EU slaps sanctions on Assad’s family; mortars hit Homs


The European Union slapped sanctions on the mother, sister and influential wife of President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, increasing pressure on Syria to halt its bloody crackdown against a year-long uprising.

The trio were among 12 Syrians added to a list of figures already hit with EU travel bans and asset freezes, diplomats said. Foreign ministers in Brussels also barred European firms from trading with two Syrian oil companies.

“With this new listing we are striking at the heart of the Assad clan, sending out a loud and clear message to Mr. Assad: he should step down,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal.

The decision came on a day of renewed violence across Syria, with the army firing at least 24 mortar rounds into the rebellious city of Homs, in central Syria, killing up to eight civilians, opposition supporters said.

Live television feeds from around Syria showed a slew of anti-Assad rallies, including in the Damascus district of Barzeh, in the northwestern city of Hama, in Qamishli in the Kurdish east, and in the southern city of Deraa.

“Damascus here we come,” read several placards held up by the relatively small crowds. Activists said eight people were wounded after demonstrations near five Damascus mosques were broken up.

On the diplomatic front, the U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who is leading international efforts to stop the relentless mayhem, planned to travel to Moscow and Beijing this weekend for talks on the crisis, his spokesman said.

Russia and China have resisted Western and Arab demands that Assad stand down and have vetoed two U.N. resolutions highly critical of Damascus. However, they supported a Security Council statement this week calling for peace, in a move that analysts saw as a sign they were adopting a tougher stance on Syria.

Nevertheless, both Russia and China voted against a call by the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday to extend a probe into violations committed by Syrian forces. The motion passed regardless, with 41 of the forum’s 47 members voting in favor.

More than 8,000 people have died in the rebellion, according to U.N. figures, but Western powers have ruled out military intervention in such a sensitive part of the world, putting the emphasis instead on economic sanctions and diplomacy.

“THE REAL DICTATOR”

The new EU sanctions build on 12 previous rounds of sanctions aimed at isolating Assad, including an arms embargo and a ban on importing Syrian oil to the European Union.

Full details will be released on Saturday, when the measures come into force, but diplomats confirmed that Assad’s British-born wife was on the new list.

A former investment banker, Asma cultivated the image of a glamorous yet serious-minded woman with strong Western-inspired values who was meant to humanize the isolated Assad family, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than 40 years.

But that image has crumbled over the past year, and she has stood resolutely by her husband’s side, describing herself as “the real dictator” in an email published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper last week.

Her ancestral home is Homs, now a symbol of the revolt which has been subjected to particularly fierce government attack. Video from the city on Friday showed plumes of smoke rising from residential areas after being hit by apparent mortar fire.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain and has a network of contacts in Syria, said the army clashed with defectors in the north-eastern town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey. Three soldiers and one defector were killed as the army fired heavy machineguns and mortar rounds, it said.

Other activists working for the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported 15 deaths on Friday around the country. They also said rebels had captured 17 members of the security forces in the northwestern Idlib province.

It is impossible to verify reports from Syria because authorities have denied access to independent journalists.

Syria has said 3,000 members of the security forces have died in the uprising, which Damascus blames on terrorist gangs and foreign interference.

ANNAN REVIEWING SITUATION

Annan has drawn up a six-point plan to end the unrest, including a demand for a ceasefire, political dialogue and full access for aid agencies. It also says the army should stop using heavy weapons in populated areas and pull troops back.

He sent five experts to Damascus earlier this week to discuss the deployment of international monitors—something Assad has resisted. The team has now left Syria and there was no immediate word if they had made any progress.

“Mr. Annan and his team are currently studying the Syrian responses carefully, and negotiations with Damascus continue,” his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement from Geneva.

Asked whether Annan would be returning to Damascus for talks with Assad, Fawzi told a news briefing: “He will at some point decide to go back, but this is not the time yet.”

Instead he will head to Russia and China, no doubt hoping to persuade them to bring their influence to bear on Syria.

Unlike the Arab League and Western countries, Annan has not explicitly called for Assad to step down, talking only about the need for dialogue and political transition.

