Thursday 31 May 2012

Syria crisis: "Try Russia’s ambassadors next"

Vladimir Putin file photo

France, Canada, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Turkey and the Netherlands have all expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats this week over the Syrian regime’s May 25 Houla massacre.
The expulsions mean nothing to Damascus, says columnist Rajeh al-Khoury, writing Thursday for the independent Lebanese daily an-Nahar.
He recalls how President Bashar al-Assad’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, told a press conference in June 2011: “We will forget Europe is on the map, and we will turn to the east, to the south and all directions that extend a hand to Syria. The world is not only Europe…”
Muallem later erased the Arab League and Gulf countries from the Arab map as well, Khoury remarks.
Annan told reporters after his talks with Assad in Damascus this week, “We are at a tipping point. I appealed to him for bold steps now – not tomorrow, now – to create momentum for implementation of the (six-point) plan.”
According to Annan, Assad’s response was that “success of the plan depends on the end of terrorist acts and those who support them and the smuggling of weapons.”
Effectively, Khoury writes, the Syrian president sent Annan packing -- to Lebanon and Jordan, for instance.
Notwithstanding the Houla massacre perpetrated by regime forces and documented by UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, or the global expulsions of Syrian diplomats, Russia is still blocking UN Security Council measures or sanctions against Syria.
Khoury thus wonders, “Without having to expel Russian diplomats from their capitals or even withdraw their own diplomats from Moscow, when do Arab and Islamic countries plan to summon the Russian ambassadors for consultations over the bias of Russia, which is seeking to regain its hegemonic status albeit at the price of a civil war in Syria?”
Political analyst Rosanna Boumounsef, who also writes a daily column for an-Nahar, today says the Houla massacre greatly embarrassed the Russians. They had no choice but to halfheartedly go along with the Security Council press statement blaming the Syrian government for attacking residential areas of Houla with artillery and tank shelling and also condemned the close-range killings of civilians there.
Remarkably, she notes, the Arab League and the Arabs generally seem totally marginalized on Syria. “For instance, the Arab League Council of Ministers will not be meeting on Houla before next Saturday, when differences among members states of the UN Security Council did not prevent them meeting on the same issue last Sunday.”  
Boumounsef says all eyes will now focus on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin and French President Francois Hollande in Paris this week and U.S. President Barak Obama at the G20 summit in Mexico in June. All three Western leaders will surely be trying to shift Putin’s stance on Syria.
But what are the chances of them succeeding?
Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator and host for Russia's first 24-hour radio news station Kommersant FM who was diplomatic correspondent for Izvestia and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor, ponders those chances in his new weekly column for RIA Novosti.
Egert writes:
Moscow did not protest, but rather joined in signing the UN Security Council statement condemning the massacre of civilians in the Syrian town of Houla. Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov told his British counterpart William Hague that the survival of the Assad regime is not as important as stopping the violence in Syria. But has there really been a change of heart?
For now, the evidence is pretty slim. Official Moscow still blames both the opposition and the government forces for the bloodshed, while simultaneously actively peddling the Syrian regime’s propaganda line that it is at war with “foreign-sponsored terrorists.” Russian diplomats hint that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supplying arms and money to the rebels. Rumors that yet another freighted ship, loaded with Russian arms, was heading toward the Syrian coast surfaced as recently as last week. Still other reports indicate that there was a sharp fall in Russian diesel fuel supplies to Damascus.
The signals are contradictory at best. It is clear, though, that the essence of Russian policy toward Syria remains the same: no regime change. In this respect, the Russian line is dictated even more by Vladimir Putin’s deeply held conviction that the West is out to get all the regimes it considers to be unfriendly than by his wish to protect Russia’s interests in Syria – mostly the naval station in the port of Tartus and contracts to supply arms to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Not that the latter are completely unimportant, but it seems that the Russian president uses the Syrian example to prove that Russia will never allow anyone, including the UN, to decide who is going to rule which country. The Kremlin’s deeply held view of sovereignty as an unlimited right for political regimes to do as they please inside their states is one of the cornerstones of Russian foreign policy, and it has been especially dominant since the war in Libya. Putin feels that the West duped Russia into de facto sanctioning international intervention in Libya, and seemingly vowed never to let it happen again. This may be a vow he will not be able to keep.
As the violence escalates in Syria, and as the Syrian dictator shows no sign of abandoning his methods, Russia’s favorite approach to crisis resolution looks ever less likely to succeed. Moscow would have liked to be among the several mediators ensuring a Yemeni-style easing of Assad out of the presidential chair and replacing him with one of the less notorious regime figures. This was the solution in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was given a ticket to honorable retirement after 34 years in the presidential palace in Sanaa. His vice president succeeded him. But the intensity of civil war in Yemen is incomparable to what goes on in Syria. In this poor Arabian state the armed forces effectively split, prompting the sheikhs and the politicians to sit at the negotiating table in order to avoid a civil war 50 years down the line.
Not so in Syria, where, supported by Moscow and Beijing, the Assad clan thinks it can ultimately suppress the opposition and appease the country, although at a high cost. Western countries, reluctant as they are to apply a military solution, may be left with nothing to do but use some kind of military measures against the Assad regime. Most of the other means of applying pressure have already been used to no avail. It may have seemed impossible just a month ago, but today it looks increasingly likely that a new “coalition of the willing” may well be cobbled together in order to put an end to the bloodshed. To say that this would be a risky endeavor is to say nothing. However, ultimately there is little doubt that the Syrian army will be no match even against a coalition of second-tier NATO allies.
The Kremlin will never sanction a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. But, as a senior Russian diplomat told me a few weeks ago, “If the West wants to burden itself with Syria, well, we cannot prevent it from doing so. But the Western countries will then be wholly responsible for the outcome.” The United States and the EU seem to be nudging closer to the notion that they have to be true to their own values to stay in the Middle Eastern game. Moscow can afford to step aside. However, Moscow will still have to be prepared to pay a serious price in whatever remains of its prestige in the region.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

