White House to step up aid to Syria rebels, after US confirms Assad chemical use

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President Obama has decided to provide military support to the Syrian rebels after the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale numerous times, the White House announced Thursday.

“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a statement Thursday.

“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC,” the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council, the White House statement continued. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

The US assistance provided to the Syrian rebels “is going to be substantively different than what we were providing before our initial chemical weapons assessment in April,” Rhodes told journalists in a press call Thursday evening.

While declining to provide a full inventory of the assistance the US might provide to the rebels, Rhodes said the U.S. aim “is to be responsive to the needs of the SMC on the ground…There will be an increase in support to both the political and military side.”

Among the types of assistance the US was looking to provide, in coordination with allies, Rhodes said, was aid to enhance the Syrian rebels’ cohesion and effectiveness. “Communications equipment, transport, … medical assistance” [such as ambulances] “relevant to their effectiveness…to allow them to cohere as a unit that can challenge the regime.” The US would also provide small arms and ammunition, and would consider supplying anti-tank weapons, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

Representatives of the US, UK and France are expected to meet SMC military commander Gen. Salim Idriss in Turkey on Saturday, wire reports said Thursday.

The US announcement was made during a week of intensive, high level White House consultations on Syria, including a meeting Wednesday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and visiting UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. It also comes ahead of the first meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in the United Kingdom next week.

Notably, the United States has briefed Russia on its latest Syria chemical weapons assessment, Rhodes said in the call Thursday. It has also provided the information to the United Nations, which Rhodes said had been unable to get its Syria chemical weapons investigation team on the ground in Syria due to Assad’s obstruction.

The announcement came as the United Nations said Thursday that it assesses 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict to date.

“We’re at a tipping point” in Syria, Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s former top Middle East diplomat told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.

Recent gains by Assad forces, backed by Hizbollah, on the ground have thrown plans for transition talks in Geneva into doubt.

“There can’t be any political solution on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room.”

Full White House statement below the jump:

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The rise and fall of Mossad agent Ben Zygier


A month after Australian media first identified “Prisoner X” as Australian-born Mossad recruit Ben Zygier, the Australian journalist who first reported on the Zygier case and his partner have published a joint investigation into how Zygier’s dream-career with the Israeli intelligence service unravelled, culminating with his suicide in an isolated Israeli prison cell in December 2010.

According to the report Monday by Jason Koutsoukis in Australia’s Fairfax media, Melbourne-born Zygier was a passionate Zionist who was recruited into the Mossad in 2003, a few years after he had moved to Israel and had started working at an Israeli law firm. It ended with his 2010 arrest and suicide after Zygier embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized attempt to recruit a Hezbollah source in Eastern Europe and ended up instead allegedly betraying two claimed Mossad assets in Lebanon, according to Koutsoukis’ report.

Zygier’s career with the Mossad began in late 2003, after he responded to a Mossad advertisement that proclaimed “the Mossad is open – not for everyone, but for a few. Maybe for you,” Koutsoukis reported.

By early 2005, after a year of training, Zygier “was ready for his first mission,” Koutsoukis wrote. “He was sent to Europe, where he was instructed to infiltrate companies that had business relationships with countries including Iran and Syria.

“One chief executive of a mid-sized European company with extensive business interests across the Middle East and Persian Gulf – including Iran – confirmed that he had hired Zygier for an accounting position,” the report continues. Zygier worked for the unidentified firm for 18 months.

But apparently his Mossad supervisors were not overly impressed with his performance, and in 2007, to his great disappointment, they ordered Zygier back to a desk job in Israel.

(While Koutsoukis doesn’t identify the firm in Europe where Zygier took a cover job—apparently unbeknownst to the firm–he later reports that Zygier, upon returning to Australia in 2009 to pursue a masters degree, told fellow students that he had worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers management consulting firm in Geneva.)

