Wednesday, 20 February 2013

War in Syria : STOP THIS

War in Syria :
War in Syria

The wave of Arab unrest that began with the Tunisian revolution reached Syria on March 15, 2011, when residents of a small southern city took to the streets to protest the torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. The government responded with heavy-handed force, and demonstrations quickly spread across much of the country.

President Bashar al-Assad, a British-trained doctor who inherited Syria’s harsh dictatorship from his father, Hafez al-Assad, at first wavered between force and hints of reform. But in April 2011, just days after lifting the country’s decades-old state of emergency, he set off the first of what became a series of withering crackdowns, sending tanks into restive cities as security forces opened fire on demonstrators. In retrospect, the attacks appeared calculated to turn peaceful protests violent, to justify an escalation of force.

In the summer of 2011, as the crackdown dragged on, thousands of soldiers defected and began launching attacks against the government, bringing the country to what the United Nations in December called the verge of civil war.  An opposition government in exile was formed, the Syrian National Council, but the council’s internal divisions  kept Western and Arab governments from recognizing it as such.

Syrian opposition factions signed an agreement in November 2012 to create a unified umbrella organization with the hope of attracting international diplomatic recognition as well as more financing and improved military aid from foreign capitals. The coalition, known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was recognized by Britain, France, Turkey and several Gulf Arab countries. However, several extremist Islamist groups fighting in Syria said they reject the coalition.

One of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion is the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests. On the diplomatic front, Russia has steadily blocked attempts by the Obama administration and Arab countries to win United Nations authorization for strong action against the Syrian government, its longtime ally.

By the end of 2012, Syria was many months into what the United Nations called an “overtly sectarian” conflict that was pulling fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa into the fray. The sharpest split is between the Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim minority from which President Bashar al-Assad’s most senior political and military associates are drawn, and the country’s Sunni Muslim majority, mostly aligned with the opposition, a U.N. panel noted. But it said the conflict had drawn in other minorities, including Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds and Turkmen.

By the start of 2013, more than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, were thought to have died and tens of thousands of others had been arrested. More than 400,000 Syrian refugees had registered in neighboring countries, with tens of thousands not registered. In addition, about 2.5 million Syrians needed aid inside the country, with more than 1.2 million displaced domestically, according to the United Nations.

A Steady Escalation of Violence

Control of towns and cities seesawed between rebel forces that were poorly organized but increasingly well-armed and confident, and a government that was too weak to stamp out the rebellion but strong enough to prevent it from holding large chunks of territory.

Tactics have often shifted throughout the conflict, which is approaching the two-year mark. In the summer of 2012, the government withdrew to strong points, increasingly relying on air power and artillery to smash areas that rebels had seized.

The rebels have changed their tactics, too. They have focused on challenging air power, their deadliest foe, by harassing some air bases, ransacking others and seizing antiaircraft weapons. Fighters have overrun a half-dozen bases around Damascus, Syria’s capital; two in the country’s eastern oil-producing area; and the largest military installation near the country’s largest city, Aleppo.

Yet the tactical gains appear unlikely to lead to a sudden shift that collapses the government, analysts say. Rather, they say, a de facto split of Syria is hardening with the government slowly shrinking the area it tries to fully control, a swath that runs from Damascus north along the more-populated western half of the country to Latakia, the ancestral province of President Assad.

The government is still strong in core areas, analysts say, and even when it cedes control of the ground to rebels, as in parts of northern Syria and growing areas of the thinly populated east, it retains the power to strike from the air. And, analysts warn, even if the army abandons some areas, that could simply open the way to fighting among sectarian and political factions.

The conflict is complicated by Syria’s ethnic divisions. The Assads and much of the nation’s elite, especially the military, belong to the Alawite sect, a minority in a mostly Sunni country. While the Assad government has the advantage of crushing firepower and units of loyal, elite troops, the insurgents should not be underestimated. They are highly motivated and, over time, demographics should tip in their favor. Alawites constitute about 12 percent of the 23 million Syrians. Sunni Muslims, the opposition’s backbone, make up about 75 percent of the population.

