November 16, 2018

Haley Announces New Sanctions on Russia, Warns That More Airstrikes Against Syria Could Come

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria at the U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., April 13, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made the rounds on the Sunday morning show circuit and announced two pieces of news: the U.S. will be imposing new sanctions on Russia and more airstrikes could be coming Syria’s way.

On Fox News Sunday, Haley stated that the Russian sanctions would occur on Monday.

“If you look at what Russia is doing, they continue to be involved with all the wrong actors, whether their involvement in Ukraine, whether you look at how they are supporting Venezuela, whether you look in Syria and their way of propping up Assad and working with Iran, that continues to be a problem,” Haley said.

Haley was also asked by Fox News’ Chris Wallace on what the Trump administration would do if Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad continued to use chemical weapons, noting that President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis gave seemingly contradictory statements on the matter.

“What I can tell you is the president has made it very clear that when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, we have no tolerance for it,” Haley said. “We are going to watch out for the best interests of the American people. He made a point and hopefully Assad gets it. If Assad doesn’t get it, it’s going to hurt.”

Haley declined to say if military action in Syria is a possibility.

On Friday, a U.S.-led coalition launched airstrikes against Syria in response to Assad using chemical weapons against his own people. Three chemical weapons facilities in Syria were struck, although other chemical weapon facilities were left untouched. Trump has hailed the strikes as a blow against Assad, but the Syrian dictator is reportedly in “positive spirits” after the strikes because he doesn’t think his grip on power is being threatened.

Military Strikes on Syria: U.S. Faces Critical Considerations

A man is washed following alleged chemical weapons attack, in what is said to be Douma, Syria in this still image from video obtained by Reuters on April 8, 2018. White Helmets/Reuters TV via REUTERS

In response to the latest reported use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, which killed dozens of civilians in the town of Douma on April 7, President Donald Trump tweeted that there would be a “Big price to pay.”

Trump subsequently told a cabinet meeting on April 9, “We cannot allow atrocities like that. Cannot allow it. … Nothing’s off the table.” He then warned that regardless of whether Russia, the Assad regime or Iran was responsible, the United States’ response would be “very tough,” repeating that everybody involved would “pay a price.”

If the U.S. opts to act militarily, its policy should be guided by several considerations.

First, Washington should seek to divide Assad’s coalition with Iran and Russia. This means eschewing actions that could drive them together at a time when their interests may diverge (e.g., Moscow might be annoyed that Assad overreached by using chemical weapons, since such acts could drag the United States back into the war at a time when it seemed to be disengaging). Washington should also eschew actions that increase the potential for escalation. Its goal should be to de-escalate the situation by restoring deterrence vis-a-vis the Assad regime.

Specifically, any U.S. strikes should focus on regime assets while avoiding targets with higher risk of Russian casualties. Washington should also support Israel’s ongoing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria (establishing an informal division of labor there), to impose costs on Tehran for its policies. And the administration should continue to reserve the right to take action of its own against Iranian assets in Syria when they threaten U.S. personnel or interests.

Second, this problem will not end with a single set of strikes. Deterrence has a limited shelf life, and Assad likely will continue defying the international community and challenging the chemical-weapon red line. Additional strikes may be necessary to deter him from doing so.

Third, while U.S. strikes should target chemical weapons infrastructure when collateral damage can be minimized, they should be focused primarily on the regime’s conventional military capabilities. This would hinder the regime’s war effort much more than strikes focusing solely on chemical weapon capabilities.

Washington should also support Israel’s ongoing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, to impose costs on Tehran for its policies.

The main “weapons of mass destruction” in Syria have been barrel bombs, artillery and small arms. Chemical weapons may have killed several thousand, but conventional arms have killed more than 100,000 civilians. Thus, focusing solely on chemical weapons capabilities would limit the damage to dispensable assets. The U.S. should also target forces that have been essential to Assad’s victories, namely, ground units such as the 4th Armored Division, the Republican Guard and the Tiger Force, along with air units that deliver barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

This targeting strategy would have the added benefit of affecting the regime’s patrons. Russia and Iran have ensured the sustainability of their expeditionary activities in Syria by offloading risk and burdens on others, particularly Hezbollah and other foreign Shia militias. If U.S. strikes diminish Assad’s key ground and air units, the load would increase on Russia, Iran and Iran’s “Shia foreign legion,” raising the costs of their intervention.

To achieve that goal, U.S. forces would need to target major headquarters and destroy key capabilities and the people who enable them. Although Russia and Iran can replace the Assad regime’s equipment, they cannot replace its manpower, and manpower is what it lacks most. Moreover, by hitting the headquarters of the above-named ground units — which are manned by Alawites connected to the regime via family ties — the United States would strike a heavy blow and magnify the deterrent effect compared with hitting less important units or chemical weapon infrastructure alone.

The administration also should consider striking symbolic targets such as the presidential palace on Qasioun Mountain overlooking Damascus, whose destruction could have a significant psychological effect on the regime and the Syrian people.

Fourth, U.S. military actions should be guided by lessons learned in past efforts at deterrence and coercive diplomacy in the Middle East.

The United States should not set additional red lines unless it is willing to enforce them, and it should be prepared to answer any further attempts to test U.S. limits, since failure to respond would only invite more challenges.

Because disproportionate responses are prohibited by the Law of Armed Conflict, Washington should respond to Syrian challenges asymmetrically. It should hit not only the source of the provocation, but also assets that the regime truly values. Striking only disposable assets would enable Assad to sustain his defiance, calibrate risk and more safely test U.S. limits. Responding asymmetrically would introduce uncertainty into his cost-benefit calculus about future U.S. responses, thereby strengthening the deterrent effect of U.S. strikes.

The administration should make clear that its strikes will not be a one-off operation by employing constructive ambiguity about the possibility of future strikes. Otherwise, Assad may believe that he can outlast the United States.

Finally, Washington should use the threat of a strike to test the potential for multilateral diplomacy. This threat might help drive a wedge between Damascus and Moscow, and perhaps create new opportunities for pressing Syria to eliminate its undeclared chemical weapon stockpiles and observe its ceasefires with various rebel forces around the country — though experience does not provide reasons for optimism.


Michael Eisenstadt is the Kahn Fellow and director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute.

Why Israel?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. The government of Israel responded to that atrocity, as well as Iran’s use of Syria as a thoroughfare for weapons transfers to terrorist groups like Hamas, by bombing Syria’s T4 airbase. The media responded by castigating Israel: for example, the Associated Press headlined, “Tensions ratchet up as Israel blamed for Syria missile strike,” and accompanied that story with a photo of suffering Syrian children targeted by Assad, making it seem that Israel had targeted the children.

That media treatment was no surprise — the week before, the terrorist group Hamas used large-scale protests against Israel on the Gaza border as a cover for terrorist attacks on Israeli troops. When Israeli troops responded with force, the media falsely suggested that Israel had indiscriminately fired into the crowd. Meanwhile, reporters touted the story of a supposed photographer killed by Israeli forces; it turns out that the photographer was a known Hamas officer.

A few weeks earlier and some 2,000 miles away in France, 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was stabbed 11 times and her body set on fire by a Muslim neighbor who knew her well, and had convictions for rape and sexual assault. In 2017, there were 92 violent anti-Semitic incidents in France, a 28 percent year-on-year increase.

Moving across the English Channel, Israel’s Labor Party finally was forced to cut ties completely with the leader of the U.K.’s Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime anti-Semite who has routinely made nice with terrorists and defended open Jew-hatred in public. And, of course, in the United States, the alt-right’s anti-Semitism continues to make public discourse more crude and the Women’s March continues to make nice with anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan.

In other words, there is a reason for Israel to exist.

Israel’s self-interest is good for the Jews, good for the West and good for the world.

That reason is biblical, of course: Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people and the wellspring of Jewish practice. God’s promise to the Jews is inextricably intertwined with the existence and future of the State of Israel.

But over the past few decades, too many Jews have forgotten about the practical need for the Jewish state. In the same way too many Jews ignored the Zionist movement, believing that assimilation into tolerant non-Jewish societies provided the best pathway to a decent life, too many Jews today see Israel as a remnant of a hackneyed and counterproductive ethnocentric worldview. That dislike for Israel’s very existence has led many Jews to demonstrate their “world citizen” bona fides by using every opportunity to criticize Israel.

But Israel’s existence is not about ethnocentrism. Israel is multiethnic and multicultural, of course: Judaism is a religion far more than an ethnicity, as Russian and Ethiopian Jews can attest. Israel’s existence, on a secular level, is about enshrining a state that is safe for Jews the world over — and that can defend Jews and Western values in the face of regional and international threats. When Israel stands up to Syrian atrocities, it is acting out of a Judaic commitment to prevent the degradation of human beings made in God’s image; when Israel offers a road for European Jews on the verge of extinction, it is acting not merely out of solidarity but out of decency. Israel is a decent country, because it was founded on a decent purpose — and because it was founded on the basis of a tradition of decency.

That doesn’t mean Israel’s government is mistake-free. Far from it. But Israel’s extraordinary treatment at the hands of the world community is a demonstration that Israel is an outlier — and that’s a good thing. The United Nations that condemns Israel is filled with repressive dictatorships and corrupt plutocracies; the supposed “family of nations” is more like a squabbling band of self-interested moral idiots.

When Syrian children, mostly Muslim, gasp from chlorine poisoning, it is Israeli jets that provide a possible respite. Israel doesn’t act out of the pure goodness of its heart; it acts from self-interest. But Israel’s self-interest is good for the Jews, good for the West and good for the world. Forgetting that means trusting that the better angels of others’ natures will persevere over their internal devils. Historically, that’s been a rotten bet.


Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author, editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire and host of the podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show.”

Haley Issues Warning to Russia, Iran and Syria: ‘The United States Remains Prepared to Act If We Must’

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addresses the U.N. Security Council on Syria during a meeting of the Council at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a stark warning to Russia, Iran and Syria on Mar. 12 over the recent bombings in Syria: the United States is ready to take action if need be.

At the United Nations Security Council, Haley explained that Russia had been constantly blocking efforts to reach a ceasefire in Syria stopping Bashar al-Assad’s forces from striking the Eastern Ghouta area of Damascus. Russia eventually relented and agreed to a ceasefire, but only because they had a heavy say in each syllable of the agreement.

Haley proceeded to accuse the Russians of violating the agreement by taking advantage of a provision that allows for military strikes to take out terrorists.

“In the eyes of Russia, Iran and Assad, the neighborhoods of Eastern Ghouta are full of terrorists,” Haley said. “The hospitals are full of terrorists. The schools are full of terrorists. The Syrian and Russian regimes insist that they are targeting terrorists, but their bombs and artillery continue to fall on hospitals and schools and on innocent civilians.”

