Syria: Archive 1

Last Updated November 10, 2014

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bbc

Syria conflict: West criticises Assad election plan

April 21, 2014

The US has dismissed a Syrian plan to hold a presidential election on 3 June as a “parody of democracy”. UN chief Ban Ki-moon also condemned the plan, saying it could torpedo efforts to broker a deal to end the three-year civil war, which has killed 150,000. Government forces have made gains recently, but rebels still control vast territories. It is unlikely that voting would be held in those areas. President Bashar al-Assad is expected to seek a third seven-year term. The government recently framed an election law that stipulated all candidates must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years. Most opposition leaders have fled the country, so are in effect barred from standing.

Opposition activist Ahmad Alqusair accused Mr Assad of “holding elections over the blood of Syrians” and said only the president’s supporters would vote. “If we are being blockaded from even eating bread, how can I vote,” he told the Associated Press. One government MP said there would be no voting in rebel-held areas, but no official announcement has yet been made. The US, EU and UN were united in condemning the planned vote. “Calling for a de-facto referendum rings especially hollow now as the regime continues to massacre the very electorate it purports to represent,” said state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Mr Ban warned that it would “damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution”. And both the EU and the US labelled it a “parody of democracy”.

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SOURCE = BBC News

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bbc

French hostages tell of Syria basement ordeal

April 20, 2014

French journalists released from captivity in Syria have been speaking about their ordeal at the hands of suspected Islamist rebels. Didier Francois said the four men were chained to each other and kept in basements without natural light. His colleague Nicolas Henin added that they were “not always well treated”. Mr Henin and Mr Francois, along with Edouard Elias and Pierre Torres, were greeted by their families and President Francois Hollande on arrival in France. They had been found by Turkish soldiers on the Syrian border late on Friday.

The jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been accused of kidnapping them. Television footage after their reappearance in Turkey showed the men looking unkempt, with beards and long hair, but in good health. They had shaved by the time they arrived at Villacoublay military airport, outside Paris. Mr Francois, 53, told reporters it was “a great joy and an immense relief, obviously to be free. Under the sky, which we haven’t seen for a long time, to breathe the fresh air, walk freely”.

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SOURCE = BBC News

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bbc

Syria conflict: French journalists freed

April 19, 2014

Four French journalists held captive in Syria for almost a year have been freed and are on their way home. French President Francois Hollande said he had “learned with great relief this morning of the liberation of the four French journalists”. Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres were “in good health,” he added. The four men had been held hostage in Syria since June 2013. Mr Francois said he was “very happy to be free” as the group spoke briefly to press at a police station in the Turkish town of Akcakale near the Syrian border.

“We thank the Turkish authorities because they really helped us. And it’s very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk, to be able to speak freely. I’m really happy,” Mr Francois added. They were reported to have been found blindfolded with their hands bound by Turkish soldiers patrolling Sanliurfa province’s border with Syria. The men left Turkey on board a French Air Force plane on Sunday evening, Turkey’s Anadolu agency reported. The four went missing in two separate incidents in June. The jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were accused of kidnapping them.

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SOURCE = BBC News

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bbc

Syria rebels driven from Christian town of Maaloula

April 14, 2014

Syrian soldiers backed by Hezbollah fighters have driven rebels from the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, state media and activists say. Army units had “restored security and stability” after eliminating a number of “terrorists”, a military source told the state-run Sana news agency. The nearby village of Sarkha had also been retaken, the source added. Islamist rebels, some of them from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, took over part of Maaloula in December. Twelve nuns from the monastery of Deir Mar Takla were taken hostage during the initial fighting. They were only released last month as part of a prisoner exchange deal brokered by Lebanon and Qatar as the Syrian army prepared to recapture the nearby town of Yabroud, where they were being held.

Sana reported that army units had to dismantle explosive devices planted in Maaloula by the rebels after recapturing areas they had occupied. Other units were now advancing on Jabaadin, to the south-west, it added. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, confirmed Maaloula and Sarkha had fallen to government forces. It comes a day after they captured the nearby town of Rankous. Maaloula has changed hands at least four times since December as government forces and rebels have launched attacks and counter-attacks, according to the Reuters news agency. The town has several churches and important monasteries, including Deir Mar Takla, which is visited by many Christians and Muslim pilgrims. In recent months, soldiers backed by fighters from Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia Islamist movement, have retaken several rebel-held areas in the surrounding Qalamoun Mountains.

