Syria crisis: £100m Assad assets in UK are frozen

Assets worth £100m belonging to Syrian leaders have been located and frozen in Britain, the BBC has learned.

The European Union imposed sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime after it violently suppressed anti-government protests.

Most of the UK assets is cash held in bank accounts by people and organisations named in the EU’s action.

Thousands of people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began against President Assad in March 2011.

The White House says the killing in Damascus of three top figures at the heart of Syria’s defence establishment on Wednesday showed President Assad was losing control.

The attack prompted the UN Security Council to delay until Thursday a vote on a Western-sponsored resolution calling for tougher sanctions on Damascus.

Russia has said some countries are inciting the opposition rather than calming it down.

Earlier this year, President Assad’s British-born wife, Asma, was added to the list of people whose assets were frozen and more names are expected to be added to the list in the coming weeks.

Bashar al-Assad (R) and his wife Asma  arrive at Maiquetia airport in Venezuela on June 25, 2010President Assad and his British-born wife Asma are banned from travelling to EU countries

The BBC’s Security Correspondent Frank Gardner says: “On the ground, on the phone and on the internet, financial trackers in the US and Europe are working to trace and freeze the assets belonging to President Assad and members of his regime.”

Our correspondent said the British government’s Asset Freezing Unit lists 129 proscribed individuals from Syria and 49 companies, all subject to EU sanctions.

But Ian Willis, at the business intelligence firm Alaco, says it is just a fraction of the fortune amassed by the Assad family and its close associates during 41 years in power.

He estimated the figure at £1bn and says most of it is beyond the EU’s reach, deposited in Russia and other countries that have yet to apply sanctions on Damascus.

Assassination in Damascus

Assassination in Damascus

For 17 months, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has waged bloody war against his people from his redoubt in Damascus, convinced that he could weather the storm. A bombing on Wednesday that killed at least three of his most senior aides — including the defense minister and Mr. Assad’s powerful brother-in-law — shows that the war can reach deeply into the capital.

There were conflicting news reports about the cause of the explosion. State television reported that it was carried out by a suicide bomber, while the main armed opposition group said explosive devices were detonated remotely.

There is no condoning such tactics, and it is impossible to know whether the assassination is any kind of a turning point. The armed opposition is obviously making gains, but there is still no sign that Mr. Assad is planning to leave power. He has proved to be even more brutal than his father and could crack down even harder on the opposition. Reports that his government is moving its stockpile of chemical weapons and might be preparing to use them are especially alarming.

What is clear is that any chance that the United States and other Western powers could still facilitate a diplomatic solution is rapidly fading, largely because of months of Russian intransigence. Everyone’s concern should be the thousands of Syrian civilians who have died at Mr. Assad’s hand and the thousands more still hounded by his security forces with helicopters and tanks.

But the United Nations Security Council has postponed until Thursday a vote on whether to extend the mission of 300 monitors sent to Syria to oversee a peace plan — including a cease-fire and a political transition — to which Mr. Assad agreed three months ago but has repeatedly reneged on. The work of the unarmed observers was suspended because of the violence.

The United States and other Western nations have said they would extend the mission only if the Security Council adopts a resolution with some teeth, one that would threaten Mr. Assad with enforceable sanctions if he continues to thwart the peace plan. The United States and the European Union long ago imposed their own sanctions on Syria — the American penalties were toughened on Wednesday — and they are having an effect. But United Nations sanctions would have a much greater impact and are urgently needed.

Although Russia endorsed the peace plan, it has steadfastly opposed sanctions ostensibly because of fears they could lead to NATO military action, as in Libya. But NATO has shown no interest in becoming embroiled in Syria’s bloody conflict and doing so would be unwise. Moscow is abetting Mr. Assad’s killing spree by supplying him with helicopters while shielding him from the kind of pressure that could force a cease-fire.

It is getting steadily harder to understand how Russian leaders think their stubborn support for Mr. Assad and his reign of terror could help them, the Syrian people or regional stability. Instead of digging in their heels on an indefensible cause — and trying to outmaneuver the United States — they could be contributing to a practical diplomatic solution.

DEATHS IN DAMASCUS

DEATHS IN DAMASCUS

Posted by Steve Coll
syria-bombings.jpg

On Wednesday, an apparent suicide bomber in Damascus attacked a meeting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war cabinet, killing Daoud Rajha, Syria’s defense minister, and Asef Shawkat, who was the President’s brother-in-law. The attack was the most striking in a series of signs that Syria’s uprising has tipped into a full-blown civil war, as the Red Cross has now labelled it, with the war’s momentum now favoring the rebels. (The intelligence and access required for an attack to succeed against a crisis-cabinet meeting suggests that the rebels are running sources inside Assad’s security apparatus.) Other recent signals include sustained fighting around Damascus; the reported withdrawal of Syrian forces from the Golan Heights to combat the revolt; the spread of persistent violence to most of the country’s provinces, drawing in virtually every unit of the Syrian security services; and significant, accelerating defections of diplomats and military officers.

Assad is finished. What seems left to discover is how much time will be required before he is either killed or flees; how many more Syrian civilians will die before the war turns to a struggle for post-Assad ascendancy; and how much longer the United Nations, undermined by Russia, will continue to embarrass itself by failing to craft a political transition or reduce the indiscriminate killing of Syrian civilians by state-security services.

This sentiment itself is not new. For many months, it has been the blustery habit of Assad’s opponents, including those in the Obama Administration, to declare that the Syrian President’s time has come and gone. But those declarations have been mainly a form of political argument. Western governments have sought to persuade Assad that, realistically, any durable peace in Syria will require him to negotiate a departure from office, or perhaps an accommodation, such as the one that has taken place in Yemen, where the former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has left office but held onto considerable power.

