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Hints of Syrian Chemical Push Set Off Global Effort to Stop It: Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, New York Times, Jan 7, 2013—In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Assad Offers Only More Of The Same – Mukhabarat Brutality: Hassan Hassan, The National, Jan 7, 2013—The world still blinks every time that Bashar Al Assad speaks, as if it has not learnt anything from 21 months of violence. In his speech yesterday [Jan 6] – his ninth since the uprising began – the dictator offered a plan that would include a lengthy, complicated process of gradual change and "truth and reconciliation".
Syria: Why Assad May Yet Claim Victory: Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, Jan 7 2013—Reacting angrily to President Bashar al-Assad's speech on Sunday calling for an end to the rebellion, the US State Department said the Syrian leader was "detached from reality". But much the same might be said of the US and of Assad's other Western and Arab foes, and with greater justification.
Hezbollah Sent 5,000 Fighters to Help Assad, Daily Reports: Elhanan Miller, Times of Israel, January 8, 2013
A Syrian Way Out of The Civil War: David Ignatius, Washington Post, Jan 4, 2013
Syrian Refugees Attack Aid Workers in Jordanian Camp Over Terrible Conditions: Dale Gavlak, National Post, Jan 8, 2013
A Two-Year Travelogue From Hell: Christoph Reuter, Der Spiegel, Jan 4, 2013
Assad and the U.S. Are Blind To Reality in Syria: Editorial, Washington Post, Jan 7, 2013
UN: Million Syrians Short of Food: YNet News, Jan 8, 2013
Fighting Flares in Palestinian Camp in Damascus: YNet News, Jan 8, 2013
HINTS OF SYRIAN CHEMICAL PUSH
SET OFF GLOBAL EFFORT TO STOP IT
Eric Schmitt And David E. Sanger
New York Times, Jan 7, 2013
In the last days of November, Israel’s top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
Within hours President Obama was notified, and the alarm grew over the weekend, as the munitions were loaded onto vehicles near Syrian air bases. In briefings, administration officials were told that if Syria’s increasingly desperate president, Bashar al-Assad, ordered the weapons to be used, they could be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act, in all likelihood.
What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action. The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation. A week later Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said the worst fears were over — for the time being.
But concern remains that Mr. Assad could now use the weapons produced that week at any moment. American and European officials say that while a crisis was averted in that week from late November to early December, they are by no means resting easy. “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war,” one senior defence official said last week. “What Assad understood, and whether that understanding changes if he gets cornered in the next few months, that’s anyone’s guess.”
While chemical weapons are technically considered a “weapon of mass destruction” — along with biological and nuclear weapons — in fact they are hard to use and hard to deliver. Whether an attack is effective can depend on the winds and the terrain. Sometimes attacks are hard to detect, even after the fact. Syrian forces could employ them in a village or a neighbourhood, some officials say, and it would take time for the outside world to know….
The Obama administration and other governments have said little in public about the chemical weapons movements, in part because of concern about compromising sources of intelligence about the activities of Mr. Assad’s forces….The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, warned in a confidential assessment last month that the weapons could now be deployed four to six hours after orders were issued, and that Mr. Assad had a special adviser at his side who oversaw control of the weapons, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported. Some American and other allied officials, however, said in interviews that the sarin-laden bombs could be loaded on planes and airborne in less than two hours. “Let’s just say right now, it would be a relatively easy thing to load this quickly onto aircraft,” said one Western diplomat.
How the United States and Israel, along with Arab states, would respond remains a mystery. American and allied officials have talked vaguely of having developed “contingency plans” in case they decided to intervene in an effort to neutralize the chemical weapons, a task that the Pentagon estimates would require upward of 75,000 troops. But there have been no evident signs of preparations for any such effort. The United States military has quietly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there, among other things, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was reported to have traveled to Jordan in recent weeks, and the Israeli news media have said the topic of discussion was how to deal with Syrian weapons if it appeared that they could be transferred to Lebanon, where Hezbollah could lob them over the border to Israel. But the plans, to the extent they exist, remain secret….
In response, Syria has reached deeper into its conventional arsenal, including firing Scud ballistic missiles at rebel positions near Aleppo. Over the past week a new concern emerged: Syrian forces began shooting new, accurate short-range missiles, believed to have been manufactured in Iran. None had chemical warheads. But their use showed that the Syrian military was now deploying a more accurate weapon than the notoriously inaccurate Scud missiles they have used in previous attacks.
