MENA UpdateOctober 24, 2013 in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia
UNHRC: Polisario camps becoming a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers
A report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has found that refugee camps run by the separatist Polisario Front near Tindouf, Algeria, may have become a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers in North Africa.
Reports spanning back to 2009 show Polisario involvement in drugs and arms trafficking throughout the Sahel and Sahara; armed incursions in Mali; mercenary work under Gadhafi in Libya; and kidnappings and collaboration with AQIM. According to reports, the Polisario camps in Algeria have become a recruiting ground for AQIM, a hub for Polisario traffickers, and a threat to the region. Analysts are concerned about an “arc of instability” stretching across Africa, linking militants from AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Polisario. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently warned, “inaction could be catastrophic.”
Since 1990, international support for the camps has exceeded $1 billion. The UNHRC report recommends that support for the camps be used for durable solutions to resettle refugees, remove security threats, and improve humanitarian conditions.
Leaked report reveals Bahraini bid to replenish tear gas
A leaked report has revealed that in June, Bahrain’s interior ministry tendered bids for the provision of 1.6 million tear gas projectiles, 90,000 tear gas grenades and 145,000 stun grenades. The bid would replace nearly all of Bahrain’s projectiles used since 2011. The document does not reveal how much money Bahrain is prepared to spend on replenishing its supplies.
Bahraini forces have used tear gas extensively since 2011, as the minority Sunni government struggles faces daily low-level confrontations from a predominantly Shia population. Tear gas is among the most commonly-used methods to disperse protesters. In 2012, the US barred exports of tear gas to Bahrain, citing human rights concerns. Activists claim South Korean companies may be preparing to meet Bahrain’s tear gas requirements. The rise in global activism has spurred sales for non-lethal weapons as governments shift spending from counter terrorism to counter-activist policies.
Bombings in Suez, Sinai; police sent to trial
Two people were killed, and five wounded, when militants set off four roadside bombs targeting a security convoy in the Sinai Peninsula on 22 October. The convoy was travelling from Rafah, on the Gaza border, towards El Arish. The militants then exchanged fire with the security forces and fled. No one has yet claimed responsibility. The same day, militant group Ansar Beit Al Maqdis claimed responsibility for a car bombing on 19 October in Ismailiya that wounded six.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s public prosecutor has sent policemen to trial on charges of manslaughter over the deaths of 37 Islamist prisoners that were tear-gassed in a transport truck in August. The trials will be the first of policemen accused of killings in a massive crackdown of pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters since army’s July 3 removal of president Mohamed Morsi.
Sectarian violence continues
At least 17 people were killed and 20 wounded in bombings and shootings on 22 October, when Iraqi forces clashed with an Al Qaeda militant hideout in the Himreen Mountains. The clashes resulted in the killing of four militants and the capture of seven others, all of whom were wanted for terrorism charges. A helicopter pilot was also wounded by the gunmen during the operation.
Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber blew up an explosive-laden car at the entrance of the home of Waqass Adnan, mayor of the city of Aana, some 250 km west of Baghdad. The blast was followed by a coordinated attack on the guards of the house, in an attempt to break in. In the process, four policemen and the brother of the mayor were killed, and four policemen were wounded. The mayor himself unharmed.
Meanwhile, in separate incidents, another suicide bomber rammed his explosive-packed car into the entrance of Aana police station and blew it up, killing two policemen and wounding three others. Gunmen fired mortars at a police station in Rawa city, west of Baghdad, killing a policeman and wounding seven others; a farmer was killed and his relative wounded when gunmen fired at them near a bridge northeast of Baquba, and a worker in a Sunni mosque was wounded by gunmen who fired at him in front of his house, about 20 km northeast of Baquba.
Sectarian tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Diyala province has increased, resulting in violence and reprisal killings. Sunnis and Shiites accuse each other of supporting extremists and militiamen. Across the nation Iraq is witnessing its worst escalation of violence in recent years, causing analysts to fear that the country is returning to the civil conflict that peaked in 2006 and 2007, when monthly death toll sometimes exceeded 3,000.
Missiles from Syria Target Eastern Lebanon City
On 21 October, four rockets launched from Syria hit Hermel. The source was unable to confirm casualties. Hermel and other border areas of Lebanon have suffered frequent attacks since Syria’s uprising escalated into a civil war, sometimes impacting neighbouring Lebanon.
