Archive for June 11, 2013


By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Crispian Balmer

AMMAN/BEIRUT | Mon Jun 10, 2013

(Reuters) – Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are massing around Aleppo in preparation for an offensive to retake the city and build on battlefield gains that have swung the momentum of Syria’s war to Assad and his Hezbollah allies.

Rebels reported signs of large numbers of Shi’ite Muslim fighters flowing in from Iraq to help Assad end the civil war that has killed at least 80,000 people and forced 1.6 million Syrians to flee abroad.

The move to a northern front comes as Syria’s war is increasingly infecting its neighbors – Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel – and widening a regional sectarian faultline between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

For the first time since the start of the uprising in March 2011, an Israeli minister suggested on Monday that Assad might prevail in the war, thanks in large part to support from Shi’ite Iran and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

However, efforts to dislodge rebels in Aleppo will be a much tougher proposition than last week’s capture of the town of Qusair, with military analysts predicting that the conflict will probably drag on for months or years as Assad’s many foes are likely to be galvanized by recent rebel reversals.

Alarmed by Assad’s swift advances and hoping to turn the tide, Washington might decide later this week on whether to start arming the rebels, a U.S. official said.

Assad’s army is preparing to lift sieges on areas close to Aleppo before turning its sights on the country’s second city, according to the semi-official Syrian al-Watan daily

“Any battle in Aleppo will be huge and most certainly prolonged,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

“You have large numbers of rebels in several areas of the city. There will have to be a lot of very close combat fighting that always takes a lot of time and leaves many casualties.”

Rebel brigades poured into Aleppo last July and have more than half the great merchant city under their control. The front lines are largely stable and a growing number of radicalized, Islamist foreign fighters have joined rebel ranks.

PINCER MOVEMENT

Opposition activists and military sources said the army was airlifting troops to Aleppo airport and to the Kurdish area of Ifrin behind rebel lines, as well as reinforcing two rural Shi’ite Muslim enclaves, Zahra and Nubbul, north of the city.

“The regime appears to be making a pincer movement to try and regain the major cities across the north and east of Syria ahead of the Geneva conference,” said Abu Taha, a northern rebel commander, referring to proposed international peace talks.

The United States and Russia hope to hold the conference in Switzerland next month, but Britain has warned that Assad’s recent success might make him reluctant to offer the sort of compromises believed necessary to end the bloodshed.

After appearing to seize the initiative in 2012, the rebels have suffered a series of setbacks this year, with Assad’s demoralized forces significantly bolstered by the arrival of well-trained fighters from the Shi’ite Muslim group, Hezbollah.

Rebels said these guerrillas had played a determining role in the emphatic victory last week in Qusair, which controls vital supply routes across Syria and into Lebanon.

A security source in Lebanon said Hezbollah would continue to assist Assad, but unlike the battle for Qusair, which lies close to its home turf, it might not dispatch its troops north to Aleppo, preferring instead to offer training.

Looking to relieve the growing pressure on Aleppo, rebels attacked on Monday two major military compounds in northern Syria — on the outskirts of the city of Raqqa and the Minnig airport in the adjacent province of Aleppo.

“The rebels have raised pressure … in the last two days to pre-empt any attack on Aleppo,” said Abdelrazzaq Shlas, a member of the opposition administrative council for the province.

Activists said the army had retaliated by bombing Raqqa, killing at least 20 civilians and fighters.

“There is a big loss of lives, but the aim is to deflate the morale boost that the regime received after Qusair and not allow it to go to Geneva as a victor,” Shlas said.

But in a worrying development for the rebels, Shlas said there were reports of militiamen loyal to Iraqi Shi’ite Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr streaming into Syria to bolster Assad’s forces.

Their arrival would underline the increasingly regionalized nature of the war following Hezbollah’s entry into the fray.

JIHAD

Lister, who monitors Sunni Muslim Jihadist forums, said it seemed a growing number of Sunni men appeared ready to take up arms in Syria with the mainly Sunni rebel forces.

“If you believe what you read in the forums, then there are a lot of people heading to Syria to take up the fight,” he said, adding that there were also a growing number of death notices for foreign fighters appearing on the web, including six in one day last week.

Israel, which shares a tense border with Syria, has regularly predicted the fall of Assad. But on Monday, Minister for Intelligence Yuval Steinitz offered a very different view.

Speaking to foreign reporters in Jerusalem, he said Assad’s government “might not just survive but even regain territories”.

Western nations, including the United States, have said Assad must stand down, but have thus far refused to arm the rebels, worried the weaponry might fall into the hands of radical elements, including groups tied to al Qaeda.

On a visit to Aleppo earlier this month, a Reuters correspondent saw a marked increase in the number of hardcore Islamist groups, who seemed to have gained ascendancy over the more moderate Free Syrian Army that led the initial combat.

