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Syria Defied at Sea

A Russian ship was to deliver choppers to Syria—until a U.K. insurer canceled its sea coverage and made it a pariah. Owen Matthews on the first act of intervention in the Syrian crisis.

Britain has acted to block a shipload of Soviet-era attack helicopters from reaching Syria in the first concrete act of international intervention in the escalating Syrian conflict. On Tuesday, the U.K.-based marine insurer Standard Club canceled all cover for the MV Alaed—a cargo ship that had just collected a shipment of between 12 and 15 Russian-made Mi-25 attack helicopters—as well as all other vessels owned by the Russian shipping company Femco, prompting the ship to turn back to Russia.


Courtesy of

The Alaed, which was sitting off the West coast of Scotland, had obtained the helicopters—better known in NATO parlance as Hinds—from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad. The choppers, which had been sold to Syria by Russia in the early 1990s, had been undergoing a refit in Russia.

"We were made aware of the allegations that the Alaed was carrying munitions destined for Syria," the Standard Club said in a statement Tuesday. "We have already informed the ship owner that their insurance cover ceased automatically in view of the nature of the voyage."


Russia Denies Giving Syria Choppers

Russia Denies Giving Syria Choppers Louai Beshara, AFP / Getty Images

Responding to Hillary Clinton's charges.

Russia responded Friday to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's charges that Moscow was sending new attack helicopters to Syria, denying that any arms deal goes beyond "defensive" technology. "There are no new deliveries of Russian military helicopters to Syria," the Foreign Ministry said on its website. Clinton said Washington had information that choppers were on their way to Damascus, but the ministry said there were only "previously planned repairs of military equipment delivered to Syria many years ago." NBC News reported that U.S. military officials said Friday that ships carrying Russian troops were on their way to Syria to guard the country's interests there.

Read it at Associated Press

Diplomatic Diversion

Shaming Russia Won’t Fix Syria

Hillary Clinton’s announcement that Russia is sending arms to Damascus is the administration’s latest attempt to get Putin to dump Assad—but it’s a long shot when Syria is in dire need of real U.S. engagement, says Tamara Wittes.

Secretary of State Clinton revealed Tuesday that Russia is sending helicopter gunships to Syria and called Moscow’s claims that its arms are not used against Syrian civilians “patently untrue.” Russia’s support for the Syrian regime is not new. Yet even as the Obama administration ups its pressure on Vladimir Putin to abandon Bashar al-Assad, it is still struggling to find a path that can end the violence in Syria and begin a political transition without demanding deeper American engagement. But as the helicopter headline indicates, violence is taking a tighter hold on the Syrian crisis. The time may quickly be drawing near when U.S. interests in regional stability will demand more than diplomacy.

Turkey US Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a news conference during the ministerial meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum in Istanbul, June 7, 2012. (AP Photo)

The current situation is a diplomatic and military stalemate, albeit a bloody one. U.N. envoy Kofi Annan has had zero success in establishing a real cease-fire or moving Assad into negotiations with the opposition. The U.N. monitors sent into Syria have not even been able to visit sites of recent suspected massacres and are themselves now targets of attack. The armed rebellion has been unable so far to dislodge the regime, but neither has the regime’s violence crushed the rebellion. Russia is still blocking stronger action at the U.N. Security Council. But more direct action, such as working with those who are arming the Syrian opposition, creating safe-zones on the borders of Syria, or threatening military intervention by a U.S.-led coalition, are risky endeavors and not saleable to a war-weary U.S. public—or a war-weary U.S. president.

In the absence of good options, the administration is flailing away at Russian support for Assad, calculating that losing Russian support might make the Assad regime give up the fight and yield to a negotiated transition. Given the resolve that both Putin and Assad have shown so far, it’s a long shot at best. The real danger, though, is not that diplomacy will fail. The real danger is that during the time spent cajoling Russian officials in Moscow, Los Cabos, and New York, events in Homs, Daraa, and Damascus will drive the crisis over the abyss into an entrenched, sectarian conflict with spiraling regional consequences.


Chávez Fuels Friendship With Syria

Mac Margolis reports on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to aid Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad.

In Venezuela, La Negra Hipolita is considered a latter-day saint. Born a slave, she cared for the infant Simón Bolívar, who grew up to become Latin America’s storied liberator, and later, the hero of President Hugo Chávez.


