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History > 2012 > USA > International (V)




The mother of Usame Mircan,

who was allegedly killed by a Syrian government sniper,

mourns over his body with family and friends

in Aleppo on July 25, 2012.



Bulent Kilic/AFP/GettyImages


Boston Globe > Big Picture > Battle for Aleppo intensifies Syrian conflict

30 July 2012















Syrian Jets Pound Rebel Positions

as Opposition Presses for No-Fly Zone


August 12, 2012
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian jets fired on areas in and around Aleppo again on Sunday, continuing an escalation of force that has led activists and rebels to demand that foreign forces establish a no-fly zone to counter the government’s air superiority.

Over the weekend, the United States and Turkey discussed a variety of measures to aid the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, including a no-fly zone, though no decisions were reached.

While the fighting raged in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the Syrian authorities on Sunday reported two bomb attacks in Damascus, the capital.

The bombings occurred in the Marjeh district of Damascus, suggesting the rebels were still active in the capital and were increasingly turning to explosives in their evolving guerrilla campaign. Last week, a bomb tore through Syria’s state television headquarters; a month ago, an explosion killed four senior military and intelligence officials.

No one was wounded in the attacks on Sunday, Syria’s state news agency said. The first blast was set off remotely as soldiers passed by in a vehicle. The device was hidden under a tree about 100 yards from the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, The Associated Press reported.

The second blast went off around the same time near a soccer stadium half a mile away. Both explosions were followed by gunfire “to provoke panic,” the authorities said.

Also on Sunday, Al Arabiya, an Arabic news channel, reported that a journalist working with it was killed on Saturday by a bomb in a suburb north of Damascus. The journalist, Bara’a Yusuf al-Bushi, was a defector from the Syrian Army who worked with several international news organizations. Syria’s state news agency said Sunday that one of its journalists had also been killed, a day after reporting that, in a separate episode, rebels had kidnapped the members of one of its television news crews.

The weekend’s events highlighted the risks that journalists in Syria face as the government tries to limit access and as the rebels and Mr. Assad’s government put a premium on propaganda. Over the course of the war, there have often been conflicting accounts of events, most of them difficult to verify independently.

This year, the Committee to Protect Journalists identified Syria as the third “most censored” country in the world, just behind North Korea.

More recently, the number of foreign reporters entering the country has increased, and news agencies like Reuters have found ways to establish what seems to be a full-time local presence. But as that presence has expanded, so have the risks. Several reporters moving in and out of Aleppo have recently described close calls as the Syrian military has shelled the city and, lately, attacked it with fighter jets.

Opposition leaders said Sunday that despite reports that their fighters were running low on arms and ammunition, they would continue to fight. Clashes erupted in several areas in and around Aleppo on Sunday, with attacks from fighter jets, as the war for the city edged into its third week.

There were also skirmishes and shelling in Damascus, activists said, where fighting has also intensified in the past few days.

And in a video released on Sunday, one of the rebel brigades in the capital said that Syrian troops had launched two attacks in an effort to free dozens of Iranians kidnapped by the brigade last week. Iran says the captives are pilgrims who were in Damascus to visit a Shiite shrine, but the rebels say their hostages (45 are left after three were killed by shelling) are Iranian agents.

In the video, the brigade’s commander said that the government would have to end its siege of rebel-controlled areas before the opposition would negotiate over the release of the captives.

The Arab League postponed a meeting on Syria scheduled for Sunday. An official told Reuters that it had to be rescheduled because Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, required surgery.


Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Antakya, Turkey.

    Syrian Jets Pound Rebel Positions as Opposition Presses for No-Fly Zone, NYT, 12.8.2012,






U.S. Accuses Hezbollah

of Aiding Syria’s Crackdown


August 10, 2012
The New York Times


The United States accused the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Friday of deep involvement in the Syrian government’s violent campaign to crush the uprising there, asserting that Hezbollah has trained and advised government forces inside Syria and has helped to expel opposition fighters from areas within the country.

The American accusations, which were contained in coordinated announcements by the Treasury and State Departments announcing new sanctions against Syria, also accused Hezbollah of assisting operatives of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force in training Syrian forces inside Syria. A Treasury statement said the Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, had overseen those activities, which it called part of the Syria government’s “increasingly ruthless efforts to fight against the opposition.”

The accusations, which went beyond previous American charges about Hezbollah support for Syria’s government, seemed intended to counter critics of the Obama administration who say that the White House is not doing enough to support the Syrian opposition now that diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict are paralyzed.

Some Hezbollah experts expressed considerable skepticism, however, saying that the accusations should be approached with caution unless more evidence was presented.

The accusations were also part of an effort to further draw attention to the Hezbollah-Iran alliance, which American and Israeli intelligence officials have sought to portray as a subversive collaboration that has not only destabilized the Middle East but has been implicated in terrorist violence elsewhere, including a deadly bus bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last month.

In a related announcement, the State Department said the United States had blacklisted Sytrol, a state-owned Syrian oil company, accusing it of bartering gasoline with Iran in violation of American sanctions over the disputed Iranian nuclear program. The announcement said the United States “remains deeply concerned about the close ties shared by the Iranian and Syrian regimes and is committed to using every tool available to prevent regional destabilization.”

The accusations were made a few days after Iran’s top national security official, Saeed Jalili, visited Syria and assured its embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah were an unbreakable axis of resistance to Israel and its Western allies, reinforcing Syria’s evolving role as the arena of a proxy war pitting Iran and its friends against the West.

American officials would not provide evidence for the new accusations against Hezbollah and avoided specifying whether its operatives were engaged in combat inside Syria, as some anti-Assad fighters have asserted. But the accusations appeared to open a new avenue of American pressure on Syria’s government and to be a way to embarrass Mr. Nasrallah, a powerful figure whose unwavering public support for Mr. Assad has created political strains in his home base of Lebanon.

Many Lebanese support the uprising against Mr. Assad and his ruling Alawite minority, and thousands of Syrian refugees from Mr. Assad’s crackdown have fled to Lebanon.

“Hezbollah is actively providing support to the Assad regime as it carries out its bloody campaign against the Syrian people,” David. S. Cohen, the Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, told reporters in a telephone conference call. He said the designation of Hezbollah in a Treasury Department sanction makes “clear to parties around the world — both domestically and internationally — the true nature of Hezbollah’s activities.”

The State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, who also participated in the call, said, “Hezbollah’s actions in Syria underscore its fears of a Syria without the Assad regime and the impact that this would have on the group’s capabilities and its strength over the long term.”

Despite repeated questioning, neither official would provide details to support the accusations, or specific evidence of how they had reached their conclusions. “This is not a matter of idle speculation or press reports,” Mr. Benjamin said. “This is based on a great deal of information-gathering that we have done and we’ve synthesized and we’ve put it together in an authoritative document, and we believe that it will be taken seriously by many around the world.”

An American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah was using “its specialized skill set and understanding of insurgencies” to aid Syria. “The group’s deep familiarity with the Syrian landscape makes it a nimble and effective military partner,” the official said. “Even though at current levels its assistance probably won’t change the outcome of the conflict, it’s prolonging the fight and contributing to the deaths of innocent civilians.”

Both Hezbollah and Iran have repeatedly denied that they have aided Mr. Assad’s military. They have supported his contention that the uprising against him is led by terrorist groups armed by Sunni Arab monarchies, Israel and the United States.

Nonetheless, Mr. Nasrallah has made no secret of his support for Mr. Assad, extolling his leadership after the assassination of top presidential aides in a Damascus bombing carried out by insurgents last month. “These martyr leaders were comrades in arms in the conflict with the Israeli enemy,” he said.

Hezbollah has long been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel. But Hezbollah also is an important political party and a welfare organization in Lebanon, with a long history of helping the country’s Shiite Muslim and Palestinian populations.

Matthew Levitt, director of the program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that while broad accusations of Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian conflict were not new, the Treasury statement ratcheted up the pressure because the United States government was stating them as fact and adding that Mr. Nasrallah was personally overseeing the assistance. He said the statement appeared to be an attempt to embarrass Hezbollah and Iran politically, rather than to exact a practical toll through sanctions.

“The sanction effect of this is minimal,” he said. “This is a name-and-shame exposé type of an action.”

Other scholars of Middle East politics questioned the accuracy of the accusations against Hezbollah, saying it probably is giving Mr. Assad only limited military help. They note that while Hezbollah has a strategic interest in protecting Mr. Assad, it is also a savvy political operator that may need to hedge its bets if Mr. Assad is deposed and replaced by a Sunni-led government. They also said Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon depended partly on maintaining a Lebanese nationalist image rather than a sectarian Shiite one.