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SOURCE = BBC News

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The Independent

Syria conflict: ‘We will be martyrs’ say rebel fighters from inside the besieged city of Homs

April 17, 2014

The Syrian regime is on the verge of winning back the city of Homs – known as the capital of the revolution for its role in the three-year-old uprising. The Syrian army began a large scale military campaign on Monday to retake the last four neighbourhoods in opposition hands. Those inside face a stark choice between surrender to the regime or fighting till death. “Life is disastrous in every meaning of the word,” says one activist inside the Old City. Following a siege of almost two years, there are less than a thousand people remaining in the area. The majority are fighters, but there are several families and two dozen Christians who refused to leave during a UN orchestrated evacuation in February.

Mortars, shelling and aerial bombardments currently pound the remaining residents. There is little to stay for; the buildings are burned out carcasses and there is no food or drinking water. “My last meal was 48 hours ago, and it consisted of grass unfit for cattle to eat” said Hasan Abu Zain, an activist. The cattle has long been eaten, as have locusts, pet turtles and cats. Drinking water is found in stagnant old wells or contaminated with sewage. Morale is low, even before renewed offensive people were pondering whether to leave the enclave. Tunnels, previously used to smuggle food, are no longer possible as they have been sealed off. The only way out is to surrender.

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SOURCE = The Independent

bbc

Syria chlorine gas attack alleged by activists

April 17, 2014

Activists in Syria have published what they say is evidence of a chlorine gas attack by government forces. Footage posted online, which cannot be verified, shows medics trying to revive four young men suffering what appear to be symptoms of poisoning. A voice off-screen says the location is Harasta, just outside the capital Damascus. Use of chlorine as a weapon of war is banned and Syria committed to declaring and giving up its stocks last year. The face of one of the men in the video appeared to be covered in vomit, as he shook and moaned while doctors treated him.

It is the fourth chemical weapons attack the opposition has alleged this month. Four days ago, activists said the Syrian government carried out another alleged chlorine attack north of the city of Hama. The Syrian government blamed the opposition. Opposition activists have also posted online unverified photographs and video of what they said was an improvised chlorine “barrel” bomb dropped from helicopters on the the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita during attacks on Friday and Saturday last week.

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SOURCE = BBC News

Reuters

EXCLUSIVE-Syria submits more “detailed” list of chemical weapons

April 17, 2014

Activists in Syria have published what they say is evidence of a chlorine gas attack by government forces. Footage posted online, which cannot be verified, shows medics trying to revive four young men suffering what appear to be symptoms of poisoning. A voice off-screen says the location is Harasta, just outside the capital Damascus. Use of chlorine as a weapon of war is banned and Syria committed to declaring and giving up its stocks last year.

The face of one of the men in the video appeared to be covered in vomit, as he shook and moaned while doctors treated him. It is the fourth chemical weapons attack the opposition has alleged this month. Four days ago, activists said the Syrian government carried out another alleged chlorine attack north of the city of Hama. The Syrian government blamed the opposition. Opposition activists have also posted online unverified photographs and video of what they said was an improvised chlorine “barrel” bomb dropped from helicopters on the the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita during attacks on Friday and Saturday last week.

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SOURCE = Reuters

Middle East Online

Saudi urges stern world action against Syria

April 15, 2014

RIYADH – Saudi Arabia on Tuesday urged “stern” action by the international community against Syria after the regime’s decision to hold presidential elections and its alleged use of toxic gas against civilians. Saudi Arabia is one of the main backers of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has escalated into a civil war increasingly seen as a proxy battle between Riyadh and its regional rival Iran. “The announcement by the Syrian regime to hold elections is an escalation and undermines Arab and international efforts to peacefully resolve the crisis based on the (outcomes of) the Geneva I conference,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. The 2012 peace conference called for a transitional government ahead of free and fair elections, with no mention of Assad’s role in the transition.

Syrian daily Al-Watan reported Tuesday that parliament speaker Mohamed Jihad Lahham will next week announce the date of the country’s presidential election, expected to be held around June despite the ongoing conflict. The international community, including UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, have criticised Syria’s plan to go ahead with the vote, which would likely see the embattled Assad win another seven-year mandate. This decision, “as well as dangerous information on the regime’s recent use of toxic gases against civilians in the town of Kafr Zita,” in the central Hama province, represent “clear defiance” of the UN Security Council, Faisal told reporters in Riyadh.

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SOURCE = Middle East Online

USA Today

Grisly torture photos from Syria stun U.N. officials

April 15, 2014

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The U.N. Security Council fell silent Tuesday after ambassadors viewed a series of ghastly photographs of dead Syrian civil war victims, France’s ambassador said. The pictures showed people who were emaciated, with their bones protruding, and some bearing the marks of strangulation and repeated beatings, and eyes having been gouged out. French Ambassador Gerard Araud said the pall of silence lingered, and then questions slowly began about the credibility of the slides of the dead, who offer mute testimony to the savagery of a Syrian civil war in which more than 150,000 have died. The council members were shown more than the 10 photos publicly released in January as part of a forensic investigation funded by the government of Qatar – a major backer of the opposition and one of the nations most deeply involved in the Syrian conflict.

