Greater Middle East
Syrian elite troops are backing up an offensive apparently led by Hezbollah against rebels in the strategic town of Qusayr, as the UN Human Rights Council debates a resolution condemning the assault. Russia meanwhile protests a European Union decision to lift its arms embargo on the Syrian rebels, and says it will respond by supplying Damascus with S-300 air-defense missiles. This, in turn, is decried as a "threat" by Israel, which warns it could launch air-strikes to destroy any deployed missiles. "The situation is beginning to show worrying signs of destabilizing the region as a whole," said UN rights chief Navi Pillay.
Turkey will build a 2.5-kilometer wall along the Cilvegözü post on the border with Syria to prevent illegal crossings, Trade and Customs Minister Hayati Yazıcı announced May 23. The border crossing lies within 10 kilometers from Reyhanlı town, where a twin bomb attack killed 51 and wounded more than 100 on May 11. A protocol with the Turkish Armed Forces has already been signed for the construction of the wall, Yazıcı said. (Hürriyet Daily News via France24, May 24)
Israeli missiles struck a research center near Damascus, setting off explosions and causing casualties, Syria's state news agency reported May 5. If confirmed, it would be the second Israeli strike on targets in Syria in three days. Two previous Israeli air-strikes, one in January and one on May 3, targeted weapons reportedly bound for Hezbollah. (AP, May 5) On May 4, a former senior official in the Bush administration said the use of chemical weapons in Syria might have been an Israeli-instrumented "false flag operation." Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, told Current TV: "We don’t know what the chain of custody is. This could’ve been an Israeli false flag operation, it could’ve been an opposition in Syria... or it could've been an actual use by Bashar Assad. But we certainly don’t know with the evidence we’ve been given. And what I'm hearing from the intelligence community is that that evidence is really flakey." (JP, May 4)
Egyptian police arrested 12 "Black Bloc" protesters in clashes outside Cairo's presidential palace April 27. Protesters hurled rocks and fire bombs at the walls of the presidential palace in the Heliopolis suburb, and torched a police vehicle. The clashes come days after the detainment of 22 suspected Black Bloc members on court order. On May 1, a court refused an appeal to release the young men, who have been ordered to remain in custody for a second 15-day period. On their Facebook page, the Blac Bloc say they are a "generation born of the blood of the martyrs" from the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Prosecutor general Talaat Abdallah has accused the group of "terrorism."
The People's Protection Committees (YPG), armed wing of Syria's main Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), joined forces with Syrian rebels last month, helping them overrun the strategic Sheikh Maksud neighborhood on a hilltop north of Aleppo. "We have the same goal as the rebel fighters," YPG commander Engizek told AFP last week. "It is to seek the ouster of Assad." But days later, militiamen of PYD—considered to be the Syrian offshoot of Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—clashed with Free Syrian Army forces in the Kurdish neighborhood. The internecine fighting started after FSA rebels accused YPG forces of attacking a rebel convoy and otherwise secretly collaborating with the government. "The YPG have been on the government side from the beginning," said Khalid Alhayani, an FSA brigade commander. "When we entered [the area], we asked YPG if we could use their territory to hit government check points. They would agree but then report to the government our plans." (Global Post, April 26; Japan Times, April 23)
The Assad regime's use of chemical weapons is announced as a "red line"—the favored metaphor of Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, now alarmingly accepted by the US media, at least. Israel yesterday said the line has been crossed. Brigadier-General Itai Brun, head of IDF military intelligence, told an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv: "There's a huge arsenal of chemical weapons in Syria. Our assessment is that the [Assad] regime has used and is using chemical weapons." Brun cited photographs of victims that showed them foaming at the mouth and with contracted pupils. "To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin." And John Kerry, speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels, called on the alliance to make preparations to respond in the event of chemical weapons threatening a member (meaning Turkey). (The Guardian, April 23)
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.
In some very inspiring news, opposition activists from Syrian President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect publicly broke ranks with the regime at a meeting in Cairo March 31, and urged their fellow Alawites in the army to rebel, Reuters reports. "We call on our brothers in the Syrian army, specifically members of our sect, not to take up arms against their people and to refuse to join the army," the delegates said in a statement. "[T]he Alawite sect was and is being held hostage by the regime," stated the communique, which was read out by Alawite activist Tawfiq Dunia. "One of the goals of the Syrian revolution is to restore the national identity and free the Alawite sect from the family of the ruling regime."