Now, Assad’s coming demise seems less of an argument than an observation. It looks probable that the President will take his place among the war’s victims, at the hands of a coup-maker within his ranks, or else at the hands of a rebel attack, in the manner of Muammar Qaddafi’s death at the climax of Libya’s rebellion. It is conceivable that Assad could slip into exile, perhaps to a dacha outside Moscow, where deposed Soviet clients and spies used to settle into retirement and give the occasional bitter interview to a Western correspondent back during the Cold War.

In a structural, demographic, or resource sense, Assad and his fear-governed security state have always been the weaker party in the war. They represent a minority of the country’s population, the Alawite sect, with support drawn from other groups, such as the Christian community and business classes. (Rajha was a Christian.) The revolutionaries, drawn mainly from the Sunni Muslim population, draw upon the will of a demographic majority. More than a year after its start, the revolt also enjoys open and covert support from a number of very wealthy and resilient countries, including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Assad’s geopolitical support team—Iran, Russia, and an ambivalent Iraq—are not as well positioned.

Also, because global public opinion is with the rebels and against Assad, Syria’s external allies cannot take the kinds of risks of direct involvement in the war that, for example, Turkey has undertaken on the other side. Turkey has staged rebel forces, nurtured the political opposition, and housed refugees, but it has suffered no international sanction for this. Russia has come under a hail of criticism for repairing a few Syrian helicopters. So not only are Syria’s outside allies weaker than the allies of the rebels, they are more constrained.

Early on in the rebellion—during the spring of last year, the Arab Spring—it seemed possible that Assad would overcome his disadvantages through strength of arms and, even more, sheer brutality. His father Hafez put down a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, in 1982, by mercilessly slaughtering thousands of civilians. Bashar had cultivated a debonair, international image, but when the trouble started, he signalled through the violence he sanctioned that he would be his father’s son.

This time, however, almost incomprehensibly, young Sunni Muslim Syrian men and women have proved willing, day after day and month after month, to return to the streets and to the fight, even though Assad’s forces have often had superior weapons and have demonstrated as little conscience as Hafez. The BBC World Service’s “Newshour” is one broadcast that has sustained on-the-ground interviews by phone and Skype with Syrian rebels since the uprising began. Listening to these voices night after night—through static, translated from Arabic, with booms or the wailing of injured in the background—you could gradually hear and feel the intractability of the resistance. No degree of suffering or inequality of arms seemed able to break them.

As more and more Army officers, mainly Sunnis, have defected to the rebels, their tactics have improved. More recently, some units seem to have acquired anti-tank weapons.

It seems likely that we will learn in time that President Obama signed some sort of “finding” authorizing American covert action in support of the rebels earlier this year, even if the finding did not extend to the direct supply of arms to rebel forces in the field. Among other things, such a decision by the President would have been politically safe: Republican hawks on Syria, including Senator John McCain, would support it.

As it becomes clearer that Assad is doomed, it should become easier to persuade Russia to act. If Russia is to salvage any access to a post-Assad government, it may want to bargain away its intransigence at the right moment, in order to bring some post-Assad grouping of Alawite military officers to a political negotiation—if it is not already too late for that.

Political chaos and continuing violence after Assad seems almost guaranteed. A wide gulf has opened between the exiled political opposition and the commanders of the rebels on the ground; there are tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and other groupings; and regional militias are establishing themselves as provincial powers. It is not likely that the United Nations or other outside mediators will be able to broker a smooth transition. It may be possible—and it seems as imperative as ever—to use the final crumbling of Damascus as a way to deliver full-scale humanitarian aid, perhaps under a peacekeeping mandate.

Some commentators have compared the conflict to Bosnia’s multi-sided ethnic war, which lasted from 1992 until 1995 and claimed perhaps a hundred thousand lives. Often, the Bosnia comparison is cited to support arguments against international intervention in Syria on the grounds that the war is too complex. But another reading of the Bosnian example is that the United States and European governments overestimated the military and political power of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for much too long. They misinterpreted Milosevic’s brutality as strength.

Something similar has taken place in the West during Syria’s uprising concerning Assad. He was always weaker than he looked. At last, we can see that he will go. The time has come to plan for how to support inclusive, stable politics and protect civilian lives when he is gone.

Syria crisis: chaos in Damascus as Assad loyalists killed – as it happened

Syria crisis: chaos in Damascus as Assad loyalists killed – as it happened

• Defence minister and Assad’s brother-in-law among dead
• Russia says ‘decisive battle’ is under way
• US defence secretary: Syria is ‘spiralling out of control’
• Reports of widespread defections dismissed by regime

12.45pm ET / 5.45pm BST: The crisis in Syria has reached what appears to be a decisive stage, after key members of the regime were killed in a blast in DamascusYou can read today’s earlier live blog here. We’re continuing our live coverage on this page – here’s what we know so far:

• Four senior members of the Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle have been killed in a bomb attack on the national security building in Damascus, in what amounts to a grave crisis for the ruling regime.The blast killed defence minister Dawoud Rajha and his deputy Assef Shawkat – Assad’s brother-in-law. Also killer were the interior minister Mohammad Shaar and the assistant vice president, Hassan Turkmani. The blast occurred during a meeting of cabinet ministers and security officials, according to state TV.

• Two groups have claimed responsibility for the explosions. Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means “The Brigade of Islam”, said on its Facebook page that it “targeted the cell called the crisis control room in the capital of Damascus.” The Free Syrian Army also claimed responsibility for the attack, according to spokesman Qassim Saadedine. “This is the volcano we talked about, we have just started,” he said. Security sources have blamed the attack on a bodyguard for the regime’s inner circle, according to Reuters.