The eastern Lebanese city is a Hezbollah stronghold. Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian government led by Bashar al Assad, has been openly involved in Syria’s war, sending fighters to support the loyalist army on the battlefield.
Lebanon had been dominated politically and militarily by Syria for 30 years, until 2005. The country is heavily divided on pro and anti Assad lines. As a result, the war in Syria has served to escalate Lebanon’s sectarian and political divisions.
Disabled veterans break into Libyan parliament building
On October 22, several disabled former rebels from the Libyan War broke into the parliament building and vandalised parts of the building. The event occurred on the day before the second anniversary of the rebel victory over Gadhafi forces, days after the dictator was killed in Sirte.
The protesters came from the town of Ajdabiya, between Tripoli and eastern Libya. The city was a major battleground in the 2011 war.
An MP stated, “They got into the Congress chamber and smashed some fittings.” The chamber was empty at the time but the act was decried as a “new assault on a state institution.” The vandalism is the latest in a series of security breaches at the General National Congress building.
In an effort to increase security and gain acceptance from rebel groups, the government has given some militia units varying degrees of official recognition. However, their control over the units is minimal. Analysts are concerned about the interim government’s ability to assert its control over militias and security throughout the country. Former rebels units, some sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, have refused to surrender their arms.
Saudi Arabia announces “major shift” in relationship with United States
On 22 October, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that the kingdom will make a “major shift” in its relations with the United States.
The prince criticised actions and inactions taken by the United States, including failing to act effectively on the Syria crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; growing closer to the government in Tehran; and failing to back Saudi support for the Bahraini government when it crushed an anti-government revolt during the 2011 uprising. As a result, Prince Bandar has stated that he plans to limit interaction with the US, reportedly adding that there would be no further coordination with the United States over the fighting in Syria.
The report is consistent with Saudi Arabia’s reasons for refusal of a seat on the UN Security Council as a rotating member. Though they have not openly broken ties with the US, Saudi leaders have been quietly critical of several recent US actions in the Middle East.
Prince Bandar’s announcement marks a serious setback to the relationship between the two nations; it spotlights that Saudi and US interests are not aligned on several top issues driving instability in the Middle East. In particular, the Saudi’s point to the US shift toward a containment strategy regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and the US goal of driving Assad out while leaving a Baathist government in Damascus. The Saudi’s have vocally stated that both Assad and his government should be replaced. The US treats Syrian issues as separate from Iranian nuclear issues. The Saudis perceive them as inseparable. The differences in these world views are deep, and unlikely to be overcome easily. The change in stance could result in a strong shift in relations between the Middle East and the West.
Snipers targeting heavily pregnant women
Snipers are playing a “targeting game,” and heavily pregnant women are on the target list. David Nott, a British surgeon who volunteers with charity Syria Relief, says that up to 90% of the surgeries he performs daily are for sniper wounds. In the case of pregnant women, “Most of the children removed were seven, eight, nine month’s gestation, which meant it was fairly obvious to anybody that these women were pregnant.” He added that young children are also being targeted, and on some days, the wounds were “suspiciously similar”, with several victims coming in with shots to the same part of the body on the same day. The similarities suggest a game between the snipers.
Knott says he was told by other local doctors that snipers may receive little presents for people they’d shot during the day.
Mourning period announced for downed officers; Transition negotiations continue
In a televised speech on 23 October, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki announced three days of national mourning for eight officers killed by suspected militants in the central Sidi Bouzidi province. The announcement was made on the second anniversary of the country’s first free elections. Members of the National Guard were securing a building in the village of Sidi Ali Bououn after receiving a tip-off that a suspicious group was hiding there. A gun battle ensued, killing both security forces and militants.
Marzouki said the militants were retaliating for attacks on 17 October, when nine suspected militants were killed. Authorities say the militants had carried out an attack on police patrols.
The interior ministry believes that the militants belong to the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia group, who were linked to the murders of prominent left-wing figure Chokri Belaid in February and opposition politician Mohammed Brahmi in July.
Their deaths triggered mass protests against the government, and crippled progress between the ruling party and its opposition. While Ennahda condemned the killings, the opposition accused the leading party of failing to rein in radical Islamists.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh addressed the nation to confirm that the government would resign after talks with the opposition on appointing a caretaker administration were complete. Larayedh stated that Ennahda, the current ruling party in Tunisia, is committed to the “principle of relinquishing power in line with the different phases envisaged in the roadmap”.
