Category Archives: Syria
Simon Jenkins has shown courage in connecting the criminal outrage in Woolwich with the participation of the UK in the use of drones to destroy whole village communities in Afghanistan (An echo chamber of mass hysteria only aids terrorists, 24 May). He is surely correct when he poignantly remarks: “Of course, people should be able to walk peacefully down the street in London. They should also be able to walk peacefully in Kandahar, Yemen or Baluchistan.”
We should be very grateful that our home-grown religiously inspired fanatics have not yet got their hands on a Hellfire missile, the standard weapon of choice used by Predator and Reaper drones operated by the US and UK in Afghanistan, and by the US in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. This missile can carry an anti-personnel charge which allows one missile to kill dozens, even hundreds of people. It is not difficult to imagine more sophisticated jihadists being able to mount such a missile on the roof-rack of a car (they weigh about 100-150kg), perhaps hidden in a roll of carpet. It could then be fired into a crowded market place and achieve a kill-rate comparable to that obtained in Afghanistan by the drone pilots based at RAF Waddington.
As Menzies Campbell correctly points out (Syria needs help but it does not need arms, 24 May), if William Hague gets his way and is allowed to supply sophisticated weapons to the Free Syrian Army, they will inevitably end up in the hands of the jihadists of the al-Nusra front. According to most reports, the latter is now doing the bulk of the fighting in Syria on “our” side and might demand access to the most effective weaponry from the FSA. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they would not mind supplying the odd missile or two to their fellow religious fanatics in the UK. It is even said that UK-born jihadists are already fighting in Syria with al-Nusra.
Dr David Hookes
• President Obama has defended his country’s drone attacks as “legal, effective and a necessary tool in an evolving US counter-terrorism policy” (Report, 23 May). According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Obama approved 300 drone strikes in Pakistan alone between 2009 and 2012, that killed 2,152 people, including 290 civilians, 64 of whom were children. This is a higher death toll than the Bush administration in the period 2004-09, which launched 52 strikes, killing 438, including 182 civilians, 112 of whom were children. This comparison bears close scrutiny for those – including the Nobel Foundation – who feel that Obama represents a turn to a more enlightened page in US history.
Centre for Global Education, Belfast
Once denied by its leaders, the Shia militant group’s involvement in Syria is now a badge of honour for families burying their dead
The workmen had been busy in the room where Hezbollah honours its dead. In one corner of the martyrs’ cemetery in south Beirut, four women shrouded in black sat cross-legged near a new grave, reading from the Qu’ran. Metres away, the yellow flag of the militant group covered a freshly covered hole in a white marble floor. The scent of burning incense wafted across the room.
Another grave, its concrete seal barely dry, had been partly completed nearby. There were seven fresh holes in all; and the grave digger was never far away. More bodies were due on Friday. At this rate, the tiny room – a shrine to Hezbollah’s cause as much as to the men who died fighting for it – would soon be full.
The flurry of activity in the martyrs’ cemetery marks the busiest period for the militant movement since the 2006 war with Israel, in which an estimated 400 of its members died. All the new graves here have been dug in the past 10 days. Many others have been sealed with the familiar yellow and green standard in villages across Lebanon where the rumblings of a very different war have now boiled over into sacrifice and loss.
The newly arrived dead have ushered in a new reality for Hezbollah, one that has taken more than two years of uprising and war in neighbouring Syria to publicly acknowledge: all the fallen have died fighting Arabs in Syria, not Jews in Israel. Such a shift in orientation, for so long denied by the group’s leadership, is now being worn as a badge of honour by the families of the dead.
Many of the next of kin interviewed by the Guardian said that their sons and brothers had been defending Lebanon from foreign plotters – in this case Salafists from the east rather than Zionists from the south. “The threat to us comes from all directions,” said one grieving relative in the Beirut suburb of Chiyah on Friday. “But behind it all is the hidden hand of Israel.”
The relative had come to the martyrs’ cemetery to bury Taalab Fadl, who had been killed fighting rebels in the Syrian town of Qusair.
Men in olive green rode motorbikes up and down nearby roads, all closed by steel barriers while the body was prepared for burial in an adjoining funeral hall. A truck stopped on a street corner, blaring martyrdom hymns throughout the cavernous lanes and alleys of the party’s heartland.