France, which hosted the presentation at the Security Council and a showing of the images afterward at a news conference, said they are evidence of war crimes by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The veracity of the photos could not be independently confirmed. Syria’s Justice Ministry has dismissed the photos and accompanying report as “politicized and lacking objectiveness and professionalism,” a “gathering of images of unidentified people, some of whom have turned out to be foreigners.” The ministry said some of the people were militants killed in battle and others were killed by militant groups. Among the new photos was an image of at least a dozen bodies laid out on the floor of a warehouse, being wrapping in plastic sheets with men in military garb standing among them.

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SOURCE = USA Today

telegraph

Syria war: Maaloula’s monastery destroyed after Assad forces drive rebels out

April 15, 2014

It has stood for centuries above the ancient settlement at Maaloula, one of a handful of villages in the mountains northeast of Damascus where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. But on Tuesday, as Syrian army officers showed off their latest conquest in the long back-and-forth war with the country’s rebels, the monastery of St Sergius was a sorry sight. The same shellfire that had helped to drive the rebels out had breached its massive limestone walls and, inside what had long been seen as a symbol of Syria’s religious freedom, broken icons lay on the ground alongside crosses, catechisms, and images of the Virgin Mary – though it was not possible to ascertain the cause.

The recapture of Maaloula, 40 miles from the Syrian capital, on Monday is being hailed by the country’s government as a vital strategic success: army officers said it marked the end of a long campaign to regain dominance over the Qalamun mountain range that runs along the country’s border with Lebanon. The task was evidently not quite complete as a group of journalists was escorted to the site on Tuesday afternoon: the cliffs that surround the city echoed to the sound of machine-gun fire and explosions, and from outside the monastery smoke was visible, rising from the houses below.

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SOURCE = The Telegraph

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Revealed: the radical clerics using social media to back British jihadists in Syria

April 15, 2014

Two radical Muslim clerics have been identified as influential online cheerleaders for fighters seeking to topple the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in a pioneering academic study published on Wednesday. Researchers based at King’s College London reveal how social media is being harnessed by a network of radical preachers to inspire and guide British and other western Muslims waging jihad in Syria. By examining tweets and Facebook postings used by certain rebels, people who follow the conflict from abroad and the two clerics, the academics say they have been able to provide a “unique and unfiltered window into the minds” of western and European foreign fighters in Syria. The information allowed the analysts to identify a “set of new spiritual authorities” who have the largest followings.

The report says they are the American-based cleric Ahmad Musa Jibril and the Australian preacher Musa Cerantonio. Both speak English and are based in the west. Although there is no evidence to suggest these individuals are physically involved in facilitating the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, or that they are co-ordinating their activity with jihadist organisations, they are playing the role of cheerleaders. “It is clear that they are important figures whose political, moral and spiritual messages are considered attractive to a number of foreign fighters,” the researchers conclude. “Syria may be the first conflict in which a large number of western fighters have been documenting their involvement in conflict in real-time, and where – in turn – social media represents an essential source of information and inspiration to them,” the report, a product of a year-long study, concludes.

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SOURCE = The Guardian

bbc

Syria’s Assad claims upper hand in war ‘turning point’

April 14, 2014

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has claimed the upper hand in what he called a “turning point” in the three-year long civil war. President Assad made the comments in an address at Damascus University, His forces have been steadily recapturing rebel-held towns near the Lebanese border for several months. More than 150,000 people have been killed in the conflict, with millions forced to flee their homes. “This is a turning point in the crisis,” President Assad said. He added that his army was winning what he called “the war against terror”. Government forces have secured the main north-south highway in Syria in recent months, and have cut off vital supply routes for rebel forces. President Assad is expected to announce that he will stand for a third term as leader. The BBC’s Lyse Doucet says the comments make clear that he is not willing to stand down despite repeated calls for him to go by armed opposition groups and their Western and Arab backers.

Meanwhile, the Syrian air force carried out bombing raids on areas near Damascus on Sunday, rights groups said. Activists said 20 people were killed in government air attacks in the Douma suburb. Syria’s official news agency reported that a man was killed and twenty injured in a mortar attack in central Damascus. On Friday, the government and opposition forces accused each other of using poison gas in the village of Kafr Zita. The attack killed two people and left dozens injured. In August last year, a chemical attack near the capital killed hundreds of people.