The government has been widely condemned internationally, most ardently by its former ally Turkey and other Sunni Arab nations. Iran, Syria’s closest regional ally, has provided a flow of arms, much of it through Iraq, through the chagrin of the United States, and Russia, its traditional great-power patron, has blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council to take forceful measures to push Mr. Assad from power.

The danger of the fighting setting off regional conflict appeared to rise every month, with destabilizing effects seen in Lebanon and Iraq. But it was the possibility of a clash between Syria and its former ally Turkey that drew the most worry, particularly after Turkey shelled targets across the border in October 2012 after a Syrian mortar attack killed five of its civilians. Since Turkey is a NATO member, the fighting there could deepen international involvement.

After the U.S. presidential elections in November 2012, discussions within the Obama administration turned to the question of finding more direct ways to help the rebels. While no decisions have been made, the administration is considering several alternatives, including directly providing arms to some opposition fighters.

The most urgent decision was whether NATO should deploy surface-to-air missiles in Turkey in order to protect that country from Syrian missiles that could carry chemical weapons.

War in Syria

Chemical Weapons Showdown Led to Rare Accord

In the last days of November 2012, 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 President 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 still use the weapons that were produced that week. American and European officials say that while a crisis was averted, they are by no means resting easy.

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 neighborhood, some officials said, and it would take time for the outside world to know.

But the scare renewed debate about whether the West should help the Syrian opposition destroy Mr. Assad’s air force, which he would need to deliver those 500-pound bombs.

The chemical munitions remain in storage areas that are near or on Syrian air bases, ready for deployment on short notice, officials said.

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, 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.

Allied officials say that 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.

U.S. Recognizing Syrian Rebels

President Obama said on Dec. 11, 2012, that the United States would formally recognize the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as that country’s legitimate representative, intensifying the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up his bloody struggle to stay in power.

Mr. Obama’s announcement, on the eve of a meeting in Morocco of the Syrian opposition leaders and their supporters, was widely expected. But it marked a new phase of American engagement in a bitter, nearly two-year-long conflict that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, threatened to destabilize the region, and defied all outside attempts to end it.

The announcement puts Washington’s political imprimatur on a once-disparate band of opposition groups, which have coalesced, under pressure from the United States and its allies, to develop what American officials say is a credible transitional plan to govern Syria if Mr. Assad is forced out.

Moreover, it draws an even sharper line between those elements of the opposition that the United States champions and those it rejects. The Obama administration coupled its recognition with the designation hours earlier of a militant Syrian rebel group, Al Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization, affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Mr. Obama notably did not commit himself to providing arms to the rebels he is recognizing or to supporting them militarily with airstrikes or the establishment of a no-fly zone, a stance that has led to a rise of anti-American sentiment about many of the rebels.

Background to Protests

The country’s last serious stirrings of public discontent had come in 1982, when increasingly violent skirmishes with the Muslim Brotherhood prompted Hafez al-Assad to move against them, sending troops to kill at least 10,000 people and smashing the old city of Hama. Hundreds of fundamentalist leaders were jailed, many never seen alive again.

Syria has a liability not found in the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt — it is a majority Sunni nation that is ruled by a religious minority, the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam. Hafez Assad forged his power base through fear, cooption and sect loyalty. He built an alliance with an elite Sunni business community, and created multiple security services staffed primarily by Alawites. Those security forces have a great deal to lose if the government falls, experts said, because they are part of a widely despised minority, and so have the incentive of self-preservation.

In July 2011, the Obama administration, in a shift that was weeks in the making, turned against Mr. Assad but stopped short of demanding that he step down. By early August, the American ambassador was talking of a “post-Assad” Syria.

