On Wednesday, Syrian rebels in the northeast outskirts of the flashpoint city of Aleppo made an ambitious attempt to storm the city's main prison, setting off two car bombs near the jail's entrance at dawn, according to the Associated Press. The AP, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reports that Syrian warplanes prevented the opposition fighters from breaking though the prison's inner walls.
The rebels were driven back even though they appear to have been observing the neighborhood for days, according to videos uploaded to YouTube. One, posted last week, shows a rebel pointing out a "counterterrorism building" down the street from the prison, while another, filmed as the attack began, shows a truck-mounted machine gun tucked away in a shelter overlooking the prison. A third appears to have been filmed from the opposite side of the prison complex, looking back toward the village where the machine gun was located.
At some point in the fighting, the rebels appear to have breached a wall near the prison. Below watchtowers, fighters take turns shooting AK-47s through holes in the plaster. One rebel, in the video below, tells the camera, "We have assembled more than 5,000 mujahideen ready to liberate the prison and to help the brothers and fight for the brothers.... We are mujahideen and we will liberate the prisoners in the central prison!" When he calls on his comrades to chant "God is great!" though, they sound disheartened.
According to the AP, the rebels have since withdrawn from the vicinity of the prison.
UPDATE: The Telegraph reports rebels have said they withdrew from the area of the prison to prevent more casualties after government forces began executing prisoners and throwing the bodies from windows.
This afternoon, the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of hackers supportive of Bashar al-Assad's regime, appeared to briefly hack into the Onion's Twitter feed. Over the course of about an hour, the SEA tweeted seven times from @TheOnion, and claimed responsibility for the attack on the Onion's @ONN account (the satirical newspaper's parody of 24-hour news networks) before the messages were deleted.
You could say the SEA's attacks have been a bit hit or miss over the past several months. The group's members promoted an alternate narrative of the Syrian civil war when they hacked into @60Minutes last month, but also tweeted fat jokes about the emir of Qatar, a backer of the opposition, when they hacked the BBC's weather account ("Earthquake warning for Qatar: Hamad Bin Khalifah about to exit vehicle").
In one of their strangest strikes yet, the SEA broke into the Twitter feed of the television channel E! on Sunday to "out" Justin Bieber and then to tweet, "Angelina Jolie admits, in E! latest issue, that Jordan is to blame for the Syrian refugees' atrocious conditions" -- a sentence that under no circumstances would ever appear on E!
Today, the SEA fell back on fat jokes about Qatar's ruler ("NASA: 9th planet discovered and identified as the Qatari Emir") and also took a few jabs at Israel -- "UN's Ban Ki Moon condemns Syria for being struck by Israel: 'It was in the way of Jewish missiles;'" "The #Onion CEO: 'We regret taking zionist money to defame Syria. now the hackers are up our ass;'" "Poland to double flights from the Middle East, anticipating Israeli mass exodus. 'The bagel bakery ovens are working over time' ~ Larry" -- after the Israelis reportedly launched two airstrikes against weapons depots in Damascus in the past week.
Whoever was behind the hacking demonstrated a fairly proficient knowledge of the Onion's style (for example, attributing a quote without context to "Larry") and included a well-timed "Futurama Fry" meme as Twitter followers wondered if @TheOnion had been hacked, or if the tweets were simply more satire:
Though the Onion is first and foremost a satirical site, it has also hosted some of the most trenchant commentary on the Syrian civil war, leaving little doubt about why it was targeted. Darkly humorous articles from the past year and a half have included titles such as, "'Help Has To Be On The Way Now,' Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed," "Having Gone This Far Without Caring About Syria, Nation To Finish What It Started," "Target Pulls All Sponsorship From Publicly Ignored Syrian Conflict," "Alien World To Help Out Syria Since This One Refuses To," and an op-ed by Bashar al-Assad titled, "Hi, In The Past 2 Years, You Have Allowed Me To Kill 70,000 People."
So perhaps it's not a surprise that when the news outlet finally regained control over its Twitter feed, it had this to say:
Syrian Electronic Army Has A Little Fun Before Inevitable Upcoming Deaths At Hands Of Rebels onion.com/11ctVJg— The Onion (@TheOnion) May 6, 2013
Amid international accusations of chemical weapons use by Assad government forces in Syria's civil war, Secretary of State John Kerry told NATO members on Tuesday that the alliance should consider contingency planning and prepare for possible threats to NATO nations emanating from Syria, including chemical weapons threats (after Kerry's remarks, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen clarified that NATO is not considering intervening in Syria).
Earlier this year, however, NATO did deploy three Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, a NATO state, in response to concerns in Ankara that southern Turkish cities could be targeted by Syrian Scud missiles. Other NATO countries are acting independently to facilitate arms provisions, non-lethal supplies, and training for rebels. And earlier this month, Pentagon officials announced they were doubling the U.S. military presence in Jordan to 200 military planners, with the potential to expand that presence to as many as 20,000 soldiers in an emergency.
In Washington, meanwhile, there is a mounting policy debate about the "least bad" options for the United States in responding to the protracted conflict in Syria. In a policy speech delivered last week, Sen. John McCain, a consistent advocate of intervention in Syria, outlined potential options for U.S. involvement in the conflict:
No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options. We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad's aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground, without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria's air defenses. We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.
So, is McCain on to something? Could his options serve as blueprints for intervention? The United States already operates a clandestine training program for Syrian rebels in Jordan, and growing the program could be a "very significant gamechanger," Jeffrey White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told FP.
Precision strikes, while feasible, would require "something like a mini-campaign" with a dedicated effort to find targets, some of which may have to be struck multiple times, White said. "It couldn't be done in one fell swoop."
Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has consulted for the administration, suggests on his blog, Syria Comment, that the Obama administration may be receptive to the idea of Patriot-enforced safe zones:
For some time, the language used in the White House to frame the Syria problem has been that of containment. Here are some of the oft repeated phrases I have been hearing from White House insiders:
- "Keep the violence inside Syria"
- "Prepare for Syrian failure"
- "Shore up the neighbors"
- "There are no good guys in Syria"
Adm. James Stavridis, the supreme allied commander for Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that, in his opinion, Patriot-enforced no-fly zones along Syria's northern border "would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime."
"Assuming we have permission to deploy Patriot missiles appropriately in Turkey and Jordan, they could be used to implement a no-fly zone," White told FP, though he pointed out that the density of the fighting in southern Syria would limit the effectiveness of a no-fly zone in establishing a buffer zone along the Jordanian border.
There is a potential downside to establishing safe zones, though. White pointed to the potential for retaliation, saying, "If you had Patriot missiles trying to enforce a no-fly/no-missile zone, they could be targeted. There could be some risk to these forces, I wouldn't say significant risk, but some risk." Landis also cites concerns raised by David Pollock, also of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that safe zones, depending on how they're enforced, could lead to blowback. Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch has also suggested that buffer zones could trap refugees in the war zone without access to necessary aid.
What's clear is that President Obama is now facing increased pressure to act in Syria based on comments made in Israel last month that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line." What comes after that red line's been crossed? Well, that's far less certain.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
After the Associated Press tweeted, "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured," it literally took only seconds for people to debunk the bomb scare.
from here in the WH basement, this acct seems hacked RT @ap: Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured— E McMorris-Santoro (@EvanMcSan) April 23, 2013
Please Ignore AP Tweet on explosions, we've been hacked.— Sam Hananel (@SamHananelAP) April 23, 2013
The fake @ap tweet was tweeted via web. Real AP tweets come from SocialFlow. Carry on.— Ethan Klapper (@ethanklapper) April 23, 2013
AP immediately locked down the account (and it remains suspended as I write), but that wasn't before the Dow dropped 70 points (it rebounded within 10 minutes).
