The US has similarly failed to respond to overt Iranian threats to attack NATO ally Turkey, and to blanket the region with attacks by 150,000 missiles currently in the hands of Iran’s terrorist allies should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The latest Iranian threat was issued by Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, speaking to an audience of 50,000 Iranian soldiers in the southern city of Bushehr, where Russia built Iran’s only civilian nuclear power plant.
“Iran is not Iraq or Afghanistan, if the Americans make the mistake and attack Iran, we will show them how to fight,” Vahidi said. “Israel has to be punished for what it has done to the Muslims in Palestine and Lebanon.”
General Yadollah Javani of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards warned that Iran would fire missiles at the Israel’s nuclear sites if Iran came under attack.
ANOTHER CRISIS IN US-PAKISTANI RELATIONS
At the same time, US-Pakistani relations have reached a low ebb over an attack by an American aircraft in the Pakistani border areas which inadvertently killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers. The aur attack was called for by Afghan and US Special Forces troops who came under fire while trying to conduct a night raid on a Taliban outpost on the Afghan side of the border. The Pakistani government has demanded an official apology. Instead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a joint statement of condolence over the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers, while the US military conducts an investigation into what happened. A Pakistani defense official has admitted that the Pakistani troops fired first at what they called “suspicious activity” near their mountain base about 500 yards from the Afghan border.
However, Pakistani officials complain that US military leaders failed to call off the air strikes after the Pakistani army informed them that its troops were being bombed. “We told them, hold your horses, these are ours,” the Pakistani official said, yet the air strikes continued against two Pakistani troop positions for an hour and a half.
US-Pakistani relations have been seriously strained by a series of incidents which began with the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in a major Pakistani city in May. The Pakistanis were upset that US forces carried out the raid without giving them any advance notice. Additional strains have been created by an ongoing series of air strikes by US drone aircraft on Taliban leaders hiding in sanctuaries in the Pakistani border regions. Those strikes also inflicted casualties on Pakistani civilians. Relations were further frayed by public accusations by US officials that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has been actively aiding the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani insurgent network and by providing them with sanctuaries on Pakistani soil.
Pakistan has already has blocked supplies being sent to US troops in Afghanistan at two border crossings and is threatening to boycott an international conference on Afghanistan to be held next week in Germany. Pakistan has also ordered a small group of US personnel now at the Shamsi Air Base in southern Pakistan to leave the country.
NO MORE BUSINESS AS USUAL
In an interview with CNN, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that the US military cannot continue doing “business as usual” in Pakistan unless there is more public support from the Pakistani people for that cooperation.
General Martin Dempsey, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Pakistani public opinion of the US is now “the worst its ever been.”
The deteriorating relations with Pakistan have been a serious concern for the Obama administration for some time. US policymakers understand that Pakistani cooperation is crucial to hopes for ending the US involvement in Afghanistan successfully, and continuing the war on terrorism. Nevertheless, US-Pakistani relations have continued to go from bad to worse.
US AND IRAN ON THE SIDELINES WATCHING EVENTS IN SYRIA
Meanwhile, the US has adopted a totally passive attitude to the deepening civil war in Syria. After sitting on the fence for the first few months of the revolt, the White House finally reacted to the atrocities being committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad against the initially peaceful protests across the country.
But after publicly condemning Assad’s actions and calling for him to step down, the US has again withdrawn, leaving any further initiatives to halt the slaughter of Syrian civilians to the Arab League, neighboring Turkey, and UN humanitarian agencies.
Iran, which sees the Syrian regime to be its closest ally in the region, also appears to be taking a cautious “wait and see” policy as Assad struggles to survive an increasingly militant internal uprising against his rule.
Iran has used its influence over Lebanon and terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, in an effort to head off any foreign intervention in Syria, but other leaders around the region are concerned about the potential for the internal violence to spill across Syria’s borders and further destabilize the region.
MISSILE ATTACK ON NORTHERN ISRAEL
For example, it is not clear whether a Kassam missile attack carried out on northern Israel Monday night from Lebanese territory was related to the unrest in Syria. The two rockets landed in rural areas of the northern Gallil around midnight. One of them exploded and caused some property damage, without inflicting any casualties, while the second was a dud.
