Wednesday 29 February 2012

“Syrian Army to blitz Idlib after Baba Amr fall”

An official Syrian communiqué will announce “in the next few hours” the Syrian Army’s full takeover of the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in the restive central city of Homs.
This is according to the Beirut daily al-Akhbar, which is close to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
A report titled “Crucial Hours” on the paper’s front page states: “Damascus sources confirmed to al-Akhbar the Syrian Army has gained control of most parts of Baba Amr neighborhood and broke into its main streets after a 25-day blockade. The sources said the army was overnight flushing the remaining rebels out of hiding while guarding against mines and booby traps. They (the sources) expect the authorities to issue a communiqué in the next few hours announcing the area is now safe.”
The global campaign organization Avaaz announced Tuesday that “a network of Syrian activists” coordinated by the group “helped the international journalist Paul Conroy escape into Lebanon. He had been injured and trapped in Baba Amr for six days under continuous Syrian government shelling. The three other journalists Javier Espinosa, Edith Bouvier and William Daniels remain unaccounted for.
“Avaaz responded to requests from the journalists, their families and colleagues to attempt to evacuate them and worked with over 35 heroic Syrian activists each night who volunteered to help in the rescue.  
“The activists have offered to support in the evacuation every night since Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin were killed by Syrian government shellfire last Wednesday, during which time they rescued 40 seriously wounded people from the same place and brought in medical supplies. Tragically this operation led to a number of fatalities as the Syrian Army targeted those escaping, during their bombardment of the city on Sunday evening. 13 activists were killed in the operation. Syrian targeted shelling killed three activists as they tried to assist the journalists through Baba Amr.  
“While Paul Conroy successfully escaped the city, ten activists died bringing relief supplies into Baba Amr...”
The Syrian Army’s next target after Baba Amr will be Idlib, according to a pro-Assad figure talking exclusively to Lebanese Hezbollah’s al-Manar news website.
Dr. Muhammad Darar Jamo, identified as “head of the political division and international relations of the International Organization for Arab Immigrants,” tells al-Manar in remarks published this morning: “The Syrian army is set to launch, within the coming 10 days, a major offensive in the north, starting in Idlib and extending to the borders with Turkey.”
Jamo said, “Calm on the Syrian-Turkish border is the kind of calm preceding a storm… specially that armed gangs consider Idlib a safe haven and an area of influence that is out of bounds for state authorities.”
In Turkey, meantime, activist Taner Kiliç, chair of the Executive Board of the Association of Solidarity with Refugees, explains in an article for Today’s Zaman how “Syrian asylum seekers have been sold out” by Ankara.
In the U.S. last week, Republican Senator John McCain called for arming Syrian insurgents against Assad regime repression.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disagreed with McCain’s plea during an interview Sunday with CBS News.

“We really don’t know who it is that would be armed,” Clinton said during a visit to Morocco. “Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria?” she said. “Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?”
All these news tidbits justify the title of an exceptional essay I read last night, "The Syrian Uprising of 2011; Why the Assad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013."
The author is Dr. Joshua Landis, a highly respected Syria expert and associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He wrote the piece for the journal of the Middle East Policy Council.
You can read it here.

Monday 27 February 2012

The cost of gagging Beirut (Part VI)

