Syrian rebels took full control of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on Monday after fighting raged for days in the district on the southern edge of President Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus powerbase, rebel and Palestinian sources said.
The battle had pitted rebels, backed by some Palestinians, against Palestinian fighters of the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). Many PFLP-GC fighters defected to the rebel side and their leader Ahmed Jibril left the camp two days ago, rebel sources said.
“All of the camp is under the control of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army,” said a Palestinian activist in Yarmouk. He said clashes had stopped and the remaining PFLP fighters retreated to join Assad’s forces massed on the northern edge of the camp.
The battle in Yarmouk is one of a series of conflicts on the southern fringes of Assad’s capital, as rebels try to choke the power of the 47-year-old leader after a 21-month-old uprising in which 40,000 people have been killed.
Government forces have used jets and artillery to try to dislodge the fighters but the violence has crept into the heart of the city and activists say rebels overran three army stations in a new offensive in the central province of Hama on Monday.
On the border with Lebanon, hundreds of Palestinian families fled across the frontier following the weekend violence in Yarmouk, a Reuters witness said.
Syria hosts half a million Palestinian refugees, most living in Yarmouk, descendants of those admitted after the creation of Israel in 1948, and has always cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian struggle, sponsoring several guerrilla factions.
Both Assad’s government and the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels have enlisted and armed divided Palestinian factions as the uprising has developed into a civil war.
Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said in a newspaper interview published on Monday that neither Assad’s forces nor rebels seeking to overthrow him can win the war.
Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by Assad’s Alawite minority, has rarely been seen since the revolt erupted in March 2011 and is not part of the president’s inner circle directing the fight against Sunni rebels. But he is the most prominent figure to say in public that Assad will not win.
Sharaa said the situation in Syria was deteriorating and a “historic settlement” was needed to end the conflict, involving regional powers and the U.N. Security Council and the formation of a national unity government “with broad powers”.
“With every passing day the political and military solutions are becoming more distant. We should be in a position defending the existence of Syria. We are not in a battle for an individual or a regime,” Sharaa was quoted as telling Al-Akhbar newspaper.
“The opposition cannot decisively settle the battle and what the security forces and army units are doing will not achieve a decisive settlement,” he said, adding that insurgents fighting to topple Syria’s leadership could plunge it into “anarchy and an unending spiral of violence”.
Sources close to the Syrian government say Sharaa had pushed for dialogue with the opposition and objected to the military response to an uprising that began peacefully.
In a veiled criticism of the crackdown, he said there was a difference between the state’s duty to provide security to its citizens, and “pursuing a security solution to the crisis”.
He said even Assad could not be certain where events in Syria were leading, but that anyone who met him would hear that “this is a long struggle…and he does not hide his desire to settle matters militarily to reach a final solution.”
In Hama province, rebels and the army clashed in a new campaign launched on Sunday by rebels to block off the country’s north, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked violence monitor, said fighting raged through the provincial towns of Karnaz, Kafar Weeta, Halfayeh and Mahardeh.
It said there were no clashes reported in Hama city, which lies on the main north-south highway connecting the capital with Aleppo, Syria’s second city.
Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the newly established rebel military command, said on Sunday fighters had been ordered to surround and attack army positions across the province. He said Assad’s forces were given 48 hours to surrender or be killed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin today angrily rejected what he described as attempts to enforce foreign patterns of democracy on Russia and vowed to preserve the nation’s identity against interference from abroad.
In his first state-of-the nation address since winning a third term in March’s election despite a wave of massive protests in Moscow.
He urged more births, saying a family with three children should be the norm.
On the economy, Mr Putin said he wanted to “de-offshore” Russian business and curb fraud in public spending.
Putin has pursued a tough course on dissent since his inauguration with arrests and searches of opposition activists and introduction of laws that impose heavy fines on protesters and rigid rules on civil society groups.