From left: AFP / Getty Images; Juan Barretto, AFP / Getty Images; Alfredo Estrella, AFP / Getty Images

Syrians would be forgiven for regarding Hipolita somewhat differently. In late May, militias loyal to Damascus killed over 100 noncombatants, including 49 children, in the farming town of Houla, while the Syrian government allegedly looked the other way. Two days before the massacre, an oil tanker named for Bolivar’s favorite nanny arrived in the Syrian port of Banias with a shipment of 300,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel. This time, La Negra Hipolita was nurturing Chávez’s new best friend, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Chávez may be ailing and his reelection prospects dimming, but the embattled Venezuelan strongman who is fighting cancer and a revitalized opposition, never forgets an amigo. He has lavished allies from Cuba to Argentina with cut-rate fuel or petrodollars, and stood up for a rogue’s gallery of autocrats who fall in disfavor with the “gringo empire” to the north.


Clinton: Russia Stance Won’t Work

Clinton: Russia Stance Won’t Work Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images

Says Syria could be hurtling toward civil war.

While speaking in Denmark, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Russia’s policies make civil war in Syria more likely. “[The Russians] are telling me they don’t want to see a civil war. I have been telling them their policy is going to help to contribute to a civil war,” she said, adding, “the Syrians are not going to listen to us. They will listen maybe to the Russians, so we have to keep pushing them.” Clinton also explained that the case for military intervention in Syria gets stronger every day. A spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron expressed a similar sentiment saying that “all the options on the table” are being considered.

Read it at BBC


Syria Rebels Set 48-Hour Deadline

Say they’ll stop adhering to peace plan Friday.

Lunchtime on Friday will be a tense moment in Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels announced Wednesday a 48-hour deadline for President Bashar al-Assad and government forces to cease their attacks on the Syrian people. If the government cannot do so, rebels said they will resume fighting back after adhering to a United Nations-imposed peace deal. Reports of violence have been widespread throughout the country, including 108 killed in Houla last week and 13 found shot execution-style this week. If the government did not halt such violence, rebels said, they would “no longer [be] bound by the…peace plan.” Rebels want troops withdrawn to their bases, a leader said in a video announcement. The U.N. said it continues to maintain a significant part of many cities and towns throughout the country.

Read it at BBC


U.N. Finds 13 More Dead in Syria

U.N. Finds 13 More Dead in Syria Mario Tama/Getty Images

Victims had their hands tied behind their backs.

United Nations peace observers discovered 13 bodies Wednesday with their hands tied behind their back, which officials said is a clear sign they were executed. The findings are another sign of the growing violence in Syria. Maj. Gen. Robert Wood, the chief U.N. observer, said he was “deeply disturbed” by the “appalling and inexcusable act” after the bodies were located in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. Wood did not pin the killings to either side of the conflict, saying that all should “exercise restraint” to “end the cycle of violence.” As world leaders called for action, Russia and China blocked a U.N.-sponsored intervention. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice warned of a failed peace plan, saying violence could spread across the region, adding that Syria had “blatantly violated” peace commitments.

Read it at The Telegraph


Russia Still Backing Assad

Even in the aftermath of the brutal killings of 108 people by pro-regime militias, Moscow is standing by its longtime ally.

For months, international pressure has mounted against Russia to give up its dogged support of Syria, as Bashar al-Assad, the country’s strongman and longtime Russian ally, has ramped up his brutal tactics against his scattered opposition. Earlier this week Sergei Lavrov, Moscow’s hardline foreign minister, appeared to be backing away from Assad after news broke that militias loyal to the regime massacred 108 civilians in Houla, including 48 children.

Syria Russia

Syrian government soldiers during combat in Houla, Syria on May 27, 2012; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images; Seth Wenig / AP Photo)

"We do not support the Syrian government," Lavrov said Monday as British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Moscow to persuade Russia to back tough international sanctions.

"What is important is ending the violence. We support the plan of [the United Nations–Arab League peace envoy] Kofi Annan."


Russia, China Oppose Syria Action

Russia, China Oppose Syria Action Clemens Bilan / AP Photo

While U.N. observers find 13 dead bodies, bound.

Russia and China both opposed a United Nations–sponsored intervention on Wednesday, one day after special envoy Kofi Annan returned from Damascus and said that Syria is at a “tipping point.” Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Wednesday that the country is “categorically against” foreign intervention in Syria and that any new steps by the Security Council—on which both Russia and China hold important veto power—would be “premature.” Annan arrived in Damascus earlier this week to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although those talks have reportedly gone nowhere. Meanwhile, Turkey—neighboring Syria—expelled Syrian diplomats, becoming the 13th country since Tuesday to order diplomats to leave. The U.N. misison said on Wednesday that 13 dead bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs in Deir ez Zor, in the eastern part of the country.