Zygier, apparently in an attempt to impress his Mossad superiors and salvage his intelligence career, embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized, freelance mission to try to recruit an East European man known to be sympathetic to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a double agent, Koutsoukis writes. But it all went terribly wrong, when the unidentified Eastern European/Balkan man asked Zygier to prove his bona fides by providing Mossad intelligence on Lebanon. Continue reading

US intelligence: Iran decision on nuclear weapon matter of 'political will'


The United States believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so, saying it's ultimately a matter of Iranian political will, the US intelligence community said in a worldwide threat assessment delivered to the Senate Tuesday. The United States would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the assessment also said.

“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate intelligence community Tuesday, states.

Given that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” the assessment states, “this makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

Sanctions have had an impact on Iran's economy, but have so far not caused the Iranian leadership to change its course on the nuclear program, Clapper told the Senate panel during questioning.

“Sanctions have had a profound impact on Iran’s economy and the situation is getting worse,” Clapper said. “At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, it has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership's decision, the Supreme Leader's approach,” to the nuclear program.

While the sanctions and the prospect of increased social unrest “do concern” the Iranian leadership, Clapper said, “at the same time, the Supreme Leader's standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I don’t think, he doesn’t believe they have reached that point yet.”

“Of course, as the Supreme Leader looks westward, at us, he can argue we are on decline, our influence in that part of the world,” is waning, Clapper continued. “And so, his view of the world may not necessarily be fact-based even when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

Clapper said he would wait until closed briefing with the panel to discuss any classified intelligence on the leadership's thinking, as well as to address questions on alleged cooperation between Iran and North Korea. Continue reading

White House counterterror advisor in Israel to discuss Bulgaria bus bombing probe

Obama’s top counterterrorism adviisor John Brennan visited Israel Wednesday, after traveling to Bulgaria earlier this week to confer on the investigation into the July 18 Burgas  bus bombing.

Brennan visited Israel July 25 “to consult with senior Israeli officials about a range of shared security concerns, including the recent wave of terrorist plots against Israeli and other interests,” NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Wednesday.  Brennan also met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said Tuesday after meeting with Brennan that Bulgarian authorities now believe the suspected suicide bomber in the Burgas bus bombing had been in the country for about a month, and had worked as part of a group with a high degree of discipline.

“These are extremely experienced people who observed absolute secrecy,” Borisov said at a press conference with Brennan July 24th, Agence France Press reported.

The July 18th attack, which targeted a bus of Israeli tourists who had arrived in the Black Sea resort town on a charter flight, killed seven people, including five Israeli tourists, their Bulgarian bus driver, and the suspected bomber.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel has rock-solid evidence the attack was perpetrated  by Hezbollah.

(Photo: US anti-terror adviser John Brennan (left) speaks during a joint press conference with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in Sofia on July 24. The suicide bomber who killed six people in an attack on Israelis had accomplices and may have entered Bulgaria from Europe’s Schengen passport-free area, Borisov said Tuesday. AFP Photo/Tsvetelina Belutova)

 

Former Mossad chief: “Better to wait” before accusing Iran in Bulgaria bus bombing

Former Israeli intelligence chief Danny Yatom said Thursday that while it’s logical to assume that Hezbollah or Iran were behind the July 18 Bulgaria bus bombing that killed seven people, assigning culpability should probably have waited until the evidence is solid.

“Usually it takes some time to locate those who were behind the bombing, and those who sent them,” the former Mossad chief told journalists on a call organized by The Israel Project Thursday.

“From the modus operandi used by some organizations, it’s logical to assume that Iran or Hezbollah or Hezbollah and/or Iran were behind this terror attack,” Yatom said. “As long as we don’t have solid information about it, it’s better to wait.”

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday of the attack on the bus of Israeli tourists at Bourgas airport on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, in which seven people, including five Israeli tourists and two Bulgarians, were killed, and 30 injured. “In the past months we saw Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Kenya and Cyprus. This is an Iranian terror offensive that is spreading throughout the world.”

Bulgarian authorities on Thursday released a video of the man suspected of being the bus bomber, and said that he was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license. ABC News obtained a photo of the suspect’s fake Michigan driver’s license, which identifies the man as Jacque Felipe Martin, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, born in 1987.

US intelligence assesses that the suspect was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior U.S. official. Continue reading