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.
In response to a “credible threat,” the United States has ordered that all non-essential government personnel leave its consulate in the Pakistani city of Lahore amidst a worldwide alert over al-Qaeda intercepts. A senior State Department official has stated that intelligence indicates that there is currently “credible threat” to the consulate and that all US personnel remaining in Lahore should limit non-essential travel within the country. The move comes as Pakistan’s troubled south-western city of Quetta was hit by a second attack in two days as gunmen shot dead at least nine people outside a mosque on Friday.
Officials in Washington have urged that they have received intelligence of a specific threat to its diplomatic mission in Pakistan’s second-largest city, ordering all non-essential staff to leave. The warning comes just one day after the United States reiterated a travel warning, advising all US citizens to defer non-essential travel to Pakistan. US officials have stated that “we are undertaking the drawdown due to concerns about credible threat information specific to the US Consulate in Lahore,” further noting that “an updated travel warning has also been issued,” adding that “US citizens remaining in Lahore…should limit non-essential travel within the country and be aware of their surroundings whether in their residences or moving about, and make their own contingency emergency plans.” The travel warning also indicates that “the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a potential danger to US citizens throughout Pakistan.”
It currently remains unclear when the consulate in Lahore will open again. The US embassy and consulates in Karachi and Peshawar were closed Friday for the Eid public holiday however they are expected to open again on Monday. Earlier this week, the US closed nineteen other diplomatic missions throughout the Middle East and Africa in response to what it said was a threat of a terrorist attack. The diplomatic outposts are expected to be closed to the public until Saturday. Non-essential personnel were also evacuated from the US embassy in Yemen after US intelligence officials stated that they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaeda’s top leader about plans for a major terror attack. None of the consulates in Pakistan, nor the US embassy in Islamabad, were affected by the earlier closures. Consequently it seems that the most recent evacuation in Lahore was undertaken as a precautionary measure and is not related to the closure of the other diplomatic missions.
Meanwhile authorities in Pakistan have placed the capital city on a state of high alert, with extra precautionary measures being placed on key Pakistan government installations. Britain has also placed travel warnings for Pakistan, however these are for specific locations and do not include Lahore or the capital. The UK Foreign Office has stated that it had yet to decide whether staff would be withdrawn from the British Council Office in Lahore however it did note that it was closely monitoring the current situation, stating that “we keep security measures and travel advice under constant review.”
In Quetta, Pakistan on Friday, worshippers were gunned down as they left prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The month of Ramadan was marred this year by at least eleven attacks which killed some 120 people. The day before, a suicide bomber struck at a police funeral in the city on Thursday, killing thirty eight people in an attack that was claimed by the Taliban.
Interpol has issued a global security alert linked to a suspected al-Qaeda involvement in a string of recent prison outbreaks that have taken place in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The alert comes just days after the United States State Department issued a global travel alert and closed a number of Embassies because of fears of an unspecified al-Qaeda attack.
Citing prison breaks in three countries, Interpol has requested that its members examine whether or not al-Qaeda militants were behind the prison breaks. The police agency is also asking that member countries “swiftly process any information linked to these events.” In a statement that was released on Saturday, the French-based agency stated that “with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the Interpol alert requests the organizations 190 member countries‘ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events re coordinated or linked.” It also calls for Interpol to be informed “if any escaped terrorist is located or intelligence developed which could help prevent another terrorist attack.” The most recent escape occurred in north-west Pakistan, in which 248 prisoners escaped from a jail. On 30 July, Taliban militants used automatic weapons and bombs in order to break down the walls of the jail in Dera Ismail Khan. At least thirteen people, including six police officers, were killed during the attack. Authorities have since indicated that thirty of those who fled were “hardened militants” who were jailed for their involvement in a number of suicide bombings and other serious attacks. Meanwhile on 22 July, hundreds of inmates escaped from two jails in Iraq: Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad; and Taji, located to the north. Bombs and mortar fire were used to break into those two prisons in which al-Qaeda members were amongst those being housed in the facility.
US Extends Embassy Closure
Meanwhile the United States has announced that it will keep a number of embassies in northern Africa and in the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat. After an announcement on Friday pertaining to a possible threat, twenty-one US embassies were closed on Sunday. On Monday, the State Department in Washington indicated that the extension of closures were “out of abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to a new threat. With the State Department announcing that the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack being particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa, the global travel alert will be in force until the end of August. Although US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad remained open on Monday, its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday. African missions including Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are also on the list of closures. The US embassy in Tel Aviv, along with two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa, were also closed on Sunday.
It is evident that security at US diplomatic facilities remains a concern following last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador, along with three other Americans, were killed. Officials in the United Kingdom also announced over the weekend that its embassy in Yemen would remain closed until the Muslim festival of Eid which will occur on Thursday. The UK Foreign Office is also advising against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging British nationals in the country to leave. Several other European countries have also temporarily closed their missions in Yemen.
The embassy closures and US global travel alert came after the US reportedly intercepted al-Qaeda messages suggesting that they were between senior figures within the militant group who were plotting an attack against an embassy. While the details of the threat have remained unspecified, it is evident that those members of Congress who have been briefed on the intelligence, seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years, effectively pointing to the possibility of a major attack which may coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.
In recent years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has attempted to carry out several high profile attacks, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 in which a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives that were sewn into his underwear. Months earlier, the militant group had also attempted to assassinate the Saudi intelligence chief by using a bomb that was attached to the attacker’s body.