Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Syria update - Assad hunkers down after rebel fighters bring the battle to Damascus. Split between Assad and the various Palestinian organizations could be serious if Debka's reporting is accurate.


If Damascus falls, Israel and its gas fields feared threatened

DEBKAfile  Exclusive Report  July 17, 2012, 2:32 PM (GMT+02:00)
Syrian military forces were gathered in Tuesday, July 17, to save Damascus.
Tanks and armored vehicles were positioned in strength in the capital’s center and around government buildings. However, the noise and fury of battle in the Syrian capital Tuesday, July 17, were produced, DEBKAfile’s military sources report, by six battalions of Bashar Assad’s loyal Allawite militia in clashes with the rebels who captured the two southern suburbs of Meidan and Tadmon Monday. They are trying to pound the enemy into extinction before its forces reach central Damascus.
The two beleaguered districts are home to a quarter of the capital’s 1.8 million inhabitants.
The Syrian general staff has withdrawn its command headquarters to a well-fortified complex on Shuhada Street in the capital’s center.
If Damascus falls and Assad is cornered, the entire region stands in peril of wider repercussions, because neither he nor Tehran will take defeat lying down.DEBKAfile’s military sources report their campaign will be paced and scaled according to the momentum of the Syrian rebels’ advance on Bashar Assad’s door-step, which could be drawn out and bloody.
On the Iranian-Hizballah list are Middle East oil installations as well as Israeli, US, Turkish, Saudi and Jordanian strategic targets.
Saturday, the Cypriot police captured a Hizballah terrorist before he could blow up an Israeli El Al flight and tourist buses in Limassol.
Tehran is feared to be focusing on the Mediterranean island as part of a plot to set Israel’s Mediterranean gas field Tamar on fire. The field is 80 kilometers west of Haifa
It would be a spectacular curtain-raiser for the closure of the Strait of Hormuz and for strikes against Gulf oil installations.
Navy Commander, Maj. Gen. Ram Rothberg called last week for an extra five warships and submarines to safeguard Israel’s burgeoning gas fields at the cost of a billion dollars.
The Syrian ruler has stoked up the menace by moving out of storage missiles and shells armed with mustard gas, sarin nerve gas and cyanide stockpiled for years.
They are on operational readiness at Homs, Latakia and Aleppo and, according to Nawaf Fares,
Syrian ex-ambassador to Iraq who defected to the opposition, may already have been used against rebel concentrations.
The longer the battle for Damascus goes on, the greater the danger that the Syrian ruler will release his poison-tipped missiles against Israel, Turkey and Jordan.

South Damascus embattled. Syrian high command moves to fortified site

DEBKAfile Special Report July 17, 2012, 7:58 AM (GMT+02:00)
Tags:  Bashar Assad   Damascus   Free Syrian Army 
Southern Damacus pounded
Southern Damacus pounded

Bashar Assad has gathered in his military strength to defend his beleaguered capital, deploying armored forces to cut off central Damascus from the embattled southern districts of Meidan and Tadmon seized by the rebels Monday, July 16. A quarter of Damascus’s 1.8 million inhabitants live in those districts.DEBKAfile’s military sources report they are now surrounded by six strengthened Allawite Shabiha militia battalions and under heavy fire.
Assad and his commanders have turned to a different tactic for defending Damascus: They allowed the rebels to occupy the southern districts with the intention of trapping them there and destroying them.
Our sources expect the ongoing heavy bombardment of the rebel concentrations there to result in a bloodbath on the horrific scale of the Bab al Amr massacre in Homs last February and March. The Syrian general staff has prepared for the last battle for Damascus by relocating its command headquarters to a well-fortified complex on Shuhada Street in the capital’s center, known as the “summer command” and normally housing the supply division.

The 130,000 Palestinians living in two Damascus refugee camps, Yarmuk and Hama, have meanwhile joined the rebels. Two Syrian tank columns drove into those locations early Tuesday, July 17, and have been shelling them relentlessly.
Thus ends 60 years of Assad regime investment in supporting the radical Palestinian organizations, Hamas, Jihad Islami, the Popular Front and Ahmad Jibril’s PFLA-General Command. Their top commands were provided with hospitality in Damascus during those decades.


Violence rages in the Syrian capital
Fighting engulfs several Damascus neighbourhoods as Russia threatens to stall an extension of the UN mission in Syria.
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2012 06:48
Fighting between Syrian troops and rebels continued into the night on Monday after Damascus witnessed some of the worst violence in the tightly controlled capital since the country's crisis began 16 months ago.
Clashes rocked several neighbourhoods in the southwest of the city for a second day on Monday. Rebels fired grenades at tanks and troops while shelling by government forces sent black smoke billowing into the sky.
"I can hear shelling, explosions and gunfire every once in a while," a Kfar Souseh resident told Al Jazeera in the early hours of Tuesday.
Troops deployed armoured vehicles near the historic neighbourhood of Midan, and activists said residents were fleeing nearby Tadamon.
The fighting briefly closed the highway linking the capital with Damascus International Airport on Monday.
The town of Qatana, 20km away from the capital, was also shelled on Monday. Elsewhere, government troops shelled the besieged Homs districts of Khaldiyeh, Jourat al-Shayah and Qarabees.
To the north, government forces raided the central city of Hama, scene of fierce clashes and a series of loud blasts, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Monday.
West using 'blackmail'
The UN Security Council is scheduled to vote on Wednesday on a Western-backed resolution that threatens Syrian authorities with sanctions if they do not stop using heavy weapons in towns, despite a declaration by Russia that it will block the move.
The resolution, proposed by Britain, the United States, France and Germany, would extend a UN observer mission in
Syria for 45 days and place international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
Chapter 7 allows the 15-member council to authorise actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military
intervention. US officials have said they are talking about sanctions on Syria, not military intervention.
But Russia said it would block moves at the Security Council to extend the monitoring mission if Western powers did not stop resorting to "blackmail" by threatening sanctions against Damascus.

