifaie said. He gave a list of Sunni grievances: “We have been treated unjustly, we have been attacked, our blood had been shed and our women have been raped.”

ISIL emerged after Saddam's fall, fought against the U.S. occupation as al Qaeda's Iraq branch and broke away from al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It says the movement founded by Osama bin Laden is no longer radical enough.

Its cause has also been taken up by many other Sunni groups who share its view that Maliki's government oppresses them.

Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who was vice president until fleeing the country in 2012 after Maliki accused him of terrorism, said Maliki must go: “What happened is an uprising by the Sunni Arabs in Iraq to confront oppression and materialization,” Hashemi told the BBC. “Resolving the conflict in Iraq comes through excluding Maliki from power.”

U.S. concludes Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in Syria


U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons on a small scale against rebel fighters in Syria's civil war, the White House said on Thursday.

The assessment, which followed President Barack Obama's demand for conclusive proof after U.S. intelligence analysts determined earlier this year that chemical weapons had likely been used, could put pressure on Washington to respond aggressively to the crossing of what Obama himself had called a “red line.”

“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters.

“Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information,” he said. “The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete.”

Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Sandra Maler

Austrian peacekeepers start pullout from Golan


Austria began the withdrawal of its 380 soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights.

The Austrians, who comprise more than a third of the 1,000-member U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, crossed on Wednesday from the Syrian side of the Golan to a U.N. base on the Israeli side. Some of the troops were scheduled to arrive in Vienna later in the day.

Last week, Austria said it was pulling its soldiers after fighting between government and rebel forces in Syria’s two-year civil war placed them in danger.

Croatia withdrew from the peacekeeping force earlier in the year due to similar fears.

Soldiers from the Philippines and India remain on the force. However, on Tuesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he also is considering pulling out his 342 soldiers.

The head of the peacekeeping force told an Austrian newspaper on Wednesday that he did not have enough time from Austria’s announcement to the withdrawal to find replacements.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week offered to send Russian troops to replace the withdrawing soldiers, but was turned down since the 40-year-old cease-fire agreement stipulates that soldiers from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council cannot be included in the force.

The U.N. force has been stationed on the Golan for 40 years.

Golan fighting spells more Syria trouble for Israel


Brush fires from stray mortar bombs were still ablaze on the occupied Golan Heights on Friday as Israeli farmers returned to their fields, a day after battles in Syria's civil war reached a U.N.-manned border crossing.

Once the smoke clears, Israel could find itself facing more trouble from multiple threats on its northern front.

On Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces beat back rebels who seized the Quneitra crossing on the Golan, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. The battles sent U.N. peacekeepers to their bunkers and prompted Austria to announce it was pulling its men out of the mission.

Israel is now concerned the entire United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is on the brink of unravelling – a scenario that could bring further escalation along what has been for decades a quiet frontier with Syria.

The peacekeepers, in place under a 1974 disengagement agreement after Israel and Syria fought a second war on the Golan, had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

But their quiet presence has been highly symbolic – an affirmation of a status quo under which the two countries, which last held peace talks 13 years ago, avoided direct conflict that could lead to all-out war.

“If there are no Austrians there is no UNDOF. They were the core force,” an Israeli diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “It will be very hard to find a replacement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, said on Friday that he was willing to send troops to fill in for the Austrians.

On high alert over escalating fighting between Assad's forces and his enemies in the Syrian-controlled parts of the Golan, Israel has started in recent months to adjust its deployment along the front. Shelling and machinegun fire have occasionally spilled over into Israeli-held territory.

The Israeli military has revived once-abandoned outposts on the Golan and sent up regular forces to take the place of reservists. Israeli leaders have spoken particularly of a future threat posed to peace on the Golan by jihadi fighters now battling against Assad's forces.

Israel has launched air strikes on Syria to prevent weapons transfers to arch-enemy Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militant group fighting on Assad's behalf.

However, it has shown few other signs of preparing to intervene in the civil war and has avoided taking sides.

Unlike his Western allies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stopped short of calling for an end to Assad's rule.