Larayedh’s speech came following anti-government protests in Tunis, who demanded that the Islamist-led ruling coalition government leave immediately. Ennahda has been accused of stalling talks in order to maintain power in the government. Both Ennahda and the opposition have set a three weeks deadline to appoint the interim cabinet, and a one month deadline to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and set an election date.
Russia’s Proposition to Syrian Regime Seen as a Stalling TacticSeptember 9, 2013 in Syria
Days after the conclusion of the G20 Summit in Saint Petersburg, where global leaders remained divided on the Syrian crisis, Russia has urged Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control in an attempt to avoid US military strikes. Meanwhile the United States has warned that this recent diplomatic initiative made by Russia may be a form of stalling US air strikes. The announcement of a proposed destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons comes one day after two foreign hostages were freed after being held captive for five months in Syria.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced that an offer to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles was made during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, who welcomed the initiative. During talks that were held in Moscow, Mr. Lavrov stated that he had urged Mr. Muallem to “not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction.” He also indicated that once this plan is approved and completed, Syria should fully join the Chemical Weapons Conventions. In response to the proposal, Mr. Muallem indicated that Syria has welcomed Russia’s initiative and has praised its officials for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people.”
Shortly after Russia’s announcement, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also called for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in internationally supervised safe zones. During a brief meeting with journalists on Monday, Mr. Ban told reporters that he may propose the zones to the UN Security Council if UN inspectors confirm that such banned weapons were in fact used. He further noted that such a decision may also aid the Security Council’s “embarrassing paralysis” over the Syrian crisis. While the UN’s leader has welcomed Russia’s proposal, and has urged Syria to “agree to these proposals,” adding that there would be “very swift action” by the international community to ensure that the stocks are destroyed, he warned that “first and foremost Syria must agree positively to this.” In turn, Mr. Ban stipulated that if UN inspectors confirm the use of sarin gas in an August 21 attack, the Security Council would have no choice but to act.
Currently a UN team, which is led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is working on a report on whether chemical arms, which are banned under international law, were used in the August 21 attack that occurred near Damascus. If the use is confirmed by the team, then according to Mr. Ban, “this would be an abominable crime, and the international community would certainly have to do something about it.” Officials in Britain, France and the United States have already stated that Assad’s forces carried out the attack in which more than 1,400 people died.
Meanwhile the United States on Monday indicated that while it would take a “hard look” at Russia’s plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons, US officials expressed skepticism over the credibility of the initiative. Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stated that “we’ll look at this new development, we’ll take a hard look at it,” cautioning that “clearly we don’t want this as I said, to be another stalling tactic. The Russians for months and years have stood up for the Syrian regime at the UN and in the international community.” In turn, Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor, indicated that despite Russia’s proposal, Washington would not ease pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. During an interview, he stipulated that the US “will just have to follow up with them and with other countries going forward to assess the seriousness of this proposal,” adding that “at the same time, it is going to be very important that we don’t take the pressure off.”
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has also stated that a destruction of the weapons would be a “huge step forward,” however he warned that such a proposition should not be used as a “distraction tactic.”
Assad’s Warning to US
Meanwhile Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad recently gave an interview to US network PBS in which he warned the US against any military intervention, cautioning that the Middle East was “on the bring of explosion,” and that the US would “…pay the price if you’re not wise with dealing with terrorists. There are going to be repercussions.” During the interview, Mr. Assad also stated that the US “should expect everything. The government is not the only player in this region. You have different parties, different factions, different ideologies. You have everything in this decision now.” The Syrian leader however did not specify whether or not his comments were a threat that Syrian backed groups, such as Hezbollah, would launch retaliation attacks, or whether the comments were a warning that such strikes would bolster al-Qaeda-linked groups. He also denied that he was responsible for the chemical weapons attack, adding that there was “no evidence” to hold his government responsible for the 21 August attack.