In October, Syrian dissidents formally established the Syrian National Council in what seemed to be the most serious attempt to bring together a fragmented opposition. The group’s stated goal was to overthrow President Assad’s government. Members said the council included representatives from the Damascus Declaration group, a pro-democracy network; the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamic political party; various Kurdish factions; the Local Coordination Committees, a group that helps organize and document protests; and other independent and tribal figures.

The Allawites: Historical Background
Alawites, who make up more than 10 percent of the Syrian population, have for the most part stood by Mr. Assad even as the world has written him off. They see him as their best protection against sectarian annihilation — a prospect that has grown more plausible as the toll of Sunnis killed by government forces and militias has soared, turning whatever mixed feelings about the Allawites existed before in a deepening hatred.

The roots of the animosity toward the Alawites from members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who make up about 75 percent of the population, run deep into history. During the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, the two groups lived in separate communities, and the Sunni majority so thoroughly marginalized Alawites that they were not even allowed to testify in court until after World War I.

Then, in a pattern repeated across the region, said Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar at the University of Oklahoma, French colonialists collaborated with the Alawite minority to control the conquered Syrian population — as colonialists did with Christians in Lebanon, Jews in Palestine and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. The French brought Alawites into the colony’s military to help control the Sunnis. And after Syria’s independence from France, the military eventually took control of the country, putting Alawites in top government positions, much to the resentment of the Sunni majority.

“Now the Alawites believe — possibly correctly — that the Sunnis are going to try to kill them, and that is why the Alawite Army now is killing Sunnis in this beastly way,” Professor Landis said. “The Alawites feel justified in brutality because they fear what may be in store for them if they lay down their guns.”

“I don’t see any way out of that,” he said, “except to say that we are in for a long, difficult ride, and you pray that the Syrians are going to get over this somehow.”

In the U.S.: Different Views on Intervention

The Obama administration has made a point of working through the Arab League and the United Nations rather than giving the appearance that the United States is trying to intervene in Syria. This is partly to avoid giving Iran any excuse to get involved on behalf of its regional ally, analysts say.

However, some politicians favor more direct intervention. On Feb. 19, two senior American senators spoke out strongly in favor of arming the Syrian opposition forces.

The senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, laid out a series of diplomatic, humanitarian and military aid proposals that would put the United States squarely behind the effort to topple President Assad. Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, both of whom are on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that rebel fighters deserved to be armed and that helping them take on the Syrian government would aid Washington’s effort to weaken Iran.

The next day, two Iranian warships docked in the Syrian port of Tartous as a senior Iranian lawmaker denounced the possibility that the Americans might arm the Syrian opposition. Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency called the ships “a serious warning” to the United States.

“The presence of Iran and Russia’s flotillas along the Syrian coast has a clear message against the United States’ possible adventurism,” said Hossein Ebrahimi, a vice chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Fars reported.

Syria relies on Iran for financial and military support, and the governments in Damascus and Tehran have sectarian ties as well: Iran has strongly backed the Syrian Shiite minority and the offshoot Alawite sect that makes up Syria’s ruling class.

Conflict in Syria Poses Risk of a Wider Strife

For decades, Syria was the linchpin of the old security order in the Middle East. It allowed the Russians and Iranians to extend their influence even as successive Assad governments provided predictability for Washington and a stable border for Israel, despite support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

But the burgeoning civil war in Syria has upset that paradigm, placing the Russians and Americans and their respective allies on opposite sides. It is a conflict that has sharply escalated sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis and between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf nations. And it has left Israel hopeful that an enemy will fall, but deeply concerned about who might take control of his arsenal.

Washington is keenly aware of the larger forces at play and of the dangers of another military intervention in an Arab country.

For Russia, the fall of Mr. Assad, an ally and arms customer, would further diminish its influence in the region. If Mr. Assad goes, any new government will note Russia’s support for him, including a steady supply of weapons. Arabs across the region, who are demanding their rights and freedoms, may resent it, too.