In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, staked out a tough position on Monday before talks in Moscow with Annan, dismissing international pressure on Russia and China to stop propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
His comments are likely to dim Western diplomats' hopes that Moscow is trying to find a face-saving way to drop its support for Assad and accept that he should have no role in a transition.

"To our great regret, we are seeing elements of blackmail," Lavrov told a news conference before Annan started a two-day
visit that will include talks on Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin. "This is a counter-productive and a dangerous approach."
'Saving face'
Rami Khouri, director of the Esam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, told Al Jazeera that the Russian position is less about supporting Assad and more about "saving face".
"The Russians are a big world power. Lives, money, alliances, respect, stature - all of these are negotiable to them, as they are to the Americans," said Khouri.
"The Russians are caught in a bind because they've taken a stand on Syria which is not really about saving the Assad regime, but rather saving face for the Russians, and generating international respect for the Russian government."
Meanwhile, Morocco has asked Syria's ambassador to Rabat to leave the country, prompting Damascus to ask Rabat's envoy to leave.
As violence continued, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Sunday it now considers the Syrian conflict a civil war.
The Geneva-based group's assessment could have implications for prosecutions for war crimes and means that international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.
Josh Lockman, an international law professor at the University of Southern California, said the assessment does not make any significant difference on the ground, but is "of tremendous significance for the long term".
"With this application of international humanitarian law to the conflict, key government officials could be held responsible for both massacres against civilians and also for the treatment of captured combatants, in this case rebel fighters, to the degree they're abused, harmed or killed," he told Al Jazeera.



Fighting Spreads to Damascus; but is it a Turning Point

Posted on 07/17/2012 by Juan
It is significant, but not decisive, that fighting raged for a second day in the Syrian capital of Damascus Monday. The southern district of Tadamun was especially affected, though there were reports of clashes even in Midan, right down town.
There also continued to be demonstrations and clashes around the country, which left 67 dead according to opposition sources.
In the four successful attempts at deposing the dictator from below in the Arab world, crowd action and popular mobilization in the capital was decisive. The capital is key because it is typically the site of the presidential palace, the ministry of interior (i.e. secret police), and the HQ of the ruling party in the one-party state. If very large crowds gather and move toward the presidential palace, it is difficult for the military to intervene without risking the bad publicity of a massacre.
But crowd action in the capital is only part of the strategy for deposing a dictator. In Egypt and Tunisia, at least, the rest of the elite decided that the dictator was not worth all that trouble, and put him on an aircraft to somewhere else.

This element, of the elite’s willingness ultimately to throw the dictator under the bus, that is missing from Syria. The inner circle of the Baath Party is dominated by the Alawite Shiite sect. Alawites comprise 80% of the officers in the Republican Guard. These Shiites are not ideologically motivated. They are mostly secular people and at least had strong ties to Sunnis, as well. But their prosperity has depended on being regime insiders, and without a Baath Party ruling Syria, the fate of the Alawites has a big question mark over it.
Syria therefore much more resembles Libya than it does Egypt and Tunisia. In Libya, the regime did not fall until there was a mass uprising in the capital. But this uprising was made possible in some important part by the destruction of Qaddafi’s armored divisions. The fighters got rocket propelled grenades and other medium arms from Qatar and possibly France, and they knew they could prevail if they did not have to face tanks, artillery and rockets. NATO’s destruction of so much of Qaddafi’s armored capability built confidence among the revolutionaries.
So the fighting in Damascus may not be a turning point. The fighters may be surrounded and destroyed by the Alawite-dominated Republican Guard. The high Baathist elite may decided they need to make a stand rather than throwing Bashar al-Assad overboard. The regime has 5,000 tanks and lots of artillery, and this continued large arms capability may deter Damascus from rising up in the way that Libya’s Tripoli did. At least, you can’t take it for granted that they won’t.
People in Damascus in telephone calls to loved ones abroad reported hearing gunfire and explosions in the distance, and not being able to sleep at night.

The geography of yesterday’s fighting in the capital is explained by Aljazeera English:
To have, as AFP Arabic reports, tank fire in Midan is extraordinary, and a real change from last year, when the capital remained quiet while the smaller provincial cities revolted.
But the fighters in Tadamun may actually be in trouble. Tanks have been brought into the districts, blocking roads, and cutting off escape routes, even as snipers have been deployed on rooftops. Guerrillas should never put themselves in a position where they have to stand and fight, and can’t melt away before superior conventional forces.