Bad news for Assad is generally seen as good news for Israel, which views him as the centre of a network of enemies linking Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah and Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip.

“From a selfish Israeli point of view, what is happening in Syria is a huge positive development for Israel. This axis of radicalism is now broken,” said Amos Yadlin, head of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

But Israel also knows that its enemy's enemy is not necessarily a friend.

“A complete victory by either side would not be an optimal situation,” said Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies. “The current situation is in a way optimal for Israel … and it will most likely go on for months if not years.”

On the Golan on Friday, Israeli firefighters put out brush fires from Thursday's fighting. As gunfire from Syria echoed at times in the distance, Israeli and Druze farmers tended to their cherry orchards. Israeli settlers peered through binoculars and watched shells on the Syrian side send up clouds of smoke.

Along one road, two Israeli soldiers, one of them armed with an anti-tank missile, crouched on the ground, gazing in the direction of Syria.

 

HEZBOLLAH THREAT

Israel has struck inside Syria at least three times in the past few months, each attack against what it believed to be weapons for Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to open a new front against Israel on the Golan.

One senior Israeli official briefed on intelligence said Nasrallah's words seemed to be backed by action.

“Hezbollah appears to be making inroads on the Syrian-held Golan too. This would seem consistent with what Nasrallah pledged. There aren't Hezbollah 'boots on the ground' there yet but the infrastructure is being built,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added that Hezbollah had much to gain from fighting on behalf of its longstanding patron Assad. Hezbollah, he said, was acting under assurances it would be rewarded by Assad in the form of arms transfers.

Hezbollah may be bolstered by its joint victory alongside Assad's forces against rebels in the battle over recent weeks for the Syrian town of Qusair, watched closely in Israel.

“It is our understanding that Qusair was basically a Hezbollah operation, from the planning to the handling of key weapon systems,” the official said. “Hezbollah crews were even operating Syrian T-55 and T-54 tanks there, as well as all significant artillery systems.”

But Hezbollah's involvement in Syria could also have a silver lining as far as Israel is concerned. Another Israeli official said Israeli intelligence assessed that up to 500 of the group's fighters have been killed in Syria.

That estimate was higher than others and Hezbollah itself has not said how many of its men have died in Syria.

Rabi said Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, was losing more than just men in its battles for Assad.

“Hezbollah is losing its legitimisation and prestige. After the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah was hailed in the Muslim and Arab world for carrying the torch in the fight against Israel. But with its entrance into Syria, it has made itself a target for Sunnis in Lebanon and in the entire world,” Rabi said. 

Additional reporting by Ammar Awad in the Golan Heights, Dan williams and Crispian Balmer; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff

Syrian army fights off rebels at Israeli crossing


Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fought off an attempt by rebels to seize the sole crossing between Syria and Israel on Thursday, while army troops sought to ram home strategic gains further to the north.

A day after losing control of Qusair, an important town close to the Lebanese border, rebels tried to grab back the initiative with an assault on Quneitra – a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights that is patrolled by the United Nations.

For the first time since the start of the uprising in March 2011, the rebels briefly took control of the area, sending U.N. peacekeepers scurrying to their bunkers. Israeli sources said Syrian forces wrested back the site after fierce fighting.

Austria said it would withdraw its 380 peacekeepers from the 1,000-strong U.N. monitoring force because of the fighting.

Pro-government troops have won a string of successes in recent weeks, boosting Assad at a time when the United States and Russia are struggling to organize a peace conference aimed at ending the civil war, which has killed more than 80,000.

Activists pushed out of the devastated town of Qusair this week issued a desperate plea for help, saying they were cornered by both Syrian troops and their powerful Lebanese allies, the Shi'ite guerrilla force Hezbollah.

“God has given us the strength to persevere, but until when only God knows. We beg you to move as quickly as possible to rescue us,” said a message posted on social networking sites.

France, which earlier this week accused Assad of deploying nerve gas in the civil war, said on Wednesday the situation on the ground needed to be rebalanced after the fall of Qusair, but did not say how that could be achieved.