How Egypt’s Brotherhood is helping Shafiq

Unchecked blunders by the Muslim Brotherhood could crown Ahmed Shafiq as Egypt’s head of state, according to Egyptian media star and talk show host Imad Adeeb.
Ahmed Shafiq
Shafiq, ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, faces Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi, the other finalist in the June 16-17 presidential runoff vote.
Adeeb, writing today for the leading Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, says, “Should Ahmed Shafiq win the presidential race, it would be a consequence of the other side’s faults.”
His argument:
Two days ago, persons unknown attacked Shafiq’s campaign HQ in the Dokki area of Giza, where they tore campaign flyers and leaflets and smashed computers. The attack spurred a public outcry, chiefly among Shafiq’s followers.
Egyptian citizens are yearning for stability based on law and order and better living conditions. Far from slogans, electoral platforms and electioneering rhetoric, most Egyptians long for a strong, willing and able head of state to run a country in turmoil.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s blunders since mismanaging the January 23 opening session of the People’s Assembly “probably explain the general public’s loss of faith in its ability, and the ability of its key figures, to run the affairs of state.”
Nothing else explains “why the Muslim Brotherhood garnered 10 million votes in the parliamentary elections and not more than 5.7 million ballots for Mursi four months later in the first round of the presidential polls.”
This confirms “a loss of faith in the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Justice and Freedom Party.”
The more the Muslim Brotherhood resorts to parliament and its partisans to shut out Gen. Shafiq, the stronger his political backing. Seeking to “exclude or isolate” competitors provokes Egyptian voters. “Fear of the Muslim Brotherhood becoming heavy-handed” amplifies their defiance and obstinacy.
The only hope for the Muslim Brotherhood winning the presidency is an ultra-quick shift “from exclusion tactics to fair play.”
Tariq Alhomayed, Asharq Alawsat’s editor-in-chief, tells Egyptian voters their choice in about a fortnight is not so much between Mursi and Shafiq as between a religious or civil state.
His line of reasoning:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s “General Guide” -- or supreme leader Mohamed Badie – chose Mursi to run as an “alternate” candidate after the electoral vetting commission barred the group’s charismatic strongman Khairat el-Shater from standing. A Mursi victory would be a case of the Brotherhood supreme leader ruling Egypt “from behind the hijab.”
In a way, Egypt under Mursi would be following in the footsteps of:
-- Iran, where the president of the republic is subordinate to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
-- Hamas, whose elected head is Ismail Haniyeh and actual leader is Khaled Meshaal, and
-- Iraq, where elections are held from time to time but the final word invariably stays with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Houla accounts eclipse Annan and Assad

