Posts Tagged Syria

Hezbollah, Iraqi militia capture Damascus suburb: opposition

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN | Wed Oct 9, 2013

(Reuters) – Iraqi and Lebanese Shi’ite militia backed by Syrian army firepower overran a southern suburb of Damascus on Wednesday, opposition activists said, in a blow to Sunni Muslim rebels trying to hold onto strategic outskirts of the capital.

At least 20 rebels were killed when Hezbollah guerrillas and Iraqi militiamen captured the town of Sheikh Omar under cover of Syrian army artillery and tank fire and aerial bombardment, the activists said, with tens of Shi’ite fighters killed or wounded.

Sheikh Omar sits between two highways leading south of Damascus that are crucial to supplying President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the provinces of Deraa and Sweida on the border with Jordan.

Syria’s 2-1/2 year war has killed more than 120,000 people and forced millions from their homes into sprawling refugee camps in neighboring countries.

It began with peaceful demonstrations against four decades of iron rule by the Assad family. With regional powers backing opposing sides in the conflict and Russia blocking Western efforts to force Assad aside, there is little sign of an end to the bloodshed.

Regional security officials say up to 60,000 fighters from Iraq, Iran and Yemen and Hezbollah are present in Syria supporting Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

The country has also seen the influx of 30,000 Sunni Muslim fighters to support the rebels, including foreign jihadists and Syrian expatriates.

Hezbollah has acknowledged fighting openly in support of Assad, its main patron together with Shi’ite Iran, but the group does not comment on the specifics of its operations in the country.

The deployment of the Iraqi and Lebanese militia has been vital in preventing all southern approaches to Damascus from falling into rebel hands, according to opposition sources and the regional security officials.

The foreign Shi’ite fighters together with soldiers and local paramilitaries loyal to Assad have been laying siege to rebel-held southern suburbs of the capital near the Shi’ite shrine of Saida Zainab for the past six months, residents say.

The siege has squeezed rebels in areas further to the center of the city and caused acute shortages of food and medicine that have hit the civilian population.

FLOOD OF WOUNDED

Wardan Abu Hassan, a doctor at a makeshift hospital in southern Damascus, said the facility and another nearby received 70 wounded people, both fighters and civilians, since 4.00 a.m.

The wounded came from Sheikh Omar and the nearby suburbs of al-Thiabiya and al-Boueida, where the rebels were trying to hold off the Shi’ite militia advance, he said.

“Most of the casualties are from air strikes, and fire from tanks and multiple rocket launchers,” the physician told Reuters.

An opposition group, the Damascus Revolution Leadership Council, said a baby girl died on Wednesday in the southern district of Hajar al-Asswad from malnutrition caused by the siege. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Rami al-Sayyed from the opposition Syrian Media Center mentoring group said rebel fighters were trying to hold off the Hezbollah and Iraqi fighters in al-Thiabiya and al-Boueida.

“It is tough because the regime is providing Hezbollah and the Iraqis with heavy artillery and rocket cover from high ground,” he said.

Sayyed said much of the fire was coming from the 56th army brigade in the hilly region of Sahya. That area was evacuated after the threat of U.S. strikes following a nerve gas attack in August on other rebellious Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds.

The area became operational again after the threat receded following a deal to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, Sayyed said.

Buoyed by the receding prospect of U.S. intervention, Assad has been seeking to tighten his grip on the center of the country, the coast, areas along the country’s main north-south highway as well as the capital and its environs.

Large areas of southern Damascus, including the areas of Hajar al-Assad and the Yarmouk refugee camp, are inhabited by poor refugees from the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, who have been at the forefront of the revolt against Assad, as well as Palestinian refugees.

(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/09/us-syria-crisis-damascus-idUSBRE9980XW20131009.

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Insight: Kuwaitis campaign privately to arm Syrian rebels

By Sylvia Westall and Mahmoud Harby

KUWAIT | Thu Jun 27, 2013

(Reuters) – At a traditional evening meeting known as a “diwaniya”, Kuwaiti men drop banknotes into a box, opening a campaign to arm up to 12,000 anti-government fighters in Syria. A new Mercedes is parked outside to be auctioned off for cash.