The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-Assad hackers that has been targeting major news organizations for months now, quickly took credit for the false tweet. In the AP's story about the hacking of its own Twitter feed, it stated that the incident "came after hackers made repeated attempts to steal the passwords of AP journalists." The SEA defaced the homepages of Al Jazeera and Reuters last year, and more recently they've been targeting social media accounts in particular. Last month, for instance, they got into the BBC's weather feed. In the past week alone, they've hit NPR and 60 Minutes. They've also gone after non-media targets, including Human Rights Watch and Columbia University.
The SEA's level of tact varies: Hackers weren't above making a fat joke about the emir of Qatar when they hacked @bbcweather last month. Other times, as when they broke into @60Minutes, they promoted the Assad regime's narrative that the United States is empowering terrorist groups in Syria. The "media scare" approach seems to be a new development, but it is unclear to what extent SEA attacks are planned and coordinated, or whether they are directly affiliated with the Assad government.
Rape has played a devastating role in Syria's two-year-long civil war, but data about how prevalent the practice is in the murky conflict have been hard to come by. In one of the most ambitious efforts yet to nail down statistics, a study released Wednesday indicates that Syrian government forces have committed most acts of sexual violence.
Women Under Siege, along with Columbia University epidemiologists, the Syrian-American Medical Society, and Syrian activists and journalists, has spent the past year documenting and mapping incidences of sexual violence in the war-ravaged country. And while the group acknowledges that the data-- derived largely from media and human rights reports -- is incomplete and unverified, the numbers do paint an interesting picture of who is behind acts of sexual violence in the country, and how often they're occurring.
One of the report's most compelling findings is just how many of the cases of sexual violence on record have allegedly been committed by government forces:
According to the study, government forces have carried out 56 percent of sexual attacks against women. But if you include pro-regime shabiha (plain-clothed militia) perpetrators, the number is closer to 80 percent. When it comes to men (who were the victims in 20 percent of the cases tracked by Women Under Siege), the figures are even more staggering. 90 percent of the reported sexualized violence against men was committed by government forces, possibly due to the fact that these tend to occur in detention facilities. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army, has only carried out 1 percent of the documented sexual attacks.
FP caught up with Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe to delve deeper into the story behind these figures. Here's what she had to say:
Our number of reports has nearly doubled since we last put out our stats in July, yet the stats have remained remarkably consistent. Our lead Columbia epidemiologist thinks that indicates we are potentially on the right track. But again, the key caution is always that we are only getting a portion of what's potentially out there.
Wolfe acknowledges that rape is being committed on all sides of the conflict, but stresses the importance of looking at "why so much of the information coming out of Syria indicates that the majority is being enacted by government perpetrators." According to Wolfe, there are a number of explanations for this finding.
While the Syrian opposition has been diligently documenting atrocities and reporting these to international actors, the Syrian government has restricted journalists' access to information on sexual violence. "Much of the rape appears to be occurring in government detention centers, at checkpoints, and during army raids on towns," she told FP. "Whatever less structured [rape] carried out by opposition forces may be underreported."
There's another potential explanation, Wolfe adds: "It is entirely possible that government forces are actually carrying out the majority of the sexualized violence." Past studies of sexual violence in conflict show that state forces are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence -- a pattern that might just be recurring in Syria.
Al Qaeda-aligned extremists aren't optimistic about the war in Syria, and are preparing for a long fight -- against Assad, the United States, Israel, Iran, and even other Islamist rebels. That's the lesson of a "comprehensive strategy" posted to a members-only jihadi forum associated with al Qaeda.
The paper states some lofty goals for the forum, Shumukh al-Islam, whose members have been known to fight with jihadi groups in Syria like Jabhat al-Nusra. The author frames Shumukh almost like an al Qaeda think tank, writing, "We would like here for our forums ... to be centers for research and sophisticated studies that issue reports and advisory recommendations."
They have a long way to go. In an email to FP, Cole Bunzel, a doctoral candidate at Princeton University who wrote about the report for the Jihadica blog, writes that the "forums acting as a kind of jihadi think tank is more an aspiration than a reality," though he pointed out that there are efforts within the forums to provide more analysis.
The analysis presented in the "comprehensive strategy" for Syria is bleak for jihadi groups fighting against the Assad regime. Fighters "are exposed to extraordinary pressure, assault, forced retreat, ignominy, and many, many other things," and it is only likely to get worse. Shumukh expects a long war, and believes a foreign intervention is imminent -- "a Crusader power will, inevitably, arrive on Syrian territory, using multiple pretexts," the author writes. As for who would step in, the author fantasizes about a potential U.S.-Israeli-Iranian alliance; Bunzel notes in a wry footnote that the "author has a very confused understanding of Middle Eastern alliance politics."
The report speculates that the looming intervention will close Syria's porous borders, a critical avenue for new recruits to join jihadi groups. The key, then, is preparation. Jihadis should "increase greatly the inflow of recruits ... because the openness of these borders will not persist." Jabhat al-Nusra should manage a media office to produce flashy videos and press releases ("[f]or the media in this generation are equivalent to half the army"), an intelligence service, and a commando unit -- a sort of jihadi Joint Special Operations Command. They should establish a government-in-waiting to prepare for the fall of the Assad regime and "fill the void and manage people's affairs in the areas under our control," providing services in an approach not unlike Ansar al-Sharia's strategy in Yemen in early 2012. In some places, this has already begun; a recent article about Jabhat al-Nusra notes that, "Within their ranks, an aid department distributes bread, gas and blankets." This Phase IV planning is "of greater concern to us than the ongoing war," the author of the "comprehensive strategy" writes.
The post-war planning is necessary because the jihadis expect everyone to turn on them. Shumukh advises jihadis to prepare to fight anyone who "besiege[s] or conspire[s] against [them] whether ... from beyond Syria or by the brothers of the revolution itself." There is already an emerging schism between Jabhat al-Nusra and the umbrella group known as the Islamic Syrian Front, Bunzel notes, with more moderate Islamists supporting democratic governance. "That's just the kind of soft stance that JN jihadists -- and the authors of the Shumukh strategy -- seem intent on opposing," he writes.
It's an ambitious plan and "almost certainly has more analytical value for us analysts than it does practical value for jihadis on the battlefield," notes Bunzel. "What I find most revealing is the extraordinary depth of their paranoia and sense of pessimism regarding their future role in Syria." It's also a strategy that directly contradicts Osama bin Laden's own warning to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in a letter that was found at the complex where he was killed in Abbottabad, that trying to hold territory makes jihadis an exposed target. The strategy proved to be a failure in Yemen and provoked the very foreign intervention the report warns of when attempted in Mali. "Their calculation seems to be this: we jihadists are inevitably going to be squeezed by all the forces of the region," Bunzel explains, "so we should make sure to recruit heavily in the short term, take control of heavy and chemical weapons sites, and stake out territory for the looming fight."
This concern and uncertainty about what comes next was echoed by Abdullah Omar, a Free Syrian Army soldier, in a recent interview with the Global Post. When asked about Jabhat al-Nusra, he replied, "God only knows what's going to happen between them and the FSA and the new government after the Assad regime falls down." The jihadis, though, aren't waiting to find out. They're preparing for a fight they expect will pit them against the world.
ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images
A Dead Sea's worth of water has disappeared from the Middle East. It sounds like something out of Carmen Sandiego, but it's actually the finding of a joint study by scientists from NASA, the University of California, Irvine, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published today in the journal Water Resources Research.
Using gravity-measuring NASA satellites -- which allowed them to bypass political boundaries and gather data from space -- the scientists learned that between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet of stored freshwater. Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine described the findings:
GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India.... The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.
According to the researchers, the countries directly impacted by this trend are Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran -- not exactly the world's most politically stable states.
