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Syria’s Call for Arms

Two rebel commanders tell Eli Lake they could oust Assad within a month—if the U.S. supplies them with some heavy-duty weapons. Why American officials are wary of pulling the trigger.

Two Syrian rebel commanders interviewed by The Daily Beast say they need advanced weapons to take out President Bashar al-Assad’s regime within the month and transition to a stable government. Khaled Habous, the head of the Damascus military council of the Free Syrian Army, said, “Before the end of this holy month of Ramadan it will be over.” Ramadan ends on Aug. 19.

Syria Weapons

Two rebel commanders tell Eli Lake they could oust Assad within a month—if the U.S. supplies them with some heavy-duty weapons. (LO, AFP / Getty Images)

But Habous also said that depends on whether his forces get high-tech weapons from the United States to finish the job. He cited Stinger missiles, the shoulder-fired rockets the Central Intelligence Agency supplied Afghan holy warriors in the 1980s, “that can neutralize the helicopters and tanks of Assad’s regime.” According to Habous, “This is all in the hands of the Americans. They have the say and we will hold them responsible for more victims."

Another rebel commander, Ahmed Nema, who heads the military council for the Free Syrian Army in Daraa, said on Sunday, “The regime is falling no matter what. I expect in four weeks the regime will go down, but because we lack advanced equipment it could go longer.”

ON THE LAM

Where Can Asma Go?

As her husband’s reign crumbles, rumors are flying that Syria’s first lady has fled to Russia—a state notorious for sheltering global outlaws. Anna Nemtsova on the most likely haven.

Not many in Russia were surprised to hear the news (or rumors, as they now appear) that the first lady of Syria, 35-year-old Asma Assad, had fled to Moscow with her three children.

asma-assad-nemtsova-teaser

As her husband’s reign crumbles, rumors are flying that Syria’s first lady, Asma Assad, has fled to Russia (AP Photo)

According to a reports first circulated on Twitter, the London-born and educated Mrs. Assad, who is banned from traveling to Europe—and who is now very much blamed along with her husband for the deaths of thousands of civilian victims—landed in Moscow two days ago. A spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, quickly laughed off the report, but Russian experts on the Middle East believe the invitation for the Syrian leader’s wife and other family members is a long decided matter.

“Doubtlessly, the evacuation plan for Assad’s wife, children, mother, and other family members has been ready for a long time,” says Yuri Krupnov, a pro-Kremlin analyst. “Everybody is going to be moved to Moscow safely as soon as it is really needed.” Illustrating the tricky diplomacy matters that would prevent many other nations from sheltering the Assads, Krupnov dismissed the chance that neighboring Belarus would become a new home for the first lady, given investments in Belarus by Gulf states: “[Belarussian president Alexander] Lukashenko will not do it—he cannot risk investments and contracts with Qatar,” Krupnov said.

Middle East

Syrian Rebels Take Border Posts

Syrian Rebels Take Border Posts Bulent Kilic / AFP-Getty Images

Amidst reports that Bashar al-Assad has fled to the coast.

Syrian rebels took control of all four border crossings into Iraq and one into Turkey on Thursday. Rebel forces also claimed to have taken over a pocket of Damascus. Many residents were warned to evacuate a portion of the capital after the armed forces warned of an assault. The developments came a day after rebels assassinated three of President Bashar al-Assad’s top security officials. Assad swore in a new defense minister on Thursday, in his first television appearance since Wednesday’s assassinations. Various reports indicated that the president had fled to the coastal city of Latakia, but one opposition activist said that only the Assad family’s women and children had left the capital.

Read it at The New York Times

New Offensive

Shocking Images from Damascus

Syrian government troops launched a new offensive against the rebels in the capital on Thursday. See photos of the fighting.

Uprising

Syria’s Next Act

With the rebels moving deeper into Damascus, and the regime’s days appearing numbered, the CIA is racing to find Syria’s chemical and biological weapons before it’s too late.

With the days and weeks of the Syrian government appearing numbered, the Central Intelligence Agency is scrambling to get a handle on the locations of the country’s chemical and biological weapons, while assessing the composition, loyalties, and background of the rebel groups poised to take power in the event President Bashar al-Assad falls. 

Syrian Jihadists

Members of the jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)

Obama administration officials tell The Daily Beast that the CIA has sent officers to the region to assess Syria’s weapons program. One major task for the CIA right now is to work with military defectors to find out as much information on Syria’s weapons of mass destruction, according to one U.S. official with access to Syrian intelligence. Another focus will be to sort through reams of intercepted phone calls and emails, satellite images, and other collected intelligence to find the exact locations of the Syrian weapons, this official said.  