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SOURCE = BBC News

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CIA, MI6 and Turkey’s rogue game in Syria: New claims say Ankara worked with the US and Britain to smuggle Gaddafi’s guns to rebel groups

April 14, 2014

The US’s Secretary of State John Kerry and its UN ambassador, Samantha Power have been pushing for more assistance to be given to the Syrian rebels. This is despite strong evidence that the Syrian armed opposition are, more than ever, dominated by jihadi fighters similar in their beliefs and methods to al-Qa’ida. The recent attack by rebel forces around Latakia, northern Syria, which initially had a measure of success, was led by Chechen and Moroccan jihadis. America has done its best to keep secret its role in supplying the Syrian armed opposition, operating through proxies and front companies. It is this which makes Seymour Hersh’s article “The Red Line and The Rat Line: Obama, Erdogan and the Syrian rebels” published last week in the London Review of Books, so interesting.

Attention has focussed on whether the Syrian jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, aided by Turkish intelligence, could have been behind the sarin gas attacks in Damascus last 21 August, in an attempt to provoke the US into full-scale military intervention to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. “We now know it was a covert action planned by [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s people to push Obama over the red line,” a former senior US intelligence officer is quoted as saying.

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SOURCE = The Belfast Telegraph

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The one certainty about Syria’s looming election – Assad will win

April 13, 2014

It is election season in Syria and, to listen to government officials, the tumult of revolution and war will soon be replaced by the certainty of democracy. Since the coup that led Hafez al-Assad to power more than 40 years ago, presidential elections in Syria have never been a contest of wills. And so it will be when the dictator’s son Bashar al-Assad goes to the polls within months, the sole meaningful candiatate to run a country ravaged by a crisis that shows little sign of slowing. When on 17 March parliament approved plans for a poll, by way of a new electoral law welcoming multiple candidates, Syrian officials claimed that people power had ushered in the type of reforms demanded during the first stirrings of insurrection three years ago.

Section 30 of the same law, though, is evidence that nothing has changed. It says anyone who wants to stand must have the support of at least 35 members of the parliament and have been resident in the country for the past 10 years. Both of the candidates’ parents must also be Syrian. That rules out any of Assad’s real opponents, who are in exile outside the country. Other restrictions mean they, and those who support them, will not be able to vote either. Electors must also hold a new identification document, which can only be issued by regime authorities. Those who fled Syria as war spread to all corners of the country will not be able to vote unless they left via an official border point.

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SOURCE = The Guardian

Middle East Online

Syria regime uses ‘chemical weapons’ again

April 13, 2014

BEIRUT – A regime air strike in Hama province of central Syria caused “suffocation and poisoning”, an NGO said Saturday, while state media accused rebels of releasing chlorine gas. Elsewhere, fighting raged all day in Aleppo near an air force intelligence base, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights labelling it “the most violent since the beginning of the battle” in the northern city in mid-2012. And a bomb blast and shelling in areas of Damascus killed four people, the official news agency SANA reported. In the rebel-held town of Kafr Zita in Hama province, residents choking from poisoning were hospitalised after raids with barrel bombs on Friday, the Observatory quoted medics as saying. “Regime planes bombed Kafr Zita with explosive barrels that produced thick smoke and odours and led to cases of suffocation and poisoning,” the monitoring group’s head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Anti-government activists in the area posted on Facebook that “the regime bombarded Kafr Zinta with toxic products, (with) ‘chlorine gas’, causing more than 100 cases of suffocation”. But state television said that Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, a key force in Syria’s three-year armed revolt, had released chlorine in a deadly attack on the town. “There is information that the terrorist Al-Nusra Front released toxic chorine… leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation,” it said. “There is information that Al-Nusra Front is preparing to hit Wadi Deif in Idlib province and Morek in Hama province with toxic chlorine or sarin,” the state broadcaster added. Videos circulated by opposition activists on YouTube showed men and children in a field hospital coughing and showing symptoms of suffocation, while three young men are wearing oxygen masks.

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SOURCE = Middle East Online

Express

Brits fighting in Syria ‘bigger threat to UK security than al-Qaeda’

April 11, 2014

BRITISH jihadists returning from fighting in Syria are as much of a threat to UK security as al-Qaeda terrorists, it has been reported. There are fears that men who have been radicalised in the Syrian civil war are being encouraged to return to Britain and carry out attacks after receiving bomb and weapons training. The British government has chosen not to intervene in the conflict. Up to 500 British jihadists are thought to have travelled to Syria to join the fighting, and security services are thought to be monitoring around half of that number who have returned. A senior Whitehall source told The Telegraph: “We are seeing a growing threat to the UK from terrorist groups in Syria.

“The threat to the UK comes from a range of countries and groups but Syria is perhaps the biggest challenge right now.” A government report on the threat from foreign fighters has also been published on the Security Service’s website. It reads: “Over the last two years, we have seen Syria become an attractive destination for UK extremists wishing to engage in violent jihad. “The nature of the conflict in Syria and the emergence of the Al Nusrah Front, which has declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, is leading to the country becoming an increasingly significant potential source of future threats to the UK and UK interests overseas.”