Haley then stated that the U.S. is producing a new ironclad ceasefire agreement that doesn’t feature any loopholes for the Assad regime to use against their own people. If the Security Council is unable to adopt the resolution, then the U.S. is ready to take matters into their own hands.

“Any nation that is determined to impose its will through chemical attacks and inhuman suffering – most especially the outlaw Syrian regime – the United States remains prepared to act if we must,” Haley said. “It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take it again.”

Russia is standing by its defense that they’re simply weeding out terrorism in the area and is claiming that they are attempting to implement the current ceasefire agreement.

Israeli Forum for Regional Thinking Research Fellow Elizabeth Tsurkov explained in a Twitter thread how “horrific” the situation is in Eastern Ghouta:

The Assad regime is essentially a client-state of Russia and Iran. Russia has been controlling the Syrian civil war since 2015 in the absence of a serious U.S. presence in the region, although there are issues surfacing for the Kremlin as their forces seemed to be bogged down in Syria for the foreseeable future. Syria is a key ally for Tehran, as the country serves as a route for Iran to arm their terror proxy Hezbollah.

In April 2017, the Trump administration launched airstrikes against the Assad regime for its barbaric use of chemical weapons against its own people.

H/T: Daily Caller

Comey on Holocaust: ‘Good people helped murder millions’

FBI Director James Comey. Photo courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League

FBI Director James Comey discussed those who participated in the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual conference on Monday afternoon. “Although the slaughter of the Holocaust was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by and followed by people who loved their families, took soup to sick neighbors, who went to church, who gave to charity,” Comey told the ADL gathering. “Good people helped murder millions.”

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

The top law enforcement officer added that in order to better understand humanity’s perils, the FBI requires officers and analysts to tour Washington’s Holocaust Museum in addition to studying about Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement.

“I believe the Holocaust is the most significant event in human history. How could such a thing happen? How is that consistent in any way with the concept of a loving God?” Comey asked. “The answer for me is I don’t know.”

During the first several months of the administration, the issue of the Holocaust has consistently dogged Trump’s presidency. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer argued that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad committed acts worse than Hitler while also referring to “Holocaust centers.” (Spicer later apologized). In a statement commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, the White House declined to include Jews, a strange omission, but furthered when they refused to admit any mistake.

The FBI director also noted that on his desk he keeps a 1963 memo from Director J. Edgar Hoover to Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking permission to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr. due to “communist influences.” Comey asserted that this letter was critical to remembering the dangers of unchecked law enforcement powers.

Sean Spicer apologizes for Holocaust remarks amid criticism from U.S. and Israeli Jews

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer apologized for claiming that Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons amid widespread criticism and calls for his job, including from U.S. Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians.

After repeatedly trying to clarify his comments, made Tuesday in a White House press briefing about last week’s chemical attack in Syria and Russia’s position on it, Spicer later in the day told CNN he was sorry to anyone he had offended.

“Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which frankly there is no comparison,” he told host Wolf Blitzer. “And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

The press secretary also on Tuesday phoned Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, whose office had reached out to him.

“Sean called shortly after and said he made a terrible mistake and apologized if he was offensive,” Adelson’s spokesman Andy Aboud said in a statement.

Spicer made the inaccurate claim about Hitler, which drew audible gasps from the Washington press corps, in an attempt to question Russia’s continued support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. The White House on Tuesday accused Russia of trying to cover-up the Syrian government’s role in the chemical weapons, saying U.S. intelligence had confirmed the Assad regime used sarin gas on its own people.

“We had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said. “So you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself is this a country that you want to align yourself with?”

The Nazis did not use chemical weapons in battle during World War II, but they used the gas Zyklon B in death camps to perpetrate the Holocaust, which wiped out some 6 million Jews. The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum said Wednesday that Spicer’s “inaccurate and insensitive” comments “strengthen the hands of those whose goal is to distort history.”

The Jerusalem-based center said Spicer displayed “a profound lack of knowledge of events of the Second World War, including the Holocaust,” and invited him to visit its website to educate himself.

U.S. Jewish groups were quick to respond Tuesday. The New York-based Anne Frank Center demanded that Trump fire Spicer for “Holocaust denial.”

Steven Goldstein, the center’s executive director, said in a statement that “on Passover no less,” Spicer had “engaged in Holocaust denial, the most offensive form of fake news imaginable, by denying Hitler gassed millions of Jews to death. Spicer’s statement is the most evil slur upon a group of people we have ever heard from a White House press secretary. President Trump must fire him at once.”

The AJC also called out Spicer and warned against comparing dictators to Hitler in general.

“What did the Nazis use to exterminate millions of Jews if not chemicals in their death camps?” asked AJC CEO David Harris in a statement. “Any comparisons between Hitler and other dictators, or between the Holocaust and other tragedies, such as Syria, are tricky and not advisable.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the dovish Israel advocacy group J Street, took to Twitter to call Spicer’s comments “unforgivable.”

Ben-Ami appeared to refer to the White House statement on International Holocaust Day, which did not refer specifically to the genocide’s Jewish targets. Spicer at the time called complaints about the statement “pathetic.”

Israeli politicians also had what to say Tuesday. Before Spicer apologized, Israel Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz demanded he do so or step down — a rare critique of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration by an Israeli government official.

“Sean Spicer’s statement that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons is severe and outrageous,” Katz tweeted. “We have a moral obligation that supersedes policy considerations. We must demand that he apologize, or resign.”

From the opposition, Nachman Shai, a Zionist Union lawmaker and the deputy Knesset speaker said in a statement that the White House “urgently needs a history teacher. “Where are the president’s tweets when you need them?” he asked, indirectly referring to the Holocaust Day Statement.

Several Democrats in Congress criticized Spicer Tuesday, and Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi joined the calls for Trump to fire his press secretary.

“While Jewish families across America celebrate Passover, the chief spokesman of this White House is downplaying the horror of the Holocaust,” she said in a statement. “Sean Spicer must be fired, and the President must immediately disavow his spokesman’s statements. Either he is speaking for the President, or the President should have known better than to hire him.”

Trump and the cry of Syria’s children

Salah Skaff, 25, showing a picture of his daughter Amira Skaff, 1.5 years old, who died after an airstrike in Douma, Syria, on April 7. Photo by Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

“Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote.

Tell that to the children of Syria, the kingdom where everybody dies.

The once beautiful country, full of history and antiquity, culture and cuisine, is now a cemetery. Six years into a bloody civil war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents, the world is once again faced with the images of dead and suffering children. 

This week, we saw horrifying scenes of children screaming for their dead parents and parents screaming for their dying children. We saw dozens of children lying dead on the floor. Babies, infants poisoned. We saw their bloodied faces, their foaming mouths, their desperate, disconsolate eyes and learned that they died choking on gas, and we couldn’t look away.

There’s something about helpless, powerless children that inspires even the most puerile grownups to act like adults. 

“That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact,” President Donald Trump said after the chemical attack on the Syrian village Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens. “It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line.”

For the children of Syria, “red line” has become synonymous with empty promise. President Barack Obama had his “red line” but he may as well have drawn it in pencil; our spineless Congress eventually erased it. Who would have thought, then, that RealDonaldTrump, king of inconsistencies and erraticism, would draw his own red line? 

Trump isn’t exactly known for his political fidelities or his values — but if there’s anything that matters to him besides himself and his business empire, it’s his family. The images of devastated children struck a chord with the father-in-chief and inspired him to act like the commander-in-chief.

We were warned Trump would be unpredictable — and is he ever. 

After prodding Obama not to act in Syria, then blaming him for not acting enough, Trump defied his critics and even some of his friends on April 6 by launching a targeted airstrike on the Syrian airfield from where the chemical attack was launched.

He did not hesitate to name and blame Syria’s Mad King, President Bashar al-Assad, for the attack, much to the dismay of his reputed bestie Vladimir Putin. While Assad’s Russian enabler tried to obfuscate the facts, deflecting his own bloodguilt and calling for an “investigation,” President Trump, for once, told the truth.

“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children,” Trump said during a White House announcement. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” 

Across the world, another playground bully was horrified by the attack and joined Trump in unequivocal condemnation.

“There’s no excuse whatsoever for the deliberate attacks on civilians and on children, especially, with cruel and outlawed chemical weapons,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu said. His statement earned a swift rebuke from Putin, who called his accusations “groundless.”

In risking the wrath of the Russian leader, Trump was so grateful for Netanyahu’s support of the first military action of his presidency that his vice president, Mike Pence, called Netanyahu to thank him. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin declared the United States “an example for the entire free world.”

At a time when Trump’s approval ratings are dismal and he doesn’t have the success of “The Apprentice” to tuck him in at night, the praise must feel delicious. In launching a strike, Trump also risked alienating his base — and chief adviser Steve Bannon — whose anti-globalist motto “America First” means that even dying children must come a distant second. War is expensive, they argue, but so is protecting the first lady in absentia from the White House and the president’s $3 million trips to Mar-a-Lago to play golf.

Perhaps the president feels just a little bit guilty that the children choking on sarin gas are the same children he tried to block from seeking refuge in the U.S. with his incendiary travel ban. 

Now that his paternal instincts are kicking in and Trump must balance the needs of the world’s children with the needs of his own children, he might look to Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers — he can easily borrow it from his son-in-law, Jared Kushner (who famously kept a copy in his real estate office).

Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

U’kh’she’ani le’atzmi, mah ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?

The children of Syria don’t care about Trump’s promise of “America First.” They don’t care about the world’s tightrope walk around Russia. Or about Iran’s malevolent intentions toward Sunnis and the State of Israel. They don’t care who are their allies and who are their enemies, or even whose plane it was that dropped the poisonous gas that burned up their lives. 

The children of Syria care only about one thing: that this conflict ends.

V’im lo ’akhshav, eimatai? And, if not now, when?


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Syrian government campaign of extrajudicial executions

Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for Research at Amnesty International's Beirut Regional office, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Feb. 6. Photo by Jamal Saidi/Reuters

Amnesty International says as many as 13,000 hanged at prison

A new report by Amnesty International describes a campaign of mass hangings and extrajudicial executions at Saydnaya prison. Since 2011, at least once a week, groups of up to 50 people were taken from their prison cells and hanged to death. In five years, as many as 13,000 people, most of them civilians believed to be opposed to the government, were hanged in secret at Saydnaya.

The report called “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass hangings and extermination at Saydnaya prison, also shows that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses torture and deprives detainees of food, water, medicine and medical care. The report shows how these policies have killed large numbers of detainees.