Krikor Ohannes:
The baby panda shot in the face
Koko and his bride Rita on their wedding day
Modern Lebanon has had three camera maestros, each of them Armenian and master of more than one photography genre. Their names:
(1) Manoug Alemian, simply known as “Manoug.” He was the king of landscape, ancient ruins, nature and fine art photography and celebrity portraiture in Lebanon and the region. He passed away in 1994 at age 76 in Canada, where he had sought refuge with his family from Lebanon’s fratricidal war. We were neighbors in the countdown to that war. His showroom was on the ground floor of the building where I lived on Rue Graham.
(2) Harry L. Koundakjian, or simply “Harry” – Lebanon’s photojournalism king who is now serving as International Photo Editor at The Associated Press in New York. We were colleagues during our work years in Beirut.
(3) Krikor Ohannes, or just “Koko” to everyone who knew him in Beirut. He was a wizard in candid, headshot, wedding and social event black-and-white photography. He called me “Bass” – he meant “Boss” -- throughout the 11 years he worked for my English-language weekly Monday Morning. He was just 21 when I gave him his first photo assignment when launching the magazine in June 1972. I asked him to cover a Sunday wedding at the St. Francis of Assisi (Roman Catholic) Church on Hamra Street.
He himself tied the knot -- or entered the golden cage -- with Rita Kaladjian at the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Antelias on a hot July afternoon in 1977. He looked like a charmer out of the Fifties in his black suit and bow tie. After the ceremony the couple spent a three-day honeymoon at the Faraya Mzaar Hotel followed by a fortnight's trip to Armenia and Russia.
Koko had the facial features of a baby panda and a magical eye that caught people and social events at their most telling moments. Photography was the love of his life. And he learned it by doing it.
Whenever he hummed a tune, it turned out to be by Elvis Presley. He simply adored the “King of Rock and Roll.”
After his love of photography and Presley came his love of “Action” -- the code word he coined for his occasional womanizing.
Koko snapshots of Beirut socialites Paula Fattouh, Hiyam Saadeh and Jenan Harb (Nov. 1980)
He used his camera lens as a conduit to relay the beauty and joie de vivre of Beirut’s nymphs, It-girls and full-fledged female socialites when the city was on its deathbed between 1975 and 1985.
His brilliant images of receptions, parties, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, concerts, art exhibitions, fashion shows, beauty pageants… for the “Around the Clock” pages of Monday Morning in a turbulent period were invaluable for the publication. Given that a picture can speak a thousand words, his images were visual storytellers of Beirut’s great social events and people of the momentous 1972-1983 years. But that does not make up for the fact that Koko is gone. 
He was only 35 when two “Unidentified Gunmen” shot him dead in his basement studio opposite the Tourism Ministry around 10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, 1986. Three bullets, fired at point-blank range from a silencer into his right eye, cheek and ear, killed him instantly.
Dr. Vahe Tcheupjian
At 10:45 a.m., the killer pair then broke into a dental clinic in the nearby Aswad Building, closer to the American University Hospital. There they murdered a second Armenian, Dr. Vahe Tcheupjian, also 35. They used the same silencer to lob two bullets from point-blank range into his right eye and ear.
A communiqué said the “patriotic” murderers wanted Armenians out of West Beirut.
The killings incensed Lebanon’s 200,000-strong Armenian community, which had staunchly refused to be drawn into the internecine strife. It ordered the country’s Armenian schools, institutions and businesses closed in mourning through Saturday, May 31, 1986.
When the crossings between the halves of Beirut were shut at one time during the civil war, Koko was stranded at his home in East Beirut. To survive there, he turned into a street seller of smuggled cigarettes.
One of his most comprehensive works was on a 21-page pictorial report titled “The King Takes a Queen.” It covered the June 15, 1978, wedding of Jordan’s late King Hussein and America’s Lisa Najeeb Halaby, renamed Queen Noor on her conversion to Islam
He accompanied Monday Morning wordsmith Micheline Hazou to the event in Amman. “Mich” recounts that when King Hussein and Queen Noor posed for photographers at the wedding ceremony, they readily followed Koko’s crisp orders: “This side! Look to the left. Turn to the right. Stand in the sun. Go over to the shade. Look at each other.” But his loud plea to the bridegroom, “King, King! Kiss, kiss,” was dismissed by the newlyweds with a smile.    
Koko’s last job for me as “Bass” fired him up. It came in late June 1983, when I asked him and Monday Morning’s Claude Khoury to join me for an exclusive interview with Captain Morgan M. France. Captain France was the senior commander of the U.S. contingent in the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon.
With Capt. Morgan M. France (center, top left) aboard the USS Iwo Jima