So how will this play out? While "water wars" are often forebodingly cast as the next big source of global conflict, water security researcher Peter H. Brooks, writing in Foreign Policy, has dismissed some of the hype as alarmist and not all that new, citing Mark Twain's own observation that "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fightin over." But, he adds that the Tigris and Euphrates basins -- which are ripe with border disputes, conflict over Kurdish minorities, and now major conflicts in Syria and Iraq -- might be more prone to the insidious effects of water instability than other places around the globe.
In 2009, responding to severe water shortages, Iraqi parliament demanded an increase in the share of Turkish river waters. Despite this and continued droughts, Turkey has continued building dams. As broader regional instability permeates into Syria and Iraq, expect water to play an increasingly important role in future local and international disputes between these three countries.
Already, there have been pitched battles over dams in the Syrian civil war, and regional dynamics could shift as Iran seeks water from Afghanistan. As if countries in the Middle East need something new to fight about.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Iran's Mehr News on Sunday published the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs' "six-point plan" to supposedly solve the crisis in Syria.
The plan goes much further than Iran has publicly in the past, though it resembles Kofi Annan's much-maligned plan from the spring. It also doesn't mention one key point: What happens to Bashar al-Assad?
Here's where it gets more interesting. Apparently, Syrian vice president Farouk al-Sharaa has given an interview to Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper, which has generally taken a neutral line or one sympathetic to Assad. “We must be in the position of defending Syria’s existence. We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime," Sharaa reportedly said. Now which individual could he be talking about?
Sharaa, oft mooted as a transitional figure, has been the subject of an impressive number of rumors on Syrian opposition websites over the last year or so -- sometimes these have him defecting from the regime, sometimes he and his family members are killed, and so on.
But apparently he's still alive, and now seems to be positioning himself as some kind of transitional leader, or at least as a broker between the regime and the rebels.
“The opposition with its different factions, civilian, armed, or ones with external ties, cannot claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian People, just as the current rule with its ideological army and its confrontation parties lead by the Baath, cannot achieve change without new partners,” al-Akhbar quotes him as saying.
He continues: “The solution has to be Syrian, but through a historic settlement, which would include the main regional countries, and the member of UN Security Council. This settlement must include stopping all shapes of violence, and the creation of a national unity government with wide powers." The full interview will be posted Monday, the paper says.
Maybe it's just a coincidence that these two stories both came out today. The al-Akhbar interview could be a fake. And it's important to remember that the Iranian Foreign Ministry doesn't always speak for the supreme leader. But it sure does look like Iran isn't ready to make a last stand with Bashar, eh?
They're at it again. The BBC reported on Monday that Al Jazeera was the latest media outlet to feel the wrath of the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-Assad hackers who have recently been running amok in cyberspace. This time, the Qatar-based news station's Arabic SMS service was compromised, and three fake texts were sent to all subscribers. One reportedly announced that Qatar's prime minister had been the target of an assassination attempt while another added that the wife of Qatar's emir had been wounded.
Last Tuesday, Reuters reported that Al Jazeera Arabic's home page was hacked by another pro-Syrian group calling itself "al-Rashedon." The hackers posted a Syrian flag and a statement denouncing the station for its ‘‘position against Syria (people and government) and for special support of the militant terrorism" underneath a large red stamp with the word "hack."
Reuters may have been relieved that they weren't the targets this time. As Foreign Policy recently noted, the British wire service was hacked three times during the month of August. The hackers sent fake tweets from the Reuters Twitter account and also put up false posts on one of its blogs.
Also in August, Amnesty International's blog Livewire was targeted by another pro-Assad hacker group that accused the rebel army of committing massacres that have been linked to government forces. The attack, which was not claimed by any specific group of hackers, included a false blog post lamenting that "it is clear the Al Qaeda affiliated rebels are not going to stop their crimes. And with no accountability and a steady supply of weapons, why should they given they have come this far under NATO protection?"
Another one of the false posts was titled "Amnesty Calls on UN to stop the US, Qatar and Turkey funding and arming Syria Rebels," and created the impression that Amnesty International was condemning NATO and the US for meddling in the Syrian civil war. Sanjeev Bery, Amnesty International's USA advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, explained the attack in an article published on the group's website:
"It's entirely possible that, given that we've been so forthright in criticizing the Syrian government for its crimes against humanity; that could conceivably make us the target of some kind of campaign."
As the actual war in Syria continues to spiral out of control, the long and dirty cyberwar between hackers loyal to Assad and those who support the rebels shows no signs of slowing. News organizations across the world are likely buttoning up their security systems and wondering who the next victim will be.
On Tuesday, Al-Watan, a Saudi newspaper, quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to step down after months of trying to quash the Syrian uprising. It's not unusual for public figures to take back inflammatory statements after they make them. But in this case, the Russian foreign ministry is denying that the interview happened at all.
According to Al-Arabiya, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a public statement on Tuesday:
"We would like to point out that this report does not correspond with reality, and the Russian special envoy gave no such interview."
Zakharova also claimed that there was a "propaganda war" being waged over Syria and accused media outlets of disseminating "blatant disinformation."
In an attempt to defend its credibility, Al-Watan published a recording of the alleged interview on its website. The speaker, who identifies himself as Bogdanov, also claims (in remarkably fluent Arabic) that Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, had lost his legs in the July bombing of a key government headquarters in Damascus and was "fighting for his life." According to the AFP, the voice on the recording "sounded different from the voice of Bogdanov in videos available online."
The Al-Watan story was picked up by quite a few news outlets, most of which have since amended their reports after the Russian statement. A few Israeli and Arab news outlets continue to post their original stories on the incident.
On another front of the Syrian misinformation war, the Reuters blogging platform was hacked yet again on Wednesday. This time, the hackers falsely posted a report stating that Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had died.
As Foreign Policy posted earlier this month, hackers supporting the Syrian opposition had previously hijacked one of the Reuters blogs on August 3, posting false reports of rebel gains in Syria. In a separate incident, pro-regime hackers fought back on August 5 by commandeering a Reuters Twitter account, which they used to tweet about a rebel collapse in Aleppo and accuse the White House of providing arms to al-Qaeda militants in Syria.
All this lends at least some credibility to the Russian claim of a propaganda battle over the Syrian uprising. If there is a war of disinformation, it would seem that the worst casualties are the media organizations whose reputations have been damaged, sometimes by cyberattacks, sometimes by failure to thoroughly verify information.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Sex sells -- but can it sell a bloody Middle Eastern revolution pitting disparate armed factions against an entrenched autocrat?
Last year's successful overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi turned Libya's rebels with a cause into international sex symbols. Now Syrian rebels are getting the star treatment, with one particularly dashing combatant starring in his very own internet meme -- "Ridiculously photogenic Syrian soldier." With his nonchalant stride, close-cropped dark hair, chiseled chin, and steely-eyed intensity, this freedom fighter's sculpted physique gives us some ideas about the guns of the Syrian opposition. An RPG rests casually on one sculpted shoulder, prompting one caption-er to posit:
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton skipped meeting with the Syrian National Council while visiting Turkey this week, we'd be happy to draw some red lines of our own with this coy comrade. And although observers are bracing for the implications of spillover from the conflict throughout the region, we're ... actually pretty worried about that, too.
Perhaps the beleaguered uprising will finally grab headlines now that its most attractive proponent has been identified. Just one more reason the world should keep an eye on Syria -- in this case, a very close eye indeed.
Lebanese security forces arrested the former information minister of Lebanon and close ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on Thursday. Michel Samaha, who served as minister of information under the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, was detained on what appears to be suspicion of being involved in a plot to detonate a number of explosives near the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Lebanon's Daily Star reported that Samaha was awakened in the middle of the night by police from the Internal Security Forces branch of information, who proceeded to raid his house and remove several items, including his wife's car. This prompted a flurry of speculation by local media outlets that he had been involved in an assassination plot against a member of parliament, while other news organizations claimed that Samaha had been arrested for collaborating with Israel. However, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who is a member of the Hezbollah-backed March 8 alliance, made a statement denying that Samaha's arrest was linked to espionage.
