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As Syrian Opposition Leaders Meet in Cairo, 2 Car Bombs in Damascus, Downing Mig-23 in Aleppo

November 28, 2012

Wreckage of a Mig-23 jet downed by rebels in Aleppo Site of a car bomb in Jaramana, Damascus

Syrian opposition holds first meeting in Cairo

MENA, Independent Egypt, Wed, 28/11/2012 - 22:07

The National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, which was formally announced in Doha on 11 November, held its first meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.

The closed meeting discussed the formation of a transitional government.

The coalition, headed by Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, has been recognized by numerous Arab and European countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

A source within the Syrian opposition told the state-run MENA news agency that more meetings would be held in Cairo to coordinate efforts to achieve greater international recognition of the coalition.

Though he remained optimistic, the source added that forming a transitional government is difficult due to differences in views among the coalition members on developments inside Syria.

The meeting was held a day after a conference in Cairo organized by donor countries, humanitarian organizations and the European Union on humanitarian aid and support of local groups inside Syria.

Edited translation from MENA


2 Car bombs kill 34 in Damascus suburb

Independent Egypt, Reuters Wed, 28/11/2012 - 20:49

Two car bombs killed at least 34 people in a district of Damascus loyal to President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday in the deadliest attack on the Syrian capital in months.

The explosions struck the eastern neighborhood of Jaramana, home to many of Syria's Druze minority as well as Christians who have fled violence elsewhere, ripping through shops and bringing debris crashing down on cars.

Once a bastion of security in Assad's 20-month campaign to crush an uprising against his rule, Damascus has been hit with increasing regularity as the rebels grow bolder.

State media said a bomb also detonated in the southern town of Bosra al-Sham, near Dera'a, where the revolt began with peaceful street protests in March 2011. It also said eight "terrorists" were killed near Damascus while they tried to booby-trap a car with a bomb.

Authorities severely limit independent media in Syria and it was not immediately possible to verify reports. The government said 34 people were killed in Damascus but did not give a casualty count for the Bosra al-Sham bombing.

The attacks followed two weeks of military gains by rebels who have stormed and taken army bases across Syria, exposing Assad's loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power which he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.

A resident of Jaramana said that rebels had been repeatedly forbidden by local Druze elders to operate in the district, which borders the capital's center where government offices are located.

"Tension have risen between Druze elders and rebels and now there are three or four small explosions a week," she told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Underlining the growing military muscle of the rebels, bolstered by weapons captured during raids on army facilities as well as supplies from abroad, fighters shot down a war plane in northern Syria on Wednesday using an anti-aircraft missile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Opposition groups subsequently posted a video clip on the Internet that showed a man in a green jumpsuit being carried through fields. He was bleeding heavily from his head and appeared unconscious. "This is the pilot that attacked the houses of civilians," said a voice off camera.

Another video showed doctors treating the limp body of apparently the same pilot, who activists said ejected from his MiG 23 fighter jet before it crashed near Darat Ezza, about 30 km (20 miles) from Aleppo.

The bloodshed came as Syria's new opposition coalition held its first full meeting on Wednesday to discuss forming a transitional government crucial to win effective Arab and Western support for the revolt against Assad.

"The objective is to name the prime minister for a transitional government, or at least have a list of candidates," said Suhair al-Atassi, one of the coalition's two vice-presidents.

The two-day meeting in Cairo will also select committees to manage aid and communications, a process that is becoming a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular members.

Rivalries have also intensified between the opposition in exile and rebels on the ground in Syria, where the death toll has reached 40,000, including soldiers, civilians and rebels.

‘Terrorist’ bombs, says state news agency

The Syrian state news agency, SANA, described Wednesday's blasts as "terrorist bombings," a label it reserves for attacks by mainly Sunni Muslim fighters battling to overthrow Assad, a member of Syria's Alawi minority linked to Shia Islam.

Two smaller bombs also exploded in Jaramana at about the same time as the car bombs, around 7 am (0500 GMT). In total at least 47 people were killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, giving a higher toll than the government. Eighty three people were seriously wounded, the British-based Observatory said.

"Who benefits from this? Tell me who benefits from this? America, Israel, Qatar?" a man at the bomb site said to Syrian television, which broadcast footage of firefighters hosing down the blackened hulks of two vehicles and several cars crushed by debris from neighboring buildings.

Pools of blood could be seen on the road.