Two details caught Koko’s imagination. One was the venue. The interview was to take place on board the flagship USS Iwo Jima off the Beirut coast. The other was the helicopter flight from the U.S. Marines barracks near Beirut airport to the fearsome amphibious assault ship. It carried a squadron of 24 Marine helicopters, a Battalion Landing Team of 1,500 Marines plus operating rooms and 100-bed hospital.
Our “expedition” couldn’t have gone better. The interview proved to be a scoop that was quoted by the local media and international newswires. Everything on board the ship was awesome. Captain France capped his hospitality by handing us an already engraved Iwo Jima seal of friendship to the magazine. And, above all, he did not decline my invitation to a private dinner at my home in a deserted building on Rue Graham, where he could meet some of my staff.
I had nightmares in the week leading up to the dinner. How do I entertain 14-16 people in a two-bed flat where I am living alone? Who does the cooking? What menu? Lebanese or international?  Who cooks and what when you need to organize a posse to find a kilo of tomatoes or potatoes anywhere in war-ravaged Beirut? And who sits where on a dining table for eight? Will Captain France and his aides find their way to the building? And what if hell broke loose on the night – will they still show up? Any safety precautions I can take?
The inspiration was not late in coming. I opted for a three-pronged division of roles.
Some of our last pictures with Koko in Beirut
Monday Morning’s Micheline Hazou, Claude Khoury, Mona es-Said and the late Lydia Georgi are to sort out all tables, seating, tableware, cutlery and decoration arrangements.
The menu is to be Lebanese mezze, with grilled Mediterranean sea bass as the main course. My able concierge Reda Naji (Abu Ali) orders and takes delivery on the night of the grilled fish from the “half-open” Dbeibo restaurant in Raoushe. Until then, he roams the streets to cater for a mezze to be prepared by his wife and South Lebanon cooking expert Fatmeh. There is nothing I can do about security -- security is the U.S. commander’s domain. He knows better.
To my great relief, all arrangements ran like a Swiss clock on the night in July 1983.
In retrospect, I was right in choosing to leave out Koko from the dinner invitation for professional rather than personal reasons. He would not have wanted to show up anyway without his olive-brown camera shoulder bag, his lenses, his portable flash, his rolls of film and his photography vest.
But he was the superstar at the sendoff barbecue hosted by Micheline at her home the following month. All members of staff attended the get-together as the sendoff was in my honor. I had told them I was bringing down the curtain on my publishing business in Beirut and planning a new one in London.
The thought that it was time for me to go had not left since I sold the Monday Morning title lock, stock and barrel to the late Melhem Karam earlier in the summer.
The late Melhem Karam
(Mr. Karam headed the Lebanese Journalists’ Union for nearly 50 years until his death in May 2010. His takeover of Monday Morning – by then the leading English-language publication in the Middle East and the most widely quoted among them -- was remarkably quick and straightforward. In essence, he dropped by at my office in Wardieh, where 10 minutes into our cordial conversation, we had this candid exchange:
M.K.: Will you sell the title?
-- Yes, if the price is right.
M.K.: I know, but why?
-- Because publishing the magazine during eight years of civil war was daunting. And I don’t think the internecine strife is ending anytime soon.
M.K.: So you don’t have faith in peace and prosperity returning?
-- No, I don’t.
M.K.: Well, I do. I’m optimistic about the country’s future.
The deal was done in a second head-to-head meeting that lasted under one hour. And the change of ownership made the news headlines on government-owned Radio Lebanon).   
It was over two years later that Koko was murdered in his studio.
By then, I had moved to London and launched Mideast Mirror, a daily English-language digest of political and economic news and views in the Arab, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew media. The digests were compiled by correspondents stationed in 11 countries and delivered to subscribers worldwide, including foreign and other ministries, government agencies, embassies, think tanks, research centers, lobbyists, major media and international organizations and specialized groups in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Filing from Beirut for Mideast Mirror three months after its launch in February 1986, was Issa Goraieb, current editor of Lebanon’s French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour.
In his telex of May 25, 1986 around 8 a.m. GMT (noontime in Beirut), he mentioned that two Armenians, one a dentist and the other a photographer, were shot dead in Ras Beirut. He gave no names.
The minute I read the telex, I thought of Koko and asked the late Lydia, Claude and Micheline (who had regrouped with me in London) to try to get through on the phone to Issa or anyone else in Beirut and inquire about the dead photographer’s name.
He turned out to be no other than our baby panda.
To borrow from the French poet François de Malherbe: Koko lived the lifetime of roses -- the span of a morning.