Hostages Freed From Syria
On Monday, freed Italian journalist Domenico Quirico and Belgian teacher Pierre Piccinin spoke about the “very tough” conditions they lived through while being held hostage for five months in Syria. The two men, who were released on Sunday, stated that during the five-month kidnap ordeal, they had been subjected to violence, humiliation and mock executions. While both men indicated that they had overheard their captors discussing a possible rebel involvement in a poison-gas attack near Damascus, Mr. Quirico stated that they had no way of verifying the information. Although minimal details have emerged in regards to the circumstances of the ordeal, reports indicate that Italy’s secret services had stepped up its efforts in order to secure their freedom ahead of the possible US military strikes.
A gaunt and tired Quirico and a heavily bearded Piccinin were first seen late on Sunday after stepping off an Italian government plane in Rome. They later stated that “we are okay despite the torture suffered,” adding that “there was sometimes real violence…humiliation, bullying mock executions, Domenico faced two mock executions, with a revolver.”
According to a statement made by Mr. Quirico, he and Mr. Piccinin were initially picked up in April by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army who then handed them over to the Abu Ammar brigade. The veteran reporter further noted that “the first days we were blindfolded. There were maybe three groups that handled us…the conditions in which we were held were very tough from the start. We were given food at best once a day.” Although the two men tried to escape twice, once while their captors were at prayer, the were tracked down after two days and “seriously punished.”
Mr. Quirico has also been quoted as casting doubts on claims made by Mr. Piccinin relating to an alleged conversation they overheard about the alleged rebel role in the use of chemical weapons. Mr. Quirico has stated that “from a room where we were being held and through a half-open door one day we overheard a conversation in English via Skype involving three people whose identities I do not know,” further stating that “in the conversation, they were saying that the gas operations in two suburbs of Damascus was carried out by rebels as a provocation to force the West to intervene military.” He has since indicated that he is not able to say whether or not this conversation was based on real facts or on hearsay. In turn, a source close to the Belgian government has indicated that Mr. Piccinin’s comments “engage only him personally.”
Concerns on the part of Italian authorities had mounted as the possibility of US-led air strikes on Syria increased. However in the wake of the release of these two men, media rights watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has stated that thirteen journalists are still missing in Syria. Amongst the kidnapped are two French journalists, Didier Francois and Edouard Elias, and US journalist James Foley. Italy is also still attempting to free another one of its nationals who has been missing in Syria since July. Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for a number of years.
Congress To Vote On Syria Ahead of Russian G20 SummitSeptember 4, 2013 in Russia, Syria, United States
Amidst ongoing debates in the United States pertaining to possible military action against Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned America and its allies against taking one-sided action in Syria. Ahead of the G20 Summit, which is set to begin in Saint Petersburg on Thursday, the Russian President also indicated that he would not exclude Russia from agreeing to a possible US-led military strike on Syria, as long as it was proven that Syria’s regime had carried out the August 21 attack. While the G20 summit is suppose to concentrate on the global economy, it is highly likely that the Syrian crisis will dominate the discussions amongst global leaders.
Speaking during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press and Russia’s state Channel 1 television, Putin’s remarks come just one day after members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on a draft resolution backing the use of US military force. According to the draft resolution, the operation would be restricted to a “limited and tailored use of the United States Armed Forces against Syria,” and ban the use of any ground forces. The measure, which will be voted on next week, sets a time limit of sixty days on any operation.
While US President Barack Obama has called for punitive action in response to an alleged chemical attack that was carried out on the outskirts of Damascus on 21 August, President Putin stated on Wednesday that any military strikes without the approval of the United Nations would be a form of “an agreession.” The Russian President further noted that while his country had not ruled out supporting a UN Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of force, it would have to be proved “beyond doubt” that the Syrian goverment used chemical weapons before such a mission would be launched. In relation to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, Putin noted that it was “ludicrous” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia, would use chemical weapons at a time when it was gaining ground against the rebels. However the Russian President did specify that “if there is evidence that chemical weapons were used, and by the regular army…then this evidence must be presented to the UN Security Council. And it must be convincing,” adding that Russia would “be ready to act in the most decisive and serious way” if there was clear proof of what weapons were used and who used them but that at the moment, it is “too early” to discuss what Russia would do if America took action without a UN resolution. During the interview, Putin also confirmed that Russia has currently suspended delivering further components of S-300 air defence missile systems to Syria, adding that “if we see steps are taken that violate the existing international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world.