The Houla massacre has totally eclipsed UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s talks today with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
The UN helping count Houla bodies (Photo from
Jihad el-Khazen, a renowned and veteran Arab journalist who is usually softspoken, says Houla marks the end of Assad.
“There are bodies of 35-to-50 children who were either shot or knifed to death,” the former editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned pan-Arab dailies Asharq Alawsat and al-Hayat writes today in his column for the latter.
“I don’t see the outside world, whether Arab or European, remaining mum this time. Public opinion wants more than words from leaders.
“I can see two possibilities, but not a third: Either the regime disappearing by international consensus à la Yemen or an open-ended civil war. Long term, I frankly can’t see Dr. Bashar al-Assad remaining as president.
“…We’ve had thousands of fatalities so far and more are in the offing. There’s no end in sight for the Syrian crisis. But the Houla massacre marks the point of no return for the regime and its men.”
Ghassan Charbel, al-Hayat’s current editor-in-chief, writes in his editorial today, “Damascus is not accustomed to international envoys coming to question its doings on Syrian territory. It didn’t accept that previously, whether the envoys carried warnings or words of advise. Syria was used to receiving envoys soliciting its help to control this or that regional fire. That stage is gone. Syria is now an ailing state.”
Charbel continues, “The Syrian government couldn’t have shut out Annan today. It is receiving him, not because he carries a magic panacea for its ills but because it wants to keep Russia and China on its side… Syria would not have welcomed Annan had it succeeded in stifling the protests. Russia gave it the time to do so, but it failed… The scenes coming out of Houla have now burdened Syria’s allies. Proof was the UN Security Council condemnation of the massacre. Russia was able to soften the censor but failed to stop it.”
In New York, Human Rights Watch said Annan should push Syria’s government to allow the UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry access into the country to investigate the killing of at least 108 Houla residents. The Syrian government has so far refused entry to the UN-mandated commission. Human Rights Watch also reiterated its call to the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Survivors of the Houla attack have meantime spoken to the BBC, which published their accounts on its website.
Here is what it quoted them as saying:
Hamza Omar, opposition activist based in Houla
"The shabiha militias attacked the houses. They had no mercy. We took pictures of children, under 10 years [old], their hands tied, and shot at close-range, from 10cm, just 10cm. By knife they cut their neck, not exactly all his neck, but they make a hole in the neck, a hole in his eyes."
Rasha Abdul Razaq, survivor
"We were in the house, they went in, the Shabiha and security, they went in with Kalashnikovs and automatic rifles.
We asked them what was going on and they told us to go inside. We said: 'What is it? What do you want?’ They said: 'Take everything out, whatever you are hiding,' and we told them: 'We are not hiding anything'.
They took us to a room, and hit my father on the head with the back of a rifle and shot him straight in the chin.
They took us inside and told us to gather in the corner of the room. A man started shooting in the air so we all hid behind my mother. We were about 15 people.
Then they opened fire. After they shot us they started to step on us, and one of the men asked the other to check whether we were all dead. Then they went outside and started shooting in the air.
We were eight siblings, including myself, and my sister-in-law and her son -- she was also six months pregnant. With us as well were my father, my uncle's wife and her daughter, as well as our neighbor and her three kids.
My aunt and her two daughters -- one of them was only injured and she's here with me -- she is one month old, the other one died. We were all in the house.
I survived with my mother and the one-month-old girl and my sister. They shot at us but we survived.
What's going to happen to us? When we hear that the army and the security is coming we start running in the streets, we are afraid they would repeat what they did to us the other day.
There were 100 houses in the neighborhood; they killed everyone inside. They went into people's houses and opened fire and killed them all.”
Rasha Abdul Razaq's mother, survivor