“There’s not a lot of meat in it,” Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said of the Treasury sanction. “My reading — and I’m sure this isn’t a popular reading in Washington in some quarters — is that Hezbollah has been taking a very low-key approach to the Syrian crisis precisely because they have such high domestic stakes in Lebanon.”

Others said they needed to see more facts behind the American charges. Yezid Sayigh, a scholar of Arab militaries and a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the accusations may be based on “an extremely specific and narrow form of assistance, while giving the impression that Hezbollah is involved in giving a much wider range of assistance.”

In Syria, the focus of the conflict continued on Friday to be the siege of Aleppo, the largest city, where insurgents have been battling government forces backed by jets, helicopters, artillery and tanks, and have retreated from some neighborhoods. Rebel commanders have complained in recent days of ammunition shortages, and some have criticized Western countries for not moving more aggressively to help them.

Britain, however, seemed to move a step closer to aid the rebel side. Foreign Secretary William Hague said the British government would establish official contacts with insurgents inside Syria and expand its nonlethal aid to groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.


Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington, Damien Cave from Istanbul,

and John F. Burns from London.

    U.S. Accuses Hezbollah of Aiding Syria’s Crackdown, NYT, 10.8.2012,






President Morsi’s First Crisis


August 10, 2012
The New York Times


Mohamed Morsi was forced to respond quickly to his first security crisis as Egypt’s first freely elected president. After 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula last Sunday, he dispatched troops to secure the border, moved to assert control of his security leadership team and avoided conflict with Israel. It was a challenging beginning for an inexperienced leader who had been in office less than two months.

The crisis, of course, is far from over. Militants have operated in the largely lawless Sinai for years, but the region grew increasingly unstable after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. Security and police forces retreated from the region, giving Bedouin criminals, Palestinian militants from neighboring Gaza and other militants wider rein.

Finally, violence exploded at the northern border, the nexus of Israel, Egypt and Gaza. Failure to prevent continued lawlessness would compound an already fragile situation and could conceivably unravel the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Much of what is happening is subject to speculation. On Wednesday, Egypt reportedly sent hundreds of troops and armored vehicles into the Sinai, while airstrikes by the military hit several targets. But it was not clear whether reports in the Egyptian news media that about 20 militants had been killed and nine others captured were factual or embellished to give the impression of a successful crackdown.

Similarly, the identity of the attackers who killed the soldiers as they were breaking their Ramadan fast has not been firmly established. Israel, among others, suspects the involvement of Al Qaeda-inspired militants with ties to Palestinians in Gaza. Egyptian leaders need to investigate thoroughly and be as transparent as possible about what they find and about the kinds of military operations they are carrying out.

On Wednesday, Mr. Morsi fired his intelligence chief, the top military police officer and the governor of North Sinai — a stunning purge of officials who had been seen as tied to the old order and/or blamed for security lapses that contributed to the deaths of the soldiers. But, again, it was not clear whether Mr. Morsi acted unilaterally or whether the shake-up was part of a deal with the generals — with whom he has been engaged in a power struggle — so both sides could avoid blame. Whatever the truth, Mr. Morsi is going to have to consider even broader reforms in his security service.

If Palestinian militants from Gaza were responsible for the attack, it would be a particular affront to Mr. Morsi, an Islamist. His party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is allied with Hamas, which rules Gaza, and he has made a special effort to work with leaders there. This relationship also makes his decision to shut down the tunnels used to smuggle food, household goods, weapons and militants themselves between the Sinai and Gaza, which is under Israeli blockade, so sensitive.

Israel has long viewed these tunnels as a threat. It is unclear how many of them Mr. Morsi intends to shut or for how long. He will be under heavy pressure from Hamas to keep them open because they are a vital link for consumer goods needed by Gaza citizens. Either way, a longer-term solution for Gaza is required.

Perhaps the most remarkable development, at this early stage, is the apparent lack of friction with Israel, which has not objected to Egypt’s ground-force buildup or the air missions, despite the fact that the Sinai was largely demilitarized by the 1979 peace treaty. Now that it is in power, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a long history of antipathy toward Israel, may begin to appreciate the value of investing in mutual security.

Mr. Morsi and his government will have an even harder time dealing with Egypt’s many problems — including rebuilding a shattered economy and creating jobs — if it has to deal simultaneously with growing militancy in the Sinai. Egypt and Israel could be forced to finally figure out how to work together to confront extremism and improve border security.

    President Morsi’s First Crisis, NYT, 10.8.2012,






Crime Wave Engulfs Syria

as Its Cities Reel From War


August 9, 2012
The New York Times


ALEPPO, Syria — The consequences of the war here have become familiar: neighborhoods shelled, civilians killed and refugees departed. But in the background, many Syrians describe something else that has them cowering with fear: a wave of lawlessness not unlike the crime wave Iraq experienced during the conflict there.

From Dara’a, near the Jordanian border, to Homs, Damascus and here in Syria’s commercial capital — the fighting has essentially collapsed much of the civilian state. Even in neighborhoods where skirmishes are rare, residents say thieves prey on the weak, and police stations no longer function because the officers have fled.

Kidnapping, rare before, is now rampant, as a man named Hur discovered here last month. He simply wanted to drive home. The man shoving a pistol into his back had other plans. “Keep walking,” the gunman told Hur, 40, a successful businessman, as they approached his car. “Get in.”

Hur said he initially thought he was being arrested by government agents. But then, after blindfolding him, his three captors made a phone call that revealed baser motives.

“They asked my family to ransom me with 15 million Syrian pounds,” Hur said of the abductors’ demand for about $200,000. “They were criminals, not a political group. They told me they knew me and they knew my family could pay.”

Rebel leaders have been trying to fill the void. “We are running patrols to protect our areas from thieves and criminals,” said Abu Mohammad, 30, a rebel fighter in eastern Aleppo.

But as bloody ground battles rage throughout the city, rebel control is limited. Syrians in Aleppo and elsewhere now say they bury their jewelry and other valuables inside their furniture. Some people no longer keep money in their pockets when they venture outside; residents and business owners across the country are padlocking their property to protect against armed opportunists mingling with combatants.

“No one wants to leave their houses, because you never know who is going to stop you or attack you,” said Yasmin, 50, a resident of Aleppo who was too afraid to give her last name. “Chaos, lawlessness, fear, it is just so chaotic, and with all the thugs in the streets, you never know who might kidnap you and ask for a ransom.”

Aleppo’s slide toward something resembling anarchy began months ago. Factory owners here in the country’s industrial capital said the roads outside the city went first, as armed bandits seized whatever they wanted from passing vehicles. One of Syria’s main automobile exporters recently told a Lebanese friend that he had to start sending vehicles to Iraq by boat from Lebanon because of the insecurity.

Then more reports of kidnappings started surfacing. By the end of March, as the government claimed to have retaken control of nearby cities, ransom demands were a daily occurrence in Aleppo, said Amal Hanano, a Syrian writer and analyst living in the United States. Usually, she said, the kidnappers asked for around $75,000 and then dropped their price to a fifth of that after tough negotiations.

Hur, using a nickname out of fear that he could be targeted again, said that his brother talked his kidnappers down to about $30,000 in Syrian pounds. It took a week. He said he spent most of the time tied to a water pipe in the back of a small store somewhere outside Aleppo.

His kidnappers made sure he had enough food and water. They took his cellphone, his watch and a gold ring but they left his car near the city, to establish their credibility. “They told my family where to find the car and the keys to prove that I was with them,” said Hur, indicating that they had probably kidnapped before.

In addition to gaining more expertise as the conflict drags on, criminals are also becoming more brazen. Yasmin said that a few days ago her cousin, a 65-year-old man, was robbed in his garden at 1:30 in the afternoon. His family watched helplessly as the thieves stole all he had, about $70. Now her brother, who lives across the street, makes sure his pockets are empty before he leaves home.

“We’ve all become a lot more careful since that incident,” Yasmin said. “Can you imagine? It’s not even safe to carry $70.”

Many Syrians blame the government of President Bashar al-Assad for allowing the crime to happen, or even encouraging it. Ms. Hanano, along with many activists, say the crime waves afflicting Syrian cities began over the past year when the unrest led to a guerrilla war. The battles themselves led to mass flight and empty streets, making it easier to crack open a store like a piñata.

It was Iraq, circa 2003, in miniature: in areas where decades of suppressive government have suddenly been lifted, looting, violence and sectarianism have begun to thrive.

But the lawlessness may be more systemic. For years, the Assad government relied for control on private militias called shabiha that were paid by the government or by its wealthy supporters. With the government stretched financially and many businessmen fleeing or switching sides, those payments appear to have stopped, Ms. Hanano and others said, leading many militia members to pay themselves however they can, often with violence as a byproduct.

