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Syrian Army Ousts Rebels from Two Damascus Districts

France 24, July 23, 2012

By News Wires (text)


Syrian troops have driven rebel fighters out of two districts of Damascus a week after the insurgents launched a major assault on the capital.

Government troops retook control of the Damascus neighbourhood of Mezzeh on Sunday and executed at least 20 unarmed men who they suspected of aiding rebels, opposition activists in the district said.

In Barzeh, members of the Syrian army's Fourth Division under the command of President Bashar al-Assad's brother executed several young men during an operation to regain control of the northern Damascus district, a witness and activists said.

Arab League calls for Assad exit

Arab League nations have called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power as Syrian troops ousted rebels from two Damascus districts and fighting continued in the second city of Aleppo. In a joint statement issued early on Monday (July 23) following a meeting in Doha, Arab League foreign ministers called on Assad’s "rapid resignation" and promised the Assad family "a safe exit". "There is agreement on the need for the rapid resignation of President Bashar al-Assad," Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani said after the talks. The Arab League also called on Free Syrian Army rebels and other opposition forces to form a transitional government of national unity. (Source: AFP)

Government forces have launched a determined counter-offensive since rebels brought their battle to overthrow Assad to the capital and killed four of the president's closest associates in a bomb attack last Wednesday.

In a further escalation of a conflict rapidly becoming a civil war, fighting raged around the intelligence headquarters in Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, and in Deir al-Zor in the east.

Syrian forces regained control of one of two border crossings seized by rebels on the frontier with Iraq, Iraqi officials said, but rebels said they had captured a third border crossing with Turkey: Bab al-Salam, north of Aleppo.

"Seizing the border crossings does not have strategic importance but it has a psychological impact because it demoralises Assad's force," a senior Syrian army defector in Turkey, Staff Brigadier Faiz Amr, told Reuters by phone.

"It's a show of progress for the revolutionaries, despite the superior firepower of Assad's troops."

Rebels also seized an army infantry school in the town of Musalmiyeh, 16 km (10 miles) north of Aleppo, and captured several loyalist officers, while others defected, a senior military defector in Turkey and rebel sources inside Syria said.

"This is of big strategic and symbolic importance. The school has ammunition depots and armoured formations and it protects the northern gate to Aleppo," Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh told Reuters by phone from the town of Apayden on the Turkish border.


The bombardments in Damascus and Deir al-Zor were some of the fiercest yet and showed Assad's determination to avenge the bomb attack, the most spectacular blow in a 16-month-old uprising against four decades of rule by the Assad family.

Rebels were driven from Mezzeh, the diplomatic district of Damascus, residents and opposition activists said, and more than 1,000 government troops and allied militiamen poured into the area, backed by armoured vehicles, tanks and bulldozers.

Government forces executed at least 20 men, aged approximately 20 to 30, several activists said by phone from Mezzeh.

"Most had bullet holes, one with as many as 18. Three had their hands tied behind their back. Some of the men were in their pajamas. Several had their legs broken or fingers missing. Others were stabbed with knifes," said Bashir al-Kheir, one of the activists.

Battle for Damascus

The early morning bombardment of the neighbourhood killed three people and 50 others, mostly civilians, were wounded, said Thabet, a Mezzeh resident. "The district is besieged and the wounded are without medical care," he said.

"I saw men stripped to their underwear. Three buses took detainees from al-Farouk, including women and whole families. Several houses have been set on fire."

Opposition and rebel sources say the guerrilla fighters in the capital may lack the supply lines to remain there for long and may have to make tactical withdrawals.

The neighbourhood of Barzeh, one of three northern areas hit by helicopter fire, was overrun by troops commanded by P resident Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, 41, who is widely seen as the muscle maintaining the Assad family's Alawite minority rule.

"At least 20 Fourth Division tanks and hundreds of its members entered Barzeh this afternoon," opposition activist Abu Kais said by phone from the district.

"I saw troops go into the home of 26-year-old Issa al-Arab. They left him dead with two bullets in his head."

He said people sheltering from the fighting had told him of the summary execution of a 17-year-old, Issa Wahbeh, who was pulled from the shelter and beaten and killed.

Mazen, another opposition activist in Barzeh, said the bodies had been found of four young men who appeared to have been shot at point blank range.

