One of Syria’s key allies admitted for the first time on Thursday that the Assad regime was losing the ground war, as rebels told the Guardian they were occupying more and more territory and besieging government troops in many parts of the country.
The deputy foreign minister of Russia - which has given Bashar al-Assad unstinting diplomatic and military support - said the regime faced possible defeat to the rebels, saying with unusual candour: “One must look facts in the face.”
Mikhail Bogdanov said: “The tendency is that the regime and government of Syria is losing more and more control, and more and more territory. Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.”
His comments came as rebels said they believed the 21-month conflict had reached a decisive tipping point, with Assad’s military machine no longer capable of rolling them back. “The situation is excellent. We are winning. Not just in Aleppo but the whole of Syria,” Abu Saaed, a fighter in the northern rebel-held town of El Bab said.
Other key international players appear to have come to the same conclusion as Moscow. Speaking in Brussels , Nato’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said: “I think the regime is approaching collapse.” He said it was only a question of time before the Assad government imploded. Others in the region, however, cautioned that the final unravelling could be prolonged and bloody.
President Obama warned Syria on Monday that deploying chemical weapons is “totally unacceptable,” after what U.S. officials said were new intelligence reports that the Damascus government is preparing such munitions for possible use.
Obama told the government of President Bashar al-Assad that “there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable” if it used any part of its stockpile of chemical weapons, including sarin gas, the deadly nerve agent.
A U.S. intelligence official said “we have pretty good visibility” into Syria’s depots, and a second U.S. official said intelligence gathered in recent days has raised alarms. The second official said it was unclear whether the Assad government planned to move beyond the preparation stage to deploying the weapons.
After months of dogged, siegelike fighting, rebel forces have begun to make significant advances in Syria, raising questions about Assad’s durability and desperation.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has said the UK has decided to recognise the Syrian opposition coalition.
He told MPs the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.
He said they were now a “credible” alternative to the Assad government.
In the absence of a diplomatic solution, he told MPs the UK would not rule out any action - subject to international law - to save lives.
Up to 30,000 people have been killed in the 18-month conflict, the UK believes.
Those trying to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s government moved closer to a united front when the rival leaders of Syria’s rebels formed the coalition after months of bitter division.
The war is raging on in Syria but opposition members are already planning a transition to democracy. They presented proposals in Berlin on Tuesday and played down the prospect of a chaotic power vacuum after Bashar Assad falls. But given the lack of international support for the fragmented rebel movement, their vision looks utopian.
Members of the Syrian opposition presented detailed proposals for a transition to democracy once the regime of President Bashar Assad has collapsed, after holding secret talks in Berlin hosted by one of Germany’s leading foreign policy think-tanks.
The project, called “The Day After,” consisted of negotiations among some 45 Syrians from all ethnic groups and confessions, including members of the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The talks were kept secret in part to ensure the security of the participants, some of whom are in Syria.
The executive committee of the group consists mainly of scholars living in exile. They have come up with concrete proposals (PDF download) for reforming the military and police and the justice system, for drafting a new constitution and for restructuring the economy.
“We hope this will be disseminated among the Syrian people who will then begin to see that the post-Assad transition is not something to be feared but something to be looked forward to and something we should anticipate in the hope of building a better Syria for ourselves,” Amr Al-Azm, a history professor who served as an advisor to the Assad government until 2006, told a news conference in Berlin.
Syria’s former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who announced his defection from the Assad government Monday, is one of several high-ranking Syrian government officials to defect in recent months. But if it’s increasingly clear that Assad officials are eager to separate themselves from the regime, it’s not yet clear what role they will be able to play in the Syrian opposition.
For regime defectors, joining the FSA at all is an involved process. Mohammad Shakaki, an FSA member in Amman who coordinates healthcare services and aids Syrian soldiers in defecting to the FSA, told us that the burden is on defectors to alleviate the rebels’ suspicions. For rank-and-file defectors, their clothing is first burned to destroy any concealed surveillance devices. Any weapons are then taken away from them, and they are interrogated at length on their past activities, with special scrutiny given to whether they were engaged in killing civilians or FSA soldiers. “We are afraid of spies,” he said.
Samer (he requested that his real name be withheld for security purposes), is an FSA member in Jordan who told us that there is a great fear among rebels of Assad sympathizers joining the FSA as a front to extract information for the regime. He describes how newly joined members have a trial period of one to three months in which they are strictly watched, and only after a full investigation are they trusted. When asked what happens to Assad moles found within the FSA, Samer merely pointed to the sky.
Even if defectors pass their probationary period, most find themselves funneled into a division of the FSA that has little to do with the major operations conducted by rebels untainted by an association with the Assad government. Only in rare instances are those from the former group allowed to integrate with the latter. Hijab will soon begin working with the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) media in Doha, Qatar, but most Syrian officials who defect to the FSA are not appointed to official positions within the opposition group.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called for an emergency Islamic summit in Mecca on August 14-15 to address major issues facing the Islamic world, Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on Sunday.