One human rights group, Women Under Siege, said it had documented nearly 100 cases of rape in Syria since the conflict started, with many of them involving several men believed to be members of pro-government militias.

The shabiha’s behavior, some activists said, contributes to the kind of rage that led rebels to summarily execute several people suspected of being shabiha members in a video from Aleppo that emerged last week.

But the shabiha are hardly the only problem. Rebel commanders have said that there are “daylight robberies” in the bread lines of the bakeries that they control, with thieves grabbing more than their allotted loaves to sell for a premium on the black market.

Rebel fighters have also been seen stealing cars and destroying a restaurant in Aleppo where Syrian soldiers have sometimes eaten. Some residents of Aleppo who say they care about peace and distrust both sides in the conflict said that both rebels and government militias — or their sympathizers — were targeting anyone they thought supported the other side.

The penalty for that hastily determined loyalty is usually exacted by a group of men carrying guns. “The city of Aleppo has become like the wild,” said Hur, sitting in his parents’ fancy home in an upscale Aleppo neighborhood. “The big fish eat the small ones.”


An employee of The New York Times reported from Aleppo,

and Damien Cave from Beirut, Lebanon.

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates,

and Dalal Mawad and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.

    Crime Wave Engulfs Syria as Its Cities Reel From War, NYT, 9.8.2012?






Prime Minister’s Defection in the Dark

Jolts Syrians


August 6, 2012
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — The defection of Syria’s prime minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, began like so many others: with coded conversations and furtive planning. He began discussing the idea of fleeing, an aide said, as soon as President Bashar al-Assad strong-armed him into taking the job in June. In recent days, he worked to get his extended family out. Then, early Monday, the prime minister slipped out of Damascus under cover of darkness with his wife and four children, scrambling through the desert as a fugitive.

At sunrise, he crossed into Ramtha, Jordan, shocking the Syrian government — which immediately claimed he had been fired — and spurring jubilation within a weary opposition.

“This is a proof that the political basis of the regime is collapsing,” said Samir Nachar, a leader of the Syrian National Council, the main exile opposition group. “This is the momentum we needed to tell the political and military elite that it is time for them to jump off the sinking ship.”

Mr. Hijab’s journey began when he climbed into a simple car with a driver who did not know his identity, according to an account provided by a Free Syrian Army commander, an activist at the Syria-Jordan border, and Mr. Hijab’s spokesman. He traveled down roads lined with rebel lookouts until he reached a contested stretch of border. Finally, he made his dramatic departure from Syria.

The Assad government — nearly a year and a half into the conflict — remains surprisingly strong where it counts. Its powerful military pounded rebels again on Monday in Aleppo, Damascus and other cities, and many analysts question whether the defection of another Sunni leader, no matter his place in the hierarchy, is enough to swing the conflict to a conclusion. The war, after all, has already taken on a blunt rhythm of violence, sectarianism and revenge that does not necessarily respond to the finer pitches of politics and defection.

And yet the scale of the Hijab defection — involving 10 prominent Sunni families who escaped in small groups over the past week — suggests that Mr. Assad is losing the loyalty of Sunni political and security officials crucial to his minority government’s ability to hold power.

His feared internal security apparatus also seems to be cracking. Mr. Hijab, the highest-level official to leave, was closely watched by the Assad government, which nonetheless failed to keep him from communicating with the opposition for months and arranging for dozens of relatives to leave Damascus, where government agents are concentrated.

“This is someone who was very, very close, and they couldn’t keep him,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Center for the Middle East. He added that while the impact was not cataclysmic, “it’s a sign of advanced decrepitude.”

“It’s a beginning of an endgame sort of thing,” he added.

Mr. Hijab’s departure came less than a month after four members of Mr. Assad’s inner circle were killed in a bomb attack in Damascus that raised serious questions about the cohesiveness of the embattled government. On Monday, rebels struck again close to the leadership’s core, bombing the third floor of the government television and radio headquarters, which have been used to reassure the population that Mr. Assad remains in control.

No one died this time, but the explosion — shown on Syrian television, where officials insisted it was insignificant — again highlighted the rebels’ ability to breach government institutions.

Defections highlight another vulnerability: betrayal within the ranks of supposed loyalists. Over the past few months, there has been a steady flow of high- and midlevel figures announcing that they have turned on the regime. In recent days, in addition to Mr. Hijab, Syria’s most famous astronaut, an air force officer named Ahmed Faris, fled to Turkey, pledging his loyalty to the opposition.

In Washington, the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said the defections were “a sign that Assad’s grip on power is loosening.”

“That the titular head of the Syrian government has rejected the ongoing slaughter being carried out at Assad’s direction only reinforces that the Assad regime is crumbling from within and that the Syrian people believe that Assad’s days are numbered,” he said.

Rebel leaders and defectors said that the process for leaving varied. In some cases, military officers have taken their allotted leave and have never returned to their units. Other defectors say they have falsified paperwork or used disguises to get through government checkpoints. In June, a Syrian Air Force pilot simply landed his fighter jet at an airport in Jordan.

Most of the defectors have been members of the Sunni majority, breaking away from a government dominated by Mr. Assad’s Alawite minority. Mr. Hijab, who has served in government for most of his life after receiving a Ph.D. in agriculture, is typical. The well-educated head of a Sunni family drawn into government by Mr. Assad’s father in an effort to add legitimacy to his government, he benefited from the government’s patronage before finally rejecting it.

Two of his brothers followed a similar path, with the opposition reporting that they held high positions at the Ministries of Oil and the Environment before they fled the country. And by leaving, said Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, they are stripping Mr. Assad of his “Sunni veneer.” With the defection of such a senior-level Sunni family, Mr. Nader said, it will be harder for Mr. Assad to claim that his is a national government representing all Syrians.

But few analysts, or even opposition leaders, seemed to believe that this latest high-profile defection would be anywhere near enough to end the conflict. The exuberance surrounding the early reports of Mr. Hijab’s defection partly reflected claims that at least two other cabinet-level officials would be joining him.

Mohammad Otari, Mr. Hijab’s spokesman, said that was never true, and that the plan had always been limited to Mr. Hijab and his family. “There were no ministers involved,” he said. “There was no one left behind.”

Rumors about some kind of high-level defection began to spread late last week. An activist in the border region of Dara’a said that government troops had subjected the area to intensified shelling while the army seemed to be on the hunt for someone important.

“We heard they were looking for high-level officials,” he said. “They went in to every home along the border.”

Mr. Otari said the full details of the escape would be provided later, after the Hijab family reached a location outside Jordan. But he said the most difficult challenge involved leaving Damascus and Mr. Hijab’s home in the upscale neighborhood of Mezze. Scores of government agents were watching. Mr. Hijab, Mr. Otari said, had taken the job of prime minister only after Mr. Assad issued a threat: “You take this position or you die.”

Previously, Mr. Hijab had been the governor in the coastal province of Latakia. An activist who said he had dealt frequently with Mr. Hijab said he appeared to have been selected as prime minister because of his close relationship with Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad. But during the initial protests last year, the activist said, Mr. Hijab seemed to have some sympathy for the opposition; he had agreed to keep the military and the police away from the first protests.

Later, after arrests were made at subsequent demonstrations, Mr. Hijab helped in the release of 15 people. “He’s a good man,” said the activist, Rami, who declined to provide his full name because he feared reprisals.

Malek al-Kurdi, the deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army, also said the defection was encouraging because “he has a clean record” and “is accepted by the Syrians.”

Some analysts said he could have escaped only through bribery, paying off all the guards responsible for monitoring him. But Mr. Otari would say only that Mr. Hijab took enormous risks to declare his loyalty to the opposition. “It was the most dangerous and difficult defection that took place since the beginning of the revolution,” he said. “This defection breaks the back of the regime.”


Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut;

Ranya Kadri from Amman, Jordan; Kareem Fahim from Cairo;

an employee of The New York Times from Aleppo, Syria;

Steven Lee Myers from Washington; Alan Cowell from London;

and J. David Goodman from New York.

    Prime Minister’s Defection in the Dark Jolts Syrians, NYT, 6.8.2012,






Sinai Attack Tests

New Egyptian President’s Relationship With Israel


August 6, 2012
The New York Times


JERUSALEM — With the relationship between Egypt’s new Islamist leader and Israel still in its fragile infancy, the terrorist attack on the border that the two countries share with Gaza over the weekend presented a critical opportunity — and a crucial test.

Several high-ranking officials inside Israel’s government and numerous independent experts on Israel-Egypt relations said Monday that the attack — in which masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers on Sunday night and then barreled into Israeli territory in a stolen truck and armored vehicle — is the best evidence yet that the two countries are both threatened by lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula. Now the question is whether Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, will make the Sinai a priority amid other challenges, and whether Israel will make concessions in modifying the 33-year-old peace treaty between the nations to allow for a more aggressive Egyptian military presence.