• The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, says the situation in Syria is “spiralling out of control”. He called on the international community to “bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what’s right to step down and allow for that peaceful transition” The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov says a “decisive battle” is under way in Syria. A UN vote on the future of its monitoring force in Syria, due to take place today, has been cancelled.

• The Syrian government has vowed to wipe out those responsible for the blast, amid fears of increased bombardment against opposition strongholds. In a statement issued by the military it blamed the attack on “hired hands”. It said it was “more determined than ever to confront all forms of terrorism and chop any hand that harms national security”.

Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Shaaar

Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar

Reports differ on the fate of the interior minister.

State TV reported that he had been killed.

The pro-government channel Dounia, denied that he was dead. It reported that he is in a stable condition.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said ‘we have long said that the presence of chemical wepaons in syria and the region undermines peace’.

Former defense minister Hassan Turkmani

Hassan Turkmani

The former defence minister and was known as the the regime’s crisis management chief.

Until his death Turkmani was serving as an assistant to the country’s vice president. In his mid-70s, Turkmani was close to the regime and took part in the crackdown against the uprising. Shortly after the revolt began in March last year, Assad sent Turkmani to Turkey for talks with officials there.

Assef Shawkat

Assef Shawkat

Assad’s brother-in-law and the deputy head of the armed forces, and his closest security adviser.

Shawkat, married to Assad’s sister Bushra, was one of the most feared figures in the president’s inner circle and had won the support of the clan’s influential matriarch, Anisa. He was one of three central figures in the regime crackdown, along with Assad himself and his brother Maher. As Syria’s overall security chief, he had key input into all military and intelligence operations. He is known to have survived an attempt to poison him in late May when a cook contaminated food that had been prepared for him and key members of the national security ministry.

1.16pm ET / 6.16pm BST: My colleague Matthew Weaver has been looking at what we know about the four men reported to have been killed or injured today.

Dawoud Rajha

Dawoud Rajha

Although he was the defence minister but that did not mean he was the most powerful security official. His identity as a Christian helped the regime present an image of multi-ethnicity.

As is the case in many ministries, there was an Alawite, President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, in the number two position at defence, and his membership of the family network was far more important than title.

Furthermore, the defence ministry is less powerful than the interior ministry, intelligence service and Maher al-Assad’s Republican Guard. But Rajha’s presence around the table at the national security council reflected the fact that he wielded real clout in the apparatus.

1.20pm ET / 6.20pm BST: The White House has said violence is not the answer in Syria, but the attack on Assad’s inner circle shows “window is closing”, Reuters’ Matthew Keys reports. A White House spokesman also said it does not know Bashar al-Assad’s location.

White House says international community needs to act in a unified way.

White House says it has no information on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s whereabouts; White House goes on to say the U.S. is closely monitoring Syria’s military facilities and believes its chemical stockpile remains under government control.

1.32pm ET / 6.32pm BST: The UN Security Council has delayed a vote on a new Syria resolution until Thursday, in an attempt to get key Western nations and Russia to agree on measures to end the violence, AP report.

The agency says that international envoy Kofi Annan urged the council in New York to delay Wednesday’s scheduled vote after the bombing in Damascus killed three members of the Assad regime.

Ambassadors from the five veto-wielding permanent council nations the US, Russia, China, Britain and France met behind closed doors late on Wednesday morning to discuss Annan’s request. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin later told reporters: “A possible vote has been postponed until tomorrow morning.”

1.45pm ET / 6.45pm BST: Lina Sinjab, a journalist for the BBC in Damascus, has been out on a government-led tour of the city this afternoon. Sinjab live-tweeted the expedition, and while she wasn’t take to “any of the hotspot areas like Midan or the National Security Building”, said she and others were able to hear gunfire at points.

Former Syrian general says Assad's days are numbered

ASHLEY HALL: Akil Hashem spent 27 years serving in the Syrian army, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier-general before he retired.

He’s now living outside the country, where he’s free to be an outspoken critic of the Assad regime.

As such, he’s regularly called for outside military intervention to end what he calls the ‘barbaric genocide’ committed by government forces against the Syrian people.

He’s speaking here to Michael Vincent.

AKIL HASHEM: The situation is very critical. I consider this regime as a wounded tiger. So he might go for desperate measures. I don’t exclude the possibility that this regime in the next few days might use the air force to bomb some certain areas in Syria and kill thousands of people.

MICHAEL VINCENT: You think the regime is collapsing and is capable of a scorched earth type of policy?

AKIL HASHEM: Yes, I think now we are open to all kind of possibilities. This is a turning point in the revolution. This is the beginning of the end. I don’t exclude the possibility of Bashar al-Assad being assassinated just after few days. I don’t exclude the possibility of fleeing, fleeing the country tonight or tomorrow, I don’t know.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Who would give him safe haven if he fled Syria do you believe?

AKIL HASHEM: So far there is three countries are capable to give him a safe haven like Russia, China and Iran and most likely Iran. But also there is the possibility of a military coup might happen in the top of the regime collapsing, the regime even the brother himself might try to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

Even there will be, I believe a huge amount of defection within the inner circle of this regime. The situation is open for all possibilities.

MICHAEL VINCENT: Up until now the Free Syrian army has not had the fire power to take the Syrian military on offensively. They have only had access to machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. Do you believe that they now have enough hardware to take out the tanks and the helicopters of the Assad forces?

AKIL HASHEM: No, no, they don’t have. They lack the heavy weaponry of course and they are
outnumbered by the regime but they have something the regime doesn’t have at all which is the morale, the high morale, the belief in their cause. And their willing to sacrifice and they proved that so many times before, they sacrificed their life willingly to get rid of this regime.