Russia said on Thursday it was worried that allegations of gas attacks might be used as a pretext for foreign intervention.

“I do not rule out that somebody wants to use it to state that a red line has been crossed and a foreign intervention is necessary,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow with his German and Finnish counterparts.

QUAGMIRE

Western countries have so far shown little appetite for getting sucked into the Syrian quagmire, but there is also a clear aversion to letting Assad, heavily backed by Shi'ite Iran and their Hezbollah associates, emerge victorious.

France and Britain last month pushed the European Union to drop its ban on arming the rebels, who are mainly Sunni Muslims. London and Paris have not yet said if they plan to arm the fighters but wanted the ban lifted to apply pressure on Assad.

Syrian troops, buoyed by their success in Qusair, much of which was reduced to dust and rubble, sent artillery rounds flying into surrounding villages, where many rebels are hiding.

Qusair lies along an important corridor through the central province of Homs, linking the capital Damascus to the coastal heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Many opposition fighters and civilians are believed to have fled to the villages of Debaa, 5-km (3 miles) northeast of Qusair, and Buwayda another 7-km in the same direction. A Reuters photographer reported heavy fighting in both places.

“We have a large number of civilians and wounded in Buwayda,” said activist Mohammed al-Qusair

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was negotiating with Syria to reach areas surrounding Qusair to deliver medical assistance to the wounded. Humanitarian groups have estimated that up to 1,500 people might need help.

“We have material, medical supplies for distribution in public health centers and hospitals,” said ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb in Geneva, adding that Qusair itself appeared deserted.

“Today the conflict is extremely fragmented and this is one of the biggest operational challenges for the ICRC.”

With sectarian divisions deteriorating, the leader of Sunni Islamist group Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Syrians to unite against Assad and thwart what he called U.S. plans to set up a client state in Syria to safeguard Israel's security.

Washington and its allies which have backed the rebels have become alarmed in recent months by the rise of a rebel group that pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda.

Israel's military picked up two wounded Syrians after the clashes on the Golan Heights and transferred them to hospital for treatment, a military spokeswoman said.

Israel is worried that the Golan, which it captured from Syria in 1967 and fought over again in 1973, will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by jihadi fighters who are trying to topple Assad.

The rarely used Quneitra crossing is the only transit point between Syrian and Israeli disengagement lines set in 1974 and Thursday's battle will further heighten concerns in Israelabout the worsening security environment.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is meant to police the peace but has been largely ineffectual during the civil war. Israel however is keen to maintain an international presence in the area and has urged countries contributing to the force not to quit, despite the dangers.

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow

Syria fires on Israeli military vehicle, Israel returns fire


Syria fired on and damaged an Israeli army jeep, and Israel retaliated with a missile attack, the Israeli military said.

No one was injured when Syria opened fire on an Israeli army patrol early Tuesday morning in the Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces said. It was the third time this week that Israeli positions were targeted by Syria.

In retaliation, the IDF said an Israeli missile struck the source of Tuesday’s gunfire.

The IDF lodged a complaint with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, a peacekeeping force that was established in 1974.

The Syrian military claimed in a statement issued Tuesday that its military destroyed an Israeli military vehicle and its occupants. The statement said the jeep crossed the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights.

Israeli troops manning a border observation point in the Golan Heights were fired on Sunday and Monday. The Israelis did not retaliate but lodged a separate complaint with the U.N. observer force.

Also Tuesday, Israel transferred an injured Syrian national from the border to a hospital in northern Israel for surgery to treat shrapnel wounds.

Rockets from Syria land in Golan for second day


A mortar shell fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights in Israel for the second straight day.

The mortar fired on Tuesday morning landed in the central Golan Heights.

On Monday, two projectiles fired from Syria landed in the southern Golan Heights. In both cases, no damage or injuries were reported.

Israel filed complaints on both days over the rocket fire with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.

The rockets “were fired erroneously as a byproduct of internal conflict in Syria,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a tweet Monday. Tuesday's mortar also is believed to be an errant projectile fired as part of the country's civil war.

