The general who heads the Free Syrian Army says his forces are dangerously divided and underfunded, al Qaeda is gaining a foothold in the conflict, and a major win that could topple the regime, like seizing Aleppo, is still out of reach.
The general leading Syria’s armed rebellion cautioned yesterday that his forces remained dangerously divided and underfunded—and that al Qaeda and other jihadist groups are taking advantage of the confusion to gain a foothold in the ongoing conflict.
Syrian rebels hunt for snipers after attacking the municipality building in the city center of Selehattin, near Aleppo, on July 23, 2012, during fights between rebels and Syrian troops. Syrian rebels "liberated" several districts of the northern city of Aleppo on Monday, a Free Syrian Army spokesman in the country's commercial hub said. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)
Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, who heads the military council of the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview that notions that the Syrian regime may be on its last legs are belied by the difficulties the rebels continue to face on the ground. “The reality is not like it appears,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”
A string of FSA successes over the last two weeks—including the seizure of border posts and the first sustained offensives inside Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two most important cities—has brought with it speculation that an endgame may be at hand. Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, has seen particularly intensive fighting in recent days, and the unexpected rebel presence there has dealt a blow to the strongman stature of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “The fall of Aleppo will be the fall of the regime,” Sheikh said.
The Syrian Army is trying to prevent the country’s commercial capital from becoming a base for a rebel offensive against Damascus. Damien McElroy, Adrian Blomfield, and Magdy Samaan report.
Both sides are waging a bitter struggle for control of the city of 2.5 million people.
"It will be a long battle,” said General Manaf al-Filistini, a defector from the regular army who is now fighting with the rebels. He predicted a guerrilla war in Aleppo for months to come.
Syrian opposition fighters rest in a former primary school in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels clashes with government forces on Wednesday. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)
White House says Assad’s days are “numbered.”
Assad’s senior officials are seemingly dropping like flies. White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed Wednesday that two more senior Syrian envoys had defected, a sign that President Bashar al-Assad’s days are “numbered.” While Carney did not give names, he confirmed that Syrian ambassadors to the UAE and Cyprus had left Assad’s inner circle amid a growing number of defections by high-level officials. Earlier, a source told AFP that Lamia Hariri, Syria’s charge d’affaires in Cyprus, had defected from the regime, while a member of the opposition said Hariri’s husband, Syria’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, had also defected. The slew of defections, including one last Wednesday, come on the heels of the Syrian ambassador to Iraq’s public renouncement of his post.
The Free Syrian Army's top brass is based in Turkey—though some soldiers say ground troops are in charge. Despite the friction, the rebels are waging an increasingly successful campaign, reports Mike Giglio from the border.
Behind the concrete walls at Apaydin, a refugee camp near Turkey’s southern border with Syria, lives the top brass of Syria’s armed rebellion. The camp is home to the military council officially leading the Free Syrian Army’s fight against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, along with more than 2,000 Syrian military defectors and their family members. Turkish authorities keep Apaydin under tight control. The FSA leaders can’t leave or receive visitors without permission from their hosts.
Syrian rebels hunt for snipers in Selehattin, near Aleppo, on July 23. The rebels "liberated" several districts of the northern city on Monday, according to a Free Syrian Army spokesman. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)
Yesterday afternoon, in a house a few miles down the road, Khaled Issa, a former Air Force officer who now commands two companies of FSA soldiers, sat in a living room buzzing with fans. Like many rebels who use Turkey to rest and recover or restock supplies, Issa can come and go with ease, and he planned to rejoin the fight in a matter of days. On the front lines, he said, he felt little connection with the military leaders holed up in the Apaydin camp—“they just give us support in the media,” he said, and advocate with foreign governments. Instead, the insurgency was being directed by the commanders on the ground, who tend to coordinate informally with one another instead of looking to instructions from a chain of command. “The real work is being done inside Syria,” he said.
The Syrian uprising has been roughshod and loosely organized from the start, a fact that has played heavily in discussions over supporting the rebels in the West. Amid so much apparent confusion, though, the FSA has managed to pull together a series of concerted, coherent, and strategically important efforts over the last two weeks. Longstanding concerns over command and control, these recent successes suggest, may be obscuring the fact that FSA is running an increasingly effective campaign on the ground—even if it remains hard to tell who’s directing the efforts behind the scenes. “We’re still talking about a rag-tag army, but they’ve been able to strike a severe blow against the regime,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center.
While more fighting is reported in Aleppo.
Syrian officials said Monday that they would use chemical and biological weapons if foreign countries intervene in the escalating civil war. Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the army would not use the weapons against the rebels, but rather if “Syria faces external aggression.” Syria did not a sign a 1992 international convention that banned the stockpiling of chemical weapons, although its leaders have long denied having weapons stockpiles. Although Damascus residents did not report new fighting in the capital early Tuesday, residents in Aleppo reported shelling and clashing.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Syrian government troops launched a new offensive against the rebels in the capital on Thursday. See photos of the fighting.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.