According to the Daily Star, 20 "highly effective" remote bombs were found in several areas of Northern Lebanon. They were diffused and brought to Beirut by explosive experts.
The Guardian reported that in 2007, Samaha was put on a White House list of Lebanese and Syrian figures working to undermine the pro-Western March 14-dominated government that was ruling at the time.
The war in Syria has been bleeding into northern Lebanon in recent months, with a number of skirmishes taking place between Syrian and Lebanese security forces as well as cross-border shelling. The Syrian government has accused towns in the north of Lebanon of harboring rebels..
However, the March 8 coalition of the Lebanese government has remained a staunch supporter of Assad's embattled regime. In contrast, the March 14 party has been extremely vocal in its espousal of the Syrian opposition's cause.
Samaha's arrest highlights the deep division that permeates the Lebanese government, especially where Syria is concerned.
Reuters has been scrambling to tighten its Internet security since Friday, when one of its blogs started spontaneously featuring "inaccurate and unauthorized" reports of rebel forces gaining ground in Syria. As if that weren't enough, one of its Twitter feeds was apparently targeted by pro-government hackers on Sunday. The hijacked account was hastily renamed and immediately began falsely tweeting about a rebel collapse in Aleppo, then went on to accuse the White House of arming al Qaeda militants in Syria in an effort to undermine the regime.
Reuters played down the impact of the cyberattacks in an article published on Tuesday:
"While some of the false blog posts were at least briefly shared via social media by readers who believed they were honest reports from Aleppo, it is far from clear whether anyone in the embattled city itself ever saw them."
Cyberwarfare has been utilized by both sides of the Syrian conflict since its early days. Reuters mentions another incident that took place on Monday, when a fake Twitter account claiming to belong to a senior Russian official sensationally tweeted that President Bashar al-Assad was dead. An Italian schoolteacher later claimed to be the perpetrator of the hoax. Reuters even admits, rather sheepishly, that it was caught up in the "flurry of speculation and telephone calls" prompted by his tweets.
Reuters is not the first news outlet targeted by cyberattacks since the beginning of this conflict, either. Al Jazeera suffered a similar embarrassment in July, when one of its Twitter accounts was infiltrated by the pro-Assad hacker group, Syrian Electronic Army. That Twitter feed accused the Qatari television station of fabricating civilian casualties in Syria.
In March, an opposition group called Supreme Council of the Revolution hacked into Assad's private email account, releasing correspondence that allegedly took place between Assad and his wife Asma.
The regime in turn reportedly used social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to track members of the opposition, sending them tainted links containing spyware and creating fake accounts in an attempt to ferret out their identities.
Although it's not clear how much impact these cyberattacks have had on either side, they are an interesting manifestation of the long and bloody conflict taking place on the ground.
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images
It turns out that when you threaten to kill someone when making a job offer, it's difficult to guarantee their loyalty. Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab announced his defection from the regime Monday and vowed to support the opposition. He probably never wanted the gig in the first place: As the Associated Press reports, "Assad offered him the post and an ultimatum: Take the job or die."
Thuggish threats seem like the former opthamologist's preferred leadership style. One Sunni businessman, an opposition supporter close to the regime's inner circle, told me last year that Bashar has "anger-management issues." Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, in 2005 relayed Assad's threat to "break Lebanon" if the world tried to force the Syrian military to stop occupying its neighbor.
The International Crisis Group's latest report on Syria also contains this anecdote:
On 8 May, Bashar met with over twenty leading Sunni businessmen from the capital. He said that he had heard that some of them were supporting the revolution. He said that, if it was true, he was willing to do to [the historical commercial hubs of] Hamidiya and Madhat Pasha what he had done to Baba Amro. He wanted them to know that this would pose him no problem whatsoever.
Somewhere in Damascus, there is surely a lamppost with Bashar's name on it.
The big news out of Syria this morning is about chemical weapons -- and
whether or not President Bashar al-Assad will use them. But the
headlines, it turns out, are an especially bad place to start if you
want to get to the bottom of it. In fact, you would be forgiven for
concluding that Syria is either ramping up or winding down preparations
to use chemical weapons against either the rebels or an external force.
"Syrian regime makes chemical warfare threat," is the authoritative headline in this morning's Guardian. It is almost the exact opposite of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) headline, which reads: "Syria moves to calm chemical weapon fears."
The New York Times, ever subtle, introduces a critical clause modifier: "Syria Says It Won't Use Chemical Arms to Stop Rebellion." This is the line taken by Businessweek which leads with: "Syria Says it Won't Use Chemical Weapons Against Insurgents."
If not against insurgents, then who? A Reuters headline holds the answer: "Syria says could use chemical arms against foreign intervention." Finally, the pieces are coming together. But what was the news item that headline-writers found so difficult to interpret?
The culprit, it seems, is Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi who made the following statement on Monday: "The ministry wants to re-affirm the stance of the Syrian Arab Republic that any chemical or bacterial weapon will never be used - and I repeat will never be used - during the crisis in Syria regardless of the developments...These weapons are stored and secured by Syrian military forces and under its direct supervision and will never be used unless Syria faces external aggression."
Now that Turkey has confirmed that one of its fighter jets was shot down Friday by Syria, I'd like to share this brilliant gem from a now-defunct blog called Syria Exposed, written in the Céline-like voice of a disgruntled former soldier in the Syrian army nicknamed "Karfan" -- which means "disgusted" in Arabic.
Here's a classic bit from 2006 about Karfan's experience working to protect the homeland from the Israeli air force:
Back when Karfan was forced to serve his country and waste two years of his already-useless life in the army, he was assigned to a radar unit in Lebanon. That was because his degree was in electronic engineering and all, although he himself did not have the slightest idea what did he study during those years he spent at university. Regardless of that fact, service at a radar station was both the most useless and most dangerous service in the Syrian Army. They were not allowed to ever turn on those junk backward radars the Russians had bullied Syria into buying. If they operate them, the Israelis would detect their location, send missiles and blow the whole thing up. You cannot think of any more useless way to spend a year and a half of your life: you have to sit inside a dead piece of junk that is supposed to detect enemy's airlines, but you cannot turn it on because if you do, it would be blown away, with you in it of course. The biggest fear was that one asshole up in the upper command, might actually take the risk and order them to turn the radars on one of those days. Every one there knew what would happen then; they code named it: The Suicide Order.
The rest of the post is great, too. Karfan, where are you now?
This morning, Turkey made the startling announcement that it had lost contact with one of its F-4 military jets near the country's southern border with Syria, and that it had launched search-and-rescue efforts for the plane's two pilots.
Details about the incident are still fuzzy. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News is reporting that Syrian authorities have apologized to their Turkish counterparts for downing the aircraft (and cooperated on the rescue mission), while the BBC notes that the Turkish government has called an emergency security meeting and that witnesses in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia have told BBC Arabic that Syrian air defenses shot down an aircraft. But none of the key details -- the plane's mission, the cause and location of the crash, the whereabouts of the pilots -- have been nailed down.
"We've lost a plane and as yet we don't know have any information as to what happened and whether it was brought down," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a press conference on Friday.
Even with the shifting facts, it's worth asking: Could this incident -- or an incident like it -- trigger more aggressive action against Syria by the international community? After all, Turkey is a member of NATO, and Article V of the Washington Treaty outlines the alliance's commitment to collective security:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
A day after 9/11, NATO invoked this very provision for the first (and, to date, only) time, pledging to support U.S. military retaliation if it were determined that the terrorist attacks had been perpetrated by foreign nationals. The United States soon satisfied this condition in briefings with NATO members, but ultimately chose to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan outside the NATO framework. (It's also worth noting that NATO forces are involved in plenty of operations that don't involve Article V.)