“The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s regional office in Beirut.

“We demand that the Syrian authorities immediately cease extrajudicial executions and torture and inhuman treatment at Saydnaya Prison and in all other government prisons across Syria. Russia and Iran, the government’s closest allies, must press for an end to these murderous detention policies.

“The upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva cannot ignore these findings. Ending these atrocities in Syrian government prisons must be put on the agenda. The UN must immediately carry out an independent investigation into the crimes being committed at Saydnaya and demand access for independent monitors to all places of detention.”

Amnesty carried out investigations over one year, and interviewed 84 witnesses including prison guards, detainees, judges and lawyers. In many cases, the prisoners did not know they were about to be killed. The report said that hangings at Saydnaya are carried out once or twice a week, usually on Monday and Wednesday, in the middle of the night. Those whose names are called out were told they would be transferred to civilian prisons in Syria. Instead, they are moved to a cell in the basement of the prison and beaten severely. They are then transported to another prison building on the grounds of Saydnaya, where they are hanged. Throughout this process, they remain blindfolded. They do not know when or how they will die until the noose was placed around their necks.

The accused are not given any real trial. One former judge from a Syrian military court told Amnesty International the “court” operates outside the rules of the Syrian legal system. “The judge will ask the name of the detainee and whether he committed the crime. Whether the answer is yes or no, he will be convicted… This court has no relation with the rule of law. This is not a court,” he said.

The Amnesty Report comes as Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has made gains against Islamic State and retaken large swaths of territory. While it once seemed impossible that Assad would stay on as Syria’s leader, it is now seeming more likely that he will. Assad has an interest in convincing both his citizens and the world that he can peacefully govern Syria.

“The regime has been trying very hard to make things look like everything is okay to the external world,” Laila Kiki, the media spokeswoman at the Syria Campaign, which is a global Syrian advocacy group based in Washington D.C. and Beirut, told The Media Line.

But the Amnesty Report shows that life in Syria is far from normal.

Rape is common, as is torture. Amnesty says at least 17,000 people have died in prisons across Syria in addition to the 13,000 hanged between 2011 and 2015.

“Every day there would be two or three dead people in our wing… I remember the guard would ask how many we had. He would say, ‘Room number one – how many? Room number two – how many?’ and on and on… There was one time that… the guards came to us, room by room, and beat us on the head, chest and neck. Thirteen people from our wing died that day,” said “Nader”, a former Saydnaya detainee.

5 things you can do to help Aleppo

The news from Aleppo is unbearable. Cease-fires that do not hold. The indiscriminate bombing of civilians and a horrific nightmare that is only getting worse. We have known about this epicenter of human anguish for years, and now the stories of profound suffering come to us on a daily basis on the nightly news. I am sick at heart and my soul aches in disbelief that this is happening now. How do we justify our inaction? How do we rationalize what has happened to millions of human beings? Years from now, when asked, “What did you do during the brutal massacre in Syria?” what will be our response?  

This is not the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda or Darfur. Regrettably, we learned little from them. This is 2016 and the epicenter of inhumanity is in Aleppo. We so often lament our inactions of the past yet fail to act when our time comes. We still can do something for the people of Syria and for ourselves. As Einstein once said: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

For many years, during the genocides in Darfur and South Sudan, there were national movements with strong local organizations and individuals speaking out. Although the killing goes on in these places, we can feel that we did a lot as citizens to try to stop the genocide in Darfur. Why has no large and popular national or active local movement, like the Save Darfur Coalition, taken root with voices of conscience speaking out about Syria?  

Is this even comprehensible? Five years ago, Syria had a population of 22 million people. More than half of them have since been forced to flee their homes, been tortured or killed. A human being can never be a statistic. Who can forget the picture of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh pulled from the rubble and sitting in an ambulance waiting to be treated?

We cannot wallow in our guilt, offer pleas that the situation is too complex to understand, ask what difference our actions or words will make. Syrian President Bashar Assad is not a humanitarian; he is a cruel dictator. When he took over from his father in 2000, there were high hopes as he was Western educated as an ophthalmologist in London. Under his leadership, he has been implicated in a multitude of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On Dec. 12, the United Nations confirmed that 82 civilians, including women and children, were murdered in Aleppo. Yes, Aleppo will again be unified but how many more innocent people will be forced from their homes or killed as revenge for the rebellion?

What can we do?  

1. We can write to our congressional leaders that we want them to take immediate action on civilian protection measures. 

2. We can write to the president and our Senate and House leaders to seriously consider sanctions and no-fly zones in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has shared his frustration with the lack of action by the United States.  

3. We can contribute to humanitarian groups that are doing everything they can to help refugees and internally displaced people. Groups such as HIAS, International Medical Corps, the White Helmets — the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated group of rescue workers in Syria — the  International Rescue Committee and many others are doing lifesaving work inside and outside of Syria. (Please always review an organization on Charity Navigator before giving).  

4. We can watch the situation carefully and discuss it with our family and friends. We can make sure that we are vigilant in being informed and doing whatever it takes.  

5. We can do more to increase the number of Syrian civilians being allowed into the U.S.

Most of all, we can see the Syrians as human beings, people like you and me, who deserve medical attention, food, security and a place to live. More than anything, they want something that we can give them: the knowledge that the world cares about them  — and hope.   

Shmuel Zygelbaum, the Polish politician in exile in London during World War II, wrote about the Holocaust:  “It will actually be a shame to go on living, to belong to the human race, if steps are not taken to halt the greatest crime in human history.” A year later, he took his own life as his final form of protest. 

We who pride ourselves on uplifting human beings are being called to halt the greatest crime of our time. Can we halt it? I don’t know. Can we show that we have a conscience and that we care? I have no doubt. 


Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco where he teaches Holocaust and Genocide.  He spent two weeks last summer with Syrian refugees in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Israel says asked Syrian rebels not to harm Druze

Israel said on Monday it had conditioned humanitarian aid to select Syrian rebel groups on its border on their undertaking not to harm the Druze minority in the country's civil war.

Druze Arabs in Syria have long been loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and their brethren in Israel and the Golan Heights, which Israeli forces captured in 1967, have been lobbying the Netanyahu government to safeguard the community.

The Israelis, however, have sought to keep out of the more than four-year-old insurgency against Assad, an old foe who, they fear, may be toppled by more hostile Islamist militants.

But in a rare spillover of Syria's sectarian conflict into the Golan, a Druze mob last week beat to death a civil war casualty who was being taken by ambulance to Israel, where hundreds of Syrian wounded have received treatment during the conflict.

Israel has said it has also sent food and water across the frontier.

Briefing reporters on Monday, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said that, from the outset, Israel knew there were rebels among those it was helping and “placed two conditions on this aid – that terrorist groups not approach the fence, and that the Druze not be touched”.

He was referring to the southern Syrian Druze village of Hader on which rebels have encroached, setting off solidarity protests in the Golan and Israel where the Druze are an Arab minority with influence in the military and government.

Another Israeli defense official said that while Israel has not refused medical treatment to any Syrian approaching its lines, “later, when it became clear that they were rebels, we made sure that they understood we expected our conditions to be kept”.

The official said he knew of no cases of Israel helping members of Nusra Front, an al Qaeda offshoot in Syria which has beset the Druze. Rather, the official said, Israel has engaged mainly with non-jihadist rebels like the Free Syrian Army.

The “terrorists” referred to by Yaalon were radical Islamists that are bent on attacking Israel no less than on toppling Assad, the Israeli official told Reuters.

But he allowed that telling them apart from other armed factions “can be difficult”.

Yaalon said Israel's conditions were being upheld, but that the June 22 Druze attack on the ambulance that left one Syrian casualty dead and another seriously wounded may have backfired by “spurring calls for revenge against the Druze in Hader”.

Tide turning against Bashar Al-Assad

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Reports of the imminent demise of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad may be exaggerated, but analysts in the region say that Assad is gradually losing ground to an increasingly united coalition of rebel groups, backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. They say it is not too early to begin to prepare for what Syria will look like after Assad is forced to leave Syria.

“For the past four years, Assad, supported by Iran, has had the upper hand,” Mario Abou Zeid, an expert at the Carnegie Center for Middle East Peace in Beirut told The Media Line. “But now, because of the agreement between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, things are gradually shifting.”

Those three majority-Sunni states had been arguing among themselves for most of the past four years, about who to support in the Syria conflict. Now they are uniting the dozens of rebel forces under one umbrella, calling it the Army of Conquest. They are also giving them significant amounts of arms and money, and they have made some impressive strides against Assad’s troops.

The Islamic State (IS) is also continuing to make gains in Syria, and is currently on the outskirts of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site. There are fears that if they succeed in taking over the site, they could destroy it as they have other heritage sites. IS remains strong in Syria, and is making gains in neighboring Iraq as well.

IS remains popular among young radical Islamists. A new report by the European Union found that at least 6000 fighters from Europe are reported to have traveled to Syria to join IS. When these fighters return to Europe as some have already begun to do, they could present a threat to European governments.

It is impossible to predict how long the Syrian government will be able to stay in power.

“The Syria crisis is all about ups and downs,” Eyal Zisser, a Syria expert at Bar Ilan University in Israel, told The Media Line. “But now each up, doesn’t bring him to the same place it was before the down. The course of events is against Assad, but I don’t think we can talk we can talk in terms of days, weeks, or perhaps even months.”

The civil war in Syria has lasted far longer than many had expected. Estimates of the total death toll are more than 215,000 including 20,000 children. According to the United Nations, three million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while more than six million are displaced within Syria itself.

Syria has become a stage where Assad, backed heavily by Shi’ite Iran and pro-Iranian Hizbullah fighters from neighboring Lebanon, are facing off against Sunni groups including Islamic State and Al-Nusra. The Saudi and Qatari efforts to unify the rebel groups are beginning to bear fruit, although Islamic State continues with its own efforts to establish a caliphate in Syria and neighboring Iraq. The group has made some strides in Iraq recently, including the takeover of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.

The fall of Assad could cause chaos in the Middle East. It would especially have implications for Syria’s neighbors, Lebanon and Israel. Lebanon, with its population of four million people, has been struggling to cope with a flood of more than one million refugees. Hizbullah is the most important political party in Lebanon, and could be weakened by Assad’s fall.

Syria’s other neighbor Israel has carefully avoided getting involved in the Syria crisis other than treating hundreds of wounded Syrian rebels near the border. Many Israeli officials have described Assad as “the devil they know” and have hinted that they would prefer to see Assad stay in power.