Syrian state television quoted a media source denying that helicopters had fired on the capital. "The situation in Damascus is normal, but the security forces are pursuing the remnants of the terrorists in some streets," it said. Crucial role

Maher's role has become more crucial since Assad's defence and intelligence ministers, a top general and his powerful brother-in-law were killed by the bomb on Wednesday, part of an assault by rebels seeking to turn the tables in a revolt inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Assad has not spoken in public since the bombing, but the Israeli military said it believed he was still in Damascus and retained the loyalty of his armed forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,261 people had been killed across Syria since last Sunday, when the fighting escalated in Damascus, including 299 of Assad's forces.

This made it by far the bloodiest week in an uprising that has claimed the lives of 18,000 people. A total of 79 civilians and 24 soldiers were killed on Sunday, the observatory said.

Most shops in Damascus were closed and there was only light traffic - although more than in the past few days. Some police checkpoints, abandoned earlier in the week, were manned again.

Many petrol stations were closed, having run out of fuel, and those that were open had huge lines of cars waiting to fill up. Residents reported long queues at bakeries.

Elsewhere, Iraqi officials said Syrian forces had regained control of the Syrian side of the Yarubiya border crossing, briefly seized by rebels on Saturday.

Iraq has said it cannot help Syrians fleeing the violence, and the border was sealed by the Iraqi army on Friday.

Regional and Western powers fear the conflict might become a full-blown sectarian war that could spill across borders, but have yet to find a coherent strategy to prevent this.

Arab League ministers meeting in Doha urged the opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army to form a transitional government, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference in Doha.

He said Arab countries would help to ensure safe passage out of Syria for President Assad if he stepped down quickly - something he has shown no inclination to do.

Syrian security attack sparks conspiracy theories

France 24, July 20, 2012

By Leela JACINTO (text)

It has been called a lethal attack, with analogies extending to the realm of science fiction – the equivalent of Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star. But in a country where the lines between fact and fiction have been deliberately blurred for decades, Wednesday’s killings of three men at the heart of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s defence team have sparked a torrent of conspiracy theories and rumours.

The shocking news of the crippling attack broke shortly after 10am local time Wednesday, when Syrian state TV reported a suicide bombing at the National Security building in the heart of Damascus.

Minutes later, state TV revealed that the attack occurred as Cabinet ministers were meeting senior security officials.

It was the start of a steady trickle of devastating news, confirmed and speedily broadcast on the heavily censored and often much-ridiculed Syrian state media.

By the end of the day, the scale of the losses in the top echelons of Assad’s dreaded security apparatus was clear. The victims of Wednesday’s attack included Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, Hassan Turkmani, head of Syria’s crisis management group - and most shocking of all, Deputy Defence Minister Asef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and inner circle member.

But even as the international community was reeling from the impact of the news, seasoned experts and ordinary Syrians were remarking about the uncharacteristic speed and efficiency displayed by Syrian state TV. For many Syrians inside and outside the country, the state media’s new-found penchant for perfect transparency appeared perfectly suspicious.

Haytham Manaa, president of the National Committee for Democratic Change, tells FRANCE 24 the National Security building in Damascus was not a tightly secured site.

“It’s very weird and unusual for the Syrian media to break the news so quickly, well ahead of international news agencies, and to present the truth. So, we have to be very careful with this story,” said Haytham Manaa, president of the National Committee for Democratic Change, a Syrian opposition group, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Manaa, like many Syrians, noted that for once, state TV - known for its lurid broadcasts of “terrorist attacks” - did not broadcast any footage of Wednesday’s attacks. Instead, the National Security building in the upscale Rawda neighbourhood of Damascus was sealed off to journalists and onlookers.

In a country tightly controlled by an opaque, autocratic regime, the lack of reliable witness accounts of the blasts or of any apparent structural damage to the National Security building added fuel to the churning rumour mills.

Hours after the blast, when BBC reporter Lina Sinjab was given a government tour of “some of the sights” she tweeted that she had, “Just walked around national security building and saw no sign of explosions, no broken window, no heavy security presence”.

Along with an earlier post that, “Residents very close 2 building said they haven't heard any sound of explosion or gunfire…” Sinjab’s tweets soon went viral on the micro-blogging site.

The former bodyguard turned regime family man

But by far the deepest source of doubt has been the identity of the victims – all high-profile men, many of them reviled, many of them previously reported dead only to be resurrected again – or at least allegedly.

Asef Shawkat, the embattled Syrian leader’s brother-in-law, has long been a figure of myth and intrigue.

Shawkat was a bodyguard for former Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad’s only and much-favoured daughter, Bushra, before they were married - despite the objections of Bushra’s brother, Basil al-Assad.