"He [an attacker] said: 'We are from the mountain there, from Fulla,' so I said: 'We are neighbors then, we don't have any terrorists here,' and he said: 'You are the terrorists'. They thought I was dead. It was thanks to God that I survived. He was shooting my kids and yelling. Please get my daughter and me some protection -- we are staying now in different people's houses. We are worried they will liquidate us.”
Anonymous, survivor
"We were opening our houses to them, we thought they were the army, and that they were doing inspections.
One of them told me: 'Go back inside, your turn is next'. I was with my husband and kids. So I got my husband's army service card, I thought maybe they would not bother with us when they see it. But I only survived because one of them shot another by mistake, and he yelled: 'I need help, Fakher was shot'. That kept them busy while we ran away, bullets were flying around us, from the army and the shabiha."
Anonymous, survivor
"When they opened the door, I was still with them in the room. I was standing behind the door of the living room. They took my brothers outside, and I hid on the attic. All I could hear was gunfire; it felt like the whole house was shaking.
I opened the door, and I saw bodies, I couldn't recognize my kids from my brothers. It was indescribable. I have three children; I lost three children. I am shaking, I'm shaking as I'm speaking to you."
Um Mohammed, survivor
"We fled Friday night... They are targeting us with rockets and killing people… We fled through the plantations bombed here, bombed there. I don't know how we made it to the good people. As we walked the snipers targeted us, we hide between the plantations."
Um Abdullah, survivor
"Rockets and bombardments everywhere … I don't have any news of my own family. Why are you not intervening? All the corpses are piling up. If it were a foreign country all countries would have intervened. Come and remove all these corpses from the streets."
Akrama Bakour, Free Syrian Army, Houla
"There were two massacres. The first happened on the Sadd road and started at around 2:30pm on Friday afternoon.
The second massacre happened around 11pm, on the road at the main entrance of Taldou, facing the military security point.
On the Fulla-Taldou road -- 500m to 700m from Fulla village -- this village is supportive of the regime -- a van, two pickup trucks and a group of motorcycles came from that village.
They entered the neighborhood, and met a shepherd at the entrance. His name is Mahmoud al-Kurdi, and he was with his daughter-in-law and his four grandsons. They shot them, killing them all except the daughter-in-law. She was shot in the thigh and belly area but she is still alive.
They then entered the house of Samir Abdul Razaq. He was killed with his children -- Sawsan, Houda, Jouzila and Nada. And his daughter-in-law Halloum El Khlaf, six months pregnant, with her son Ala'a Abdul Razaq, and Samir's sister-in-law Khaloud El Khalaf, and her daughter, Rahaf Al Hussein -- but her daughter Zahra Al Hussein was shot twice but survived.
Samir's wife was hit with the back of the rifles but she fainted and is now still alive. Also among the victims in this house were four kids whose father is Fadi al-Kurdi.
The next house they entered was the house of Qutayba Abdul Razaq, he survived and his one-year-old daughter was injured. He lost his wife and five of his children.
All of those I'm counting died by gunshots, direct fire. They were gathered in one room and shot. There was one kid however whose head was skinned with a knife. The knife was found among the bodies and we have its picture.
The third house belongs to Nidal Abdul Razaq, his wife and four of his children were killed, and he and one of his children are still alive.
Adel Abdul Razaq -- his whole family, a wife and six children.
Mustafa Abdul Razaq was killed with his four daughters, his wife and his daughter in law.
Ayman Abdul Razaq -- all of his six children were killed as was his wife, one of the children was disabled.
Abdul Khalek Abdul Razaq -- his wife and daughter survived gunshots but he lost six other children and his daughter-in-law and her three children.
Abdul Rahman Abdul Razaq lost his wife, his five daughters and 11 grandchildren as well as his six daughters-in-law and four of his sons. He still has two who are still alive; one is called Firas and the other Rateb. This massacre was of 27 people in the same room.
Also killed in the massacre were Yaacoub Hussein Abdul Razaq, Mohammad Shafiq Abdul Razaq, Mohammad Abbara and his daughter Amina and her family of seven."