At the same time, Israel is pleased that both Assad and Hizbullah are too busy fighting each other to launch attacks on Israel. Recently, Israeli officials have been warning of the growing threat that Hizbullah could pose to Israel, with more than 100,000 rockets and missiles that can reach most of the Jewish state.

Syria is effectively being divided into three mini-states, each covering about one-third of the country. One state is the Alawite areas on the coast and Damascus, still controlled by Assad; one third is controlled by Islamic State; and one third by the rebels.
 

Syria’s Assad denies chemical weapons use; U.S. presses case for strike

Syrian President Bashar Assad denied that he was behind a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people, as the White House on Sunday pressed ahead with the uphill effort of persuading Congress to approve a military strike to punish Assad.

The Obama administration faces a crucial test vote set for Wednesday in the U.S. Senate and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made the rounds of five Sunday talk shows to argue for a resolution authorizing a limited strike on Syria.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not rule out France's suggestion that it go to the U.N. Security Council for an authorization of a possible military strike once U.N. inspectors complete their report on the August 21 attack near Damascus in which more than 1,400 people were killed.

Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, have blocked previous efforts to punish the Syrian government. The United States and France hold that Assad was behind the attack and should be deterred from using chemical weapons again.

Assad denied involvement the attack and said if the United States has evidence, Washington should produce it, CBS reported on Sunday on its news program “Face the Nation.

“There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” CBS reported Assad said in an interview conducted in Damascus. The report was a summary of the interview and did not contain any audio or video of Assad.

Assad said he feared an attack might degrade the Syrian military and tip the balance in the 2-1/2-year-old civil war, CBS reported.

The Syrian president also warned that if there was a military strike by the United States, there would be retaliation by those aligned with Syria, CBS said.

In London, Kerry countered Assad, saying “The evidence speaks for itself.”

President Barack Obama faces an uphill climb to persuade U.S. lawmakers returning from a summer recess to vote for military action. During the break, their constituents voiced strong objections to the action, worrying that it would drag the country into another costly, and broader, Middle East conflict.

Opinion polls show most Americans oppose a strike. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said 56 percent of Americans believed the United States should not intervene in Syria; 19 percent backed action.

McDonough, the White House chief of staff, led the administration's lobbying effort on Sunday, part of an intensive push for support that will continue on Monday when Obama sits for six network television interviews and culminate with an address to the country on Tuesday night.

“Are there consequences for a dictator who would have used those weapons to gas to death hundreds of children? The answer to that question … will be followed closely in Damascus, but will also be followed closely in Tehran, among Lebanese Hezbollah, and others. So this is a very important week,” McDonough said on the “Fox News Sunday” program.

While Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is a supporter of the strikes, he said Obama had made “a hash” of his argument to punish Assad.

“It's very clear he's lost support in the last week,” Rogers said on CBS' “Face the Nation.” He said Obama should have called Congress back from its summer break for classified briefings on the proposed strikes, and the administration needed to “regroup.”

“The president hasn't made the case,” Rogers said.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said that “if I were the president, I would withdraw my request. I don't believe the support is there in Congress.” He spoke on CNN's “State of the Union”

Congressional surveys make it clear Obama has a difficult task. A Washington Post vote count showed 223 House members either against or leaning against authorizing the use of military force in Syria. That is more than the 217 needed to block the resolution.

The White House has said the president could go ahead with a military strike without congressional authorization, but has not said he would do so.

FRENCH SUGGESTION

French President Francois Hollande, increasingly under pressure at home and among European partners to seek a U.N. mandate before any military intervention in Syria, on Saturday suggested he could seek a U.N. resolution despite previous Russian and Chinese vetoes.

U.N. inspectors are likely to hand in their report later this week roughly at the same time as the U.S. Congress votes on military action. The United Nations has said the inspectors will only determine whether gas was used, not who was responsible for its use.

“On President Hollande's comments with respect to the U.N., the president (Obama), and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends,” Kerry told a news conference in Paris earlier Sunday. “No decision has been made by the president.”

Later, a U.S. official said Washington was not seeking a U.N. vote at this time.

Kerry said key Arab countries were leaning towards supporting a G20 statement – already signed by 12 countries – that called for a strong international response.

The top U.S. diplomat met in Paris with Arab ministers, including from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, following talks in Lithuania with European foreign ministers, who blamed the attack in Syria on Assad but refused to endorse military action.

Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned the United States that it would ignite a fire across the Middle East if it attacks Syria.

“We are concerned about warmongering in this region,” Zarif told a news conference while on a visit to Iraq. “Those who are short-sighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone.”

Underscoring the dangers of the Syrian conflict spreading beyond its borders, an Israeli official said on Sunday the United States would notify Israel hours in advance of an attack on Syria.

While formally on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis, Israel fears coming under reprisals from its northern foe should the United States launch strikes to punish Damascus.

A German newspaper, citing German intelligence, reported that Assad may not have personally given permission for the August 21 attack.

Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last 4-1/2 months, according to radio messages intercepted by German spies, but permission had always been denied, the newspaper Bild am Sonntag said.

This could mean Assad may not have personally approved the attack, intelligence officers suggested.

Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington and Arshad Mohammed in Paris and London; additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai, David Brunnstrom and Jackie Frank in Washington; Dan Williams in Israel; Natalie Huet in Paris; Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; and Raheem Salman and Yeganeh Torbati in Baghdad; writing by Eric Beech; editing by Jackie Frank

Few options for Syria’s Assad to strike back after Israeli raids

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has few good options for military retaliation after Israel's air strikes over the weekend but the attacks could redouble support from his regional allies Iran and Hezbollah.

Assad, already battling rebel fighters who have seized large parts of his country and killed many thousands of his troops, can ill afford to confront the region's dominant military power in a devastating and likely one-sided war.

And his allies in Iran and Hezbollah are also wary of starting a new battle which would divert from their determined efforts to keep their strategic ally in power in Damascus.

“Significant military action is unlikely,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are not interested in opening another front when clearly their main battle is for the Syrian regime to survive.”

Israel's twin air strikes within 48 hours shook Damascus, sent pillars of flame into the night sky and killed dozens of soldiers.

The war planes struck Assad's elite troops in the valley of the Barada River that flows through Damascus and on Qasioun Mountain overlooking the capital, said residents and opposition sources. Targets included air defenses, Republican Guards and a compound linked to chemical weapons.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 soldiers were killed and 100 more were missing. Other opposition sources put the death toll at hundreds of troops. A Western security source said the attacks targeted Iranian missiles intended for Hezbollah which could strike Tel Aviv.

Both Damascus and Tehran have hinted at a tough response.

Syria's information minister said the attacks “opened the door to all possibilities”. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman warned of a “crushing response”.

Syria did not retaliate in 2007 when Israeli jets struck a suspected nuclear facility, nor in January this year when they bombed a suspected missile convoy. On each occasion Damascus said it would choose the time and place to respond.

But the scale of the latest operation will pile pressure on Assad to respond, “not only to save face but also to maintain credibility at home and in the region,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

“That's where Assad's predicament is – what do you do, given the limited options?” he said.

A GOLAN FRONT?

Two years into the uprising against his rule – which has spiraled into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against a president from Syria's Alawite minority sect – Assad still has regional supporters.

As well as Iran and Hezbollah, Damascus also has links to some militant Palestinian groups and has a degree of support from neighboring Iraq's Shi'ite-led authorities, who have turned a blind eye to Iranian weapons cargoes flown across Iraqi airspace, according to a senior Iraqi Shi'ite leader.

Syria's pro-government Al-Ikhbariya television gave an indication of what Assad might be considering, quoting unnamed sources who said that Syrian rockets were ready to strike targets inside Israel in the event of any new attack.

It also said Syria had given the green light to Palestinian factions to carry out operations against Israel from across the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

However, neither of those warnings have been spelled out publicly by Syrian officials, and any direct Syrian rocket fire on Israel would be likely to provoke an overwhelming Israeli response.

Perhaps ironically, the step that Assad could take in the Golan that might most alarm Israel would be to retreat from it.

Through four decades of official hostility with Israel, Assad and his father before him kept the Golan Heights frontier quiet. Were Assad to pull back troops, Israel is worried that the heights it captured from Syria in 1967 could become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by the jihadi rebels who are currently battling to topple Assad.

“I would not be surprised if the Assad regime begins the process of pulling out its forces from the Golan to Damascus,” said Gerges. “The (rebel) Nusra Front and other groups are preparing themselves for the ultimate war against Israel…so this would create a strategic predicament for Israel.”

A Western diplomat in the region said that if the Nusra Front gained territory on the Golan Heights it would inevitably suck Israel deeper into to conflict.

“They will not accept that Islamist extremists gain ground,” he said.

HEZBOLLAH SILENCE

Hezbollah, Assad's Lebanese ally which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, has maintained a resolute silence over the Israeli raids on Damascus.

Israel believes Hezbollah has built up an arsenal of about 60,000 missiles and rockets, making it potentially a more formidable foe than in 2006, when the militant group fired 4,000 missiles into Israel.

“Hezbollah has to tread carefully because they can't afford to be fighting in Syria (against the rebels) and provoking Israel on the Israel-Lebanon border,” said another diplomat.

The militant Shi'ite Muslim group, which is accused by Bulgaria of a bombing which killed five Israeli tourists in a Black Sea resort last year, could seek to strike Israeli targets abroad instead of seeking direct confrontation.

But Gerges said the most likely response would be to reinforce its backing for Assad.

“Both Hezbollah and Iran will respond to Israel's escalation by deepening their own involvement in Syria,” he said. “Israel's logic says: 'We will not allow any transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah'. If you deepen Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in Syria, you are punching holes in this logic.”

That deepening support from Assad's allies, matched by the growing support from Gulf Arab countries and Turkey for his rebel foes, could push the Syrian crisis – which has already killed 70,000 people according to the United Nations – one step closer to regional conflict.

“The risk factor has become much more acute in recent weeks,” the second diplomat said, referring to the prospect of a broader war.

Assad has vowed to defeat the rebels and his troops have launched recent counter-offensives around Damascus, the central city of Homs and the coastal province of Banias, where activists said his forces killed scores of people.

Israel cannot assume that the Syrian leader will remain passive if it continues its attacks inside Syria's borders, the former director of Israel's espionage agency Mossad said.

“The broader the strike, the greater the chance that Assad will have no choice to respond,” Danny Yatom told Israel Radio. “The Syrians too have limits. And the limit is not necessarily a blow to Syrian sovereignty, but rather a blow to Syrian honor.”

Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Amman, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Suadad al-Salhi in Baghdad and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff

Assad threatens to retaliate against Israel as shells land on Golan

Syrian President Bashar Assad said that his country would retaliate against Israel for a January air strike on a weapons facility near Damascus, a day after mortar shells fired from Syria landed in northern Israel.