This task has become more urgent in recent days. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Syrian military was moving its chemical weapons out of storage. On July 17, Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ex-ambassador to Iraq, told the BBC the regime would not hesitate to use chemical weapons against the rebel fighters. On Wednesday, a bomb killed the Syrian defense minister and the brother-in-law of President al-Assad in Damascus. The blow to the al-Assad cabinet raised the prospect that the Syrian regime may be on its last legs.

Investigation

Inside the Syrian Bomb Plot

The killing of key members of al-Assad's inner circle is a game changer, celebrated by the rebels. But Syrians fear a civil war. By Katie Paul.

After rebels struck a blow to the heart of the Syrian regime on Wednesday, by killing at least three key members of President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle in a bombing of what amounts to the Damascus situation room, opposition figures claimed one of their biggest victories in the 16-month-long uprising.

Mideast Syria

In this picture taken on Tuesday, June 26, 2012, Syrian rebels, gather on their pickup truck as during clashes with the Syrian forces troops, at Saraqeb town, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria. Investigators say they have concluded that Syrian government troops could be behind the killing of more than 100 civilians in the village of Houla last month. The findings, which were presented to the U.N.'s top human rights body, could lay some of the groundwork for prosecuting alleged crimes against humanity or war crimes in Syria. (Fadi Zaidan / AP Photo)

In a series of coordinated assaults on the capital this week, billed as the “Battle for Damascus,” the rebels landed a debilitating and potentially game-changing blow to al-Assad's command structure. Syrian state television reported that the defense minister, Daoud Rajha, and the president's brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, and Hassan Turkmani, a former minister of defense, were all killed in the attack.

An activist staying at a safe house in the old district of Damascus said rebels were spread throughout the area and controlling territory on all but the main thoroughfares, where government tanks were still parked. “We have the feeling that this is the final battle,” said the activist, who wanted only to be known as "Adam." "Pray for us, pray for us, victory is very close.”

Pivotal

Syrian Murder Mysteries

Did the killing of Assad’s top lieutenants mark a turning point in the crisis or another twist in the country's long and bloody history of intrigue? By Christopher Dickey

The Syrian crisis seems to have reached a turning point. Fighting continued inside the Damascus city limits for a fourth day, and the government there acknowledged that the Syrian defense minister had been killed, along with one of the dark eminences of the regime: former intelligence chief Assef Shawkat, who was President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law. The deaths reportedly were the work of a suicide bomber.

Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha and Former Intelligence Chief Assef Shawkat

Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha and former intelligence chief Assef Shawkat of Syria were both reported killed in a suicide bombing attack during a minister's meeting in Damascus. (Sana / Reuters ; Khaled al-Hariri, Reuters / Landov)

But what seems to be the case in Syria can be deeply misleading. And the mysteries big and small that surround almost every aspect of this conflict are what make it such treacherous ground for any attempt at diplomatic solutions.

Opposing the Assad regime in this increasingly bloody civil war is a ragged and disorganized collection of rebels, some of whom are fighting for their villages, some of whom are defectors from the Syrian armed forces, and a few of whom are al Qaeda–linked Syrian jihadists who once fought against the Americans and the Shiites in Iraq, and have now taken their war home.

Ask a World Leader

From One Rebel to Another

Nobel laureate and East Timor’s former president José Ramos-Horta offers his perspective to Syria’s freedom fighters.

Just four decades ago, at the height of the Cold War, Timor-Leste (known to many as East Timor) was nearly isolated in its struggle for freedom and democracy, like many countries at the time. Every major Western and Asian power supported the other side in our struggle, which began with Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of our island.

East Timor

Citizens celebrate 10 years of independence on May 19, 2012, in Dili, East Timor (Pamela Martin / Getty Images)

We did not give up our own dreams of freedom. But we died for them for 24 years. The Indonesians, too, endured a dictatorship that did not seem to even stop and think before slaughtering real or perceived enemies en masse.

No one came to our rescue. On the contrary, all regional and world powers consorted with the Suharto regime.

Diplomatic Games

Who’s Rooting for Syria?

Despite a human-rights crisis at home, the nation is set to send 10 athletes to the Olympic Games in London—including a sharpshooter. Katie Paul on the team’s lukewarm reception.

Even with a civil war brewing at home, the Games must go on.

