Assad taking advantage of U.S.-Russia split over Ukraine, observers say

a13-iconThe Washington Post reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his reelection for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.

The collapse last month of peace talks in Geneva, jointly sponsored by Russia and the United States, had already eroded the slim prospects that a negotiated settlement to the Syrian war might be possible. With backers of the peace process now at odds over the outcome of the popular uprising in Ukraine, Assad feels newly confident that his efforts to restore his government’s authority won’t be met soon with any significant challenge from the international community, according to analysts and people familiar with the thinking of the regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defiant response to the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has further reinforced Assad’s conviction that he can continue to count on Russia’s unwavering support against the armed rebellion challenging his rule, said Salem Zahran, a Damascus-based journalist and analyst with close ties to the Syrian regime.

“The regime believes the Russians now have a new and stronger reason to keep Assad in power and support him, especially after the experience of Libya, and now Ukraine,” he said. “In addition, the regime believes that any conflict in the world which distracts the attention of the Americans is a factor which eases pressure on Syria.” [Continue reading...]


Syria aid still stalled after U.N. resolution


Reuters reports: World powers have passed a landmark Security Council resolution demanding an end to restrictions on humanitarian operations in Syria, but aid workers doubt it has the punch to make Damascus grant access and let stuck convoys deliver vital supplies.

President Bashar al-Assad’s administration and to a lesser extent rebels fighting to overthrow him have been accused of preventing food and medical care from reaching a quarter of a million people in besieged areas.

Russia, Assad’s ally on the Security Council, and China have vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned him or threatened sanctions since Syrian forces cracked down on a pro-democracy uprising in 2011 that has since turned into a civil war. More than 140,000 have been killed in the fighting, which has forced half the population to flee from their homes.

Saturday’s resolution threatened unspecified “further steps” if Damascus does not comply. [Continue reading...]


Russia sees humanitarian aid as a threat to Syria’s sovereignty

a13-iconNick Bryant reports: In a conflict where 140,000 people have been killed, including more than 7,000 children, while 250,000 civilians are still trapped in besieged communities, it must beggar belief to those unused to the geopolitics of the United Nations that a proposed resolution boosting humanitarian relief should be a matter of angry contention.

The draft resolution put before the UN Security Council in New York has the potential to be a game-changer on the ground.

It demands a lifting of the sieges, condemns starvation as a strategy of war, singles out the barbarity of the barrel bombs dropped on civilian populations by the Assad regime and, most crucially of all perhaps, calls for aid convoys to be allowed to cross the Syrian border from neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iraq.

It also criticises opposition forces that have besieged areas, though on a smaller scale, and expresses concern about the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups in Syria.

However, it is by no means certain that the draft will ever emerge from the Security Council.

The resolution, which was drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, has exposed the longstanding division within the Security Council. Three of its permanent members, France, Britain and the US, are pushing hard for its passage because of the alarming deterioration in recent months of Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

Russia, which has stymied efforts in the past to boost humanitarian aid and vetoed three previous UN resolutions on Syria, has again been resistant. [Continue reading...]


Why it’s a good time to be a dictator like Kim Jong-un

o13-iconJonathan Freedland writes: In the early 1990s, when I was in my infancy as a reporter, the dominant international story was the war in the Balkans. Several of my peers made their names covering that war and were deeply affected by it. What motivated at least a few of them was not the desire simply to be on the front page or lead the evening news, but a passionate urge to let the world know what was happening. Several believed that, if only the world could see what they could see in Bosnia, then it would act.

Perhaps the authors of the latest UN report into human rights in North Korea felt a similar motivation. They can be satisfied that, thanks to their 372-page study, no one now can claim to be ignorant of the horrors committed in that place. They are laid out in stomach-turning detail: the torture, the deliberate starvation, the executions committed in a network of secret prison camps. The individual cases break the heart: the seven-year-old girl beaten to death over a few extra grains of food; the boy whose finger was chopped off for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the factory where he was forced to work; and, most shocking of all, the mother forced to drown her just-born baby in a bowl of water.

The report’s lead author, like those old journalistic colleagues of mine, clearly hopes that now that the evidence is laid out, action will follow. “Now the international community does know,” says retired Australian judge Michael Kirby. “There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know. It’s too long now. The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action.”

But how confident can Kirby be that action will follow? Any UN plan – even a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court – would hit the immediate obstacle of a Chinese veto in the security council. (China, after all, is implicated in North Korea’s horrors: when people somehow manage to escape across the border, China’s policy is to hand them straight back.)