For the United States, the conflict is a bundle of risks and contradictions that has made Washington’s stance — frustrating those who favor a more robust intervention — far more cautious than it was in Libya.

For Washington, Europe and the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the gulf, the impact on Iran is as important as the fate of Mr. Assad. Syria is one of Iran’s closest allies. It was nearly alone in supporting Iran, not Iraq, in their war in the 1980s. Syria has been Iran’s main conduit to supply aid and weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The United States and Europe — with tenuous Russian and Chinese support — have isolated Iran economically and diplomatically to try to forestall Tehran from being able to build a nuclear weapon. The conflict in Syria complicates that delicate diplomacy, but a new Syrian government could be a greater blow to Iranian influence than any sanction the West has mustered so far. It could also revive democratic protests in Iran.

But the administration is ruling out direct military intervention in this conflict. After a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a limited intervention in Libya that was harshly criticized by Republicans, President Obama wants no new military adventure in an election year. Nor does the Pentagon, especially given Syria’s integrated air defense system, supplied by Russia.

Not least, American officials point out the murky nature and incoherence of the armed opposition to Mr. Assad and note that the Free Syrian Army, formed by exiled Syrian Army officers, defectors and militias, does not control significant territory in Syria where arms could be supplied.

Aggravating Regional Sectarian Tensions

The insurrection in Syria, led by the country’s Sunni majority in opposition to a government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, is increasingly unpredictable and dangerous because it is aggravating sectarian tensions beyond its borders in a region already shaken by religious and ethnic divisions.

For many in the region, the fight in Syria is less about liberating a people under dictatorship than it is about power and self-interest. Syria is drawing in sectarian forces from its neighbors, and threatening to spill its conflict into a wider conflagration. There have already been sparks in neighboring Lebanon, where Sunnis and Alawites have skirmished.

And in Iraq, where Shiites are a majority, the events across the border have put the nation on edge while hardening a sectarian schism. Iraq’s Shiites are now lined up on the side of a Baathist dictatorship in Syria, less than a decade after the American invasion of Iraq toppled the rule of Saddam Hussein and his own Baath Party, which for decades had repressed and brutalized the Shiites.

The paradox, of Shiites supporting a Baathist dictator next door, has laid bare a tenet of the old power structure that for so long helped preserve the Middle East’s strongmen. Minorities often remained loyal and pliant and in exchange were given room to carve out communities, even if they were more broadly discriminated against.

As dictators have fallen in neighboring countries, religious and ethnic identities and alliances have only hardened, while notions of citizenship remain slow to take hold.

Syria’s minorities have the example of Iraq in considering their own future, should the Assad government fall: Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and others were brutally persecuted by insurgents. In Egypt, where a similar paradigm was toppled with the long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak, Christians have experienced more sectarian violence, increasing political marginalization and a growing link between Islamic identity and citizenship.

Turkish Opposition to Assad

Once one of Syria’s closest allies, Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.

The group is too small to pose any real challenge to Mr. Assad’s government, but support from Turkey underlines how combustible, and resilient, Syria’s uprising has proven. The country sits at the intersection of influences in the region — with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Israel — and Turkey’s involvement is being closely watched by Syria’s friends and foes.

Turkish officials said that their government has not provided weapons or military support to the insurgent group, nor has the group directly requested such assistance.

Factions Among the Opposition

Sniping among Syrian opposition figures have begun. As they face a military machine half a million strong their lack of political unity makes it difficult for international backers to focus their support.

Even the Syrian National Council is a mixture of many factions, and Free Syrian Army officers have yet to acknowledge any particular political leadership. A Free Syrian Army commander, Col. Riad al-Assad, and other rebel officers have at times been openly critical of the Syrian National Council.

In a statement by the Syrian National Coalition, a group led by a Syrian human rights activist, Ammar Qurabi, said the council should be considered one of many factions. “Negotiating or having dialogue with any one opposition faction is against the will of the people and the Syrian revolution,” the group said.