They are Sunni Muslim and mainly Islamist like many Syrian rebels who have been trying for two years to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect that is a branch of Shi’ite Islam.

Syria’s war has widened a faultline in the Middle East, with Shi’ite Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah backing Assad and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations supporting his opponents.

“The world has abandoned the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution so it is normal that people start to give money to people who are fighting,” said Falah al-Sawagh, a former opposition member of Kuwait’s parliament, surrounded by friends drinking sweet tea and eating cakes.

In just four hours the campaign collected 80,000 dinars ($282,500). The box moves to a new house each day for a week. Sawagh estimates this type of campaign in Kuwait, one of the world’s richest countries per capita, raised several million dollars during the last Ramadan religious holiday.

Sunni-ruled Kuwait has denounced the Syrian army’s actions and sent $300 million in humanitarian aid to help the millions displaced by the conflict in which more than 90,000 have died.

Unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kuwaiti government policy is against arming the rebels. But the U.S. ally allows more public debate than other Gulf states and has tolerated campaigns in private houses or on social media that are difficult to control.

Kuwaiti authorities are nevertheless worried that the fundraising for Syria could stir sectarian tensions – Kuwait has its own Shi’ite minority. The West is concerned that support will bolster al Qaeda militants among the rebels.

Some opposition Islamist politicians and Sunni clerics have openly campaigned to arm rebel fighters, using social media and posters with telephone hotlines in public places. Former MP Waleed al-Tabtabie, a conservative Salafi Islamist, posted pictures of himself on Twitter clad in combat gear in Syria.

“There is a great amount of sympathy on the part of the Kuwaiti people to provide any kind of assistance to the Syrian people whether inside or outside Syria,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah said when asked about the Reuters report.

Official Kuwaiti fundraising for humanitarian aid goes through United Nations channels, he said, at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

As for unofficial fundraising, he emphasized that any collection of funds requires a special permit to make sure the money “is going to the right side or to the right party.”

Kuwait’s minister for cabinet affairs, Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah, said what was happening in Syria was “heart-wrenching” and understood why Kuwaitis wanted to help.

“Human nature is such that you cannot control what people believe in and how they want to act,” he said.

“What is happening in Syria just inflames the emotions on both sides. That’s why we are trying to steer a middle ground.”

SUITCASES OF CASH

Syria is blocked from international bank transfers from Kuwait because of sanctions, so former MP Sawagh visited the Syrian town of Aleppo last month with cash in his luggage for rebel fighters. He did not say how much he took.

“Our only rule is to collect money and to deliver this money to our brothers which are helping the Syrian people,” said Sawagh, a member of a local group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood which is in power in Egypt and is influential in other Arab states.

Sawagh and others in his campaign also travel to Turkey and Jordan to hand over money to intermediaries.

“They have absolute freedom to spend this money. If they can recruit mujahideen for defending themselves and their sanctity with this money, then this is their choice,” he said, referring to fighters who engage in jihad or holy war.

Washington is worried the money may help strengthen fighters with links to al Qaeda who are hostile not just to Assad but also to the United States and U.S.-allied Gulf ruling families.

It wants Western and Arab allies to direct all aid to Syrian rebels through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council.

A fiery speech by Kuwaiti Sunni Muslim cleric Shafi al-Ajami raised alarm earlier this month with a call for more arms.

“The mujahideen, we are arming them from here, and from the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey,” he said.

The speech was laced with references to the sectarian nature of the conflict and unnerved authorities in Kuwait where Shi’ites make up an estimated 15 to 20 percent minority of the population. Parliament, the cabinet and the ruling emir issued strong rebukes.

“I do not hide from you feelings of anxiety about what emerged recently … manifestations and practices that carry the abhorrent breath of sectarianism which should be denounced,” Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah said on state television. Such acts could “lure the fire of fanaticism and extremism,” he said.

JIHAD

Ajami spoke following a call by prominent cleric Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian based in Qatar, for jihad in Syria after fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, intervened to help Assad’s army.

The calls to holy war by several influential clerics in the region only encouraged more donations, Kuwaitis said.

“Women have also been donating their gold,” said Bader al-Dahoum, a former Islamist opposition MP.

