AFTER a period of relative stalemate, the rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad and his regime have, in the past month, made further gains across the board. They have been steadily winning territory, including on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital. The Syrian National Coalition, the opposition umbrella group that got together under watchful American eyes in Qatar in mid-November to replace the ailing Syrian National Council, has been given a hefty diplomatic boost in terms of recognition. Perhaps most important, rebel politicians are trying harder than ever to gain influence, if not direct control, over the myriad fighting factions. And Mr Assad is showing increasing signs of desperation, bombing a hostile Palestinian district on the edge of Damascus and firing SCUD missiles at towns and districts held by the rebels near Aleppo, Syria’s second city, half of which is in rebel hands.
On December 12th ministers from more than 100 governments, meeting in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, recognised the coalition as the Syrian people’s legitimate representative. This will help them get more cash and diplomatic clout.
Meanwhile the governments of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which, unlike their Western counterparts, have backed the rebels with guns, have been fashioning rebel groups into a new body, the Supreme Military Council, through which arms can more efficiently be funnelled. The 30-man body includes some of Syria’s most powerful commanders: Abu Issa of Saqour al-Sham, a group that has done well in the north-west; Abdulkader Saleh of Liwa al-Tawheed in Aleppo; and Abu Azzam of Farouq al-Shamal, which has been effective near Homs, Syria’s third city. “Our council will hopefully be the nucleus of a new defence ministry for any transitional government formed by the Syrian National Coalition,” says a man from Saqour al-Sham
Israel’s military says its tanks have scored “direct hits” on Syrian artillery units after Syrian mortar shells fell near an Israeli army post.
It comes a day after Israel fired warning shots after it said a Syrian shell hit another of its army posts on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The episode is the most serious between the two countries since the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We are closely monitoring what is happening and will respond appropriately.
“We will not allow our borders to be violated or our citizens to be fired upon.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Western powers that their “dangerous” stance on the Syria crisis could come back to haunt them.
“Today some want to use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to accomplish their goals in Syria,” Putin said in a wide-ranging interview with the RT international news channel. “This policy is very short-sighted and is fraught with dire consequences.”
Putin compared alleged Western funding of radical Islamic militants to help topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with U.S. support for Afghan rebels after the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of its Central Asia neighbor.
“When someone aspires to attain an end they see as optimal, any means will do,” Putin said “As a rule, they will try and do that by hook or by crook - and hardly ever think of the consequences.”
“That was the case during the war in Afghanistan,” he added. “At that time, our present partners supported a rebel movement there and basically gave rise to Al Qaeda, which later backfired on the United States itself.”
Nowhere is the stress exerted on Lebanon by the Syrian crisis more apparent than in Tripoli, the country’s second city.
Like Syria’s other neighbours - Turkey, Iraq and Jordan - Lebanon has absorbed thousands of refugees fleeing from the conflict now raging on the other side of the border.
But unlike the other countries, Lebanon risks being plunged into sectarian strife, possibly even civil war, by the strains inflicted on its own delicate internal situation by the Syrian crisis.
If there is a spark that sets off a wider conflagration in the country, it is most likely to come from Tripoli, where blood has already been spilled.
The majority of the city’s 500,000 or so inhabitants are Sunnis, most of whom naturally side with the uprising across the border in Syria, which has taken root mainly in the country’s Sunni areas.
But there is a small but tough minority of Alawites, perhaps 35,000 strong, mainly concentrated in the hilltop Jebel Mohsen quarter.
They share the same obscure faith as the ruling clan of Bashar al-Assad in Syria - an occult offshoot of Shia Islam - and most of them strongly support the Syrian regime.
Efforts to evacuate civilians and wounded from the battered Syrian city of Homs failed again when a rescue team could not enter affected areas, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Thursday.
Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of ICRC operations for the Near and Middle East, said in a statement that there had been an agreement from Syrian authorities and the opposition for the ICRC team to carry out an evacuation on Wednesday.
“On the spot, however, agreed-upon conditions were not met and the staff were unable to proceed,” she said.
ICRC spokesman Bijan Farnoudi in Geneva declined to provide specifics or apportion blame for the latest setback after the two sides agreed in principle to a humanitarian truce.
It was the second time in a week that the ICRC was forced to turn back to Damascus. On June 21, its joint team with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent heard shooting as it tried to enter the old city where the agency says hundreds of civilians are trapped by fighting.
Bolstered by a declaration of support from NATO, Turkey warned Syria on Tuesday that it would retaliate if Syrian forces approach its southern border, signaling a significant escalation of tensions between the two neighbors following the downing of a Turkish jet.
The warning coincided with a strong condemnation of Syria by NATO, which weighed into the Syria crisis for the first time with a statement calling the attack on the plane “unacceptable” and stressing that the alliance stands with Turkey “in the spirit of strong solidarity.”
