Syrian Conflict: Sunnis on the ropes

The rebels still control and contest much of the country, but Assad and Hezbollah are pushing back with renewed strength.

Rand Paul Tries to Chart a Third Way

Rand Paul inhabits the increasingly narrow world between neoconservative and nonintervention in the Republican party.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Preface To Intervention: White House Says Assad Used Chemical Weapons


The White House announced Thursday that the Obama administration has concluded that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons “multiple times” in Syria in the last year, resulting in the deaths of 100 to 150 people. The White House also announced that in response it would “increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition.” 
“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes in a statement.

Full Article Here

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tajik Government Cracks Down

From IWPR:

A campaign targeting opponents and critics of Tajikistan’s government could be seen as a short-time move to eliminate any chance of a challenge in the November presidential election. But to some analysts, it suggests that authorities are going through a bigger existential crisis, perhaps out of a fear that Russia is tiring of President Imomali Rahmon and looking to back someone else. 
Zayd Saidov, a former industry minister, was arrested on May 19, a month after setting up a political party called New Tajikistan. (See Emerging Force in Tajik Politics Arrested for more on this case.) 
Six days later, opposition politicians, human rights defenders and media activists set up a group called the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, which in turn established a committee in support of Saidov. Almost immediately, participants begin warned off.
Journalist Mavjuda Sohibnazarova, a founding member of New Tajikistan and a participant in the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said in media interviews that she had received death threats on Facebook and by phone. The messages told her to leave the party and stop supporting Saidov. On May 28, she was questioned by the national security service about her party membership. At this meeting, she said, intelligence officers also promised to investigate the threats against her.

Full Article Here

Syrian Violence Spills Into Iraq

Via Bloomberg:

Iraq's isolated western desert was the scene of the country's deadliest incident of spillover from the Syrian conflict — a March attack in which 51 Syrian soldiers were killed. The Syrian troops had retreated into Iraq after their border post was attacked by rebels, and were later ambushed, along with their Iraqi military escorts, in a highly organized assault involving explosives, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades unleashed by al-Qaida's Iraq arm. 
The militant group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, linked the mission directly to the conflict in Syria, saying it planned the raid following "the blessed operations carried out by our brothers in Syria. 
The group has since attempted to frame its cause as part of a broader cross-border battle. Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi went so far as to announce a merger in April with Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, the most powerful rebel force fighting to topple Assad. Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani quickly distanced himself from that takeover attempt. 
Al-Qaida's central leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has tried to end the squabbling. He released a statement this week ordering the two groups to remain separate and not to attack one another, while saying both of their leaders could keep their posts.

Full Article Here

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Iranian Women Love Parkour?

Writes The Guardian:

Parkour's popularity among young women in Iran is soaring, despite the bulkier clothing and head coverings Islamic dress codes require them to wear. The outdoor sport, a fast-paced hybrid of gymnastics and martial arts, seems designed to get you out of a fix quickly, which perhaps explains its appeal to young Iranians, whose social lives in the strict Islamic republic often require considerable agility. Iran's female practitioners are running their own threads on Persian-language forumsand posting films online to showcase their skills. Unlike the men's scene, with its heavy rap culture overtones and emphasis on group rivalries, the girls' movement comes across as more athletic and purposeful, despite the greater challenges women face practising outdoors.
Men hold major parkour tournaments in urban parks and talk openly online about parkeur being accepted by local police. Not so for women, whose equal access to sports facilities and public areas for exercise has long been contested by the government.
The authorities may tolerate matrons doing aerobics in parks, but young women dashing over obstacles pushes the boundaries of acceptability.One young woman, hiding behind oversize sunglasses, says in a YouTube clip: "It's become quite acceptable for guys, but because we're girls, when we're out practising, they sometimes hassle us."
What's striking about parkour's appeal among Iranian women is the sheer breadth of the trend. It's not being led by the reed thin, Fendi-clad women of north Tehran, but girls in trainers and practical headscarves (maghaneh) from Lahijan to Shiraz. Parkour's punchiness seems to resonate among Iranian women, who in recent years have also taken up martial arts in record numbers.

Read full article here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

US Moves Towards Arming Syrian Rebels and No Fly Zone

From the Telegraph:

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, postponed a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories to hold intensive talks with President Barack Obama on the next steps in the Syria crisis. 
Officials told American news outlets that the administration was considering not only arming the rebels directly but even imposing a no-fly zone on the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. 
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, was also being updated, one report said, though the Foreign Office refused to confirm this. At the weekend, Mr Hague said he was prepared to put the issue of Britain supplying the rebels to a vote, following pressure from backbench Tory MPs and the Labour party.