So in that regard, in this outbreak we are more powerful than the regime itself in spite of all the tanks and artillery and air planes and helicopters the regime have.

MICHAEL VINCENT: What will you be looking for in the coming hours, days and weeks? What ground do they have to make in terms of improving their position strategically at the moment?

AKIL HASHEM: With freedom fighters have change their strategy recently from a defensive strategy to offensive strategy so now they are fighting the regime in his capital and everywhere in Syria. Now they are getting more organised, they are getting more under a central leadership. It is not completely established so far but they’re getting better and better day after day so this will make a huge difference.

So now after all the development we can expect for sure that the freedom fighters will have the upper hand well soon interior. I cannot give you a date, an certain date but it is coming very, very soon.

MICHAEL VINCENT: How long do you think the people in Damascus can hold out in terms of food, water and medicine?

AKIL HASHEM: Yeah, they can hold for a long, long time. Damascus is a six million people and there are people in Damascus will hold for a long time before they start accumulating food and water and everything because they anticipated that they eventually the struggle will come to the capital so they can hold for a long, long time.

There is so many storage for the government and otherwise or other company of food and all kinds of supplies and even with their medical supplies where in Homs and other part of Syria didn’t have any medical supplies at all.

Here in Damascus everything is available so I will anticipate a long-term fighting in Damascus.

ASHLEY HALL: The retired Syrian brigadier-general Akil Hashem, speaking to Michael Vincent.

THE PRESIDENT'S HOLD ON POWER LOOKS MORE TENUOUS THAN EVER AFTER A BOMB KILLS THREE HIGH-RANKING OFFICIALS IN THE CAPITAL. THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY REBEL COALITION TAKES RESPONSIBILITY.

Syria bombing takes fight to Assad’s doorstep

The president’s hold on power looks more tenuous than ever after a bomb kills three high-ranking officials in the capital. The Free Syrian Army rebel coalition takes responsibility.

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Alexandra Sandels, Los Angeles Times

5:56 PM PDT, July 18, 2012

BEIRUT — An audacious bombing aimed at the heart of Syria’s feared security services killed three high-ranking officials in Damascus and left President Bashar Assad’s grip on power appearing more tenuous than at any time during the 16-month uprising against his family dynasty.

Government reinforcements were reported to have been deployed in the streets of Damascus on Wednesday, a fourth day of fighting in the capital, which had largely been spared the violence racking much of the country.

The attack on national security headquarters was a graphic illustration of the shifting momentum in the conflict. It demonstrated that the decentralized and often ragtag rebel force, which has been battling security forces in the provinces for months, had succeeded in taking the fight to Assad’s doorstep, as it had long vowed to do.

And it exposed the inability of the Syrian security apparatus, long regarded as among the most effective and feared in the Middle East, to protect its own key leaders, much less put down a popular uprising.

But few were predicting that Assad’s regime would fall quickly or easily.

The bombing killed Syria’s defense minister, Daoud Rajha, and his deputy, Gen. Asef Shawkat, who reportedly was married to Assad’s older sister and was a member of the president’s inner circle. It also killed Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister who served as an assistant vice president. Interior Minister Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ibrahim Shaar was injured.

Rumors swirled that Assad had left the capital or was preparing to declare a national state of emergency. The president did not appear on state television, fueling the rumor mill. Another rumor had his wife, Asma, leaving for Moscow. There was no confirmation of any of the reports.

State media reported that Assad had issued two decrees after Wednesday’s attack. He appointed Gen. Fahd Jassem Freij as the new defense minister.

The Free Syrian Army, the main umbrella rebel group, took responsibility for the strike and warned that more bombings were planned. It did not say how it managed to infiltrate the security establishment and plant the bomb. Official Syrian media initially said a suicide bomber was responsible, but later described the attack only as a bombing.

One of the rebel group’s strategists confidently told Egyptian television that Assad’s government was on course to collapse “within two months.” Also claiming credit for the blast was an Islamist group, Liwa al-Islam, or Brigade of Islam.

The confluence of heavy fighting in the capital and the bombing suggested for the first time in the conflict that Assad may be losing control and that the repressive infrastructure central to maintaining more than 40 years of family rule could be coming apart.

U.S. Defense SecretaryLeon E. Panettasaid in Washington that the bombing marked “a real escalation in the fighting” and that the situation in Syria was “rapidly spinning out of control.”

“Assad’s brother-in-law was one of the most powerful hard-line officials in the country. If the Free Syrian Army can get to him in Damascus, that is extraordinary,” said a senior Obama administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “If I’m some senior regime official and I’m thinking about my future, this would weigh heavily on me.”

However, even many opposition activists said they expected a hard fight ahead.

“I think we are coming near the end,” Yassin Haj Saleh, an opposition author and columnist, said in an email from Damascus. “But there are still more pains in the coming days and weeks.”

Despite Wednesday’s losses, most of Assad’s inner core of hard-line supporters remains in place. Chief among them is his brother, Maher, who commands an important brigade.

Many of the highest-ranking officers are members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Many Alawites are fiercely loyal to Assad and have come to view the conflict as a fight for survival — as do many Christians, who fear that Assad’s downfall could bring in an Islamist government intolerant of minorities. Rajha, the defense minister who died, was the highest-ranking Christian in the government.

The insurgency is dominated by members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.

In the field, regular forces maintain a substantial edge in firepower over the insurgents, who are mostly armed with rifles. The reported use of helicopter gunships and armored vehicles in the capital this week underscores the disparity in strength. Rebel groups have complained bitterly about not having the arms to take on helicopters and tanks.