Speaking to lawmakers, officials and clerics who gathered in the Kremlin’s ornate St George’s Hall, Putin said Russia would follow its own view on democracy and shrug off any “standards enforced on us from outside.”
“Direct or indirect foreign interference in our internal political processes is inadmissible,” he said. “Those who receive money from abroad for their political activities and serve alien interests shouldn’t engage in politics in Russia.”
One of the laws passed by the Kremlin-controlled parliament requires non-governmental organisations that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely defined political activities to register as “foreign agents,” a move the groups said was aimed to intimidate them and destroy their credibility with Russians for whom “agent” is synonymous with “spy.”
Putin also pledged to support “institutions that represent traditional spiritual values,” a hint at even more state support for the Russian Orthodox Church.
In August, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for performing a protest song in Moscow’s main cathedral. One was released on appeal, but two others are serving their sentences despite international outrage.
Moscow’ task on the global stage will be to preserve its “national and spiritual identity,” Putin said, adding that a strong military should “guarantee Russia’s independence and security.”
He added that Russia would continue to push for “coordinated collective efforts” in dealing with global issues.
The Kremlin has said that its continuous refusal to support international sanctions against Syria’s President Bashar Assad is rooted in international law that bars interference in a sovereign country’s affairs.
Putin sought to boost patriotic feelings by promising to honor heroes of World War I and restoring the historic names of old imperial regiments of the Russian army.
THE United States has intelligence which raises “serious concerns” that Syria is considering employing chemical weapons in its war with rebel forces, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says.
“I think there is no question that we remain very concerned…that, as the opposition advances, in particular in Damascus, that the regime might very well consider the use of chemical weapons,” Panetta told reporters on Thursday.
“The intelligence that we have raises serious concerns that this is being considered,” he said.
US officials said privately this week that the Syrian regime has begun mixing precursor chemicals that could be used for sarin, a lethal nerve agent, and some media reports said the substance was loaded into bombs for warplanes.
Panetta repeated a US warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to resort to chemical weapons.
“The whole world’s watching very closely, and the president of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people,” he said.
The heightened concern comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton imet today with U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the options to end the conflict in Syria.
The idea behind the meeting in Dublin is that the three parties might be able to revive the political transition plan on Syria put forward in Geneva in July.
Before the meeting began Clinton said, “Events on the ground in Syria are accelerating, and we see that in many different ways. The pressure against the regime in and around Damascus seems to be increasing. We’ve made it very clear what our position is with respect to chemical weapons.”
The Obama administration has said the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.”
The meeting last for 40 minutes and a senior State Department official said, “It was a constructive discussion focused on how to support a political transition in practical terms. The U.S. and Russia committed to support Special Envoy Brahimi’s efforts in that regard. The next step will be a meeting in the next few days between Special Envoy Brahimi and senior officials from the United States and Russia to discuss the specifics of taking this work forward.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reportedly wrote to Assad Thursday urging him not to use chemical weapons, saying that “any use of such weapons would be an outrageous crime with dire consequences. Speaking in Baghdad, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Assad should be “brought to justice” if his regime uses chemical weapons.
The U.S. military is making contingency plans should Assad leave suddenly. Various Middle Eastern countries are trying to find a place to give Assad asylum, according to Middle Eastern diplomatic sources.
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower has joined the USS Iwo Jima off the Syrian coast. The Eisenhower, one of 11 U.S. aircraft carriers, holds eight fighter-bomber squadrons and 8,000 men. The Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group holds about 2,500 Marines. The build up of troop presence follows warnings by U.S. and NATO officials.
NATO foreign ministers will agree on Tuesday to send Patriot missiles to beef up Turkey’s air defenses and calm Turkey’s fears that it could come under missile attack, possibly with chemical weapons, from Syria, diplomats said.
Turkey last month asked NATO for Patriots, which can be used to intercept missiles and planes, after weeks of talks with allies about how to shore up security on its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria, which is immersed in civil war.