Monday 28 May 2012

The whodunit answer to Houla massacre


“Syria’s foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi categorically denied government responsibility for the Houla massacre, saying a military judiciary committee was set up to investigate, and its findings will be made public in three days. If the regime is so confident of its innocence, why does it not involve a team from UNSMIS [United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria] in the investigation so the findings can be completely aboveboard?”

Sunday 27 May 2012

Houla massacre elicits UN Security Council empty rhetoric

Houla victims' mass grave

The UN Security Council issued the following press statement overnight, which was read by Council President Agshin Mehdiyev (Azerbaijan):
“The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of El-Houleh, near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of Government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood.  The members of the Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse. The members of the Security Council extended their profound sympathies and sincere condolences to the families of the victims, and underscored their grave concern about the situation of civilians in Syria.
Such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government under United Nations Security Council resolutions 2042 (2012) and 2043 (2012) to cease violence in all its forms, including the cessation of use of heavy weapons in population centers.  The members of the Security Council reiterated that all violence in all its forms by all parties must cease.  Those responsible for acts of violence must be held accountable.  The members of the Security Council requested the Secretary-General, with the involvement of UNSMIS [United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria], to continue to investigate these attacks and report the findings to the Security Council.
The members of the Security Council demanded that the Government of Syria immediately cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and immediately pull back its troops and its heavy weapons from in and around population centers and return them to their barracks.
The members of the Security Council reaffirmed their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the Charter.
The members of the Security Council reiterated their full support to the efforts of the Joint Special Envoy for the implementation of his six-point plan in its entirety and requested him to convey in the clearest terms to the Syrian parties, and in particular the Syrian Government, the demands of the Security Council.”