Ahead of next week’s vote in Congress, on whether to back President Obama’s push for military strikes in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in order to promote the Obama administration’s case. During his discussions, Kerry indicated that there was evidence “beyond any reasonable doubt” that the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime prepared for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. He further indicated to senators that while the President was not requesting that America go to war, “he is asking only for the power to make clear, to make certain, that the United States means what we say.” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and top US military officers Gen. Martin Dempsey also appeared before the Senate panel. While a number of high profile officials, including Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger support Obama’s call for military action in Syria, the latest opinion polls in the US indicate that public opposition with respect to US involvement in the conflict is growing, with six out of ten Americans opposed to missile strikes.
Internationally, France, which is due to debate the issue on Wednesday in Parliament, has also strongly back the US plan for military action. On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande stated that “when a chemical massacre takes place, when the world is informed of it, when the evidence is delivered, when the guilty parties are known, then there must be an answer.” While Hollande is under no obligation to obtain parliamentary approval for action, with public opinion deeply sceptical of military strikes, many lawmakers have called for a vote on the matter. While UK Prime Minister David Cameron had also backed the military action, the British parliament had voted against a resolution on military action. With the UK against the military action, the US is seeking other allies.
While the world debates possible military action in Syria, the conflict, which began in March 2011, has resulted in more than 100,000 people thought to have died since the uprising aginast President Assad. On Tuesday, the UN refugee agency indicated that more than two million Syrians were now registered as refugees, indicating that a further 4.25 million have been displaced within the country.
Russia – US Relations
After returning to the Kremlin for a third term as president last year, relations between Russia and the US have dramatically deteriorated as the two nations have disagreed over a number of issues which have included the Syrian crisis and human rights. Tensions peaked this summer after Moscow gave asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, which prompted President Obama to cancel his planned bilateral visit to Moscow ahead of the G20 summit. While Putin did admit that he was disappointed by Obama’s decision, he did note that the move was not a “catastrophe” and that he understood that some of Moscow’s decisions did not sit well within the US administration.
Although no official bilateral meeting is planned to take place between Obama and Putin at the G20 Summit, a White House official indicated on Wednesday that the two presidents are expected “to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G20.”
UK Votes No; US and France Still Pushing For Military Campaign Against Assad’s RegimeAugust 30, 2013 in Uncategorized
In a stunning defeat for British Prime Minister David Cameron, British lawmakers voted late on Thursday against military action in Syria. Despite the surprise vote outcome, US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Holland announced that the UK vote did not change their resolve for firm action against the Syrian Government, which has been accused of using chemical weapons on its own people. Despite reports earlier in the week suggesting that a Western strike on Syria was imminent, questions have been raised about the quality of the intelligence linking Assad to the attack.
Despite Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) releasing evidence on Thursday stating that chemical weapons had undoubtedly been used on August 21, adding that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack, late Thursday night the UK government was defeated in its bid for a “strong humanitarian response” to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The UK government was defeated by just thirteen votes in a 285-272 result in the House of Commons. Minutes laters, Prime Minister Cameron told lawmakers that “it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action…I get that, and the government will act accordingly.” Shortly after the surprise result, British Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond confirmed that Britain would not be involved in any military action, further noting that he expected “that the US and other countries will continue to look at responses to the chemical attack.”
According to reports, seven hours of debates in the House of Commons had revealed deep divisions on whether military strikes against Assad’s regime would deter the further use of chemical weapons or simply worsen the conflict. Sources also indicate that the specter of the Iraq war also came up a number of times during the debate. Although the Prime Minister had made the case for targeted strikes, insisting that Britain could not stand idle in the face of “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century,” he was faced with strong resistance from the opposition Labour party and by many within his own Conservative party, who expressed fear that Britain was rushing to war without conclusive evidence that Assad had gassed his own people. Russia, which has close ties with the Assad government, has welcomed the UK’s decision to reject a military strike.
US and France May Act Together
Cameron’s defeat significantly raises the possibility that the United States may act alone against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which it states is responsible for horrific gas attacks that are believed to have killed at least 355 people in the Ghoua area, which is located on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus. However even before the surprise British vote, the White House had already signaled that it was ready to act regardless of UN or allied support.
In response to yesterday’s UK vote, US National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden stated that “we have seen the result of the Parliament vote in the UK tonight,” adding that “as we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States…he believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.” The White House did indicate however that despite the UK vote, officials in the US would “continue to consult” with the UK over Syria, describing London as “one of our closest allies and friends.”