Rebels in the city also seemed more focused on resolving day-to-day issues rather taking the fight to Assad.

“The biggest problem we have is thievery. There are thieves who pretend to be rebels and wear rebel clothes so they can steal from civilians,” said Abu Ahmed Rahman, head of the Revolutionary Military Police in Aleppo, an organization set up to resolve disputes between rebels and civilians.

But there were also signs of anti-Assad forces digging in, preparing for an eventual army onslaught.

“This conflict has no discernable end point at the moment,” said Lister.

(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Aleppo and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/10/us-syria-crisis-future-idUSBRE9590P520130610.

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June 10, 2013

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s prime minister will meet with a group of protesters occupying Istanbul’s central Taksim Square this week, the deputy prime minister said Monday, as the government sought a way out of the impasse that has led to hundreds of protests in dozens of cities.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said, however, the government would no longer tolerate “illegal acts,” and implied that the occupation of Taksim and its accompanying Gezi Park would be over by the weekend.

“Illegal acts in Turkey from now won’t be allowed and whatever needs to be done according to the law will be done,” he said after a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “All necessary actions against illegal acts will have been completed, and we will see this all together, by the weekend.”

The protests appeared on the wane, with the smallest number of demonstrators in the past 11 days gathering in Taksim on Monday night. The protesters occupying Gezi Park remain, however. Smaller protests occurred in Ankara too, with about 5,000 people demonstrating. Police there have used water cannon and tear gas to break up demonstrations almost every night.

Three people have died and more than 5,000 have been treated for injuries or the effects of gas during the protests. The government says 600 police officers have also been injured. Erdogan will meet Gezi Park protesters Wednesday, following a request by some of the protesters, Arinc said, but not at the square. With no clear leadership organizing the Gezi occupation, it was unclear who the prime minister would be meeting.

The unrest was sparked by a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in by protesters objecting to a project replacing the park with a replica Ottoman-era barracks. The crackdown, in which protesters were confronted with tear gas and water cannon as they slept, galvanized tens of thousands of Turks. The demonstrations quickly turned into a denunciation of what many see as Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic ways and attempts to impose Muslim values on a country with secular laws — charges the prime minister vehemently rejects.

A law restricting the sale of alcohol and banning its advertising — one of the things protesters had pointed to as evidence of decreasing social tolerance — was signed into law by President Abdullah Gul on Monday.

Associated Press writer Elena Becatoros in Istanbul contributed to this report.

June 10, 2013

MERSIN, Turkey (AP) — This month’s Mediterranean Games in Turkey will be “unaffected” by the anti-government protests sweeping the country, organizers said Monday.

The Olympic-style event is scheduled for June 20-30 in the Mediterranean coastal city of Mersin, with thousands of athletes from two dozen countries expected to take part. The protests, which have led to three deaths, entered their 11th day on Monday. They are the first serious challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power for 10 years.

In a statement, Mersin organizers and the Turkish Olympic Committee said the games are “unaffected by the largely peaceful protests that have taken place in the Adana-Mersin area.” “An exhaustive review of the current situation with leading experts found that there is no elevated risk to the event participants,” it said.

“We have worked hand-in-hand with all the necessary authorities and drawn on international best practice to create rigorous safety and security models to deal with all eventualities,” the statement added.

The protests were sparked May 31 by a violent police crackdown on a sit-in at a park on Taksim to prevent a redevelopment project that would replace the green space with a replica Ottoman Barracks. They have since spread to 78 cities across the country.

Protesters have been venting their anger at what they say are Erdogan’s growing authoritarian ways and attempts to impose religious and conservative views on their lifestyles. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, says he is committed to Turkey’s secular laws and rejects charges of autocracy.

The unrest comes as Turkey prepares to host football’s Under-20 World Cup, which begins June 21, and as Istanbul enters the final months of the bidding to host the 2020 Olympics. Istanbul is competing with Madrid and Tokyo for the Olympics. The IOC will select the host city in a secret ballot on Sept. 7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Turkish officials insist the bid should not be affected by the protests. Youth and Sports Minister Suat Kilic said on Twitter on Monday that hosting the Olympics will bring “great value” to the country and region.

“There are many people within the protesters who want (the bid) to be affected negatively,” Kilic said in an interview Sunday with Kanalturk television. “I am very saddened by this fact and I condemn those who do.”

“Istanbul 2020 is not only the aim of (Erdogan’s) party. This has to be the project of (all Turkish political parties).” Kilic noted that IOC President Jacques Rogge said last week that “there is nothing so far” to hurt Istanbul’s Olympic hopes.

June 10, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida’s leader has tried to end squabbling between the terror network’s Syrian and Iraqi branches, ordering the two groups to remain separate after an attempted merger prompted a leadership dispute between them.

