Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter holds a position in the southern Syrian town of Maaret al-Numan in front of the army base of Wadi Deif. (AFP/DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS)
The Obama Administration has put out the message, via The New York Times, that it has decided to overtly supply small arms and ammunition to insurgents.
The US has been involved in covert efforts for months to provide weapons to “moderate” elements of the insurgency, but Administration officials have been engaged in an internal battle over whether to act publicly. Earlier this week, two senior officials leaked the news that the Administration was considering plans for open provision of weapons and a no-fly zone.
The sources for the Times said the assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency, could include antitank weapons, but they added that anti-aircraft weapons are not under consideration.
The Obama Administration is likely to justify the open support with the rationale of regime use of chemical weapons.
In a shift of position, the White House said on Thursday that the Assad regime had used the weapons “on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year”.
Last week, the British and French Governments — pushing for escalated support of the insurgency — put out the message that they had definite proof of regime use of chemical weapons, but a White House spokesman said the US had not established the claims were true.
On Thursday, Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes said the new assessment had changed President Obama’s calculus.
However, State Department officials indicated that the real catalyst for the US decision was the recent success of the Syrian military, such as the capture of Qusayr near the Lebanese border, with Iranian] flights carrying weapons “and Hezbollah’s decision to enter the fight on the side of the Assad government”.
Another official indicated that the shift in Washington’s position will bring co-ordination between the US, Britain, and France for “further measures”, as Obama leaves on Sunday for a meeting of the”G8″ countries in Northern Ireland.
The Times claims that the debate is on-going, with some “senior State Department officials” advocating airstrikes to hit primary landing strips in Syria. They contend that the regime is using the strips to launch chemical weapons attacks, move troops around the country, and receive shipments of arms from Iran.
However, according to the Times, “White House officials remain wary.”
The secretary general of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said Friday that the Lebanese group entered the Syrian conflict to protect Lebanon’s interests.
Nasrallah said that there was a foreign intelligence plan inciting sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias in the region, noting that rockets that had hit Lebanese towns had come from Syria.
Hezbollah, he said, had entered the Syrian conflict as part of the “resistance”, in order to “face this US-Israeli-Takfiri project”.
“Had our interference in the Syrian battles been alongside the opposition, would it have been deemed blessed?” he asked.
LBCI has a full video report (in Arabic):
Following the announcement early Friday that the US would provide support to Syrian insurgents, the Syrian Coalition’s Special Representative to the US said Friday evening that “direct US support of all kinds” was needed to achieve results.
The Coalition said it welcomed increased US support — including military support, but said such aid needed to be “strategic and decisive” not just to end the fighting but achieve a political transition.
“President Obama’s leadership, as well as direct US support of all kinds, is necessary in order to create the conditions on the ground required to enable the implementation of a negotiated settlement,” said Dr. Najib Ghadbian in a statement.
This news report provides more footage of the insurgent-captured al-Iskan checkpoint near Idlib. The report notes that the insurgents managed to capture the checkpoint, inflicting heavy casualties on regime soldiers as well as seizing armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition.
The footage shows insurgents talking about the equipment they captured from Assad’s forces.
A video of members of the opposition in Kafranbel in Idlib Province shows them holding a banner that reads “Russia and Iran! We dare you to use all your power against us, the truth is we will kick your asses out.”
In the wake of increased Sunni-Shia sectarian violence — including a reported mass killing of Shia Muslims in the village of Hatla this week — and of involvement by Lebanese Iranian-backed Shia group Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict, here is footage from protests in various Aleppo neighborhoods on Friday against the “Safavid project”.
The term is a reference to Iran and its 16th century Safavid dynasty, which established the Twelver school of Shia Islam. The Safavids spread Shia Islam across Iran as well as across Central and South Asia and parts of the Caucasus.
This video shows a demonstration in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood (map below):
This footage is from al-Bab, Aleppo and protesters say that the “Safavid Project” is a threat to the nation:
This footage is from Al Fardos, Aleppo:
Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, has said that the Lebanese militant group will keep fighting in Syria ‘wherever needed.’
Amid continuing rumours — but no evidence — of a “regime offensive” in Aleppo, a rally in the insurgent-held section of Saleheddin:
And insurgents moving through the Midan district:
Cedric Larousse posted a map of activity around Idlib, following the insurgent victory on the al-Iskan military checkpoint on the road between Sarmin and Idlib.
Larousse writes on his Facebook page:
The fall of this military point open now the eastern Idlib entrance to rebels for a major attack If they want. Al-Iskan military point was used to shell civilians in Binnish and Sarmin. Rebels from Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al Nusra take two tanks, three cars with machine gun, and lots of ammunation. Many loyalists killed. Others have fled to Idlib. This is the second important military victory for the rebels in one month after the fall of the Nayrab shabiha camp, May 22.
This footage of the Sakhour neighborhood in Aleppo, posted Friday by the Aleppo Media Center, contrasts with comments from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who told AP this morning that the area had seen “the heaviest fighting in months”.
The video shows people in the rebel-held neighborhood going about their daily lives. An insurgent patrol denies rumors that regime forces had stormed the area.
The Ahrar al-Shamal Brigade, has taken over the al-Iskan military checkpoint near Idlib. Several other factions also participated in the takeover of the checkpoint: Jabhat al-Nusra, Liwa al- Tawhid, Liwa al-Haq, and the Harakat Ahrar as-Sham.
Control of the checkpoint will make it easier for insurgents to attack Idlib city.
The insurgent group’s Facebook page shows this video of fighters on a T-72 tank:
This video, posted today, shows the checkpoint after its “liberation” by the insurgents, and name-checks the participating insurgent factions, saying they defeated Bashar al-Assad’s shabiha. Several black Islamist flags appear to have been flown on the checkpoint, although it is not clear to what faction they belong.
