Overwhelmed and exhausted rebels retreat from Salaheddin to set up new defensive positions. Commanders insist the move is a tactical pullback, but fighters are unnerved as the government intensifies its Aleppo offensive.
Tank shells dropped about one a minute yesterday on the narrow streets of the battered Salaheddin district of Aleppo as exhausted rebel commanders finally conceded they no longer could contain a Syrian government offensive that’s built in intensity and firepower the past week, leaving hundreds dead and wounded, many of them civilians.
Syrian mourners carry the body of 29 year-old Free Syrian Army fighter, Husain Al-Ali, who was killed during clashes in Aleppo, during his funeral in the town of Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (Khalil Hamra / AP Photo)
With shelling and sniper fire pursuing them, hundreds of insurgents lugged RPG7 rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, and their all-purpose AK47s out of the district and filtered into neighborhoods adjacent to Salaheddin to set up new defensive positions in buildings mainly to the north and east, and to await the next move of their better-equipped adversaries.
Only days ago, as warplanes and helicopter gunships struck at rebel forces, Free Syrian Army commanders insisted they would retain the district in the southwest of Syria’s second-largest city, arguing that its strategic importance made it essential for them to hold it. Salaheddin lies on a vital supply and logistics route for government forces wanting to move men and materiel north to retake a string of towns running south from the Turkish border at Kilis.
More than 50,000 have crossed the border.
With the violence mounting in Aleppo, at least 1,500 Syrians fled to Turkey on Thursday. The heavy fighting has created fear that there could be a mass migration. Turkey has already set up nine camps and absorbed more than 50,000 refugees since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began 17 months ago. Turkish officials are reportedly worried about being overwhelmed by people fleeing the crisis.
As Aleppo burns, Syria’s regime is gradually losing its image as a well-oiled and organized military machine—and Assad may be more vulnerable than many once thought. Mike Giglio reports.
The Syrian regime launched its first sustained ground offensive yesterday into Salahedin, the Aleppo neighborhood that has been under the control of rebel forces for much of the last month. The usual flurry of competing narratives ensued. The regime said it had cleared the area of so-called “terrorists,” its term for the fighters working to bring down president Bashar al-Assad. The rebels announced their own gains, while denying accounts that they’d been forced to retreat. Neither account proved true. By nightfall, both sides seemed to settle back into their positions, and Aleppo braced for a long and bloody fight.
A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun as a Syrian Air Force fighter bomber fires rockets during an air strike in the village of Tel Rafat, 23 miles north of Aleppo, on August 9, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
“Government claims to have conquered the enemy stronghold were false, as were the rebels’ later claims to have breached regime lines,” wrote Guardian correspondent Martin Chulov from Aleppo last night, describing a new sense in the city that there is no end to the battle in sight.
Even as rebel commanders admitted today that they had pulled their fighters from Salehedin at dawn, amid heavy bombardment from ranks and fighter jets, there were signs that they felt that momentum in the ever-present information war, at least, may be shifting their way. As it pounds away at Aleppo, the regime is gradually losing its image as a well-oiled and organized military machine. Breaching the Assad façade of quiet, confident control, as it is often described, has been a key element of the Aleppo campaign from the start--the very existence of heavy fighting in the country’s most populous city and economic center suggests that Assad may be more vulnerable than many once thought.
In the highest level defection yet, Syrian’s prime minister fled after only being in office for two months. Mike Giglio on the latest sign that Assad’s regime is crumbling from within.
He’d only been in office for two months—but that was apparently all the time Riyad Hijab needed to decide that the job of Syria’s prime minister was not for him.
Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab. (Louai Beshara, AFP / Getty Images)
Hijab bolted for Jordan today amid competing claims over what exactly took place—state media reported that he’d been fired, while Hijab’s spokesman countered that he’d defected with his family, with some additional officials and military officers also in tow.
The spokesman, Mohammed Otri, took to Al-Jazeera with a defection statement on behalf of Hijab. “I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution,” the statement said.
Thousands have fled en masse as the situation in Syria deteriorates. But the refugees still cling to the idea that they’ll return home to a normal life, reports Mike Giglio from the Turkish border.