Vladimir Putin on Syria, Iran and the Arab Spring

“No one should be allowed to employ the Libyan scenario in Syria” and if a military strike is initiated against Iran “the consequences will be disastrous” and their “scope” unimaginable.
This stern double-barreled warning comes from Russian Premier Vladimir Putin in an article he just wrote for the daily Moskovskiye Novosti ahead of next Sunday’s presidential elections he is expected to win.
The lengthy, 7,500-word article titled “Russia and the changing world” also focuses on the general conclusions his country made from the Arab Spring.
I have excerpted from the article’s English version the following section pertaining to the Middle East only. Putin writing:
In my previous articles I have discussed some of the key foreign challenges that Russia now faces. This subject deserves more detailed discussion and not only because foreign policy is an integral part of any government strategy. External challenges and the changing world around us are forcing us to make decisions that have implications for our economy, our culture, and our budgetary and investment planning…
The Arab Spring: lessons and conclusions
A year ago the world witnessed a new phenomenon - nearly simultaneous demonstrations against authoritarian regimes in many Arab countries. The Arab Spring was initially received with hope for positive change. People in Russia sympathized with those who were seeking democratic reform.
 However, it soon became clear that events in many countries were not following a civilized scenario. Instead of asserting democracy and protecting the rights of the minority, attempts were being made to depose an enemy and to stage a coup, which only resulted in the replacement of one dominant force with another even more aggressive dominant force.
Foreign interference in support of one side of a domestic conflict and the use of power in this interference gave developments a negative aura. A number of countries did away with the Libyan regime by using air power in the name of humanitarian support. The revolting slaughter of Muammar Gaddafi - not just medieval but primeval - was the manifestation of these actions.
No one should be allowed to employ the Libyan scenario in Syria. The international community must work to achieve an internal Syrian reconciliation. It is important to achieve an early end to the violence no matter what the source, and to initiate a national dialogue - without preconditions or foreign interference and with due respect for the country's sovereignty. This would create the conditions necessary to introduce the measures for democratization announced by the Syrian leadership. The key objective is to prevent an all-out civil war. Russian diplomacy has worked and will continue to work toward this end.
Sadder but wiser, we oppose the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions that may be interpreted as a signal to armed interference in Syria's domestic development. Guided by this consistent approach in early February, Russia and China prevented the adoption of an ambiguous resolution that would have encouraged one side of this domestic conflict to resort to violence.
In this context and considering the extremely negative, almost hysterical reaction to the Russian-Chinese veto, I would like to warn our Western colleagues against the temptation to resort to this simple, previously used tactic: if the UN Security Council approves of a given action, fine; if not, we will establish a coalition of the states concerned and strike anyway.
The logic of such conduct is counterproductive and very dangerous. No good can come of it. In any case, it will not help reach a settlement in a country that is going through a domestic conflict. Even worse, it further undermines the entire system of international security as well as the authority and key role of the UN. Let me recall that the right to veto is not some whim but an inalienable part of the world's agreement that is registered in the UN Charter - incidentally, on U.S. insistence. The implication of this right is that decisions that raise the objection of even one permanent member of the UN Security Council cannot be well grounded or effective.
I hope very much that the United States and other countries will consider this sad experience and will not pursue the use of power in Syria without UN Security Council sanctions. In general, I cannot understand what causes this itch for military intervention. Why isn't there the patience to develop a well-considered, balanced and cooperative approach, all the more so since this approach was already taking shape in the form of the aforementioned Syrian resolution? It only lacked the demand that the armed opposition do the same as the government; in particular, withdraw military units and detachments from cities. The refusal to do so is cynical. If we want to protect civilians - and this is the main goal for Russia - we must make all the participants in the armed confrontation see reason.
And one more point. It appears that with the Arab Spring countries, as with Iraq, Russian companies are losing their decades-long positions in local commercial markets and are being deprived of large commercial contracts. The niches thus vacated are being filled by the economic operatives of the states that had a hand in the change of the ruling regime.
One could reasonably conclude that tragic events have been encouraged to a certain extent by someone's interest in a re-division of the commercial market rather than a concern for human rights. Be that as it may, we cannot sit back watch all this with Olympian serenity. We intend to work with the new governments of the Arab countries in order to promptly restore our economic positions.
Generally, the current developments in the Arab world are, in many ways, instructive. They show that a striving to introduce democracy by use of power can produce - and often does produce -contradictory results. They can produce forces that rise from the bottom, including religious extremists, who will strive to change the very direction of a country's development and the secular nature of a government.
Russia has always had good relations with the moderate representatives of Islam, whose world outlook was close to the traditions of Muslims in Russia. We are ready to develop these contacts further under the current conditions. We are interested in stepping up our political, trade and economic ties with all Arab countries, including those that, let me repeat, have gone through domestic upheaval. Moreover, I see real possibilities that will enable Russia to fully preserve its leading position in the Middle East, where we have always had many friends.
As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, to this day, the "magic recipe" that will produce a final settlement has not been invented. It would be unacceptable to give up on this issue. Considering our close ties with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Russian diplomacy will continue to work for the resumption of the peace process both on a bilateral basis and within the format of the Quartet on the Middle East, while coordinating its steps with the Arab League.
The Arab Spring has graphically demonstrated that world public opinion is being shaped by the most active use of advanced information and communications technology. It is possible to say that the Internet, social networks, cell phones, etc. have turned into an effective tool for the promotion of domestic and international policy on par with television. This new variable has come into play and gives us food for thought - how to continue developing the unique freedoms of communication via the Internet and at the same time reduce the risk of its being used by terrorists and other criminal elements.
The notion of "soft power" is being used increasingly often. This implies a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence. Regrettably, these methods are being used all too frequently to develop and provoke extremist, separatist and nationalistic attitudes, to manipulate the public and to conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries.
There must be a clear division between freedom of speech and normal political activity, on the one hand, and illegal instruments of "soft power," on the other. The civilized work of non-governmental humanitarian and charity organizations deserves every support. This also applies to those who actively criticize the current authorities. However, the activities of "pseudo-NGOs" and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable.
I'm referring to those cases where the activities of NGOs are not based on the interests (and resources) of local social groups but are funded and supported by outside forces. There are many agents of influence from big countries, international blocks or corporations. When they act in the open - this is simply a form of civilized lobbyism. Russia also uses such institutions - the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, International Humanitarian Cooperation, the Russkiy Mir Foundation and our leading universities who recruit talented students from abroad.
However, Russia does not use or fund national NGOs based in other countries or any foreign political organizations in the pursuit of its own interests. China, India and Brazil do not do this either. We believe that any influence on domestic policy and public attitude in other countries must be exerted in the open; in this way, those who wish to be of influence will do so responsibly.
New challenges and threats
Today, Iran is the focus of international attention. Needless to say, Russia is worried about the growing threat of a military strike against Iran. If this happens, the consequences will be disastrous. It is impossible to imagine the true scope of this turn of events.
I am convinced that this issue must be settled exclusively by peaceful means. We propose recognizing Iran's right to develop a civilian nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium. But this must be done in exchange for putting all Iranian nuclear activity under reliable and comprehensive IAEA safeguards. If this is done, the sanctions against Iran, including the unilateral ones, must be rescinded. The West has shown too much willingness to "punish" certain countries. At any minor development it reaches for sanctions if not armed force. Let me remind you that we are not in the 19th century or even the 20th century now...