But a steady stream of defections has weakened the Syrian military. Each day brings new reports of desertions, often from the ranks of Sunni Muslim conscripts and officers. Defectors report that morale is low and the quality of equipment is eroding as the military grapples with a rebellion that has practically spread to the four corners of the country.

It was not clear whether the bombing was part of the broader rebel offensive in Damascus or whether it was planned and launched separately.

Opposition activists and the government were reporting intense clashes on the ground in Damascus, where the government was said to be using artillery and helicopter gunships to put down uprisings in a growing number of neighborhoods. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

The state news service reported that the military “chased down terrorists” in the Midan neighborhood, an opposition hot spot near the Old City walls, “and killed and arrested a large number of them.”

At least one rebel leader has declared that the “liberation” of Damascus was in progress. But the scattered fighting did not necessarily suggest a coordinated series of attacks.

For months, insurgents have been assassinating security officers viewed as “collaborators” with the Assad government. The president calls the guerrillas “terrorists” and has vowed to defeat them.

The bombing occurred as the issue of Syria was again coming before the United Nations. Even though they have long discouraged talk of military intervention, the United States and its allies seeking Assad’s ouster are calling for economic sanctions against Syria tied to a chapter of the U.N. charter that allows for the use of force.

But Russia, which holds a veto on the U.N. Security Council, has objected to sanctions. The U.N. agreed to put off discussion of the matter until Thursday.

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke Wednesday by phone about Syria at Obama’s initiative. No details were provided. Publicly, Russia condemned the bombing and accused Western powers of inciting the uprising against Assad.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Ken Dilanian in Washington and Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

Bold rebel bombing strikes Syria’s inner circle; president’s brother-in-law among the dead

Bold rebel bombing strikes Syria’s inner circle; president’s brother-in-law among the dead

By Associated Press, Updated: Wednesday, July 18, 9:37 PM

BEIRUT — Rebels penetrated the heart of Syria’s power elite Wednesday, detonating a bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus that killed three leaders of the regime, including President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law and the defense minister.

The unprecedented blow to the ruling dynasty could mark a turning point in the civil war, suggesting that those once close to Assad are turning against him. The bombing follows some of the worst bloodshed in Damascus of the 16-month uprising, a growing list of high-ranking defections and mounting frustration by world leaders over their inability to find a diplomatic solution.

The White House said the bombing showed Assad was “losing control” of Syria.

Rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they had been planning it for two months and finally decided to plant the bomb in the room where the top government security officials in charge of crushing the revolt were holding a crisis meeting.

“God willing, this is the beginning of the end of the regime,” said Riad al-Asaad, a commander of the disparate rebel forces who operate across the country. Al-Asaad, who is not related to the president, spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from Turkey, where he is based.

“Hopefully Bashar will be next,” Al-Asaad said in a chilling warning to the 46-year-old Syrian president, a tall, lanky leader who once felt so confident in his security that he was known to hate being surrounded by bodyguards.

The whereabouts of Assad, his wife and his three young children were not immediately clear. He gave no immediate statements on the attack, which state-run TV initially blamed on a suicide bomber but later called simply a bomb.

As news of the assassinations broke, Syrians opposed to Assad celebrated in several locations across the country.

Internet video showed people in convoys of cars and motorbikes honking their horns and firing weapons in the air in the northeastern Idlib province, along with Aleppo in the north, Daraa in the south and Homs in central Syria. In the village of Hass, residents distributed sweets as they gleefully shouted: “You are going to hell, shabihas” — a reference to the pro-regime militia that has been blamed for mass killings.

The AP could not immediately verify the authenticity of the video.

Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels’ battle to oust Assad; Gen. Assef Shawkat, 62, the deputy defense minister who is married to Assad’s elder sister, Bushra, and is one of the most feared figures in the inner circle; and Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister who died of his wounds in the hospital.

Also wounded were Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Maj. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition.

Rajha was the most senior Christian government official in Syria, appointed to the post by Assad last year. His death will resonate with Syria’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population of 22 million and have mostly stood by the regime.

Christians say they are particularly vulnerable and they fear that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Muslim groups.

The attack came at a time of great momentum for the forces trying to oust Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades. Although the uprising began in March 2011, recent weeks have seen a spike in potentially transformative events, including high-level defections from the regime.

Four straight days of clashes between rebels and government troops this week in Damascus showed the rebels can now infiltrate the tightly controlled capital. On Tuesday, Israel’s military intelligence chief said Assad had diverted his troops away from the Israeli border area toward the center of Syria, reflecting the regime’s worsening position.

The state-run news agency, SANA, reported the bombing was aimed at the National Security building, a headquarters for one of Syria’s intelligence branches and less than 500 meters (yards) from the U.S. Embassy. The embassy has been closed since Washington withdrew its ambassador months ago.

Although there were no statements from Assad, Syrian TV said after the attack that a decree from him named Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij as the new defense minister. Al-Freij used to be the army chief of staff.

Wednesday’s attack was the most brazen by the rebels. The last major attacks on regime figures and government buildings date back to the early 1980s, when the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood waged a guerrilla war to topple the regime of Assad’s father and predecessor, President Hafez Assad.

Hafez Assad himself survived an assassination attempt in 1980 when members of the Muslim Brotherhood threw grenades at him, wounding him in the leg.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the bombing could usher in the end of the Assad regime.

“I think this type of event has massive impact,” he said. “A few weeks ago, we were counting the life span of this regime in months. Now after the last week and today, I think you’d have to say weeks. This is a very fast moving conflict.”

Salem said the key signs that the regime is losing its grip are that the fighting has reached Damascus and that a bomb has been planted inside a top-level meeting.

“This is not something that can go on for months,” Salem said. “It changes the timetable.”

But there were no signs the regime was willing to back down.