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SOURCE = The Express

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The Independent

‘I am not fighting against al-Qa’ida… it’s not our problem’, says West’s last hope in Syria

April 3, 2014

The rebel leader touted as the West’s last hope to stem the tide of extreme jihadist groups in Syria has said he will not fight against al-Qa’ida, and openly admits to battling alongside them. Speaking from a safe house on the outskirts of the Turkish town of Antakya, Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) told The Independent that the fight against al-Qa’ida was “not our problem” and admitted his fighters conduct joint operations with Jabhat al-Nusra – the official al-Qa’ida branch in Syria. The admission could have significant implications for Western involvement in the Syrian conflict. While the US and UK have been vocal in their support for rebels fighting to remove President Bashar al-Assad, they have been reluctant to follow through with material support – such as heavy weaponry – over fears it would fall into the hands of extremist groups who might target the West.

Maarouf and his brigades are viewed as relative moderates in a loosely affiliated rebel army that is increasingly dominated by radical groups, and the SRF and similar groups are presented as the West’s best bet to fight both the Assad regime and extremists. His willingness to work with rebel groups the West deems unpalatable is a symptom of a war in which allegiances frequently change and all actors within it have been forced to compromise in order to survive. Western support for Maarouf and other moderate rebel groups reached a high point earlier this year, when the SRF was the recipient of significant aid from the US and its allies in order to fight the ultra-extremist and one-time al-Qa’ida affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).

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SOURCE = The Independent

New York Times

Syria Accuses Rebels of Planning Gas Attack

April 2, 2014

UNITED NATIONS — Syria is charging in a letter to the United Nations that opposition groups are planning a toxic gas attack in a rebel-held area near Damascus so they can then blame it on government security forces. In a letter dated March 25 and circulated by the U.N. this week, Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar Ja’afari, said his government had intercepted communications between “terrorists” that showed a man named Abu Nadir was secretly distributing gas masks in the rebel-held Jobar area.

“The authorities also intercepted another communication between two other terrorists, one of whom is named Abu Jihad,” Ja’afari said. “In that communication, Abu Jihad indicates that toxic gas will be used and asked those who are working with him to supply protective masks.” Ja’afari said in the letter addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Security Council that this information “confirms that armed terrorist groups are preparing to use toxic gas in Jobar quarter and other areas, in order to accuse the Syrian government of having committed such an act of terrorism.”

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SOURCE = New York Times

RT

Moscow urges UNSC to discuss Syrian rebels’ siege of Christian town of Kessab

April 1, 2014

Russia urged the UN Security Council to discuss the situation in Syria’s Christian majority town of Kessab, after Al-Qaeda-linked militants reportedly attacked the town, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated.

“The UN Security Council should discuss the situation in Kessab and give it a principled evaluation,” it stated. “We condemn extremists’ actions in Syria. We believe that the Syrian government and the opposition should join efforts to eradicate terrorism on the Syrian land.”

On March 21, jihadists reportedly crossed into Syria from Turkey and seized the town in Latakia province, home to over 2,000 ethnic Armenians. The attack caused hundreds of local families, mainly Armenian, to flee their homes and seek shelter in the city of Latakia. Russia’s Foreign Ministry noted that there were no military objects on the attacked territory and added that the only fault of the families, who were forced to flee, was their loyalty to Syria’s government. Syria’s permanent representative to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, told RT Arabic that Syria is hoping the UN will help resolve the situation in Kessab. In the past week, Syria sent five letters to the UN Security Council and the General Secretary. “These letters contain detailed information about Turkish direct involvement in the crisis by providing protection to terrorist groups that are operating in the Kessab area,” Jaafari said. He further added that military groups managed to get to Kessab under the cover of Turkish artillery strikes, Turkish aviation, and tanks, which were all used as a distraction.

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SOURCE = Russia Today

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ABC News

Syria: Turkey Sending Foreign Fighters to Latakia

March 31, 2014

Syria’s information minister has lashed out at Turkey, accusing Ankara of sending foreign fighters across the border to fight Syrian government troops in President Bashar Assad’s ancestral homeland in Latakia province. Omran al-Zoubi says neighboring Turkey is facilitating the entry of “groups of foreigners, armed to their teeth” into Latakia, where fighting is raging between Syrian government forces and rebels trying to oust Assad. Al-Zoubi spoke to Syrian state TV late on Sunday. Turkey is a NATO member that once had good ties with Syria. But the two countries had a falling out over Ankara’s support for the Syrian opposition in the 3-year-old conflict. Hostilities have flared along the border on several occasions and last week, Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet, saying it violated its airspace.