“Now it is obvious also to him that there is a real convergence of interests here, and this may get us closer to him,” Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, said of Mr. Morsi.

Hillel Frisch, a political science lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and senior research fellow at its Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said the attack underlined the differences between Islamists like Mr. Morsi who support the international system of states and others who are trying to challenge it.

“The jihadists threaten any kind of order, anyone who has power, any kind of incumbency,” Mr. Frisch said. “It will strengthen Morsi’s commitment to be a status-quo actor, which is a big, big thing strategically. He runs a state, and there are greater enemies to the Egyptian state than Israel. In that sense, it’s a game-changer.”

The attack brought several early signs of cooperation and coordination. An Israeli brigadier general and his Egyptian counterpart met near the border to discuss the investigation. Israel handed over to Egypt the armored car and the bodies of those killed as they tried to enter through the Kerem Shalom crossing. The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement of condolence.

But comments by both Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday included hints of concern. “I hope that this will be a wake-up call for Egypt regarding the necessity to be sharp and efficient on their side,” Mr. Barak said after visiting the area. Mr. Netanyahu expressed regret over the killing of the soldiers and said, “It is clear that Israel and Egypt have a common interest in maintaining a quiet border.” He quickly added that “when it comes to the security of the citizens of Israel, the State of Israel must and can rely only on itself.”

Mr. Morsi declared three days of mourning for the soldiers who were killed and traveled to Sinai with his defense minister, intelligence chief and interior minister. Egyptian security officials had spoken early Monday about a large-scale military operation near Egypt’s Rafah crossing into Gaza, but there was little sign of it later in the day.

New details emerged Monday about the attack, which began as the sun fell the night before. Egypt’s military said in a statement that 35 masked gunmen, packed into three Land Cruisers, stormed an Egyptian checkpoint and killed the soldiers as they were sitting down to break their Ramadan fast.

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Force, said one of the men then drove a truck, taken from the military outpost and packed with a half ton of explosives, about a mile to the Israeli border fence, which he blew up along with himself and the vehicle. The armored car, also stolen, then entered Israel, where it was stopped by three Israeli airstrikes that killed six or seven men — most of them carrying explosives on their bodies — as they tried to flee. The operation took 15 minutes.

Egyptian officials have blamed militants in Sinai and said they were aided by Palestinians in Gaza. In its statement, the military called the attackers “enemies of the state” and said that “those who stand behind them must be confronted by force.”

But the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political party, posted a statement on its Web site on Monday night saying that Israel’s intelligence agency, which it said had sought to “thwart” Egypt’s revolution, could be responsible for the attack. The Brotherhood, which was not speaking for the president, said that the attack highlighted the need to “reconsider” the terms of Egypt’s treaty with Israel, which restricts the number of troops that Egypt can station in Sinai.

But several Israeli officials and analysts noted that the so-called military annex to the treaty signed in 1979 was modified two years ago to allow seven additional Egyptian battalions into Sinai and that Egypt has yet to fill that quota.

“The Egyptians will have to look in the mirror and ask themselves what they want to do” about Sinai, said Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, who retired as No. 2 in the Israeli military in 2009. “For a long time they pushed it under the rug. There’s a hill under the rug today.”

But several others said the Egyptians would need even more troops, along with more flexibility for air and intelligence operations, to make a difference in Sinai. “Israel put the Egyptians in a very difficult dilemma,” said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University. “On one hand, Israel is saying this is Egyptian territory, you have the responsibility to keep it secure; on the other, they are saying you should do this under the conditions of the military annex, and I think this is an impossible mission.”

If the episode offered a chance to improve the rocky relations between Israel and Egypt, it also threatened the growing ties between Mr. Morsi’s government and Hamas-controlled Gaza. In response, statements by Hamas leaders exceeded the typical condemnations and condolences, promising help in chasing down the attackers, who many believe either came from Gaza or moved freely there in the planning.

“We will not allow anybody to harm Egypt’s security,” Mohammed Awad, Hamas’s foreign minister, said in a statement. Drawing clear alliances, he accused Israel of “turning Sinai into a field of terror and crime to shake the stability of Egypt.”

Regardless of complicity, Gaza immediately suffered the consequences. Israel shut down Kerem Shalom, its only commercial crossing into Gaza; Egypt closed Rafah, through which both goods and people pass; and Hamas blocked the tunnels through which all manner of things are smuggled from Egypt. This left Gazans in long lines on Monday to load up on gas and food in fear of soaring prices once existing supplies are exhausted.

“I do not know if these products will remain here or will disappear,” said Saied Ajour, 56, pointing at boxes of Egyptian cheese on the shelves of the Zawya market in Gaza City.


Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Cairo, and Fares Akram from Gaza City.

    Sinai Attack Tests New Egyptian President’s Relationship With Israel, NYT, 6.8.2012,






Gunmen Kill 15 and Steal Vehicle in Attack on Egypt Base


August 5, 2012
The New York Times


CAIRO — Masked gunmen opened fire on an Egyptian Army checkpoint in the northern Sinai Peninsula on Sunday, killing 15 soldiers who were preparing to break their Ramadan fast. The gunmen then seized at least one armored vehicle and headed toward Israel, apparently in an attempt to storm the border, witnesses and officials said.

An Israeli military spokesman said a vehicle exploded at the border, and another was struck by the Israeli Air Force at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. Images broadcast on television showed an armored vehicle after the attack, in flames.

It was the deadliest assault on Egyptian soldiers in recent memory. There were no immediate claims of responsibility in the attack, in which seven soldiers were wounded, including three in critical condition, the Egyptian Health Ministry said. An Egyptian security official, speaking on state television, blamed Islamist militants operating in Sinai, along with militants who had crossed into Egypt from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Egyptian state media later reported that one of the gunmen had been killed and that another had been arrested. Officials said the Rafah border crossing with Gaza was closed after the attack. Clashes continued late Sunday near the border.

The killings were part of an escalation in violence for Sinai, long neglected by the government and slipping from its control. Armed groups there have frequently targeted the security forces. The problems in the region deepened after the Egyptian uprising in 2011, as police and security officers fled their posts and militants, including foreign fighters, established a presence.

The killing of the soldiers represented the first security crisis for Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, who appeared on television to offer condolences to the victims’ families after meeting with senior generals and security officials.

“There’s no room to appease this treachery, this aggression and this criminality,” Mr. Morsi said. Security forces would extend “full control” over the area, he said, adding, “Sinai is safe.”

The attack was also likely to add further tension to Egypt’s troubled relationship with Israel. Israeli officials have become increasingly vocal about security lapses in the border region after periodic infiltrations, including a deadly attack by gunmen who crossed the border in June.

In a statement, the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said that “the militants’ attack methods again raise the need for determined Egyptian action to enforce security and prevent terror in the Sinai,” according to The Associated Press.

Officials with Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip, condemned the attack, calling it “terror.” Hamas officials said that tunnels that are used for smuggling between Egypt and Gaza had been closed in response to the attack.

A statement attributed to the Hamas Interior Ministry said, “Palestinian resistance factions are committed to fighting only against the Israeli occupation, and they launch their operations only from the Palestinian territories.”

The attack on the checkpoint began at sundown, according to witnesses who said gunmen driving three Toyota Land Cruisers fired guns at a group of about 25 soldiers and officers who were preparing to break their fast.

An unknown number of gunmen then took an armored vehicle from the base, witnesses and Egyptian security officials said.

Reports differed about what happened next. An Egyptian official said some gunmen abandoned an armored vehicle near the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Egypt and Gaza after Israeli soldiers fired on it. Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, said on Twitter that seven militants were killed. At the checkpoint after the attack, blood and bread mixed on the ground. The dead included at least one officer, according to security officials.


Jodi Rudoren contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Fares Akram from Gaza.

    Gunmen Kill 15 and Steal Vehicle in Attack on Egypt Base, NYT, 5.8.2012,






Israel’s Fading Democracy


August 4, 2012
The New York Times



WHEN an American presidential candidate visits Israel and his key message is to encourage us to pursue a misguided war with Iran, declaring it “a solemn duty and a moral imperative” for America to stand with our warmongering prime minister, we know that something profound and basic has changed in the relationship between Israel and the United States.

My generation, born in the ’50s, grew up with the deep, almost religious belief that the two countries shared basic values and principles. Back then, Americans and Israelis talked about democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity. It was an age of dreamers and builders who sought to create a new world, one without prejudice, racism or discrimination.

Listening to today’s political discourse, one can’t help but notice the radical change in tone. My children have watched their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, kowtow to a fundamentalist coalition in Israel. They are convinced that what ties Israel and America today is not a covenant of humanistic values but rather a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma. How did this happen? Where is that righteous America? Whatever happened to the good old Israel?