Syria, increasingly isolated on the world stage amid a government crackdown on protests that the U.N. says have killed more than 10,000 people, is set to send at least 10 athletes to the Olympic Games in London at the end of this month, setting up an steely reception in Britain—and a complicated mix of patriotism and rebellion back home.

The delegation would be Syria's biggest since the Moscow Games in 1980, said a Syrian sports reporter who requested anonymity in talking to the media. Majed Ghazal has a fair shot at snagging a medal in track-and-field events, he said; other athletes include boxer Wissam Salamni, weight lifter Ahed Joughili, swimmers Azad Barazi and Bayan Jumaa, cyclist Omar Hassanein, and equestrian Ahmad Hamsho, who will be riding his horse Wonderboy.

The likely competitors also count three women in their ranks, including Syria's first-ever female weight lifter, Soraya Sabah. Rounding out the team are runner Ghafran Muhammad, and—sure to raise some eyebrows, given the political context—sharpshooter Rayya Zineddin.

Odd Bedfellows

Assad Supplier’s U.S. Ties

The Italian arms giant that sold communications gear to the Syrians also did big business with the Pentagon. Aram Roston reports.

As Hillary Clinton pushes for tough global sanctions against Syria, here’s a reminder that the international arms business makes for strange bedfellows: The Italian company that just admitted to selling a sophisticated communications system to the Assad regime also does billions of dollars of business with the U.S. military. And tangling the case even further is the fact that the company’s chief U.S. subsidiary is run by the man who was the second in command at the Pentagon for most of Obama’s presidency.

Aram Roston on an Assad supplier's ties to the U.S.

News that the giant firm Finmeccanica had sold a secure emergency radio network to Syria’s government through a subsidiary named SELEX Elsag first emerged Thursday from a disclosure by the embattled WikiLeaks organization. Finmeccanica quickly admitted to the deal, which it said was made in 2008. In a statement emailed to The Daily Beast by Finmeccanica spokeswoman Angelica Falchi, the company emphasized that the high-tech system wasn’t sold to Syria’s military. “This system was intended for use by emergency and rescue organizations (‘public safety’),” the statement said. “The supplied Tetra technology was designed precisely for this purpose—that is exclusively for civil, and not military use. Any other use that was carried out is beyond the control of SELEX Elsag.”

John Pike, an arms expert who founded GlobalSecurity.org, told me he is skeptical that the Syrian government, now accused of torture and repression on a massive scale, can make distinctions in how the security forces might use the communications system. “It’s the domestic-security people there,” he said, “who are rounding people up and slashing their throats. Any internal police or emergency management people who are not involved in that, Bashar would be asking why they aren’t!” William Hartung, an arms trade expert with the Center for International Policy, agreed. “I think the system could definitely be applied to the police for repression,” he told me.

Modern Warfare

Russian Rocket Downed Plane

The Turkish jet shot out of the sky by Syrian fire was almost certainly hit by a rocket provided by the Russians—who might have pressed the button as well, reports Owen Matthews.

A Turkish plane downed by Syrian fire over the Mediterranean 10 days ago was almost certainly hit by a Russian-supplied rocket fired by Russian-trained technicians, diplomatic sources in Ankara and London told The Daily Beast on Sunday. The Turkish Air Force F-4E Phantom II disappeared from radar screens at 11:58 a.m. June 22. Syria’s Foreign Ministry later admitted that its forces had downed the plane after it violated Syrian airspace.

MILITARY EXERCISE

Soliders launch a Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile as part of a joint CIS air-defense exercise at Ashuluk military range near the Caspian Sea. (Rogulin Dmitry, ITAR-TASS / Landov)

“The evidence indicates that [the Turkish plane] was hit by a Russian-made Pantsir,” a Western diplomat with knowledge of the ongoing NATO investigation into the shooting told The Daily Beast. Russia supplied Syria with 36 mobile Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile launchers in 2007 at a cost of $900 million. “At a range of 13 nautical miles, it’s the only kit the Syrians have with the range, response time, and accuracy” to have downed the American-made F-4, the diplomat said.

Soviet-era weaponry—mostly RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades—has been used to down many U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, and a U.S. F-117 stealth bomber was shot down over Yugoslavia in 1999 by a 1980s-era Soviet missile. But if confirmed, the downing of the F-4 by a Pantsir will be the first time an American jet has been shot down by modern Russian antiaircraft technology.

Outbreak

Syrian War Spreads to Damascus

Slowly but surely, the carnage in Syria has come to the capital, a city which had previously been insulated from the country’s mounting civil war.