While no further comments in regards to a decision on military action against Syria were made by the Obama administration, a defense official confirmed on Thursday that the United States Navy had deployed a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean. According to the official, the USS Stout, a guided missile destroyer, is “in the Mediterranean, heading and moving east” to relieve the Mahan. Although he did specify that both ships may remain in the region for the time being, he did not indicate how long the Mahan would stay in the area before returning to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, which it left in December 2012. The other destroyers in the region, which include the Ramage, the Barry and the Gravely, are currently criss-crossing the region and may launch their Tomahawk missiles towards Syria if directed so by the US President. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is currently on a week-long trip to Southeast Asia, has stated that US forces are in place and “ready to go” if Obama hives the order, however he stipulated that no such decision has yet been made.
Meanwhile on Friday, French President Francois Hollande announced that a military strike on Syria could come by Wednesday, and that Britain’s surprise rejection of armed intervention would not affect his government’s stand on the issue. In an interview to Le Monde daily on Friday, Hollalde stated that “France wants firm and proportionate action against the Damascus regime.” The French Parliament is due to meet on Wednesday for an emergency Syria session. The President’s remarks signal that his government may seek military action alongside the US.
Bashar al-Assad Responds
With Western states and the United Nations debating possible military action against Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Thursday that his country will defend itself against what he called Western “aggression.” According to Syria’s Sana news agency, Assad told a group of Yemeni MP’s that his country would defend itself against any aggression, noting that “Syria, with its steadfast people and brave army, will continue eliminating terrorists, which are utilized by Israel and Western countries to serve their interests in fragmenting the region.”
Meanwhile the situation in Damascus remains tense. Reports have indicated that senior military commanders are reportedly staying away from buildings thought likely to be targeted if a Western intervention is launched. Furthermore, many of Damascus’ residents have begun to flee the city in fear of an impending attack. Although witnesses have reported long lines of cars loaded with suitcases that have been waiting at the main Masnaa border that crosses into Lebanon, Syria’s state television is portraying citizens as going about their normal lives, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of military strikes. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011, which has also produced at least 1.7 million refugees.
UN at a Deadlock
The United Nations continued to be deadlocked in regards to the case in Syria, with diplomats indicating that the views of the five permanent members remain “far apart.” On Thursday, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council held new talks on the Syria chemical weapons crisis, however no apparent progress on UN action was achieved. According to officials, the 45-minute meeting is the second to occur since Britain proposed a draft Security Council Resolution that would allow “all necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians. After concluding the meeting, none of the envoys from Britain, China, France, Russia or the US made any comments as they left. However diplomats have noted that there had been “no meeting of minds,” during the session as Russia and China are on one side while the US, UK and France remain on the other.
Meanwhile UN Inspectors headed out on Friday for their last day of investigations. Security officials have indicated that they were going to a military hospital in an eastern district of the Syrian capital. Samples taken during their site visits will be tested in various European laboratories in order to examine whether an attack took place and what form it took, however the inspectors‘ mandate does not involve apportioning blame for the attacks. Preliminary findings are expected to be delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend.
Shadow of Iraq
With the US mounting its power in the region, a number of critics have sparked a debate about whether or not the conflict in Syria could turn into another Iraq if a decision to launch military action is agreed upon.
As the US and France now look to find a diplomatic consensus on the issue without the UK, a number of critics have identified elements that echo those that occurred in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. With a number of components being present in both cases, specifically the work of weapons inspectors; the intelligence gathered to make the case; and denials from the regime at the centre of the issue; Iraq is very much on the minds of those international officials who have expressed level-headed caution over Syria.
With UN inspectors still in Syria conducting an investigation, Britain’s case for military intervention in Syria is based on a “limited but growing body of intelligence,” which suggests that it is “highly likely” that the Syrian regime was responsible for last week’s devastating chemical weapons attack. An intelligence dossier that was released by the Prime Minister, which was used by Cameron to form the basis for the case to attack Syria, depicts the JIC indicating that the chemical attack was “probably” delegated by Assad to one of his commanders, however the JIC was unable to establish the motive behind last week’s attack. In a letter written by JIC chairman Jon Day to the Prime Minister, the chairman concluded that there are “no plausible alternative scenarios” other than the attack being an attack of the Syrian regime. The two-page letter was accompanied by a short summary of the intelligence case, which runs to just 313 words. The summary is also dated as the “JIC’s assessment of August 27 on reported chemical weapons use in Damascus,” however it is not known why later intelligence, if it exists, was not included in the document.