Mr. Netanyahu’s great political “achievement” has been to make Israel a partisan issue and push American Jews into a corner. He has forced them to make political decisions based on calculations that go against what they perceive to be American interests. The emotional extortion compels Jews to pressure the Obama administration, a government with which they actually share values and worldviews, when those who love Israel should be doing the opposite: helping the American government to intervene and save Israel from itself.

Israel arose as a secular, social democratic country inspired by Western European democracies. With time, however, its core values have become entirely different. Israel today is a religious, capitalist state. Its religiosity is defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations. Its capitalism has erased much of the social solidarity of the past, with the exception of a few remaining vestiges of a welfare state. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic state.” However, because Israel has never created a system of checks and balances between these two sources of authority, they are closer than ever to a terrible clash.

In the early years of statehood, the meaning of the term “Jewish” was national and secular. In the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers, to be a Jew was exactly like being an Italian, Frenchman or American. Over the years, this elusive concept has changed; today, the meaning of “Jewish” in Israel is mainly ethnic and religious. With the elevation of religious solidarity over and above democratic authority, Israel has become more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world. I see the transformation in my own family. My father, one of the founders of the state of Israel and of the National Religious Party, was an enlightened rabbi and philosopher. Many of the younger generation are far less open, however; some are ultra-Orthodox or ultranationalist settlers.

This extremism was not the purpose of creating a Jewish state. Immigrants from all over the world dreamed of a government that would be humane and safe for Jews. The founders believed that democracy was the only way to regulate the interests of many contradictory voices. Jewish culture, consolidated through Halakha, the religious Jewish legal tradition, created a civilization that has devoted itself to an unending conversation among different viewpoints and the coexistence of contradictory attitudes toward the fulfillment of the good.

The modern combination between democracy and Judaism was supposed to give birth to a spectacular, pluralistic kaleidoscope. The state would be a great, robust democracy that would protect Jews against persecution and victimhood. Jewish culture, on the other hand, with its uncompromising moral standards, would guard against our becoming persecutors and victimizers of others.

BUT something went wrong in the operating system of Jewish democracy. We never gave much thought to the Palestinian Israeli citizens within the Jewish-democratic equation. We also never tried to separate the synagogue and the state. If anything, we did the opposite. Moreover, we never predicted the evil effects of brutally controlling another people against their will. Today, all the things that we neglected have returned and are chasing us like evil spirits.

The winds of isolation and narrowness are blowing through Israel. Rude and arrogant power brokers, some of whom hold senior positions in government, exclude non-Jews from Israeli public spaces. Graffiti in the streets demonstrates their hidden dreams: a pure Israel with “no Arabs” and “no gentiles.” They do not notice what their exclusionary ideas are doing to Israel, to Judaism and to Jews in the diaspora. In the absence of a binding constitution, Israel has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship and expression.

If this trend continues, all vestiges of democracy will one day disappear, and Israel will become just another Middle Eastern theocracy. It will not be possible to define Israel as a democracy when a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — controlling millions of people without political rights or basic legal standing.

This Israel would be much more Jewish in the narrowest sense of the word, but such a nondemocratic Israel, hostile to its neighbors and isolated from the free world, wouldn’t be able to survive for long.

But there is another option: an iconic conflict could also present an iconic solution. As in Northern Ireland or South Africa, where citizens no longer spill one another’s blood, it will eventually become clear that many Israelis are not willing to live in an ethnic democracy, not willing to give up on the chance to live in peace, not willing to be passive patriots of a country that expels or purifies itself of its minorities, who are the original inhabitants of the land.

Only on that day, after much anguish, boycotts and perhaps even bloodshed, will we understand that the only way for us to agree when we disagree is a true, vigorous democracy. A democracy based on a progressive, civil constitution; a democracy that enforces the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship, between synagogue and state; a democracy that upholds the values of freedom and equality, on the basis of which every single person living under Israel’s legitimate and internationally recognized sovereignty will receive the same rights and protections.

A long-overdue constitution could create a state that belongs to all her citizens and in which the government behaves with fairness and equality toward all persons without prejudice based on religion, race or gender. Those are the principles on which Israel was founded and the values that bound Israel and America together in the past. I believe that creating two neighboring states for two peoples that respect one another would be the best solution. However, if our shortsighted leaders miss this opportunity, the same fair and equal principles should be applied to one state for both peoples.

When a true Israeli democracy is established, our prime minister will go to Capitol Hill and win applause from both sides of the aisle. Every time the prime minister says “peace” the world will actually believe him, and when he talks about justice and equality people will feel that these are synonyms for Judaism and Israelis.

And for all the cynics who are smiling sarcastically as they read these lines, I can only say to Americans, “Yes, we still can,” and to Israelis, “If you will it, it is no dream.”


Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset,

is the author of “The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes”

and the chairman of Molad, the Center for Renewal of Democracy.

    Israel’s Fading Democracy, NYT, 4.8.2012,






Intensified Syrian Fighting

Reported in Battles for Damascus and Aleppo


August 4, 2012
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Explosions and heavy fighting rocked Syria’s two largest cities on Saturday, witnesses and activists said, as the Syrian government and rebel fighters struggled to gain an advantage in the country’s bloody, 17-month-old conflict.

Also, Iran’s state news agency reported that unidentified “armed groups” had kidnapped 48 Iranians on the road to the Damascus airport after the Iranians visited a religious shrine.

The agency quoted an official from the Iranian Embassy in Damascus as saying it knew of the pilgrims’ whereabouts and was trying to get them released, Reuters reported. It would be at least the third time since the uprising began more than a year ago that a group of Iranians had been kidnapped, apparently by rebel forces angered by Iran’s support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The latest kidnapping report could not be verified, and it was unclear who might have been responsible. But if true, the kidnapping and the greater use of heavy weapons — tanks, helicopters and jets are involved daily now — suggest that Syria’s civil conflict is expanding and intensifying as new tactics, players and areas are drawn into the battle for control.

Over the past week, attacks and counterattacks have been reported in at least half a dozen Syrian cities and towns, including the country’s largest Palestinian camp, in Damascus, the capital. For the first time, rebels have also used tanks they have seized, while the Syrian military has begun firing from jets in Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial center. Analysts have said the government’s helicopters are showing signs of wear.

On Saturday, the escalation continued.

Clashes erupted in at least three Aleppo neighborhoods, Bustan al-Qasr, Hamdanieh and Salaheddin, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain. Rebels in the city, contacted by telephone and via Skype, confirmed heavy fighting and said they continued to focus on seizing government buildings, with the most ferocious engagement in recent days involving a government television station.

It has been two weeks since the fighting for Aleppo started. Rebel leaders have said repeatedly that they hope to make the city a safe haven and a headquarters for their efforts throughout the country. One opposition leader in London said last week that he was already setting up a transitional government that would make “liberated” Aleppo its capital.

But in a conflict in which momentum swings wildly and progress is difficult to ascertain, the rebels have yet to land a knockout blow. “It’s a guerrilla war,” Col. Malik al-Kurdi, deputy commander for the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview.

So far, especially in Aleppo, that means the rebels advance and retreat, gain territory, give it up, hide among the population, and then return again for another fight. This has already occurred several times in Aleppo, and the battle over the television station offers yet another example of the current way of war in Syria.

Rebels and activists inside the city said the fighting for the complex began late Friday with a rebel assault. “My house overlooks the buildings, and I could see the clashes from my rooftop,” said Tammam Hazem, an activist. “Three bullets hit our house.”

Rebels have made government buildings a priority in Aleppo. They have seized several police stations in contested neighborhoods, knocking out a base for government troops and supporters. And their initial raid on the television station, a strategic target because it is on a high hill but also symbolic and functional for any effort to set up a local rebel government, appeared to be successful.

“Our fighters got into the TV station buildings,” said Abu Hamza, one of the rebels in Aleppo, using a nickname that means “father of Hamza.” “I was there blocking the way, trying to keep out the thugs and state security guys who would try to get in.” But he and others said the government response was swift and typical: helicopters began firing from the air.

“We couldn’t handle the chopper attacks,” Abu Hamza said. “We lost about seven fighters.” He added, “We ran out of ammunition.”

So the rebels retreated to a nearby neighborhood, and on Saturday afternoon, Abu Hamza said they were looking for another opportunity. “Our fighters are still there, around the buildings,” he said. “We didn’t pull out. I went to get supplies, but I’m going back.”

Similar scenes have been described throughout Damascus, where fighting has surged again in what some people on Twitter are describing as the “Damascus volcano Part 2.”

