Has used Russian-made explosives in past week.
The Syrian military has used weapons banned by international law against civilian targets over the past week, Human Rights Watch said in a report Sunday. Soldiers dropped cluster bombs over areas populated by noncombatants as they fought opposition forces to regain control of Maarat al-Numan, which sits on the vital roadway connecting the capital, Damascus, to the city of Aleppo. Human Rights Watch previously drew attention to the use of cluster bombs dropped by Syrian forces from helicopters and other aircraft in July and August.
Syria’s opposition forces are amassing for a third attempt to control the capital. But Assad loyalist strongholds and natural advantages in the surrounding mountains, can they take it?
When Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, took to a podium to deliver a rare address to the nation last month, he chose a lofty setting: the Damascus Opera House in central Umayyad Square. The restive suburb of Duma sits just 10 miles to the square’s east, at the heart of a rebel stronghold creeping ever closer to the city center—and in the strategic suburb of Daraya five miles southwest, intense fighting has raged for months. But the upscale area around the opera house, where major security headquarters are within walking distance and where many wealthy Damascenes reside, remains firmly in government hands. Assad projected an air of authority in his speech, vowing to keep up the fight against the rebels. As he left the stage, fans mobbed him like a movie star.
A Free Syrian Army fighter gestures in an empty street in front of a burning building hit by a mortar shell fired by Syrian Army soldiers last week in the Zamalka neighborhood of Damascus, Syria. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters, via Landov)
Yet even for the well-to-do Assad faithful, any sense of normalcy in the capital has long since slipped away. Once considered untouchable, Damascus has already weathered two major rebel offensives. The first, in July, was quickly repelled. The second late last year was far deadlier and more sustained—the fighting even briefly shut down the city’s airport, dealing Assad a major public-relations blow. Now rebels are again threatening the capital, with a new push they bill as their most serious to date.
But even as Assad’s strongman image continues to erode—and his government cedes ever more territory to the rebels—he remains well entrenched in the capital. While the new offensive there may see rebels make inroads into the city’s heart, analysts say, Assad has built-in advantages in central Damascus that will make it difficult for rebels to hold their ground there—and even harder for them to push him out. “They can squeeze him. They can trouble him. They can bring the battle right to the center of Damascus, and they can make it ungovernable,” says Amr al-Azm, a Syrian dissident and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who once worked as an adviser to Assad’s government. “But I don’t think they can dislodge him.”
As rebel fighters advance on the Syrian capital, those caught in the middle suffer from food, gas, and power shortages. Mikel Ayestaran on how Damascus residents are struggling to ride out the storm.
Once a hub of Middle East commerce, Damascus is short on food. With antigovernment forces closing in on the center of the Syrian capital, supplies are dwindling for those trapped between those defending Bashar al-Assad’s regime and those attempting to topple it.
Syrians gather in front of a damaged building destroyed by a car bomb in Qatana, 15 miles southwest of Damascus, December 13, 2012. (SANA/AP Photo)
At Samir al-Aid’s bread shop in Damascus’s western Mezzah neighborhood, bakers have been working double shifts and on holy Fridays to boost production from 15 to 20 tons a day. Even with the increased supply, people line up around blocks for about three hours for the daily ration of three pounds per person. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent recently estimated that 2.5 million people have been displaced within the country.
“A lot of people came to Damascus looking for safety,” al-Aid said as he attended the front of the line. His Soviet-style bakery dates to the 1970s, and the walls are littered with slogans from former dictator Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. “We probably have enough flour and fuel to make bread for another 15 days.”
Assad’s territory appears to be growing smaller, and the siege-like environment has cut supplies to the center of the capital. Prices are spiking, but the government continues to subsidize goods such as rice, sugar, and bread, the latter costing around 15 cents per ration.
Chased into Turkey by the violence in Syria, refugees along the border marry, have kids, decorate homes improvised from containers, and struggle to lead ordinary lives—but depression, divorce, and thoughts of abortion tell the toll of the bloody conflict.