It’s a similar story in Syria. Less than a month has passed since a report laid out comprehensive evidence of the suffering of detainees at the hands of the Assad regime. That report, like the latest one on North Korea, detailed murder through starvation, beatings and torture – complete with photographs of emaciated bodies. Then, as now, the authors noted chilling echoes of the Nazi crimes of the 1940s. Yet did that report spark a worldwide demand for action, with demonstrations outside parliaments and presidential palaces? It did not. Perhaps mindful that any call for UN action would be blocked by a Russian veto, the chief response was a global shrug. [Continue reading...]

A global shrug, or more specifically a Western shrug?

The intervention in the Balkans had perhaps more to do with the fact that the atrocities were taking place inside Europe, than it was a product of the “responsibility to protect”. There was an enormous reluctance to intervene but the tipping point came when Europe appeared to be witnessing what it had pledged it would never witness again: scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. And even at such a juncture, Europe wasn’t willing to act without the U.S. taking the lead.


Russia and China skip UN meeting on aid to Syria

n13-iconThe New York Times reports from the UN: The morning after an aid convoy came under fire when it tried to reach a besieged Syrian city, a meeting here on a draft resolution that would force all parties in the bloody conflict to allow access for humanitarian organizations fell apart when representatives from Russia and China failed to show up, Security Council diplomats said.

On Monday afternoon, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, did not directly say he would veto the draft if it came up for a vote, but called it “one of those political things” that would not be adopted by the Security Council. “This text would not have any practical, positive impact on the situation,” Mr. Churkin said.

The Chinese Mission declined to comment.

A United Nations spokesman said that 11 people were killed as aid workers delivered food and medicine over the weekend to the old city of Homs. About 800 people, mainly women, children and elderly people, have been evacuated so far, and some of them told United Nations officials that they had resorted to eating grass and weeds to survive. [Continue reading...]


Syria promised to deliver 700 tons of CW by Feb 5; only 32 tons have arrived

NewsThe Los Angeles Times reports: The Obama administration on Thursday slammed Syria for failing to fulfill its pledges to surrender its most dangerous chemical weapons for destruction and voiced concern that the entire project could now be in jeopardy.

In a statement to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Netherlands, U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Mikulak accused Syria of “open-ended delaying” of the disarmament process in an attempt to renegotiate the deal it agreed to last fall.

The effort “has seriously languished and stalled,” Mikulak told the executive council of the group, which is overseeing the initiative with the United Nations. Syria’s “open-ended delaying of the removal operation could ultimately jeopardize the carefully timed and coordinated multistate removal and destruction effort.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, at an appearance in Warsaw, also expressed concern.

“They need to fix this,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad agreed to surrender his chemical arsenal, one of the biggest in the world, to deflect President Obama’s threat to launch punitive missile strikes last summer in response to Syria’s alleged use of deadly nerve agents against civilians in suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

Syria initially appeared to comply with its promises to give up its poison gases, and the White House hailed the deal as a major foreign-policy accomplishment. But veteran arms experts have predicted since the deal was signed in September that Assad would seek to test the world community’s resolve and might try to keep some parts of a huge stockpile.

Under a disarmament plan proposed by the Syrians, Damascus was to deliver 700 tons of its most dangerous chemicals by next Wednesday to the port of Latakia, where the material would be loaded onto ships and destroyed at sea. But officials say it has delivered only about 32 tons, in two shipments on Jan. 7 and Jan. 27. [Continue reading...]


With Assad regime in stronger position, chemical weapons disarmament stalls

AnalysisThe Institute for the Study of War has released a new report: The Assad regime’s military position is stronger in January 2014 than it was a year ago and remains committed to fighting for Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Nonetheless, the conflict remains at a military and political deadlock.

In the spring of 2013 the regime lacked the necessary manpower to conduct simultaneous operations on multiple fronts against rebel groups that were quickly making gains throughout the north, south, and Damascus countryside. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had sustained more losses than it could replenish. It relied on air assets to resupply besieged troops in its Aleppo and Idlib outposts because it lacked overland logistical lines connecting those outposts. The regime had contracted its military footprint to Damascus and Homs in order to its secure supply lines while rebels contested Homs, the lynchpin of the regime’s logistics system that connected Damascus to Aleppo and to the coast.

The Syrian regime has since been resuscitated by infusions of men and materiel from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia and from the formalization of pro-regime militias under the National Defense Forces. This report will lay out the changes in the regime’s strategy and conduct of the campaign that allowed it to regain some of its strength. It will also lay out how opposition movements have attempted to conduct multiple, sometimes competing campaigns of their own against the regime. [See the complete report.]