This video, also posted today, shows the checkpoint and includes footage of two insurgents, who list the names of some of their fellow fighters killed in the battle:
This news report from Thursday shows more footage of the capture of the checkpoint and includes an interview with Mohammad Samia from the Liwa al-Tawhid:
In response to the latest accusations by the United States that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels, state news agency SANA has quoted a foreign ministry official as saying “The White House published a statement full of lies about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, based on fabricated information, through which it is trying to hold the Syrian government responsible for such use.”
The official also claimed that the US allegations came “after reports affirming that armed terrorist groups active in Syria are in possession of deadly chemical weapons and the technology necessary to make them.”
He added, “The American decision to arm armed terrorist groups demonstrates… the direct involvement of the United States in the Syrian bloodbath,” which “raises serious questions about their good faith when it comes to finding a political solution in Syria.”
Syrian State media report on Friday that the Syrian army had “restored stability” to the Rusafa neighborhood of Deir Ez-Zur after “destroying terrorist nests”.
Over the past few days, activists have posted video footage of clashes in the area, including this video of a young man, named as Ahmad al-Dhiyan, killed in the fighting (WARNING — GRAPHIC.)
This video shows destroyed buildings, which activists say is the result of artillery barrages on the Rusafa neighborhood:
This video show shells falling on the neighborhood on Thursday:
State media also reported clashes in the Airport neighborhood of Deir Ez-Zor, claiming that the Syrian army was continuing to hunt for insurgents and had “eliminated a number of them and destroyed their vehicles and criminal equipment”.
Insurgents have reported fierce clashes in the Airport neighborhood over the past days.
This short video shows damage to buildings after strikes on the neighborhood:
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ashakov, has said that Washington’s information of Syrian regime use of chemical weapons “didn’t look convincing“.
Ushakov warned that US provision of arms to insurgents could derail efforts to convene an international peace conference.
In contrast, Britain — which pushed confirmation of the chemical weapons claim to Washington last week — has expressed support for Washington’s latest announcement. Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “The United Kingdom has presented evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria to the UN investigation, and we have been working with our allies to get more and better information about the situation on the ground.”
US officials — going beyond the Obama Administration’s confirmation of overt arm supplies to insurgents — have told The Wall Street Journal that a military proposal also includes a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory.
The officials said a no-fly zone stretching up to 25 miles into Syria could be enforced using aircraft flying inside Jordan.
The U.S. has already moved Patriot air defense batteries and F-16 fighter planes to the Kingdom.
The plan would not include the destruction of Syrian antiaircraft batteries. Instead, US planes have air-to-air missiles that could destroy Syrian planes from long ranges. Moreover, the officials said, the American aircraft could enter Syrian air space if threatened by advancing Syrian planes, because this would be justified as self-defense.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry on Friday asked the UN to condemn a June 12 mass killing in the village of Hatla near Deir Ez-Zor, state media reports.
The Foreign Ministry has used the events in Hatla to reinforce its arguments that foreign states’ sponsorship of the insurgency is resulting in mass killings against civilians.
In letters to both the UN Secretary General and the President of the UN Security Council, the Foreign Ministry writes:
“Syria stresses that when a number of states refused to condemn such crimes, they would encourage the terrorist groups to go ahead in their crimes which target the innocent citizens through committing massacres, random shelling on civilian regions in addition to the suicide bombings which even didn’t spare the residential buildings, public establishments, mosques, churches as well as assassinating the Islamic and Christian clerks.”
In its complaint to the UN, Syria said that the mass killings had been perpetrated by Islamist insurgent group Jabhat al-Nusra, but had been “instigated by one of the sheikhs of salafis in Kuwait called Shafi al-Ajami who is involved in funding and sending thousands of jihadists into Syria”.
The Foreign Ministry went on to blame Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for supporting the insurgency, as well as the recent EU decision to lift an embargo on arming insurgents.
Syria said the attacks were against civilians, and targeted “scores of citizens, most of them women and children because they refused to support their criminal activities”.
However, it is not clear exactly what happened in Hatla, including who and how many people were killed and by whom and whether the victims were civilians or pro-government fighters.
Video footage taken before and after the killings show groups of Islamists — some waving Islamic State of Iraq banners and some Jabhat al-Nusra banners — who shout slurs against Shias and say that they cleansed Hatla of Shia Muslim fighters in a revenge attack. In some footage, Islamists accused Kuwait of funding the Shia fighters in Hatla, while other reports said that those carrying out the killings were Kuwaiti fighters.
UK-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 60 people were killed, but did not offer evidence to reinforce this claim.
After Thursday’s signal from the Obama Administration that it will overtly supply arms to the insurgency, Syrian opposition leaders have called the delivery of anti-aircraft and other sophisticated weapons.
“(They) need to provide effective military assistance to take the necessary steps to prevent the criminal regime from using chemical weapons,” Brigadier-General Selim Idriss, the head of the Joint Military Command, said.
George Sabra, the acting leader of the Syrian National Coalition, echoed the call: “We want anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. We expect to see positive results and genuine military support.”
The key paragraphs of the White House statement, issued last night, claiming that it has confirmed use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime:
Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year. Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.
The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete. While the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades. We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons.
We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.
The Local Coordination Committees claim 91 people were killed on Thursday, including 23 in Damascus and its suburbs, 17 in Aleppo Province, and 15 in Homs Province.
The Violations Documentations Center records 63,559 deaths since the start of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 88 from Thursday. Of the dead, 48,974 are civilians, a rise of 55 from yesterday.
Raw video from Associated Press of insurgents capturing a regime base, on the northern edge of the town of Morek, alongside Syria’s strategic north-south highway: