Echoes of Lebanon civil war as Syrian turmoil spreads


Tit-for-tat kidnappings by Syrian rebels and Lebanese Shi’ite gunmen have escalated tensions in Lebanon, where the specter of contagion from Syria’s conflict is alarming the fractured and war-scarred Mediterranean nation.

Despite government efforts to insulate it from turmoil in its once dominating neighbor, Lebanon has seen armed clashes in its two largest cities, and last week authorities said they uncovered a Syrian plot to destabilize the country.

The sight of masked gunmen in Beirut on Wednesday claiming the capture of 20 Syrians, and the kidnapping in broad daylight of a Turkish businessman near the airport, was another dramatic sign of Syria’s crisis spilling over into Lebanon.

While they may not herald an imminent slide towards conflict in Lebanon, the incidents highlight the weak and tenuous authority of Lebanon’s state institutions and point to future instability in the country of four million.

“This will have a negative impact on state authority, the military and the business environment in Lebanon” said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group consultancy. “The likelihood of civil war right now remains low, but reaching this stage is a very alarming development”.

To the outside world, kidnapping foreigners was a defining feature of Lebanon’s civil war, and the brazen public appearance by the masked gunmen this week – unchallenged by security forces – echoed the chaos of the 1975-1990 conflict.

“This …brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn,” said Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose policy of ‘dissociation’ from Syria’s conflict next door has come under growing strain.

SECTARIAN TENSIONS

Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, heads a government in which Shi’ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah and its Shi’ite and Christian allies – all supporters of Assad – hold half the cabinet seats.

Hezbollah, the only Lebanese armed faction not to disarm after the civil war, is the most powerful fighting force in the country. Its opponents have repeatedly and unsuccessfully called for it to put its mighty arsenal under state control.

Those long-standing sectarian tensions have been re-ignited by the mainly Sunni Muslim revolt in Syria against Hezbollah’s ally President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Shi’ite Iran, a rival to Sunni Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, sponsors both Hezbollah and Assad.

Most of Hezbollah’s opponents, including Mikati’s fellow Sunnis, are solidly behind the Syrian rebellion. In Sunni Muslim border areas of northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, arms have been smuggled to the rebels since the start of the uprising.

Tensions over Syria led to deadly street clashes three months ago in the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, home also to a staunchly pro-Assad Lebanese Alawite minority.

The kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi’ites in northern Syria in May also triggered street protests in Beirut.

Five days ago Lebanese authorities issued an indictment against a top Syrian security official and a former Lebanese minister whom it accused of forming an ‘armed gang’ that planned to detonate bombs to incite sectarian fighting in Lebanon.

MUCH TO LOSE

Assad’s woes have already emboldened some of his opponents in Lebanon, and Sunni Muslims might seek to press home political advantages against a weakened Hezbollah if he were to fall.

But analysts say that all sides in a potential Lebanese conflict know they have much to lose from all-out confrontation, an awareness which has helped them step back from the brink during several political showdowns in recent years.

Notable among such crises was the assassination in 2005 of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and its aftermath. The still officially unsolved killing of the Sunni billionaire with close ties to Saudi Arabia saw suspicion fall on Hezbollah and Syria.

A major escalation of violence now would be likely to draw in Gulf Arab countries, strong supporters of Lebanon’s Sunnis, against Hezbollah. Israel, which fought an inconclusive war with Hezbollah in 2006, could also get sucked into such a conflict.

Faced with that prospect, Lebanon’s divided political leaders appear keen to avoid escalating friction.

“All the evidence of the last seven or eight years has been that all the parties in Lebanon will do all they can to prevent the country shifting into all-out civil war,” said Beirut-based political commentator Rami Khouri.

Still, this week’s kidnappings by a group apparently beyond the control not only of the state but also the main political leaders on its own side of the divide, serve as a warning that street violence can build a momentum of its own.

“The Lebanese state is not a powerful centralized state,” Khouri said. “You have people outside the control of the state, whether it’s Hezbollah or small groups like these family-based militias that operate in society.

“The worry is that these incidents can escalate and get out of hand. Then you end up with armed conflict in the street.”

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

Israel: Syria Government Still in Control of Chemical Weapons


The Syrian government is still in full control of its chemical weapons stockpiles, a senior Israeli defense official said on Tuesday.

Israel’s foreign minister warned separately that the Jewish state would act decisively if Syria handed over any chemical or biological weapons to its Hezbollah enemies.

“The worry, of course, is that the regime will destabilize and the control will also destabilize,” the defense official, Amos Gilad, told Israel Radio.

But he added: “At the moment, the entire non-conventional weapons system is under the full control of the regime.”

Western countries and Israel have voiced fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups as the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erodes.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said Israel would consider military action to ensure those weapons did not reach Assad’s Hezbollah guerrilla allies in Lebanon. Israel says Hezbollah has some 70,000 rockets in its arsenal.

But Israel appeared to harden its line on non-conventional weapons reaching Hezbollah when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said at a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday that decisive action would have be taken against such a move.

“The moment we see Syrians transfer chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah this is a red line for us. And from our point of view it is a clear casus belli. We will act decisively and without hesitation or restraint,” Lieberman said.

On Monday, Syria acknowledged for the first time that it has chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign nations intervened in the 16-month-old uprising against Assad’s rule.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Angus MacSwan

Assad moves forces from Golan to suppress violence


Syria’s defense minster and several other government officials were killed or hurt by a suicide bomber in Damascus, a day after Israel’s army intelligence chief said that President Bashar Assad had moved his troops from the Golan Heights to the capital.

Also killed in Wednesday’s blast was Assad’s brother-in-law, who was Syria’s deputy defense minister. The bomber, who struck during a meeting of government and security heads, reportedly was a bodyguard.

The blast comes after four days of clashes in Damascus between government troops and anti-government activists.

“Israel is closely monitoring all of the developments in Syria,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement released from his office. In the hours following the blast, Barak held consulations with “the relevant security and intelligence officials” regarding the situation in Syria, according to the statement.

On Tuesday, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi told a Knesset committee that Assad had removed many of his forces from the Golan Heights to the areas of conflict inside Syria, according to news services briefed by a Knesset spokesman.

“He’s not afraid of Israel at this point, but mainly wants to augment his forces around Damascus,” Kochavi reportedly said.

Timeline: Violence in Syria


Following is a timeline of events in Syria since protests began.

2011

March 15 – About 40 people join a protest in Old Damascus, chanting political slogans in a brief first challenge to the ruling Baath Party before dispersing into side streets.

March 18 – Security forces kill three protesters in southern Deraa, residents say. The demonstrators were demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.

March 22 – Hundreds of people march in Deraa and Nawa demanding freedom in the fifth straight day of demonstrations challenging the government.

March 24 – President Bashar al-Assad orders the formation of a committee to raise living standards and study scrapping the emergency law in place in Syria for the last 48 years.

March 25 – At least 200 people march in Damascus and there are reports of at least 23 dead around the country including, for the first time, in Damascus.

March 29 – Government resigns. Assad appoints Naji al-Otari, head of the government that stepped down, as caretaker prime minister. Thousands of Syrians hold pro-government rallies.

April 19 – Government passes bill lifting emergency rule.

July 31 – Syrian tanks storm Hama, residents say, after a month-long siege. At least 80 people are killed.

Demonstrators protest against Syria’s President Bashar Assad on Nov. 18, 2011. Photo by REUTERS

Sept. 15 – Syrian opposition activists announce a Syrian National Council to provide an alternative to government.

Nov. 12 – Arab League suspends Syria.

Dec. 7 – Assad denies ordering troops to kill peaceful demonstrators, telling U.S. television channel ABC only a “crazy” leader kills his own people.

Dec. 19 – Syria signs Arab League peace plan and agrees to let observers into the country to monitor the deal.

Dec. 23 – Twin suicide bombs target two security buildings in Damascus, killing 44 people. Syria blames al Qaeda while the opposition blames the government.

2012

Feb. 4 – Russia and China veto a resolution in U.N. Security Council, backed by Arab League, calling for Assad to step down. The General Assembly approves a resolution on Feb. 16 endorsing the Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside.

Feb. 22 – More than 80 people are killed in Homs including two foreign journalists. Hundreds of people have now been killed in daily bombardments of the city by Assad’s besieging forces.

Feb. 23 – Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is appointed U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria.

Feb. 24 – Foreign ministers from more than 50 countries meet in Tunis for the inaugural “Friends of Syria” meeting. Russia and China, allies of Syria, do not attend.

Feb. 28 – Assad decrees that a new constitution is in force after officials say nearly 90 percent of voters endorsed it in a Feb. 26 referendum. Opponents and the West dismiss it as a sham.

Syrian and Lebanese protesters in Wadi Khaled village, north Lebanon on April 1. Photo by REUTERS/Roula Naeimeh

March 1 – Syrian rebels pull out of the besieged Baba Amr district of Homs after more than three weeks of bombardment.

March 11 – Annan ends talks with Assad and leaves Syria with little sign of progress.

March 27 – Syria accepts the U.N.-sponsored peace plan.

April 1 – At second “Friends of Syria” meeting, Western and Arab nations warn Assad not to delay adopting the peace plan.

April 12 – U.N.-backed ceasefire comes into effect. Four days later monitors start their mission in Syria to oversee the ceasefire which is undermined by persistent violence.

May 7 – Syria says voters turned out in large numbers for a parliamentary election it sees as central to a reform program. Opposition supporters denounce the exercise as a sham.

May 10 – Annan condemns attacks in Damascus in which two bomb explosions kill 55 people and wound 372, damaging an intelligence complex involved in Assad’s crackdown. A week later U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he believes al Qaeda was responsible. He also says 10,000 people have now been killed.

May 25 – At least 108 people are killed, including many children, in attacks in the region of Houla in one of the bloodiest days of the conflict.

People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla on May 26. Photo by REUTERS/Shaam News Network

May 27 – Security Council unanimously condemns the killings in Houla, confirmed by U.N. observers. Syria denies carrying out the massacre.

May 28 – Activists say Assad’s forces killed 41 people, including eight children, in an assault on Hama. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow is alarmed by the deaths but it is clear both Assad’s government and rebels are to blame.

May 29 – Annan says Syria is at a “tipping point” and appeals to Assad to act immediately to halt the violence.

May 30 – Rebels give Assad a 48-hour deadline to abide by the international peace plan or face consequences.

May 31 – Twelve workers are killed near the western town of al-Qusair when gunmen loyal to Assad ordered them off a bus and killed them, activists say. Syrian media blames “terrorists”.

June 1 – Annan says he is “frustrated and impatient” over the continuing killings and wants faster progress in resolving the crisis. On the same day, the U.N. Committee against Torture condemns the widespread use of torture and cruel treatment of detainees in Syria.

For an Interactive look at Syria click here.

Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; Editing by Andrew Heavens

U.N.’s Ban Ki-moon says bold steps needed to stop Syrian violence


The escalating violence in Syria shows the urgent need for the international community to take bolder steps, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a news conference in Istanbul on Friday.

Ban voiced fears a day earlier that any repeat of the massacre of civilians a week ago in Houla could tip Syria into a civil war, and drag neighboring countries into a bloody sectarian conflict.

“If the escalating violence shows anything, it is that we urgently need bolder steps,” Ban told a news conference at the end of an international meeting on aid for Somalia.

Created by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Violence across Syria; soldiers killed in ambushes


Syrian government forces killed dozens of people in the northern city of Idlib, dumping their bodies in a mosque, while some 22 soldiers died in two separate rebel ambushes, opposition activists said on Tuesday.

The army intensified its assault on the Idlib province near the Turkish border, intermittently shelling built-up areas and spraying houses with machine gun fire in a bid to dislodge anti-government fighters.

Clashes were also reported in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and security forces shelled Syria’s third largest city, Homs, as the year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule increasingly resembles a civil war.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died in the uprising and its refugee agency said on Tuesday that some 230,000 Syrians had fled their homes during the past 12 months, of whom around 30,000 have sought safety abroad.

In an apparent bid to deter the exodus, Syrian forces have laid landmines near its borders with Lebanon and Turkey, along routes used by refugees to escape the mayhem, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said.

Speaking after meeting opponents of Assad in Turkey, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said he was expecting to hear later on Tuesday the response from Syria to “concrete proposals” he had made to end the escalating violence.

By evening, there was no word on an answer, although the Syrian parliament said Assad had ordered a legislative election for May 7. It will be held under a new constitution, approved by a referendum last month which the opposition and their Western and Arab backers dismissed as a sham.

Both Russia and China have welcomed Assad’s reform pledges, including the promised election, and have blocked moves in the United Nations to censure the Syrian leader.

But the U.S. State Department was dismissive of the plan: “Parliamentary elections for a rubber-stamp parliament in the middle of the kind of violence that we’re seeing across the country? It’s ridiculous,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

STREWN BODIES

Following a brutal crackdown in the central city of Homs, the army has intensified its operations in the north and has been shelling the town of Idlib for the past three days.

An activist in the town, speaking by telephone, said security forces had killed more than 20 people trying to leave the area in the past two days and dumped their bodies in al-Bilal mosque. When locals went to inspect the corpses, they too came under fire, pushing the death toll above 50, he said.

Another activist gave a slightly lower death toll.

“When people came from the neighborhood early this morning, the security forces also started firing at them. In total, about 45 people were massacred,” said the man, who like many in Syria gave only his first name, Mohammed, for fear of reprisals.

Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.

Video footage showed the bodies of several unidentified men strewn on the floor of the mosque. An unseen voice said it was impossible to move them due to heavy shelling.

Army defectors killed at least 10 soldiers in an ambush in Idlib region, while rebels also killed 12 members of the security forces in the southern town of Deraa, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Following meetings with Assad at the weekend in Damascus, former U.N. chief Annan held talks in Ankara with the Syrian National Council (SNC) – a fractious assortment of Assad opponents whose leadership lives abroad.

“I am expecting to hear from the Syrian authorities today, since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider,” Annan told a subsequent news conference.

“Once I receive their answer we will know how to react.”

Annan has not disclosed what his proposals entailed, but a diplomatic source said the U.N. envoy had told Assad he wanted an immediate cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access to the conflict zones and political dialogue.

SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun said the aim remained to secure a political and diplomatic solution, otherwise foreign governments would deliver on promises to supply weapons to rebel forces.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arms to be sent to help in the fight Assad, who is a member of the minority Alawite sect and is allied to Shi’ite Iran.

However, the SNC is deeply divided, as resignations from the council showed. Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge and veteran dissident, quit the SNC and another opposition leader, Kamal al-Labwani, said he too was preparing to resign.

“There is a lot of chaos in the group and not a lot of clarity over what they can accomplish right now,” Maleh told Reuters in explaining his resignation from the SNC. “We have not gotten very far in working to arm the rebels.”

Syria lies in a pivotal position, bordering Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. Its 23-million population comprises a mix of faiths, sects and ethnic groups, and analysts say the gathering conflict could destabilize the entire region.

While the rebels have only light weapons, the army has repeatedly used tanks, mortars and artillery.

“I have heard shelling in the Old City since 8 this morning,” one activist in Homs told Reuters. “There is gunfire everywhere,” he added, asking to be referred to only as Sami.

Human Rights Watch said anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines of Russian origin had been found near Syria’s borders, with indications they had been planted by the army this year.

Syria, like Russia, the United States and over 30 other states, has not signed up to a global ban on landmines.

“Any use of anti-personnel landmines is unconscionable,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at HRW.

Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

White House warning: Assad must end crackdown or face ‘additional steps’


The Obama administration warned that the international community will take “additional steps” to pressure Syria’s rulers to end their crackdown unless they agree to the full withdrawal of forces from residential areas.

The statement issued Wednesday by the White House, reiterating Obama administration calls for Bashar Assad to quit power, was the first to hint at possible military intervention.

“We urge Syria’s few remaining supporters in the international community to warn Damascus that if the Arab League initiative is once again not fully implemented, the international community will take additional steps to pressure the Assad regime to stop its crackdown,” the statement said.  “Bashar al-Assad should have no doubt that the world is watching, and neither the international community nor the Syrian people accept his legitimacy.”

The Arab League initiative calls for a full withdrawal from residential areas, the release of political prisoners, and unfettered access by monitors and media.

President Obama has led an international effort to cut off Syria from the world economy and tighten sanctions since the regime began targeting democracy protesters in the spring, but until now has resisted calls for military intervention.

U.S. officials have said that unlike Libya, where limited NATO intervention helped rebels oust the leadership, Syria poses a more difficult challenge because of the deeper entrenchment of its rulers in the military and because the opposition is not as cohesive.

Syria: Deal reached with Arab League on unrest


Syria said on Tuesday it had reached a deal with an Arab League committee tasked with finding a way to end seven months of unrest and starting a dialogue between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents.

State media reported the deal, without giving details, saying an official announcement of the agreement would be made at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Wednesday.

The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown on an uprising which erupted in March against his rule, inspired by revolutions which have toppled three Arab leaders this year.

The government blames militants who it says are armed and financed from abroad for the violence and says they have killed 1,100 members of the security forces.

Arab League ministers met Syrian officials in Qatar on Sunday to seek a way to end the bloodshed.

Arab diplomats said the ministers proposed that Syria release immediately prisoners held since February, withdraw security forces from the streets, permit deployment of Arab League monitors and start a dialogue with the opposition.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country heads the ministerial committee, also said Assad must launch serious reforms if Syria were to avoid further violence.

A Lebanese official with close ties to the Syrian government said Syria had put forward its own proposals to the Arab League.

“The Syrian authorities want the opposition to drop weapons, the Arab states to end their funding for the weapons and the opposition, and an end to the media campaign against Syria,” the official told Reuters.

It was not clear how much those demands were reflected in the final agreement announced by Syria’s state media.

The United States said it welcomed efforts to put a stop to violence in Syria but it still believed Assad should step down.

Many in Syria’s opposition have ruled out any dialogue with Assad while the violence continues.

Omar Idlibi, a member of the grassroots Local Coordination Committee and member of the National Council, said the opposition wanted to see details of the agreement.

“We fear that this agreement is another attempt to give the regime a new chance to crush this revolution and kill more Syrians,” he said.

“It helps the Syrian regime to remain in power while the demands of the people are clear in terms of toppling the regime and its unsuitability even to lead a transitional period.”

Assad told Russian Television on Sunday he would cooperate with the opposition, but in another interview he warned Western powers they would cause an “earthquake” in the Middle East if they intervened in Syria, after protesters demanded outside protection to stop the killing of civilians.

Syria sits at the heart of the volatile Middle East, sharing borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

“It is the faultline, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” he said. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”

Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Rosalind Russell

Israel to UN: Syria’s border provocations carry serious potential for escalation


The Israeli delegation to the United Nations has dispatched a complaint letter to the UN chief and the president of the UN Security Council condemning Syria’s “dangerous provocations” on its border with Israel on Sunday.

Haim Waxman, the deputy chief of Israel’s delegation to the UN, stressed in his letter that the Syrian government bears the responsibility for any harm caused to the individuals who tried to breach the disengagement line with Israel on Naksa Day, the anniversary of Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.

According to Syrian media reports, Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed 22 protesters trying to cross from Syria into Israel on Sunday.

Waxman emphasized that the IDF acted with restraint while handling the protesters and that Israel had repeatedly alerted all parties regarding the “explosive potential of protests planned for June 5 2011.”

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Violence erupts in Israel, Israel-Syria border breached


Hundreds of Arabs from Syria stormed across the border into Israel on Sunday, prompting Israeli troops to respond with fire that killed at least four people.