Reuters reports: Syria has given up less than 5 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The deliveries, in two shipments this month to the northern Syrian port of Latakia, totaled 4.1 percent of the roughly 1,300 tonnes of toxic agents reported by Damascus to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not enough and there is no sign of more,” one source briefed on the situation said.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports: In his battle against an al-Qaeda-led insurgency in western Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s is providing arms and funds to unnatural bedfellows – Sunni tribesmen who complain of being neglected by his Shiite-dominated government.

The government has trucked weapons and approved millions of dollars in payments to tribesmen in Anbar province in a bid to win their help ousting al-Qaeda-linked fighters who took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this month. The United States is also speeding up its supply of small arms to Iraq, urging them to pass them on to tribesmen.


Assad negotiates from a position of strength

Joshua Landis writes: President Bashar al-Assad comes to the negotiating table in Switzerland apparently stronger today than at any time in the last two years. Thus his cavalier tone ahead of the talks, dismissing opposition representatives as a “joke” and brushing off U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s and the opposition’s demand that he relinquish power and accept a “transitional governing body.” Instead, Assad maintains, Syria will hold elections this year, and “I see no reason why I shouldn’t stand.”

Understanding why Assad’s regime survives more than two years after then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a “dead man walking” is critical for gauging the outcome of the Geneva II talks.

The regime’s resilience is based, first and foremost, on the Syrian army. Without its loyalty, Assad would likely have fallen as quickly as Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak did in 2011. But while many soldiers and officers did join the rebellion, most did so as individuals; few entire units defected, and no entire divisions did. Structurally, the military held together, and it was able to replenish its ranks through intensive recruitment among the Alawite minority, where many are loyal to the regime and still more live in mortal fear of sectarian retribution at the hands of the Sunni-led armed rebellion. The same factors allowed the military to expand its capabilities through the paramilitary Popular Committees, often called shabiha. And it has also been able to enlist the support in critical battles of units of the Shia Hezbollah militia from neighboring Lebanon, whose leaders recognize that their own military fortunes depend on maintaining the resupply lines that the Assad regime has long provided.

Just as important as the military’s loyalty to the regime have been its superior armaments. Even if rebel fighters, who number well in excess of 100,000 by most estimates, outnumber the Syrian army, in any battle for territory they are often little match for the army’s dramatic technological and organizational advantage. Rebel militias have no answer for the artillery, armor and airpower of the Syrian military. Perhaps even more important, the rebels have no central command. And it is difficult to imagine, today, how the rebels could plausibly overcome these disadvantages.

The fragmentation and radicalization of rebel fighting forces has been the opposition’s greatest weakness. Had a unified political-military command emerged among the rebels in the first year of the uprising, at the height of optimism over the Arab Spring, the United States and Europeans might well have been persuaded to give direct military backing to the uprising. Today, such hopes have been dashed.

Infighting among rival militias battling for control over rebel-held areas has, in recent weeks, cost over 1,000 lives. The prospect of militia chaos combined with widespread human rights abuses, the radicalization of the militias and an estimated 10,000 foreigners fighting on the rebel side have spooked Western leaders, even amid the anguish caused by images depicting gruesome torture and murder in the dungeons of the regime.

Few policymakers talk about “good guys” in Syria anymore; some — most notably former CIA Director Michael Hayden last December — even argue that a rebel victory would be worse than an Assad win. Not even the recent emergence of a larger militia coalition, the Islamic Front, to organize rebel fighting and challenge forces aligned with Al-Qaeda has been able to end rebel chaos.

Foreign involvement in the Syrian civil war has also worked strongly to the advantage of the regime. Iran and Russia have proved to be far more reliable as allies to Assad than the U.S. and Gulf Arab states have been to the rebels. From day one of the revolt, Assad’s top worry has been that the U.S. would invade. He and his generals were convinced that they could survive as long as F-16s did not appear over the Damascus horizon. So far, their assumption has proved to be correct. [Continue reading...]


Testy exchange sets tone as peace talks open on Syria

The New York Times reports: Friction and acrimony broke out almost immediately on Wednesday with the start of a long-delayed peace conference on Syria, punctuated by a testy exchange between the Syrian foreign minister and the leader of the United Nations, casting doubt on the prospects for easing hostilities or even opening up emergency aid corridors to help besieged civilians.