“After the fatwas (edicts), people are giving more.”

The men at the diwaniya said one large Kuwaiti family planned to equip 28 mujahideen in Syria, estimating the cost at 700 dinars per fighter. Smaller families sponsor two or three, while a member of one of Kuwait’s powerful merchant families donated 250,000 dinars.

Weapons supplied by Qatar and its allies include small arms such as AK-47 rifles, rocket propelled grenades, hand grenades and ammunition, according to a Qatari official. Qatar also provides instructions on battlefield techniques.

Campaigning for funds to arm the rebels makes certain politicians more popular in Kuwait, said Osama al-Munawer, a former opposition MP.

“I was a member of the National Assembly and people were blaming us – why don’t you give them weapons?” he said.

“They said, food – they have it, but they need to defend themselves because the situation is very bad.”

(Additional reporting by William Maclean and Ahmed Hagagy; editing by Anna Willard and Janet McBride)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/27/us-syria-kuwait-insight-idUSBRE95P0TG20130627.

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Saudi to expel Hezbollah supporters over Syria war

June 20, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — In the latest sign of the fissures growing in the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Beirut has announced that the kingdom plans to deport Lebanese who supported Hezbollah, one of Damascus’ key allies.

The warning comes as the Lebanese Shiite militant group takes an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian war, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops in a key battle earlier this month. Saudi Arabia is a strong backer of the mostly-Sunni Syrian opposition trying to remove Assad from power. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It follows the decision earlier this month by the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — to crack down on Hezbollah members in the Gulf and limit their “financial and business transactions.”

Hezbollah says it has no businesses in the Gulf nations. However, there are more than half a million Lebanese working in the Gulf Arab nations, including tens of thousands in Saudi Arabia, some of whom have been living in the kingdom for decades. Many of those Lebanese are Shiites.

Saudi Arabia will deport “those who financially support this party,” Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri told Lebanon’s Future TV late Wednesday. He did not elaborate on whether other actions could be also considered support for Hezbollah.

“This is a serious decision and will be implemented in detail,” Assiri said, without specifying when the deportations would begin. “Acts are being committed against innocent Syrian people.” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour told reporters Thursday he was in contact with Gulf officials over the matter. Hezbollah and its allies dominate Lebanon’s current government, which resigned March 22, but continues to run the country’s affairs in a caretaker capacity.

Syria’s 2-year civil war, which has killed nearly 93,000 people, is increasingly pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria’s neighbors. Assad draws his support largely from fellow Alawites as well as other minorities including Christians and Shiites. He is backed by Shiite Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites.

U.S. officials estimate that 5,000 Hezbollah members are fighting alongside Assad’s regime, while thousands of Sunni foreign fighters are also believed to be in Syria — including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that is believed to be among the most effective rebel factions. Public opinion in Sunni states is often sympathetic to the rebels.

Fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian groups has broken out in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is deepening tensions at home. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who has been increasingly critical of the group recently, said in remarks published Thursday that he is against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and that Hezbollah fighters should return to Lebanon.

“I told them from the start that I am against this act,” he was quoted by al-Safir daily as saying. In Syria, activists reported violence between government forces and rebels in different parts of the country on Thursday, mostly near the capital Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and its commercial hub.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 rebels were killed in a battle with government troops in Aleppo, where the opposition has controlled whole neighborhoods and large swathes of surrounding land since last summer.

Pro-regime media outlets announced earlier this month that troops had launched an offensive to build on the momentum of their Qusair triumph to retake Aleppo and other areas of the north. Another activist group, the Syria-based Aleppo Media Center, said rebels launched an attack on army positions in the city’s Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the government side in the fighting.

Amateur videos showed gunmen shooting and firing rockets at army positions in the neighborhood. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted. Meanwhile, Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group said 40,000 civilians in two northern districts of Damascus in which government forces have been operating are suffering food shortages and lack medical supplies.

“After six months of continuous siege, (and ) military checkpoints … the neighborhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh are at risk,” the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. It said the government forces conduct frequent raids in the two districts and there is fear that such army operations will result in a “massacre.”