“All his brothers want to call him Hamza,” says the father. He’s been asked what he’ll name his new son, born just hours before. “So I guess we can call him that.”
Mohamed Abu Ahmed with his newborn baby near the border crossing Öncüpınar, in Kilis, at a "container city" refugee camp that holds 12,750 Syrian refugees in 2,053 containers. (yusuf sayman)
Hamza’s mother is getting ready to bring the baby home from the hospital in Kilis, a town near Turkey’s border with Syria. When the infant arrives, he’ll be the newest resident of a refugee camp that already houses some 12,000 Syrians displaced by war, a sea of two-room freight containers so close to Syria that scattered gunshots can be heard. His father, Mohamed Abu Ahmed, is in no rush to welcome a child into this surreal world. “I really can’t describe the feeling,” he says, sipping tea at a makeshift café in the camp.
The new baby is the fifth in a long line of Mohamed’s sons. But he almost wasn’t born at all.
But have yet to work out an action plan in meeting.
Syrian opposition groups have been holding talks in Doha, Qatar, this week to discuss the increasingly dire situation in Syria. While they have not hammered out a detailed plan against President Bashar al-Assad, the factions agreed on a basic principle Sunday. “We have agreed on the main points of the formation of a Syrian national coalition for the forces of the opposition and the revolution. We will continue our discussions on the details on Sunday,” opposition figure Suhair Atassi said. The groups hope to erase skepticism in Washington by forming a 60-member civilian group that will elect a 10-member transitional government. Since March 2011, more than 37,000 people have died in the uprising against Assad, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Syrian government has promised an end to the carnage for Friday’s holiday—but rebels say Assad's regime will never keep its word. Mike Giglio reports on the shaky peace plans.
When Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy charged with the difficult task of negotiating an end to the bloody conflict in Syria, announced a brief holiday ceasefire yesterday, even the prospect of that small step toward peace was met with widespread doubt.
Rebel fighters fire from the rooftop of house against Syrian government forces in the Bab el-Adid district in Aleppo on Oct. 23, 2012. (Fabio Bucciarelli / AFP / Getty Images)
On the heels of a trip to Damascus, Brahimi said Wednesday that the Syrian government had agreed to a four-day respite from the violence for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which starts Friday—a plan, Brahimi said, that most armed opposition groups had agreed to “on principle.”
But the international press quickly filled with accounts from senior rebels predicting that even if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to a ceasefire, he would never keep his word. As Mustafa Sheikh, the general who heads the military council for the rebel Free Syrian Army, told The Daily Beast: “The regime is lying. They do this all the time. They’ll start bombing innocent people, the rebels will retaliate, and then they’ll say: ‘See—the rebels don’t keep their promises.’”
While Russia claims Syrian rebels have U.S.-made weapons.
An international mediator said Wednesday that the Syrian government has agreed to a ceasefire during the Muslim holiday Eid ul-Adha, which starts on Thursday. Lakdar Brahimi said some Syrian rebel groups had agreed to the truce in principal. Meanwhile, a senior Russian general said the Syrian rebels have U.S.-made weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. Russia is the biggest supplier of arms to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Syrian artillery gunners on Tuesday shelled a packed bakery in Aleppo, killing at least 20 and wounding more than 30.
Aleppo streets have been transformed into a deadly sharpshooters' alley as rebels and government forces employ guerrilla tactics to battle for control of the city.
Like millions of other Syrians, Ali Belkesh’s world has been turned upside down by the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has transformed him from a country boy—“I used to sell farming tools before the revolution,” he says—into a frontline sniper.
Tauseef Mustafa / AFP / Getty Images
On this day, Ali is crouched behind a wall, holding a mirror around a corner. He’s searching in vain for an enemy sharpshooter further down the burnt-out street.
In a few moments, the enemy sharpshooter will have Ali in his crosshairs and take his shot.