Read it at Guardian

Red Alert

Annan in Syria for Negotiations

Annan in Syria for Negotiations Bulent Kilic / AFP-Getty Images

As Annan meets with Assad.

Kofi Annan began negotiations in Syria on Monday in an effort to save his peace plan, while Russia, one of Syria’s allies, said the government should take most of the blame for the violence in Houla. The United Nations envoy will meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday, in a trip that was planned before the violent massacre took place on Friday. “I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process,” Annan said. Separately, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed that he has prepared military options for the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, France, Britain, and Italy all announced Tuesday that they would expel all Syrian diplomats immediately, a move coordinated with the U.S.’s hardline action.

Read it at The New York Times


Syria Warns Arab Nations

Syria Warns Arab Nations AFP / Getty Images

For backing insurgency.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this week warned foreign states against trying to "sow chaos" in an apparent reference to Arab Gulf nations during remarks to a Russian TV channel. Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have argued that Syrian insurgents should be supplied with weapons, and Assad's government has repeatedly accused countries of backing a "terrorist" campaign. The warnings come as an increasingly shaky ceasefire continues to unravel, as protesters were attacked Thursday at Aleppo University in Syria's biggest city.

Read it at Reuters


Polls Open in Syrian Elections

Polls Open in Syrian Elections Louai Beshara, AFP / Getty Images

Opposition calls vote a sham.

Syria held elections Monday as violence continued in the country, where more than 9,000 people have died since a popular uprising began more than a year ago. The vote for seats in the country’s 250-seat Parliament was a sham, members of the opposition against President Bashar al-Assad said. A total of 7,195 candidates from seven political parties are competing for the seats. Bashar al-Haraki, a member opposition coalition the Syrian National Council, said the election was “a farce which can be added to the regime’s masquerade.” Political parties that opposed Assad’s ruling Baath Party were illegal until the adoption of a new Constitution three months ago.

Read it at BBC

In the past week, the poorly armed Free Syrian Army has set off bombs in urban areas as a way to compete with the Syrian government’s firepower. But the bombs have not merely killed and wounded soldiers but dozens of civilians, too. This, along with the rebel habit of summary executions, raises more troubling questions about their methods and their ideology. By Tobias Havmand.

The first armed rebels emerge shortly after crossing the borderline. Near the western Syria city of Qusayr, in a small house in the middle of an idyllic sunny orchard, the young men lounge on mattresses while drinking green mate tea. On the wall the group's weapons are hung up on a long, improvised hanger instead of jackets: variants of Kalashnikovs, pistols, an antiquated rifle, an equally mossy rocket launcher and a few modern, American-made M16 assault rifles.


Gianluigi Guerica, AFP / Getty Images

The boys are from the nearest village and have bought their weapons themselves. A Kalas costs about $2,000, usually bought from the same Syrian government soldiers they fight against. An M16 is somewhat more expensive, around $3,500, but available in abundance on the other side of the border in Lebanon.

The young people maintain that they are not an offensive army. "None of us have fought before, but our friends and families were arrested and killed, and so we bought the weapon and began to fight. Mostly protection, sometimes attacking, if we can see a weak point in Assad's army. But we can fight less than an hour, we are not strong enough,” one of them acknowledges. They claim that the fight is not sectarian in nature, and claim friendship with local Christians as evidence, showing off a grenade-grazed church as evidence of their mutual interest in getting rid of the Assad-government.


Syria Expands Shelling

Syria Expands Shelling AP Photo

Damascus reportedly hurting from sanctions.

So much for the ceasefire. Despite the U.N. observer mission now in the country, the Syrian regime widened shelling to another town, according to activists. After a brief lull when the ceasefire went into effect, the Syrian Army has been increasing attacks. At least 26 people were reportedly killed on Monday. French foreign minister Alain Juppé said on Tuesday that the tough international sanctions imposed on Damascus have cut its financial resources in half—and Juppé said the "ruling clan" of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been damaged.

Read it at Associated Press


Syria Pounds Homs

Syria Pounds Homs AP Photo

As U.N. monitors head to Damascus.

Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continued to pound the city of Homs with artillery fire even as an advance team of United Nations monitors is set to arrive in the country. The U.N. Security Council approved the measure Saturday. Activists in the country said they saw spotter planes in the skies over Syria Sunday, but that shelling persisted as soon as the spotters were out of eyeshot. Syria has restricted access into the country for journalists and claims the continuing violence is the work of “terrorists.”

Read it at Reuters

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.'

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