The conference of delegates representing some 30 countries in the lakeside Swiss city of Montreux, already troubled by last-minute diplomatic stumbles, was described by Secretary of State John Kerry as a test for the international community. But the meeting had barely begun when the atmosphere grew even more charged over divisions between the United States and Russia and especially among the Syrians themselves.

The Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, who led his country’s delegation, was openly defiant, calling Syrian insurgents evil and ignoring appeals by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, to avoid invective or even yield the floor as a bell rang signaling that he had exceeded the allotted time for his remarks.

“You live in New York, I live in Syria,” Mr. Moallem snapped after Mr. Ban asked that he conclude his speech, which lasted more than 30 minutes.

After Mr. Moallem finished Mr. Ban lamented that his injunction that participants take a constructive approach to the crisis “had been broken.” [Continue reading...]


Assad goes into Geneva with the upper hand

Rajan Menon writes: It would certainly be wonderful if Wednesday’s peace conference in Geneva were to result in some kind of blueprint, however fragile, for winding down a Syrian civil war that is now approaching the three-year mark. The carnage has consumed some 130,000 lives — at least half of them civilians — turned 2.4 million Syrians into refugees in neighboring countries and displaced another 6.5 million within Syria itself.

Add to this devastation the children who have lost one or both of their parents, the destruction of essential infrastructure, the outbreak, actual or potential, of multiple diseases and the scarcity of basic necessities, and what’s evident is that Syria is being consumed by catastrophe. Syrians will feel its malign effects for years to come, as will people in adjacent countries, particularly Lebanon and Iraq, where Syria’s sectarian war has aggravated Sunni-Shi’a tensions.

With all of these factors in play, it appears unlikely that a substantive and sustainable resolution will be reached in this week’s “Geneva II” peace talks.

First, there’s a deep divide between the Syrian groups in exile — which claim to be the authentic voice of Syrians and have been recognized as such by many governments — and the most effective fighting forces within Syria. The former are organized as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (aka the Syrian National Coalition, SNC) and have established a provisional government — based in Turkey — as well as a Supreme Military Council. But no matter the rhetoric of the SNC and its backers in Washington and elsewhere, other opposition groups that do not answer to the SNC bear the brunt of the fighting and are therefore more consequential to Syria’s political future.

The pressure the United States has applied on the SNC to join Geneva II has further divided what was already a creaky coalition. When the SNC voted Saturday on whether to participate in the talks, about half of its members refused to vote, voted no or abstained. The dissenters worried, with good reason, that sitting down with Assad’s representatives would further erode their standing within Syria and diminish the likelihood of removing the dictator from power. [Continue reading...]


U.S. says invitation to Iran to attend Syria talks should be withdrawn

Reuters reports: The United States insisted on Monday that a U.N. invitation to Iran to attend a January 22 peace conference on ending Syria’s war should be withdrawn unless Tehran fully supports a 2012 plan to establish a transitional government in Syria.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said chances of the conference going ahead were still “fluid” given that Iran has not fully endorsed the Geneva 1 agreement from 2012 to end the conflict.

The 2012 Geneva 1 plan agreed to establish “by mutual consent” a transitional body to govern Syria.

Syrian opposition groups, which voted on Saturday to attend the conference, have threatened to withdraw from the talks unless the invitation to Iran is withdrawn.

The official said Iran was providing substantial military and economic support for President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran’s participation in peace talks was not helpful.

“They are doing nothing to de-escalate tensions … and their actions have actually aggravated them, and so the idea that they would come to the conference refusing to acknowledge support for Geneva 1, we do not see how it could be helpful,” the official said.

No wonder this State Department official was speaking on condition of anonymity. He or she would hopefully be embarrassed to have their name attached to such nonsensical statements.

If this so-called peace conference was to require that all participants be committed to de-escalating tensions, then either there would be no participants who are qualified or no conference would be necessary.

The purpose of a peace conference is not to bring together peace lovers; it is to bring together adversaries in order to explore alternatives to the continuation of fighting. For any alternative to gain any traction it will need to offer each side the prospect of a better outcome than does the continuation of war.


U.N. warns inaction on climate change will be costly

The New York Times reports: Nations have dragged their feet in battling climate change so much that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a UN draft report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, the experts found.

Delay would probably force future generations to develop the capability to suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them underground to preserve the livability of the planet, the report found. But it is not clear whether such technologies will ever exist at the necessary scale, and even if they do, the approach would probably be wildly expensive compared with taking steps now to slow emissions.

The report said that governments of the world were still spending far more money to subsidize fossil fuels than to accelerate the shift to cleaner energy, thus encouraging continued investment in projects like coal-burning power plants that pose a long-term climate risk.