Also on Thursday, the Observatory urged the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to intervene and take medicine and food to Aleppo’s central prison. Heavy fighting around the prison has raged for weeks and there have been casualties among the prisoners, the activists said.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said three detainees died this week from tuberculosis and that scabies was spreading in the jail, which holds thousands of prisoners.

The prison, which is besieged by rebels, relies on food and medicine brought in drop-offs by army helicopters. The Observatory said more than 100 detainees have been killed since April when the fighting around the prison began.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels and Kurdish gunmen reached an agreement to end a rebel siege of the northern predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin that triggered a shortage of food and medicine there, the Observatory said.

The Afrin flare-up began when rebels wanted to pass through it to attack the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, controlled by Assad loyalists, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said. After Kurdish groups refused, rebels attacked Kurdish checkpoints and laid siege beginning on May 25.

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Iran to send 4,000 troops to aid President Assad forces in Syria

SUNDAY 16 JUNE 2013

World Exclusive: US urges UK and France to join in supplying arms to Syrian rebels as MPs fear that UK will be drawn into growing conflict

Washington’s decision to arm Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has plunged America into the great Sunni-Shia conflict of the Islamic Middle East, entering a struggle that now dwarfs the Arab revolutions which overthrew dictatorships across the region.

For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims and all of its enemies are Shiites. Breaking all President Barack Obama’s rules of disengagement, the US is now fully engaged on the side of armed groups which include the most extreme Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East.

The Independent on Sunday has learned that a military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years. Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel.

In years to come, historians will ask how America – after its defeat in Iraq and its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for 2014 – could have so blithely aligned itself with one side in a titanic Islamic struggle stretching back to the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohamed. The profound effects of this great schism, between Sunnis who believe that the father of Mohamed’s wife was the new caliph of the Muslim world and Shias who regard his son in law Ali as his rightful successor – a seventh century battle swamped in blood around the present-day Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kerbala – continue across the region to this day. A 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, compared this Muslim conflict to that between “Papists and Protestants”.

America’s alliance now includes the wealthiest states of the Arab Gulf, the vast Sunni territories between Egypt and Morocco, as well as Turkey and the fragile British-created monarchy in Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan – flooded, like so many neighboring nations, by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – may also now find himself at the fulcrum of the Syrian battle. Up to 3,000 American ‘advisers’ are now believed to be in Jordan, and the creation of a southern Syria ‘no-fly zone’ – opposed by Syrian-controlled anti-aircraft batteries – will turn a crisis into a ‘hot’ war. So much for America’s ‘friends’.

Its enemies include the Lebanese Hizballah, the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus and, of course, Iran. And Iraq, a largely Shiite nation which America ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority in the hope of balancing the Shiite power of Iran, has – against all US predictions – itself now largely fallen under Tehran’s influence and power. Iraqi Shiites as well as Hizballah members, have both fought alongside Assad’s forces.

Washington’s excuse for its new Middle East adventure – that it must arm Assad’s enemies because the Damascus regime has used sarin gas against them – convinces no-one in the Middle East. Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

For the real reason why America has thrown its military power behind Syria’s Sunni rebels is because those same rebels are now losing their war against Assad. The Damascus regime’s victory this month in the central Syrian town of Qusayr, at the cost of Hizballah lives as well as those of government forces, has thrown the Syrian revolution into turmoil, threatening to humiliate American and EU demands for Assad to abandon power. Arab dictators are supposed to be deposed – unless they are the friendly kings or emirs of the Gulf – not to be sustained. Yet Russia has given its total support to Assad, three times vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that might have allowed the West to intervene directly in the civil war.

In the Middle East, there is cynical disbelief at the American contention that it can distribute arms – almost certainly including anti-aircraft missiles – only to secular Sunni rebel forces in Syria represented by the so-called Free Syria Army. The more powerful al-Nusrah Front, allied to al-Qaeda, dominates the battlefield on the rebel side and has been blamed for atrocities including the execution of Syrian government prisoners of war and the murder of a 14-year old boy for blasphemy. They will be able to take new American weapons from their Free Syria Army comrades with little effort.