The incident, which marked the first major eruption of violence along the border in decades, came on the same day that an Israeli Arab terrorist rammed a truck into pedestrians in Tel Aviv, killing one. Elsewhere around Israel and the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians protested to mark Nakba Day – the day Arabs mark the “catastrophe” of Israel’s birth on May 15, 1948.

The number of Arabs from Syria who breached the border on the Golan Heights was estimated at 400 to 1,000. The Israel Defense Forces declared the area of Majdal Shams, a Druze town near Mount Hermon, a closed military zone as Israeli troops tried to round up those who had infiltrated the border.

Israeli troops also fired on Palestinian protestors who approached Israel’s border with Gaza, wounding several teens, according to reports.

In Lebanon, thousands of Arabs reportedly converged on Israel’s border to demonstrate, but they were pushed back when the Lebanese Army fired warning shots into the air.

In Tel Aviv, Israeli law enforcement officials said they were considering the morning’s truck rampage, in which more than a dozen people were injured and one was killed, a terrorist attack. The 22-year-old man from the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Kassem who drove his truck into cars and pedestrians on a busy thoroughfare reportedly told police his tire had exploded, causing him to lose control of the vehicle.

In Jerusalem, Palestinian demonstrators also reportedly threw firebombs at Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.

The violence came two days after a Palestinian teen was killed during a protest in eastern Jerusalem. The boy may have been shot by a security guard for several Jewish families who live in the area.

Obama signs executive order sanctioning Syrians involved in government crackdowns


U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Friday imposing new sanctions against two relatives of President Bashar Assad, Syria’s intelligence agency and its director, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force in response to their part in crackdowns on Syrian protests, senior U.S. officials said.

Assad was not among those targeted for the sanctions, which will include asset freezes and bans on U.S. business dealings, but he could be named later if violence by government forces against pro-democracy protesters continues, the officials said.

The action builds on U.S. sanctions against Syria in place since 2004. The Syria Accountability Act (SAA), leveled against the Middle East country in 2004, prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10% U.S.-manufactured component parts to Syria.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

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.

Syria government resigns in effort to appease protesters


Syria’s Cabinet resigned Tuesday to help quell a wave of popular fury that erupted more than a week ago and is now threatening President Bashar Assad’s 11-year rule in one of the most authoritarian and closed-off nations in the Middle East.

Assad, whose family has controlled Syria for four decades, is trying to calm the growing dissent with a string of concessions. He is expected to address the nation in the next 24 hours to lift emergency laws in place since 1963 and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms.

More than 60 people have died since March 18 as security forces cracked down on protesters, Human Rights Watch said.

State TV said Tuesday Assad accepted the resignation of the 32-member Cabinet headed by Naji al-Otari, who has been in place since September 23. The Cabinet will continue running the country’s affairs until the formation of a new government.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Fatah-Hamas conflict forces Palestinians to choose


In calling for elections, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sharpened the choice facing the Palestinian people: Back his Fatah party and have peace with Israel and the promise of economic prosperity, or support the rejectionism of Hamas, whose nine months in office have brought only war, chaos and impoverishment.

Abbas’ call Saturday for early elections in the Palestinian Authority triggered fierce street fighting between Fatah and Hamas, which won the last election in January. Despite a hastily arranged cease-fire Monday, the two factions remain on the brink of civil war.

The United States, Israel and other Western countries are hoping for a Fatah election victory that could pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The United States is actively helping Fatah, but Israel — fearing that support for Fatah will backfire and undermine the moderates — is staying out.

The turmoil in the Palestinian camp comes as Syria launched a new initiative for peace with Israel. Peace with Syria would be a major strategic gain for Israel, breaking up the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, and it would put additional pressure on the Palestinians to cut a deal with Israel.

But Israel is not biting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not trust Syria’s intentions and does not want to cross President Bush, who opposes dealings with Damascus.