Copyright © 2014: Associated Press

bbc

Syria crisis: Freed Spanish journalists back in Spain

March 30, 2014

Two Spanish journalists taken hostage in Syria have returned to Madrid after six months in captivity. El Mundo correspondent Javier Espinosa and freelance photographer Ricardo Garcia Vilanova were earlier freed and handed over to the Turkish military. The pair arrived at Torrejon de Ardoz airbase, where they were welcomed by overjoyed friends and family. Scores of journalists are believed to have been kidnapped or killed by rebel fighters in Syria. Mr Espinosa, 49, and Mr Vilanova, 42, were seized by al-Qaeda-linked militants The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), near the Turkish border in September. El Mundo said that the two journalists had at the time been trying to leave Syria at the end of a two-week reporting mission. Four members of the Free Syrian Army – the main Western-backed rebel group – who were protecting them were also captured but later released.

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SOURCE = BBC News

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New York Times

Syria Told to Suspend Diplomatic Activities in U.S.

March 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — The United States on Tuesday formally notified the Syrian government that it must suspend operations at its embassy here and at its two consulates in Michigan and Texas, the State Department said. The move stops short of a formal break of relations, but it bars Syria envoys here from carrying out diplomatic and consular duties. “Syrian diplomats at the embassy and Syrian honorary consulates are no longer permitted to perform diplomatic or consular functions and those who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents must depart the United States,” said a statement by Daniel Rubinstein, who was named on Monday as the new American envoy for Syria. The move comes on the third anniversary of the conflict in Syria that has killed an estimated 140,000 people. Mr. Rubinstein said in his statement that the United States would maintain diplomatic relations with Syria.

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SOURCE = New York Times

Reuters

War crimes evidence in Syria solid enough for indictment – UN

March 18, 2014

GENEVA, March 18 (Reuters) – U.N. investigators said on Tuesday they had expanded their list of suspected war criminals from both sides in Syria’s civil war and the evidence was solid enough to prepare any indictment. The U.N. inquiry has identified individuals, military units and security agencies as well as insurgent groups suspected of committing abuses such as torture and bombing civilian areas, it said in its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Some 20 investigators have carried out 2,700 interviews with victims, witnesses and defectors in the region and by Skype in Syria, but have never been allowed to enter the country now in its fourth year of an increasingly sectarian conflict. However, despite the accumulation of evidence, diplomats say it is unlikely Syria would be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) that tries war crimes suspects in The Hague any time soon.

As Syria has not signed the Rome statutes setting up the ICC, the U.N. Security Council would need to make the referral. Russia, supported by China, has shielded its ally Syria throughout the war, vetoing three U.N. resolutions that would have condemned President Bashar al-Assad’s government and threatened it with possible sanctions. “We do not lack information on crimes or even on perpetrators. What we lack is a means by which to achieve justice and accountability but this is not in our powers,” Paulo Pinheiro, the chairman of the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, told a news conference.

The commission said the period of Jan. 20 to March 10 was characterised by escalating hostilities between insurgent groups throughout northern and northeastern provinces as Islamist rebel strongholds came under attack. Government forces have dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo and other cities, causing extensive civilian casualties in areas with no clear military target, and severely tortured detainees. The mostly Sunni Muslim Insurgents seeking to topple Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, have used car and suicide bombs targeting civilian areas – also violations of international law, the commission said.

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SOURCE = Reuters

Middle East Online

Who’s behind mass executions in Syria?

March 18, 2014

GENEVA – The jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carried out “mass executions” in Syria in January, the United Nations said Tuesday, adding that it was investigating allegations of mass graves. The group “conducted mass executions of detainees, thereby perpetrating war crimes,” the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in an update on the human rights situation in the country. ISIL is a group of radical jihadists who have fought Syria’s regime but who since the beginning of the year have also been battling a coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels angered by their abuses of rival fighters and civilians. The group is accused of kidnapping scores of people, among them rival rebels, activists, foreign journalists and humanitarian workers. In northern and northeastern governorates, ISIL fighters “are imposing their radical ideologies on the civilian population,” Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, head of the commission, told the UN Human Rights Council.

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SOURCE = Middle East Online

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Syria troops advance after seizing rebel stronghold

March 18, 2014

Syrian troops have advanced west of the fallen rebel stronghold of Yabrud, entering a new village in the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border, state news agency SANA said Tuesday. “The Syrian army is progressing in the village of Ras al-Ain, southwest of Yabrud, killing a large number of terrorists,” said SANA, using the regime’s term for rebels. Earlier, a security source told AFP the army had taken control of several hills overlooking the village. The army, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and pro-regime militiamen, seized the strategic town of Yabrud Sunday after a month of shelling and air strikes, as it moves to sever rebel supply routes across the border.