Most foreign powers have condemned Assad. Britain, France and Gulf countries have recognized the umbrella opposition group meeting in Cairo, the Syrian National Coalition, as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

But Assad has been able to rely on his allies, especially regional powerhouse Iran, which is believed to be bank-rolling him and supplying military support despite US and European sanctions. Russia, Syria's main arms supplier, says it has only sent weapons already agreed to in previous deals.

International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is due to brief the 15-member council on Thursday and the UN General Assembly on Friday. There is diplomatic deadlock between Western powers, who broadly support the opposition and Assad's supporters Russia and China which have blocked Security Council action.

Russia not ready to shift on Syria

Khaleej Times, (Reuters) / 28 November 2012

Russia seems to be positioning itself for the day Bashar al-Assad may lose power.

However, nothing in recent statements shows President Vladimir Putin is shifting to join Western rivals in backing the rebels in Syria’s civil war.

As Syria’s new opposition coalition consolidates, Russia has stepped up efforts to tell the world it is not on President Assad’s side, despite its blocking Western and Arab efforts to provide U.N. support for the rebel forces trying to topple him.

Putin’s special Middle East envoy met quietly with members of the opposition coalition last week, and diplomacy on Syria was the focus of two trips Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has made to the region in November - neither of them to Damascus.

Lavrov said on Wednesday “there can be no talk of Russia getting drawn into the armed conflict” in Syria - a pat message but also a reminder of the limits of Russian support for Assad, who has given Moscow its firmest foothold in the Middle East.

In Paris on Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev repeated a statement Putin delivered as long ago as March - that Russia has no “special relationship” with Syria - and said Assad and his foes “bear equal responsibility for what is going on”.

Moscow has often suggested the rebels bear more blame for 20 months of violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people since Assad’s government began a crackdown on protests in March 2011. It has accused Western nations of encouraging them.

But analysts said any new emphasis heard in Medvedev’s remarks, notably on Assad sharing equal blame, should be ascribed to a difference in style between him and Putin - it was not a sign of a substantive change in Moscow’s stance.

Russia has been verbally distancing itself from Assad for months, part of an effort to cast itself as a neutral player with an interest in peace alone; a Western diplomat called Russian meetings with the opposition “contingency planning”.

A Russian diplomatic source suggested the meeting by the Kremlin envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, with opposition members last week brought no deviation from Moscow’s policy; Russia is telling all opposition groups there is no way to resolve the situation other than by dialogue with Assad’s government, the source said. All meetings are in line with Russia’s long-standing principle of talking to both sides.

“It would take a really major development, a real game-changer in Syria, to make Russia change - something like the fall of Assad or a clear signal that that is looming,” another Western diplomatic source said.

The Kremlin is not convinced that is the case, said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

Putin’s position

“Russia’s position stays the same; it is the situation that changes. Russia’s position at times looks like a losing one and then suddenly it seems like supporting Assad further is not a mistake, because Assad is not a doomed president,” Lukyanov said. “There are no grounds for Russia to change its approach now.”

The reasons for that have as much to do with Putin’s global manoeuvring as with Assad’s prospects for political survival.

Russia has practical motives to hold onto the hope that Assad could stay in power.

One of Moscow’s strongest footholds in the Middle East since the Soviet era, Syria has been a major client for Russian arms sales and hosts a naval maintenance and supply facility that is Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

Perhaps more important to Putin, who started a new six-year term in May after the biggest opposition protests since his first election in 2000, is the image of a strong leader standing up to the West and opposing U.S.-led intervention abroad.

“The position on Syria is very stable because it comes from (Putin’s) perception of how things should be: that one must not interfere and support one of the sides,” Lukyanov said. “The Libyan precedent must not be repeated.”

Russia has adamantly warned the West it would not allow a repeat in Syria of last year’s events in Libya, where NATO military intervention helped rebels to topple Muammar Gaddafi.

Moscow had let the NATO air operation go ahead by abstaining in the U.N. vote that authorised it. But it then accused the alliance of overstepping its mandate to protect civilians in an American-led drive for regime change - anathema to the Kremlin, which is aware of Western sympathies for the Russian opposition.

Putin’s attention to his image at home also helps shape Russia’s policy on Syria, reinforcing his need to look resolute and avoid appearing to change its position.

Putin was voted in to a third presidential term after a campaign in which he accused the United States of encouraging opposition protests and said Western states were seeking to influence Russia’s elections.

“Russian foreign policy is in many ways is driven by domestic issues,” a Western diplomatic source said.

“It may not be a dominating factor in this case, but with all this anti-Western rhetoric now flourishing at home, how can they suddenly change on such a theme and ally with the West out of the blue?”

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