Al Qaeda Stepping Up Its Role in the Conflict

In February 2012, American counterterrorism officials said that Sunni militants with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq had moved into Syria to exploit the political turmoil.

By the summer, it was clear that Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists were doing their best to hijack Syria’s revolution, with a growing although still limited success that has American officials publicly concerned, and Iraqi officials next door openly alarmed.

Evidence was mounting that Syria had become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda. An important border crossing with Turkey that fell into Syrian rebels’ hands in mid-July 2012, Bab al-Hawa, quickly became a jihadist congregating point.

The presence of jihadists in Syria accelerated in late July in part because of a convergence with the sectarian tensions across the country’s long border in Iraq. Al Qaeda, through an audio statement, made an undisguised bid to link its insurgency in Iraq with the revolution in Syria, depicting both as sectarian conflicts — Sunnis versus Shiites.

Since the start of the uprising, the Syrian government has sought to depict the opposition as dominated by Al Qaeda and jihadist allies, something the opposition has denied and independent observers said was not true at the time. While leaders of the opposition continue to deny any role for the extremists, Al Qaeda has helped to change the nature of the conflict, injecting the weapon it perfected in Iraq — suicide bombings — into the battle against Mr. Assad with growing frequency.

Syrian state media have routinely described every explosion as a suicide bombing — as they did with a bombing on July 18 that killed at least four high-ranking government officials. Beginning in December, analysts began seeing what many thought really were suicide bombings.

Since then, there have been at least 35 car bombings and 10 confirmed suicide bombings, 4 of which have been claimed by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, according to data compiled by the Institute for the Study of War.

Refugees Pour Into Jordan

Since mid-August 2012, when air assaults by Syria’s government picked up, knocking rebels in the south on their heels, refugees have been arriving at camps in Jordan at a rate of about 2,000 a night.

By early September, an unexpected exodus of as many as 20,000 Syrians had poured across the border from the province around Dara’a, the birthplace and symbolic heart of the Syrian uprising. The refugees described burned-out villages all but emptied of residents. Some say their villages were deprived of power, water and communication for weeks before they left, or that graffiti scrawled after the shelling warned those who had fled not to return. Aid workers who interviewed the refugees suggested there was a deliberate attempt to drive out any civilians who might sympathize with the rebels.

Caught between the violence at home and the squalor of the camps, some have begun to question their support for the 18-month-old insurrection.

The refugees cross the border at night under the protection of rebels, and some of those fleeing arrive wounded by the bullets of the government soldiers trying to stop them, said Andrew Harper, the top official of the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan, in charge of its camps. Some are killed trying to cross.

Nearly half of the refugees are younger than 12, and women outnumber men almost two to one. Those ratios are expected to grow even more lopsided, Mr. Harper said, because some men deliver their families and return.

Annan Resigns as Special Envoy; New Envoy Named

In April, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general acting as a special envoy, reported that the Assad government had agreed to a six-point peace plan, which laid out a framework for a cease-fire that does not involve the president leaving power. Syria agreed, but only a week after the plan was put into effect, Ban-ki Moon, the current secretary general of the United Nations, said that Syria had failed to implement almost every aspect of the peace plan. Still, without a better alternative, the United Nations sent 300 cease-fire observers to Syria.

In late May, international efforts to pressure Syria intensified in the wake of a massacre that left at least 108 villagers dead in central Syria, most of them women or children. But in June, the United Nations suspended its observer mission in Syria because of the escalating violence. It was the most severe blow yet to months of international efforts to negotiate a peace plan and prevent Syria’s descent into civil war. That month, a representative of the United Nations characterized the Syrian conflict as a civil war, a term that was echoed in July by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In July, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration, stymied at U.N. efforts, had abandoned efforts for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict, and instead was increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the Assad government, American officials said.

