NPR’s Deborah Amos reports on Syria from front lines

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We are “two and a half years into” the Syria war, “and not even half way” through, says Deborah Amos, veteran National Public Radio Middle East correspondent, who has covered the brutal conflict that has killed 100,000 Syrians, and made almost 2 million refugees. “Everyone has to get used to that.”

The conflict’s battle lines have shifted in recent months, suggesting Syrian regime forces are moving to carve out a “little Syria,” and ensure its access to supply lines in Lebanon, Amos said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor Friday (August 2) during a break in the United States.

“What you've got now” is a battle between regime and rebel forces “for roads and access,” Amos said.  “It used to be for checkpoints and military installations. But now, the regime has to be sure it has access from Lebanon into Syria.” The rebels, meantime, “focus on access to Jordan and Turkey.”

“This is what the war’s about now,” Amos said, describing the virtual four “walls” of Little Syria as including Homs to the north, Palmyra to the east, the Lebanese border and coast to the West.

The road to the Geneva 2 peace conference may be long, Amos said, observing neither side wants to go to talks when the other side has the upper hand, but is unlikely to negotiate when strong. “So nobody is willing to negotiate.”

“I think Bashar [Assad] has changed his definition of winning,” Amos mused, noting his recent proclamations of the past weeks, joining of Instagram, and visit to Dariya, which his forces have not been entirely able to take from rebels. Continue reading

US delists MEK, does ‘not see as viable Iran opposition’ group

The State Department announced Friday that, as anticipated, it has decided to remove the controversial Iranian group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The delisting of the anti-regime group is effective as of Friday (September 28), and was largely made on humanitarian grounds, the State Department said.

“We do not see the MEK as a viable opposition movement,” a senior State Department official stressed in a call to journalists Friday. “We have no evidence or confidence the MEK could promote the democratic values we would like to see in Iran. … We continue to have serious concerns about abuses the group has committed to its  own members.”
“I can tell you this decision is made on the merits, not based on” the MEK’s high-profile US lobbying campaign, the senior State Department official added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to delist the MEK as compensation for the group’s almost complete evacuation of its historic base in Iraq, a US official told Al-Monitor last week. Continue reading

Kofi Annan calls for Syria national unity government; UN plans for 200,000 refugees

UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan is calling for a national unity government in Syria as a way out of the escalating conflict that has seen Syria’s refugee population more than double since March to almost 100,000 people.

Annan’s proposal, contained in a diplomatic ‘non-paper,’ comes as he convenes a meeting of the newly-formed Action Group on Syria–the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Turkey and the Arab League–in Geneva on Saturday. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent Washington at the gathering.

“The conflict in Syria will only end when all sides are assured that there is a peaceful way towards a common future for all in Syria,” Annan’s diplomatic memo– entitled ‘Non-paper, guidelines and principles for a Syria-led transition,’ and posted by the UN-Report blog, states:

It is therefore essential that any settlement provides for clear and irreversible steps in transition according to a fixed time frame. The key steps in any transition include: – The establishment of a Transitional Government of National Unity which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place

The national unity government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups,” the non-paper says, “but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation”–namely, Bashar al-Assad.

Annan, announcing the Action Group Wednesday, defined its objectives as to forge international consensus on “concrete actions” to lead to a cessation of violence, that has claimed almost 15,000 lives. Clinton and Russia’s Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in St. Petersburg, Russia Friday, ahead of attending the Geneva forum.  Iran and Saudi Arabia were both denied invitations to the Action Group meeting, as a compromise based on the U.S.’ insistence Iran be excluded.

The meeting comes as the Independent Commission of Inquiry for Syria this week delivered an interim report that found that militarization of the Syria conflict is intensifying, as arms flow to anti-regime groups.”The main thing we identified is an intensification of military conflict as anti-government armed groups have acquired more weapons, more people and they are able to do their own kind of damage against the Syrian army, and acquire some territory–at least temporarily,” Karen AbuZayd, a member of the Commission, told Al-Monitor in an interview Wednesday from Geneva.

“This is an armed insurrection, not just a little guerrilla warfare … and it is much worse for the people,” AbuZayd said. Meantime, Assad regime forces continue their full fledged assault on Syrian population centers, based on patterns they have employed over the past year: prolonged shelling of the town, entering the city and targeting populations with unlawful killings, torture, etc., “moving from one place to the other,” AbuZayd said. Continue reading