A brass band prepared for the 2pm arrival. It had used the visit hours earlier of an Iranian delegation to prepare, warming up with stirring revolutionary ballads, more than the sorrowful tones often associated with loss.
The Iranians, around 70 men in two buses, had all made their way to the new graves, politely asking their guides where each had been killed. The officials spent more time in front of one grave at the centre of the room, that of the last Hezbollah member to die in Syria before the uprising, Imad Mughniyeh, the group’s key strategist and military leader who was killed by Israeli assassins in Damascus in February 2008. Some bowed in deference, stooping to touch the tomb’s marble cover. Others slowly toured the room acknowledging all of the dead, new and old.
Next to Mughniyeh was a new arrival, Rabiah al-Saadi, covered uncharacteristically in a red flag. And alongside him was Hadi, the son of the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hadi had been killed by Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon in 1997.
A middle-aged man crouched in front of the grave of his 17-year son who also died in battle that year. One hand held the corner of the tomb and he sobbed uncontrollably into the other. As he rose to leave, he said: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
In the clandestine world of Hezbollah there is something revelatory about its graveyards; its members live with their secrets, but die stripped bare of them. As the tally of dead and injured has mounted over the past week, a clearer picture has emerged of the depth of the group’s involvement in Syria, a battle that Nasrallah had long denied joining.
The impact of such a shift is resounding across Lebanon and beyond. Sectarian tensions, which have bubbled away as the crisis has worn on, are now more visible and potent than for many decades. “God help us,” said one refugee from Qusair this week – a Sunni mother of three. “People say they are afraid of a world war. We want a world war rather than this. Either they let us die, or live with dignity.”
In a series of speeches over the past two years, Nasrallah, who is rarely seen in public, has voiced unwavering support for Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has been essential to the group’s power. But he has dismissed constant opposition claims that he was more than just a moral backer. In the past eight months, however, Hezbollah’s leader has shifted tone, suggesting first that members were “not yet” involved in Syria, then highlighting the threat posed to Shia shrines there, particularly the Sayyida Zeinab mosque in Damascus, as a reason to consider stepping in.
This year, Hezbollah’s television station, al-Manar, started playing a short video showing fighters near the Zeinab mosque – a tacit acknowledgement of the group’s direct military support. Facebook posts about slain members appeared soon after. Then came tributes on Hezbollah channels and websites, all without details.
Its hand perhaps forced by the sheer volume of dead and wounded coming back from Qusair, the group has only this past week felt comfortable enough to drop the veil on its role in Syria. But even now, the graveyard clamour and pageantry of martyrdom has not led Hezbollah’s leaders to address their direct involvement – a move that has profound implications both in Lebanon and across the region.
So far, justification is being left to the group’s support base, much of which seems to be onside with the decision, citing a need to strike pre-emptively against rebel groups that they believe will come to fight them next.
“I am with Hezbollah in this decision, because it is better that we fight them there than here,” said a Dahiyah resident, Mohammed Abdullah.
“People don’t think critically. If Hezbollah want to do this, then that’s OK. They believe that Hezbollah know what they are doing.”
Another Dahiyah local echoed a sentiment widely heard among Hezbollah supporters – that Syria’s opposition is al-Qaida-led and heading for Lebanon. “They are terrorists who pretend they are Muslims,” said Zulfiqa Hamsa, 23. They want to take the weapons from Hezbollah and indirectly support the Zionists and the Jews.
“They have been afraid until now to say that Hezbollah have been involved in fighting in other countries because of international opinion.”
Other supporters are equally comfortable with the shift in the group’s raison d’etre. “Of course it’s a big decision,” said vendor Ala’a Attrass. “But it’s necessary. You think there isn’t sectarianism in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia? They are persecuting Shias there.”
Lebanon’s civilian leaders have largely remained mute over this week’s events. By Friday, at least 30 Hezbollah members had returned in death shrouds. Many dozens more were injured. Its supporters estimated that the toll was much higher, with some well connected sources saying that a Syrian jet had mistakenly bombed a large group of Hezbollah members, killing up to 20 on Tuesday.