Rebels and activists said the focus for both sides had become Tadamon, a rebel-controlled area adjacent to the country’s largest Palestinian neighborhood. Tadamon recently became the target of an all-out assault by government troops. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that mortars, helicopters and armored vehicles were being used against the rebels, and that the rebels had destroyed at least four armored vehicles in the neighborhood so far.

Abu Omar, a local battalion chief for the rebels, said his fighters had pulled back Saturday afternoon because they were waiting for allies to send mortars. He said many of his fighters had sneaked into Yarmouk, the Palestinian neighborhood next door, where shelling killed 20 people Thursday night. As a result of that attack, he said, more Palestinians are trying to help.

“They’re working undercover,” he said. “They’re helping the brigades find safe locations.”


An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Aleppo, Syria.

    Intensified Syrian Fighting Reported in Battles for Damascus and Aleppo, NYT, 4.8.2012,






As Syrian War Roils, Sectarian Unrest Seeps Into Turkey


August 4, 2012
The New York Times


ANTAKYA, Turkey — At 1 a.m. last Sunday, in the farming town of Surgu, about six hours away from here, a mob formed at the Evli family’s door.

The ill will had been brewing for days, ever since the Evli family chased away a drummer who had been trying to rouse people to a predawn Ramadan feast. The Evlis are Alawite, a historically persecuted minority sect of Islam, and also the sect of Syria’s embattled leaders, and many Alawites do not follow Islamic traditions like fasting for Ramadan.

The mob began to hurl insults. Then rocks.

“Death to Alawites!” they shouted. “We’re going to burn you all down!”

Then someone fired a gun.

“They were there to kill us,” said Servet Evli, who was hiding in his bedroom with his pregnant wife and terrified daughter, both so afraid that they urinated through their clothes.

As Syria’s civil war degenerates into a bloody sectarian showdown between the government’s Alawite-dominated troops and the Sunni Muslim majority, tensions are increasing across the border between Turkey’s Alawite minority and the Sunni Muslim majority here.

Many Turkish Alawites, estimated at 15 million to 20 million strong and one of the biggest minorities in this country, seem to be solidly behind Syria’s embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey’s government, and many Sunnis, supports the Syrian rebels.

The Alawites fear the sectarian violence spilling across the border. Already, the sweltering, teeming refugee camps along the frontier are fast becoming caldrons of anti-Alawite feelings.

“If any come here, we’re going to kill them,” said Mehmed Aziz, 28, a Syrian refugee at a camp in Ceylanpinar, who drew a finger across his throat.

He and his friends are Sunnis, and they all howled in delight at the thought of exacting revenge against Alawites.

Many Alawites in Turkey, especially in eastern Turkey where Alawites tend to speak Arabic and are closely connected to Alawites in Syria, are suspicious of the bigger geopolitics, and foreign policy analysts say they may have a point. The Turkish government is led by an Islamist-rooted party that is slowly but clearly trying to bring more religion, particularly Sunni Islam, into the public sphere, eschewing decades of purposefully secular rule. Alawites here find it deeply unsettling, and a bit hypocritical, that Turkey has teamed up with Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the world, and Qatar, a religious monarchy, both Sunni, to bring democracy to Syria.

The Alawites point to the surge of foreign jihadists streaming into Turkey, en route to fight a holy war on Syria’s battlefields. Many jihadists are fixated on turning Syria, which under the Assad family’s rule has been one of the most secular countries in the Middle East, into a pure Islamist state.

“Do you really believe these guys are going to build a democracy?” asked Refik Eryilmaz, an Alawite member of the Turkish Parliament. “The Americans are making a huge mistake. They’re helping Turkey fight Assad, but they’re creating another Taliban.”

American officials recently disclosed that a small group of C.I.A. agents were working along the Turkey-Syria border with their Turkish counterparts, vetting which rebels receive weapons. American officials have acknowledged concerns about Syria turning into a magnet for jihadists, but they believe that foreign fighters still make up only a small slice of the Syrian resistance.

Ali Carkoglu, a professor of international relations with Koc University in Istanbul, said Turkey’s government was increasingly using sectarian language and trying to play the role of “the Sunni elder brother” in the region. Like Syria, Turkey’s population is predominantly Sunni.

The Alawites here are worried they could become easy targets. Historically, they have been viewed with suspicion across the Middle East by mainstream Muslims and often scorned as infidels. The Alawite sect was born in the ninth century and braids together religious beliefs, including reincarnation, from different faiths.

Many Alawites do not ever go to a mosque; they tend to worship at home or in Alawite temples that have been denied the same state support in Turkey that Sunni mosques get. Many Alawite women do not veil their faces or even cover their heads. The towns they dominate in eastern Turkey, where young women sport tank tops and tight jeans, feel totally different than religious Sunni towns just a few hours away, where it can be difficult even to find a woman in public.

“We’re more moderate,” explained Turhan Sat, a Turkish Alawite who works at a gas station in Bridgeport, Conn., and was on vacation in Turkey. He was swigging tea the other day in the leafy town square of Samandag, a predominantly Alawite town not far from the Syrian border.

“We’re all with Assad,” he said.

Not far away in the Alawite-dominated town of Harbiye, there is a new best-selling item that cannot seem to stay on the shelves: cheap tapestries bearing Mr. Assad’s portrait.

“Everybody wants them,” said Selahattin Eroglu, a vendor, who had just sold his last one. “People here love Assad.”

Part of this sentiment may be self-protective. The Syrian rebels hardly conceal a vicious sectarian antipathy. Khaldoun al-Rajab, an officer with the rebel Free Syrian Army, said he witnessed two Alawites in a car take a wrong turn in Homs and end up in a Sunni neighborhood. “Of course they were arrested and killed by rebels,” he said.

Few in Turkey expect such bedlam to break out anytime soon in this country, which is tightly controlled and has escaped violent sectarianism, for the most part.

But the threatening mob at the Evli family’s home in Surgu reminded many Alawites of the killing of more than 30 Alawites in 1993 who were burned alive by a group of Islamists in the Turkish town of Sivas.

It was only after police officers reassured the mob that the Evli family was moving out of the neighborhood, which was news to the Evlis, that the mob dissipated.

Though the Evlis are also Kurdish, another minority group in Turkey, which may have contributed to the nasty feelings against them, Songul Canpolat, a director of an Alawite foundation in Turkey, said, “The idea that Turkish Alawites should be eliminated is gaining ground.”

Turkish government officials denied any bias against Alawites, saying they had made extra efforts to be “attentive and sensitive” to Alawite fears.

“Of course, we do not claim that all issues are resolved,” said Egemen Bagis, minister for European Union affairs.

A few months ago, Mr. Eryilmaz, the member of Parliament, who belongs to an opposition party, went to see Mr. Assad in Damascus. He said that Mr. Assad was actually quite relaxed and that this whole conflict was really about religion.

“What’s happening inside Syria is the Syrian leg of an international project,” he said, with the Turkish government aligning with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to make this part of the Middle East more religiously “radical.”

He was sitting in a cafe in Antakya, a border town with a large Alawite population, and digging into a plate of baklava during the bright, sunny hours of the afternoon, when Muslims observing Ramadan usually fast.

“Look at my people,” he smiled, spreading his hands wide and encompassing families eating ice cream and one young couple nuzzling on a couch. “My people are free.”

    As Syrian War Roils, Sectarian Unrest Seeps Into Turkey, NYT, 4.8.2012,






As Conflict Continues, Assad’s Arms Under Strain


August 2, 2012
The New York Times


With diplomatic efforts dead and the future of Syria playing out on the battlefield, many of the Syrian government’s most powerful weapons, including helicopter gunships, fighter jets and tanks, are looking less potent and in some cases like a liability for the military of President Bashar al-Assad.

Rebels have turned part of Mr. Assad’s formidable arsenal on his own troops. Anti-Assad fighters on Wednesday shelled a military airport in the contested city of Aleppo with captured weapons. On Tuesday, rebels used commandeered Syrian Army tanks in a skirmish with Mr. Assad’s troops.

Perhaps even more worrying to Mr. Assad, his military has come to rely more heavily on equipment designed for a major battle with a foreign enemy, namely Israel, rather than a protracted civil conflict with his own people. Close observers of his military say Syria is having trouble keeping its sophisticated and maintenance-intensive weapons functioning.

The strain is likely to grow more acute as the government depends on helicopter gunships to extend its reach to parts of the country rendered impassable to logistics convoys and even armored vehicles by the rebels’ improvised bombs.

Analysts said Syria’s fleet of Mi-25 Hind-D attack helicopters, which numbered 36 at the start of the conflict, is insufficient to hold back rebels as the number of fronts, from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to the suburbs of Damascus in the south and Hama and Homs in the center of the country, continues to proliferate.

