The Syrian government seized control Wednesday of the town of Qusair, state television and opposition activists said, a significant strategic advance for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces as they are bolstered by Lebanese militants.
For over a fortnight the city has been the scene of a grinding battle as rebels, penned in on all sides, attempted to repel the advance of pro-government forces. But on Wednesday, Syrian state television said “heroic” armed forces had restored stability to the town.
Control of Qusair, just six miles over the Lebanese border, is an essential cog in the government effort to regain a grip on central Syria. Fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, adept in street warfare, have been backing Assad’s troops in battle.
As state television broadcast footage of a soldier hoisting a Syrian flag emblazoned with Assad’s face over a clock tower in the town centre, the opposition conceded defeat.
European Union foreign ministers are discussing British and French calls for an easing of sanctions against Syria so weapons can be supplied to the rebels.
France and the UK are expected to argue that the move would increase pressure on Damascus for a political solution.
However, several EU states are totally opposed to ending the arms embargo, which expires on 31 May.
EU officials have warned against jeopardising a current initiative to hold an international peace conference.
Syria’s foreign minister confirmed on Sunday that the government would “in principle” attend the conference which the US and Russia hope will take place in Geneva next month.
Walid Muallem said it would be “a good opportunity for a political solution” to the conflict, which the UN says has left more than 80,000 people dead.
In a conflict which worsens by the week, this is a week when critical decisions on the next steps in Syria must be made.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has added his voice to those urging Europe to ease restrictions on military support for the opposition. “Fine for him to say but what is Washington willing to do?” one European foreign minister opposed to lifting the ban told me.
On Monday, Mr Kerry meets his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Paris. Their talks are expected to focus on plans for the first conference to bring together representatives of the Syrian government and opposition.
The meetings in Brussels and Paris are linked.
One of the main concerns in many European capitals is the impact any lifting or easing of the EU arms embargo might have on the fragile effort to fashion a political transition.
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Members of the main opposition coalition are currently discussing whether to attend the conference, but spokesmen have said they would if President Bashar al-Assa
Friday marks World Press Freedom Day, first declared by the United Nations two decades ago as a day to nurture the freedom of journalists — or to remind the world of where it falls short. Rights groups pointed to several spots on the globe where reporters are persecuted or in peril.
Syria is the deadliest country in the world for journalists, Amnesty International said in a newly released report. At least 46 people have been slain while reporting on its civil conflict between March 2011 and late April 2013, most of them Syrian nationals, according to UNESCO.
Journalists have come under fire from both government forces and rebels, some of them deliberately targeted for their work. Government forces are believed to have abducted, tortured and killed reporters, according to testimony gathered by Amnesty. Opposition fighters have publicly threatened journalists deemed sympathetic to the Syrian government and celebrated when they were attacked. At least seven journalists are now missing in Syria, according to the Agence France-Presse.
The government clampdown on foreign and local journalists has spurred citizen reporters to take up cameras to document the carnage in their neighborhoods, exposing themselves to added risk. The barrage of violent attacks on journalists “may amount to war crimes,” the human rights group wrote.
Those and other attacks made 2012 the deadliest one for journalists worldwide since the International Press Institute started systematically tracking journalists’ deaths in 1997.
On top of the dozens of reporters killed in Syria, at least 16 reporters were slain last year in Somalia, according to the group. Many appear to have been killed in retaliation for their work.
The Islamist militant group the Shabab is believed to be behind some of the killings, the Los Angeles Times’ Robyn Dixon wrote last year, but warlords and powerful businessmen are also suspected.
The Syrian government is repelling attempts by the United Nations to widen an investigation into what is believed to be the use of chemical weapons in an Aleppo province village last month.
Both sides in the two-year conflict are blaming the other for the alleged incident in Khan al-Assal.
Damascus appeared ready to allow a U.N. inspection team currently in Cyprus to get a first-hand look in the village until Secretary General Ban Ki-moon requested additional teams to visit other parts of Syria to investigate additional claims.
In recent weeks, the argument that a decisive Syrian rebel victory would not necessarily be a good thing has gained ground in U.S. foreign policy circles. A negotiated settlement between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, the argument goes, would be preferable. Such an ending would have a better chance of stanching the violence and preventing outright sectarian war between the mostly Sunni rebels — hungry for revenge against the Alawites — and the rest of the country.
Yet after almost two years of bloodletting by the Syrian government, there is little chance that splitting the difference between the factions would end the conflict. Even worse, a negotiated outcome would perpetuate Assad’s favorite strategy — honed over decades — of using the threat of sectarian war to make his adversaries in the international community wary of getting involved. Instead, the end of the Assad regime should be decisive and complete.
Of course, there are those who disagree. For one, Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has argued that the Syrian rebels, if they win, will seek revenge and embrace neither democracy nor liberalism. Arguing along the same lines, Madhav Joshi, a senior researcher at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and David Mason, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, have suggested that a decisive military victory in a civil war is dangerous. The victorious side, they say, is likely to try to exclude the other from government (and enforce that exclusion through its military dominance) rather than to try to co-opt the former rival’s supporters by including them
A Russian official has said for the first time that the Syrian government may be defeated by opposition forces.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are “losing more and more control and territory”, deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Thursday.
Russia was also making plans for a possible evacuation of thousands of its citizens in Syria, Mr Bogdanov said.
