Wednesday, July 18, 2012

'If Cornered, Assad Could use Chemical Weapons'

by Daniel Siryoti, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff

Syrian, Lebanese armies prepare for possible Israeli attack to prevent transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah • Former Syrian ambassador to Iraq says "cornered" Assad could use chemical weapons • Morocco boots Syrian ambassador • Russia accuses West of "blackmail."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will now find it more difficult to project business as usual after the rebellion against his regime turned into pitched battles on the streets of the capital Damascus on Monday, and the noose of international pressure around the regime further tightened.

Nawaf Fares, Syria's ex-ambassador to Iraq and the most senior Syrian politician to defect to the opposition, told the BBC on Tuesday that Assad's regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons if it is cornered. When asked if he thought Assad might use chemical weapons against the opposition, Fares replied he could not rule it out, describing Assad as "a wounded wolf and cornered."

"There is information, unconfirmed information of course, that chemical weapons have been used partially in the city of Homs," Fares told the BBC. "It doesn't occur to any Syrian, not only me, that Bashar al-Assad will let go of power through political interventions. ... He will be ousted only by force," he said.

Meanwhile, Lebanese media outlets reported Monday that both the Syrian and Lebanese armies have reinforced their respective armies positioned along their shared border, not only to prevent the civil war in Syria from spilling into Lebanon, but out of concern that Israel may be looking to pre-emptively attack in Syria in order to thwart the transfer of chemical weapons from the Syrian regime to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist organization.

On the ground in Damascus, rebels fired grenades at tanks and troops while armored regime units shelled the city's neighborhoods, sending terrified families fleeing the most sustained and widespread fighting in the capital since the start of the uprising 16 months ago. Activists say Syrian government forces have also used helicopter gunships to battle rebels in the capital Damascus.

The activists say that helicopters fired heavy machine guns during overnight clashes in the neighborhoods of Qadam and Hajar al-Aswad as a ring of fierce clashes nearly encircled the heavily guarded capital.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that, "The fate of the Assad family is sealed, but on its way out of power it can kill more people. The Assad family is holding on to power at the cost of the continued slaughter of its own people. The world understands, the International Red Cross made a very important declaration [on Sunday] that it sees the situation in Syria as a civil war."

Barak added that "there is a disturbing lesson in the fact that the entire world, even when these grave events unfold before all of our eyes, cannot manage to gather the fortitude, legitimacy or the unity required to… put an end to this bloodbath."

While the clashes in Damascus were focused in a string of neighborhoods in the city's southwest, for many of its four million people the violence brought ominously close to home the strife that has deeply scarred other Syrian cities.

In high-end downtown cafes frequented by the business and government elite tightly bound to the Assad regime, customers watched as black smoke billowed on the horizon and the boom of government shells reverberated in the distance.

"Without a doubt, this is all anyone is talking about today," a Damascus activist who gave his name as Noor Bitar said via Skype. "The sounds of war are clear throughout the city. They are bouncing off the buildings."

Meanwhile, Syrian Ambassador to Belarus Farouk Taha defected on Monday and aligned himself with the rebels. Also Monday, Morocco asked the Syrian ambassador to leave the country. Within hours, Syria's state-run TV said the Foreign Ministry had declared Morocco's ambassador to Syria persona non grata.

International diplomacy has failed to stop the violence, and world powers remain deeply divided over who is responsible and how to stop it. The U.S. and many Western nations have called on Assad to leave power, while Russia, China and Iran have stood by the regime.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of using blackmail to secure a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow the use of force in Syria.

Lavrov objected to the text of a Western-backed resolution that calls for sanctions and invokes Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can be enforceable militarily.

He said Russia had been told that if it opposed the resolution, Western nations would not extend the mandate of a U.N. mission sent to Syria to monitor a cease-fire.

"We consider it to be an absolutely counterproductive and dangerous approach, since it is unacceptable to use monitors as bargaining chips," Lavrov said.

International envoy Kofi Annan, who has made little progress in brokering a political solution in Syria, met Russian leaders in Moscow on Monday. The meeting — the latest in Annan's efforts to save his faltering peace plan — comes a day after the conflict crossed an important symbolic threshold, with the international Red Cross formally declaring it a civil war, a status with implications for potential war crime prosecutions.

Monday's fighting suggested that deep cracks were appearing in the tightly controlled facade of calm that has insulated Damascus from violence throughout the uprising.

Damascus — and Syria's largest city, Aleppo — are both home to elites who have benefited from close ties to Assad's regime, as well as merchant classes and minority groups who worry their status will suffer if Assad falls.

But for months, rebels have been gaining strength in poorer towns and cities in the Damascus countryside. Some activists suggested Monday that recent government crackdowns in those areas had pushed rebels into the city, where they were determined to strike at the heart of the regime.

"It seems there is a new strategy to bring the fighting into the center of the capital," said activist Mustafa Osso. "The capital used to be safe. This will trouble the regime."

Another activist, who gave only his first name, Moaz, said he had never seen such violent fighting in his neighborhood of Tadamon, a poor, densely populated area south of downtown.

He said the army had parked armored vehicles at the neighborhood's entrances and posted tanks on its north and south edges.

Some two-thirds of the neighborhood's residents have fled, while those who remain are scared government snipers will target them if they leave now, he said.

But so far, the rebels have kept the army out, destroying three tanks and one armored car with rocket-propelled grenades, said Moaz, declining to give his full name for fear of retribution. Others spoke on condition anonymity.

Amateur videos posted online Monday gave glimpses of the fighting. In one, a dozen fighters crouched Sunday behind sandbags, firing at a tank down a rubble-strewn street with a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenades. Another video showed a burnt station wagon with at least three charred bodies inside that an off-camera narrator said were government troops.

The fiercest fighting was in the southwest neighborhoods of Mezzeh, Kafr Sousa, Al-Midan, Tadamon, Nahr Aisha and Al-Zahira, while activists also reported clashes in the western suburbs and in the northern neighborhood of Barzeh.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12 people were killed in and around Damascus, among some 90 people killed nationwide. About a third of the dead were government troops, it said.

Activist claims and videos could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from working in the country.

The government said little about the clashes, but the state news agency said the army was hunting an "armed terrorist group" in one of the neighborhoods. The regime blames the uprising on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to weaken the country.

Streets were largely deserted in neighborhoods near the fighting. Many families have fled or are still trying to get out, and fear grips those who remain.

"Assad will only go after he kills all of us," said a 28-year-old mother of two reached by phone in the Midan neighborhood, who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals from Syrian security.

The Syrian regime has grown increasingly isolated throughout the crisis, with a number of Arab and Western nations withdrawing their ambassadors to protest the crackdown.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Annan should tell the Russians what he told council members last week: "that he needs the council to come together around a resolution that makes very clear that there are consequences for non-compliance."

The British draft circulated Monday among Security Council members threatens non-military sanctions against Assad's government if it doesn't withdraw troops and heavy weapons from population centers within 10 days.

A closed council session Monday afternoon made no progress in bridging the differences.

Rice, the U.S. envoy, said the observer mission has been unable to do its job because of the escalating violence and if the council is not prepared "to back up the mandate we gave them with the tools at our disposal, even to threaten sanctions, not even impose sanctions under Chapter 7, then we're leaving these guys hanging — and it's completely, not only ineffective, but it's immoral."

The Security Council has scheduled a vote on the resolution Wednesday — leaving two days for possible last-minute maneuvering before the observer mission's mandate expires. Both the British and Russian texts have been put in a final form for a vote.

Daniel Siryoti, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff


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