From Reyhanli, the Turkish border city where he arrived as a refugee last week, Moustafa, who asked to withhold his family name, has been calling home to Aleppo, Syria, regularly to check on his birds. He keeps 15 canaries in his barbershop in Bistan al-Qaser, a bustling neighborhood filled with tradesmen and small-business owners, and from the start of the surprise rebel push that took hold in Aleppo last month, he could tell the birds were ill at ease. When a regime shell fell in Salaheddine, the poor neighborhood across town that has seen the brunt of the fighting, the canaries screeched and fluttered wildly in their cages. Then the shelling grew more frequent, and it drew into Bistan al-Qaser itself—one shell destroyed a well-known coal shop; another exploded in the local park. Moustafa soon found himself passing the days alone in his shop, the birds screeching nonstop.
Syrian refugees arrive at the Turkish border town of Reyhanli in July. (Umit Bektas, Reuters / Landov)
With the situation deteriorating rapidly in recent days, he gathered his family and finally fled—but not before giving the keys to his shop to a rebel fighter he knows in town and asking him to keep an eye on the birds. Sitting in a four-room house in Reyhanli last night, where he lives now with three other Syrian families, Moustafa held out hope that the refugee experience would be more like a prolonged trip abroad than a dissolution of his former life. “We’re hoping the situation will be solved soon,” he said. “But we don’t know how long it will take.”
As fighting in Aleppo has intensified, residents have fled the city en masse. But many have yet to cross the border into Turkey. Instead, they wait things out in the surrounding area, or elsewhere in Syria, hoping the situation will settle down enough for them to resume their lives. A number of his neighbors had even brought their families to the countryside, Moustafa said, then returned to Aleppo to hold down the fort.
Who is Manaf Tlass and why do western and regional powers pin their hopes on him?
Until a few weeks ago, although he had the rank of brigadier general in the Syrian army, 48-year-old Manaf Tlass was better known as an aging member of the jeunesse dorée in Damascus: the playboy son of an eccentric former defense minister, a buddy of President Bashar al-Assad, and the brother of Nahed Ojjeh, née Tlass, an influential hostess in Paris with one of the most controversial histories of reputed amours, which, in France, is saying something.
General Manaf Tlas (Reuters-Landov)
Manaf himself is, no doubt about it, a handsome devil. Those of us who were invited to tea with him and his siblings at his father’s house years ago still remember his languorous eyes and the thick black hair that is, today, a rakish mop of premature gray. But no Syrian would have picked Manaf then, or since, as a potential leader of his country—much less someone who could guide the nation out of war to a new democratic future, as he now claims he wants to do.
“He’s not a big brain,” says a prominent member of the Syrian National Council, a largely civilian exile group. Other more senior military officers who’ve taken up arms against the regime are not so kind: “We believe he is the hidden shadow of Bashar al-Assad,” says one. “And maybe he is gay!” chimes in another, intending the remark as a gratuitous insult.
As they try to take Damascus.
Syrian government troops are ramping up violent attacks as they push rebels out of the capital city, Damascus, and fight for the most populous city, Aleppo. According to CNN, Free Syrian Army fighters are reporting executions in Damascus by Syrian forces. The escalating fighting is sparking fears about a full-blown battle for Aleppo, where rebel forces are controlling significant portions of the city. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. General Assembly that the situation could be much worse and described it as a “vicious battle.” Tens of thousands have already fled the violence in the north in recent days.
President Obama’s strategy in Libya helped depose Qaddafi in short order. But P.J. Crowley says the same tactics won’t work in Syria—and the crisis will only get worse.
The resignation of Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy for Syria, made official what was long ago apparent. His six-point peace plan was going nowhere because the Syrian regime and opposition weren’t following it, and key countries including Russia, China, and the United States weren’t able to agree on an acceptable solution to the crisis, much less impose it on the combatants.
Syrian rebels sit in a pick up truck in Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, July 28, 2012. (Alberto Prieto / AP Photo)
It may still be true that President Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered, but his last day is some time off. For the moment, diplomatic options have been spent. The civil war is on and it will be a fight to an uncertain finish. The conflict could outlast Assad, however and whenever he falls.
Government forces, despite steady defections, remain loyal to Assad. They retain considerable firepower and are increasingly willing to use all that they have–tanks, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft–to put down the popular revolt. Whether or not Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against the rebels, they have undoubtedly deterred an overt outside intervention. The lesson for other rogues like Iran and North Korea could not be clearer.
As rebel strongholds fall.
It was a day of rest, not to mention the holy month of Ramadan, but government troops in Syria were entering Damascus with tanks and armored vehicles in order to push out the rebels. Activists in the city said mortar rounds were fired and Syrian troops were retaking former rebel strongholds in the capital city and succeeding. Across the globe, in a mainly symbolic vote, the United Nations voted to condemn Syria’s use of heavy weaponry against civilians, which is seen as not much more than a slap on the wrist.