The dentist in central Damascus is multitasking, toggling his attention between a soccer match on television and a Facebook chat about the first time he killed a man.

Terrorist explosions in Damascus

Two terrorist explosions hit the parking lot of Justice Palace in the center of Damascus, June 28. The blasts injured three people and caused damage to 20 cars in the lot. (Carole Alfarah / Polaris)

“It was my first operation, after joining the rebels about three months ago,” he writes, asking, like nearly all Syrians, not to be named for fear of reprisal. “He was an inspector in the security forces, a midlevel rank in military security. I watched his house, his car—or rather, his cars. And then I shot him.”

Suddenly he interrupts his story: “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!” he writes. “Wow, nice goal. Italy, 2. Germany, 0.”

SYRIA

Turkey Deploys Aircraft to Border

Turkey Deploys Aircraft to Border Umit Bektas, Reuters / Landov

While U.N. is unable to determine blame for Houla massacre.

Turkey said on Thursday that it will be stationing antiaircraft batteries on the Syrian border, as United Nations envoy Kofi Annan announced he would convening an “action group” of diplomats in Geneva on Saturday. The move comes two days after Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that “every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target.” Meanwhile, a preliminary U.N. report inquiry could not determine who carried the massacre in the town of Houla, when armed gunmen allegedly walked door to door and shot people. The report said it is unclear if pro-government forces were responsible, or rebels—or if the killers were from “foreign groups with unknown affiliation.”

Read it at The New York Times

High Alert

Tensions Rise in Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that any Syrian vehicle approaching the border “will be treated as a military target.”

Turkey called a formal meeting of NATO Tuesday after one of its warplanes was shot down by Syrian antiaircraft fire last week as the two sides traded accusations amid rising border tensions.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament in Ankara on June 26, 2012. (Umit Bektas, Reuters / Landov)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Parliament Tuesday that “we have passed to a new state after this incident; the rules of engagement have now changed,” and said that he was “warning the Syrian regime not to make the mistake of testing the military determination of Turkey.”

Erdogan promised angry parliamentarians that any Syrian vehicle or personnel approaching the border “will be treated as a military target and dealt with robustly.”

Misinformation?

Syria’s Propaganda Cloud

From paid protesters on both sides and outsiders’ money to the rise of an ominous, unknown ‘third party,’ the media war is oversimplifying what could be a powder keg.

Having just returned from Syria a few days ago, I can confirm that the situation on the ground there is very disturbing, though perhaps not in the way that many might assume. As it stands, the government remains in control over most of the country—including the economy—despite the best efforts of propagandists to say otherwise. Yet if the Syrian economy worsens, and if the crisis there comes to involve more and more groups—both inside and outside the country—there is a growing possibility that what started as a conflict between the Syrian government and a ragtag group of rebels will become a powder keg that could escalate into a regional war and possibly even an international confrontation.

Mideast Jordan Syria

Mohammad Hannon / AP Photo

Already, tourism has collapsed in Damascus and much of the country’s economy has become stagnant. Nevertheless, Syria’s historical self-sufficiency, coupled with help from the likes of Russia and Venezuela to meet shortages, means that the economy is not in dire straits. What is clear, however, is that the violent instability facing the country (whatever its origins or aims) is exacerbating a shaky economy that was weak even before the crisis blew up last year. Today, money is coming into the country from many sources, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among other nations who are supporting one or more of the various players. Yet such political inflows of funds have a tendency to eventually do more harm than good.

Some of those inflows, for instance, are funding propaganda, which serves to exaggerate Syria’s genuine problems—economic and otherwise—as part of a great spectacle to sway world opinion. This includes Saudi money coming into Syria via Lebanon to fund demonstrations, with people getting $30 a day to protest—in front of cameras and microphones, of course. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many genuine demonstrators with real grievances; at the same time, the government habitually stages its own propaganda shows, also inducing people to whoop it up for the media. Such stage-management, along with fake torture videos and a host of other propaganda stunts, provide false justification for or against outside meddling, with some Europeans and certain people in Washington pushing for various military options, and a broad group led by Russia and China, but also including many in the region, calling for diplomatic solutions to the crisis.

Syria’s Ex-Premier: Regime Collapsing

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.'

  1. What's Next in Syria? Play

    What's Next in Syria?

  2. Did We Underestimate Bashar al-Assad? Play

    Did We Underestimate Bashar al-Assad?

  3. Assad Warns Against Stirring Chaos in Syria Play

    Assad Warns Against Stirring Chaos in Syria

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