While the spread of technologies like solar power and wind farms might give the impression of progress, the report said, such developments are being overtaken by rising emissions from fossil fuels over the past decade, especially in fast-growing countries like China. And one of the most important sources of low-carbon energy, nuclear power, is actually declining over time as a percentage of the global energy mix, the report said.

“The fundamental drivers of emissions growth are expected to persist despite major improvements in energy supply” and in the efficiency with which energy is used, the report declared.

The new warnings come in a draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a panel of climate experts that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for its efforts to analyze and communicate the risks of climate change. The report is not final, but a draft dated Dec. 17 leaked this week and was first reported by Reuters. The New York Times obtained a copy independently. [Continue reading...]


EU must open doors to avoid Syrian refugee catastrophe, says UN

The Guardian reports: The crisis posed by millions of refugees from Syria’s civil war flooding into neighbouring countries is becoming a humanitarian and political catastrophe that can only be eased if Europe opens its doors, the UN and European commission have warned.

More than 2.1 million refugees have been registered by the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) in Syria’s four neighbouring states; hundreds of thousands more are known to be living outside Syria’s borders without access to aid.

The scale of the crisis is perhaps the most acute since the end of the second world war. David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), described the ever-deteriorating situation in Syria as “the defining humanitarian crisis of our time”.

The UNHCR, European commission and British Refugee Council have urged EU leaders to acknowledge the exceptional crisis posed by the Syrian civil war and accept the temporary settlement of Syrian refugees inside their borders – relaxing “fortress” policies designed to keep migrants out of Europe.

The UN has issued an urgent call to resettle 30,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians worldwide – a call that remains unmet as the exodus from Syria into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq fast outpaces the capacity to provide for them. The UK government has refused to take part in the resettlement scheme, calling the idea tokenistic and stressing the importance of the £500m of aid it has sent to the region. [Continue reading...]


Kerry opens door to Iran’s participation in Syrian peace talks

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry suggested on Sunday that Iran might play a role at the peace talks on Syria that are scheduled to take place this month.

It was the first time that a senior American official had indicated that Iranian diplomats might participate in the session, which is to convene in Switzerland on Jan. 22.

But Mr. Kerry also made clear that there would be limits on Iran’s role if Tehran did not formally accept that the goal of the conference would be to work out arrangements for a transitional authority that would govern Syria if President Bashar al-Assad could be persuaded to give up power.

“Now, could they contribute from the sidelines? Are there ways for them conceivably to weigh in?” Mr. Kerry said, referring to the Iranians. “Can their mission that is already in Geneva be there in order to help the process?”

“It may be that that could happen, but that has to be determined by the secretary general,” he added, referring to Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations. “It has to be determined by Iranian intentions themselves.” [Continue reading...]


Al Nusra leader targeting UN workers in Syria

If this is indeed the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, presumably it is not a recent photograph.

If this is indeed the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, presumably it is not a recent photograph.

The Associated Press reports: The shadowy leader of a powerful al-Qaida group fighting in Syria sought to kidnap United Nations workers and scrawled out plans for his aides to take over in the event of his death, according to excerpts of letters obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Iraqi intelligence officials offered the AP the letters, as well as the first known photograph of the Nusra Front leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the head of one of the most powerful bands of radicals fighting the Syrian government in the country’s civil war.

The officials said they obtained the information about al-Golani after they captured members of another al-Qaida group in September. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.

“I was told by a soldier that he observed some of the workers of the U.N. and he will kidnap them. I ask God for his success,” read an excerpt of a letter given by officials from Iraq’s Falcon Intelligence Cell, an anti-terrorism unit that works under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The officials said other letters planned the kidnapping and killing of other foreigners, and Syrian and Iraqi civilians.

One U.N. worker was kidnapped for eight months in Syria and was released in October. Another two dozen U.N. peacekeepers were briefly held this year. It’s not clear if those abductions had any relation to al-Golani’s letters. [Continue reading...]


UN envoy says Iran could attend Syria talks

Al Jazeera reports: Whether or not Iran will be among the nations invited to attend Syrian peace talks in Switzerland is still a source of disagreement between the UN and the United States, peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has said.

Speaking at a news conference in Geneva on Friday, Brahimi underlined that Tehran was not completely off the list of those who would attend Geneva 2, despite US objections.

“On Iran, we haven’t agreed yet. It’s no secret that we in the United Nations welcome the participation of Iran, but our partners in the United States are still not convinced that Iran’s participation would be the right thing,” Brahimi told reporters after talks with US and Russian officials.