The rockets came after an alleged Israeli attack on a target in Damascus.

Meanwhile, Israel reopened civilian airspace in its North, with local commercial flights set to restart.

Also on Tuesday, the Palestinian terrorist  organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, based in Damascus, told The Associated Press that  it had received a go-ahead from Syrian President Bashar Assad to “attack Israeli targets” from the part of the Golan Heights that is controlled by Syria. The group has been fighting with Assad's troops against the rebels in the country's two-year civil war, according to the AP.

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

Syria rebels say they’re not in talks to free U.N. peacekeepers


Syrian rebels holding 21 U.N. peacekeepers near the Israel's Golan Heights in southern Syria said on Friday no talks were under way to free the men and gave no indication that they would be released soon.

The men are part of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which has been monitoring a ceasefire line between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights since 1974.

Their capture just a mile from Israeli-held lines is further evidence of how Syria's conflict, nearing its second anniversary, could spill over into neighboring countries.

“There are no negotiations between any parties,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk” brigade that captured the Filipino peacekeepers on Wednesday.

In several videos released on Thursday, the peacekeepers said they were being treated well in the village of Jamla by civilians and rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

The United Nations said the captives had been detained by around 30 rebel fighters, but Taseel said the men were “guests”, not hostages, and were being held for their own safety.

However, he said they would only be released once Assad's forces retreated from around Jamla and halted bombing there.

“Negotiations should be between (the United Nations) and the regime of Bashar al-Assad to stop the bombing and lift the blockade of the area so it can be safe,” Taseel said.

The Damascus government has not commented publicly about the incident.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had been approached by the Syrian opposition and was prepared to play a role in “receiving” the peacekeepers once they are released, but would not get involved in actual negotiations.

The ICRC was ready “to play the role of neutral intermediary in the framework of the kidnapping of the UNDOF soldiers provided that this is agreeable to all the parties concerned,” ICRC spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr told Reuters in Geneva.

INCURSIONS IN DE-MILITARISED ZONE

Taseel said the U.N. observers had a responsibility to keep heavy weapons out of the area.

Under an agreement brokered by the United States in 1974, Israel and Syria are allowed a limited number of tanks and troops within 20 km (13 miles) of the disengagement line.

Taseel said the Syrian military had exceeded those limits and that its warplanes were bombing opposition targets within 500 meters (yards) of the disengagement line.

A U.N. report in December said both the Syrian army and rebels had entered the de-militarized area between Syrian and Israeli forces, and that Syrian army operations had “affected adversely” UNDOF operations.

Referring to incidents including shelling from Syrian territory last year, it said: “Recent incidents across the ceasefire line have shown the potential for escalation of tensions between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, and jeopardize the ceasefire between the two countries.”

In January, Israel bombed an arms convoy in Syria which may have been destined for its Lebanese foe Hezbollah, diplomats and security sources said. Israel has said it will not “stand idle” if violence spreads to the Golan, which it captured in 1967.

The Israeli army told Reuters that eight UNDOF soldiers were “evacuated into Israel” from their lookout post on Friday, but gave no reason for the move.

The United Nations says around 70,000 people have been killed in Syria in the past two years. An uprising that began with mainly peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 has spiraled into an increasingly sectarian armed conflict.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Jon Hemming

Syria approves new constitution amid bloodshed


Syrian artillery pounded rebel-held areas of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced that voters had overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in a referendum derided as a sham by his critics at home and abroad.

The outside world has proved powerless to halt the killing in Syria, where repression of initially peaceful protests has spawned an armed insurrection by army deserters and others.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent did manage to enter the besieged Baba Amro district of Homs and evacuate three people on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. Foreign reporters trapped in the area were not evacuated and the bodies of two journalists killed there had not been recovered, it said.

While foreign powers argued over whether to arm the rebels, the Syrian Interior Ministry on Monday said the reformed constitution, which could keep Assad in power until 2028, had received 89.4 percent approval from more than 8 million voters.