This came as Syrian rebels battled Monday in a renewed push to capture a government air base in the north, while the regime was said to be preparing for a major offensive to retake opposition-held areas in the province of Aleppo.

The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV reported that al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged leaders of the Iraqi al-Qaida branch and the Nusra Front in Syria to end their disagreements and “stop any verbal or actual attacks against one another.”

The TV said al-Zawahri’s call came in a letter sent to the station and posted on its website late Sunday. The letter’s authenticity could not be independently verified. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said it also acquired a copy of the letter but did not provide other details.

Al-Zawahri’s call could also reflect a bid to carve out a more significant role for al-Qaida in the Syria civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, is the most powerful rebel force fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

In April, al-Qaida in Iraq said it had joined forces with the Nusra Front, forming a new alliance called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Hours after the announcement, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani appeared to distance himself from the merger, saying he was not consulted. Instead, he pledged allegiance to al-Zawahiri.

In Sunday’s letter, al-Zawahri chastises the head of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying he announced the merger without consulting al-Qaida’s leadership. He also admonished al-Golani for publicly distancing himself from the merger.

“The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished,” al-Zawahri said, adding that Nusra Front will remain an independent branch of al-Qaida. Al-Baghdadi and al-Golani are to stay on as leaders of their respective branches for another year, after which the al-Qaida leadership will decide whether they will keep their posts or be replaced.

Assad’s government in April seized upon the reported merger to back its assertion that it isn’t facing a true popular uprising but a foreign-backed terrorist plot. The merger had also caused friction among rebels on the battlefield who feared the announcement would further discourage Western powers discussing funneling weapons, training and aid toward rebel groups and army defectors.

On Monday, rebel forces advanced inside the sprawling air base of Mannagh near the border with Turkey, activists said. The Observatory said rebels captured a building inside the base, which has been under siege for months. The opposition’s Aleppo Media Center said rebels destroyed several army vehicles and captured the observation tower.

Activists also reported clashes around the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, besieged by rebels for a year. Aleppo-based activist Mohammed al-Khatib said military reinforcements, including Hezbollah fighters, have been sent to parts of Aleppo, including the two Shiite villages and north-western parts of the city. He said the government was using helicopters to reinforce its positions and resupply in those areas.

The Shiite military group has openly joined the fight in Syria and was key in assisting regime forces in recapturing the strategic town of Qusair last week. Syrian state-run media and the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV have said the regime is preparing an offensive reportedly named Operation Northern Storm to recapture Aleppo.

Moved by the Assad regime’s rapid military advance, the Obama administration began discussing Monday whether to approve lethal aid for the beleaguered rebels, and U.S. officials said a decision could come later this week.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the intense preparation for a siege on Aleppo “reaffirms the urgent need for the international community to focus its efforts on doing all we can do to support the opposition as it works to change the balance on the ground.”

Opposition leaders have warned Washington that their rebellion could face devastating and irreversible losses without greater support. Also Monday, a roadside bomb lightly damaged a van that was heading from Lebanon to Syria, Lebanese security officials said. The van was hit by the bomb, detonated remotely, in the eastern Bekaa valley but kept driving toward the border, crossing into Syria, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. There appeared to be no casualties in the bombing.

Syria’s conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Lebanon is bitterly divided over the war next door, with gunmen from rival religious sects fighting on opposite sides of the conflict. Lebanese Sunnis mostly back the opposition while many Shiites in Lebanon support Assad. The Syrian regime is dominated by members of the president’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah forces have taken an increasingly prominent role in Syria’s fighting and were key in helping Assad’s troops capture the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon, following weeks of battles with rebels.

On Monday, Syria’s Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij said Qusair’s capture last week was a “main point toward restoring security and stability to every inch of our nation.” In apparent retaliation by the rebel side, scores of rockets have been fired from Syria into Hezbollah strongholds in northeastern Lebanon.

Senior Hezbollah official Sheik Nabil Kaouk said it will not change it position on Syria, regardless of “how much local, regional and international pressure increases” on the Lebanese group.

Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.

June 10, 2013

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Anti-government protests in Bosnia have stretched into a second week, with hundreds of people marching through Sarajevo streets to parliament.

It all began last Wednesday when angry young parents besieged parliament, demanding lawmakers pass a law on national ID numbers, which citizens need to obtain passports and other documents. The old law lapsed in February, leaving all babies born in the country since then without personal documents.

More than 1,500 lawmakers and others were trapped inside parliament until police freed them Thursday after a 12-hour standoff with protesters, including mothers pushing baby carriages. On Monday, Bosnians took to the streets again in what have become daily protests, demanding politicians start doing their jobs and stop ethnic bickering. Protesters marched past official buildings, including the presidency, before ending at parliament.