Russia has historically close ties to Syria, which is home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. But analysts believe Moscow is starting to hedge its bets about Assad’s fate and is positioning itself for his possible fall.

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; in Brussels and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Jon Boyle

Pentagon: Rebels control most of Tripoli, Gadhafi in Libya


Libyan rebels appeared to be in control of most of Tripoli, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, adding that it was sticking to its assessment that leader Muammar Gadhafi had not left the country.

Calling the situation fluid, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said that Gadhafi’s forces remained dangerous even though their command capabilities had been diminished by major rebel advances into the heart of the capital and NATO air strikes.

The United States, which is providing Predator drones and other air capabilities to the NATO mission, sharply stepped up the tempo of its air strikes on Libya over the past week and a half, according to Pentagon data.

“It’s still very fluid, there’s still fighting going on,” Lapan said. “While we believe that opposition forces control a large part of the country, Libya and Tripoli in particular are still very dangerous places.”

Asked specifically about Tripoli, Lapan said the situation was too fluid to put a precise percentage on how much of the city was under rebel control. Rebel leaders say 80 percent of the Libyan capital is now controlled by forces opposed to Gadhafi.

“Majority (control of Tripoli) is safe but I wouldn’t get beyond that,” he said.

The United States was monitoring Libya’s chemical weapons sites, Lapan said, amid concern in Congress that those and other Libyan weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

Lapan said he was aware of a total of two Scud missile launches by Gadhafi forces. A U.S. official told Reuters that neither caused any injuries or deaths.

“Regime forces are going to use whatever means they have to continue to inflict damage on their opponents and on the civilian population,” he said.

The Pentagon said on Monday that it believed Gadhafi had not left the country, a position Lapan reaffirmed on Tuesday, saying: “Nothing’s changed.”

Still, he did not offer any more precise assessment about Gadhafi’s potential whereabouts.

Gadhafi’s son and presumed heir Saif al-Islam told a crowd that his father was well and still in Tripoli, confounding reports of his capture.

Asked whether the Pentagon was surprised by the emergence of Gadhafi’s son, whom the rebels had initially said was in their hands, Lapan said: “We’ve seen conflicting reports. Again it goes back to a very fluid situation … We continue to see conflicting reports about the whereabouts certain individuals.”

Editing by Philip Barbara

Letter from Cairo: Mubarak’s plight, as Egyptians fight back


Egypt’s internal stability is on a razor’s edge 10 days after hundreds of thousands of demonstrators began to take to the streets to speak out against rising food prices, unemployment and political unrest.  

Major city squares in the Egyptian capital of 18 million people as well as in the nation’s other cities have turned into encampments for Egyptian armed forces and tanks, while the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has taken measures to ensure that the demonstrators cannot reach each other, including blocking social networking websites, such as Twitter and Facebook.

“Our protests will continue, regardless of what they do,” said Asmaa Abdel Aleem, one of the demonstrators. “The people had already started unleashing their anger and there is no stopping it,” she added in an interview.

Abdel Aleem and her friends, a group of cyberspace activists who first invited Egyptians to the protests on Jan. 25, which marks Police Day in Egypt, may not have anticipated the reaction to their invitation.

This reaction was nothing but huge. Around 90,000 people signed up to signal their readiness to participate, and on Police Day they were true to their promises, as most of them streamed onto the streets and the squares of this major U.S. ally, demanding reform. As time went by, the numbers of demonstrators grew larger, their demands more sophisticated in intensity.

Only then did the octogenarian Egyptian President, who has ruled this country for 30 years, start to send in his anti-riot troops and armored vehicles by the thousands to crush the demonstrators and silence them.

They killed five unarmed protestors and injured thousands, but the protestors show no signs of repentance. Their choice of Police Day as a starting point for their demonstrations was meant to express the people’s frustration with their country’s police, which has not prevented crime, but rather protected a burgeoning class of extra-rich traders and steel barons who have mixed with corrupt government officials and ruling party leaders in a symbiotic relationship that has only harmed the poor, indeed showed nothing but brutality to the poor and the disconnected.