Foreign ministers from the 28-nation alliance are expected to give their backing to the move when they meet in Brussels for a twice-yearly meeting, sending a strong signal they stand behind their ally Turkey.
“There will be a decision and probably a statement from the ministers themselves,” a NATO diplomat told reporters.
The move follows media reports, citing European and U.S. officials, that Syria’s chemical weapons had been moved and could be prepared for use in response to dramatic gains by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
Syria said on Monday it would not use chemical weapons against its own people after the United States warned it could take action against any such escalation.
“Turkey’s request, when it came to Patriots, was to augment its air defenses with the capacity to deal with the threat of ballistic missiles and particularly the threat of ballistic missiles potentially armed with chemical warheads,” another NATO diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
The diplomat said the ministers would simply agree on Tuesday to “augment Turkey’s air defenses”.
“The decision on whether or not to deploy Patriots, and for how long is, like all NATO decisions when it comes to the deployment of military forces, a national one,” he said.
The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are the countries expected to supply Turkey with Patriots. Germany and the Netherlands may need parliamentary approval to send the missiles and deployment could take weeks.
The first diplomat said that NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, had the power to deploy NATO’s own fleet of AWACS surveillance planes if he judged it necessary to counter a specific threat and would not need ministerial approval.
However, there is no immediate plan for him to do so in the case of Turkey.
The NATO foreign ministers will take the Patriot decision immediately after they hold talks in Brussels with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is expected to repeat Moscow’s opposition to the move.
Russia, which has a fractious relationship with the military alliance, has been at odds with NATO over how to end the Syrian conflict and has vetoed UN resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to step down.
Meanwhile, according to a New York Times report, Russian officials who recently had contact with Assad, described him as a man who “lost all hope of victory or escape.”
“His mood is that he will be killed anyway,” the New York Times quoted Fyodor Lukyanov as saying. Lukyanov is the head of an influential policy group in Russia and editor of a Russian foreign affairs journal. He said that only an “extremely bold” proposal could perhaps convince Assad that he could step down form power and survive.
Turkey repeatedly has scrambled jets along the countries’ joint border and responded in kind when shells from the conflict came down inside its borders, underlining fears Syria’s civil war could spread to destabilize the region.
A senior State Department official accompanying U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Europe for the NATO talks, said he did not expect final details this week on the number of missiles that would be deployed, where or for how long, as site surveys were still going on.
He said the deployment would not be part of “an inexorable move towards a no-fly zone” over Syria, of the sort NATO mounted to defend anti-government rebels in Libya who toppled Muammar Gaddafi last year.
In Prague, Clinton reiterated a warning against any attempt by the Syrian government to use its chemical weapons stockpile against the rebels, calling this a “red line” that would prompt U.S. action.
“I am not going to telegraph any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people, but suffice to say, we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur,” she said.
The second day of the NATO meeting on Wednesday will focus on progress in the alliance’s efforts to gradually hand over security control to Afghan forces as it prepares to wind down its combat operations by the end of 2014.
U.S. officials say Clinton will seek to encourage what Washington sees as an improving mood between Pakistan and its neighbor Afghanistan.
The UK has officially recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition, promising financial assistance to them and pledging to put more pressure on Assad’s government.
The UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said that his country is increasing humanitarian assistance to Syria as the crisis deepens and winter approaches. He announced a £1 million package of communications support, ”which could for instance include mobile internet hubs and satellite phones to improve the Coalition’s ability to communicate inside Syria.”
The communications support promised will include Internet hubs and satellite phones, to enable the opposition to communicate when they are in the field.
“But of course when we say the field, what we mean is the battle field. So people will be worried about what this communications equipment will be used for. And they will be saying how you use communications in the field is to essentially to more effectively target bombs and other ammunition,” she said.