The Assad regime wants their support and warns of a genocide. Whom can the country’s Christians trust?
“Call me George,” says the bespectacled 21-year-old medical student who stood with a Free Syrian flag draped over his shoulders. As one of the few Christians at a weekly Friday protest in the rebel-controlled Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo, he is cautious about revealing too much of his identity—the regime of president Bashar al-Assad still controls the city’s Christian neighborhoods. But among the city’s roughly 100,000 Christians, “there are a thousand Georges.”
Syrians march in the street during a protest against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the northern city of Aleppo on Oct. 12, 2012. (Tauseef Mustafa / AFP / Getty Images)
Amid chants of “One, one, one, the people of Syria are one,” George holds an anti-sectarianism poster framed as a no-smoking sign: “Sectarianism is highly addictive, don’t start.”
George has been attending protests in Bustan al-Qasr, a Sunni Muslim district and activist hub, since August of last year, when the demonstrations drew thousands of Syrians out to the streets. Back then, participants risked being hit by live ammo or captured by the Shabiha, pro-Assad militiamen. But now, people feel safe enough to come with children (one father even brought his wheelchair-bound 15-year-old daughter). On this Friday, several hundred people have turned out in the neighborhood. Protests have eased since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) steadily took over the district, and now the neighborhood bustles with open shops and lively residents. In turn, the regime pursues its malicious strategy of punishing civilians in rebel-held areas with heavy long-distance artillery and airstrikes.
Are foreign extremists gaining disproportionate influence inside the opposition forces? Anna Therese Day talks to a Saudi fundamentalist who is funding the “Syrian jihad” and to Syrian activists who say they both need and fear the foreign fighters.
When I first met the man I’ll call Mahmoud, he refused to speak with me because he “hates America.” Carrying a conspicuous wad of U.S. dollar bills and surrounded by young Syrian men, Mahmoud caught my eye one evening in the lobby of my Turkish hotel on the border with Syria. Through a series of talks, I slowly discerned that he was from Saudi Arabia, that he had learned English in Canada, and that he was here to “help the Muslims of Syria in their jihad.”
One evening, 29-year-old Mahmoud explained to me that he ferries money, not guns, to the Syrian people. He said that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) can use the funds for humanitarian purposes or for weapons, but he just gives it to the officers and lets them make the decisions. “I’m just a soldier of Allah,” he told me.
It is precisely this powerful combination of steadfast discipline and bottomless pockets that has many Syrians and their Western allies worried about jihadists like Mahmoud. Though comprising only a tiny minority of Syria’s armed opposition, the foreign fighters bring ample combat expertise and ample funds to the war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime—and critics fear that they are slowly gaining a disproportionate influence over the FSA.
“Syrians have both a deep fear and a deep respect for the foreign fighters,” says a Syrian civilian activist from Aleppo who goes by the nom de guerre of Hassan. “We don’t understand them, but we can’t deny their fighting ability, and that’s what we need right now against Assad’s airplanes,” he says, referencing the ongoing aerial bombardment of the city by government forces.
According to officials, because of U.S.
Publicly, Saudi Arabia and Qatar may be calling for more aid to Syrian rebels, but in reality, they’re holding back aid. That according to officials from the two nations, who tell The New York Times that their countries have been withholding heavier weaponry like shoulder-fired missiles that could help rebels take down government forces. The Arab allies say the United States has discouraged them from supplying heavier weapons out of fear they could end up in the hand of terrorists. Unfortunately for Syrian rebel forces, this has meant only having just enough weapons to maintain a stalemate with Assad’s forces.
Civilians and rebels say Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been targeting medical facilities—even ambulances—in the battle for key opposition city.
In a hospital located in Aleppo’s crowded Tariq al Bab neighborhood, there’s a gruesome routine. First comes the sound of an explosion of heavy artillery landing nearby, followed five minutes later by the screech of an ambulance arriving with the blast’s victims.