The mortar shells fired from Syria landed Saturday on the Golan Heights, and reportedly were fired into Israeli territory accidentally during a fire fight between Syrian rebels and Syrian government military forces.

It was the second time in recent days that mortar fire from Syria landed in Israeli territory. United Nations peace keeping troops were told about the strike.

Assad said in an interview published in London's Sunday Times that his country would retaliate for what is believed to be an Israeli strike on a research facility near Damascus used for developing chemical weapons. The facility was bombed in January.

“We retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced,” Assad told the Sunday Times.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition forces accused the Syrian government of firing mortars at a historic synagogue located near Damascus. A video of the Jobar Synagogue, which is 2,000 years old, showing damage to parts of the building, including showing that the roof was blown off, was posted on YouTube over the weekend by the Syrian opposition’s military council.

Jordan foils al Qaeda plot, arrests 11 militants, state TV says

Jordan has foiled a plot by an al Qaeda-linked cell to bomb its shopping centers and assassinate Western diplomats, state television said on Sunday, thwarting an attempt to destabilize the key U.S. ally.

Security forces had detained 11 suspects, all Jordanians, in connection with the plot, which envisaged carrying out attacks in the capital Amman using smuggled weapons and explosives from Syria, according to security officials cited by television.

The plot had been active since June.

Minister of Information Samih al Maaytah said the arrests underscored the serious threat posed by radical “terror groups” seeking to undermine the kingdom's long tradition of stability.

A key U.S. ally in the Middle East and Israel's peace partner, Jordan enjoys close ties with Western intelligence agencies and has often been targeted by al-Qaeda and other Islamist militants.

The cell had targeted two major shopping malls in the capital and was planning a bombing campaign in the capital's affluent Abdoun neighborhood, where many foreign embassies are located.

A security source said the suspects had manufactured explosives “aimed at inflicting the heaviest losses possible”.

“The group was able to devise new types of explosives to be used for the first time and planned to add TNT to increase their destructive impact,” said the source.

The same security source said there was a crucial link with Syria where President Bashar al-Assad is battling to put down an uprising against his family's rule.

“Their plans included getting explosives and mortars from Syria,” the security source told Reuters, saying the militants had sought to strike at a time of regional upheaval when the country's security establishment is over stretched.

“EXPLOSIVE BELTS”

The authorities said they had seized large quantities of ammunition, machine guns and other items such as computers. The militants were training to use “suicide bombers using explosive belts and booby-trapped cars”, said another security source.

Maaytah told reporters that members of the militant group had spent some time in Syria, without saying when they had returned to Jordan.

“This group arrived from Syria. They have been going in and out,” said Maaytah, explaining that the case had been transferred to the state security prosecutor.

Another security source said the cell had been fighting for “some period” alongside Islamist rebel groups in Syria.

Jordan has in recent months arrested scores of hardline Islamist fundamentalists along its northern border with Syria as they were about to cross into the country to join jihadist groups fighting to overthrow Assad.

If Jordan allows Assad's opponents to aid the armed uprising, Amman's security forces fear the Syrian government could retaliate by sending agents to carry out bomb attacks inside the country.

Intercepted electronic mail showed that the cell had received advice from Iraqi Qaeda explosives experts.

Jordan regularly arrests Islamist suspects and puts them on trial in military courts that human rights groups say are illegal and lack proper legal safeguards. Many civic groups also say many of the Islamist cases are politically motivated.

In 2005, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for three suicide bombings that ripped through luxury hotels in Jordan's capital killing dozens of people.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Osborn

In Aleppo, Syrian rebels bogged down in sniper war

Plucking up his courage, a young boy ducks and darts down a bullet-scarred street in Aleppo, as a rebel with a megaphone shouts directions.

“Don't turn right! Stay left, stay left. Now go, run, run!”

A sniper shot cracks out, and the boy's dangerously bright pink shirt disappears behind a row of charred buses dragged across the road for cover. But the bullet misses, and fighters at the other end of the street burst into cheers.

In Syria's largest city, rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad have found ways to destroy government tanks and have managed to hold their positions despite attacks by jets and helicopters.

But four months into their campaign to take Aleppo – much of it a jungle of concrete tower blocks – many are pinned down by pro-Assad snipers on the rooftops of the front line and even inside rebel areas.

The local stalemates drag on and on.

“When a sniper sets up in a building, that's it, we could be stuck for weeks trying to find just one guy,” said Abu Saif, a 23-year-old rebel in jeans and a camouflage vest.

In late July, rebels armed with assault rifles and homemade rockets fought their way into Aleppo and took control of much of the east of the city in days.

Since then, their advances have been contained by government forces and they have been unable to take the city center, becoming trapped between the airport east of the city and western neighborhoods where soldiers and pro-Assad militia are camped out.

Their last offensive, billed beforehand as a “decisive battle”, only served to bring the ancient souk and the 8th-century Great Mosque into the fray, without gaining much ground for the anti-Assad fighters.

As rebels guide another civilian past the sniper, a young man watching nearby shakes his head.

“They say they liberate a street. But nowadays, I don't consider it in rebel control if there is a sniper in there,” he said, asking not to be named. “If you can't move openly in the areas that are supposed to be yours, you are not free.”

Assad's better-armed forces appear to have most of the sniper rifles being used in the war. The rebels too have a few of the high-accuracy weapons, but are mostly armed with assault rifles much less lethal at long range.

DYING CHEAPLY

A fighter jet gracefully circles over Aleppo before swooping down to bomb a rebel district, unleashing deafening blasts.

There are still eruptions of such full-blown conflict between Assad's forces and the rebels who have been struggling to topple him for more than 19 months.

But increasingly, the war is one of slow attrition.

The Bustan al-Basha district of the city is a wasteland of collapsed apartment blocks where rebels have only advanced a few blocks in recent weeks.

When sniper shots are fired at his bombed-out shelter, fighter Najmeddine carries on puffing on a cigarette as he shoots back with his unit's one anti-aircraft gun.

The fire isn't returned, and he groans and walks away.

“Look at us! This has become a sniper war now, and it is so boring!” he shouts in frustration. His fellow fighters chuckle and stretch out on the blasted sidewalk.

“This is just a sign that this war could take years. It took us weeks to get to this corner from five blocks away,” sighs Najmeddine, wiping sweat from his graying moustache and peering around the corner. Snipers nearby have blocked his unit's advance on a security force building for days.

The material cost of rebel advances in neighborhoods like Bustan al-Basha has been high. Water from burst pipes floods streets littered with shards of concrete and tangles of wires. Entire walls dangle from high corners of shattered buildings.

The human cost has been worse. The major battles here have ended, but civilians and rebels are still gunned down daily by the snipers.

“What's hard about that is that you don't want your fighters to die cheap. We want to die in battle, not like that,” said Ammar, a 34-year-old rebel with scarred and bruised arms. His leg twitches nervously as he shouts at his comrades to stop crossing exposed areas.

Nearby, Najmeddine goes in to take another shot. He has lost two fingers in these back-and-forth gunbattles, but says it hasn't hurt his determination to fight.

“I can still shoot,” he says.

Down the road, rebels burn tires, hoping to obscure a sniper's view and warn civilians away.

But some residents have business too urgent to wait. A bullet-holed pickup truck, with a bleeding man laid in the back, veers around the burning tires, forcing two rebels to jump out of the way, and speeds across a bridge as gunfire cracks out.

Rebels said they driver might have been trying to get the bleeding man to hospital.

“Did he make it?” a passerby asks the fighters. A gunman stares down the road and shakes his head, replying: “Only God knows.”

Editing by Oliver Holmes and Andrew Roche

Western troops in place to protect Jordan from Syrian spillover

Ahmed Thiabat sits on his balcony in Jordan overlooking the Syrian town of Tal Shehab just over the Syrian border. This once tranquil farmland has become a battleground for troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and rebels fighting to unseat him.

Thiabat, a farmer and father of five, hears gunshots daily. He says he can’t sleep at night since several mortar shells fell in fields near his home.

“This area was a true paradise — green all year ‘round,” he told The Media Line. “Now, the sounds of birds are being replaced by gunshots and soldiers are becoming a permanent fixture of the scenery,” he said.

An estimated 210,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan since the fighting began and the number is expected to climb to 250,000 by year’s end. Jordanian officials say they plan to open a second refugee camp in order to accommodate the growing number fleeing Syria.

<div style=”float:right;padding-left:15px;padding-top:10px;padding-bottom:10px;”><div style=”border: 1px solid black;padding:7px;” ><a href=”http://www.themedialine.org” target=”_blank”><img src=”http://www.jewishjournal.com/images/themedialine-160-7-11.jpg” /></a></div></div>US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said this week that the United States has sent soldiers to Jordan to help with relief efforts for the refugees. He did not give a number, but last week the New York Times reported that there were 150 soldiers in Jordan, including communications specialists, logistics experts, planners, trainers and headquarters staff.

Diplomats and military sources tell The Media Line that the number is actually much higher. They say that troops, including intelligence officers, are coming from France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as from the US and the United Kingdom.

“Hundreds of French troops are doing their work in the northern city of Mafraq, let alone the assistance from the Gulf” said a western diplomat.

Jordanian sources close to the army confirmed to The Media Line that more than 1,500 American soldiers from elite units including the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC); the 75th Ranger Regiment (Airborne), also known as Rangers; and Navy Seals are present in the kingdom.

“The US troops have been moving across Jordan's northern border for several months now, making security assessments, helping screen refugees, and monitoring the border,” said the western diplomat.

He said the timing of the announcement now is partly connected to the US election campaign.

“The Syrian government knows about these troops, but the American public needed to know that (American president Barack) Obama has not abandoned his role in the region,” said the diplomat.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney has charged that that the present US administration is losing interest in the vital Middle East region.

The international involvement in Jordan began in May, when some 1,200 Arab soldiers from the Gulf States held an exercise simulating a response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack on the refugees in Jordan.

An Arab diplomat said that Saudi Arabia deployed dozens of tanks while Qatar and Bahrain provided other military hardware.

“The Gulf countries decided to use Jordan as its first defense shield against any spillover of violence from Syria,” the diplomat told The Media Line.

After initially denying their existence in its territories, the Jordanian government admitted there were, indeed, American forces on its soil.

“The US troops in Jordan is part of the exchanging of visits between the Jordanian and US armies; part of increased cooperation; and to improve the capabilities of both sides to ensure regional stability,” government spokesman Sameeh Mayta was quoted by the official Jordanian news agency, Petra.

Jordan enjoys strong relations with Washington, particularly in the military and intelligence fields, and its army receives at least one-half billion dollars each year from the United States in military assistance.

Back on the border, Ahmed Thiabat says he has noticed dozens of “Western-looking troops” near his home. He says he is certain that Jordan, with the help of those soldiers, will be able to contain any spillover of violence from Syria.

“People talk about American or British forces giving assistance to our army. We are happy to see the world is trying to protect us.” he said.

Hezbollah claims responsibility for drone that entered Israeli airspace

Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged on Thursday sending a drone aircraft that was shot down last weekend after flying some 25 miles into Israel.

Nasrallah said in a televised speech that the drone's parts were manufactured in Iran and it was assembled by members of the Shi'ite Muslim militant movement in Lebanon. He confirmed a statement by Israel's prime minister earlier in the day saying that Hezbollah was behind the drone flight.

“The resistance in Lebanon sent a sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft from Lebanon…It penetrated the enemy's iron procedures and entered occupied southern Palestine,” Nasrallah said. Hezbollah does not recognize the state of Israel.

Tensions have increased in the region with Israel threatening to bomb the nuclear sites of Hezbollah's patron Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop Iranian nuclear activity the West suspects is meant to develop a weapons capability. Tehran says it is seeking only civilian nuclear energy.

Iran has threatened in turn to attack U.S. military bases in the Middle East and retaliate against Israel if attacked.

Seeking to underline that Hezbollah was capable of reaching targets well inside Israel, Nasrallah said the drone “flew over sensitive installations inside southern Palestine and was shot down in an area near the Dimona nuclear reactor”.

Iran said the incursion exposed the weakness of Israeli air defense, indicating that Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defense system “does not work and lacks the necessary capacity”. The Iron Dome system, jointly funded with Washington, is designed to down short-range guerrilla rockets, not slow-flying aircraft.

Hezbollah last fought Israel in 2006 during a 34-day war in which 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.

Since that war, Hezbollah has a number of times suggested it had expanded its arsenal in an apparent strategy of deterrence.

Hezbollah is also an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting to put down a 19-month-old uprising that has turned into a civil war with sectarian dimensions, largely pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against Assad's minority Alawite community, who are an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Nasrallah has explicitly expressed political support for Assad, whose opponents have accused Hezbollah of sending fighters to help the Syrian leader quell the insurgency.

Nasrallah denied such accusations. “We have not fought alongside the regime until now. The regime did not ask us to do so and also who says that doing so is in Lebanon's interest?”

Earlier this month Hezbollah buried two of its fighters who local sources said were killed near a Syrian border town. Hezbollah acknowledged the death of only one fighter and said he was a commander who “died while performing his jihad duties”. It did not elaborate. Nasrallah said on Thursday that he was killed in a roadside bomb in a town near the Syrian border.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Nasrallah for what it said was support given to Assad against anti-government protests, as well as two other members for the group's “terrorist activities” in general.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran’s Ahmadinejad says election, not war, solution for Syria

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said a national dialogue leading to elections was the way towards a solution to Syria's crisis, in remarks broadcast on Tuesday.

He told Al Jazeera television that war was not the way forward, adding: “There is another way to find a solution, it is national, mutual understanding in order for there to be elections in the future.”

The interview was translated from Persian into Arabic by Al Jazeera.

Iran is a main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been battling an uprising against his rule. Opposition activists say 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old revolt, which has grown into a full-scale civil war.

“Syria's case is very complex and at the same time is a very important one,” Ahmadinejad said. “Should I follow those demanding war? I don't think the language of war is a good language.

“There must be a different way to solve problems … I have opposed war, but those who want things to be settled through dialogue are a minority and perhaps the majority are in favour of going ahead in the context of war.”

Ahmadinejad, who made similar comments in a separate news conference in Tehran, said Iran had long had good relations with Syria. He said Tehran had built dams, roads and power stations in Syria and Iranian pilgrims were frequent visitors to the Arab country.

Catch-2012

The Syrian army loyal to Bashar Assad recently retook Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. Daraya had been in the hands of the rebels.

The Syrian armed forces came in with tanks and armored personnel carriers. As troops advanced on foot, the fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army withdrew. The retaking of Daraya by Assad’s army was the culmination of three days of helicopter gunship attacks that took a huge toll on the rebel army.

After the rebel forces left, a massacre ensued. Rebel sources report that as many as 600 people were massacred — execution style — in the aftermath.

For Assad this was a huge step toward victory over the insurgents, the people he refers to as terrorists. Add to that the other victory he had in Aleppo, and you will understand why Assad, his followers and his forces feel as if the balance of power has shifted back toward them. 

One of the reasons Assad’s army has been so much more successful in their recent attacks against the rebel army is their now-frequent use of helicopters and jets in air attacks.

As the Syrians fight among themselves, the world’s most powerful nations watch, wait and some even play more or less active roles in the rebellion. Right now, the United States is furious with Russia and with China for providing assistance to Assad and for vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions that they proposed. Worse still, the United States is livid because Russia and China are forcing compromises on other resolutions so that, if and when they are passed, the resolutions have no teeth.

But Russia is just looking out for Russia’s own best interests. It just finished building a naval base in Tartus, which cost between $3 and $4 billion. The base is set to be a new and improved set of Russian eyes and ears in the Middle East. 

That base puts Russian boots on the ground in the Middle East. To protect their new base, the Russians have dispatched their only aircraft carrier and placed it right there. The carrier, known as the Admiral Kuznetsov, is not a single ship. A carrier comes with 41 to 67 accompanying aircraft and many escort ships. A carrier fleet the size the Russians have carries thousands of sailors and soldiers plus techies. 

Russia isn’t finished. It has also just sold a fleet of 36 YAK fighter jets to Syria. The Russians didn’t build the base and sell the YAKs with the expectation that it will all be turned over to rebel control. The Russians expect to do business with Assad and Syria for a long time to come.

As all this is happening, the United States is sitting on its hands with smoke coming out of its ears diplomatically and strategically speaking. The only support the United States can provide in Syria is humanitarian aid. 

The United States is in a Catch-22.

It wants to oust Assad from power because he is an evil, murderous dictator. But it learned a lesson in Libya. In Libya, the United States fought to create a no-fly zone that was, in reality, an invitation for the West to oust Gadhafi. Then the United States armed the Libyan rebels and aided them. And it backfired. 

Libya is actually a country of tribes — about 140 tribes. And many of the tribes took the weapons and then sold them. They sold them to Gaza and they sold them to groups that are not friends of the United States. Like al-Qaeda. Imagine how angry Congress was to discover that the weapons they gave to oust Gadhafi ended up in Gaza and were used to shoot Israelis. 

By now it is clear that the original rebel protesters in Syria are either dead, arrested or going back to school. According to intelligence reports, there are now 15,000 al-Qaeda-trained fighters in Syria. 

Despite its desires to see the rebels succeed, the United States cannot offer weapons or military aid to Syria’s rebel fighters — all it can offer is humanitarian aid. Despite all good intentions, the United States knows exactly what will happen if it provides rebel forces with weapons, and Congress will not knowingly give weapons to al-Qaeda.

The United States is upset with the situation inside Syria and upset with Russia and China. But in reality, Russia and China are doing exactly what the United States has done in other situations. Russia and China cast vetoes in the United Nations in order to protect their own interests in Syria and in the Middle East. 

They fear that ousting Assad would bring in yet another Islamic regime that is unfriendly to foreign friends.

The only chance the United States has of changing the game in Syria is by convincing Russia and China to see things as it does. But neither China nor Russia is falling for that again. Meanwhile, Assad’s retaking of Daraya might very well signal the wave of the future for Syria — more massacres and more executions, under the guiding hand of Bashar Assad.


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).

Syrian town deserted, burned after clashes

The Syrian town of Haffeh was smoldering and nearly deserted on Thursday after days of clashes between government forces and rebels, while activists reported more army assaults on pro-opposition areas across the country.

United Nations monitors had been trying to enter the town after several days of fighting but were forced to turn back on Tuesday when a crowd attacked them.

They finally gained access on Thursday to find state buildings burnt down, shops abandoned and a body lying in the street. Smoke rose from destroyed buildings and burnt-out cars littered the roads. There were signs of heavy bombardment.

Only a handful of residents could be seen and one man said 26,000 people had fled.

Rebels pulled out of the town this week saying the thousands of remaining citizens risked being killed in cold blood, a warning echoed by the United States.

Violence has surged in recent weeks after government forces and allied militia launched offensives to regain territories controlled by the opposition and rebels abandoned a ceasefire negotiated by international envoy Kofi Annan in his efforts to ease the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and the movement fighting to end his family’s four decade rule.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across the country, said 44 people were killed on Thursday. Most were civilians and rebels but there were also three security personnel among the dead, it added.

Assad’s forces have used troops, tanks and helicopters to hit rebel-controlled suburbs near the capital Damascus, parts of eastern Deir al-Zor province and villages in the northern and western parts of Aleppo province, near the Turkish border.

In Douma, about 10 miles from Damascus, activists said tanks had entered the city outskirts and government forces were battling rebel fighters. At least two people were killed and 15 wounded, they added.

“It is a war today,” said an activist who called himself Ziad, speaking on Skype over the thump of shelling and the rattle of machinegun fire. “There are 10 tanks on the outskirts, but the rebels have destroyed one of them.”

The uprising against Assad’s rule began as a peaceful pro-democracy movement in March 2011 but in the face of a crackdown by his forces has turned into an armed insurgency.

“There has been a dangerous escalation of armed violence across Syria,” said Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the U.N. monitors observing the now-collapsed ceasefire.

“They (residents) want the violence to stop and so do we, but the U.N. Supervision Mission cannot impose a ceasefire. The path of non-violence is a choice for the welfare of all Syrians.”

The United Nations says more than 10,000 people have been killed by government forces, while Syria says at least 2,600 members of the military and security forces have been killed by what it calls foreign-backed “Islamist terrorists”.

State news channel Syria TV said security forces had arrested a man who was part of Jabhat al-Nusra, a little known militant group that has claimed several suicide bombings in Syria. It said the man was planning to blow himself up at a mosque on Friday.

World powers are divided over the next move.

Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with veto power, have blocked efforts by Western powers to condemn Assad or call for his removal.

Diplomats said world powers were working towards holding a crisis meeting on Syria in Geneva on June 30 to try to get the Annan plan back on track.

IRAN THE STICKING POINT

Annan, who represents the United Nations and the Arab League, has called for a Contact Group to be convened as soon as possible, but the United States is opposed to the involvement of Iran, Syria’s main ally in the region.