Assad’s crime, Hariri’s jet and Nasrallah’s bus

Houla bodies awaiting burial (Photo from

Rage at the Houla massacre by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad is universal.
The UN has confirmed the deaths of at least 90 civilians in the Syrian town, including 32 children under the age of 10 (see yesterday’s post).
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the massacre was a “flagrant violation of international law.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the atrocity “appalling,” saying Assad’s “rule by murder and fear must come to an end.” She added in a statement, “Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was heading to Moscow today to discuss Syria. “Will call on Russia to support rapid and unequivocal pressure on Assad regime and accountability for crimes,” he wrote in his Twitter micro-blog late on Saturday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is making immediate arrangements for an immediate meeting of the “Friends of Syria” group.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan called for an urgent Arab League meeting.
But Saudi daily al-Watan’s leader writer remarks, “While its appears the Assad regime wants to live all alone in Syria, the Damascus tyrant and his corrupt clique seem fully convinced all international efforts to save the Syrian people from their atrocities are not serious… The Great Powers’ intricate national interests and political calculations preclude all root solutions liable to end the bloodbath in Syria.”
Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the leading Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, says the Houla massacre “is not the regime’s first and won’t be its last.”
Like always, the regime chose an opportune occasion to commit the outrage “when the whole region was busy following the outcome and implications of the presidential elections in Egypt.”
Alhomayed says the problem is not with the lack of words condemning Assad’s rule, but in the lack of deeds. “Assad overstepped all taboos and red lines and committed all sorts of crimes against humanity. He did everything and the international community did little other than issue statements, knowing that their economic sanctions are being flouted by Iraq, Lebanon and Russia…
“What Syria needs today are not declarations, or extending and fiddling with the Annan mission, which is suspect anyway. What Syrians need is foreign military intervention to stop the killing machine that has been running far too long and is now mowing down children and their mothers.”
Jet versus bus
Separately, the fate and whereabouts of a group of Lebanese pilgrims who were abducted in Syria earlier this week (see May 23 post) remains shrouded in mystery.
Ahmad Ayyash, writing for the independent Beirut daily an-Nahar, notes, “`Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did not go to Bintjbeil in southernmost Lebanon to mark the 12th anniversary of Liberation Day. He remained stuck underground in Beirut’s southern suburbs and addressed the Bintjbeil crowds by TV link. So, after all these years, the South returned to Lebanon without Nasrallah returning to the South.
“In the other setting, Saad Hariri’s diligent initiative to end the plight of the Lebanese abducted in Aleppo, and his dispatch of his private jet (to Turkey) in preparation to flying them home, earned the former prime minister praise from the audience in Hezbollah’s southern suburbs stronghold. That was unthinkable before the Lebanese bus travelers were nabbed in Aleppo.
“But like Nasrallah, Hariri is stuck somewhere outside Lebanon because of fear for his life. Proof was last month’s attempted assassination of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea (see earlier post).
“Whereas the Lebanese travelers’ incident caused a stir internally, it did not change Nasrallah or Hariri’s priorities.
“The former thanked Syrian President Assad after God for efforts to solve the case of the missing Lebanese travelers. The gratitude sounded shocking for the flimsy reasons he cited to laud Assad.
“The latter (Hariri) chose to place his initiative in its Lebanese context, thus putting his solidarity with the missing Lebanese travelers on a par with his commitment to the just cause of the Syrian revolution.”
With Syria’s inferno raging out of control, Ayyash continues, word came that the abducted Lebanese were safe, allaying fears of a repeat of the Ain el-Remmaneh bus massacre that sparked off the Lebanese civil war in April 1975. This is to say the Syrian rebels proved to be “more civilized than the Lebanese,” even though Hezbollah destroyed the reputation of Lebanon’s Shiites in the eyes of Syria’s rebels and the Aleppo bus passengers of the same sect.
“It is extremely insensitive to see Lebanese, chiefly Nasrallah, link their fate to the Syrian tyrant’s. When Nasrallah was expressing his gratitude to Assad, the latter’s shabiha (thugs) were committing one of the most atrocious massacres of modern times in Houla, near Homs. Weren’t Houla’s tiny victims worthy of a tear?”
Ayyash says while Hariri’s jet remains on standby to fly back the abducted Lebanese home, “Nasrallah seems to belong to the ‘Ain el-Remmaneh bus’ generation.” 

Saturday 26 May 2012

Syria: Houla children slain, Ban whines, Moscow ferrying arms

Slain children and woman (right) in Houla
The opposition Syrian National Council declared three days of national mourning and urged the UN Security Council to take deterrent measures against the Syrian regime under Chapter VII in reaction to a horrific massacre in the Homs suburb of Houla.
At least 88 people were killed in Friday’s outrage, almost 50 of them women and children.

BREAKING NEWS: UN mission chief General Robert Mood said in a statement the monitors had counted more than 92 bodies in Houla, and called the incident a "brutal tragedy." The statement said, 

"This morning UN military and civilian observers went to Houla and counted more than 32 children and over 60 adults killed."

