Thursday, July 19, 2012

External Players

NCF daily Report on Syrian Issue – External Players – Report dated 18 July 2012 (late evening)

·         We preface this report with a special note on the assassinations in Damascus:

As violence in the Syrian capital continues for a fourth day, a bomb (or alleged bomb – no video evidence available – see below) in Damascus hit a National Security building. Those killed included the Syrian Defence Minister Dawoud Rajhah, General Assef Shawkat, President Assad’s brother-in-law and Assistant Vice President General Hassan Turkmani. Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and and Lt. Gen. Hisham are also reported as wounded. These reports have been confirmed by Syrian State media.  This marks the first time over the last sixteen months that high profile personalities, close to the President, have been casualties of the conflict. Those confirmed dead are as follows:
Syrian Defence Minister Dawoud Rajhah (1947 – 2012)
•         Specialised in artillery at the Syrian military academy
•         Served as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces for seven years
•         Defence Minister since August 2011
•         Close to President Assad
•         The US Treasury imposed sanctions on Rajhah in March 2012, for his role in “the oppression of the Syrian protesters” 
•         Awarded several military medals throughout his career
•         Married with four children
General Assef Shawkat (1950-2012)
•         From middle-income Alawite family in Tartus, he studied law at Damascus University
•         He joined the army in the late 1970s
•         Made Deputy Chief-of-Staff of the armed forces and Deputy Defence Minister in 2010
•         Married Hafez al-Assad's only daughter, Bushra
•         Shawkat was mentioned in a preliminary report by UN investigators as one of the people who might have planned the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005
•         The US and EU impose sanctions on Shawkat in 2011 for “suppressing protesters”
Hasan Turkmani (1935-2012)
•         Graduated as a field artillery lieutenant and joined the Syrian Army in 1954
•         Turkmani commanded a mechanized division during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war
•         He was promoted to the rank of major general in 1978
•         He was appointed Syrian army chief of staff in January 2002, replacing Ali Aslan  
•         In 2004, he became Defense Minister, replacing Mustafa Tlass, he was replaced in June 2009 by the former army chief Ali Habib Mahmud
•         On 03 June 2009, President Bashar al Assad appointed Hassan Turkmani as Assistant Vice President with the rank of minister 
•         He was also appointed Chief of Crisis Operations and was widely blamed for the campaign of torture in Syria
There have been unconfirmed claims of widespread defections in the aftermath of the bombing. However most seasoned commentators do not believe the end is near as the government continues to have ‘superiority in weaponry and manpower’.
As ever conspiracy theories abound:
  • one claims that Assef Shawkat et al had actually been dead for a month (since the rebels alleged they had been poisoned at an earlier meeting of the ‘Emergency Crisis Group’), the announcement having been delayed to a time that suited the Syrian government (a little unlikely because Shawkat was seen on Syrian TV a couple of days after the alleged poisoning). 
  • Another claims that Shawkat and Dawoud Rajhah were killed off by the government as they were leading a “palace coup” against Assad (and indeed their names had been mentioned in this context prior to their assassination – confidential NCF sources from Syria were floating their names as the only possible contenders to conduct a coup as early as May 2012). Note, if conspiracy theories are your preference, that there is no video footage of the aftermath of the bombing. One NCF Syrian source states that he does not believe the opposition could breach the security of the upper echelon.
Government response
Reporting the incident as a ‘terrorist attack’ on Syrian TV, the Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi blamed the bombing in Damascus today on ‘the countries which sent money and weapons to Syria’. He insisted that the bombing demonstrated the opposition’s frustration at the strength of the Syrian government and the ongoing support from the Syrian Arab Army. He continued, stating that ‘what happened today is the last chapter of the U.S- Western- Israeli conspiracy against Syria.’ Speaking on on Al Jazeera he said that these three ministers would be treated as martyrs. He labelled the assassinations as cowardly.  
Opposition response
According to the BBC, both the Free Syrian Army and a jihadist group called Liwa Al Islam have claimed responsibility for the bombing. NCF can confirm that Liwa al Islam (The Islamic Brigade) have claimed responsibility for the attack on their Arabic facebook page. However the NCF sources within the FSA insist that the FSA orchestrated the attack and that any subdivision claiming responsibility all comes under the umbrella term of FSA. The NCF’s FSA source was also adamant that though the Syrian government would be eager to label this a Jihadist suicide bombing, this was very much an FSA attack and was not a suicide bomb. Our source also confirmed claims that the incident involved bodyguards for members of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle. The FSA have taken full responsibility for the attacks, and have described them as an “indication that the Assad regime is on its last legs”. The NCF’s direct source within the FSA stated that “Assad should get out of the capital or die there.”