Saturday 25 February 2012

The “Friends of Syria” charade in Tunis

(Photo from

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud el-Feisal walked out last night from the "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis, deeming it a washout.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Saudi-owned Alarabiya TV, follows through this morning with this op-ed penned in Arabic for the leading Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat:  
I can see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wreathed in smiles watching another failed conference.
He is right to make fun of us. A year of farcical meetings passed without any organization, power or nation in the world challenging his doings.
While his tanks brazenly pound cities, we suffice with argumentative meetings.
Syria’s state-run TV was relaying statements of the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis without qualms since the statements were conveying frustrating messages to the blockaded Syrians.
It would have been a pertinent conference for people hit by famine or an earthquake, not people facing death by heavy weapons every day.
Assad is wreathed in smiles as he sees world demands retrogressing. He is now entreated to agree a pause in the fighting for two hours each day to allow relied aid in to the needy.
In addition, the Tunisian president offered to receive the Syrian president and his family in Tunis. It sounded like Tunisia’s own Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh being under siege waiting for a travel ticket or a visa.
Why would Assad accept the Tunisian president’s invitation and leave Damascus when no one is daring him militarily except thousands of unarmed protesters in the full view of the world media.
The utmost letdown was to hear Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby say the Arab plan is the only solution – one allowing Assad to cling to power and dangle a morsel of meat by co-opting government ministers from the opposition.
This is Syria’s sad tale: yearlong meetings, conferences, solutions and plans while thousands of people get killed, wounded or detained. It’s the sad tale of a population under siege for a year with no letup.
Worse still, the siege is two-pronged: internal and external. The population is prevented from receiving outside help and is prohibited from requesting international intervention.
The Arab League too remains close-fisted, denying even a chair to the people’s representative. Nor has the League offered any kind of assistance to the population, whether civilian or military. Meantime, Russian and Iranian warships continue plying the waters of the Syrian coast to supply the regime with weapons, men or cash without hindrance or objection.
What’s the solution then?
The only way to protect the Syrian people is either through international military intervention to stop the massacres, as was the case in Bosnia and Libya, or through arming the population to defend itself. All other options will perpetuate the crisis and condone the regime massacres.
Humanitarian corridors won’t stop the regime killings. They would simply help tend the wounds of the victims.
Of course, we are all concerned about arming the population. But there is no other choice.
The Arabs lack the muscle. Turkey and NATO don’t want to intervene either, and the Russians are bent on blocking any Security Council resolution mandating international intervention.
All this leaves one solution: arming the Syrian groups by all ways and means. The right of self-defense of person, property and honor does not require endorsement by the Security Council or anyone else.