Syrian dissidents and Western leaders dismissed as a farce Sunday’s vote, conducted in the midst of the country’s bloodiest turmoil in decades, although Assad says the new constitution will lead to multi-party elections within three months.

Officials put national voter turnout at close to 60 percent, but diplomats who toured polling stations in Damascus saw only a handful of voters at each location. On the same day, at least 59 people were killed in violence around the country.

Assad says he is fighting foreign-backed “armed terrorist groups” and his main allies – Russia, China and Iran – fiercely oppose any outside intervention intended to add him to the list of Arab autocrats unseated by popular revolts in the past year.

But Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in advocating arming the Syrian rebels, given that Russia and China have twice used their vetoes to block any action by the U.N. Security Council.

“I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in Oslo.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe criticised the U.N. Security Council’s “impotence” on Syria, shown by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and accused the Syrian authorities of “massacres” and “odious crimes.”

In a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Juppe said the time was ripe for referring Syria to the International Criminal Court and warned Assad he would be brought to justice.

“The day will come when the Syrian civilian and military authorities, first among them President Assad himself, must respond before justice for their acts. In the face of such crimes, there can be no impunity,” Juppe told the 47-member Geneva forum, which will hold an emergency debate on Syria on Tuesday.

HOMS BOMBARDED AGAIN

Shells and rockets crashed into Sunni Muslim districts of Homs that have already endured weeks of bombardment as Assad’s forces, led by officers from his minority Alawite sect, try to stamp out an almost year-long revolt against his 11-year rule.

The ICRC has been pursuing talks with the Syrian authorities and opposition forces for days to secure access to besieged neighborhoods such as Baba Amro, where local activists say hundreds of wounded need treatment and thousands of civilians are short of water, food and medical supplies.

ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said a team from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent team had entered Baba Amro. “They have been able to evacuate three persons, including an aged woman, and a pregnant woman and her husband,” he said.

The trio were believed to be Syrian and did not include four Western journalists trapped in Baba Amro, two of them wounded. A U.S. reporter and a French photographer were killed there on February 22.

International consternation has grown over the turmoil in Syria, but there is little appetite in the West for military action akin to the U.N.-backed NATO campaign in Libya.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Western powers hoped diplomacy could change minds: “We are putting pressure on the Russians first and the Chinese afterwards so that they lift their veto.”

The European Union agreed more sanctions, targeting Syria’s central bank and several cabinet ministers, curbing gold trading with state entities and banning cargo flights from the country.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any military intervention in Syria.

“I very much hope the United States and other countries … do not try to set a military scenario in motion in Syria without sanction from the U.N. Security Council,” said Putin.

The new constitution drops a clause making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allows political pluralism and limits a president to two seven-year terms.

But this restriction is not retrospective, implying that Assad, 46 and already in power since 2000, could serve two further terms after his current one expires in 2014.

The opposition dismisses the reforms on offer, saying that Assad, and his father who ruled for 30 years before him, have long paid only lip service to existing legal obligations.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now the new U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, was holding separate talks in Geneva with Juppe and Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.

Iran is Assad’s closest ally. The main Shi’ite Muslim power, it has religious ties to Assad’s Alawites and is confronting the Sunnis who dominate the Arab League – both the Sunni Islamists who have done well out of the past year’s democratic changes and autocratic, Western-backed leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Walter Gibbs in Oslo, Peter Griffiths in London and Leigh Thomas in Paris; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, David Stamp and Andrew Heavens

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).

Protests erupt across Syria on ‘Day of Rage’


Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrations Friday in the capital Damascus and the coastal city of Latakia – the heartland the ruling elite – wounding at least five people as thousands took to the streets in several places across the country, witnesses said.

Other demonstrations were reported in the coastal city of Banias, the northern city of Raqqa and the northeastern city of Qamishli.

President Bashar Assad’s regime has stepped up its deadly crackdown on protesters in recent days by unleashing the army along with snipers and tanks. On Friday, protesters came out in their thousands, defying the crackdown and using it as a rallying cry.

Read more at Haaretz.com.