As the fighting has escalated, American and other allied officials have said that government troops have moved some of the chemical stockpiles to safer locations, a consolidation that, if it continues, could actually help Western forces should they have to enter Syria to seize control of the munitions or destroy them. Syria’s chemical weapons are under the control of a secretive Syrian air force organization called Unit 450, a highly vetted outfit that is deemed one of the most loyal to the Assad government given the importance of the weapons in its custody.
American officials said that some of the back-channel messages in recent weeks were directed at the commanders of this unit, warning them — as Mr. Obama warned Mr. Assad on Dec. 3 — that they would be held personally responsible if the government used its chemical weapons.
Asked about these communications and whether they have been successful, an American intelligence official said only, “The topic is extremely sensitive, and public discussion, even on background, will be problematic.” Allied officials say whatever safeguards the Syrian government have taken, there remains great concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists fighting the government or the militant group Hezbollah, which has established small training camps near some of the storage sites.
“Militants who got their hands on such munitions would find it difficult to deploy them effectively without the associated aircraft, artillery or rocket launcher systems,” said Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism and insurgency specialist at IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. “That said, Hezbollah would probably be able to deploy them effectively against Israel with a bit of help.”
ASSAD OFFERS ONLY MORE OF THE SAME:
The National (UAE), Jan 7, 2013
The world still blinks every time Bashar Al Assad speaks, as if it has not learnt anything from 21 months of violence. In his speech yesterday [Jan 6] – his ninth since the uprising began – the dictator offered a plan that would include a lengthy, complicated process of gradual change and "truth and reconciliation". That would, in theory, lead to a new coalition government and a new constitution.
The speech was preceded by an aggressive two-week diplomatic campaign by the regime's allies and the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. That renewed push for diplomacy followed 140 countries' recognition of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, NATO Patriot missiles and military personnel that were dispatched to Turkey's border, and pledges of increased support for the opposition.
The diplomatic overture by the regime is part of a Russian-backed plan that would keep Al Assad in power until presidential elections in the summer of 2014. And the diplomacy appears to have succeeded in slowing down aid to the rebels, with reports that arms supplies are drying up. But the speech yesterday should remind the world that this dictator has no place in a future Syria and that support for the rebels is the only way forward.
Russia probably pressured Al Assad to announce a plan of reconciliation. But the speech sounded more vindictive, dismissive and exclusivist than even his previous bombast. For example, he said the plan was directed only at segments of the opposition, and that "those who reject the offer, I say to them: why would you reject an offer that was not meant for you in the first place?" In other points, he emphasized vengeance rather than reconciliation. He also blamed the rebels for the destruction of infrastructure and for cutting off electricity and communications.
"Syria accepts advice but never accepts orders," he said. "All of what you heard in the past in terms of plans and initiatives were soap bubbles, just like the [Arab] Spring." It was clear that he tried to sound steadfast, but his voice betrayed him several times. And before his departure from the room, the crowds chanted "may God protect you" – a chant that is used when someone is threatened. The usual party line is "with our soul and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you".
Why would the regime offer a plan now, when it has not made a single meaningful concession since the beginning of the uprising? The violence would never have reached such staggering levels had Al Assad offered reasonable reforms from the beginning. Any hope that he can engineer an end to the violence is an illusion, which will only prolong and worsen the crisis. If anything, the speech showed that the regime will not change its policies except under duress.
The aim seemed to be threefold: to create the impression that the rebels refuse political settlements; to add to the world's reluctance about arming the rebels; and to question the legitimacy of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The proposal of a new constitution is merely a red herring. Syrians did not rise up against the constitution, nor have they demanded constitutional change. People rose up against brutality, and the fact that the existing constitution was never honoured – the mukhabarat apparatus has dominated almost every aspect of Syrian life. The immediate cause of the uprising in Deraa was the mukhabarat, who arrested and tortured school boys for writing anti-regime graffiti and then humiliated their families.
Nor did Syrians rise up to be included in a coalition government. Any government that includes these same criminals will be no different. People rose up against the security apparatus that has plagued Syrian society, prevented progress, infringed on individual and public liberties, and tortured and killed tens of thousands of Syrians. These crimes, so obvious during this uprising, have been a normal state of affairs even during periods of calm. If a transition does not affect Al Assad, the mukhabarat apparatus and the army structure, then what does it offer?