However, local residents were concerned that there was no air raid sounded to warn them of the attack. It was later revealed that the army had decided to disconnect the air raid warning system, since there had been no missile attacks in the region for two years.
Lebanese army officials and UN cease fire monitors confirmed that the missiles had been fired from southern Lebanon, but said that they did not know which terrorist group was responsible.
LEBANON AND IRAQ OPT OUT OF ARAB LEAGUE SANCTIONS VOTE
Meanwhile, over the weekend, Arab League leaders finally voted to suspend Syria and to impose economic sanctions on the Assad regime, for failing to live up to the terms of a peace plan which Syria had accepted when it was proposed on November 2nd. The sanctions include a travel ban against Syrian officials and politicians, a halt to all dealings with the Syrian central bank and the cessation of Arab-financed projects in Syria. The Arab League deferred a proposal to suspend commercial flights to Syria from Arab countries.
The Arab League took action after Syria again refused to admit 500 Arab observers to oversee the peace agreement. The Arab League had given Syria a number of extensions to comply, but when the last 24-hour extension ended with another request from Syria for clarification about the observer mission, the Arab Leaders finally lost their patience with Assad.
“The position of the people, and the Arab position, is that we must end this situation urgently,” the Qatari foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassem, said after announcing the vote, which was supported by 19 of the League’s 22 countries. “It has been almost a year that the Syrian people have been killed.”
According to the United Nations, Assad has killed more than 3,500 people since March. Syrian human rights groups put the death toll at more than 4,000, as the violence continues unabated. The monitors were proposed in an effort to give the Syrians another, face-saving opportunity to bring their military campaign against the protests to an end.
Jasssem said the sanctions would take effect immediately, and that the Arab League would ask the UN Security Council to adopt similar measures. He added that the sanctions are part of an Arab League effort to avoid the need for outside military intervention to resolve the situation in Syria.
SYRIA’S SUPPORTERS STILL STANDING FIRM
Syria and its supporters denounced the Arab League sanctions as an unwarranted attempt to bring down the Assad government.
The impact of the Arab League sanctions is expected to be limited because Syria’s largest neighboring trading partners, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, won’t enforce them. Iran and Russia are also expected to prop up the Syrian regime to make up for whatever damage is done by the sanctions.
Sanctions applied by the European Union and the United States have already taken a serious toll on two vital sectors of Syria’s economy, tourism and oil exports.
Iran influenced the pro-Shiite leaders of Iraq and Lebanon to abstain in the Arab League vote.
In reaction to the Arab League vote, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem accused the organization of declaring “economic war” on Syria and threatened to use Syria’s strategic position in the heart of the Arab world to retaliate against them.
“Syria cannot be treated like this,” Moallem said at a broadcast news conference Monday. “Sanctions can cut both ways,” he said, warning that Syria could easily disrupt air and truck traffic carrying much of the commercial cargo between Arab League members throughout the region.
UN GROUP ACCUSES SYRIA OF HUMAN RIGHTS ATROCITIES
Meanwhile, a UN investigating commission issued a report Monday accusing the Syrian government of using state security forces to torture and kill Syrian civilians, including children.
The members of the Independent International Commission on Syria, after interviewing more than 200 people, concluded that Syrian military and security forces had been systematically committing crimes against humanity.
The report cites evidence that high-ranking Syrian officers across the country issued orders to shoot at civilian residences and unarmed protesters, and to systemically torture and the kill hundreds of children.
The chairman of the commission, Paulo Pinheiro, expressed concern that many of the crimes committed by the Syrian security forces were probably going unreported because the restrictions which the Syrian government has placed on journalists. Nevertheless, Pinheiro said, “I think we have been able to demonstrate very scary patterns of human rights violations on a scale not always revealed by the international media.”
Moallem denied the UN charges of human rights violations and continued to insist that armed gangs financed from abroad were responsible for the violence.
SYRIA NOW ISOLATED AT THE UN
Syria has become increasingly isolated at the UN. Last week, several Arab countries co-sponsored a resolution in the General Assembly denouncing Syria’s human rights violations. No Arab country supported Syria.
On August 3, the Security Council adopted a statement condemning Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters, but in October, China and Russia vetoed a European-drafted resolution that recommended sanctions against Syria.
However, the new UN report documenting the human rights abuses might revive that effort. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, said, “the United States has long held the view . . . that it’s past time for the Security Council to take much more decisive action with respect to Syria.