If Turkey has reason to believe that Syria shot down its plane, might NATO respond in a similar fashion? It's not an entirely unreasonable question. The bloody and protracted crisis in Syria has poisoned relations between Ankara and Damascus, and Turkey suggested in April that it might turn to NATO under Article V to help protect its border in response to incursions by Syrian forces -- a threat Syria condemned as "provocative."
But Kurt Volker, the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, points out that Article V simply offers NATO allies an opportunity to consult with one another and does not necessarily entail a military response. If Turkey wanted to bring today's incident to the alliance, it would most likely instruct the Turkish ambassador in Brussels to work with NATO's secretary-general on calling a formal meeting to discuss the episode and formulate an appropriate response.
"A response could be anything from a statement reiterating the inviolability of security guarantees to members coordinating activities so that they can respond to further attacks on Turkish interests," Volker says.
He doesn't believe today's incident alone will alter the international community's response to the Syrian conflict, but he does think a NATO meeting on the matter could nurture a broader discussion about how to intervene militarily in Syria outside the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have repeatedly opposed such action. One scenario, he adds, could be Western and Arab countries joining forces to create "safe zones" in Syria, support the Syrian opposition, and conduct aerial strikes against Syria's offensive military assets.
"I do get the feeling that the patience of the international community is growing thinner," Volker explains. "With the recent village-by-village slaughter [in Syria] and brazenness of the Russians in trying to arm the Syrians, I think we may be approaching a point at which this kind of coalition intervention is more thinkable than it was a couple months ago."
James Joyner, the managing editor of the Atlantic Council, points out that if Syria shot down the lost Turkish plane in Syrian air space, it would not be considered an attack under NATO's charter. Even if NATO determines that Syria attacked Turkey, he adds, he doesn't think the alliance has any appetite for going to war with Syria.
"It would be one thing if Syria sent ground troops into Turkey and started shooting," he says, "but shooting down a plane that might have been surveilling Syrian air space is just a different animal than that. This is more of a harsh words and sanctions kind of thing, and frankly there's not much more of that that we can do in terms of Syria."
Update: After an emergency security meeting, Prime Minister Erdogan's has issued a statement indicating that Turkey believes it was indeed Syria that shot down its fighter jet and that the pilots have yet to be found. Most ominously, the statement added that Turkey would respond decisively once it had established exactly what took place today, according to the BBC.
A Syrian military spokesman also issued a statement on the Turkish jet, noting that "an unidentified aerial target" had "violated Syrian airspace" on Friday morning and that "the Syrian anti-air defenses counteracted with anti-aircraft artillery, hitting it directly as it was 1 kilometer away from land, causing it to crash into Syrian territorial waters west of Om al-Tuyour village in Lattakia province, 10 kilometers from the beach." The aircraft, the spokesman added, "was dealt with according to laws observed in such cases."
Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
Members of Turkey's Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) proposed a more decentralized Turkish government at a Brookings Institution panel on Tuesday.
"We don't believe that a centralized system of government that manages all of these different ethnic groups and communities is viable and productive," said BDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas. "We see this [decentralized government] as the most viable alternative."
Demirtas also emphasized that he is not calling for a completely independent Kurdish entity:
"We are not talking about the Kurdish people [living] in a region called Kurdistan."
Though he stressed that the BDP has no "organic relationship" with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the Turkish government classifies as a terrorist organization, Demirtas noted that the PKK is not the problem, but a result of the problem:
"We believe the PKK is part of the reality of this conflic, and we believe that they should be communicated with.... We don't see the PKK as a problem, we see it as a result of the problem."
Ahmet Türk of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) agreed, and urged the audience to consider that the Turkish government's longstanding policy of denying its Kurdish citizens their civil rights might be the root of the problem.
"You don't provide Kurds an opportunity to express themselves, so the PKK emerged."
While Demirtas made sure to explain that his party does not condone violence, he did take issue with the Turkish government's definition of terrorism:
"This means of violence that is being used has to be understood correctly. The simple, traditional [definition of] terrorism cannot be used here. This is a 100-year-old conflict.... As long as you are unable to define it correctly, the wrong definition will cause misunderstanding."
BDP member and Turkish parliamentarian Gülten Kisanak argued that the PKK's numbers are evidence that the government must rethink its position toward the organization:
"According to data provided by the Turkish chief of staff, since 1978 40,000 Kurds have participated in the PKK and lost their life in fighting the struggle. I believe these numbers cannot be seen as terrorism in that sense."
The BDP may support President Abdullah Gül's call for a new "flexible and freedom-based" constitution, but its forward-thinking notions about the PKK isn't going to win it many points with Ankara.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
Move over, WikiLeaks: There's a new sheriff in town.
The shadowy hacker collective Anonymous struck again late Sunday evening, exposing the email accounts of top aides to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and posting the passwords online for all to see (most of them were -- literally -- "12345").
Expatriate Syrians pounced, gleefully delving through this treasure trove and pulling out newsworthy gems (some even joked about sending replies from the accounts, for example, "Curse your soul, Hafez"). There were few smoking guns, but one email, from U.N.-based press aide Sheherazad Jaafari to Damascus-based press aide Luna Chebel, was particularly interesting. It advises the presidential office on how to best handle Assad's Dec. 7 interview with ABC's Barbara Walters. If this is the quality of staff work Bashar al-Assad is getting... well, it explains a lot:
Please let me know if you need anything else.
Barbara will be here on the 2nd and the interview will be on the 4th because she is leaving on the 6th so that would give you some time to do the editing.
After doing a major research on the American Media's coverage on the Syrian issue and the American Society's perspective of what is happening on the Syrian ground, I have concluded some important points that might be helpful for the preparation of the upcoming interview with Barbara Walters.
I based my research on online articles written about the Syrian issue, my personal contacts with the American journalists, my father and Syrian expatriates in the States.
The Major points and dimensions that has been mentioned a lot in the American media are:
* The idea of violence has been one of the major subjects brought up in every article. They use the phrases "the Syrian government is killing its own people", "Tanks have been used in many cities", "airplanes have been used to suppress the peaceful demonstrations" and "Security forces are criminals and bloody".
· Bloodshed is another subject brought up in the American media. There is no mention of how many "soldiers and security forces have been killed". They think that bloodshed is done by the government to attack the "innocent civilians" and "peaceful demonstrators". Mentioning "armed groups" in the interview is extremely important and we can use "American and British articles" to prove that there are "armed gangs".
· The American audience doesn't really care about reforms. They won't understand it and they are not interested to do so. Thus, a brief mention of the reforms done in the past couple of months is more than enough.
· It is very important to mention the huge economical and political transformation that Syria has gone through in the last 11 years. Somehow, there needs to be a clarification that reform started since H.E took the office.
· It is hugely important and worth mentioning that "mistakes" have been done in the beginning of the crises because we did not have a well-organized "police force". American Psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are "mistakes" done and now we are "fixing it". Its worth mentioning also what is happening now in Wall Street and the way the demonstrations are been suppressed by police men, police dogs and beatings.
"Syria doesn't have a policy to torture people" unlike the USA, where there are courses and schools that specializes in teaching police men and officers how to torture criminals and "outlaws". For instace, "the electric chair and killing through injecting an overdose amount of medicine"...etc.
*We can use Abu Ghraib in Iraq as an example.
· The comments that follow any article in the American Media are a very important tool to use in the interview. The Americans now believe that their government has failed two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are asking their government to stop interfering in other countries businesses and sovereignty and to start taking care of the American internal issues.
Obama popularity's decline and incline through the past 3 years:
· It is worth mentioning that when Obama asked H.E to step down he himself have had a 70% decrease of his popularity in the States.