Administration officials insisted they will not provide arms to the rebel forces. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already financing those efforts. But American officials said that the United States would provide more communications training and equipment to help improve the combat effectiveness of disparate opposition forces in their widening, sustained fight against Syrian Army troops. It’s also possible the rebels would receive some intelligence support, the officials said.

Mr. Obama has come under criticism from some Republican hawks, who say that the United States should intervene militarily in Syria, and from the Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney, who has said that he would arm the Syrian opposition — a course which the administration has not taken.

In early August, Kofi Annan submitted his resignation as special envoy to Syria, having grown increasingly frustrated over his failure to achieve even a basic cease-fire in the conflict. Despite a pledge from Mr. Assad to abide by the six-point peace plan brokered by Mr. Annan in April, the Syrian government has never implemented the plan.

In mid-August, the United Nations Security Council decided to terminate its observer mission in Syria, where the increasingly violent rebellion against President Assad’s government has left diplomatic peacemaking efforts paralyzed. But the council agreed to keep a much smaller United Nations liaison office in the country. The next day, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and widely respected statesman, was officially appointed as the new special envoy to Syria from the United Nations and Arab League to replace Mr. Annan.

The Role of Russia

Throughout the conflict, Russia has been the lifeline for President Bashar al-Assad, providing weapons and diplomatic support to help keep his government afloat. As tensions have risen in Syria, there have been several reports that Russia was deploying warships, but each time they have been followed by official denials.

Despite global condemnation of the Assad regime, Russia — as well as China — has consistently objected to any United Nations resolutions concerning Syria that would impose sanctions or single out Mr. Assad’s government for criticism of his efforts to crush the uprising. Russia rejects the idea that the United Nations can interfere in the domestic politics of any country to force a leadership change. Russia has also accused the West of hypocrisy for funneling support and encouragement to Mr. Assad’s armed opponents.

In early August, following the announcement of Kofi Annan’s resignation as special envoy to Syria, Russia blamed Western nations for undermining Mr. Annan by supporting the Syrian insurgency. The Russians also called for an expedited search to replace Mr. Annan and said it was important to maintain a United Nations monitor mission in Syria. The current one expires in mid-August 2012.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said Russia had done everything possible to support Mr. Annan’s peace plan but opposition forces had refused to negotiate, supported by “our Western partners, and certain regional states.”

Western nations, led by the United States, have accused Russia of helping to sabotage Mr. Annan’s diplomacy and have questioned the need for a United Nations monitoring presence in Syria if there is no viable peace plan to monitor.

Obama Warns of Military Action Over Chemical Weapons

In late August, President Obama threatened military action against Syria if there was was evidence that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was moving its stocks of chemical or biological weapons. It was Mr. Obama’s most direct warning of American intervention in Syria.

“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Mr. Obama said in an impromptu appearance in the White House briefing room.

The president said he was deeply troubled by the possibility that the safekeeping of such weapons was now at risk in the Assad government’s increasingly harsh effort to crush the uprising. “That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria,” Mr. Obama declared. “It concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us.”

Syria is believed to have accumulated huge supplies of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and cyanide. Mr. Assad and other members of his government have said that the weapons would not be used except in the case of foreign intervention — a threat that has been interpreted as an attempt to deter any attack by Western nations.

The United States, Mr. Obama said, was closely monitoring the situation for any signs that weapons had been moved. While he did not say there was evidence, he said that, given the volatility of the crisis, he could not be absolutely confident that Mr. Assad’s government would not try to deploy these weapons.

Arms Under Strain as Conflict Continues

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

Rebels have turned part of Mr. Assad’s formidable arsenal on his own troops. In early August, anti-Assad fighters shelled a military airport in the contested city of Aleppo with captured weapons, and 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.

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.

Crime Wave Rises as Cities Reel From War

The consequences of the war in Syria 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 Aleppo, 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, has become rampant.

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.

