Report: Syrian fighter jets over Aleppo


Syrian fighter jets have bombed targets in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a BBC journalist reporting inside the country said Tuesday.

“Fighter jets have bombed eastern #Aleppo city,” the BBC’s Ian Pannell wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “A significant escalation and perhaps the first time they’ve been used in #Syrian conflict.”

The information has not been confirmed. The Associated Press reported that “fighter jets are over the city; they’re flying so fast they’re breaking the sound barrier, perhaps in an effort to scare rebels,” NPR wrote.

Pannell was understood to be traveling with insurgents on the outskirts of Aleppo, near Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Earlier messages he posted to Twitter Tuesday reported fierce clashes between Free Syrian Army rebels and government forces, and many civilians caught in the fighting and families trying to flee.

“If confirmed, the use of warplanes would signify an escalation by the Syrian government in its effort to crush armed resistance in the nearly 17-month-old conflict,” the New York Times’ Rick Gladstone wrote.

Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and until recently quiet and seen as loyal to Bashar al-Assad, was entering a sixth day of fighting between rebels trying to hold ground and regime forces trying to oust them.

Meantime, Syrian regime forces were reported to have made gains in retaking the capital Damascus some six days after four members of Assad’s inner circle were assassinated July 18th.

“On Monday, Syrian troops moved house to house in neighborhoods that had briefly fallen under rebel control, breaking down doors and detaining suspected opposition sympathizers,” the Washington Post’s Austen Tice and Liz Sly wrote.

(Photo: Syrian rebels hunt for snipers after attacking the municipality building in the Salaheddin district of the northern city of Aleppo during fighting between rebels and Syrian troops, July 23, 2012. AFP.)



Joshua Landis: Why Syria’s Alawis can’t have rump state

Barbara Slavin writes:

As Syria descends into chaos, Joshua Landis, the well-known Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, writes that the minority Alawis will not be able to establish a rump state in their ancestral mountain redoubt once the Assad regime loses control of Damascus.

Writing on his blog, Syria Comment, Saturday (July 21), Landis notes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has “done nothing to lay the groundwork for an Alawite state. There is no national infrastructure in the coastal region to sustain a state: no international airport, no electric power plans, no industry of importance, and nothing on which to build a national economy.” In addition, Landis says, “no country would recognize the Alawite state” and such a state would be “indefensible.”

In the blog post, Five Reasons Why There Will Not Be an Alawite State, Landis also noted the evolution of the Alawite sect after France assumed control of Syria in 1920:

The segregation that characterized the country under Ottoman rule gradually disappeared, Landis says, as the Alawis came down from the mountains into the Sunni/Christian coastal cities of Latakia, Jeble, Tartus and Banyas. Similarly, Alawis also migrated to Damascus, where there were only 400 of their sect registered in 1945. Continue reading

Syria: ‘The next 24 hours are crucial’

By Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen

The assassination Wednesday (July 18) of key members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle marked a dramatic turning point in the Syrian rebellion, but the growing prospect of regime collapse seemed to offer no near-term reprieve from the bloodshed and chaos that have engulfed one of the Middle East’s most pivotal nations.

“The next 24 hours are crucial,” Aram Nerguizian, a military expert and Levant specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Al-Monitor after the deaths of Assad’s brother in law, defense minister and other key officials were announced by Syrian state television.

“Either the regime and the security services hang together and try to recalibrate from this … or we move on to next phase of the crisis: decay and truly sectarian strife with the potential for even deeper cantonization,” Nerguizian said.

“It could go either way at this point, either triggering rapid regime collapse or massive regime assaults,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who consults the Obama administration on the region, told Al Monitor by email Wednesday. “Either way I think, as I have for months, that Assad is doomed.  But his choices today will have a serious effect on the amount of bloodshed and pain Syrians will have to suffer.”

“Let’s hope that the momentum sustains itself and Assad flees,” Lynch said.  “We’re not there yet. …. Even if he goes there’s a lot of post-Assad issues for which nobody really prepared — the price of the fragmented opposition and power of armed groups.”

Indeed, Nerguizian last week predicted a “protracted civil war like in Lebanon or Algeria” even if Assad steps down. Tensions between majority Sunnis and Assad’s Alawite clan, as well as regional and economic inequities in Syria, ensure continuing bloodshed, he told an audience at CSIS.