In the northern city of Baalbek – a strategic hub for Hezbollah, only 15 miles south of the frontline in Qusair – recent refugees were taking shelter from the war. Nearby, another of the group’s main zones, Hermel, where its founding parade was held in 1982 and the group was mandated by Iran to fight Israel, was further down the path of conditioning its supporters to the change. Members here had begun erecting martyrs’ posters to pay homage to the dead – something that is yet to be done in Beirut, where fading banners of the 2006 dead remain prominent.
On a visit to Baalbekon Thursday, Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, said the week’s events had marked a groundshift in Syria’s war. The deteriorating situation there, he said, “could become a sectarian civil war across the region. The prospect of it being a Shia, Sunni war across more than one country and this would be a huge tragedy.
“This is profoundly serious now. We could see the unravelling of nation states and the agreed boundaries that we have seen in the Middle East.”
Back in Dahiyah, there was little reflection on the broader issues beyond an existential view of “us versus them”, which has morphed into “we’re better off getting them first”.
“Fighting Israel has a different meaning and taste than fighting in Syria,” said Mohammed Abdullah.
Asked which tastes better, he replied: “Israel, for sure.”
The United States and Russia agreed earlier this month to pull together the peace conference, with Russia responsible for bringing the government of Bashar al-Assad to the table.
Assad regime agrees ‘in principle’ to conflict resolution initiative as Syrian opposition comes under pressure to take part as well
The Assad government has agreed to take part in next month’s international conference in Geneva aimed at resolving Syria’s civil war, according to ally Russia, as the Syrian opposition came under pressure to also commit to the initiative.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said: “We note with satisfaction that we have received an agreement in principle from Damascus to attend the international conference in the interest of the Syrians themselves finding a political path to resolve the conflict.”
The Syrian government has yet to confirm that it would send a representative. Its deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, held “extensive negotiations” in Moscow this week about the conference, which was convened by Russia and the US. He described the meeting as positive but stopped short of announcing whether Damascus would take part. In his most recent interview, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, insisted he would not negotiate with terrorists.
The main sticking point remains Assad’s future, an issue that was deliberately fudged at the first Geneva conference last June as a way of getting broad international backing for some sort of transition government in Syria.
The country’s divided opposition group the Syrian National Coalition, is meeting in Istanbul where it is being urged to drop its insistence that Assad should agree to stand down as a precondition for taking part in any talks.
Reza Afshar, head of the Syria team at the British Foreign Office, tweeted: “Syria opposition meeting now. Time to step up, make bold choices & commit to #Geneva.”
Lukashevich accused the Syrian opposition of trying to undermine the Geneva conference. “We are again hearing about the precondition that Bashar al-Assad leaves power and that a government be formed under the auspices of the UN,” he said.
He added that it was impossible to set the date for the conference at this point because there was “no clarity about who will speak on behalf of the opposition and what powers they will have”.
Louay Safi, who has been touted as a possible new leader of the opposition coalition, said he supported the idea of talks but was wary. “Our fear is that the regime is not going to negotiate in good faith. We would like to hear enough [from Damascus] to know that they are serious about these negotiations,” he said.
Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the 60-member body supports “any conference that helps transition the situation into an elective government away from the dictatorship” but would not attend without indications that Assad would step down.
On Thursday, the coalition’s outgoing leader, Moaz al-Khatib, proposed a transition plan involving granting Assad and his inner circle safe passage to another country. But Khatib’s colleagues, many of whom rejected his offer to hold talks with the Assad government earlier this year, have also criticised his latest initiative.
One opposition official told Reuters that the plan was “heading directly for the dustbin of history”.
Russia claims the Assad regime has agreed in principle to attend next month’s peace conference in Geneva while the opposition consider whether it will turn upMatthew WeaverGuardian readers
Government outrage does not provide a sound basis for such a material policy change as vetoing the EU arms embargo
The most seductive fallacy in foreign affairs is “something must be done”. It now appears that the UK government is ready to veto any extension of the EU arms embargo on Syria when it comes up for review in Brussels next Monday. That would be “something”. As set out by William Hague this week in the House of Commons, this policy is as follows. The government has not decided to send arms to the “good guys” among the rebels, but it wants the flexibility to do so and in the meantime it believes that not to renew the EU embargo would send a powerful signal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Like many fallacies it is superficially attractive, especially when accompanied by a harrowing account of the brutality of the Assad regime, its indiscriminate use of violence against its own citizens, and the impact on Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan of the never-ending flood of refugees. But outrage and frustration are not enough to provide an efficient justification or sound basis for such a material policy change.
