Thursday 23 February 2012


 Syrian Bedouin child of the south.

By Mehdi Hasan
Guardian UK
February 20, 2012

In the war on terror America was happy to send suspects to Syria. Now the US cries torture.
Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was rendered to Syria by the US and tortured. Photo: Fred Chartrand/AP
In recent weeks, US officials have been falling over one another to denounce the brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. President Obama has accused it of committing "outrageous bloodshed" and called for Assad to stand down; Hillary Clinton has referred to the Syrian leader as a "tyrant"; Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser under George W Bush, has called Syria a "vicious enemy".

I can't help but wonder what Maher Arar must make of such comments. Arar, a telecommunications engineer born in Syria, moved to Canada as a teenager in 1987 and became a citizen in 1991.

On 26 September 2002, he was arrested at JFK airport in New York, where he had been in transit, on his way home to Canada after a family holiday abroad. Following 13 days of questioning, the US authorities, suspecting Arar of ties to al-Qaida based on flawed Canadian police intelligence, "rendered" him not to Canada, where he lived, but to his native Syria, from where his family had fled 15 years earlier.

After his release, in October 2003, both Syria and Canada publicly cleared Arar of any links to terrorism. But the US government ~ first under Bush, and now under Obama ~ refuses to discuss the matter, let alone apologize. The Arar case wasn't a one-off. According to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, who has spent much of the past decade investigating what she calls "the dark side" of the war on terror, Syria was one of the "most common" destinations for rendered suspects. Or, in the chilling words of former CIA agent Robert Baer, in 2004: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria."

The evidence is overwhelming: in the months and years after 9/11, the US collaborated closely with Syria, which became an ally in the war on terror and a frequent destination for victims of extraordinary rendition. Syrian torturers worked hand in hand with US interrogators.

These days, however, US politicians from across the spectrum piously condemn the Syrian regime for its crimes against humanity; two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a resolution condemning Assad for "gross human rights violations" and the use of "torture". Who says Americans don't do irony, eh?
And Arar?
He's still on a US no-fly list. Some things, it seems, never change.
By Andrew Quinn and Arshad Mohammed
Thompson Reuters
February 21, 2012

The United States on Tuesday appeared to open the door to eventually arming the Syrian opposition, saying if a political solution to the crisis were impossible it might have to consider other options.

The comments, made by officials at both the White House and the State Department, marked a shift in emphasis by Washington, which thus far has stressed its policy of not arming the opposition and has said little about alternatives.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, asked if the United States was shifting its stance on arming the rebels, said Washington did not want to see the violence increase and was concentrating on political efforts to halt the bloodshed.

"That said ... if we can't get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures."

She declined to elaborate on what those measures might be.

The official comments on Tuesday followed a cautious assessment from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told CNN over the weekend that Washington still did not know enough about Assad's opponents.

"Until we're a lot clearer about who they are and what they are, I think it would be premature to talk about arming them," Dempsey said.

With both Russia and Iran firmly backing Assad's government, political analysts say tacit U.S. support for arming rebel fighters could be risky given Syria's complex ethnic and religious makeup and strategically important position.

"Force employed by the Friends of Syria should be the last step of an escalatory ladder," Robert Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an opinion piece on Tuesday. "Arming the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups may eventually help topple Assad, but it also increases the potential for a fractured or failed state."
 Aleppo a dusk.

February 22, 2012

There is a strong contingent in the US congress pushing for the arming of the Syrian opposition, with Senator John McCain once again calling for military aid on Monday, although he emphasized that the US should not do so directly.

Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) said on Wednesday it was coming to the view that military intervention is the only solution to the nearly year-old crisis that has killed thousands in Syria. "We are really close to seeing this military intervention as the only solution. There are two evils, military intervention or protracted civil war," Basma Kodmani, a senior SNC official, told a press conference in Paris.

The US and other UN members are due to meet in Tunisia on Friday in a Friends of Syria group forum. The group is pushing for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and representatives of the Syrian opposition will be in attendance at the meeting. The possibility of military intervention is unlikely to be discussed with humanitarian aid and possible sanctions on Damascus taking central stage at the forum.

Russia will not attend the meeting as it believes the Friends of Syria group to be biased in favor of the opposition. Aleksey Pushkov, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's Lower House of Parliament explained Russia’s stance on the meeting to RT. “The sole purpose of that conference is not to find a way out of the current situation, but to promote the idea that the conflict can only be resolved if Assad leaves,” said Pushkov.

He went on to say he had met with President Assad and representatives of two opposition organizations and that he did not get the impression that it was “the people vs. Assad in this conflict”. “A faction of the people is opposing the regime, while another part supports Mr. Assad, while yet another faction does not want Syria to fall into chaos,” Pushkov said.