The army and Hezbollah have now set their sights on the villages of Rankus, south of Yabrud, and Flita and Ras al-Maara, to its northwest. Elsewhere, regime planes bombed the northern city of Aleppo, killing at least four people, including two children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that relies on activists and other witnesses inside Syria. The violence in Aleppo came as a prominent female activist detained there a day earlier by rebels for refusing to wear the Islamic headscarf was released.

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SOURCE = Yahoo News

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Syria creates ‘space agency’ despite war

 March 18, 2014

Syria’s government on Tuesday decided to establish a “space agency” to conduct scientific research despite the civil war that has torn the country apart and devastated its economy. State news agency SANA said the cabinet had approved a project to create the so-called Syrian Space Agency, “with the goal of using space technology for exploration and observing the earth.” SANA said the government hopes to employ such technology “in the service of development.” The three-year civil war has destroyed the economy and seen Western sanctions slapped on Damascus, raising questions about how Syria would fund the new research initiative. Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi had earlier estimated that the country had suffered $31 billion in damage from the war, a figure nearly equivalent to its GDP.

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SOURCE = Yahoo News

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telegraph

Syria anniversary: the psychopaths are unstoppable

March 16, 2014

After three years of war in Syria, one of the things we have learnt is that al-Qaeda’s followers don’t really want to live in the seventh century. Their favoured social medium is Twitter, and they often use the modern vernacular when they tweet. Here is what one jihadist wrote recently as a caption to a photograph of some blindfolded captives: “Got these criminals today. Insha’Allah will be killed tomorrow. Cant wait for that feeling when U just killed some1.” It really is that psychopathic. Last week, Save the Children released a fund-raising video for Syria which “went viral”, showing a nine-year-old at a birthday party followed by a flash of images in which her everyday life was shredded by bombs, exile, and refugee camps. It brought tears to the eyes and in a moment of self-importance, I observed that the campaign was OK so long as people realised the reality was much, much worse. The videos you have not seen show little girls like the one in the picture torn literally in two by the regime’s aerial bombardments, their entrails hanging out; or lying piled in the corner of a shattered building, throats sliced by one of the shabiha, or militia, who wreak their terror on the fringes of military assaults; or bloated and yellow as their gassed corpses await burial. You do not see the full horror of this war, I can assure you. Our editors could show you the reality, more than ever before, such is the technology available to them, but they preserve a conventional sense of decency.

A year ago, the world became indignant at the sight of Abu Sakkar, a rebel sub-commander pretending to eat the heart and liver of a slain opponent. In the months since, we have learnt that this was but a comedic sideshow to the greater tragedy, as the officially recorded death toll passed the 100,000 mark and climbed inexorably upwards – the real figure now is likely to be much higher, 200,000 perhaps, or even more. On one day, August 21 last year, about 1,400 people died in a chemical weapons attack. Even as I write, the great and glorious city of Aleppo, one of the oldest beacons of human civilisation, is being destroyed. Its Great Umayyad Mosque is already in ruins, its suburbs flattened daily by a new weapon that is, by virtue of its extraordinary mixture of primitive simplicity and sophisticated delivery, a form of psychopathy all unto itself: the barrel bomb. We have no idea why the regime uses it – perhaps it is running short of Russian missiles, or perhaps it does not want to waste them on civilians. All we know is that at one point in January, 30 of these crude devices, barrels stuffed with TNT and shrapnel, were raining down on civilian areas of the city each day. Thousands of people have been killed. Any doubt that this is a deliberate attempt to instil terror can be set aside: in one suburb, they were accompanied by leaflets saying that all residents should leave.

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SOURCE = The Telegraph

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Toll in Syria-linked clashes in Lebanon rises to 11

March 16, 2014

Eleven people have been killed in three days of clashes in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli linked to the conflict in Syria, security sources and the Lebanese army said on Sunday. Overnight, the army announced the death of a soldier when a military patrol in the city was hit by an anti-tank grenade. The latest death brought the toll in clashes that began on Thursday to 11, a security source said. The clashes, which have also injured 50 people, pit the Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen against the neighbouring Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tebbaneh. The latest fighting broke out on Thursday after a Sunni man was killed by unknown gunmen on a motorbike in central Tripoli.

But tensions between the districts have run high for decades, only increasing with the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, where Alawite President Bashar al-Assad faces a Sunni-dominated uprising. The Lebanese army has deployed in the city, arresting several people overnight and responding to sources of fire. The war in Syria has deepened existing sectarian and political tensions in Lebanon, particularly between supporters of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, an Assad ally, and Sunni backers of former prime minister Saad Hariri who support the uprising.