The Turkish threat, along with NATO’s unequivocal declaration of support, raised the risk of a confrontation along the 550-mile Turkish-Syrian border, which is already a focus of Syrian efforts to crush the 15-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Large swaths of the border region have fallen under rebel control and Syria routinely launches attacks in the area.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a strongly worded speech to parliamentarians in Ankara that “any military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria, posing a security risk or danger, will be regarded as a threat and treated as a military target.”
‘This incident shows that Syria has become an open threat to Turkey and so we have come to a brand-new stage,’ he said.
The Civil War in the Syrian Opposition: How Long Can the Free Syrian Army Hold Off Its Islamist Rivals?
If you want to know where the fourteen month-old Syrian revolution against President Bashar al-Assad is headed, the case of Walid al-Boustani provides a useful rubric. Al-Boustani led an ill-fated “Islamic Emirate of Homs” that lasted only a few weeks. Apparently the locals did not appreciate having an “Emir” who kidnapped and murdered their people while claiming to wage jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And so in March 2012 a local brigade of the Free Syrian Army executed the Lebanese-born al-Boustani, amidst accusations that the jihadist was not only a traitor to the Syrian revolution but also, in fact, an agent of the Syrian regime.
The incident is part of a larger clash that has mostly gone overlooked in the Western media—namely, the struggle between Syria’s two main armed opposition groups, groups that represent two radically different visions for Syria’s future. In that way, it’s not enough to simply know—as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out—that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with assistance from the CIA, are funneling arms and cash to certain Syrian rebel groups via intermediaries in Turkey. It’s also important to know that the other rebelgroups—those with an Islamist political agenda—that the United States and its allies have decided not to support are distrusted by the Syrian people themselves. Indeed, Washington’s largely hands-off approach to the Syria crisis has so far been greatly assisted by the Syrian public’s broad rejection of the hardcore Islamist rebels. But there’s no telling how much longer America’s strategic interests and the Syrian people’s sympathies will remain in sync.
The head of UN observers in Syria has urged warring parties to allow the evacuation of women, children, elderly and injured people from conflict zones.
Gen Robert Mood also admitted that “attempts to extract civilians” from the besieged city of Homs over the past week had been unsuccessful.
Homs has reportedly been under heavy bombardment from government forces.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said over 1,000 families in Homs need to be evacuated.
The Observatory said at least one person had died in Sunday’s violence in Homs’ Khalidiyeh district, and that 10 other deaths had been reported elsewhere in the country.
In a statement, Gen Mood, the head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), said that both troops of President Bashar al-Assad and rebel fighters “must reconsider their position and allow women, children, the elderly and the injured to leave conflict zones without any preconditions and ensure their safety”.
Amnesty International has documented fresh evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes being perpetrated as part of state policy, based on the more than 200 interviews with eyewitnesses, victims and their families. Donatella Rovera, who spent several weeks undercover in Syria conducting the research, urged the UN to take decisive action to stop attacks civilians.
For more than a year the UN Security Council has dithered, while a human rights crisis unfolded in Syria. It must now break the impasse and take concrete action to end to these violations and to hold to account those responsible.
The report calls on Russia and China to halt arms sales to Syria and for Assad regime to be referred to the international criminal court.
A bus bomb has exploded in the capital Damascus, the state news agency Sana reported. Security reinforcement rushed to the area, and heavy gunfire was heard afterwards, an activist in the city said.
The US has alleged that Russian-made weapons are killing Syrians on “an hourly basis” as the accusations fly between Washington and Moscow over arms supplied to Syria. In the face of a strong denial from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, stood by her assertion that Russian attack helicopters are on their way to Syria.
Here’s a run-down of the diplomatic ding-dong so far…
Residents of opposition areas in Syria say a UN peace mission is failing to protect them as reports grow that regime forces have launched lethal attacks in communities after monitors have left.
In a sign of what many see as the now urgent need to expand the tiny UN team, people in centres of protest have said they sometimes do not have the chance to brief monitors properly and run the risk of reprisals once they have gone.
Kofi Annan, special international envoy to Syria, this week urged the swift deployment of an agreed 300-strong monitor force to police the “bleak” security situation in Syria, where a UN-backed ceasefire has been repeatedly breached.
Amid reports of continuing violence on Wednesday, Alain Juppé, French foreign minister, also called for the deployment to be speeded up. “This cannot continue indefinitely. We want to see observers in sufficient numbers, at least 300 … deployed as quickly as possible,” Mr Juppé said in Paris.
Ahmad Fawzi, a UN spokesman, said the team was deploying as fast as it could but it was a huge operation that would take weeks to get to full strength.
In the restive Damascus suburb of Douma, a resident who asked to be known only as Ammar vented his frustration at the inability of the UN to stop what he said was a regime attack with heavy weapons and snipers after two visits by monitors in two days.
“UN observers’ mission is useless!” he said via Skype on Tuesday night, against a background of loud booms. “We are 30 minutes from their hotels: they can know everything.”
The 15-strong team of monitors has been mobbed in protest centres during its tours of the country in the two weeks since the start of a truce brokered by Mr Annan after months of wrangling in the UN Security Council.