When Basil, once considered his father’s heir apparent, was killed in a 1994 car accident, rumours of Shawkat’s possible involvement in the death circulated in Damascene circles. In Syria, rumours about the ruling family are often as difficult to dispel as they are to prove and tales of Shawkat’s likely involvement were never put to rest.

SYRIA 'The enforcer' who heads Syria’s dreaded army division

The former bodyguard-turned-presidential brother-in-law was once again at the centre of a Syrian ruling family rumour when he was allegedly shot by the current president’s dreaded younger brother, Maher al-Assad, also known as “the enforcer”.

Maher, according to the Damascene rumour mill, shot his brother-in-law during an altercation. Shawkat however survived that attack and the two allegedly patched up their differences.

But many Syrians were never convinced the differences between the lowly former bodyguard and the elite ruling family were ever truly ironed out. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s attacks, there were speculations over whether Shawkat’s death was in fact masterminded by the embattled Syrian regime.

Dead by poison and then alive - allegedly

The other two victims of Wednesday’s attack – Dawoud Rajha and Hassan Turkmani – have also been reported dead and then alive by opposing factions with their own axes to grind.

In mid-May, the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) put out a video statement (in Arabic) that the two men – along with Asef Shawkat - were among six senior Assad regime figures killed in a “spectacular operation”.

According to the unconfirmed statement, the six top officials were poisoned by a domestic worker employed by the ruling Baath Party.

Questions dog Wednesday's attacks - by FRANCE 24's William Hilderbrandt

In a May 20 blog post, Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies and a leading Syria expert, cast doubts over the poison report.

“It is safer to doubt these claims until they are proven true,” wrote Landis. “The opposition has no coordinated information outlet and many competing news sources, so exaggeration and disinformation seems to be the order of the day.”

Landis’ cautionary note appeared prescient when days later, official Syrian news outlets denied the reports and featured photographs of the supposedly dead men.

But in Syria, nothing is as clear as it seems – as Ignace Leverrier, a former French diplomat, revealed in his May 29 blog post (in French).

Leverrier noted that the authenticity of the “proof of life” images of the six men released by Syrian state media could not be ascertained. The seasoned French diplomat warned that he would be “more inclined to trust” the reports that the men were alive “if the media in question could be considered independent and objective. But this is far from the case, in a country where information is subservient to official policy and resembles propaganda”.

With the unravelling of Wednesday’s events, many Syrians wondered if the three men had in fact been dead for over a month.

The announcements - which came ahead of a UN Security Council vote originally scheduled for Wednesday and the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – fuelled speculation over the timing of the news reports.

In hindsight, the blogs posted by Syria experts more than a month ago offer an eerie foretaste of what was to follow.

In his May 20 post, Landis attempted to simplify the often baffling list of names and positions of the six men allegedly killed by poisoning. The list includes Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and Hisham Bekhtyar, another senior Syrian crisis management cell member.

Both men were wounded in Wednesday's attacks, according to Syrian state TV. By Friday afternoon, Hezbollah’s al Manar TV station reported that Bekhtyar had succumbed to wounds suffered during Wednesday’s attack. That’s four of the six listed men down.

In Syria, ‘there’s no such thing as the sole truth’

News of Wednesday’s attack were followed by the often inevitable contradictory reports - including myriad groups claiming a spectacular attack and confusion over whether it was a suicide bombing or an explosive device planted at the site.

These are common enough grey zones in the immediate wake of terrorist attacks. But in the shocked aftermath of Wednesday’s attack, they were seized and magnified by conspiracy theorists.

It comes as no surprise to Ziad Majid, a Middle East expert at the American University of Paris. “This regime has always used rumours and disinformation for its own advantage or to discredit its opponents or the international media. It’s a culture of disinformation to fuel conspiracy theories, to sometimes maintain fear, sometimes sow doubt, and to persuade the Syrian people that there’s no such thing as the sole truth,” said Majid.

But Majid, like many experts, believes the often bewildering series of reports should not obscure the central fact that an embattled Assad is bereft of his senior-most security officials – whether he lost them on Wednesday or weeks ago, it hardly matters.

As for Syrian state TV’s new-found transparency in publicly exposing the regime’s weaknesses, Majid speculated that it could have been a signal, a cry for help to Syria’s staunchest international supporters.

If this particular hypothesis is accepted – at least for argument’s sake - it appears to have worked. A day after Assad suffered a crushing security blow, his foreign friends came to his aid. For the third time, and despite intense international pressure, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed new sanctions against Syria.


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