VOTING STARTS IN CAIRO
The Arab League meeting which called for sanctions against Syria was held outside Cairo to avoid the violence in Tahrir Square. In Egypt, a standoff continues between the country’s Supreme Military Council, which has been running the government from behind the scenes since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, and a revived coalition of secular democratic and Islamic protesters. The largest Egyptian Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned under the Mubarak regime, expects to emerge from the Egyptian parliamentary elections which began Monday in a position to dominate the new Egyptian government.
During the first days of the voting, 40,000 political organizers for the Brotherhood dominated the process in Cairo. The Brotherhood members, wearing the group’s insignia, helped to direct voters to polling places and kept the long lines of Egyptians waiting to cast their ballots surprisingly orderly and peaceful. They even stayed after the voting was over to help clean up the litter the voters left behind.
The ballot included candidates from the Brotherhood’s own newly formed Freedom and Justice Party, other Islamic fundamentalist parties representing the Slafi sect, and two coalitions of secular liberal democratic parties. The parliamentary voting will continue in stages across country through March.
After the renewed deaths of protesters in Tahrir Square last week, the Islamic parties and the secular groups decided that the military could not be trusted to continue ruling the country. They insisted that the generals hand over their power immediately to an interim unity government headed by former UN nuclear weapons agency director Mohammed ElBaradei, who is noted for his anti-Americanism. But the only concession the generals were willing to offer the protesters, was to move up the date for the handover of power to a new civilian government from early 2013 to July, 2012. Instead of stepping down, the generals have installed a new interim government under their control to oversee the elections.
A NEW GOVERNMENT IN CAIRO
The military council appointed Kamal el-Ganzouri, 78, to lead the new interim government as prime minister, the same post he held under Mubarak from 1996-1999.
The previous government which had been appointed by the military council resigned en masse in the face of last week’s demonstrations.
The military had first offered the job to Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League, and then to ElBaradei. Both turned down the job after the army rejected their demands for broad political authority rather than serving as a figurehead for the generals.
In a televised news conference el-Ganzouri tried to assure the nation that he accepted the job only after the head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, assured him that the military did not want to stay in power.
El-Ganzouri’s appointment was immediately rejected by the protest leaders as insufficient. ElBaradei later joined with the protesters in Tahrir Square and said in a Twitter post that he was on his way “to Tahrir to pay my respects to the martyrs. Their sacrifice will not be in vain. Together we shall prevail.”
However, once the parliamentary voting started, most of the demonstrators disappeared from Tahrir Square.
US TAKING THE WRONG SIDE IN EGYPT
During the crisis in Egypt, beginning with the protests which brought down Mubarak in February, the Obama White House has been late and largely passive as events unfolded. Furthermore, US policymakers have been slow to realize that the Egyptian military is the only political force in Egypt today which can prevent a takeover of the country by the radical leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military can also be counted upon to consistently support US interests in Egypt and the region, including maintaining Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel.
A statement issued by the While House on Friday at 3:00 AM failed to recognize the seriousness of the threat posed to by the radical Muslims who are working to seize control of Egypt. It called for the new Egyptian government to be “empowered with real authority immediately. We believe that Egypt’s transition to democracy must continue, with elections proceeding expeditiously, and all necessary measures taken to ensure security and prevent intimidation. Most importantly, we believe that the full transfer of power to a civilian government must take place in a just and inclusive manner that responds to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people, as soon as possible.”
The statement called for an independent investigation into the deaths of some of the Egyptian protesters last week, but added that the situation “requires a more fundamental solution, devised by Egyptians” and consistent with democratic principles. The Egyptian generals did issue an apology for the deaths and promised to provide medical care to those who were wounded while battling riot police.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the Tahrir Square protesters were demanding the realization of principles that the US supports, including “political and economic reform.”
However, the tone of the White House comments seemed to anticipate a transfer of power to radical Islamic leaders in Egypt. That would be catastrophic, not just for Israel, but also for hopes for peace and economic progress throughout the region.
SYRIAN VIOLENCE ACCELERATING
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more clashes between army defectors and security forces still loyal to the Assad regime. At least 37 people were killed over the weekend, most of them in the central city of Homs.
In an ambush attack last week, the Syrian army blamed terrorists for killing six air force and four technical officers.