The King has called for “an extraordinary Islamic solidarity meeting to ensure… unity during this delicate time as the Muslim world faces dangers of fragmentation and sedition,” the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) quoted Faisal as saying.
The Saudi monarch also also ordered a major fund-raising program for Syrians to alleviate their sufferings. The program which began on Monday covers all regions of the Kingdom.
The announcement comes amid heightened violence across Syria, where Opposition activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since a popular uprising erupted in March 2011 against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-ruled countries in the Gulf region have repeatedly voiced support for Syrian rebels fighting the Assad government.
• More than 200 Syrians, mostly civilians, were massacred in Tremseh, near Hama, when it was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks and then stormed by militiamen who carried out execution-style killings, opposition activists said.
• The UN’s monitoring mission in Syria confirmed the use of heavy weapons in Tremseh including tanks and helicopters, before the alleged massacre took place. General Robert Mood, the head of the mission, said military operations were continuing and his monitors had been prevented from entering Tremseh.
• International envoy Kofi Annan said the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons in Tremseh was a violation of its apparent commitment to his peace plan. He said he was “shocked and appalled” by reports from Tremseh. Annan is due to hold talks with Russia on Monday.
• The Syrian government blamed the killings on “terrorists”. The state news agency accused elements of the media of spreading “lies and fabrications” as a way of prompting foreign intervention against Syria.
• The opposition Syrian National Council has repeated its call for the UN security council to pass a binding resolution against the Assad government in the wake of the killings. Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague said diplomats in New York will continue to press for a Chapter VII resolution in the face of repeated objections from Russia.
For some journalists, Syria has been one of the least hospitable countries in the Middle East, a place where reporters — if they can get in — are routinely harassed and threatened as they try to uncover the repression that has propped up the Assad government for decades.
For other journalists, Syria has until recently been a country led by the cultivated, English-speaking President Bashar al-Assad who, along with his beautiful British-born wife, Asma, was helping usher in a new era of openness and prosperity.
That second impression is no accident. With the help of high-priced public relations advisers who had worked in the Clinton, Bush and Thatcher administrations, the president and his family have sought over the past five years to portray themselves in the Western media as accessible, progressive and even glamorous.
As one diplomatic effort after another fails to end more than a year of brutal violence in Syria, the Obama administration is preparing a plan that would essentially give U.S. nods of approval to arms transfers from Arab nations to some Syrian opposition fighters.
The effort, U.S. officials told The Associated Press, would vet members of the Free Syrian Army and other groups to determine whether they are suitable recipients of munitions to fight the Assad government and to ensure that weapons don’t wind up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked terrorists or other extremist groups such as Hezbollah that could target Israel.
The plan, which has not yet been finalized, reflects U.S. frustration that none of the previous efforts — including diplomatic rhetoric from the United Nations and the multinational Friends of Syria group, and special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for a cease-fire — has even begun to nudge President Bashar al-Assad from power. The vetting would be the first tiny step the U.S. has made toward ensuring that the Syrian opposition uses the weapons to fight Assad and not to turn it into a full sectarian conflict.
The fighters’ attempts to bring in heavier arms that could change the course of the 15-month-old uprising so far have been stymied at every turn, even by countries sympathetic to the revolt. All are wary of being drawn into the fight
The rebels have cast a wide net, contacting weapons dealers in Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Without some type of U.S. vetting as to who should receive such shipments, the Obama administration and some of its European allies fear that weapons might be used against Western interests.
Let’s hope those hacks at Breitbart aren’t involved in the vetting process.
SYRIAN soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fought opposition forces in at least three cities, as the death toll mounted amid growing international pressure to end almost a year of violence.
Soldiers battled in Homs after regaining control of the city’s Baba Amro district from rebels on March 1, while clashes escalated in the cities of Idlib and Hama, Mahmoud Merei, head of the Damascus-based Arab Organisation for Human Rights, said.
At least 46 people were killed yesterday, including 14 government soldiers, three army defectors and 29 civilians, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.
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The month-long siege of Homs has led to intensified international pressure on Dr Assad a year after his forces began a crackdown on protests.
The army has used tanks and artillery to fight opposition forces and more than 7500 people have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
An International Committee of the Red Cross team that arrived in Homs on March 2 with Syrian Red Crescent Society members was not allowed into Baba Amro, the Red Cross said.
The Syrian government said mines and booby traps had to be cleared first, the BBC reported yesterday.
The BBC also said there were unconfirmed reports of mass arrests and summary executions by Syrian forces in the district.
Saudi Arabia said Gulf Co-operation Council members were prepared to participate in any joint effort to help Syrians protect themselves from the Assad government, the Saudi Press Agency has reported.