Two diplomats told Reuters they were hoping to have a meeting on the 30th, but a third said Iran’s participation was still a sticking point.

Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the envoy was having urgent meetings to reach consensus on the shape and formula for the meeting. If one was held, it would aim to “give teeth” to the Annan plan, not to create a new one, he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday Washington had information Russia was supplying Syria with helicopters, which have been used in government assaults on towns and cities.

Syria’s ambassador to Moscow told Reuters on Thursday that Russia was “not delivering any helicopters to Syria”.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Nastassia Astrasheuskaya and Thomas Grove in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Andrew Heavens

West pushes U.N. Syria vote despite Russian criticism

Western powers brushed aside Russian criticism of a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution authorizing an advance team of U.N. observers to monitor Syria’s fragile ceasefire and said on Friday they hoped to put it to a vote this weekend.

The U.N. missions of Britain, France and Germany said the U.S.-drafted resolution was co-sponsored by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Morocco, the sole Arab nation on the council.

The draft, obtained by Reuters, calls for the initial deployment of up to 30 unarmed U.N. observers to Syria in line with a request by U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who had criticized an earlier version of the U.S. text, presented the 15-nation council with his own draft that Moscow would prefer to vote on.

“We have put together a shorter version of (the U.S.) text,” Churkin told reporters after closed-door discussions on Syria. “We had this understanding yesterday that it should be to the point, pragmatic, specific about putting in boots on the ground, (an) advance party of the monitoring team.”

Several diplomats said negotiations with Russia to find mutually acceptable language were slow and difficult. They said the council was unlikely to reach an agreement on Friday and they would likely reconvene on Saturday after delegations have had a chance to receive instructions from their capitals.

U.N. diplomats say Syrian ally Russia supports Annan’s peace efforts but is working hard to shield Damascus from what it sees as a Western push for Libya-style “regime change.” Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s 13-month assault on anti-government protesters.

The competing draft resolutions are a response to Annan’s request that the council move quickly to get the first members of an observer force, which will ultimately have up to 250 monitors, in Syria to lock in the fragile ceasefire.

Several Western diplomats said negotiations were focusing on the U.S. draft, not the Russian one.

U.N. OBSERVERS ON STAND-BY

Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the U.N.-Arab League envoy hoped the council would pass the resolution on Friday.

“The (U.N.) Department of Peacekeeping Operations is working around the clock to find the necessary number of troops for the full observer mission eventually,” he said.

“At the moment we have the advance team standing by to board planes and to get there, to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible,” he said.

A U.N.-backed ceasefire aimed at halting more than a year of bloodshed in Syria appeared to be holding on Thursday, but forces loyal to Assad fought rebels near the border with Turkey on Friday, threatening the truce.

The latest U.S. draft would have the council say Damascus should “ensure full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access throughout Syria for all (observer) mission personnel as deemed necessary by the mission.” Russia’s draft, seen by Reuters, has deleted that paragraph.

The first U.S. draft had made a number of demands on the Syrian government and did not explicitly demand anything of the opposition. That, council diplomats said, annoyed Russia.

The new U.S. draft includes proposed Russian language about the rebels, saying the council “demands that all parties in Syria, including the opposition, immediately cease all armed violence in all its forms.”

It also has the council “condemning the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities, recalling that those responsible shall be held accountable.”

It ends with a vague threat of “further steps” by the council if Syria does not comply with the resolution.

Editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham

Call for Friday protests is first test of Syria truce

Syrian opposition activists called mass protests for Friday to test a fragile, day-old ceasefire by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and international pressure mounted for Damascus to fully comply with a U.N.-backed peace plan.

Anxious to build on a truce between the armed forces and rebels which brought an eerie calm to Syria on Thursday, after more than a year of clashes, the U.N. Security Council worked on a resolution authorizing U.N. observers to monitor it.

World leaders welcomed the halt in fighting which had threatened to spill over into neighboring countries and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the situation looked calmer.

“The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes since many promises previously made by the government of Syria have not been kept,” he told a news conference in Geneva.

Along with the withdrawal of forces from population centers, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan calls for talks with the opposition aimed at a “political transition”, the release of political prisoners, access for humanitarian aid and journalists, and for the authorities to “respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully”.

Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said he did not trust the authorities to allow the renewal of protests after Friday prayers, a feature of the uprising that has been subdued by violence in recent months.

The authorities, he said, had their “hand on the trigger”.

“While we call on the Syrian people to protest strongly… we ask them to be cautious because the regime will not respect the ceasefire and will shoot,” he told Reuters.

The Syrian Interior Ministry said only pre-authorized demonstrations would be permitted by police, a caveat which the opposition said did not bode well.

“This is ridiculous,” said an activist called Musab from Hama city, a focus of opposition activity and government bombardment along with Homs and Idlib. “They will not give you permission and you will be taken to jail if you ask for it”.

He said a demonstration on Wednesday in the town of Qalat Madiq, in Hama province, had been broken up by security forces firing, and nine people were arrested. Most independent media are banned from Syria, making such reports impossible to verify.

In Homs, where opposition stronghold districts were all but deserted, activist Yazan expressed doubt people would dare to go out because snipers, tanks and soldiers were still in place. “People are wary and they believe that this ceasefire is only temporary. Nobody is leaving their homes,” he said.

The SNC’s spokesman said Assad could simply not afford to stop shooting, since that would allow a new wave of mass protests against his family’s four decades of absolute power.

“As soon as there is a real ceasefire, people will come out to the streets, demonstrating and demanding his removal, his stepping down. So I think the regime has to retaliate by opening fire again,” spokesman Bassam Imadi told Reuters in Istanbul. “But let’s hope for the better.”

Annan, mandated by the United Nations and Arab League, has called for 200 to 250 unarmed U.N. observers to monitor the ceasefire.

A similar Arab League mission ended in disarray amid mounting violence in January, but Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the 15-member Security Council could adopt a resolution authorizing the deployment of a U.N. observer force as early as Friday.

“The full-fledged mission will take some time to deploy … If we are able to put 20 or 30 monitors (there) early next week, very good,” Churkin said. “If we are able to put more in the next few days that’s even better.”

A draft resolution drawn up by the United States would have the Council authorize an initial deployment of up to 30 observers and demand the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from population centers and an end to violence on all sides.

It included a vague threat of future action against Damascus, saying the council “expresses its determination, in the event that the Syrian government does not implement its commitments, to consider further measures as appropriate”.

It was not immediately clear how Russia and China, which vetoed two previous resolutions condemning Assad’s 13-month assault on anti-government protesters, reacted to the draft, which diplomats discussed behind closed doors on Thursday.

Most of the demands in it were addressed to the Syrian government, which could irritate Moscow and Beijing. Both have welcomed the ceasefire while emphasizing the requirement for rebel forces to comply.

The United States and European Union have imposed their own sanctions against Damascus after failing to persuade Russia and China to join in.

Moscow and Beijing are wary of further U.N. moves, alarmed by the way last year’s Security Council resolution on Libya led to military intervention, though Western leaders are also cautious about intervening in Syria’s mix of religious and ethnic groups.

Ban said there had been a surge in Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey and Lebanon this week and an estimated 1 million people inside Syria now needed humanitarian assistance.

He was urging Assad to keep his promise and to exercise maximum restraint, he said.

“This ceasefire process is very fragile – it may be broken any time if, and when, there is another gunshot,” Ban said. “This is a very worrisome.”

Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, Oliver Holmes and Douglas Hamilton in Beirut, Michael Holden in London and Balazs Koranyi in Oslo; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Jon Boyle

Syria storms out of U.N. rights meeting

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva stormed out of the U.N. Human Rights Council Tuesday after demanding angrily that countries stop “inciting sectarianism and providing arms” to opposition forces in his country.

Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui said sanctions were preventing Damascus from buying medicines and fuel and then abruptly left the Geneva forum’s emergency debate called at the request of Gulf countries and Turkey, and backed by the West.

“We reaffirm to all those alleged friends of the Syrian people that the simple step to immediately help the Syrian people is to stop inciting sectarianism, providing arms and weapons and funding and putting the Syrian people one against the other,” he said.

“Unjust and unilateral sanctions imposed by some countries on the Syrian people are preventing access to medicines, to fuel in all forms as well as electricity, and are also impeding bank transfers to buy these materials.”

The European Union imposed sanctions on seven Syrian cabinet ministers Tuesday for their role in a bloody crackdown on dissent, a move aimed at forcing President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

“As we speak, the ruthless campaign of repression against the civilian population of Syria is going on. Women, men and children are being killed, massively, indiscriminately, by their own state security forces,” Portugal’s foreign minister Paulo Sacadura Cabral Portas told the talks on behalf of the EU.

The main U.N. human rights body had been expected to condemn Syria Tuesday for using heavy weapons on residential areas and persecuting opponents, its fourth rebuke to Assad in an 11-month uprising.

But after hours of debate, it decided to put off action until Thursday on a draft resolution presented by Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey with backing from Western powers including the United States and European Union (EU).

Earlier, Khabbaz Hamoui said some powers wished to use the session to politicize human rights with “slander and libel” against his country so as to “fuel flames of terrorism.”

“The Syrian ambassador’s comments (in his speech to the Council) were borderline out of touch with reality,” U.S. human rights ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told reporters.

They were as “delusional” as his government’s holding of a referendum at a time when it was wreaking violence on its own people, she said.

U.S. SLAMS “BRUTAL CAMPAIGN”

During the debate, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said that only the Syrian people could decide their country’s political future.

“The important thing today is that we give a chance to the Syrians themselves to overcome this crisis,” he said.

“Today it is clear aims to instill democracy through force are doomed to disaster and achieve the opposite. What is important today is that we do not allow for a full scale civil war in Syria.”

Human Rights Watch called for both Russia and China to join in condemning Syria’s abuses. “Russia and China must stop providing the Syrian government with diplomatic coverage and join the rest of the world in clearly condemning the violations,” the New York-based group said in a statement.

Esther Brimmer, U.S. assistant secretary of state, said that

“Assad and his criminal cohort are waging a brutal campaign of slaughter, bombardment, torture and arrest that has already murdered thousands of women, men and children.”

“Bashar al-Assad must go, and there must be a Syrian-led democratic political transition that meets the long-suppressed aspirations of the Syrian people,” she said.

Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she was appalled at the rapidly deteriorating rights and humanitarian situation in Syria and the shelling of Homs.

Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge, reiterated that Syria should be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The 47-member forum, which has no legal force, looked set to adopt a resolution condemning Syria’s “continued widespread and systematic violations,” including the killing and persecution of protesters, diplomats said.