Compromise does not exist in the regime's lexicon: political settlement means surrender, dialogue means subjugation, and a Syrian-Syrian solution means leaving Syrians to the regime's mercy. If the world wants to help Syrians, there is only one way: step up support for the rebels. The Assad speech was a sign of desperation. Recent moves, including the recognition of the opposition and the pledges of support, can work. More support for the rebels only increases the chances of a political settlement, which might even include safe passage for Al Assad. But a solution cannot come on his terms.
To be helpful, support for the rebels cannot simply prolong the fighting. The rebels need to be able to tip the balance. As the situation stands now, the regime may be able to fight for years, not just months…
The Guardian, Jan 7 2013
Reacting angrily to President Bashar al-Assad's speech on Sunday calling for an end to the rebellion, the US state department said the Syrian leader was "detached from reality". But much the same might be said of the US and of Assad's other western and Arab foes, and with greater justification. After two years of bloody attrition, the unpalatable truth is Assad is still in power, shows no sign of heeding demands to quit and is far from beaten. The evolving reality is that Assad may yet see off his many enemies and claim victory in Syria's civil war.
Explanations for this remarkable feat of survival lie not with Assad's personal abilities, which are limited, nor with the durability of his domestic supporters, who are in the minority, nor with the president's ruthlessness in prosecuting the military campaign. More potent has been his subtler achievement in convincing would-be western interventionists that awful though he is, what might follow him would almost certainly be worse. When leading Washington commentators such as David Ignatius [Washington Post] start talking up a "truth and reconciliation" process, you kind of know the battle is lost.
This process of geopolitical re-education – it might be termed psychological counter-insurgency – has been gradual but highly effective. One powerful aspect is the highlighting of the growing role of Islamist fundamentalists inside Syria, whom Assad regularly decries as foreign terrorists threatening the Syrian nation. This jihadi "scare factor" is rooted in last February's video message by the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he called on pious Muslims, primarily Sunnis living in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, to help destroy the Syrian regime.
"Since then, the message has spread further afield, and the lure of joining the jihad in Syria against a Shia dictator is drawing in young men from around the world," said analyst Tobias Feakin in The Australian. Rising numbers of volunteers, estimated at up to 2,500 in total from as far away as Indonesia and Xinjiang in China, have dispersed in myriad suspect groups including the Free Syrian Army, Liwa al-Islam, Katibat al-Ansar, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has close links with al-Qaida in Iraq.
The dawning realisation that Syria was not another Egypt or Libya, whose revolutions produced relatively clear-cut results, and that it might well become another failed state, harbouring al-Qaida fanatics bent on global confrontation, has had a big impact on western opinion, not least in the US….
The West's hedging of bets over Syria has become glaring in recent months even as its rhetoric has intensified. Political demands, principally that Assad step down immediately and without preconditions, have become ever more inflexible.
Led by France, the western position is that nothing less than regime change at the top will do. But at the same time, the argument about doing what needs to be done militarily and logistically to ensure that objective, for example by arming the rebels, seems to be over – and the rebels are the losers. Despite the rebooting of opposition forces under the umbrella Syrian National Coalition, weapons supplies and financial aid are drying up. Even the Sunni Gulf states seem to be having second thoughts as they contemplate a post-Assad Syria sliding into post-Saddam style anarchy.
Israel's decision to build border defenses across the Golan and Turkey's deployment of Patriot missiles along its border symbolize this shifting reality. The aim now is not to liberate Syria but to isolate it and quarantine it and to contain the contagion. The fact that the US and Britain have looked on as a second UN peace mission by Lakhdar Brahimi runs into the sand (the first, led by Kofi Annan, collapsed last year), the fact that no substantive pressure has been put on Russia's Vladimir Putin to drop his Syrian diplomatic protection racket, the fact that military intervention is publicly and noisily ruled out and the fact that no concerted international humanitarian relief effort has been mounted to assist Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan all point to one conclusion: that the west is not serious about enforcing Assad's demise. It is a message that Assad has undoubtedly heard.
"Despite the efforts of Brahimi – and also of more sympathetic powers such as Russia and China, as well as Assad's Lebanese ally, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – to promote a negotiated settlement, the regime has shown no interest in acceding to a democratic transition that would lead to its ouster. And its leaders believe they are fighting the rebels to a stalemate," said Tony Karon in Time. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told Karon that, whatever the US state department might say, the fact is that Assad is not budging.