The SNC “called on the Free Syrian Army to prevent regime militias from reaching civilian areas by blockading roads by all possible means.” It also pushed for an urgent Arab League Ministerial Council meeting to cut all residual diplomatic and economic ties with Damascus.
The SNC said some 300 were wounded in Houla, as government forces shelled and attacked the town. It said some victims were killed by mortar shelling, while knives slaughtered others.
It reported on its website Houla “was shelled for 12 consecutive hours. The shelling was followed by a massacre carried out by shabiha thugs and regime mercenaries… (who) slaughtered women and children. Some families were able to escape with the help of activists, while the fate of other families remains unknown.“
The SNC’s acting-president Burhan Ghalioun told reporters, "What happened in Houla is a systematic crime intended to stoke sectarian fires in the country. UN envoy Kofi Annan must head to Houla as soon as he arrives in Syria so he can witness firsthand what happened there. He said, "I told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and the monitors I spoke to that Kofi Annan cannot continue his mission after the massacres that have taken place, as he visits Damascus without batting an eyelash."
The army and security forces killed at least 20 other civilians elsewhere in Syria after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets after Friday prayers.
U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon warned Friday the risk of all-out conflict was growing in Syria where groups fighting President Bashar Assad now control "significant parts of some cities.”
"There is a continuing crisis on the ground, characterized by regular violence, deteriorating humanitarian conditions, human rights violations and continued political confrontation," he said in his 13-page report dated Friday, which is to be debated by the UN Security Council next week.
He said UN monitors noted “continued Syrian army troops concentrations and heavy weapons in population centers…
“There are continuing reports of a stepped-up security crackdown by the authorities that has led to massive violations of human rights by Government militias, including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearance and summary execution of activists, opponents, and defectors…
“There are continuing reports that thousands of Syrians are being detained in a network of Government-run facilities of different kinds… The pace and scale of access to, and release, of detainees is unacceptable given the commitment of the Government…
“There has also been some, but not enough, improvement in entry and freedom of movement of journalists in Syria… However, the Government still requires that journalists seek specific permission in advance for in-country travel, which is often not forthcoming. They are often only permitted short stays that do not facilitate in-depth reporting…
Anti-Assad demonstrators in Binnish near Idlib yesterday
“The obligation of the Syrian government to respect the freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully is clearly not being observed… Credible information indicates that, after the observers left (the Aleppo University on 9 May 9, 2012, Government and irregular elements fired tear gas and live ammunition in the air, raided the campus and killed between two and five students in addition to arresting up to 200….
“While demonstrations are carried out in many other parts of the country, many have reportedly been broken up with the use of live ammunition and lethal force, and arbitrary arrests of protesters. It is clear that the broad context of intimidation and human rights violations does not constitute an environment in which citizens can express their opinions or demonstrate freely…
“Most elements of the (Annan) six-point proposal have yet to be implemented.”
Ban said UN efforts to end the conflict had seen only "small progress", adding that the "overall situation in Syria remains extremely serious".
"Professor Katsman" is said to be carrying Russian weapons to Tartus
On the day Ban also urged Member States not to arm either side in the conflict, a Russian cargo ship loaded with weapons was reported to be en route to Syria and due to arrive at Tartus port this weekend.
One diplomat told Reuters a Maltese firm, which is owned by a Cypriot company that is owned by a Russian firm, owns the vessel, which is called “Professor Katsman.”

Friday 25 May 2012

Egypt Brothers' Mursi to face (?) in June runoff

Who will Mohamed Mursi (left) face in the June runoff?

With counting underway after two days of voting in Egypt’s first free and transparent presidential elections, Egyptian media superstar and talk show host Imad Adeeb is in no doubt: “None of the 13 candidates will win an outright majority.”
He expects a June 16-17 runoff between the top two candidates to pit the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi against one of four other frontrunners.
His likely challenger in the runoff will either be moderate Islamist Abdelmoneim Abulfotouh, or one of three liberals -- ex-premier Ahmed Shafiq, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa or leftist Hamdeen Sabahi.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s election campaign headquarters announced at a press conference the results they have so far show Mursi facing Shafiq in about three weeks’ time.
At this writing, results aggregated by Ahram Online in 15 different governorates show a total of 11,088,494 voters cast their ballots in these governorates as follows: 
Mursi                        2,696,652 (24.03 per cent)   
Sabahi                      2,581,190  (23.3 per cent)
Shafiq                      2,555,730 (23.03 per cent) 
Abulfotouh                2,012,019 (18.1 per cent) 
Moussa                    1,542,831 (11.2 per cent)
Official results are not due to be announced for days, but it looks likely voters will have a good idea of the top runner and his challenger by tomorrow, Saturday.
Adeeb, in his column for today’s edition of Saudi Asharq Alawsat, writes, “The question now is who will Mursi’s challenger be?
“So far, there are no clear indications. What we can say though is that the Coptic vote went to Shafiq. Women voters were divided between Mursi and Abulfotouh on the one hand and Shafiq and Moussa, on the other.
“It can also be said most businessmen voted for either Shafiq or Moussa. Merchants chose between Mursi and Shafiq. Youths were deeply split in choosing between Islamist and pro-revolution currents…
“As for the turnout, it will range between a minimum of 50 percent and a maximum of 60 percent.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mursi, who is 61 and seems certain to be in the June 16-17 runoff, received a scholarship from the University of Southern California for academic excellence in engineering in the early 1980s and earned a Masters Degree and PhD in rocket science in 1982.
His profile on Ahram Online shows he served as a professor at California State University in North Ridge between 1982 and 1985.
On completing his overseas academic endeavors, Mursi headed the engineering department at Zagazig University in Egypt between 1985 and 2010.
He was the official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc from 2000 to 2005.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Is Lebanon going Iraq’s way?