Hague has also pledged another package of humanitarian assistance, that would amount to £2 million. The UK has so far contributed £53.5 million in humanitarian assistance which has been distributed through international agencies such as the World Food Programme and UN Refugee Agency.
Britain is appealing to other members of the international community to give more money to the Syrian opposition.
The critics say, though, that the new British aid package is by no means humanitarian.
“These [£1 million] are meant for military use – they’re part of weaponizing the opposition in Syria. That will be the direction in which they would like to go, but were worried about going because they haven’t been able to have a reliable recipient for those weapons before now,” John Rees from the Stop the War coalition said.
The Foreign Office also tweeted that the UK will invite the new Syrian Opposition Coalition to appoint a political representative to the UK, even while factions in the disparate Syrian rebels refused to recognize the Coalition.
Hague said that the UK will renew efforts to persuade Russia and China “to work with us at the United Nations Security Council”. He added that the UK will not rule out any option in accordance with international law that might save innocent lives in Syria.
“We will continue to increase the pressure on Assad and those who support him through EU sanctions,” he said, adding that they would work with Syria’s neighbors to mitigate the effects of the crisis.
He said that a Stabilization Force will be deployed to the region to work with the Coalition in Syria.
However, as Britain and other Western countries recognize the Syrian National Coalition, which was formed in Qatar a few weeks ago, there are doubts about how much support it can muster in Syria itself.
The split in the Syrian rebel camp between various factions based outside Syria, more moderate domestic opposition groups, the Free Syrian Army fighting against Assad on the ground and the Islamic cells have raised doubts that unified action is possible within the Syrian opposition.
Islamist groups operating in Syria have rejected the Coalition and have unitarily declared the city of Aleppo an Islamic state. Members from 13 Islamic groups released a video where they branded the Coalition a Western tool.
With many Syrian groups opposed to the idea of Western intervention, including a large number of ordinary Syrians in the opposition, the legitimacy of the opposition government is highly questionable, John Rees argued.
“One reason why it won’t be a legitimate government, is because of the role that the West is playing. The danger is, as we saw in Iraq and in other places, that unrepresentative groups, once they get the support of the West, can come to dominate larger numbers of people on the ground,” the anti-war activist said
“I announce that France recognises the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and thus as the future provisional government of a democratic Syria, allowing an end to the Bashar al-Assad regime,” Hollande told a press conference.
The announcement makes France the first major power to officially recognise the broad-based opposition coalition established in Doha on Sunday.
The move came 24 hours after the coalition was recognised by the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
France’s ally Britain has said it wants to see more evidence that the opposition grouping has strong support inside Syria before formally recognising it as effectively a government in exile.
The United States has expressed support for the coalition and said it will work with it as it seeks to overthrow the regime of President Assad.
The diverse forces involved in the coalition agreed on Sunday to unify their fighting forces under a supreme military council and set up a national judicial commission for rebel-held areas in Syria.
They plan to form a provisional government once the coalition has been widely recognised internationally.
Assad’s defiant remarks coincided with a landmark meeting in Qatar on Thursday of Syria’s fractious opposition to hammer out an agreement on a new umbrella body uniting rebel groups inside and outside Syria, amid growing international pressure to put their house in order and prepare for a post-Assad transition.
The Syrian leader, battling a 19-month old uprising against his rule, appeared to reject an idea floated by British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday that a safe exit and foreign exile for the London-educated Assad could end the civil war.
“I am not a puppet. I was not made by the West to go to the West or to any other country,” he told Russia Today television in an interview to be broadcast on Friday. “I am Syrian; I was made in Syria. I have to live in Syria and die in Syria.”
Russia Today’s web site, which published a transcript of the interview conducted in English, showed footage of Assad speaking to journalists and walking down stairs outside a white villa. It was not clear when he had made his comments.
The United States and its allies want the Syrian leader out, but have held back from arming his opponents or enforcing a no-fly zone, let alone invading. Russia has stood by Assad.