"Absent some dramatic increase in external intervention, Assad could still be there in 2014. There's nothing obvious in the current dynamic that's going to force him out. He has barricaded the major cities with layers of security, allowing the impoverished periphery of some to fall into rebel hands, but then using his air power and artillery to devastate those neighbourhoods. Almost two years into the uprising and despite the rebels' recent momentum, they have not yet taken full control of a single major city or town.
Despite the confident predictions coming from the rebels and their backers, nobody in the opposition today can explain how they're going to win. The regime has the unity, it has all the heavy weapons. Many of the rebels continue to operate on the assumption that the US will intervene to tip the balance for them."
But despite all the huffing and puffing in Washington (and London), decisive intervention is extremely unlikely. It is time the likes of Obama and William Hague admitted this reality and started dealing with what is, rather than what might have been.
The Endgame in Syria is Nowhere In Sight: Kenneth Bandler, FoxNews, Jan 4, 2013—Wither Syria? Some observers interpreted UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s visit to Damascus and certain Russian statements as proof positive that the Syrian conflict will be resolved soon. It will not. Predicting that the endgame for Syria is imminent, it turns out, is wishful thinking.
Assad And The U.S. Are Blind To Reality In Syria: Editorial, Washington Post, Jan 7, 2013—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a speech Sunday that had the virtue, at least, of offering clarity. No, he insisted, he would not step down. He would not negotiate with the rebels who control much of the countryside and parts of major cities. He would not consider the compromise “transition” proposal being pedaled by a U.N. envoy with the backing of his ally Russia, as well as the United States. Instead, he said, he would fight to the end against “enemies of God and puppets of the West.”
A Two-Year Travelogue From Hell: Christoph Reuter, Der Spiegel, Jan 4, 2013—We've driven along this road once before, in April 2012, which these days seems like an eternity ago. At the time, there was still electricity here, and people still lived in Taftanas, Sarmin, Kurin and other villages in Idlib Province, in northern Syria. But now, in December 2012, entire villages are empty and pockmarked with bullet holes, their residents having fled from airstrikes, hunger and frigid temperatures.
Syrian Refugees Attack Aid Workers in Jordanian Camp Over Terrible Conditions:Dale Gavlak, National Post, Jan 8, 2013—Syrian refugees in a Jordanian camp attacked aid workers with sticks and stones on Tuesday, frustrated after cold, howling winds swept away their tents and torrential rains flooded muddy streets overnight
A Syrian Way Out of The Civil War: David Ignatius, Washington Post, Jan 4, 2013—To help oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an opposition group has drafted a plan for a transitional justice system that would impose harsh penalties against die-hard members of his inner circle but provide amnesty for most of his Alawite supporters.
Hezbollah Sent 5,000 Fighters to Help Assad: Elhanan Miller, Times of Israel, January 8, 2013—Some 5,000 Hezbollah combatants entered Syria in December to aid the faltering regime of Bashar Assad, a Saudi daily reported on Monday. According to Al-Watan, a government daily, four “support battalions” comprising at least 1,300 soldiers each had succeeded in killing some 300 rebel soldiers in recent weeks as battles raged between government and opposition forces around the capital Damascus.
Strategic Briefing on ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’: Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, Quilliam, Jan 8, 2013—‘Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most publicised rebel groups in the current Syrian crisis, despite having a relatively small membership – a result of their hard-line ideology and guerrilla tactics, and because of the mystery surrounding their activities – mystery which only serves to increase the level of fear amongst many sectors of Syrian society and the international community.
UN: Million Syrians Short of Food: YNet News, Jan 8, 2013—About one million Syrians are going short of food, most of them in conflict zones, due to government restrictions on aid distribution, the United Nations said on Tuesday. The UN's World Food Program (WFP) is handing out rations to about 1.5 million people in Syria each month, still short of the 2.5 million deemed to be in need.
Fighting Flares in Palestinian Camp in Damascus: YNet News, Jan 8, 2013—Representatives of Palestinian factions in Syria are calling for an immediate cease-fire after fighting flared at a refugee camp in Damascus. Activists say five people were killed in the Yarmouk camp Tuesday, including four who died when a shell struck their street and a fifth shot by a sniper. The fighting pits gunmen loyal to President Bashar Assad against rebels, who now control much of the camp.
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