Maintenance technicians are struggling to keep the machines aloft in an intense campaign and in the searing heat and sand associated with summer desert war. Estimates are that only half his fleet can be used at a given time, with some helicopters cannibalized for spare parts and Mr. Assad dependent on supplies from Russia.

“This army is going to start breaking,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now studying Syria for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Not the whole thing at once, but pieces of it will break.”

Mr. White said that by his estimates the Syrian military suffered nearly 1,100 soldiers killed in July, and is losing more soldiers and officers to defections. The loyalties of many commanders and units are suspect, he added, and months of sustained combat are no doubt taking a heavy toll on tanks and aircraft in a military that he said “was never known for maintenance.”

Defections of government troops and seizures of armaments are also a growing problem. Rebels in Aleppo claim to have control of a total of 14 T-72 and T-55 tanks and many indirect-fire weapons, including artillery pieces as well as mortars.

“The tanks are driven by our members, and their specialty is driving tanks, that’s what they did before they defected,” said Bashir al-Haji, a Free Syrian Army commander in Aleppo. “The tanks and artillery are important in our fight because they enable us to shell the regime from a distance.”

More potent arms for the rebels and the strain on helicopters may help explain why the Syrian military recently began using L-39 trainer jets in and around Aleppo, Syria’s most heavily populated city.

Another explanation for the appearance of jets “is that the Syrian military is fighting for Aleppo without enough artillery tubes,” said Joseph Holliday, a former American intelligence officer who covers the war for the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington.

At a glance, and for now, the government’s helicopter fleet is an imposing force. Highly maneuverable and able to carry several types of munitions, including free-fall bombs, it allows Mr. Assad’s military to roam above the Syrian countryside, seeking targets beyond the ready reach of its ground units.

Rebel commanders routinely say that what they most need are antiaircraft weapons to thwart government aircraft, especially helicopters.

But even if the rebels have no missiles these aircraft are almost certainly a dwindling asset, arms specialists who follow the Syrian conflict say. An American government official who covers the war said that fewer than 20 of these aircraft were likely available to the Assad government on any given day, out of the 36 in the fleet.

Mr. Holliday, the former American intelligence officer, put the estimate of working Hind-Ds even lower. “Assessing a max of 15 operational,” he wrote by e-mail.

As backup attack gunships, Syria possesses a similarly sized fleet of Gazelle helicopters, a platform more suited for attacking armor than foot-mobile guerrillas, and a much larger fleet of Mi-8 and Mi-17 utility helicopters, another Russian-made design.

Open-source estimates indicate Syria began its crackdown with 100 Mi-8s or Mi-17s, along with more than 30 Gazelles.

Robert Hewson, a specialist in air-launched weapons at IHS Jane’s, noted that the pylons on the Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters can be fitted with many of the same Russian-made weapons carried by the Mi-25, including one of the most powerful pieces of ordnance that have been verified thus far in the conflict: 550-pound OFAB free-fall bombs.

Taken together, Syria’s helicopters have been used in attacks with high-explosive rockets fired from pods, in the release of unguided bombs like the OFAB and possibly in at least one cluster-munitions strike. These are weapons commonly associated, in the public’s mind, with fixed-wing attack aircraft, including Syria’s MIG 23s.

But the Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters have many other missions. By early summer, rebel commanders and Western analysts said, many Syrian units were largely confined to their garrisons. Some, as in Azaz, had been principally resupplied by these utility helicopters — a mission that demanded many flight hours and diverted aircraft from ground-attack roles.

Mr. Holliday said that perhaps 60 of those helicopters were still in full-time service.

Two wild cards remain in the air-to-ground element of the conflict. First, the analysts said, was the meaning of the recent use of Syria’s ground-attack jets. This introduced a delivery system with a heavy payload and the ability to frighten inexperienced guerrillas with low-level passes.

But that can be read as both an incremental move intended to increase the pressure on antigovernment forces and an indication that Syria’s helicopter squadrons are less robust than even several weeks ago.

If so, like the increased use of helicopters earlier this year as the anti-Assad fighters’ effective use of makeshift bombs spiked sharply upward, it could be a sign that the Syrian military has fewer combat tools at its disposal than before, and fewer options for pushing its foes back.

That could augur a larger future role for Syria’s fixed-wing fleet.

The second wild card lies in the rebels’ acquisition of more weapons able to down aircraft, especially helicopters. In an interview last month, a Syrian Mi-17 pilot who had defected said that through June he and his peers did not worry about the anti-Assad forces, often referred to as the Free Syrian Army, possessing heat-seeking, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.

The principal worry, he said, was fire from RPG-7s, a shoulder-fired anti-armor weapon that at short ranges can be effective against helicopters, too. (Such a system was used last August, American military officials said, to down an American Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan, killing all 38 people aboard.)

“We knew that the Free Syrian Army didn’t have antiaircraft missiles,” he said. “So we flew at an elevation higher than kilometer — above the RPGs.”

In recent weeks there have been indications that the anti-Assad fighters are creeping toward posing greater risks to the government helicopters.

One video, which analysts said was credible, showed a fighting group in Rastan with what appeared to be two-thirds of an SA-7 shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile system. NBC News reported this week that unnamed anti-Assad sources claimed to have obtained as many as two dozen heat-seeking missiles via transit through Turkey. The claim has since been denied by other opposition members, though the American government official said that there were indications that rebels had apparently captured more SA-7 missile tubes and batteries from Syrian government stocks. The official added that as yet the essential grip stock required to fire the weapon had not been seen.

With the question of whether the anti-Assad forces have obtained functional antiaircraft missile systems still unsettled, another question is not.

Many videos have shown fighting groups with what appears to be a growing number of captured 12.7-millimeter, 14.5-millimeter and 23-millimeter machine guns — all of which can be lethal to helicopters, and show the risks to Mr. Assad, whose own weapons have been increasingly turned against the forces that secure his fate.


Damien Cave and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

    As Conflict Continues, Assad’s Arms Under Strain, NYT, 2.8.2012,






Resigning as Envoy to Syria, Annan Casts Wide Blame


August 2, 2012
The New York Times


Frustrated by the seemingly intractable Syrian conflict, Kofi Annan announced his resignation on Thursday as the special peace envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, throwing new doubts on whether a diplomatic solution is possible. He also said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria “must leave office.”

In an announcement tinged with bitterness and regret, Mr. Annan tied his decision to what he described as Syrian government intransigence, increasing militance by Syrian rebels and the failure of a divided Security Council to rally forcefully behind his efforts.

“I accepted this task, which some called ‘Mission: Impossible,’ for I believed it was a sacred duty to do whatever was in my power to help the Syrian people find a peaceful solution to this bloody conflict,” Mr. Annan said at a news conference at the Geneva offices of the United Nations.

But, he said, “without serious, purposeful and united international pressure, including from the powers of the region, it is impossible for me, or anyone, to compel the Syrian government in the first place, and also the opposition, to take the steps necessary to begin a political process.”

Mr. Annan also was critical of what he called “finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council.”

The announcement was coupled with an opinion article Mr. Annan wrote that was posted Thursday on the Web site of The Financial Times and headlined “My Departing Advice on How to Save Syria.” In the article, he castigated all parties in the conflict but appeared to reserve particular criticism for the Syrian government, which he described as “40 years of dictatorship.”

“It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office,” Mr. Annan wrote. “The greater focus, however, must be on measures and structures to secure a peaceful long-term transition to avoid a chaotic collapse.”

Diplomats and experts on Syrian politics said they were not surprised at Mr. Annan’s resignation. Some wondered why it had taken him this long, given the rising levels of violence and refusal of Mr. Assad and his antagonists to negotiate, making Mr. Annan’s peace plan seem increasingly irrelevant.

“Bottom line on Kofi’s mission. D.O.A. from the get-go,” Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Wilson Center, a research group in Washington, said in an e-mail. “Too much blood spilled for a negotiated settlement between the Assads and the rebels, and not enough for foreign intervention to pressure the Assads to leave.”

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said in an announcement that the search was on for a successor to Mr. Annan, who will serve until the end of August, when his mandate expires.

It was unclear what the resignation might mean for the United Nations observer mission in Syria, which was sent there by the Security Council as part of Mr. Annan’s peace plan and suspended most work in mid-June because of the violence. The observer mission’s mandate expires on Aug. 19.

Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United Nations and the president of the Security Council, said he did not believe it would renew the mandate. But later in the day he softened his remarks, saying he could not rule out an extension.

Mr. Annan, one of the world’s most experienced diplomats, would not speculate on who might replace him but sought to counter suggestions that with his departure, the peace effort was over.

“Let me say that the world is full of crazy people like me, so don’t be surprised if someone else decides to take it on,” Mr. Annan told reporters in Geneva.