From now on, therefore, every suicide bombing in Damascus – every war crime committed by the rebels – will be regarded in the region as Washington’s responsibility. The very Sunni-Wahabi Islamists who killed thousands of Americans on 11th September, 2011 – who are America’s greatest enemies as well as Russia’s – are going to be proxy allies of the Obama administration. This terrible irony can only be exacerbated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adamant refusal to tolerate any form of Sunni extremism. His experience in Chechnya, his anti-Muslim rhetoric – he has made obscene remarks about Muslim extremists in a press conference in Russian – and his belief that Russia’s old ally in Syria is facing the same threat as Moscow fought in Chechnya, plays a far greater part in his policy towards Bashar al-Assad than the continued existence of Russia’s naval port at the Syrian Mediterranean city of Tartous.

For the Russians, of course, the ‘Middle East’ is not in the ‘east’ at all, but to the south of Moscow; and statistics are all-important. The Chechen capital of Grozny is scarcely 500 miles from the Syrian frontier. Fifteen per cent of Russians are Muslim. Six of the Soviet Union’s communist republics had a Muslim majority, 90 per cent of whom were Sunni. And Sunnis around the world make up perhaps 85 per cent of all Muslims. For a Russia intent on re-positioning itself across a land mass that includes most of the former Soviet Union, Sunni Islamists of the kind now fighting the Assad regime are its principal antagonists.

Iranian sources say they liaise constantly with Moscow, and that while Hizballah’s overall withdrawal from Syria is likely to be completed soon – with the maintenance of the militia’s ‘intelligence’ teams inside Syria – Iran’s support for Damascus will grow rather than wither. They point out that the Taliban recently sent a formal delegation for talks in Tehran and that America will need Iran’s help in withdrawing from Afghanistan. The US, the Iranians say, will not be able to take its armor and equipment out of the country during its continuing war against the Taliban without Iran’s active assistance. One of the sources claimed – not without some mirth — that the French were forced to leave 50 tanks behind when they left because they did not have Tehran’s help.

It is a sign of the changing historical template in the Middle East that within the framework of old Cold War rivalries between Washington and Moscow, Israel’s security has taken second place to the conflict in Syria. Indeed, Israel’s policies in the region have been knocked askew by the Arab revolutions, leaving its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hopelessly adrift amid the historic changes.

Only once over the past two years has Israel fully condemned atrocities committed by the Assad regime, and while it has given medical help to wounded rebels on the Israeli-Syrian border, it fears an Islamist caliphate in Damascus far more than a continuation of Assad’s rule. One former Israel intelligence commander recently described Assad as “Israel’s man in Damascus”.  Only days before President Mubarak was overthrown, both Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called Washington to ask Obama to save the Egyptian dictator. In vain.

If the Arab world has itself been overwhelmed by the two years of revolutions, none will have suffered from the Syrian war in the long term more than the Palestinians. The land they wish to call their future state has been so populated with Jewish Israeli colonists that it can no longer be either secure or ‘viable’. ‘Peace’ envoy Tony Blair’s attempts to create such a state have been laughable. A future ‘Palestine’ would be a Sunni nation. But today, Washington scarcely mentions the Palestinians.

Another of the region’s supreme ironies is that Hamas, supposedly the ‘super-terrorists’ of Gaza, have abandoned Damascus and now support the Gulf Arabs’ desire to crush Assad. Syrian government forces claim that Hamas has even trained Syrian rebels in the manufacture and use of home-made rockets.

In Arab eyes, Israel’s 2006 war against the Shia Hizballah was an attempt to strike at the heart of Iran. The West’s support for Syrian rebels is a strategic attempt to crush Iran. But Iran is going to take the offensive. Even for the Middle East, these are high stakes. Against this fearful background, the Palestinian tragedy continues.

Source: The Independent.

Link: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-to-send-4000-troops-to-aid-president-assad-forces-in-syria-8660358.html.

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Al-Qaida’s Iraq head defies boss over Syria fight

June 15, 2013

BAGHDAD (AP) — The leader of al-Qaida’s Iraq arm defiantly rejected an order from the terror network’s central command to stop claiming control over the organization’s Syria affiliate, according to a message purportedly from him that was posted online Saturday.