The president said he doubted the West would risk the global cost of intervening in Syria, whose conflict has already added to instability in the Middle East and killed some 38,000 people.
“I think that the price of this invasion, if it happened, is going to be bigger than the whole world can afford … It will have a domino effect that will affect the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” the 47-year-old president said.
“I do not think the West is going in this direction, but if they do so, nobody can tell what is next.”
Backed by Washington, the Doha talks underline Qatar’s central role in the effort to end Assad’s rule as the Gulf state, which funded the Libyan revolt to oust Muammar Gaddafi, tries to position itself as a player in a post-Assad Syria.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani urged the Syrian opposition to set its personal disputes aside and unite, according to a source inside the closed-door session.
“Come on, get a move on in order to win recognition from the international community,” the source quoted him as saying.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu delivered a similar message, saying, according to the source: “We want one spokesman not many. We need efficient counterparts, it is time to unite.”
An official text of a speech by Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Mohamed al-Attiyah showed he told the gathering: “The Syrian people awaits unity from you, not divisions … Your agreement today will prove to the international community that there is a unity … and this will reflect positively in the international community’s stance towards your fair cause.”
Across Syria, more than 90 people were killed in fighting on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Turkey’s Hatay border province, two civilians, a woman and a young man, were wounded by stray bullets fired from Syria, according to a Turkish official. Turkish forces increased their presence along the frontier, where officials have said they might seek NATO deployment of ground to air missiles.
Syria poses one of the toughest foreign policy challenges for U.S. President Barack Obama as he starts his second term.
International rivalries have complicated mediation efforts. Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have put Assad under pressure.
Syria’s conflict, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against forces dominated by Assad’s Alawite minority, whose origins lie in Shi’ite Islam, has fuelled sectarian tensions across the Middle East. Sunni Arab countries and Turkey favor the rebels, while Shi’ite Iran backs Assad, its main Arab ally.
The brutal onslaught on the Syrian regime continued unabated over the weekend with a large force of tanks and armoured vehicles laying siege to Deir al-Zor as President al-Assad’s efforts to crush dissent left scores of people dead and raised fresh fears of civil war.
It is believed some 50 people were killed in and around in the city. An estimated 1,700 people have died in anti-government protests over the last five months with more than 300 deaths reported in the last week alone. However, the Syrian regime denies the claims and says it is fighting armed extremists and criminals who are attacking its troops.
The assault on Deir al-Zour, about 450km east of Damascus, began during the dawn call to prayer on Sunday, with scores of tanks and armoured personnel carriers moving into several parts of the city. State media said local leaders had called on the army to “protect the citizens and preserve public and private property”.
King Abdullah issued a written statement condemning the situation in Syria, saying it was “not acceptable”. “The kingdom does not accept the situation in Syria, because the developments cannot be justified,” the Saudi monarch said urging Damascus to introduce “comprehensive and quick reforms.”
“The future of Syria lies between two options: either Syria chooses willingly to resort to reason, or face being swept into deep chaos, God forbid,” he said.
The Saudi king’s statement came the day after the Gulf Cooperation Council urged Syria to “end the bloodshed” as the international pressure mounts.
King Abdullah has recalled his country’s ambassador from Damascus, in a rare case of one of the Arab world’s most powerful leaders intervening against another. It is the sharpest criticism oil giant Saudi Arabia – a monarchy that bans political opposition – has directed against any Arab state since the start of the wave of protests across the Middle East.
Deir al-Zor is populated by armed tribesmen who, in an ironic turn, were provided with weapons by the state to counter the perceived separatist threat posed by Kurds in neighbouring areas.
The inhabitants of the city have already been prepared to use their weapons, fighting back against regime forces last week after five protesters were killed.
Although it was unclear how much resistance Mr Assad’s forces encountered yesterday, the threat of a bloody confrontation that could spiral out of control prompted an unprecedented intervention by the Arab League.