Might be a perfect time for some Wag the Dog in Syria, given the tumult in Washington. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Must Read: Writeup From Behind Syrian Rebel Lines in Aleppo

Via The Nation:

On a whim earlier that morning, Abdul Kareem had offered to take me from the refugee camp in Turkey where he and the remainder of his family live to see Molham at the front line. The last time I came here, the rebels had just taken Azaz, a historic and strategically important town with twin minarets just five kilometers from the border. As Abdul Kareem walks me around it, however, I see that their prize is now a ghost town. Most of the civilians have fled, and the best buildings have been destroyed, first by airstrikes from the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime and then, a week before I arrive, by a ballistic missile. The hundreds of disparate battalions working under the loose umbrella of the FSA have made some progress here, but only inch by inch, and at incredible cost—and even then only with the help of Islamic fundamentalists like Jabhat al-Nusra, who recently pledged their fealty to Al Qaeda. At many of the checkpoints, rebels from the two different groups are indistinguishable. “Most of these lorries and pickup trucks are Free Army, you know,” says Abdul Kareem as we reach the edge of Aleppo City. “You can tell because they’re all broken down.” Shortly after that, a chunky four-by-four with tinted windows races past us, the black flag favored by Islamists hanging off its back. 
In addition to Ayham, seven of Abdul Kareem’s extended family members have been killed. Six were fighting with the FSA; the other was Khalil, a 5-year-old from the family village of Zitan, who disappeared a few months ago. The boy had been missing for a week when they got word from a neighboring village that someone fitting his description had been found in the river. It is impossible to know exactly who killed him, but Abdul Kareem has no doubt it was the work of the shabiha, the paramilitary forces of the regime, whose ruthlessness has made them infamous among the rebels. “They had cut his throat,” says Abdul Kareem. “The doctor said he’d been dead for five days.”  
In the constantly shifting landscape of Syria’s armed rebellion, it takes only a few dozen men to establish a katiba, or battalion. Molham’s consists of 100 fighters; together, they occupy five different positions on the front line and hole up in three or four makeshift barracks between shifts. The last time I met him and his older brother, their battalion went under the name of Omar al-Mukhtar, an Arab anti-colonial hero. Now they’re known as the Abu Ayuub al-Ansari, after a close companion of the Prophet Muhammad. The name change might be significant. At the dilapidated school just behind the front line where Abdul Kareem takes me to meet them, I see none of the three-starred paraphernalia of the FSA; instead, there are black posters inscribed with the words “There Is No God but God” and battered-looking posters of armed men in Islamist headgear. The only evidence of any politics is daubed in spray paint on the wall outside: “Russia Is the Enemy.” Only 200 meters from Syrian Army positions in al-Izaa, it’s not entirely safe. Shortly after we arrive, I walk outside to use the loo and emerge to hear some commotion; a sniper, Abdul Kareem informs me, has just taken a chunk of concrete out of the front door. 

Read full article here.

Israel Threatened to Fire on Syrian Tanks

From Al Arabiya:

Israeli defense forces allegedly threatened to attack Syrian tanks on its border in a request submitted to the UN Security Council in recent weeks, Israeli media reported on Sunday. 
The document was submitted to the Security Council by Herve Ladsous, UN Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, the Israel-based Ynet news site reported. 
The report states that the IDF warned UNDOF that it would “take action” if Syrian army tanks continued to operate in the buffer zone. 
In a meeting with 15 members of the Security Council in New York, Ladsous said the IDF and Syrian army were on the verge of a military clash. 
He warned it would be the most direct clash between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights front in the past 40 years.
But after receiving the message, the Syrian regime asked that Israel refrain from firing on its vehicles as “the presence of the tanks was solely for the purpose of fighting the armed members of the opposition,” The Jerusalem Post reported. 
Israel allegedly acceded to the request, but did confirm that it had given medical treatment to members of the Syria opposition wounded in the fighting, according to the report.

Full article here.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Al Qaeda Leader Talks Syria

Here's a great summary of the interview:

The USA is accused of trying to exploit the sacrifices of the Muslim world. It wants jihadis to do the heavy lifting in the battle against the Baath, while it is quietly building up a pro-Western opposition that can swoop in and seize power after Assad falls. This will serve the purpose of (again momentarily recalling his original subject) securing Israel’s borders. He calls on his followers to realize the danger and avoid falling into this trap – don’t leave the trenches and do not put down your arms until you’ve set up a proper Islamic state, he says.
To realize this goal, Doc Zawahiri says all Muslims must support the jihad in Syria, either by going there or by – for example – sending money. Such support is, by his reasoning, a “fard ein”, an individual duty incumbent on every able-bodied Muslim. It’s not something you leave to your government, or to the mosque, or to anyone else: but something YOU must do or suffer God’s punishment for neglecting.