Aftermath of Beirut clashes earlier this week (Photos from BBC News)

By Ghassan Charbel
The author is editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned pan-Arab
daily al-Hayat. His leader appears today in Arabic

Booby-traps continue to be planted in Lebanon’s fragile frame. The frame’s rattled and exposed contours are exposed to internal and external storms.
What remains of the State is shaking and eroding. The “Lebanese arena” is being invited to commit suicide. And some want this to happen without delay.
I don’t claim the Lebanese to be innocent, or simply victims. Divisions are profound. The number of adventurers is high and relations between the component elements are at their rock bottom.
The beleaguered country’s president received a letter from King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz urging him to act quickly to prevent the fire breaking out and to beware of its likely triggers.
Lebanese leaders need to diligently scrutinize the lines in the letter and read what is between them.
The author of the letter had previously sponsored the sole attempt to prevent Lebanon from falling into the abyss. His efforts at the time were code-named “S-S” (for Saudi-Syrian mediation).
Shooting down that initiative battered Lebanon as well as Syria’s Arab and international relations. Had those efforts succeeded, Beirut would not have been twisting and turning today to the tune of sectarian sensitivities. Perhaps Damascus too would have been less agitated.
It is an open secret that happenings in Syria are beyond Lebanon’s staying power. Damages were expected. But the shock was the speed of Lebanon’s loss of cohesion and its total lack of immunity.
Decadence of the State augurs dire consequences. A serious incident, such as the killing of two Sunnite sheikhs in Akkar, nearly ignited an inferno. A serious incident, such as the abduction of Lebanese Shiite men in Aleppo, all but sparked a fire as well. Luckily, ex-premier Saad Hariri reacted prudently and responsibly to the first incident. And (Hezbollah leader) Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was quick to contain reactions to the latter.
The initiative to prevent the conflagration is not enough. The country is falling apart and so is the region. You only need to look at Iraq. The example there is vivid and blatant. Some people believe Syria’s own components are also sliding into a bloody and long crisis that can only end à la Iraq.
Without necessarily using official parlance about federalism and provinces, this would have a traumatic impact on Lebanon, the quasi-makeup of which translates into civil war each time the balance of power between its provinces swings one way or the other.
After the infamous Akkar incident, and irrespective of its circumstances, the military institution got embroiled in the Lebanese dispersal.
Voices were heard accusing the army of establishing a symbolic presence in one province and of seeking to impose its clout in another. It was accused of coexisting with armed citizens in the first and trying to disarm citizens in another.
That’s a sequel of the Sunnite-Shiite split over the “Resistance’s weapons,” which to most Sunnites are Hezbollah’s weapons. It involved thinning out Lebanese military forces in one province and redeploying them in a weaker province, where power is divided between Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea.
Tragedy does not lie in countries being weak, governments being ineffectual, or parliaments being impotent. Tragedy rather lies in discovering the maps are ailing and the provinces therein are demanding new labels and recognitions. The reasons are the setback to co-existence resulting from tyranny and the lack of a culture of recognizing the other side and its right to disagree.
Experience shows manipulating maps is costly and delineating provinces in them is fraught with funerals, displacements and abuses.
Lebanon’s map is also ailing and the national fabric is worn out. Careful appraisal shows a solemn Lebanese State would spare the Shiites a horrific crash, the Sunnites a costly gamble and the Christians further exodus.
The choice is evident: either a return from the mentality of provinces to the mindset of a State or drowning in sectarian flare-ups and protracted wars.