In a reaction to today’s bombing Kofi Annan suggested that the vote on a western backed resolution that targeted Syrian authorities should be delayed. The British UN mission has tweeted that they are considering the request to delay the vote along with co-sponsors of the resolution.
The United Nations Security Council had called for a vote on a resolution which would result in the enforcement of further sanctions on Syria if the government failed to remove troops and stop using heavy weaponry within 10 day of the resolution. UN Chapter 7 would then allow the UN to take action against Assad ranging from sanctions to military intervention, though the US has insisted that any such action would be limited to sanctions.
Russia and China remain the main obstacle to this resolution being passed, with Russia stating she would use her veto to block the resolution. British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said that ‘when challenged they (Russia and China) were unable to come up with any convincing reasons why’. It seems likely that neither the Western-backed resolution nor an alternative suggested by the Russians will be passed.
The UN leader Ban Ki- Moon has approached China in an attempt to alter their decision, alongside Russia, to support Assad and block the Western resolution. Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at People's University in Beijing, said Ban hopes this time that China will give support to calls for Assad to step down. Or at least not to oppose them.’ In addition, the UN mission will need to be renewed and Ban Ki-Moon reportedly proposed a shift in focus to a political solution as well as human rights rather than military observation as it has been so far.
Earlier in the week, UN observers at the site of the Tremseh massacre ‘found pools of blood in homes and spent bullets, mortars and artillery shells’. It appears the incident was a combat between government forces and a mixture of activists and locals, furthermore the UN observers noted that the attacks seemed focused on the homes of opposition figures. Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, said that there was evidence of the use of artillery shells and mortars which only government troops have, thus implicating the government forces.


The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement which demands that those behind the “attacks of terror on the capital be brought to justice, identified and face punishment”. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov said that a “decisive battle” had begun in Syria. Lavrov added that adopting a UN resolution during this crisis would encourage the revolutionaries. Stating, that some parties were exacerbating the situation. A Russian Spokesman has described the attack as a villainous crime, and intended to destabilize Syria permanently.
Russia began the previous week by sending a flotilla of warships to its naval base in Tartous, an exercise which they said was routine. However, the display of military might seems more like a warning to the West that Russia will defend its last strategic hold in the Middle East. The dispatch of the warships came as Russia had pledged not to supply any new arms to the Assad government (that had not already been contracted for).
A Moscow meeting was also presided over with key members of the opposition (including Abdulbaset Sayda, head of the SNC) by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov stated that he wanted to move the opposition towards realistic and constructive positions. Sayda on the other hand said he aimed to break Russia’s support for the Assad government. The conference was unsuccessful, and Sayda blamed the Russian government for the suffering of the Syrian people, stating that contrary to common belief, there had been “no change in Russia’s opinion of Assad’s regime”.
Shortly after the conference, the Tremseh massacre occurred. This put further pressure on the Russians to allow UN intervention. Lavrov stated that according to the UN observer mission, there were signs that both the military and the opposition had been fighting in the village of Tremseh. Lavrov further stated that the Western powers needed to influence the Free Syrian Army and other members of the armed opposition to engage in peaceful talks.
Lavrov also said that if Russia’s own resolution was blocked by her partners, the UN mission would not have a mandate and would have to leave Syria on Friday, showing just how little Russia is willing to compromise.


Iran has also condemned today’s attack on the capital and has declared that “foreign backing for terrorist attacks” would not succeed in destabilizing Syria. Iran’s foreign ministry condemned the violence in Syria and declared that the only way to resolve the crisis was through talks. The ministry has also warned against instability within Syria spreading to the rest of the region, and said foreign backed terrorist actions will not be tolerated.
Iran continues to favour Assad and his government, declaring that Assad is the victim of western villainy facilitated by the media. However, the independent press in Iran such as Shargh Newspaper has reported events in Syria with objectivity.
Popular opinion in Iran has begun to sway, and many have become sympathetic with the plight of the Syrian people. Some Iranian diplomats have even joined in discussions on whether Iran should continue to support Assad. An Iranian diplomat, Mohamad Ali Sobhani is quoted as saying “we are not playing this game very well”, in reference to the fact that Iran is supporting a government that is accused of committing crimes against humanity.
Iran seems to be considering other options in case Syria’s government falls. Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi has stated that “The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to sit down with the Syrian opposition and invite them to Iran”, to facilitate talks between the government and the opposition.