Shortly after Wednesday’s attack, the Syrian army said its forces will continue to fight.

“Whoever thinks that by targeting the country’s leaders they will be able to twist Syria’s arm is disillusioned because Syria’s people, army and leadership are now more determined than ever to fight terrorism … and cleanse the nation from the armed gangs,” the army said.

Eager to show the government is still in control of Damascus, the Interior Ministry took journalists on a tour of its quiet neighborhoods. But even there, traffic on the streets was thin and almost all shops were closed.

Damascus-based activist Omar al-Dimashki said large numbers of troops and plainclothes police were deployed in the streets after the explosion. Snipers took positions on high buildings in different neighborhoods, he added.

“It’s so empty, it reminds me of when Hafez Assad died in 2000,” said a resident of Damascus, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution. “Everyone is really scared of the coming days, especially tonight, with the possibility that the regime will take revenge.”

The attack came two days before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from eating, drinking and sex from dawn to dusk. Last year, anti-government protests sharply increased during Ramadan.

The government characterizes the revolt as the work of terrorists and foreign extremists, and denies the conflict even began as a popular uprising, inspired by the movements sweeping the Arab World starting with Tunisia and Egypt.

Although the uprising began with mostly peaceful protests, a fierce government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. Soon, an armed insurgency began to boil — and on Sunday the Red Cross formally declared the conflict to be a full-blown civil war. Activists say more than 17,000 people have died.

The violence has metastasized over the months. Besides a government crackdown, rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several big suicide attacks this year suggest that al-Qaida or other extremists are joining the fight.

A member of the Syrian National Council opposition group, Omar Shawaf, said Wednesday’s assassinations sent a clear message to the regime that no one is safe — including Assad himself.

“The hands of the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army can reach anyone inside Damascus,” he said from Turkey, where he is based.

Wednesday’s attack raised alarm across the region. Syria is intertwined in alliances with Iran, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups, and borders Israel — making the fallout from the crisis unpredictable.

“The incident today makes clear that Assad is losing control, that violence is increasing rather than decreasing and that all of our partners internationally need to come together to support a transition,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

The Obama administration also slapped new financial sanctions on Assad’s government.

In a sign of Hezbollah’s close ties to Syria, the group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said the bombing victims were “comrades” in the struggle against Israel. He said “the most important rockets” that Hezbollah fired on Israel in the 2006 war came from Syria.

“Israel has every right to be happy,” Nasrallah said, saying the opposition to Assad serves Israel’s interests. “Israel can be happy because pillars in the Syrian army today were targeted and killed.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak summoned his top security and intelligence advisers to discuss the situation. Israel fears that militant groups said to be operating in Syria, including al-Qaida, might try to take advantage of any power vacuum to stage attacks on Israel.

At the United Nations, the Security Council delayed a vote scheduled for later in the day on a new resolution on Syria in a last-minute effort to get Western nations and Russia — a close Damascus ally — to reach agreement on measures to end the violence. The vote was rescheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).

The key stumbling block to an agreement is the Western demand for a resolution threatening non-military sanctions. It is tied to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict. Russia, a close ally of Syria, is adamantly opposed to sanctions and any mention of Chapter 7.

Although Western nations appear to have little appetite for force, Russia fears a repeat of the NATO campaign in Libya and adamantly opposes any intervention.

Reacting to the bombing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of inciting Syria’s opposition.

“Instead of calming the opposition down, some of our partners are inciting it to go on,” he was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency. Supporting the opposition is a “dead-end policy,” Lavrov said, “because Assad is not leaving voluntarily.”

Even if Assad did leave, the opposition is widely perceived to be far too disorganized to take over.

But in a dust-filled refugee processing center in Jordan, crowds of refugees said they hoped the attack would spell the end of the regime. Women wearing the black Muslim veil and head-to-toe robes ululated as men danced under a scorching sun.

“It’s great news,” said a 43-year-old refugee from the restive southern town of Daraa, who identified himself only by his first name, Ahmad, for fear of retribution. “God willing, the criminal Bashar is next.”

___

AP writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.

Blast Kills Core Syrian Security Officials

Blast Kills Core Syrian Security Officials

By 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The killing on Wednesday of President Bashar al-Assad’s key security aides in a brazen bombing attack, close to Mr. Assad’s own residence, called into question the ability of a government that depends on an insular group of loyalists to function effectively as it battles a strengthening opposition.

The strike dealt a potent blow to the government, as much for where it took place as for the individuals who were targeted: the very cabinet ministers and intelligence chiefs who have coordinated the government’s iron-fisted approach to the uprising. The defense minister and the president’s brother-in-law were both killed, and others were seriously wounded.

The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun. Though there was no indication he was wounded, Mr. Assad stayed out of public view — unusual but not unprecedented in a secretive country where the government has long tried to present an image of quiet control.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that Syria “is rapidly spinning out of control,” and warned Mr. Assad’s government to safeguard its large stockpile of chemical weapons. “It’s obvious what is happening in Syria is a real escalation,” he said at a joint news conference with the British defense minister, Philip Hammond.

The impact of the day’s events reverberated on multiple levels, piercing the psychological advantage that Mr. Assad’s superior military strength has provided in preserving the loyalty of his forces and frightening much of the public into staying home. With the opposition energized and the government demoralized, analysts wondered if other military units and trusted lieutenants would be more inclined to switch sides — and if the government would retaliate with an escalation of violence.

The idea that a poorly organized, lightly armed opposition force could somehow get so close to the seat of power raised questions about the viability of a once unassailable police state. The Assad family has for decades relied on overlapping security forces and secret police to preserve its lock on power. At best, for Mr. Assad, the system failed. At worst, for Mr. Assad, defectors or turncoats helped carry out an inside operation.