Actually, this is probably some deft analysis from Zawahiri on what the some in the US would like to achieve in Syria, while the more neoconservative foreign policy hawks would probably prefer a headlong intervention.  Time will tell who wins the battle for intervention in Syria.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

NYT: Hezbollah Risks Broader Conflict

NYT is picking up what Hezbollah's participation in the fall of Qusayr could mean to the conflict and Sunni/Shia relations:
But Mr. Assad was victorious not because his military alone had defeated the rebels. Rather, he appeared to owe the victory to Hezbollah, which provided crucial infantry power in recent weeks. Hezbollah’s role and the vengeful reactions of its critics have further intensified sectarian divisions in Syria and beyond its borders, creating new risks for both Mr. Assad and Mr. Nasrallah even in their moment of victory.
“We will not forget what Hassan Nasrallah did,” said Abu Zaid, 40, a fighter from Qusayr. “We will take revenge from him and his organization even after 100 years.” 
While taking Qusayr could infuse Mr. Assad’s forces with momentum and embolden him to push for more military advances — just as Russia and the United States are pressing the antagonists in the Syrian conflict to negotiate — the intervention by Hezbollah could be problematic for that organization, which historically has been revered in Syria for its opposition to Israel. Now, in the eyes of the Syrian insurgency and its sympathizers, Hezbollah has turned its guns on fellow Muslims and taken on the form of an occupying force.

In the fight’s final days, as a reporter traveled through villages around Qusayr, rebel fighters and their civilian supporters vented rage not only at Mr. Assad but at his allies — particularly Iran and the well-trained Shiite Muslim fighters of Hezbollah, whom they largely blamed for the casualties they had suffered. 
The mostly Sunni activists and rebels expressed bitterness toward Shiites generally, but they reserved particular anger for Mr. Nasrallah. The Hezbollah leader had exhorted his followers to come to fight in Syria against what he portrayed as a jihadist-Israeli conspiracy to topple Mr. Assad and subvert Hezbollah’s ability to attack, or defend against, Israel.

It's likely that the losing rebels are now trying to achieve greater participation from the region's Sunnis, and if it comes it would likely come first from the Saudis and Iraqis.  There are broader implications because if the conflict escalates and inflames tensions between Sunnis/Shias elsewhere, we could see a return to violence in Iraq, as Al Qaeda in Iraq may seek to cause incidents to draw help to the Syrian Rebels.  In Israel, the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict could be hurt by a freshly divided Muslim world, and a weakened Hezbollah could allow Israel to act more broadly and without as much fear of its enemies.  The Arab Spring has also brought a lot of less secular, more Islamic regimes to power in the Middle East, and those regimes may also take sides in the conflict if the situation for either side becomes more desperate.  If Aleppo falls or the Syrian Arab Army (SAA, Assad's army) have any more dramatic victories, then things will move very quickly, and the peace conference the Americans/Russians would like to see would be off the table for quite some time.

Full Article Here

Afghanistan: Waiting to Leave

Antiwar has a piece on what is going to happen in Afghanistan once the coalition leaves:

Frankly, if what they say is true, that the Afghan Army is now leading 85 percent of its security missions and responsible for 87 percent of the population’s security — 312 out of 400 districts countrywide — then that is a good thing, at least American blood and treasure counts for something. But it would be good to get an independent assessment. After 11 years of the Pentagon spin machine at work, forgive us for wanting a second opinion. Plus, one of the key recommendations to jump out of the CNAS report is to leave behind a “bridging force” of “several thousand” beyond the already reported “enduring force” (estimated 8,000- to 12,000 NATO troops) for “two to three years after 2014… to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection.” So what really goes on over there we can’t say with any conviction. 
We do know, outside of the Beltway Bubble, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to smile at (even if, as CNAS suggests, the “good news” is not getting through the Western media). The headlines just aren’t good. I opened the paper yesterday to one blaring the worst of tragedies: “Suicide blast kills 10 Afghan children,” plus, the subhead noted, two NATO troops and an Afghan police officer. The children had just been dismissed from school for lunch and were in the way of an attack on a coalition convoy. At the same time, a land mine claimed the lives of seven Afghan civilians – four women, two children and their driver – after driving home from a day of collecting fire wood in the Hills.

Full article here.