But the shabiha are hardly the only problem. Rebel fighters have 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.

Conflict Imperils Historical Treasures

Preservationists and archaeologists are warning that fighting in Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo — considered the world’s oldest continuously inhabited human settlement — threatens to damage irreparably the stunning architectural and cultural legacy left by 5,000 years of civilizations.

Already the massive iron doors to the city’s immense medieval Citadel have been blown up in a missile attack, said Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund, an organization that works to preserve cultural heritage sites.

Among the significant archaeological sites endangered is the Temple of the Storm God, which dates from the third to the second millennium B.C. and which Ms. Burnham identified as one of the oldest structures in the world.

Aleppo’s labyrinthine streets reveal a microcosm of human history. Beneath the Citadel are remains of Bronze Age friezes and Roman fortresses. The entire walled Old City, with its 12th-century Great Mosque, thousands of pastel-colored medieval courtyard houses, Arab souks and 17th-century stone madrasas, an Ottoman palace and hammams, is recognized as a World Heritage Site by Unesco, the United Nations cultural arm.

Images of the Citadel show rubble in some locations, but it is difficult to verify the extent to which either side is responsible for any damage.

Rebels Say West’s Inaction is Radicalizing Syria

In fall 2012, the commander of a Syrian antigovernment fighting group offered a warning to the West now commonly heard among fighters seeking the overthrow of President Assad: The Syrian people are being radicalized by a combination of a grinding conflict and their belief that they have been abandoned by a watching world.

If the West continues to turn its back on Syria’s suffering, the commander said, Syrians will turn their backs in return, and this may imperil Western interests and security at one of the crossroads of the Middle East.

The origins of these sentiments are typically the same: a widely held view that Washington and European capitals are more interested in maintaining the flow of oil from Libya and Iraq, or in protecting Israel, than in Syria and its people’s suffering. The view is supported, Syrians opposed to Mr. Assad say, by the West’s stubborn refusal to provide arms to the rebels, or to protect civilians and aid the rebels with a no-fly zone.

The contrast with the West’s military assistance and vocal political support to the uprising in Libya is frequently drawn.

The donations of nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition by Washington are often called small scale, to the extent that none of the half-dozen fighting groups visited by journalists for The New York Times, or the many commanders interviewed in Turkey, claimed to have seen, much less received, American aid.

Other men echoed this sentiment, and accused the United States and Europe of playing a double game, in effect of conspiring with the Kremlin to ensure that no nation has to act against the Assad government or on the rebels’ or civilians’ behalf.

Many Syrian men also bristled under what they called common descriptions that their uprising is driven by foreign fighters, or hosts groups linked to Al Qaeda.

Global Condemnation of Assad

The United States and countries around the world condemned President Assad, who many had hoped would soften his father’s iron-handed regime. Criticism has also come from unlikely quarters, like Syria’s neighbors, Jordan and Turkey, and the Arab League. Syria was expelled from the Arab League after it agreed to a peace plan only to step up attacks on protesters. In late 2011 and early 2012, Syria agreed to allow league observers into the country. But their presence did nothing to slow the violence.

In February 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution condemning President Assad’s unbridled crackdown on the uprising, but China and Russia, Syria’s traditional patron, blocked all efforts for stronger Security Council action. Iran, Syria’s closest ally in the region, also doubled down on its support for Mr. Assad, pressuring the Iraqi government into allowing it to fly weapons into Syria.

Tensions have also spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, and fears have increased with evidence that Al Qaeda was behind a rise in suicide bombings in 2012.

By the summer of 2012, the conflict had greatly increased in tempo and violence on all sides, as advocacy groups estimated that about 400 died in June 2011 and more than 3,000 people in June 2012. The Syrian government has waged an unrelenting campaign of arrests that has snared tens of thousands of people.