The latest statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State of Iraq, reveals a growing rift within al-Qaida’s global network. It also highlights the Iraqi wing’s determination to link its own fight against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad with the cause of rebels trying to topple the Iran-backed Syrian regime.

His statement surfaced as rockets rained down on a Baghdad camp housing Iranian exiles, killing three people in the latest sign of growing unrest inside Iraq. The attack drew sharp condemnations from Washington and the United Nations.

In an audio message posted online, the speaker identified as al-Baghdadi insists that a merger he announced in April with Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group to create a cross-border movement known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will go on.

Al-Nusra is an al-Qaida affiliate that has emerged as one of the most effective rebel factions in Syria. Its head, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, has rejected the takeover attempt by al-Baghdadi. “The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue,” al-Baghdadi said. “We will not compromise and we will not give up.”

Al-Qaida’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has tried to end the squabbling and bring the group’s local affiliates back in line. In a letter posted online by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV last Sunday, al-Zawahiri declared that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be abolished and that the Iraqi and Syrian groups would remain independent with al-Baghdadi and al Golani as leaders of their respective branches.

Al-Baghdadi is now defying that command. In his statement, he referred to “the letter attributed to Sheik al-Zawahiri,” suggesting he was calling into question the authenticity of the letter. “I chose the command of God over the command that runs against it in the letter,” al-Baghdadi said.

He urged his followers to rise up against Shiites, Alawites, and the “Party of Satan” — a reference to the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has been sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar Assad’s regime. Assad comes from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It was not possible to independently confirm whether the speaker was al-Baghdadi, but the man’s voice was similar to that of earlier recordings. Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said there are indications that Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are operating as distinct groups inside of Syria.

He described al-Baghdadi’s defiance as “a potentially very damaging split within al-Qaida’s senior leadership.” “Al-Baghdadi’s statement underlines an extent of division between himself and Zawahiri but also with another al-Qaida affiliate,” Lister said. “Fundamentally, al-Baghdadi appears to be acting according to his own interests, instead of those of his ultimate ’employer,’ al-Qaida.”

Violence has spiked sharply in Iraq in recent months, with the death toll rising to levels not seen since 2008. Al-Qaida in Iraq is thought responsible for many of the car bombings and other violent attacks targeting the country’s majority Shiites and symbols of the Shiite-led government’s authority.

Iraq risks growing more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war raging across its western border. Iraqi border posts along the Syrian frontier have come under attack by rebels, and Syrian truck drivers and soldiers have been killed inside Iraq.

Iraqi fighters are moving across the border, with Sunni extremists cooperating with the rebels and Shiite militants fighting alongside government forces. Also on Saturday, an Iranian exile group living in a camp near Baghdad airport reported multiple casualties when the compound, known as Camp Liberty, came under attack from rockets.

The group, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, is the militant wing of a Paris-based Iranian opposition group that opposes Iran’s clerical regime and has carried out assassinations and bombings in Iran. It fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and several thousand of its members were given sanctuary in Iraq. It renounced violence in 2001, and was removed from the U.S. terrorism list last year.

Camp residents Kolthom Serahati and Javad Naghashan were killed and several others were wounded, according to the NCRI. Several Katyusha rockets struck the area, according to Iraqi security officials. Police and hospital officials said an Iraqi was also killed, and that the wounded included at least nine Iranians and seven Iraqis. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Iraq’s government wants the MEK out of the country, and the United Nations is working to relocate residents abroad. Several residents moved to Albania last month. U.N. envoy Martin Kobler condemned the attack, which he said happened despite “repeated requests to the government of Iraq to provide Camp Liberty and its residents with protective measures.” He urged U.N. member states to do more to help resettle the residents abroad.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the rocket strikes as “brutal, senseless, and utterly unacceptable.” He said in a statement that Washington has urged the Iraqi government to provide medical assistance, ensure residents’ safety and bring those responsible to justice.

“We must find a permanent and long-term solution that ensures their safety,” he said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack. A similar deadly attack in February was blamed on Shiite militants. The head of one Shiite militia, the Mukhtar Army, later that month threatened further strikes on the compound.