· It would be worth mentioning how your personality has been attacked and praised in the last decade according to the media. At one point H.E was viewed as a hero and in other times H.E was the "bad guy". Americans love these kinds of things and get convinced by it.
Facebook and You tube:
This is very important to the American mindset. The fact that Facebook and youtube are open now-especially during the crises- is important.
The International media:
· We should mention that in the first month the international media was allowed in Syria. Both al Jazeera and al Arabia's offices were open but when they started to manipulate what is happening and "make up facts", the Syrian government became more cautious about who will enter the country.
10) Civil war in Syria and the neighboring countries:
We can use Noland and Hillary's statements encouraging armed groups to not give up their weapons as a "clear" way of asking for a civil war in Syria.
11) The opposition:
* a brief mention of the opposition "figures". Syria doesn't have an opposition leader with a "ready" agenda; they are all from the previous generation. The opposition was asked to meet by the Syrian government but most of them refused to attend.
The government's crackdown, the bloody regime, civil war, security forces and violence, Tanks, you tube torture clips, Pres. Assad IGNORES the bloodshed and the "help" of other countries and the Arab League", Army defectors, Robert Fords return to the US for "Security reasons", Syria is an authoritarian government.
The Broadcasting hours and channels:
· The interview will be broadcast across ABC News platforms - including World News, Good Morning America, This Week, ABC Radio, a full edition of Nightline, and full-length treatment across the digital space (for ABC News this now includes Yahoo as well - which means you can reach as many as 100 million people. ABC News and Yahoo recently joined forces - which is another reason why so many people now bring their interviews to us).
The exact dates/times for all these broadcasts depends on when the interview is done.
This is all ABC News - every platform. The entire interview would run on ABC News Digital; "Nightline" will devote an entire broadcast; "World News" at least one night, maybe two; "Good Morning America" a segment; "This Week" a segment. And so on.
Thanks to Fadi Mqayed for the pointer.
Over the last six months, I've watched countless gory videos of Arab protesters (and sometimes children) who have been beaten to death, shot in the head, run over with tanks, or otherwise brutalized by their own governments. And yet, for reasons that I can't quite fathom, few scenes have disturbed me as much as this one, said to be of Syrian soldiers gunning down a group of donkeys in cold blood:
Syrians on Twitter tell me that the reason for this seemingly senseless slaughter is to punish villagers for supporting the protest movement by taking away their means of survival. If so, it's a particularly nasty form of collective punishment -- gunning down a bunch of innocent, helpless animals.
The Syrian revolution has been going through a rough patch lately, with little fresh movement to isolate Bashar al-Assad's regime and what look to be smaller protests inside the country. The exiled opposition can't seem to get its act together and organize a united front, while activists inside the country are calling desperately for international protection of some kind as dozens of them continue to be killed, injured, or rounded up each day.
It would be bitterly ironic if it took the murder of a few donkeys to summon the global sense of outrage that greeted Bashar's Ramadan crackdown. But then again, the world works in strange ways sometimes.
The noose around Bashar al-Assad's neck is getting tighter.
With the extraordinary midnight statement Sunday by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, demanding the "stoppage of the killing machine and bloodshed" in Syria and withdrawing the Saudi ambassador from Damascus for "consultations," the Syrian president's isolation is nearly complete. The remarks came after a milder Gulf Cooperation Council statement last week that, in hindsight, ought to have been seen as a warning.
Kuwait also withdrew its ambassador Monday, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was on his way to Damascus to deliver "a very sharp message" to Assad, in the words of an anonymous senior Turkish diplomat quoted by Hürriyet Daily News.
“[Turkey and Syria] will sit down and talk for one last time … even though one should not exclude dialogue, even in wartime,” another Foreign Ministry official told the paper. “The talks will show whether the ties will be cut loose or not … If a new [Turkish] policy is to be outlined on Syria – that’s the last meeting.”
Yet for all the drama of leading Middle Eastern powers finally expressing their exasperation with a brutal crackdown that has lasted for nearly 5 months -- and escalated dramatically during the holy month of Ramadan -- none of these countries are yet calling for Assad's ouster, as France and the United States have done. Arab states are still signaling that the Syrian regime has a chance to stay in their good graces by carrying out those two favorite words of disingenuous tyrants everywhere: "dialogue" and "reform."
As Nabil el-Araby -- whose tenure as Arab League chief thus far has been characterized by toadyishness and willful naivete -- put it Monday, "Do not expect drastic measures but step-by-step persuasion to resolve the conflict."
Once you're done laughing at the notion that the League of Arab Dictators has any idea what will satisfy the Syrian people, consider this: Does anyone really still think Assad is capable of solving this thing? Not only is the Syrian regime pushing back against the external criticism, insisting it is responding to "sabotage acts" by armed Islamist gangs, but the crackdown has empowered the very elements of the regime least amenable to a democratic transition. Moreover, as Assad himself noted in his interview with the Wall Street Journal in January, it is fruitless to make changes under pressure:
If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail.
I expect that over the next few days, we might see fewer provocative moves -- like this weekend's bloody assault on the eastern city of Deir az-Zour, which seems to have provoked King Abdullah's ire -- from the Syrian regime. Perhaps Assad and friends will announce a fresh round of "reforms" -- always, of course, with trap doors and escape hatches that render them meaningless. But at this point, Assad seems doomed; after so much bloodshed and anger, any genuine political solution will inevitably lead to his ouster. His wisest course of action now is to find a safe place to spend his retirement (perhaps Vogue will give him a job?).
I imagine a loose coalition of France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States will now be working toward a soft landing for Syria -- looking for high-level defectors who could negotiate with opposition leaders and carry out what political scientists call a "pacted transition." But it's hard to imagine this working either, given that the military and security services are so tightly controlled by the Assad clan and that the opposition is so diffuse and fragmented. There is nothing comparable to the relatively upright Tunisian and Egyptian militaries in Syria, whose army has been shelling cities and towns across the country. And there is nobody for the regime to negotiate with who can guarantee calm on the streets.
The whole Baathist system has to come down, and it probably will. The only questions now are how long it will take, and how much more innocent blood will be shed in the process.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has posted a note on the embassy's Facebook page, responding to recent demonstrations denouncing his recent trip to the besieged city of Hama:
Outside the Embassy demonstrators complained about U.S. policy towards the Syrian government and my trip to Hama.
As I have said before, we respect the right of all Syrians – and people in all countries - to express their opinions freely and in a climate of mutual respect. We wish the Syrian government would do the same – and stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators. I have not seen the police assault a “mnhebak” demonstration yet. I am glad – I want all Syrians to enjoy the right to demonstrate peacefully. On July 9 a “mnhebak” group threw rocks at our embassy, causing some damage. They resorted to violence, unlike the people in Hama, who have stayed peaceful. Go look at the Ba’ath or police headquarters in Hama – no damage that I saw.
Other protesters threw eggs and tomatoes at our embassy. If they cared about their fellow Syrians the protesters would stop throwing this food at us and donate it to those Syrians who don’t have enough to eat. And how ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.
The people in Hama have been demonstrating peacefully for weeks. Yes, there is a general strike, but what caused it? The government security measures that killed protesters in Hama. In addition, the government began arresting people at night and without any kind of judicial warrant. Assad had promised in his last speech that there would be no more arrests without judicial process. Families in Hama told me of repeated cases where this was not the reality. And I saw no signs of armed gangs anywhere – not at any of the civilian street barricades we passed.
Hama and the Syrian crisis is not about the U.S. at all. This is a crisis the Syrian people are in the process of solving. It is a crisis about dignity, human rights, and the rule of law. We regret the loss of life of all Syrians killed, civilians and security members both, and hope that the Syrian people will be able to find their way out of this crisis soon. Respect for basic human rights is a key element of the solution.