With Kofi Annan citing the escalating Syrian violence in his resignation as U.N. envoy, activists tell Mike Giglio they’re agonizing over their armed revolt and the methods they’ve had to use in their revolution against Assad.
Ziyad, 28, is an activist lost. When Syria’s revolution began, in March 2011, as a protest movement stressing peaceful change, he dove into the mix, joining with like-minded young people across the region in the rush of the Arab Spring. Now that the uprising in Syria has become an armed and increasingly bloody affair, Ziyad, who asked that his real name not be used for safety concerns, is not sure where he stands. He experimented with the revolution’s violent side, he says, then pulled back, and has found himself in a murky place, drifting back and forth between Turkey and Syria as he works to help the cause while trying to keep his focus on its civilian side. He has settled into depression, as he puts it. “I can’t believe what the revolution was and what it has turned out to be,” he said on a recent night in Antakya, a Turkish city near the Syrian border.
A member of the Free Syrian Army looks at the valley in the village of Ain al-Baida, in the Idlib province of Syria, not far from the Turkish border. (Sezayi Erken, AFP / Getty Images)
As the conflict in Syria drags on, young activists are still playing a crucial role—coordinating and communicating over the grassroots networks they utilized to organize protests, documenting and disseminating news, and connecting journalists to people on the ground. But as the death toll mounts, some are struggling with the idea that their efforts often work in lockstep with an armed revolt. “Many activists are now aligned with people they would rather not be,” says CyberDissidents.org co-founder David Keyes, who has been analyzing the role of activists in the conflict. “But war makes strange bedfellows.”
In his resignation as the U.N. peace envoy Thursday, following a failure to bring about even a basic cease-fire, Kofi Annan offered an impassioned assessment of how far Syria’s struggle has come from its roots. “A mass movement, born in the demand for civil and political rights and the empowerment of voices for change, emerged in Syria after March 2011,” the former U.N. secretary-general wrote in an op-ed for the Financial Times. “But, for all the extraordinary courage that it took for the protesters to march each day in the face of escalating violence by the government, this did not become a movement that bridged Syria’s communal divisions. Opportunities to overcome this were then lost in increasing violence.”
In the armed uprising against al-Assad, some rebels have drawn scrutiny in recent weeks—fighters of a dedicated Islamist bent. Mike Giglio talks to one of their leaders at the Turkish border.
The small gathering last night in Antakya, at a popular cafe in the center of town, was like many others in this Turkish city near the Syrian border of late. A few Syrian activists and a rebel soldier were casually smoking cigarettes and shooting the post-Iftar breeze with talk of the ongoing conflict across the way.
Members of a Syrian Jihadist group train (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)
It was announced that a new face would soon be stopping by, and the mood slightly tensed. Someone grumbled about extremists. The woman in the group, dressed in a low-cut shirt, briefly worried if she should cover up.
Mohamed Aisa, 32, wears the conspicuously moustache-less long beard that marks a salafist—a strict and passionate adherent to fundamental Islam. He sat down, smiled, and surprised the group by plopping two packs of Winston Reds on the table and lighting a cigarette. “Salafis say you shouldn’t, but because I’m the leader I can smoke,” he said.
The Kremlin’s support for the Assad regime is supposed to protect Russian interests in Syria, but across the Middle East, Russia’s stance is earning a cold shoulder, writes Anna Nemtsova.
Russian officials are striving to hold onto their economic interests in Syria by supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad. But they are paying a steep price.
Last week Saudi tycoon Mubarak Swaikat cancelled multimillion-dollar contracts with Russian gas and oil companies, a Kuwait newspaper reported. “This is the least that I can do to support our brothers in Syria,” he told Al Aan, an online newspaper. Earlier, Saudi businessmen boycotted a delegation of big Russian business companies at the chambers of commerce in both Jeddah and Riyadh. It was to demonstrate the attitude for Moscow’s “unfair and unjust way they have been dealing with Syria,” a Riyadh Chamber of Commerce official said. And Russia’s diplomatic relations with Qatar have been downgraded since last December when Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko was beaten by Qatari officials in Doha airport. But none of these messages or protests changed a thing. The Kremlin stuck with Assad.