The internal Palestinian struggle and the Syrian overtures are both part of a greater regional struggle for hegemony, pitting Iran and radicals such as Syria and Hamas against Western-leaning moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Abbas’ Fatah. How the Palestinian struggle plays out, and whether Syria comes over to the moderate side, will have major implications for Iran’s position in the region.

In his speech Saturday calling for elections, Abbas launched a scathing attack on Hamas’ policy of violence and non-recognition of Israel.

“The settler land” — parts of Gaza that Israel evacuated last year — “should have flourished with economic, tourist and agricultural projects, but some people insist on firing rockets,” he scoffed.

“They kidnapped the Israeli soldier,” a reference to Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Gaza gunmen last June. “And since then they paid with 500 martyrs, 4,000 wounded and thousands of homes destroyed.”

The subtext was clear: Violence is getting the Palestinians nowhere, while peace moves could bring economic reward.

But Abbas did not set any date for elections. Analysts say he hopes to use the threat of elections to pressure Hamas into forming a national unity government with Fatah. That might enable the Palestinian Authority to accept the international community’s benchmarks for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of past agreements and renunciation of violence — paving the way for peace talks and the lifting of the international economic boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Some Hamas leaders are in favor of this. Others still hope to circumvent the boycott by bringing in Iranian money.

P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was intercepted recently trying to smuggle $30 million from Iran into Gaza in a suitcase. Indeed, Hamas strategy is built on financial and political ties with Tehran.

“Iran gives us strategic depth,” Haniyeh declared during a recent visit to Tehran.

The thinking behind this is the basis for Hamas rejectionism. Hamas leaders believe that if they can hold out until Iran gains regional dominance, they’ll be able to defeat Israel. Therefore, they argue, any attempts to make peace with the Jewish state are short-sighted.

The fighting on the streets was the worst between Fatah and Hamas in years, with children caught in the crossfire. Leaders on both sides also came under fire: There was a shooting attack on Haniyeh’s convoy as he returned to Gaza from Iran. Hamas blamed Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan and threatened to assassinate him.

Later, mortars were fired at Abbas’ presidential compound in Gaza.

Pundits say the slide into civil war can only be averted if there is an agreement on holding elections or if a unity government is formed. Hamas has been adamantly against elections, describing Abbas’ call for an early ballot as an “attempted coup” against a legitimately elected government.

Despite efforts to reach a compromise, analysts argue that an eventual showdown is inevitable, since the two groups’ basic positions on Israel and the nature of a future Palestinian state are irreconcilable.
As both sides prepare for armed conflict, the West is openly backing Fatah. The United States has pledged funds, and an American general, Keith Dayton, is training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Ramallah on Monday to back Abbas’ conception of peacemaking as something that brings significant economic benefits. By outlining a vision of economic prosperity, Blair hoped to convince the Palestinian people that Abbas’ approach has a good chance of success.

Abbas also has the backing of moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which is providing funds, and Egypt, which reportedly is supplying weapons.

Syria, however, continues to host Hamas leaders in Damascus, and that is one of the reasons Israel is wary of its new peace offer.

The Syrian peace rhetoric was unprecedented. In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, President Assad invited Olmert to meet him and test his intentions, while Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the Washington Post that a commitment to return the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks.

Israeli leaders are divided on how to respond. Olmert, and most of the government, argue that Syria must first show whether it’s on the side of Iran or the West. It can do that by expelling Hamas and other terrorist leaders from Damascus and stopping its meddling in Iraq and Lebanon.

Others, in Labor, the left and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, say Israel should use the chance to engage Damascus and try to swing it to the moderate camp. In a briefing of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan came down firmly on Olmert’s side, arguing that Syria isn’t really interested in peace but simply wanted to use talks with Israel as a means of easing Western pressure.

Some pundits argue, however, that Olmert is making a huge strategic blunder. The most scathing was Ma’ariv political analyst Ben Caspit.

“I wonder what Ehud Olmert will say to the members of the next commission of inquiry — the one that is set up in two or three years time after war with Syria or after it becomes clear just how big a chance was missed to split the axis of evil and isolate Iran,” Caspit wrote.