Pointedly, no direct word about today's "national dialogue," which the opposition is boycotting -- though his remark that "this is a crisis the Syrian people are in the process of solving" suggests the United States is still not quite ready to dump Bashar al-Assad.
In related news, Ford and his French counterpart were hauled into the Syrian Foreign Ministry Sunday and criticized for their trip to Hama on Thursday and Friday. Given that the State Department said the visit was authorized by the Syrian regime, it's likely this is all just political theater -- or even cover for an official meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem.
Another explanation might be retaliation for the fact that Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha was summoned to the State Department this past week for allegedly spying on Syrian-Americans and threatening their family members. The Obama administration is said to be considering restrictions on Moustapha's movements, but will likely not boot him out of the country, as that would be sure to prompt Ford's expulsion from Syria.
UPDATE: A "senior U.S. official" tells AFP that Ford's trip to the Foreign Ministry was a previously scheduled meeting, and accuses the Syrian regime of "organizing" the protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
Crowds have chanted it at rallies throughout the country these past few weeks, and thousands more have listened to it and shared it online. "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" (It's time to leave, Bashar), seems to be the standout song of the Syrian uprising so far. With simple, catchy, sometimes profane lyrics, the song tells the Syrian leader to "screw" himself. "Freedom is near."
The story of the song's author -- Ibrahim Kashoush -- took a sad turn with news that he may have been killed in a protest last Friday in Hama. Reporting out of Syria is hard to verify these days, but one Lebanese news site said his body was reportedly dumped in a nearby river Wednesday morning.
"The song has rallied people," said U.S.-based Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "It hit a nerve because it's clearly and simply designed to tell Assad to leave. It's very straightforward. And it uses some profane language."
Abdulhamid said there have been other protest songs before this one, but "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" stands out as the best.
Listen for yourself.
Kashoush was a little-known local singer in Hama before the revolution, according to Abdulhamid.
"When he did this song, he became sort of a hero," he said.
Abdulhamid -- who believes the songwriter is in fact dead based on conversations with sources in Hama -- said his murder adds a layer of poignancy.
For example, there's this haunting lyric near the end: "To die but not be humiliated."
It's another Friday in the Arab world, and once again Syria is witnessing huge demonstrations.
This time, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, decided to hoof it up to Hama to scope out the scene for himself. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday that Ford had "spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves."
She added: "So for him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama, I think, expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken." She also said Ford had received a "very warm welcome" in Hama, where he met with at least a dozen residents of the city.
Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who has been outspoken in calling for stronger U.S. action in Syria, cheered the visit. "The powerful visit of Ambassador Ford to #Hama shows the value of his ongoing presence in #Syria and knocked the regime off balance," he tweeted.
Here's what Ford would have seen today:
So far, Ford's move doesn't seem to have deterred protesters from coming out in cities and neighborhoods all across Syria, from Raqqa and Qamishle in the north to Deir az-Zour and Albu Kamal in the south to the Midan and Qaboun areas of the capital. There were even small demonstrations in quiescent Aleppo, according to Syrian activists.
Still, the Syrian regime sees an opening, and has sought to paint Ford's visit as proof positive that the evil Americans are behind the actions of the "sabateurs" who are bent on destroying the country and neutralizing its "resistance" to Israel.
Will it work? Perhaps on some Syrians, but I think we're well past the point where too many folks are buying what the regime is selling. Week after week, the protests keep swelling and spreading to new areas, and it's clear that it's ordinary Syrians who are voicing disapproval of their government, not foreign agents.
And it's not as if Assad and friends haven't been trying all along to push the "foreign conspiracy" line, even as they pretend to engage in dialogue with an opposition whose demands the government has deemed broadly legitimate. As Andrew Exum, a Levant expert at the Center for a New American Security tweeted, "Re: Ford's visit to Hama, what did he have to lose? Does it in any way affect the protests if they are branded in league with the #USA? ... I mean, look, gang: it's not as if Bashar al-Asad and his stooges would go any easier on the protesters if the #USA did not side with them."
UPDATE: And here's a video showing Ford driving through Hama. He's welcomed by protesters wielding... olive branches and roses:
The crowd chants: "The people demand the fall of the regime" and "We kneel only for God."
In what has become a weekly ritual, protesters squared off against security forces in cities throughout Syria today, demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad. The BBC is reporting that demonstrators were fired on with tear gas and bullets after Friday prayers. At least 15 people were killed, according to Al Jazeera, including several worshipers who came under fire while leaving a mosque.
Below are several videos from today -- warning some of the footage is extremely graphic.
This video shows a large crowd reportedly in Damascus today:
The pre-Baath party Syrian flag at a protest today:
You can hear what sounds like gunfire in this video:
Very graphic video of a protester reportedly killed in Kisweh today:
During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Arabs joked that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were following the same playbook -- which came to be known as the Arab Tyrant Manual. NPR described it as a three-step process, including "strengthening the security service," "promise political reform," and "buy off unrest."
But there's actually a lot more to the manual than that, and its application varies from place to place depending on circumstances -- though the overall failure of these tyrants to "get it" is remarkably consistent.
In March, at the height of the revolt in Libya, a few Twitter users, led by Iyad ElBaghdadi(@iyad_elbaghdadi) and Amira al-Husseini (@JustAmira), crowdsourced the rules of this manual and compiled them using the #ArabTyrantManual hashtag. A few of my favorites:
@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that the protests started as a pure youth movement but were "hijacked" by a foreign agenda
@L_Auvergnate: Pretend you're open for dialogue and will do the necessary while killing protesters
@iyad_elbaghdadi: Say that you "got the message" and "will act on it soon". Don't mention what "soon" means.
@EG_Freedom: Shut down communications and kill businesses even tho protesters will publish videos anyway when the inet comes back up.
@studentIslam: You never wanted to be a dictator. Your service to the people proves that.
Compare to the Syrian state news agency's summary of Assad's speech today. Some choice excerpts:
Foreign conspiracies: "President al-Assad asserted that Syria, throughout all of its history has been facing conspiracies against it for several reasons, some of which are linked to Syria's important geographic and political status and others are linked to its political stances committed to its principles and interests.
Dialogue: "A committee on national dialogue was formed for the sake of launching a national dialogue which includes all social, intellectual and political segments in Syria in an institutional approach, the president added."
Vague promises of reform: "'The urgent demands of people have been implemented before the beginning of the dialogue...we lifted Emergency Law and abolished State Security Court; we issued an organizing law for the right to peaceful demonstration. A committee was formed to set the draft bill for the new election law as another committee was formed to set legislations and the necessary mechanisms to combat corruption,' said President al-Assad."
Failure to shut down communications: "‘What do we say about these political stances? What do we say about the media pressure and the advanced phones that we're finding in Syria in the hands of saboteurs? What do we say about the falsification that we all witnessed?' President al-Assad added."
Service to the people: "President al-Assad said ‘I met people from all the spectrums of the Syrian society, demonstrators and non-demonstrators and the truth is that I consider these meeting as the most important job I've ever had as a person in charge despite the frustration and pain in the general atmosphere yet I can say that the benefit was amazing. They showed great love and amity toward me I have never felt before.'"
That said, Assad is admittedly in a bit of a pickle here. Even if he did want to take serious steps to reform, in line with the demands of Turkey and the West, a few factors might be holding him back. One is that there are a lot of other people in Syria with a vested interest in the status quo, including but by no means limited to members of his own family. His brother, Maher, controls the most elite units of the military, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, controls the intelligence services. A bevy of cousins, notably Rami Makhlouf, control the economy. Members of Bashar's Alawite sect dominate the commanding heights of the security services. All of these people stand to lose if things change, and Assad likely feels he needs to protect the interests of this wider circle -- lest some of them decide to move against him.