The government said that the attack was the work of a suicide bomber, while an officer with the Free Syrian Army said it was a remotely detonated explosive.

The most significant victim was Asef Shawkat — the husband of the president’s older sister, Bushra — who was the deputy chief of staff of the military after years as a top intelligence official. The others killed were Gen. Dawoud A. Rajha, the defense minister and the most prominent Christian in the government; and Maj. Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a previous defense minister serving as the top military aide to Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa.

“Who will replace these people?” asked Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese military officer and a military analyst knowledgeable about Syria. “They are irreplaceable at this stage; it’s hard to find loyal people now that doubt is sown everywhere. Whoever can get to Asef Shawkat can get to Assad.”

“Everyone, even those close to the inner circle, will now be under suspicion,” he said.

State television also said the minister of the interior, Lt. Gen. Mohamed al-Sha’ar, had been gravely wounded but was in stable condition. Hisham Ikhtiar, the head of general security, was reported by some activist organizations among those in critical condition, along with some junior officers, but the official news media did not confirm that.

The bombing took place in a small, nondescript building in a neighborhood that is home to the country’s elite. The building housed a research center run by the national security agency, one of many overlapping intelligence agencies.

“It was at the heart of the government’s nexus of control,” said an analyst with long experience in Damascus, speaking anonymously because he still travels there often. “If the regime had a center, that was it.”

But the government mounted a show of normality. It quickly appointed a new defense minister, Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, the military chief of staff who had previously been responsible for trying to squash the uprising in northern Idlib Province. He appeared briefly on television, vowing that the military would not be deterred by the attack from “cutting off every hand that harms the security of the homeland and citizens.”

The military also issued a statement saying in part, “This terrorist act will only increase our insistence to purge this country from the criminal terrorist thugs and to protect the dignity of Syria and its sovereignty.”

Activists reported an even harsher crackdown, with government soldiers firing indiscriminately in several embattled neighborhoods or from helicopters, especially on the southern part of Damascus where fighting first erupted Sunday. Dozens of people were killed, and defections soared, activists said.

“The regime reacted hysterically to the attack,” said Rami al-Sayyed, an activist in Damascus. “The security forces and thugs infiltrated various neighborhoods, committing all kinds of crimes. Today we cut the head of the snake, but we still have the tail.”

Like any event in Damascus, details surrounding the attack were murky. There were competing accounts of how the attack occurred and competing claims of responsibility. The Free Syrian Army based in Turkey said it had helped carry out the attack. Also, a brigade from a group with a seemingly religious bent called the Islamic Battalions said it was responsible.

Lt. Malik al-Kurdi, the second in command of the Free Syrian Army troops in Turkey, said it was not a suicide bombing but “bombs planted around the national security building” that were set off by remote control.

Since the uprising began in March 2011, claiming an estimated 17,000 victims, Syria has been run by an ever tighter circle of army and security officials close to the president. General Rajha was one of the prominent minority figures used by the Assad government to put a face of pluralism on the military and security services dominated by the president’s Alawite sect.

“The Syrian regime has started to collapse,” said the activist who leads the Syrian Observatory, who goes by the pseudonym Rami Abdul-Rahman for reasons of personal safety. The attack heightened the perception globally that after months of clashes, Syria was embroiled in a civil war.

On the other end of the scale, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, delivered an emotional speech live on television, saying that the Syria of Mr. Assad and Mr. Shawkat was the backbone of the Arab confrontation with Israel.

The attack came as diplomatic maneuvers to seek a cease-fire remained deadlocked by differences between Syria’s international adversaries and sponsors, principally Russia. The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote on a Western-sponsored resolution that would threaten Mr. Assad’s government with economic sanctions if it does not implement a peace plan negotiated by the special envoy Kofi Annan more than three months ago.

The resolution, which Russia has threatened to veto, would extend the mission of 300 unarmed United Nations monitors, whose work has been suspended because of the violence.

Security Council members agreed to delay the vote, originally scheduled for Wednesday, until Thursday at Mr. Annan’s request, to allow more time for diplomats to resolve their differences over the resolution’s wording.

But in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, offering Russia’s first official commentary on the Damascus bombing, said via his Twitter account that the attack had put consensus between members of the Security Council even further out of reach.

“A dangerous logic: While discussions on settling the Syrian crisis are being held in the U.N. Security Council, militants intensify terrorist attacks, frustrating all attempts,” he wrote.

In Syria, the information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, appeared on a talk show to reject claims by those calling it the beginning of the end.

“The morale of our people is very high and our armed forces are at their highest level,” he said.

But residents of Damascus had been shaken as never before. Residents reached by telephone said that after the news broke around noon, people rushed out to buy food and then rushed back home again. City streets appeared deserted, with not even taxis circulating after dark.

“All the stores and shops are closed,” said an activist in Damascus reached via Skype. “Some people are scared and some are happy; you can hear people firing off gunshots in many places.” A video from Hama showed opposition members distributing candy to celebrate Mr. Shawkat’s death.

Hollande says Syrian defector Tlas is in France

A Syrian general and one-time friend of President Bashar al-Assad who fled Damascus this month is in France, President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday.

General Manaf Tlas, a member of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, had been reported to be in Paris with his family, but has yet to speak publicly since defecting. French officials had so far refused to confirm his presence in the country.

“We have been informed about this situation. He is here,” Hollande said at a news conference with his Tunisian counterpart, Moncef Marzouki.

The general’s father, Mustapha, defence minister under Assad’s father for 30 years, lives in the French capital, as does his sister, the widow of a wealthy Saudi arms dealer.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on July 12 that Paris was aware that Tlas was in talks with the Syrian opposition about a possible role in efforts to oust Assad.