The Syrian opposition remains divided, with no transitional government groomed to take Assad’s place as was the case in Libya.

The international community is also divided, with Russia and Iran clinging to the Assad regime despite its horrific crackdown on Syrians over the past 17 months. A UN mission whose main achievement has been to investigate some of the human rights atrocities that have taken place in the country is about to see its mandate expire unless a divided Security Council can agree on new terms for extending it. UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan called Wednesday for the UN Security Council to postpone a planned vote Wednesday on a new Syria resolution as diplomats consulted at the highest level on the unfolding situation.

In Washington, official reaction to developments was mixed. “There is real momentum against Assad, with increasing defections, and a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding “it’s time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next.” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart, had a more cautious take, saying events on the ground appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.” British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond warned Assad that use of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpile “would not be tolerated.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” was underway in Damascus, but reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any UN resolution that would authorize international intervention in the country. “Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Lavrov told reporters at a news conference in Moscow Wednesday, Reuters reported

Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the New America Foundation, noted that the Syrian regime “still has a lot of firepower.” While she called the semi-decapitation of the government the “beginning of the end of the regime,” she said that it was possible that both Iran and Hezbollah would intervene more forcefully to try to rescue Assad. Continue reading

Syrian state TV: Syrian Defense Minister, Assad brother in law killed in suicide blast

Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Daoud Rajha and Bashar al-Assad’s powerful brother-in-law were killed in a suicide bombing of a cabinet meeting in Damascus Wednesday, Syrian state TV reported.

“The Minister of Defense was martyred by the terrorist bombing that targeted the national security building,” the State TV report said, according to the BBC.

Assef Shawkat, the husband of Assad’s sister and a senior defense official, was also killed in the blast, Syrian state TV later reported.

Several other ministers were reported to be wounded, some critically. Later reports said former Defense Minister and Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani subsequently died of wounds sustained in the blast.

The blast reportedly occurred at a national security building in the city’s Rawda district, which has been sealed off. Unconfirmed reports said the suicide bomber was a body guard for one of the ministers attending the meeting. The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack.

Syria’s Information Minister went on TV Wednesday to condemn the attack, blaming it on foreign-backed terrorists.

The attacks on Assad’s inner circle suggest the Syrian rebellion is entering a dramatic new phase after  four days of intense fighting in the Syrian capital.

“The demise of Rajha and Shawkat represents a partial decapitation of the Assad’s regime,” journalist Hisham Melhem wrote on Twitter. “Assad’s house is crumbling.”

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart Phillip Hammond, said events on the ground in Syria appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.”

“The violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” Panetta said.

Hammond warned Assad not to use his chemical weapons. “We will not tolerate the use or the proliferation of those chemical weapons,” Hammond said, the Associated Press reported.

Russian  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” appeared to be underway in Damascus.

But he reiterated Russia’s intention to block a UK-drafted resolution which had been due to be debated at the United Nations Security Council Wednesday. The session would likely be postponed, diplomats told Agence France Press.  Continue reading

Syria expert Joshua Landis: “Torn” about whether US should get more involved

Barbara Slavin writes:

Influential Syria expert Joshua Landis presented a bleak view of Syria’s prospects Monday, saying that the country is headed for “a hard landing and it’s going to get harder.”

Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and writes a daily newsletter on Syrian politics, “Syria Comment,” has opposed US military intervention in the past. He said Monday that he is now “torn” about whether the US should get more deeply involved in what the Red Cross has declared to be a civil war between the minority Alawite regime and majority Sunni population.

“Obama has been very reluctant to lead on Syria,” Landis said. That “has been a smart policy” but it may not stay that way, he said, citing the rising death toll and fragmentation of the country.

“I’m very pessimistic about the future of Syria and that’s what makes me so hesitant about jumping in,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At the same time, he said “decapitation [of the regime] might work,” eliminating a president who is increasingly detached from reality. Continue reading

Former Syria envoy: Al-Qaeda working with Syrian security forces

Nawaf Fares, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq who defected last week, has told the Sunday Telegraph that recent bombings in Syria attributed to al-Qaeda were carried out with the cooperation of Syrian security forces:

“All these major explosions have been have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces,” he said. …

“Al-Qaeda would not carry out activities without knowledge of the regime,” he told the Sunday Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock, in an interview July 13th. “The Syrian government would like to use al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West – to say: ‘it is either them or us’.” […]

Fares’ position, first as a provincial governor, and then, since 2008, as Syria’s first envoy to Iraq in 26 years, would seem to have given him a unique vantage point for the claims. The US-led coalition forces in Iraq long asserted that Syria was actively facilitating the travel to Iraq of al-Qaeda linked militants through its territory. Continue reading

Hillary Clinton: Outraged at “credible” reports of new Syria massacre

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday she was outraged at “credible” reports of mass killings in the Syrian village of Tramseh, and called for an immediate ceasefire so UN monitors could go in.