By Azhar Shallal
The Daily Star Lebanon
February 22, 2012

Al-QAEM, Iraq: Residents of Al-Qaem, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border, aim to repay a debt to Syrians who provided them with supplies, fighters and weapons when the region was facing U.S. forces in 2005.

“The brothers in Syria stood with the Iraqis when U.S. forces surrounded us in 2005, and opened their border and their hearts to us,” Sheikh Mohammad al-Karbuli told AFP. “They delivered us everything we needed ~ food, medicine, men and weapons from several places in Syria,” so we must “pay back to them the gratitude and charity in their ordeal.”

Abdul Nasser Mohammad al-Qaraghuli, who lives between Al-Qaem and the Syrian border, said that “we send them simple medical supplies now, and collect financial contributions from the wealthy people and we send [the contributions] to them.”

Since March last year, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has carried out a bloody crackdown on an uprising against his rule in which more than 6,000 people have been killed, according to a toll by rights activists.

While there are still regular civilian protests that turn deadly in Syria, the focus has shifted to armed conflict with regime forces.

Syria shares a roughly 600 km border with Iraq, more than half of it with the Sunni-majority Anbar province, which was once an insurgent center.

Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians, and of his opponents, are Sunni Muslims.

Iraq’s interior minister said in an interview with AFP that jihadists are moving from Iraq to Syria and arms are also being smuggled across the border to opponents of Assad’s regime.
February 21, 2012
 Violence is on the rise in Syria again today, as clashes erupted in the northern region around the Turkish border while forces loyal to Bashar Assad attempt to cut off supply routes to the rebel factions being supplied from Turkey.
The clashes centered around the town of Darkush, a key rebel stronghold positioned on the Turkish border, as well as along a major northern highway in Syria. Reports indicate that some 18 people have been killed in the area.

Between those 18, and the 16 others reported slain in shelling in Homs, opposition figures reveal that well over 100 people have been killed today, although the math through which they obtained that result was not immediately apparent.

The Red Cross has been pushing for a ceasefire around portions of the nation, to give an opportunity to bring humanitarian aid to people trapped by the ongoing combat. So far it doesn’t seem that either side is close to agreeing to this.

 Night bazaar in Aleppo.

By M K Bhadrakumar
Asia Times Online
Hong Kong
February 22, 2012

A flotilla of Iranian warships crossed the Suez Canal and docked at the Syrian port of Tartus on Saturday. Iran's Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said the mission displays Iran's "might" despite 30 years of relentless sanctions.

The flotilla comprised the 18th Fleet of the Iranian navy. The warships would hold exercises and will "train Syrian naval forces under an agreement signed between Tehran and Damascus one year ago".

The influential cleric and deputy chairman of the Majlis' (parliament's" National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Hossein Ebrahimi said:
"The presence of Iran and Russia's flotillas along the Syrian coasts has a clear message against the United States' possible adventurism. In case of any US strategic mistake in Syria, there is a possibility that Iran, Russia and a number of other countries will give a crushing response to the US."
The activities of the Iranian warships at Tartus (which is also used by the Russian navy) will be keenly watched by the regional countries - Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in particular. Unconfirmed reports appeared recently that veterans of Iran's Qods Force (a special unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) might be dispatched to Syria to assist the regime.

Simply put, Iran's message to Turkey and its Arab allies (which are arming and supporting the Syrian opposition) will be: "Brothers, if you keep doing this, so can we." There is much food for thought here for these countries - especially the oil monarchies - as they gather in Tunis this coming Sunday for the first meeting of the "Friends of Syria".

For Turkey, the Iranian warships have arrived in Syria at an awkward time. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that the Syrian army had captured 40 Turkish intelligence officers involved in subversive activities and over the past week Ankara has been "conducting intensive negotiations" with Damascus to secure their freedom. But the latter insists in return Turkey ending weapon transfers and infiltrations, and, furthermore, wants Iran to be the mediator. ...

However, Tehran is also testing the waters. Under international law, Iran enjoys the right of passage for its warships to pass through Red Sea and the Suez Canal. But Egypt's equations with Iran remain ambivalent.

Egypt never allowed Iranian warships to cross the Suez until February last year following the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime when, undeterred by the diplomatic pressure from the US and threatening noises from Israel, Cairo allowed an Iranian destroyer to pass through. Israel called it a "provocation".

But since then, Egypt has been in turmoil and the initial enthusiasm for normalization of ties with Tehran has somewhat waned even as Egypt became dependent on financial help from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

Thus, the permission given to an entire Iranian fleet to cross the Suez last weekend signifies not only Egypt's thinking toward Iran but also the growing complexities and unpredictability of its relations with the US.

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