In an unauthenticated statement emailed to Reuters earlier on Tuesday and signed by General Tlas in Paris, the defector is quoted as saying he wants a “constructive transition that guarantees Syria’s unity, stability and security as well as the legitimate aspirations of its people”.

Neither his brother Firas nor Syrian opposition members in Paris were able to confirm the statement’s veracity. A statement claiming to be from Tlas in the immediate aftermath of his defection on July 6 proved to be fake.

“I can only express my anger and pain to see the army forced to fight a battle against its own principles. It is a battle being led by security forces in which the people and ordinary soldiers are the victims,” Tuesday’s statement said.

Tlas is quoted as saying that he had refused to take part in the security crackdown and as a result had been isolated and accused of being a traitor.

“My conscience and convictions drove me to oppose and distance myself from this destructive crackdown,” he said.

Syrian rebels battled government forces backed by air power and artillery on Tuesday in the fiercest fighting to hit Damascus since the revolt against Assad erupted more than 16 months ago.

The United Nations Security Council is due 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, but Russia has said it will block the move.

Hollande said that if Russia wanted to restore order in Syria and avoid chaos and civil war, it needed to support a political transition without Assad.

“We will continue to apply pressure because it is not acceptable that every day there are massacres that are plunging not only Syria but the entire region into instability,” he said.

In Syria, fighting spreads in Damascus for third day

In Syria, fighting spreads in Damascus for third day

It is unclear whether the clashes involving helicopter gunships signal an all-out insurrection in Syria’s capital or unsynchronized eruptions in restive areas.

Fighting spread in a third day of clashes across Damascus, with a rebel commander declaring that insurgents were pushing for the “liberation” of Syria’s capital and President Bashar Assad reportedly pulling troops from the border with Israel to defend the city.

Skirmishes were reported Tuesday in several additional Damascus neighborhoods. Residents told of the sound of automatic weapons fire, artillery and helicopter gunships just days before the start of Ramadan, the monthlong fasting period for Muslims. There were unconfirmed reports that rebels had shot down a military helicopter in the northern suburb of Barza.

“The situation is really difficult today … shelling, sounds of gunfire,” said one opposition sympathizer reached in Damascus by telephone. “People are trying to run away. But the snipers shoot madly. Even inside Damascus you see helicopters and you hear them.”

As the battles raged, the highest-ranking diplomat to defect from the government said that Assad would not hesitate to use the nation’s stash of chemical weapons on Syrian rebels to avoid defeat.

“Bashar al Assad’s regime is like a cornered and wounded wolf,” Nawaf Fares, the ambassador to Iraq who defected last week, told the BBC. “It will do anything to survive.”

For months, rebel forces had spoken of their desire to bring the battle to Assad’s nerve center. There have been some reports of insurgent fighters filtering into Damascus, which has seen an influx of people displaced by violence elsewhere. In recent weeks, clashes near the capital had been on somewhat of an uptick, though mostly in restive suburbs such as Duma.

But it was difficult to determine whether the clashes signaled an all-out insurrection in the capital or unsynchronized eruptions in restive neighborhoods.

Continued heavy conflict in the capital could raise doubt about Assad’s ability to hold on to power among Syria’s merchant class and minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect. With Damascus relatively quiet, these key groups have generally continued to back Assad as the 16-month conflict has gone from street protests to scattered fighting to an all-out insurgency across a broad swath of the nation.

Opposition activists were calling this week’s fighting the fiercest to date in Damascus, and a potential turning point in the conflict.

A senior figure in the Free Syrian Army, the main insurgent umbrella group, declared that the “battle for the liberation of Damascus has begun,” according to a Lebanese television website.

“We have a clear plan to control the whole of Damascus,” said Col. Qassim Saad Eddine of the Free Syrian Army, the website said. “We have only light weapons, but it’s enough.”

However, the fighting seemed limited to several neighborhoods, including longtime bastions of the opposition.

The government maintained control of key state installations and thoroughfares. Military reinforcements were said to have been brought into the capital and rushed to battleground districts. Video from the capital showed armored vehicles rumbling down main roads.

One source of military reinforcement forces may have been the southern section of Syria bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which has largely remained quiet for decades.

The head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, told lawmakers Tuesday that Assad, with more pressing concerns than those posed by Israel, had pulled troops from the Golan area and reassigned them to the capital.

“Assad removed forces from the Golan Heights region to Damascus because he is not concerned conflict will emerge with Israel,” the intelligence chief said.

Syria’s armed forces are already dealing with the deleterious effects of large-scale defections — more than 10,000 troops, by some accounts — and a withering conflict that has cost the lives of more than 2,600 members of the military and security forces.

On Tuesday, machine-gun fire was reported near the heart of Damascus in Saba Bahrat Square and nearby Baghdad Street. Video from the capital showed black smoke billowing from several neighborhoods, the apparent result of explosions and fires.

The opposition said government forces were using attack helicopters and shelling opponents.

Video posted on the Internet appeared to show tanks rumbling in the district of Midan, not far from the old walled city, and a wellspring of violence this week.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said authorities “continue to chase down an armed terrorist group in the outskirts” of Midan, “inflicting heavy losses in the terrorists’ ranks.” The government typically refers to the rebels as terrorists.

Violence was also reported in the northeastern district of Qaboun, where government forces attacked overnight with helicopters, said one opposition activist reached by telephone.

The official news agency said rebels fired mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades at an electricity converter station in Qaboun.

The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, reported at least 30 people killed Tuesday in greater Damascus, many as a result of government fire.

The casualty count and other details could not be independently verified because journalists’ access to Syria is limited.