It is argued that at this stage the policy only extends to modifying or discontinuing the embargo so as “to keep all options on the table”, but this is disingenuous. Why would the government go to such lengths as to exercise a veto if it did not already have a predisposition to follow that with a supply of arms?
Leave aside the political consequences for the UK with its fellow EU members both now and in the future of the exercise of a veto. Ask yourself what might be the result of the flexibility sought by the United Kingdom.
How would you identify those groups among Assad’s opponents who would be legitimate recipients of arms on the ground that their values of democracy and human rights are said to be the same as ours? The range of opponents is both complex and extensive. Radical Islamists are becoming more and more influential and powerful, not least since they are funding their activities by plundering Syrian reserves and selling oil on the black market. They most certainly do not share our values of democracy and human rights. How would you prevent arms from falling into their hands? They have proved themselves to be as brutal as Assad. Remember, too, that when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the US supplied prodigious amounts of weapons to the Mujahideen to help them to resist the invaders. Some of these weapons were used against those who supplied them when it became necessary to take on the Taliban after 9/11.
The government answer appears to be you can never be absolutely certain that weapons will not fall into the wrong hands and we will take every precaution to prevent it happening. This is a thin justification for that risk in a conflict which hardly seems to lack weapons. If there is a risk of weapons falling in to the wrong hands, why increase that risk by providing yet more?
One of the, as yet, unanswered questions is what kind of arms would you provide? Modern weaponry is increasingly sophisticated, requiring both training and expertise. There is no point in sending arms if the recipients are unable to use them. One tempting answer to that conundrum would be to send both military and civilian technicians to provide the necessary assistance. This might not be “boots on the ground” as we understand it, but those who were deployed would provide inviting targets for Assad forces and propaganda for his claim that the conflict is being driven by foreigners intent on bringing down his government.
And what would be the response of his long-time patrons in Moscow? They continue to send sophisticated weapons to Syria – only last week they delivered a batch of shore-to-ship missiles which would be an obstacle to any naval blockade or amphibious troop landing. You can be sure that the umbilical cord between Russia and Syria will not fail for a lack of arms supplies.
But the most penetrating question is: where is the evidence that Assad’s approach would in any way be affected by a veto or its possible consequences so long as he continues to enjoy unqualified Russian support?
If not arms, some say, what about a “no-fly zone” like Libya? Such parallels are inept. The Gaddafi government had no air force to speak of and little by way of ground-based air defence. A “no-fly zone” was easily established and maintained. But Syria is different. Russian military assistance over many years has given Assad both a credible air force and formidable air defences on the ground. To establish a “no-fly zone” it would be necessary first to suppress these ground-based defences which will inevitably be located near centres of population. The risk to civilians would be palpable. And if it is a “no-fly zone” you must be prepared to shoot down intruders. Would not that amount to military intervention?
The position of the US in all of this is central. Little or no information has emerged as a result of the prime minister’s conversations with President Barack Obama in Washington last week. Such silence suggests that for the moment at least, the US is content to pursue the diplomatic options with Russia.
People ask: what can we do? There are no elegant solutions in Syria. We can give training and support to those who can be established as holding the same values as ourselves. We can badger those nations who can afford to provide the financial assistance in support of the humanitarian refugee effort in the countries bordering on Syria. We can throw our weight behind the tentative joint diplomatic approach of Russia and US with its effort to convene a conference on Syria. We can caution Israel against getting involved. We can persuade, cajole and bully countries in the region that they have a stake in the outcome and that continuing destabilisation could have damaging consequences for them all.
It is said that this change of British government policy is being led by No 10, that the Foreign Office is less enthusiastic and the military deeply sceptical. I am with the sceptics.
Members of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces met in Istanbul to elect a new leader and prepare for an expected international conference in Geneva.
Borders are a loose concept along many parts of the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, with Syria’s war tugging on relative peace in Lebanon, and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah increasing its involvement in Syria.
Syrian opposition defends the use of simple animations to persuade rebels to end human rights abusesMatthew Weaver
The New Scientist has mapped violence in Syria, illustrating how the conflict has evolved in scale and severity since hostilities began in early 2011John Burn-Murdoch