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SOURCE = Yahoo News

Express

Children of conflict: The innocent victims of the civil war in Syria

March 16, 2014

The artillery casings the nine-year-old is cradling in his grimy hands come from guns that have helped to turned Aleppo into a dead zone. However, the spent ammunition offers Aladdin a sliver of hope. Only by selling it for scrap metal will he find enough money to buy food. As the civil war enters its third year, a report published by Unicef this week highlights the plight of Aladdin and ­millions of children like him in a country where destruction and appalling ­atrocities have become the norm and the young are now regarded as ­“legitimate” war ­targets – or recruited as soldiers, spies or arms smugglers. Unicef says the number of ­children affected by the war has more than doubled over the past year from 2.3 million to more than 5.5million. Since last March the number of displaced children still inside Syria has ­tripled from 920,000 to three million and child refugees have quadrupled from 260,000 to 1.2 million, with 425,000 of them under the age of five.For too many children, each day is a battle to survive incessant bombardments and snipers’ bullets and the threat of malnutrition and ­disease. More than 10,000 children have died since the fighting began. The report, Under Siege: The Devastating Impact On Children Of Three Years of Conflict, uses the words of children and their parents to paint a harrowing picture of lives damaged and childhoods lost. Ghina Khalil was 14 months old when a bomb exploded near her home in Aleppo, leaving her legs trapped in the rubble of her bedroom. Her father told Unicef: “The day our house was bombed I arrived home to find people digging in the rubble with their bare hands because they heard sounds coming from underneath. “They found Ghina’s hands first and removed the dirt from her. She started to move and rub her eyes. Apparently she had been unconscious. She was not crying. She was under one and half metres of debris. Now she is recovered but sometimes at night she bursts into tears for no reason.”Visit the Source for more on this storySOURCE = The Express74cc8-guardian_logo

Syria claims to have captured rebel stronghold on Lebanese border

March 16, 2014

Syria claims its military has seized a key town on the Lebanese border that was the target of a months-long offensive. Activists said fighting was continuing but the government was in control of much of Yabroud. Yabroud was an key supply line for rebels into neighbouring Lebanon and overlooked an important cross-country highway. Its fall, coming as the Syrian conflict enters fourth year, would be a significant blow to rebels since the initiative passed to the government in the spring of 2013. It is the last major rebel-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been waging an offensive for months to try to cut rebel supply lines across the porous border into eastern Lebanon.

Its fall would come a week after the Syrian army seized the village of Zara, which also served as a conduit for rebels from northern Lebanon into central Syria. Syria’s state news agency Sana reported that military forces seized Yabroud early on Sunday and were combing the city to remove booby-traps and bombs and hunt down rebel holdouts. Kasem Alzein, a Syrian pro-rebel doctor who lives in the nearby border town of Arsal, said military forces entered the eastern part of Yabroud and that rebels fled to the nearby town of Flita. He said a small hardcore group of fighters said they would fight to the death in the city. “They don’t want to surrender,” he said, adding that supplies were cut off and weapons promised to rebels never arrived. “Qusair will repeat itself,” Alzein said, referring to the strategic rebel-held town on the Syrian border that fell to pro-Assad forces last summer. As in the Qalamoun offensive, Lebanese Hezbollah militants played a key role backing government troops.

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SOURCE = The Guardian

Washington post

Syria: Government forces seize key rebel town

March 16, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria said its military seized a key town that served as a rebel supply hub on the Lebanese border on Sunday after a months-long army offensive. Activists said fighting was still ongoing but the government was in effective control of much of Yabroud. The fall of Yabroud, coming as the Syrian conflict enters fourth year, would be the latest blow to rebels since the initiative passed to the government in the spring of 2013. Support from fighters of the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah appears to have tipped the balance in the border area. Hezbollah’s alignment with President Bashar Assad has caused the conflict to bleed into eastern and northern parts of Lebanon, where 13 people were killed in Syria-related violence in recent days, 12 in urban fighting and one in a rocket attack.

Yabroud was an important supply line for rebels into Lebanon, and overlooks an important cross-country highway. It the last major rebel-held town in the mountainous Qalamoun region, where Assad’s forces have been waging an offensive for months to try to sever routes across the porous border. Its fall would come just a week after the Syrian army seized the village of Zara, another conduit for rebels from mountainous northern Lebanon into central Syria. Syria’s state television reported that military forces seized Yabroud early Sunday and were now combing the city, removing booby-traps and bombs and hunting down rebel hold-outs. “Our armed forces are now chasing the remnants of the terrorist gangs in the area,” said a uniformed soldier reading from a military statement on Syrian television.

SOURCE = Washington Post

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