So far the Kremlin’s alliance with Assad has cost Russian companies long-term contracts with other Arab nations. Russian politicians are called a “dictator’s friends,” and diplomats are treated coldly. Moscow is seen as the Syrian opposition’s enemy. And while Russian authorities repeat that theirs is a principled position—the worst scenario for Syria would be civil war or chaos if Assad falls, they say—large scale economic losses await Russia in the Middle East whatever the outcome.
Once official Moscow declares full support for another regime, it sticks to it, say pro-Kremlin experts, so as not to fall into the same trap it did with Libya, where it wound up supporting the losing side. But independent analysts believe that Russian officials have miscalculated and once again backed the wrong horse. Other analysts argue that Russia was thinking less of its image and more about the billions it earned from weapons shipments sent to Syria over the years.
Reuters says president issued secret order to CIA to oust Assad.
President Obama has authorized U.S. support for the rebels who are trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The president issued a secret order earlier this year that allows the Central Intelligence Agency and other departments to help the rebels organize against the dictator, though the U.S. government won’t be arming the resistance fighters. The United States is also working with a Turkish secret command center that was set up to support Assad’s opponents.
As the Assad regime bombards Aleppo, the rebels are desperate not only to repel the military, but to shore up morale and build outside support. Ammar al-Wawi, the Free Syrian Army’s leading spin doctor, tells Mike Giglio the government is “like the walking dead.”
Syrian forces assaulted rebel strongholds in Aleppo with tanks and artillery Saturday afternoon, and it seemed a massive confrontation in the country’s largest city was almost at hand. As the shelling raged, Capt. Ammar al-Wawi, the rebel commander and spin doctor, was holding court in a Turkish luxury hotel. Sharply dressed in a pin-stripe suit, he sat in the vast lobby of the Ottoman Palace, a short drive from the border with Syria. The hotel is on the outskirts of town—and to facilitate the meeting, al-Wawi had grandly sent a car. He was flanked by aides, and four cell phones were spread out on a coffee table before him, ringing often with requests for news of the war. "There are more phones in the car," al-Wawi said.
As the regime marshaled its forces around Aleppo and the lightly armed rebels braced for the fight, international officials were sounding the alarm. The top human rights official at the United Nations warned of “atrocities” and “imminent confrontation,” as the U.N. reported some 200,000 people had fled the city. A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department worried that a “massacre” might be at hand. Al-Wawi, though, was keeping his cool. “We are in control,” he said.
The regime’s forces were depleted, al-Wawi claimed. Defections, always publicized with great fanfare, had hit the Syrian military hard. Its focus in Aleppo on artillery and air power—helicopters had been firing into rebel strongholds of late—was more a cry for help than a show of force, masking the fact that the numbers were no longer there. Aleppo would soon become a Syrian version of Benghazi—though with the twist that, even then, help from the West would be unlikely to arrive. “It was once a powerful regime, but now they’re like the walking dead,” al-Wawi said.
A former government intelligence officer, al-Wawi defected to the rebel Free Syrian Army last July. From there, he quickly became a regular presence on YouTube and Arabic-language TV, where he advocates for rebel forces and fires threats at Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In the process, al-Wawi has become one of the highest-profile figures in the opposition. But he’s more than a flashy spokesman—when not in the Turkish border area, where the FSA military council is based, he can sometimes be found commanding a battalion in Aleppo. He said he’d returned from Syria the previous day.
Al-Wawi seems to embody two defining features of the uprising: armed resistance, and an increasingly aggressive media campaign. In the hotel lobby, he propped his iPad on the table and used a ruddy finger to flip through a photo gallery that showed him posing with munitions at his desk. In the photos, his attire changed from officer’s garb to power suit—he was fighter and public relations flack all at once.
Residents of Aleppo fled Thursday as Syrian forces gathered on the outskirts of the town, preparing to taking on the rebels who have established strongholds in its neighborhoods. Even before the assault began, clashes broke out in the streets, leaving several dead and hospitals begging for blood donations. Below, The Daily Beast collects some of the heartbreaking photos being shared from the country on Twitter. (Warning: graphic content.)
Former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab grabbed headlines at a press conference Tuesday, urging Syrians to rebel and claiming President Assad's regime is 'on the verge of collapse.'
Before jumping into Egypt or Syria, the U.S. needs to think about what comes next, next, and next. And then, don’t jump, writes Leslie H. Gelb.
A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.
There is no sign of capitulation as the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city heads into its 20th day.