With the JIC’s findings being debated in yesterday’s House of Commons’ session, remarks made by David Davis, a former shadow home secretary, depict that British MP’s are hesitant to base their decision for military action in Syria solely on the intelligence that is available. During yesterday’s debates, Davis stated that “we must consider, being where we’ve been before in this House, that our intelligence as it stands might be wrong because it was before and we have got to be very, very hard in testing it.” Echoing the weeks of debates in the lead up to the 2003 war in Iraq, it is clear the officials in the UK and elsewhere are willing to wait for more intelligence and the UN inspectors findings before making any other decisions.
Meanwhile officials in the US have also admitted that they have “no smoking gun” proving that President Assad personally ordered his forces to use chemical weapons. While US intelligence sources indicated yesterday that its agencies had intercepted communications discussing the chemical attack between officials in Syria’s central command and in the field, it is understood that these remarks do not clearly implicate Assad or his entourage in ordering the use of chemicals.
MENA UpdateAugust 29, 2013 in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen
Arab League to Pass Resolution on Syrian Chemical Weapons
Arab League ministers will meet in Cairo next week (September 2-3), and are expected to pass a resolution which blames Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the wide-scale chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week. A representative of the League said, “The Arab foreign ministers will affirm the full responsibility of the Syrian regime for the chemical weapons’ attack that took place in Eastern Ghouta.” The representative also indicated that the League will ask for those responsible for the attack to be taken to the International Criminal Court. The Arab League is expected to call for the UN to adopt tougher sanctions on Syria, and to urge Russia and China not to block resolutions which propose action against Assad.
Permanent representatives within the Arab League have already placed responsibility for the attack on the Assad regime. The announcements provided regional political cover in the event of a U.S.-led military strike on Syria.
Supporters of the resolution are expected to include Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which both back anti-Assad rebels in Syria’s civil war. Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria are likely to oppose or abstain from any vote which condemns Syria. Syria has been suspended from the Arab League since November 2011.
Three Algerian troops killed in bombing
Three members of the Algerian army were killed and four injured following a bomb explosion in the Beni Milleuk Mountains in Tipaza Province. This marks the second attack in six weeks; in mid-July, four soldiers were killed after two bombs detonated in western Tipaza.
The Algerian military has been searching the region connecting Ain Defla and Tipaza provinces after receiving reports of terrorist activities in the area. Sources indicated that a terrorist group had planted a mine on a road that the army vehicles were using.
Egyptian Authorities Detain Families of Muslim Brotherhood Leaders
Within 24 hours, Egyptian authorities detained over 60 people who were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), including relatives of the group’s leaders. Police have arrested the son of MB deputy Khairat el-Shater. The elder el-Shater was arrested on charges related to the killings of protesters outside the group’s headquarters in June. According to officials, el-Shater’s son, Saad, was reportedly arrested for threatening to release documents allegedly showing ties between his father and U.S. President Barack Obama. In addition, the brother-in-law of fugitive Brotherhood figurehead Mohammed el-Beltagy also was arrested. He was charged with violent protests aimed at toppling the interim government.
The crackdown on the Brotherhood intensified following the clearing of pro-Morsi protesters at Raba’a mosque in Cairo. In the ensuing unrest, over 1,000 people, including more than 100 officers were killed within a few days. As protesters turned violent, they were in turn met by neighbourhood watch groups. Authorities and local media have called the actions of the Brotherhood and their supporters “acts of terrorism.” Many among the arrested have been charged with inciting violence. While many of the MBs senior and mid-level leaders have been arrested, still others remain in hiding while encouraging protestors to ignore the protests and continue to rally against the removal of former president Morsi.
Many Egyptians suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood and its political allies could be barred from politics, forced underground once again as under the Mubarak regime. However, Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has said dissolving the group is not a solution, and urged against making dramatic decisions during turbulent times. Beblawi instead opts to monitor political parties rather than forcing them to operate covertly.
Meanwhile, interim president Adly Mansour issued a decree changing the nation’s military oath, removing a line that makes soldiers pledge allegiance to the presidency. Soldiers are now only required to pledge loyalty to their leadership and the country.