In another attack, Sunni cleric Khalil al-Fahdawi was killed when a bomb stuck to his car exploded late the previous night near Ramadi, police said Saturday. The cleric has been a supporter of Sunni anti-government protests that have been raging for months and exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.

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Syrian rebels advance in town along Iraqi border

August 23, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels waged fierce battles with regime troops in a town along the Iraqi border on Thursday, capturing a string of security posts and the local police headquarters despite heavy government shelling and airstrikes by warplanes, activists said.

Taking full control of al-Bukamal, located in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour and across the border from the Iraqi town of Qaim, would expand the rebel foothold along the frontier with Iraq. The border crossing point has been in rebel hands since last month, although government troops have remained in control of much of the town, activists say.

The opposition already controls a wide swath of territory along the border with Turkey in the north as well as pockets along the frontier with Jordan to the south and Lebanon to the west, which has proven key in ferrying people and material into and out of the country.

Rebels have been fighting troops for days in al-Bukamal, but over the past few hours have taken over several checkpoints, the main police station and the local command of the Political Security Directorate, one of Syria’s powerful intelligence agencies, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He added that government troops are still control of the border crossing point leading to Iraq. “There is an attempt to take full control al-Bukamal,” Abdul-Rahman said. The Local Coordination Committees activist group said warplanes bombed al-Bukamal, but Abdul-Rahman said the jets were flying over the town and struck nearby areas, not the town itself.

Abu-Omar al-Deery, an activist in the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour, said by telephone that there are “fierce battles” in al-Bukamal and that “the Free Syrian Army is trying to liberate and clean the city.”

There was no immediate word on casualties. The main battle fronts in the past month have been in the capital, Damascus, as well as the northern city of Aleppo, where regime forces have struggled to stamp out a rebel offensive that began last month and succeeded in capturing several neighborhoods in the city of 3 million people.

In a report released Thursday, the human rights group Amnesty International said artillery and mortar fire and airstrikes by government forces in Aleppo are killing mostly civilians, including children. It said air and artillery strikes against residential neighborhoods are indiscriminate attacks that seriously endanger civilians.

Amnesty said that during a 10-day fact-finding visit to Aleppo city in the first half of August, Amnesty investigated some 30 attacks in which more than 80 civilians, who were not directly participating in hostilities, were killed and many more were injured.

Amnesty said that among the dead were 10 members of one family, seven of them children. Their home was destroyed in two airstrikes on Aug. 6. It said bodies of mostly young men, most of them handcuffed and shot in the head, have been frequently found near the local headquarters of the powerful Air Force Intelligence, which is in a government-controlled area.

Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since Syria’s crisis erupted in March last year. The uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began with largely peaceful protests but has since morphed into a civil war that has spread to almost all areas of the country.

In the Damascus suburb of Daraya, the Local Coordination Committees activist group said government shelling killed a mother and her five children. It said the six were members of al-Sheik family and had fled from their hometown of Maadamiyeh to escape the violence.

An amateur video showed the five children draped in which shrouds with their faces showing during the funeral. The body of the mother was all covered.

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Turkey, Iran Bump Heads Over Syria

August 25, 2011

When the call came in from Iran on Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his convoy to pull off onto the shoulders of a busy highway for a conversation that last some 40 minutes.

What the Turkish leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke about hasn’t been revealed in any detail. The Turkish media said virtually nothing, while Iran’s press reported that their country’s leader urged Erdogan to help mediate between region’s beleaguered despots and the opposition. Almost certainly the conversation was tense.

Just a few months ago the two countries were friends – joined together by growing trade ties, worries about their restive Kurdish populations and by shared Muslim sentiment. But the turmoil of the Arab Spring has quickly found the two countries in opposing camps, especially over Syria and its president, Bashar Al-Asad.

“There’s no doubt that Syria is becoming a battleground,” said Fadi Hakura, Turkey expert at London’s Chatham House. “Turkey has expressed deep dissatisfaction with the approach of the Syrian regime and has called on Al-Asad to implement radical reforms and meaningful dialogue with the opposition, which will inevitably dilute the strategic relationship between Syria and Iran. Iran views the existence of the current regime as an existential issue.”

Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders have framed the fighting in Syria as a battle by Al-Asad to stop U.S. from meddling in the country’s affairs while Turkey’s Erdogan has focused on the bloodletting and the regime’s failure to meet demands for democratic reforms. He has stopped short of calling for Al-Asad to step down.

But the fight is more than a war of words. Although Tehran denies it, Iran is believed to be proving material support to the Al-Asad regime. Newspaper reports cite stories of Iranian snipers firing on protestors, technicians helping to block social networking and others providing advice on containing unrest gleaned from Iran’s experience putting down street protests following the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

Turkey’s role in aiding the Syrian opposition has been more upfront but just as crucial. It has allowed about seven thousand Syrian refugees to cross into its territory and provide eyewitness accounts to the world media, thereby serving as an outlet for news of the Al-Asad regime’s repression. Istanbul has also hosted meetings of opposition groups. Some analysts say Ankara – together with the U.S. – is working to bring cohesion and organization to the disparate groups.

On Tuesday, Syrian activists gathered in Turkey declared a national council to coordinate protests and bring about Al-Asad’s ouster.

In spite of the deep interests at stake, Iran had been hesitant to criticize Turkey until relatively recently, Alex Vatanka, a scholar of Iran at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, told The Media Line.

“The Iranians deeply appreciated improving relations with one of their most important neighbors, which has helped them in the nuclear issue in terms of economics and trade they didn’t want an issue like Syria to bring it all to an end,” Vatanka said. “But in end of the day, they reached a decision.”

Syria is not the first Arab Spring hotspot where Turkey and Iran have found themselves on opposite sides. Turkey backed Saudi Arabia when it helped crush a Shiite-led revolt in Bahrain, angering Iran’s Shiite regime. Iran praised Turkey’s initial opposition to NATO’s helping Libyan rebels, but Ankara eventually came around to supporting the bombing campaign. But Syria – whose president has since March struggled to contain a revolt seeking to topple him – is the place where the two powers have the most at stake.

Al-Asad’s regime is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world, sharing a strong antipathy to Israel and Western intervention in the Middle East and acting as a conduit to arms and supplies to militant groups like Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Belonging to the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Islam, Al-Asad has fewer problems with Iranian Shiism than the Arab world’s Sunni leaders do.

Under Erdogan, Turkey had worked assiduously in recent years to cultivate ties. Turkey shares a long border with Syria and the two countries both have large Kurdish populations they worry about. In recent years, the two countries signed a free-trade agreement and abolished visa requirements, enabling trade to double in the five years to 2010 and tourism to boom.

Warming relations with Syria were part of efforts by the prime minister – who leads the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) – to reorient Turkey away from the West and towards the Muslim Middle East. Turkey even viewed itself as a bridge between Sunni and Shiite Islam.

But, Hakura told The Media Line, the Arab Spring has put Turkey firmly in the Sunni “camp,” which not only includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf emirates and Jordan but, by virtue of their Western orientation, the U.S. and Europe. The shift in Turkey’s policy hasn’t been dramatic – it remained a NATO member and never abandoned its aspirations to join the European Union ¬ – but it made Tehran’s rulers livid.

Reflecting the views heard frequently in Tehran these days, Iran’s hardline Qods daily scored Turkish leaders for surrendering to U.S. pressure. “If Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government does not change its political behavior toward Syria, Turkey will be the main loser of the Syrian events if Damascus gets out of the current crisis,” it wrote in a recent editorial.

Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford to let their conflict ratchet up too much. Turkey gets 20% of the natural gas its needs for its booming economy from Iran, Hakura said. Facing United Nations sanctions, Iran can’t afford to lose a good customer.

Vatanka said that among top Iranian leaders, Ahmadinejad is probably the least inclined to sacrifice the relationship with Turkey to help save Al-Asad because of the damage fraying ties with Turkey would do to the economy.

“The president is looking at his own position in Iran and says ‘I’m someone who needs to reach out to the masses and get as much grassroots support as I can,” explained Vatanka. “So, one of the issues he has to worry about is bread and butter issues that ordinary Iranians care about the most.”

Source: Rise of the Iranian People.
Link: http://riseoftheiranianpeople.com/2011/08/25/turkey-iran-bump-heads-over-syria/.

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