In Washington, a US State Department official said the king’s statement was a strong signal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
‘This is another clear sign that the international community, including Syria’s neighbours, are repulsed by the brutal actions of the Syrian government and will continue to stand with the people of Syria,’ the official said.
A former US government official with knowledge of the region said the Saudi king likely went public to press concerns that had been conveyed privately.
‘I think he did it on his own because the private messages were clearly being ignored,’ the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Despite the financial turmoil going on in the world in recent weeks, it is imperative that the situation innocent civilians find themselves in under a brutal regime is not ignored or lost upon us all.
The world has been focussed on the United States for much of the last two weeks over the U.S. Debt ceiling talks. There is no doubt this poses a serious concern for us all in this truly global economy however, the loss of any human life should no be forgotten or ignored especially, when it is in the pursuit of basic freedoms and human rights.
The continued blatant attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on his own people continues unchallenged, while the world sits idly by. The horrific death toll coming out is inexcusable with over 100 people reported killed by government forces in Syria’s fourth largest city, Hama, after the president, sent in tanks to crush protests in a brutal display of force. Armoured vehicles smashed through makeshift barricades and, civilian areas coming under heavy shelling and machine gun fire. All communications, electricity and water are cut off into Hama in a clear attempt to cause the entire population hardship.
There are reports of Shabiha Gunmen (Pro-Government Militia) in plainclothes randomly shooting people in the streets of the besieged city as families bury their loved ones in gardens at home for fear of venturing out to cemeteries. There has been no let up in the attack despite the holiest Muslim day of Ramadan being observed, by those very civilians their own army are attacking. The determination and vulgarity of al-Assad’s attempts to remain in power cannot even respect Islam’s most religious month. How can the indeterminate brutal wholesale killing of innocent civilians, on the first day of Ramadan observe the Islamic teachings of patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. Bashar al-Assad should have ceased all attacks on his people out of respect for the Muslim faith and his people.
Hama has been one of the main centres of protest against Assad, reviving memories of 1982 when his father sent troops to crush Islamist protests in the city, killing thousands of people and razing much of al-Hader district. In Deir al-Zor, residents said they were told by security personnel that the army would soon enter the city, a move which tribes in the rebellious province would likely confront. The city, with a population of 800,000, has seen some of the biggest protests and worst violence in Syria’s 2011 protests.
The Local Co-ordinating Committees, which speak for activists on the ground in all parts of the country, commented that Mr Assad was blind to the new realities in the country.
They also said he had ignored the crimes committed by his security forces – “the murder and mutilation of thousands, and the detention of demonstrators and activists, many of whose fate remains unknown”.
Government attempts to crush continuing protests across Syria have brought strong international condemnation, with Germany and Italy calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council. Germany is currently a member of the council. The diplomatic language coming out of Washington has been weak and surprisingly, perhaps the strongest language used to date came from Moscow who said, “The use of force against both peaceful civilians and representatives of state structures is unacceptable and should be stopped immediately.”
There is no doubt Western forces in particular the U.S. and British public have no more appetite for another conflict and the protracted Libyan campaign proves it. However, what is the cost of ignorance, we cannot simply allow the continued and unlawful murder of a civilian population by state forces to go unchallenged or be ignored.
President al-Assad needs the strongest international pressure to be brought to bear on him and this means the U.S., and Russia working together, to force the dictator to open dialogue with the opposition and introduce reforms.
Alongside the military crackdown, Assad has lifted a state of emergency in place for nearly 50 years and promised constitutional changes to open Syria up to multi-party politics, but human rights campaigners and Assad’s opponents say the moves were largely on paper and did not alter the Syrian police state.
Western Governments will not rush to interfere in this crisis due to their economic interests in the region and Syria’s neighbour Iran. It is imperative that Russia is called upon to play a leading role in this dreadful human crisis. What is the real cost of death and how many lives it will take before we intervene in a meaningful way.
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