Turkey released a rather powerful statement following the assassinations this morning. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan insisted, "Decisions should be taken by people in Syria, the Syrian people."
Previously, Turkey had openly condemned the Syrian government for the “continuing slaughter of their own people”, most recently in the Tremseh massacre. Prime Minister Erdogan reportedly called this latest atrocity an ‘attempt at genocide’ and he remained confident that the Syrian people would ‘make them pay.’
The relationship between Turkey and Syria remains acutely strained following the downing of a Turkish plane.
Since the incident, Turkey has increased its military presence along the border with Syria greatly.Hatay province in Turkey has ‘become a logistics base, arms bazaar and convalescence centre for Syrian rebels and their supporters’. Iran called for Turkey to close off it borders to ‘Syrian terrorists’ insisting it was their ‘duty’.


Following the assassinations in Syria, the UN ambassador to Germany Peter Wittig stressed that it is now time ‘for the security council to act’. He blames the Syrian Government for the killings as the escalation of the violence ‘lies with the Assad regime’. He says that countries should be rigorous and compliant in following the Annan six-point plan and the decision of the Security Council. Germany urges Russia and China to be more in tune with the consensus and forceful in their actions by following the line of the other members of the Security Council.


Taking a public stand against Assad, Morocco asked the Syrian ambassador to leave the country. Morocco insists that a transition to democracy is necessary to fulfil the needs of the Syrian people. Syria responded to this expulsion by declaring the Moroccan ambassador ‘persona non grata’.


Following today’s bomb blast the Defence secretary to the United States Leon Panetta described the situation as “spiralling out of control”. Panetta further stated that the bombing marked a huge escalation in the violence within Syria. Panetta (along with the British Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond) took the bombing as an indication of the urgent need for Assad to peacefully cede power and follow the transitional government plan brokered by Kofi Annan.
The US treasury Department has reacted by adding 29 officials to the list of those facing sanctions. Five companies linked to the Syrian government have also been subjected to international sanctions. David Cohen, the US Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, has pledged US commitment to the “termination of the Assad regime”.
Earlier in the week, the US seized on the events in Tremseh to increase pressure to overthrow President Assad. In a statement issued on Friday Hilary Clinton condemned ‘yet another massacre’, claiming there was ‘indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians.’ However, it may not have been legitimate in this instance to put so much emphasis on the occurrences in Tremseh as there is growing evidence that it was not a cold-hearted massacre of innocent civilians but a clash between government troops and the Syrian opposition rebels. The Obama administration is pressuring Moscow and Beijing to back the US position.
‘History will judge this [United Nations Security] Council’ Clinton said. ‘Its members must ask themselves whether continuing to allow the Assad regime to commit unspeakable violence against its own people is the legacy they want to leave’. US media has largely ignored evidence contradicting the massacre claims.


 Upon confirmation of the deaths of the defence minister Dawoud Rajhah and General Shawkat, William Hague issued a statement calling on all parties to halt the violence and for the UN to shoulder their responsibilities. The foreign secretary further stated that the United Kingdom condemned the bombing, however said it showed the need for a Chapter VII resolution of the UN Security Council on Syria. Hague said that the bombing indicated the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, pushing for urgent action, and the employment of the Annan peace plan.
Earlier Hague had announced that the United Kingdom would ‘redouble’ efforts to push for a Chapter 7 resolution, thus compelling Syria to fulfil the commitments it made under the Annan Plan. British diplomats in New York will continue negotiations on a Resolution at the Security Council. Hague also called for the need to establish and accurate account of what happened in Tremseh. As we know, this is proving to be a rather unrealistic expectation.


China has been very quiet this week regarding Syria, silently backing Russia. However after the Tremseh massacre China declared it would ‘consider’  the new UN draft resolution, which would involve sanctions being put in place against Assad’s government if they did not comply with UN requirements.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon has travelled to China on Tuesday in an attempt to push China into taking tougher action against Assad. This comes as China continues to insist on a diplomatic solution being found to end the conflict. An article that was published in the People’s Daily Newspaper strongly condemned force being used against Syria, making it seem increasingly likely that China will veto the new UN resolution.
Analysts have stated that China is eager to remain aligned with Russia, making it hard for China to speak out against Russia’s position.


Confidential NCF sources in the French government state that France is no longer attempting to get Russia to change its current position, concentrating instead on persuading the Syrian President not to stand again in the 2014 elections.

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