The Syrian army continues to parrot Assad’s contention that the violence is being instigated by foreign agents seeking to destabilize the country. “The general command of the armed forces sees that enemies of the country are behind this terrorist act,” a statement issued by the Syrian military said. “The armed forces will continue to carry out its mission … and will cut every evil hand that targets Syrian blood.”
The key to Assad’s survival has been the continued loyalty of the army’s senior military officers, and their willingness to order troops to use extreme force to suppress the protests.
Over the past 40 years, Assad and his father before him filled the officer ranks with members of their minority Alawite sect, ensuring their loyalty by tying the fate of the army’s leaders to that of their regime.
“Many regime supporters are terrified about their future and thus liable to resist till the bitter end,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report last week. “A majority of Alawite officials, security officers and ordinary citizens, along with segments of the Christian community and some secularists, have become convinced that their fate [in the current uprising] is either to kill or be killed.”
BBC EYEWITNESS IN HOMS
In Homs, which has been the center of the growing soldier defections to the opposition, the fighting has grown increasingly deadly. BBC reporter Paul Woods is one of the few Western reporters who has been able to witness the fighting first hand.
He witnessed an effort by six Syrian army soldiers to join the opposition by defecting in the middle of the night. However, in the act of sneaking away, they were detected, and a heavy machine gun opened fire. Five of them made it, but the sixth man was left behind.
“We heard him screaming,” said Mahmoud Ali, one of the defecters, “but we couldn’t go back. There were too many troops pouring in.”
They fought their way out of the army base and braved the fire to reach the opposition center in the Bab Amr quarter of Homs. As they reached safety, people came out into the street to embrace them and welcome them into the group which calls itself the Free Syrian Army.
While saddened by the loss of their comrade, they did a little dance for the news camera, raising their assault rifles over their heads while chanting. “Allah Bless the Free Army.”
When asked why they risked their lives to change sides, they said their officers were ordering them to open fire on unarmed civilian protesters in the streets.
“They gave us the order to shoot on the demonstrators,” said Ahmed Daleti. “So we said ‘No,’ these people are peaceful. They just want freedom. We are all one people, one blood — we couldn’t just shoot them.”
A WAR FOUGHT WITH BLACK MARKET WEAPONS
The recent rash of army defections has turned the government myth that it was led by armed groups into much more of a reality today.
A BBC reporter had entered the country from Lebanon, where he said the growing insurgency has increased the black market price for a Kalashnikov assault rifle to $1,200. The reporter said that he had no trouble dodging the government checkpoints using the back roads between the Lebanese border and Homs with the help of a chain of arms smugglers, civilian protesters and fighters.
The BBC reporter said that the Free Army fighters in Bab Amr were armed with heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.
One of the soldiers told him, “Once if the Mukhabarat (the Syrian secret police) wanted to arrest you, they’d send a couple of guys on a motorbike. Now they would have to send a thousand soldiers — and even then they would think twice.”
DEATH STALKS THE CHILDREN OF SYRIA
Bab Amr was surrounded by Syrian army and police posts, with armored vehicles guarding the major intersections. There was also a lot of random gunfire in the streets. A government sniper shot and killed a six-year-old boy as he played on his front doorstep in the afternoon. At the funeral, the boy’s father declined to be interviewed on camera for fear that he would be arrested.
A few days later, the reporter accompanied two Free Army soldiers as they staged an attack on a Syrian army base which they said was being used by the government snipers. After waiting for an hour, one of the men opened fire on a soldier who had gone outside to smoke a cigarette. The man who’d fired the shot told the reporter, “I aimed at his leg to put him out of action. I didn’t want to kill him.”
The Free Army says that its main job is to protect the street protesters whom they believe will eventually bring down the Assad regime.
HOW MANY MORE SYRIAN SOLDIERS ARE READY TO DEFECT?
Lieutenant Waleed al Abdullah, one of the Free Army leaders in Homs, claimed that, “Seventy per cent of the army is ready to defect, including whole brigades with their officers; even the Special Forces, but that they are afraid of being attacked by the Syrian air force.” He claimed that the key to the success of the Syrian revolt would be the imposition of a no-fly zone like the one that the UN declared in Libya against Gadhaffi’s forces.
On his way out of Syria, the BBC reporter witness an attack by a group of about a dozen Free Army fighters on another Syrian army post, using machine guns and RPG’s, which killed two soldiers and wounded two more.