Manu Brabo / AP Photo
Friends and doctors lift a young man out of the back of the ambulance. Another mortar crashes a few blocks away and the ambulance races off. The young man, who has a gaping hole in his inner thigh, is carried in to the hospital. This is what a constant bombardment of a city of millions looks like and sometimes the only sounds to be heard are screams and sirens.
“The most common injury is from airplane bombing and mortars,” said a hospital doctor who gave only the name Osram. Most medical staff wouldn’t give their names for fear of reprisals by the military or the pro-government militias, known as the shabiha. All requested that the hospital’s name not be given to avoid further attacks on the building.
Agrees to stay six miles from border.
Looks like Syria is capable of making deals after all. Turkish media reported Friday the country has agreed to keep its army six miles away from the Turkish border, in light of recent shellings that killed five Turkish citizens and wounded nine more. The report has yet to be confirmed by the Syrian government. Timing on the reported deal couldn’t be more timely: on Thursday, Turkey’s parliament approved a bill allowing its military to launch raids at any time within the next year if they deemed it necessary. “We are not interested in war,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “But we’re not far from it either.”
Anti-Assad forces initially rejoiced at their successful strike at the heart of the regime, but are now loudly denying that the attack killed civilians, knowing any such collateral damage could spark a backlash against them.
When Syrian rebels bombed an officers’ club—which allegedly doubled as a military base for government forces—in central Aleppo on Wednesday, the initial response from many was to rejoice at having struck so deep inside the heart of the regime. “The point is that we got them in the middle of the city,” the head of the rebel military council in Aleppo, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, told The Daily Beast hours after the blasts. Casualty numbers were likely high, as the rebels claimed. “A lot of pigs died today,” Okeidi said.
Syrian rebels take cover during clashes in the old city of Aleppo, close to the souk or bazaar district on October 3, 2012. (Miguel Medina / AFP / Getty Images)
But as details of the attack slowly emerged, some members of Syria’s armed resistance began to feel troubled. For one thing, the explosion appears to have been the result of suicide car bombs—a tactic most of Syria’s rebel groups have long claimed to oppose. Much worse, though, was the fact that a number of Aleppo civilians allegedly died in the blasts—by latest count, at least 14, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group whose documentation of deaths from the conflict is often relied upon by the media.
News of the alleged civilian deaths has prompted condemnation of the rebels’ tactics from some activists normally dedicated to detailing atrocities committed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Targeting civilians, even if it’s not intentional, is unacceptable and condemnable,” says the Syrian Observatory’s Sipan Hassan. “The revolution began with aims to protect the Syrian people and give them freedom, not to kill them.”
Ankara shelled targets in Syria after an errant shell from Syrian forces killed Turkish citizens Wednesday. The flare-up is raising fears that tensions between the two countries could escalate, but analysts say neither side has the appetite for a fight.
Stray shells from the fighting in Syria have come across the Turkish border before, as have errant bullets—grim punctuation in the endless wave of refugees and injured people fleeing to Turkey, as it shoulders the biggest burden from Syria’s grinding civil war other than the beleaguered nation itself. But the shell that killed five civilians in the border town of Akcakale on Wednesday, including a woman and her three kids, shook the country, where many people already feel the Syrian conflict is reaching too close to home. And it prompted a move that analysts paint as an unavoidable one—Turkey finally fired back.
Smoke rises from the explosion area after several Syrian shells crashed inside Akcakale, killing at least five people. (Rauf Maltas / Anatolian via AFP-Getty Images)
“The incident today was too grave and serious,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, the director of the Center for Strategic Communication in Ankara and a former member of parliament. “There had to be a response.”
On Wednesday, that response came when the Turkish military launched shells of its own at the Syrian government forces it blamed for the tragedy. It was the first such attack by Turkey against its former ally, and the Turkish government threatened more if its borders were breached again. “Turkey, in accordance with the rules of engagement and international law, will never leave such provocations by the Syrian regime against our national security unrequited,” the Turkish prime minister said in a statement.
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.