Then there is Assad's patron, Iran, which has reportedly supplied help putting down the uprising and has little interest in seeing a process of political reform take root in Syria. And what about the Arab Gulf monarchies? A few of them have made official statements of support to the Syrian regime, and even though they have stayed most silent, their interest is in seeing Assad weakened but not overthrown altogether. They'd like to see him brought low so that he comes begging for cash, and they can peel him away from Iran. That seems unlikely -- why would he trust them? -- but that sort of thing has never stopped Arab regimes from pursuing a given strategy.
So he's stuck with the manual.
It's Friday, and once again there were major protests throughout Syria. Reuters reported at least 16 people were killed, including a teenage boy. Protests have become a weekly occurrence, and the numbers being reported are startling. Al Jazeera cites an eyewitness claiming 150,000 people came out in Hama, the country's fourth largest city and the site of a massacre in 1982 that left at least 10,000 dead. If Al Jazeera's number is accurate, that would mean almost a quarter of the city's population was out in the streets.
The Syrian regime's response today has also been dramatic. Tanks and armored personnel carriers swept into two key towns in the north-- places that sit on the road linking Damascus and Aleppo. The government called it a "limited military operation" to restore order.
Here's video of the large crowds in Hama:
And video of protesters setting fire to the Russian and Iranian flags:
A couple of key things to watch:
Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been a steady ally of Assad's government. But the relationship has cooled and might be heading for a breaking point, as thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flood into Turkey. Last week, Erdogan called Syria's crackdown "savagery."
"Syria had two friends. One was Erdogan and the other is the Iranians," Henri Barkey, a Turkey scholar at Lehigh University told Passport. "They have lost Erdogan. Erdogan tried to convince Bashar from the beginning to reform, lift the state of emergency, release political prisoners, but Bashar didn't listen to him."
Barkey said the Turks feel slighted. They threw the Syrian regime a lifeline at a time when it was being pressured by the Europeans and the Americans, and Erdogan expected to have more of a say with Assad now.
So what does this all mean?
According to Barkey, if the United States plays its cards right, there's an opportunity to let the Turks take the lead in dealing with Syria and possibly even do what Washington probably won't be able to-- persuade the Russians to back a U.N. Security Council Resolution against Syria that actually has teeth. That's far from certain, but Erdogan, who prides himself on being at the forefront of history, might soon be ready to take up that charge.
The end of Rami Makhlouf?
The Syrian business tycoon and cousin of Assad publicly "resigned" on state TV late Thursday from his various business ventures, including as head of the country's main cell phone company. The fact that the regime is willing to toss out someone seen as especially close to Assad is an indication it understands it needs to do more than it's been doing, said Rob Malley a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group. The move can be seen as a gesture to the population, which overwhelmingly wanted Makhlouf gone.
Makhlouf's image was tarnished within Syria after an interview with the New York Times last month in which he said the government would fight to the end to survive and that "if there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel."
The Jolie Factor
Hollywood do-gooder Angelina Jolie met with Syrian refugees in Turkey today. Though there are fewer than 10,000 of them so far, Jolie could help their plight become a cause célèbre and push governments to take stronger action against the Syrian regime. Look for an increase in press coverage of the refugee crisis in the wake of her visit. Though the scale is much lower than other refugee crises around the world, sympathy for the Syrians fighting inside the country and those fleeing from the conflict will likely grow. A crisis needs a compelling narrative to get attention. And a crisis needs the world's attention to move the needle of world powers.
All in all, it's been a bad day for Bashar Assad.
A Bahraini security court sentenced 20-year-old student Ayat al-Qurmezi to one year in prison yesterday. The young woman, infamous for her February recitation of an anti-government poem in Pearl Square, has been found guilty of speaking out against the king and inciting hatred. Her poem has become an international symbol of the Bahraini opposition:
We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice
Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams
Down with Hamad
Al-Qurmezi has been in captivity since March. She was rumored to have been raped and tortured after an alleged phone call was made from doctors at an army hospital in April. Yesterday, a relative confirmed that her face had been shocked with an electrical cable, she was forced to clean the prison bathroom with her hands, and held in a near-freezing cell for days at a time. Ayat al-Ghermezi has incited a rally cry for free speech in Bahrain, where female students, doctors and professors have become targets of government crackdown on civil rights.
She is not the only poet to face such harsh punishments recently in the Middle East. Waleed Mohammad al Rumaishi had his tongue cut out after reciting poetry in support of embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2009, civil servant and poet Moneer Said Hanna wrote a five-lined satirical poem about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and is now serving a three year sentence, as well as paying a fine of over $16,000. Syrian poet, Faraj Bayrakdar, now fuels the revolution from Sweden after enduring over 13 years of torture in prison where he would carve pens from wood splinters and make ink from tea leaves in order to write poetry.
Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but for Ayat al-Qurmezi and her fellow dissident poets, the message is quite clear.
John Moore/Getty Images
Syria is ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel, but only if Turkey acts as the intermediary. Let's see how that works out.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Sunday that only Turkey can act as an intermediary in any indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.
"Turkey has shown itself to be an honest intermediary. Indirect talks must therefore be under Turkish mediation, and begin in Turkey at the point where they stopped" in December 2008 when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, he said.
He ruled out any country other than Turkey being involved in indirect talks, telling reporters: "Any efforts by other parties will consist of helping the Turkish role."
Turkey mediated between Israel and Syria before, starting in May 2008. Those talks broke down in December after Israel began Operation Cast Lead, the assault on Gaza that enraged much of the Muslim world -- including Turkey.
Even after the break down in talks, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly stated that Turkey was a "fair" mediator.
But relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated considerably since December 2008. The biggest flare-up, of course, was when Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish activists (and one Turkish-American) on their way to Gaza in May. Even before that, though, the current Israeli government didn't look like it would too happy to have Turkey as a mediator. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a year ago that it would be impossible for Turkey to act as an honest broker.
There hasn't yet been any response from the Israeli government to the news out of this weekend's Syria-Turkey meeting, but don't expect any encouragement.
It's worth adding some additional pessimism to all of this. Even when the Turkish mediated negotiations were going well, the closest Damascus and Tel Aviv ever came to success was nearing an agreement to sit down for direct talks. Once that happened, who knows how far those negotiations would have gone, but probably not far. Syria remains, at least rhetorically, committed to getting the Golan Heights back from Israel, which has been occupying the territory since 1967. Netanyahu has said unequivocally that Israel "will never withdraw from the Golan," as has his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the precipice of collapse after only a month, it's hard to imagine why anyone else in the region would choose to sign up for more ill-fated negotiations.
A top-ranking Russian official recently confirmed his nation's intention to go ahead with the sale of some particularly lethal cruise missiles to Syria. Israel, not-so-surprisingly, is not-so-happy. The supersonic Russian Yakhont missiles have a range of 138 miles, according to the BBC, and could target Israeli warships in the Mediterranean.
Syria and Russia signed the missile agreement in 2007, but Russia is yet to deliver the goods.
The Israelis have been working for some time to dissuade the Russians on fulfilling their contract, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoning his Russian counterpart, Vladir Putin, last month to try and convince him to renege on the agreement.
Of course, the Russians are quite notorious for this kind of behavior; back in 2005 they signed a contract for the supply of the S-300 missile defense system to Iran -- a powerful anti-aircraft system which poses serious threats to modern aircraft, including Israel's own air force. December will mark five years of the Russians dragging their feet on the deal, offering conflicting statements on the status of the system throughout the process.
In the meantime, Russia has been reaping the benefits of the situation, purchasing advanced Israeli drones this spring -- their first military purchase from Israel. More recently, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, where he signed a quite promising military cooperation deal.
Lesson for the day? You could be getting those missiles soon Syria -- but don't get your hopes up, the Russians know how to milk you for the ride.
Ariel Hermoni/ Israeli Defense Ministry via Getty Images
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