Russia has been one of the staunchest international allies of Mr Assad’s government.
“Unfortunately, we cannot rule out the victory of the Syrian opposition,” Mr Bogdanov said.
Russia, along with China, has used its veto at the UN Security Council to block resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s use of violence.
President Obama has warned the Syrian government that any use of chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war would “cross a red line.” Two questions come to mind: What will Obama (and other world leaders) do if the line is crossed? And given that Syrian president Bashar Assad has already killed more than 40,000 of his own people through more conventional methods, what’s the big deal about chemicals? Why should they trigger alarms that his heinous acts to date have not?
NBC News reported this week that Syrian military officers have loaded the precursor agents for sarin, a particularly lethal nerve gas, into bombs that could be dropped from dozens of combat aircraft. Syria has stockpiled roughly 500 tons of the stuff; anyone exposed to a mere one-tenth of a gram would likely die. In short, if Assad wanted, he could turn whole cities into wastelands.
That is one reason why chemical weapons, especially these chemical weapons, are viewed as something qualitatively different. It’s why they are designated “weapons of mass destruction” (even if they’re less destructive than their biological or nuclear cousins) and why 188 nations signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, outlawing their use, production, or stockpiling. (Syria is one of just six nations not to sign the treaty, the others being Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan.)
So a bright red line separates chemical weapons from conventional munitions for moral, humanitarian, and legal reasons. Not just Obama but the leaders of the other signatory nations have an obligation to respond in some very serious fashion if Assad crosses the line—to send the clear message, to everyone, that the use of these weapons is completely unacceptable.
Fierce fighting on the battlefield and setbacks on the diplomatic front increased pressure on the embattled Syrian government on Monday as fresh signs emerged of a worsening battle for control of the capital.
A senior Turkish official said that Russia had agreed on Monday to a new diplomatic approach that would seek ways to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power, a possible weakening in Russia’s steadfast support for the government. Fighting raged around Damascus, the Syrian capital, and its airport, disrupting commercial flights for a fourth straight day.
A prominent Foreign Ministry spokesman was said to have left the country amid reports of his defection, and both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued warnings that any use of chemical weapons by a desperate government would be met with a strong international response. A Western diplomat confirmed that there were grave concerns in United States intelligence circles that Syrian leaders could resort to the use of the weapons as their position deteriorates.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, repeating earlier statements, told state television that the government “would not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances.”
On Nov. 27, a clip appeared on YouTube of a Russian-made Syrian military helicopter apparently being hit by Syrian rebels using a surface-to-air missile. The footage of the gunship, smoking as it turns and flies away, suddenly made the most effective killing machines in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military look very vulnerable, as the brutal war between the Syrian government and anti-Assad rebels continues. Luckily for Assad, help appears to be on the way.
One day before the clip appeared, hackers from the group Anonymous leaked what they claim is a cache of documents stolen from the Syrian Foreign Ministry. As first reported by the non-profit investigative news organization, ProPublica, one set appears to detail shipments from Moscow to Damascus of 240 tons of newly printed Syrian money, which the Russian government has publicly acknowledged printing for the Assad regime. Another document looks to be a flight plan for four shipments of refurbished helicopters, also going from Moscow to Syria. The shipments, whose cargo the document lists in English as “old copter after overhauling,” include one delivery on Nov. 21, a second one on Nov. 28, and two more planned for the first week of December. According to the document, the payment for these shipments was made “in cash,” and their circuitous route through the skies above Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan would circumvent the airspace of all the countries that have imposed a weapons embargo on Syria.
(PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)
“It’s getting to Syria by the back door,” says Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which operates an air-trafficking surveillance project on behalf of the European Union. Griffiths, who says the leaked flight plan appears to be genuine, sees it as the latest step in Russia’s effort to repair and then deliver Assad’s fixed-up helicopters by any means necessary. This effort has already come up against some major hurdles, with the U.S., the E.U. and Turkey making extensive efforts to stop such deliveries from crossing their airspace or territorial waters.
The government of Syria, trying to contain a rapidly expanding insurgency, has resorted to one of the dirty tricks of the modern battlefield: salting ammunition supplies of antigovernment fighters with ordnance that explodes inside rebels’ weapons, often wounding and sometimes killing the fighters while destroying many of their hard-found arms.
The practice, which rebels said started in Syria early this year, is another element of the government’s struggle to combat the opposition as Syria’s military finds itself challenged across a country where it was not long ago an uncontested force. The government controls the skies, and with aircraft and artillery batteries it has pounded many rebel strongholds throughout this year. But the rebels continue to resist, mostly with small arms.
Doctored ammunition offers an insidious way to undermine the rebels’ confidence in their ammunition supply while simultaneously thinning their ranks.
“When they do this, you will lose both the man and the rifle,” said Ghadir Hammoush, the commander of a fighting group in Idlib Province who said he knew of five instances in which rifles had exploded from booby-trapped ammunition.
The practice has principally involved rifle and machine-gun cartridges, but also the projectiles for rocket-propelled grenades and perhaps mortar rounds, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen rebel leaders in Syria and many fighters, as well as an examination of shattered rifles and the contents of a booby-trapped cartridge. The tactic is highly controversial, in that it is potentially indiscriminate.
The primary source for doctored ammunition has been the Syrian government, which mixes exploding cartridges with ordinary rounds on the black markets through which rebels acquire weapons, the commanders said.