In cities throughout Syria, including the capital, Damascus, and the largest city, Aleppo, the opposition had coalesced around armed groups identifying themselves as elements of the Free Syrian Army. From bases in refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border, the flow of weapons, medical supplies and money increased.

But as the rebels gained momentum, the government increasingly appeared to be adopting a more brutal policy in response. When rebels declare a town liberated, President Bashar al-Assad’s government no longer makes much effort to retake territory. Now, it sends overwhelming force with one objective — to destroy and level all that is left behind.

Syrians involved in the struggle say the conflict is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, have been taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the resistance.

Recent months have witnessed the emergence of larger, more organized and better armed Syrian militant organizations pushing an agenda based on jihad, the concept that they have a divine mandate to fight. Even less-zealous resistance groups are adopting a pronounced Islamic aura because it attracts more financing.

As the conflict has continued without resolution, the Assad regime has lost many key players, as growing numbers of high-ranking government and military officials have defected. In early August 2012, President Assad fired his prime minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, Syria’s official media reported. Mr. Hijab defected to neighboring Jordan along with at least two ministers and three military officers — 10 families in all, opposition leaders said. Mr. Hijab’s departure seemed a further indication of disarray among government loyalists following a series of high-level defections and a rebel bomb attack in July that killed four of Mr. Assad’s closest security aides. Days after Mr. Hijab’s defection, Mr. Assad appointed a new prime minister, Wael Nader al-Halqi.

Warnings About Sending Arms to Rebels

In October 2012, American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats raised warnings about the shipments of arms to the rebels being organized primarily by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, saying that most of them were ending up in the hands of hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster.

That conclusion cast into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict was accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.

The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments by Arab countries of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades.

As the stalemate dragged on, the rebels began to lose crucial support from a public increasingly disgusted by the actions of some rebels, including poorly planned missions, senseless destruction, criminal behavior and the coldblooded killing of prisoners.

The rebel shortcomings have been compounded by changes in the opposition, from a force of civilians and defected soldiers who took up arms after the government used lethal force on peaceful protesters to one that is increasingly seeded with extremist jihadis. That radicalization has divided the fighters’ supporters and made Western nations more reluctant to give rebels the arms that might help break the intensifying deadlock. Instead, foreign leaders are struggling to find indirect ways to help oust Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

Newly Formed Rebel Coalition Gains Recognition

On Nov. 11, 2012, an insurgent coalition was formed under pressure from Western and Arab donors as well as Turkey at a meeting in Qatar that brought together for the first time an array of groups both inside and outside Syria that have been struggling to unseat Mr. Assad.

The next day, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait — recognized the coalition group, known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. On Nov. 13, France became the first Western country to do so. Syrian authorities said the French decision to recognize and consider arming the coalition was an “immoral” act “encouraging the destruction of Syria.”

On Nov. 14, Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor and a haven for thousands of Syrian refugees and insurgents, followed suit in recognizing the coalition. While making the official announcement, Turkey’s foreign minister reiterated his country’s contention that Mr. Assad, once a close friend of Turkey’s, had lost all credibility and legitimacy because of his government’s repression of the opposition.

Qaeda Group Poses an Obstacle

One of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion is the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests. The Nusra Front is the lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al Qaeda has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces, posing a stark challenge to the United States and other countries that want to support the rebels but not Islamic extremists.

Money flows to the group from like-minded donors abroad. Its fighters, a small minority of the rebels, have the boldness and skill to storm fortified positions and lead other battalions to capture military bases and oil fields. As their successes mount, they gather more weapons and attract more fighters.

The group is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi officials and former Iraqi insurgents say, which has contributed veteran fighters and weapons.

The United States, sensing that time may be running out for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hopes to isolate the group to prevent it from inheriting Syria or fighting on after Mr. Assad’s fall to pursue its goal of an Islamic state.

As the United States pushes the Syrian opposition to organize a viable alternative government, it plans to blacklist the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe. The hope is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interes

News source: New York Times.

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