US pledges $100 million in aid to Syrian rebels

As the Friends of Syria summit opened in Istanbul April 20, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to provide $100 million in new "non-lethal" aid to the Syrian opposition—and the Syrian National Coalition demanded actual weapons, threatening to break off talks with the international group if they are not forthcoming.  The Coalition also called for drone strikes on the Syrian army's missile sites, and the imposition of no-fly zones. The "non-lethal" package is to include body armor, night-vision goggles, vehicles and other aid with military applications. Kerry nonetheless said the aid "underscores the United States' firm support for a political solution to the crisis in Syria and for the opposition's advancement of an inclusive, tolerant vision for a post-Assad Syria." The new package brings total US aid to the Syrian opposition to $250 million since the fighting began.

"There is going to be no solution through negotiations with this regime," said the Coalition's Brigadier Selim Idris. "This will not be settled other than by force, maybe in the final stages when the regime feels it has lost everything, it might want to negotiate for its exit." The meeting of 11-member group comes days after the jihadist Nusra Front pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri on April 10. (APReuters, Al Jazeera, April 20)

The Coalition also had harsh words for Moscow, charging in a statement: "Russia is keeping up a foreign policy that only looks at things from a narrow military perspective, and which does not understand the profound historic changes caused by the Arab Spring." Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov days earlier said the Friends of Syria group "is making a negative contribution" dialogue. The Russian statement invoked last year's Geneva accord calling for a settlement through dialogue. (Middle East Online, April 20; AFP, April 17)

Increasingly confused fighting continues throughout the country. Government troops backed up by local militia clashed with rebels around the contested town of Qusair in a strategic area of Homs province near the Lebanese border April 20. Hezbollah is said to be backing the local pro-government militia, the Popular Committees. (AP, April 19) In Deir al-Zor province, bordering Iraq,  Masrib tribesmen joined with government forces in a drive against the Nusra Front. The jihadists retaliated by blowing up 30 local homes after the battle, in which 17 rebels were killed, at least four of them foreigners, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (Reuters, April 20) Clashes were reported in the Damascus suburbs, and mortar shells also fell in the central' Umayyad Square, causing matieral damage. By the end of the day, the Local Coordinaiton Committees, which report to the Observatory, had documented 82 "martyrs," including two women and eight children. Air-strikes and artillery shelling were counted at several points around the country. (LCC, April 21; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, April 20) On April 15, government forces destroyed the historic Omari mosque in the southern city of Daraa where Syria’s uprising erupted two years ago, the Observatory said.   (Al Bawaba News, April 15)

Earlier this week, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered more troops to Jordan, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee the deployment "improve readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios." The troops, numbering up to 200, are from the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Tex. (CNN, April 17)

The day before the Istanbul summit opened, the US State Department issued its annual human rights report, which had sobering words: "The hope of the early days of the Arab Awakening has run up against the harsh realities of incomplete and contested transitions... 2012 witnessed a bumpy transition from protest to politics, brutal repression by regimes determined to crush popular will, and the inevitable challenges of turning democratic aspirations into reality." Despite some "encouraging democratic breakthroughs," it warned that young people are "impatient for reform and results." (Middle East Online, April 20)

Last year, the US and UK established an office block in Istanbul to jointly coordinate aid to the Syrian rebels. At the same time, the US has pressured Saudi Arabia and Qatar to hold back aid that may be reaching jihadists. We have argued that the primary aim in US aid to the rebels is not to topple Assad but to control the trajectory of the revolution.

Meanwhile, a domestic US terrorism case is said to involve the Nura Front for the first time. Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, of Aurora, Ill., was arraigned this week after being arrested at Chicago's airport with the intention of joining the Nusra Front, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. He was also said to be an associate of Adel Daoud, now awaiting trial on charges of plotting a foiled bomb attack in Chicago last year. (Chicago Tribune, April 20)


Minaret of ancient Aleppo mosque destroyed

The minaret of Aleppo's Umayyad mosque has been destroyed, Syrian state media and opposition sources both say—with the regime and the rebels both of course blaming each other. The mosque, in Aleppo's UNESCO-listed Old City, has been the center of fighting for months and had already suffered extensive damage.

As reports broke of the minaret's destruction April 23, activists uploaded video shot at the scene, but there was no footage immediately available of the blast that caused the collapse. State media said rebel fighters from the group Jabhat al-Nusra blew up the minaret, and accused the group of seeking to blame loyalist forces.

But rebels, the opposition and activists all said the army was responsible. "Tanks began firing in the direction of the minaret until it was destroyed," one rebel said in a video posted on YouTube, insisting rebel snipers were not stationed inside the minaret. "We were afraid that it would be targeted," he said.

The historic mosque has fallen in and out of rebel hands several times. Originally built in the 8th century it was apparently destroyed and then rebuilt in the 13th. It has recently fallen back into rebel hands, but has been left pockmarked by bullets and stained with soot.

Antique furnishings and sculpted colonnades have been charred, valuable relics ransacked and ancient artifacts looted—including a box purported to contain a strand of the Prophet Muhammad's hair. UNESCO has warned that the civil war poses a grave threat to the country's cultural heritage, and appealed to all parties to protect important sites.

Both rebels and regime forces have turned some of Syria's significant historic sites into bases, including medieval citadels and Turkish-era bath houses, while thieves have stolen artifacts from museums. Five of Syria's six World Heritage sites have been damaged in the fighting, according to UNESCO. Looters have broken into one of the region's best-preserved Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers, and ruins in the ancient city of Palmyra have been damaged. (Al Jazeera, April 25)