“I was deeply saddened and outraged to learn of reports of yet another massacre committed by the Syrian regime that has claimed the lives of over 200 men, women, and children in the village of Traymseh,” Clinton said in a statement Friday.

“Credible reports indicate that this unconscionable act was carried out by artillery, tanks, and helicopters – indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians,” Clinton’s statement continued, calling for Bashar al-Assad to leave power so “a political transition begins.”

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, confirmed Friday that heavy weaponry and assault helicopters were used in a sustained attack on the village, near Hama, giving credence to opposition activists’ claims that the village was the target of a government assault. Anti-regime activists have said as many as 200 people were killed, but those figures could not be confirmed.

Amateur video released Friday showed the bodies of 17 people.

“We call for an immediate ceasefire in and around Hama to allow the UN observer mission to enter Traymseh,” Clinton said.  “Those who committed these atrocities will be identified and held accountable.” Continue reading

UN: Heavy weaponry used in assault on Syrian village, activists report mass killing

The head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria confirmed Friday that its observers heard over 100 explosions from heavy weaponry and attack helicopters used in an assault on the Syrian village of Tremseh. Opposition activists say scores of people have been killed in a government assault on the village, near Hama, since Thursday.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood “told reporters in Damascus that a group of observers about five kilometers (three miles) away during the violence confirmed the use of heavy weaponry and attack helicopters,” the Associated Press reported. “He said his team was ready to investigate if a cease-fire is reached.”

The 300-member UN monitoring team has been largely unable to travel given the growing chaos on the ground.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the latest mass killing in Syria, saying opposition reports  of as many as 200 people killed were credible.

“I was deeply saddened and outraged to learn of reports of yet another massacre committed by the Syrian regime that has claimed the lives of over 200 men, women, and children in the village of Traymseh,” Clinton said in a statement Friday.  “Credible reports indicate that this unconscionable act was carried out by artillery, tanks, and helicopters – indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians.”

Opposition activists said Friday Syrian government forces shelled the farming village, near Hama, “before armed thugs moved in, leaving scores of people dead in what rebels claim could be one of the worst single days of bloodshed in the uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime,” the AP report. “Amatuer videos showed the bodies of 17 people said to have been killed.”

A UK-US-French backed draft UN Security Council resolution currently being circulated calls for new sanctions to be imposed if Syrian forces do not stop their assault on Syrian population centers  in 10 days time. Continue reading

Syria's Iraq envoy defects, urges other Baath members to join revolt

Syria's ambassador to Iraq Nawaf Fares has defected and resigned from Syria's ruling Baath party, he confirmed in a statement to Al Jazeera Wednesday, marking the second high profile defection from the Bashar al-Assad regime in a week. .

“I urge all honest members of this party to follow my path because the regime has turned it to an instrument to kill people and their aspiration to freedom,” Fares said in the statement.
“I also declare from this moment that I have joined the ranks of the revolution, ” he said.

Iraqi officials were due to meet on the defection Thursday and the possibility of sending Fares to a third country, likely Turkey, Agence-France Press reported. The Associated Press reported that Fares is already en route to Turkey.

Fares, who has served as Syria's Iraq envoy for four years, “is a member of the privileged Sunni elite in a regime dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect,” the AP report said. His defection follows that of Brig. Gen. Munaf Tlass last week. Tlass, also a Sunni, is a former  Assad insider, the son of the defense minister in the regime of Bashar al-Assad's father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad.  Continue reading

WikiLeaks dumps Syria files

Anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks on Thursday began publishing the first of what it says is a cache of over 2.4 million emails from Syrian officials.

“The material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria’s opponents,” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said on the group's website.

The release comes as diplomats from the US, Europe, Turkey and Arab League meet in Paris on Friday for a conference of the so-called Friends of Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent the United States at the meeting. Continue reading