It was no secret that Mr. Annan had grown increasingly flustered over his failure to achieve even a basic cease-fire in the conflict, which began 17 months ago as a peaceful uprising against Mr. Assad and has now escalated into civil war.

A Nobel Peace Prize winner and former United Nations secretary general, Mr. Annan, 74, agreed in February to act as a special representative for both the United Nations and the Arab League to negotiate a peace plan. He received unanimous backing from the Security Council.

He negotiated a six-point proposal that called for the Syrian government to withdraw its heavy weapons and troops from populated areas and for anti-Assad fighters to put down their guns. Other provisions included a process for a political transition that, in theory at least, would have replaced Mr. Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority whose family has dominated politics for four decades.

Despite a pledge from Mr. Assad on March 27 to abide by the peace plan, the Syrian government never put it in place. Mr. Assad’s opponents, concluding that he had no intention of honoring his commitments, did not lay down their weapons, either.

Although the Security Council supported Mr. Annan’s efforts, two permanent members, Russia and China, blocked any additional coercive measures that they feared could lead to a change of government imposed by outside powers, foreign military intervention, or both.

Their actions led to bitter recriminations on the council, pitting Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France, the three other permanent members, which had been pressing for more forceful action.

Mr. Ban noted in his statement that the Security Council’s own divisions “have themselves become an obstacle to diplomacy, making the work of any mediator vastly more difficult.”

Word of Mr. Annan’s resignation came as the United Nations General Assembly was preparing to vote on a resolution drafted by Saudi Arabia that demands compliance by the Syrian government with his plan.

But the General Assembly resolution, scheduled for a vote on Friday, does not have the enforcement power of a Security Council measure, and has been viewed as a symbolic effort to embarrass Syria and its backers.

Major powers expressed regret over Mr. Annan’s resignation and acknowledged the difficulties of his assignment, but in doing so they appeared to commit the kind of blame-laying he cited as one reason for quitting.

Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said Mr. Annan’s resignation “highlights the failure in the United Nations Security Council of Russia and China to support meaningful resolutions against Assad that would hold Assad accountable for his failure to abide by the Annan plan.”

Russian news agencies quoted President Vladimir V. Putin as calling Mr. Annan a “very respectable person, a brilliant diplomat and a very decent man, so it’s really a shame.” At the same time, Russia’s United Nations ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, said Russia opposed the General Assembly resolution on Syria, calling it unfairly biased against the Syrian government.

There was no immediate reaction to Mr. Annan’s departure from Mr. Assad or the array of Syrian opposition groups, some of which have long expressed doubts about Mr. Annan’s efforts.

But Louay Hussein, a Syrian writer and opposition activist, said in an e-mail: “The responsibility of the failure of Mr. Annan in his mission is the responsibility of the international community, and not the Syrian parties to the conflict. It will have very negative consequences on the armed conflict in the country.”


Christine Hauser contributed reporting from New York,

and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.

    Resigning as Envoy to Syria, Annan Casts Wide Blame, NYT, 2.8.2012,






U.S. and Israel Intensify Talks on Iran Options


August 1, 2012
The New York Times


ASHKELON, Israel — A series of public statements and private communications from the Israeli leadership in recent weeks set off renewed concerns in the Obama administration that Israel might be preparing a unilateral military strike on Iran, perhaps as early as this fall.

But after a flurry of high-level visits, including one by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to Israel on Wednesday, a number of administration officials say they remain hopeful that Israel has no imminent plans to attack and may be willing to let the United States take the lead in any future military strike, which they say would not occur until next year at the earliest.

The conversations are part of delicate negotiations between the United States and Israel that have intensified over the past month. On Wednesday they continued with Mr. Panetta, who appeared with the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, and declared that the United States would stand by Israel if Iran developed a nuclear weapon.

“We have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen,” Mr. Panetta said. Standing with Mr. Barak in front of an Israeli antirocket missile battery in the southern town of Ashkelon, about five miles from the Gaza border, Mr. Panetta made clear what he meant. “My responsibility is to provide the president with a full range of options, including military options, should diplomacy fail,” he said.

In the last three weeks, a steady stream of administration officials have flown to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among them Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser. The trips were in part planned for other reasons — Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Panetta were going to Egypt to meet with the new president and so diplomatically could not ignore Israel — but administration officials say that there has been an intense effort to stay in close contact with Israel and abreast of its intentions.

The visits, deliberately or not, also sandwiched in Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who was in Jerusalem two days before Mr. Panetta. Mr. Romney, who received a short briefing from the American ambassador in Israel but had no other substantive communication with the administration, appeared to take a harder line against Iran than President Obama has.

In Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu continued on Wednesday with his tough rhetoric of recent days, arguing that sanctions against Iran were largely useless. “Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “This must change and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”

Administration officials say that Israeli officials are less confrontational in private and that Mr. Netanyahu understands the consequences of military action for Israel, the United States and the region. They say they know he has to maintain the credibility of his threat to keep up pressure on the United States to continue with sanctions and the development of military plans.

“The more the Israelis threaten, the more we respond by showing them that we will take care of the problem if it comes to that,” said Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Panetta met separately on Wednesday with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Barak and Shimon Peres, the Israeli president. Administration officials say the Americans and Israelis shared the latest intelligence on Iran, coordinated implementation of the most recent sanctions and discussed military options. Mr. Panetta said on Tuesday in Cairo that he was not taking any American attack plans to show to the Israelis.

He also said that any American strike would be a last resort. “We have to exhaust every option, every effort, before we resort to military action,” Mr. Panetta said at the Ashkelon missile battery, which is part of the Iron Dome defense system in part paid for by the United States.

On Wednesday, Mr. Panetta used some of his sharpest language on Iran, as if to assure the Israelis that the Obama administration could be equally tough.

“This is not about containment,” Mr. Panetta told reporters at the start of his meeting with Mr. Peres. “This is about making very clear that they are never going to be able to get an atomic weapon.”

In Israel, there remains feverish speculation that Mr. Netanyahu will act in September or early October. Besides the prime minister’s fear that Israel’s window of opportunity will close soon, analysts cite several reasons for the potential timing: Israel does not like to fight wars in winter. Mr. Netanyahu feels that he will have less leverage if President Obama is re-elected, and that if Mr. Romney were to win, the new president would be unlikely to want to take on a big military action early in his term.

“If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks,” said Efraim Halevy, a former chief of Israel’s intelligence agency and national security adviser.

Others made light of the constant visits from the United States. “The visitors are actually baby sitters to make sure the unpredictable kids do not misbehave,” said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies.

American defense officials and experts in Israel say that because Israel does not have a bomb powerful enough to penetrate Iran’s underground uranium-enrichment facilities, an independent strike would be likely to set the nuclear program back only one or two years, at most. That has led to major dissent among Israel’s security professionals over the wisdom of such an attack. The Pentagon, in contrast, has the munitions, bombers, missiles, stealth aircraft and drones that would cause far more extensive damage.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who recently spent time in Israel talking to government officials, said that Israel’s longstanding doctrine of self-reliance makes American promises to act later if all else fails less effective. Instead, he said, Israel needs to be convinced that if it waits, it can still retain the option to act independently.

“Make Israel not believe that it’s two minutes to midnight,” Mr. Makovsky said. “If Israel is so convinced that its window of action is shutting, then maybe you try to enlarge Israel’s window. You say, ‘Here, we know there are some things you need. But we don’t want you to use them until several months ahead.’ ”

The Obama administration is eager to prevent an Israeli attack partly to avoid a major foreign policy crisis during the American presidential campaign and partly because officials say an Israeli strike could set off a new conflagration in the region. If Iran retaliated by launching missiles at Tel Aviv that killed thousands of Israelis, administration officials say the United States would be under enormous pressure to defend Israel and respond, and would then be pulled into another war in the Middle East.

Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have argued that Iran makes progress in enriching nuclear fuel every day, enhancing its capability to withstand a strike and keep any nuclear weapons program on track. Iran denies the intent to develop nuclear weapons and says its program is for peaceful purposes.

The Israeli news media have been filled in recent days with speculation about a strike. One article said that the Obama administration had vowed to strike within 18 months, another reported continuing concerns in the security establishment here about the effectiveness of an Israeli strike, and a third said that Mr. Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, had revealed details of the American attack plans during his visit. The articles did not make clear where those accounts came from, but they contributed to a growing atmosphere of expectation.

“Everybody’s leaking like crazy right now — that doesn’t mean there will be a strike, but it means we’re closer to a decision,” said Amos Harel, defense correspondent for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, who estimated the chance of an attack before November at 50 percent. “It’s probably a more crucial junction than it was ever before.”


Elisabeth Bumiller reported from Ashkelon, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.

    U.S. and Israel Intensify Talks on Iran Options, NYT, 1.8.2012,