His conclusion is that the revolt in Syria is gradually deepening into a true civil war.
A BATTLE FOR LEGITIMACY
The main impact of the Arab League sanctions is likely to be psychological on the legitimacy of the regime rather than any dramatic economic or military impact. Syria has long portrayed itself as the “beating heart of Arabism.” Now the rest of the Arab world is rejecting it.
One Arab expert with close ties to the Damascus said that this “is really all part of the battle for legitimacy.”
According to some reports, even the Iranians now realize that the era of the Assad family’s iron rule over Syria may be coming to an end. Given the depth of popular feeling against him, it is an open question as to how long Assad can maintain control over a majority Sunni Muslim population with his minority Alawite-Shi’ite base.
However, the Iranians continue their cautious support of Assad, because, as Iranian analyst Hamid Farahvashi has said, “a weak Assad is no longer an effective regional ally for Iran … But it is better to have a weak ally rather than a Sunni (Muslim) leader in power in Syria.
“Iranians do not want to back the wrong horse … It is a very sensitive period and any wrong move could have negative consequences,” Farahvashi added.
HEDGING THEIR BETS
There are rumors that Iranian officials have met with members of the Syrian opposition in expectation that someday they will succeed in deposing Assad.
“We do not want to be seen as betrayers of our ally … but like all other countries, Iran’s priority is to preserve our country’s interests,” one Iranian official told a Western reporter.
Iranian officials have adopted a low profile on the Syrian revolt. Some official statements have referred to it as an “American-Zionist” conspiracy. Iran has also cautiously condemned Assad’s use of violence and called on his government and the opposition to reach an “understanding.”
The US accuses Iran of stepping up financial and military aid to the Assad regime, while Iran denies any direct involvement in Assad’s struggle to survive in power.
Iran has also portrayed the revolt in Syria as part of a broader plot supported by the Saudis and other majority Sunni regimes to foment a region-wide war on minority Shi’ite Muslims.
Saudi Arabia has long accused the Iranians of trying to stir up Shi’ite minorities in the region, including the protests which broke out in the Gulf emirate of Bahrain, where the Saudis used their own military to intervene and restore order.
IRANIAN CONSPIRACY THEORIES
The Teheran Times, an Iranian state-controlled publication, on Sunday condemned “the Arab League’s suspension of Syria amid increasing Western pressure, Egyptian junta’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, Bahrain’s excessive use of force against its own people, and Yemeni regime’s massacre of its citizens [as expressions of] the prevailing double standards in the world [against Shi’ite Muslims].”
Regional analysts now fear that “Syria might become the next battleground for America and Saudi Arabia to settle scores with Tehran.” There are also fears that the civil war in Syria could lead to a rekindling of Islamic sectarian violence in Lebanon, Iraq and other areas under Iranian influence.”
Before they reached Syria, Iran’s Islamic rulers interpreted the Arab Spring uprisings as a popular revolt against US-backed governments throughout the region. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed that it is a continuation of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution against the rule of the US-backed Shah.
But other Iranian political analysts say that when the revolt broke out in Syria, the Iranian government should have openly sided with the Syrian opposition instead of Assad.
“Iran could have mediated and controlled the crisis in Syria if Ahmadinejad’s government had a better position in the international community,” former Iranian deputy foreign minister Mohammad Sadr said.
Iranian reformers have watched with some jealousy as the world rallied to support popular revolutions that toppled several Arab dictators, including the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhaffi by force. By contrast, the failed rebellion against the rigged re-election of Ahmadinehad was crushed by reactionary Islamic forces in May, 2009, with hardly a word of protest from President Obama and the rest of the free world.
WHO WILL BE HURT MOST BY THE NEW SANCTIONS ON SYRIA
In Syria, people worried that the new Arab League sanctions would mostly impact the country’s poor and the middle class, while leaving the country’s elite business class largely untouched.
“I think it is time the world realized that economic sanctions are not affecting anyone but the Syrian people,” said a young person in Damascus. “Those who couldn’t afford buying bread, now can’t afford even smelling bread.”
Others held out the hope that the new sanctions would push more members of the business class in Damascus and Aleppo to join the opposition. These rich businessmen have so far remained on the sidelines since the revolt against the Assad regime began in March.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.