The intensity of the protests seem to have taken Mubarak and the officials in his ruling party by surprise. The first day of rioting passed without any official reaction, but on the third day, the Secretary General of the Party Safwat al-Sherif, who is also the Chairman of the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament, sounded a conciliatory note by expressing respect for the protests.

“The people have demands and we respect these demands,” al-Sherif told media at the central Cairo premises of the party that holds uncontested majority in both houses of the Egyptian Parliament. “We had instructed the government to alleviate the suffering of the people even before the protests broke out,” he added.

Few on the streets, however, seemed to believe him. Egypt’s political parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most vibrant opposition group in this country, announced that they would organize protests across the nation, defying Interior Ministry advice to the contrary. 

In the port town of Suez, the protests assumed a bloody nature, as protestors hurled police officers with stones, set armored vehicles on fire, and smashed the doors and the windows of government offices.

In Cairo, the talk is no longer of food, jobs or even bread—things the protestors were demanding on the early days of the demonstrations. It is now about the need to topple the Egyptian President, the former army commander who has for three decades suppressed the people and rendered the masses incapable of putting food on their tables, despite claims to the contrary by Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who heads the influential Policies Committee in the ruling party and his coterie of western-educated economists.

The people who voicing calls to bring Mubarak’s rule to an end are the same ones who scoffed at his claims a month ago that the economic reforms masterminded by his son were on their way to helping the poor.

“Tell them that the fruits of reform are on their way to them,” Mubarak said in an address to hundreds of his party members during the annual congress of the National Democratic Party in November.

But the fruits of these reforms seem to have stumbled along the way, giving enough reasons for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to go out on the streets to say “enough”—and a loudly, at that. Having witnessed a fellow Arab people, the Tunisians, force to flee their president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled with iron and fire for 23 years, Egyptians are asking themselves about whether they can do the same.

Following the public uprising in Tunisia, which was sparked by the self-immolation of a vegetable seller who was offended by a police officer, several Egyptians set themselves in fire to signal their desperation with their poverty and joblessness. Despite this, at first no one in Egypt moved to emulate the Tunisians, making the regime and its guardians believe they were safe. Now, their sense of security has been shattered by the millions of Egyptians who have shown they are ready to die to help their country get rid of what they call “Mubarak’s legacy of fear and indignity”.

Although the protestors are a mere fraction of Egypt’s 80-million people, they have the sympathy of their compatriots, whose fear of Mubarak’s secret services and state security has prevented them from joining in the protests.

“These protestors are real heroes,” said a cabbie who was moving past Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which has become an epicenter for the demonstrators in Cairo. “I hope they can force the dictator out of the country, as the brave Tunisians did,” he added.

Searching for a scapegoat, Mubarak dismissed his cabinet and—under pressure from the revolutionaries—appointed a vice-president and announced that he would not run for a sixth six-year term in office next September.

Few on the streets believe him. A few months ago, sardonic ruling party leaders had been saying that the elderly president was their candidate for the next presidential elections.

In the face of this and despite Mubarak’s claims, the demonstrators continue to insist that Mubarak must leave, not only the presidency, but also Egypt. He appealed to the demonstrators that he wants to die in his country. They, however, have such hatred for him and his legacy that they do not want him to die here.

On Wednesday, Mubarak sent thousands of thugs and former convicts to disperse the demonstrators’ gathering. The thugs killed five anti-Mubarak protestors and injured hundreds more, using all sorts of weapons—from stones, clubs, sticks and guns, to knives. They also destroyed whatever remaining sympathy the old president had when he – totally broken and defeated – had made his announcement that he would not seek more time in office just before.  

Now, Mubarak is depending on the thousands of army officers and soldiers deployed on the streets of the capital and other cities to keep the order and protect him against the anger of the demonstrators after his police force failed him by leaving their positions and turning tail on 28 January.

But many in this country still ask about how long the military will be loyal to the president, while their own people are suffering in pain. as the man craves nothing but staying in office “until the last breath” as he once declared in Parliament.

Al-Qotb (“The Writer”) is a pseudonym for The Jewish Journal’s Egyptian correspondent.