The draft resolution deplores “the use of heavy artillery and tanks to attack residential areas … that have led to the death of thousands of innocent civilians.”

“There will be a wide majority of states in favor. It will pass easily,” an Arab diplomat told Reuters before the meeting.

“We should expect Russia, Cuba and Ecuador to vote against it. On China, is not clear,” he said.

Israel’s diplomat Walid Abu-Haya told the talks: “Bashar al-Assad is systematically murdering civilians. His forces are shelling their towns and villages and are raping and torturing people with impunity. He has no moral authority to govern.”

Additional reporting by Caroline Copley and Robert Evans; Editing by Maria Golovnina

‘Friends of Syria’ to demand ceasefire

Western and Arab nations will demand that Syrian forces implement an immediate ceasefire to allow relief supplies to reach desperate civilians in bombarded cities such as Homs when they meet in Tunis on Friday.

Piling pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, U.N. investigators accused his security apparatus of crimes against humanity as world outrage mounted over violence that has cost thousands of lives during an almost year-long popular revolt against his 11-year rule.

The Syrian uprising will only intensify, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a London conference. “There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures,” she told reporters.

The “Friends of Syria” meeting, that Clinton will attend, will call on Syrian forces to stop firing to give international aid groups access to areas worst hit by the violence which are running out of medicine and food, according to a draft declaration obtained by Reuters.

The draft also “recognized the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change,” a phrase which appeared to fall short of full endorsement of the most prominent group opposed to Assad.

About 70 nations, including the United States, Turkey, and European and Arab countries that want Assad to step down, will take part in the talks, but Russia and China, which have jointly vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria, say they will stay away.

U.S. officials avoided answering questions on whether the group may discuss the possibility of arming the opposition, something that some nations favor and that the United States, in a change in emphasis, on Tuesday suggested could become an alternative.

The Syrian National Council is allied with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up mostly of army deserters fighting security forces that have sought to crush protests against Assad, whose minority Alawite sect dominates Sunni-majority Syria.

Syrian security forces lined up and shot dead 13 men and boys from one extended family, which has the same name as the FSA’s commander Riad al-Asaad, in the village of Kfartoun in Hama province on Thursday, activists in Hama city said.

It was not immediately clear if the victims were related to Asaad, who is based in Turkey and comes from the northwestern province of Idlib.

Activists said three people were also killed in shelling of the nearby village of Soubin. The bodies of five Syrian workers who disappeared two days ago after crossing from Lebanon on their way to Hama were found on Thursday, they said. Two people were killed by troops at a checkpoint inside the city.

CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY

Such accounts are hard to verify due to Syrian government restrictions on independent journalists.

U.N. investigators said Syrian forces had shot and killed unarmed women and children, shelled residential areas and tortured wounded protesters in hospital under orders issued at the “highest levels” of the army and government.

In their report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, they called for perpetrators of such crimes against humanity to face prosecution and said they had drawn up a confidential list of names of commanders and officials alleged to be responsible.

The commission found that Free Syrian Army rebels had also committed abuses “although not comparable in scale.”

Syrian authorities have not commented, but they rejected the commission’s previous report in November as “totally false.”

Rockets, shells and mortar rounds rained on the Baba Amro district, where armed insurgents are holed up with terrified civilians, for the 20th day in a row, activists said. The Sunni Muslim quarters of Inshaat and Khalidiya also came under fire.

Homs-based activist Abu Imad said tanks had entered the Jobar area in the south of Baba Amro.

“Explosions are shaking the whole of Homs. God have mercy,” Abdallah al-Hadi said from the city, where more than 80 people, including two Western journalists and Syrian opposition citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed, were reported killed on Wednesday.

Western diplomats said it had not yet been possible to extract the bodies of Marie Colvin, an American working for Britain’s Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

Two journalists wounded in the same attack – British photographer Paul Conroy and French reporter Edith Bouvier, along with French photographer William Daniels, who was unhurt – were also awaiting evacuation from the Baba Amro neighborhood.

Bouvier, in a YouTube clip posted by activists, said she urgently needed an operation on a broken leg and appealed for a ceasefire and medical transport to neighboring Lebanon.

The Syrian Information Ministry rejected accusations that Syria was responsible for the deaths of journalists, who “infiltrated into the country on their own responsibility.”

HUMANITARIAN ACCESS

The army is blocking medical supplies to parts of Homs and electricity is cut off 15 hours a day, activists say.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to arrange daily two-hour ceasefires, so far without success.

To further isolate Assad’s government, the European Union will impose more sanctions on Syria next week.

The bloody siege of parts of Homs has aroused widespread international indignation, but the world has so far proved powerless to alleviate the predicament of civilians there.

Footage shot by activists in Homs shows blasted buildings, empty streets and doctors treating casualties in makeshift clinics in Baba Amro after nearly three weeks of bombardment.

Several hundred people have been killed in Homs by troops using artillery, tanks, rockets and sniper fire.

Residents fear Assad will subject the city to the same fate his late father Hafez inflicted on Hama, where many thousands were killed in the crushing of an armed Islamist revolt in 1982.

The state news agency SANA said three members of the security forces were killed and seven wounded by a bomb planted by “armed terrorists” near the city of Idlib. It also reported the funerals of 16 security force members killed by rebels.

Assad has called a referendum on a new constitution on Sunday, to be followed by a multi-party parliamentary election, which he says is a response to calls for reform. The plan is supported by his allies Russia and China but Western powers have dismissed it and the Syrian opposition has called for a boycott.


Additional reporting by Dominic Evans, Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Arshad Mohammed in London and Don Durfee and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Sophie Hares

Hamas ditches Assad, backs Syrian revolt

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

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

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

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

HAMAS MAKES ITS CHOICE

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANTI-ISRAEL AXIS WEAKENED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion: Start planning now for transition in Syria

Syria is in the midst of a civil war. The common wisdom both from inside and out is that the Assad dynasty is doomed to follow the plight of Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Gadhafi in Libya, not to mention Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The questions are how, when and how many more dead.

The situation from inside is untenable. As many as 7,000 to 9,000 dead, tens of thousands injured and displaced, with the same amount in Syrian jails. The Syrian army tactic of sealing off a town or village before firing indirect artillery barrages and using snipers to pick off those venturing into the streets has forced whole communities to go underground. They use smuggled satellite phones and modems, as well as portable generators, to bypass government blockages. 

There is no going back for the hundreds of thousands who have supported the demonstrations or suffered from the government crackdown in one way or another. Just as important, Syria is a country of 22 million people who mirror the myriad ethnic, religious and cultural populations that make up the Arab world. The escalating violence threatens to overflow into a regional conflict of sectarian upheaval. Even the Arab League and reserved Saudis have publicly stated that it was no longer appropriate to stand by and watch the bloodshed in Syria. 

However, the fact that the uprising, which emanated organically across the country, maintains little central direction or single political polestar makes a foreign military coup impractical. There are no safe havens or defined corridors to protect through foreign air power. Government forces are purposely interspersed through populated civilian areas.   

I have worked closely with Syrian activists for the past decade, and there is no doubt that, for better or worse, the uprising began as a democratic, nonviolent demonstration against tyrannical rule in the truest sense. The local coordinating committees who provide logistical support and communications among neighborhood activists were a product of the upheaval. Their primary leaders were liberal professionals whose angst has been festering over decades as their quality of life and civil liberties eroded and the influence of Iran increased. (Interestingly, many of the uprising’s star leaders are professional women, such as the leading human rights attorney, Razan Zeituna, now in hiding.) The strategy of countering demonstrators by fueling sectarian fears of retribution à la Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification policy in Iraq and the recent violence against Christians in Egypt was initially received as disingenuous to most Syrians during the first few months of the uprising. 

As both the political and security situations escalated over the past year, externally sponsored extremist groups began to move into the political vacuum. For example, last week’s endorsement by al-Qaeda and an increase in activity of Islamic Salafi-inspired groups is instigating further retrenchment by the remaining 30 percent or so of society yet to abandon the current regime, namely the business class, Christians, Kurds and other minorities who would otherwise be supporting the revolution. Additionally, the rise of Islamist-led governments in Tunisia and Egypt, combined with the impending turmoil in Libya, further dissuades the remaining population segments from aggressively advocating for regime change. 

While the Arab League and the United Nations contemplate observer and humanitarian missions, the Syrians realize that they have to make do largely for themselves. The umbrella opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC), modeled after the Libyan Transitional National Council, has not yet asked for foreign military intervention other than to provide humanitarian support. 

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of a few hundred core army defectors, receive safe haven and small arms from Turkey but lack the recruits and materiel to go head-to-head against the Russian- and Iranian-supported heavy Syrian armor. More for the purposes of turning up the heat on Assad and his Iranian ally rather than actually effecting a coup, the Saudis and Qataris are contemplating providing arms and logistical support to the FSA. 

The opposition is hesitant to publicly call for foreign intervention with an overt American presence, such as that waged in Libya, even if conducted under the legal cover of the U.N. or another multinational mission. Privately, however, it recognizes that such an intervention would only be possible through logistical and diplomatic support of the United States or our allies. U.S. humanitarian support for displaced and injured Syrians would help create good will among the general population while softening the ground for the “good guys” in the opposition in their fight against the “bad guys,” be it the Iranian-sponsored regime or the al-Qaeda and Salafi extremists. It is in our national security interest for Washington to bolster the Arab League’s observer effort while discreetly providing material and political support to the SNC. 

The United States can help foster a discussion regarding the future of the country in a more viable and localized context than that of the American Future of Iraq Program organized by President George W. Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq. As we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, it is never too early to prepare for the tremendous upheaval of a transition period. Without such an anticipatory program, the grassroots that took to the streets will be co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood, or worse. 

This effort should include providing technical support to the opposition, inside and out, to begin planning for the transition. Getting it right with issues such as transitional justice, developing effective media and election laws, the role of the military, minority rights and the role of religion are crucial to an effective transition to democracy. A very public discussion of these issues, initiated on the world stage, would provide hope to the remaining Syrians tied to the dictator and fearing a future without what they know, and ensure against the political vacuum that has resulted from abrupt regime change elsewhere in the region.

Syria came late to the Arab Spring. The world is now otherwise preoccupied. At this point, only Iran, with some complementary activities by Russia and China, is aggressively moving to stop Syria from continuing to implode — albeit on the side of the dictator. It is time for the democratic world to chime in with support for the Syrian democracy activists who are risking their lives in support of the freedom and liberty that we so often take for granted.

James Prince is president of the Los Angeles-based Democracy Council (democracycouncil.org) and is a leading expert on Arab civil society.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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