The security clampdown appears to have weakened the Brotherhood-led protests, which have been much smaller across the country this past week. There are planned protests Friday and calls for civil disobedience.
Coordinated bombings kill 65
A wave of bombings in the predominantly Shiite Muslim areas in and around Baghdad has killed at least 65 people and wounded many more. The blasts came in quick succession and targeted residents who were out shopping or on their way to work.
Unknown attackers deployed explosives-laden cars, suicide bombers and other bombs. They assailants struck parking lots, outdoor markets, and restaurants. In Kazimiyah, two bombs detonated in a parking lot, followed by a suicide car bomber who struck onlookers who had gathered at the scene. Ten people were killed and 27 wounded in that attack.
Car bombs went off in outdoor markets across the region. In Sadr City a car bomb was detonated, killing 5 and wounding 20. In Shula, a car bomb killed three and wounded nine; in Jisr Diyala a bomb killed eight and wounded 22; and one in New Baghdad area, killing three and wounding 12. Blasts in Bayaa, Jamila, Hurriyah and Saydiyah, resulted in 12 deaths. In Mahmoudiyah a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a restaurant, killing four and wounding 13. Finally, in Madain, a roadside bomb struck a passing military patrol, killing four soldiers and wounding six others.
In addition, seven Shiite family members killed when gunmen raided their home and shot them as they slept. Three children, ages eight to twelve, were killed along with their parents and two uncles in that attack.
It is suspected that the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda is responsible. Over 500 people have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of August.
Gadhafi Son and Chief Spy Charged
Moammar Gadhafi’s, son Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, and former Gadhafi-regime Intelligence Chief Abdullah al-Senoussi have been charged with murder in relation to the country’s 2011 civil war. The trial will start on September 19 and will also include 28 former regime members who will face charges ranging from murder, forming armed groups in violation of the law, inciting rape and kidnappings.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Seif al-Islam Gadhafi with murder and persecution of civilians. If convicted in that court, Seif al-Islam could face life imprisonment. This summer, ICC judges had ruled that Libya cannot give Seif al-Islam a fair trial. However he remains held in captivity by a militia group that has refused to turn him over to the Hague. Seif al-Islam was as he attempted to flee to Niger.
In Libya, he will be tried on charges of harming state security, attempting to escape prison and insulting Libya’s new flag. Seif al-Islam wants to be tried for alleged war crimes in the Netherlands, as the ICC does not issue a death sentence. He claims that a Libyan trial would be tantamount to murder. The remaining Gadhafi family, including his mother, sister, two brothers and others, were granted asylum in Oman in 2012.
AQ Offshoot Threatens Revenge Over Chemical Weapons Attack
An al-Qaeda affiliate, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has announced plans to coordinate with other Syrian rebel groups to take revenge for the chemical weapons attack last week outside of Damascus.
The ISIL released a statement on Twitter that was signed by seven other militant groups. The signatories all have operations in Eastern Ghouta, where the attacks occurred. The statement indicates that the organizations have agreed to conduct joint operations after a meeting called for by the ISIL “for all the jihadi factions in Eastern Ghouta.”
The operation, dubbed “Volcano of Revenge,” will target “the main joints of the regime in imprisoned Damascus, including security branches, support and supply points, training centres, and infrastructure.”
The groups that signed the statement include:
- Ahrar al Sham Islamic Movement (Independent group)
- Ahrar Dimashq Battalion, or Muhajireen Army (AQ linked)
- Abu Dhar al Ghafari Brigade, (ISIL unit)
- Al Habib Al Mustafa Brigades (FSA unit)
- Al Furqan Brigade (FSA unit)
- Umm al Qura Battalion (presumed independent)
- Deraa al-‘Asima Brigade (Lebanon Capital Shield Brigade)
The statement was released as US officials deliberate plans to conduct strikes against the Syrian government, ironically putting them on the same side as the ISIL.
Yemen police foil potential terrorist attack
Police in Yemen have stopped an attempt to smuggle explosive materials through Sana’a airport, confiscating a package of explosives disguised as juice and soft drink. More details on the date of confiscation or the sender’s identity were not available.
Khalid Al Shaif, deputy director of the airport, has told reporters that airport police have previously aborted many bids to smuggle weapons, chemicals, and explosive materials, using tactics which include honey bottles or dismantling weapons and wrapping them with tin.