Friday 24 February 2012

“Friends of Syria” a fiasco -- Saudi Arabia

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud el-Feisal walked out this evening from the "Friends of Syria" conference, deeming it a washout.
Following are some of the remarks he reportedly made at the conference before walking out dismayed at the purple prose of its closing statement:
  • Will the Syrian people see us stand up and be counted or will we suffice with token declarations
  • Is it humane that we suffice with offering relief aid while keeping Syrians at the mercy of a killing machine?
  • The Syrian regime has lost its legitimacy and is akin to an occupation authority
  • The only solution to the crisis is the transfer of authority willingly or otherwise
  • My country cannot be party to any action that won't lead to the prompt protection of Syrian people
  • Arming the Syrian opposition is an excellent proposition 

Moscow’s bad long-distance call to Riyadh

King Abdullah decorating Vladimir Putin with the Order of King Abdulaziz (photo from

Tariq Alhomayed, editor in chief of Saudi Arabia's leading daily Asharq Alawsat, says Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's long-distance call to Saudi King Abdullah was meant to throw today's "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis into confusion.
Looking at the wider picture, Lebanese analyst Rajeh el-Khoury says the monarch's curt response to Medvedev's explanation of the Russian position on Syria is proof the Arab-Islamic world's relations with Moscow are now on the downgrade.
Medvedev got on the telephone Wednesday to make three long-distance calls to explain Russia’s position on Syria. His explanation fell on receptive ears in Tehran and Baghdad but didn’t sit well with the Saudi monarch in Riyadh.
King Abdullah told the Russian president, "It would have been better if our Russian friends coordinated with the Arabs before using the veto in the Security Council" to block a resolution co-opting the Arab League peace plan.
“But now, any dialogue about the situation (in Syria) would be futile… We cannot forsake our moral and religious stance in Syria,” the Saudi state news agency SPA quoted the Saudi monarch as telling the Russian president.
In his editorial, Alhomayed describes the conversation as “uncommon” and “historic” in that “it drew a clear line between someone who wants to protect the killer of Syrians and someone who wants to protect them.”
In suggesting negotiations at this time, “the Russians clearly aim to bypass the ‘Friends of Syria’ conference, otherwise why didn’t they champion such a dialogue before? Why didn’t they -- on the same day Medvedev phoned the monarch -- publicly urge the Damascus tyrant to stop the killings and lift the Homs blockade? The answer is self-evident. They want to muddle the ‘Friends of Syria’ conference.”
King Abdullah, Alhomayed continues, took similar firm positions in his contacts with U.S. presidents over the years. He was the one to write George W. Bush telling him Saudi-U.S. relations were at risk if Washington did nothing to protect the Palestinians. He was the one to tell Bill Clinton:  “Mr. President, friendship has limits as well,” when the latter urged him to be more positive vis-à-vis Israel’s leaders. He was the one to stand up for protecting Syria after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, despite the enormity of the tragedy. And King Abdullah was also the one to take the floor at the Arab summit in Riyadh to declare that the U.S. Army in Iraq is an occupation army.
In contrast, says Alhomayed, Russia this week agreed to a daily two-hour cease-fire in Syria so emergency aid can reach beleaguered Syrian civilians. “Russia in other words, is telling Assad: Kill people 22 hours a day and spare their lives during the remaining two. That’s the difference between the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the values of those striving to protect the children-killer in Syria.
“That’s why the telephone conversation was both historic and uncommon.”
Rajeh el-Khoury, in Annahar, says the exchange between Medvedev and King Abdullah is bound to negatively affect Saudi-Russian ties as well as relations between the Arab-Islamic world and Moscow.
Though the conversation was brief, the monarch’s “curt response” to Medvedev’s “explanation” was effectively “an outcry in Moscow’s face.”
Khoury says the king used the words “our Russian friends” during the exchange because Riyadh had tried hard to refute claims it was a satellite in the U.S. orbit. The monarch must have had in mind his own ice-breaking 2003 trip to Russia and Vladimir Putin’s return visit to Riyadh in February 2007, when he was decorated with the Order of King Abdulaziz.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Nothing bright for Syria yet -- just blues

Homs victims Remi Ochlik and Mary Colvin (photos from

Barack Obama sang Sweet Home Chicago at a White House blues concert on Tuesday night. But Lebanese political analyst Zuhair Qusaybati suggests it’s the U.S. president himself who continues giving the beleaguered Syrians the blues.
Writing today for the pan-Arab Saudi-owned daily al-Hayat, of which he is the Beirut bureau chief, Qusaybati says he can only hear what he calls “The Tune of Deceit in Syria.”
Qusaybati explains:
Obama sings the blues… Why not? The president finds the time for a concert at the White House and is good at entertaining guests. He is also good at biting Iran with his teeth of “sanctions” and Syria with the teeth of “isolation.” He is also playing the strings for the “Arab Spring” at no cost to America.
An American journalist and a French photographer were killed in Syria hours after the blues concert at the White House. The likely misjudgment of Mary Colvin and Remi Ochlik, was that they hastened to Homs to find out the truth about who is killing whom and who is opposing what.
Wasn’t that supposed to be the job of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who still does not know who the Syrian regime opponents are or what “their nature” is? It seems America’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is better informed about the opposition’s “disorganization.” But he comes to a decision that the opposition allowed al-Qaeda to infiltrate its ranks. Accordingly, responsibility for the massacres in Homs and elsewhere is apportioned equally among “terrorists,” armed insurgents and soldiers under orders to foil the “conspiracy.”
Obama sings the blues while bereaved survivors of Syria’s killing machine can’t even bury their dead. And while Obama sings, Damascus plays the Russian tune and Vladimir Putin pumps his muscles before returning to the presidency in a few days.
After his heavy verbal bombardment of the Syrian regime, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is meanwhile keeping his ears open to Obama’s chords and the Kremlin’s melodies. At the same time, he is biding his time to get to know the “Friends of Syria” who will be assembling in Tunis tomorrow. He might also be waiting for the results of next Sunday’s “referendum” on Syria’s new constitution that will purportedly end the Baath’s one-party rule.
Despite their clash at the UN and in the Security Council, Washington and Moscow are ironically one in casting doubt on the identity, goals and intentions of the Syrian opposition.
The White House’s “conscience” supposedly cannot put up with “militarization.” Hence, it continues to hedge its bets on the Syrian regime buckling under the weight of “soft sanctions.” Russia, in turn, gloats over the mantra of seeking to avert the dire fallouts of the “conspiracy.” Even humanitarian corridors are anathema to the Russians. Their sequential priorities: reform steps, cessation of violence and then humanitarian aid to whoever survives.
Syrian citizens are looking for friends. They are searching for graves to bury victims of a killing machine hiding at the rear of a joint American-Russian blitz on the legitimacy of the Syrian opposition and behind requiem music for the repose of national dialogue.
Obama sings the blues, Putin plays the requiem soundtrack and Erdogan is pricking up his ears.  

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Syria: A behind-the-scenes account

Russia's Syria-bound MV Chariot off the coast of Limassol last month (photo from

Brig. Gen. Fayez Qaddour Omar, head of the Military Pilot School in Aleppo, defected to Turkey last week and has been staying there since.
The Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat was able to catch up with him for an exclusive interview published today and datelined Antakya, seat of Hatay province in southeast Turkey, close to the border with Syria.
The interview sheds light on the current state of play in Syria.
The Questions and Answers in full:
When did you decide to defect?
The moment tanks were used against civilians in Deraa and Homs. First, I thought I could serve the revolution by staying put. But I went ahead and defected at the stage where I had to give orders to open fire against my people. Many officers are in a similar position.
In what state is the army now?
It’s in a miserable state. Every commander is now watched over by three or four security chaperons loyal to the regime. A number of Alawite officers who were about to desert held back because of such concerns. You now find security minders in all military formations – so much so that there is a shortage of them to suppress protesters. Every military detachment comprises security minders. Each and every military operation in any area is led either by a military security officer or by an air force security officer.
The Syrian army says it is fighting armed gangs, not civilians…
I defy the top most intelligence agency anywhere in the world to prove there are armed gangs. No weapons have been smuggled into Syria save for Kalashnikovs… Some flawed weapons were smuggled to the opposition side by way of Hezbollah, such as faulty rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) that don’t fire or faulty ammunition packed with TNT to hurt the user.
The opposition had no weapons at all throughout the first five months of the uprising. But the regime forced them to take up arms when it started preparing for an empire along the coastline. The regime is scorching Homs to then declare it the statelet’s capital. Homs is on its deathbed.
You were based in Aleppo. Why, in your opinion, has it not joined the uprising yet?
For two reasons: One, its general public is culturally blighted and ignorant.  It has been brainwashed too. And 90 percent of Aleppians are not politicized while the remaining 10 percent are unreliable elitists. The second reason is the local businesses cashing in on the situation. In Aleppo, the regime permitted the impermissible.
But Aleppians now feel violence knocking at their door. I expect a drastic change in Aleppo in the days or weeks to come. But the Aleppo suburbs have been on fire since Day One, except that the media has overlooked them.
What’s your reading of the security situation and the regime’s state?
There are massacres still unknown to the outside world. I am convinced that about 2,000 people were killed in Homs during its first intifada. Garbage trucks spent four days collecting bodies while the Homs fire brigade was splashing the streets. Those responsible for the mass killing were later liquidated in a bloody purge. Twenty people were killed in the funeral for the 190 others massacred in Tal el-Nasr.
What about the state of the regime?
I noticed in the course of my monthly meetings with senior officers that the regime is bent on the security option. It does not admit the existence of civil unrest until this day. It says the (conspiracy) targets the whole regime, not only Bashar al-Assad.
How does the regime view international developments so far?
Every international development has the regime on its nerves. It shudders when the United States calls on Assad to stand down. But it takes heart when the United States rules out military intervention. One negative statement from the United States shortens the regime’s life by a month.
I am convinced the regime is on its last leg. I realized this after reading circulars it sends around. The state of the army is precarious. It falls short at times of food supplies. Some soldiers hold citizens at checkpoints they are manning to deter attack.
What did you mean by “circulars”?
I know members of the People’s Assembly (parliament) who are under house arrest. They can’t move from place to another without security authorization. Travel overseas was banned some six weeks ago. A recent circular carrying 70 directives banned almost everything without security authorization, including visits to embassies.
What about the army’s condition on the ground?
As I said, the regime stands on its last leg. It is prepared to kill 20 million Syrian to survive. Its military forces are deployed everywhere across the country. Not a single military unity has been spared deployment, including university training units. Officers and soldiers from one university training camp were executed for refusing orders to crack down on demonstrators. The Civil Defense units and Popular Army units have been called up as well.
The regime is at the same time amassing troops close to the (Mediterranean) coast. I am almost certain it is inclined to declare a sectarian state. I wouldn’t want to identify its nature now.
Was there any such hint at top brass meetings?
Only in a desultory way, but as a military commander I am familiar with nuances.
Are there Salafists fighting alongside the Syrian Free Army?
Anyone saying Salafists are fighting alongside the Syrian Free Army is wrong. Fighting under the Syrian Free Army banner are the defectors and some citizens.
…And al-Qaeda operatives as well?
God forbid. The man responsible for the al-Qaeda File in Syria is Maj. Gen. Adib Nimr Salameh who, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has been in charge of moving the operatives back and forth between Iraq and Syria.
Is it true the army is short of ammunition?
The regime would have been in crisis, if it were not for the (mid-January) delivery of a load of ammunition by a Russian ship (i.e. the Chariot).
Are there Russian and Iranian advisors in Syria?
Both are there. The Russians have arms contracts with Syria worth billions of dollars. Fifty Iranian advisors are at the Jandar power plant, which only requires one. There are Iranians in Aleppo and in some chiefly Shiite villages north of city. They’ve even shaved their beards for disguise. Some have also come in via Lebanon.
Do they play any active role in the events?
Absolutely -- as torturers and suppliers of torture implements (to the regime).
How did you flee Syria?
The flight involved a three-day journey fraught with danger. I wanted to leave through Lebanon except that Hezbollah rules Lebanon, where many deserters were arrested and then handed over to the regime.
What about your family?
I was able to secure their safe exit from Syria before I left.
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