Report: Regimes Disperses Military Assets, Sets Up Back-Up TV Channel
*Regime Retakes Ariha, Key Town In Idlib, But Can’t Control Entire Road To Aleppo
*Leading Chechen Fighter Announces Formation Of New Brigade
*Regime Continues Offensive In Damascus Suburbs With Airstrikes, Shelling
*Assad’s Former Defense Minister, Ali Habib, Has Defected
*Many In Media Miss Putin Shift Away from Assad
*Erdoğan: Putin’s Remarks On Syria Intervention Strike Me As Odd
The BBC’s Lina Sinjab reports:
Sources in #Damascus say government is relocating military assets & staff, setting up a stand-by satellite channel 2 continue broadcasting
— Lina Sinjab (@BBCLinaSinjab) September 4, 2013
State television has rejected reports that former Defense Minister Ali Habib has defected and says he is “still in his home”.
The Syrian opposition claims Habib is now in Turkey.
The Washington Post has a full transcript of President Obama’s press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in Stockholm. Here are the highlights of Obama’s comments regarding Syria:
We [Obama and Reinfeldt] of course discussed the appalling violence being inflicted on the Syrian people by the Assad regime, including the horrific chemical weapons attacks two weeks ago. I discussed our assessment, which clearly implicates the Syrian government in this outrage.
The prime minister and I are in agreement that in the face of such barbarism, the international community cannot be silent and that failing to respond to this attack would only increase the risk of more attacks and that — possibility that other countries would use these weapons as well.
I respect…the U.N. process. Obviously, the U.N. investigation team has done heroic work under very difficult circumstances. But we believe very strongly, with high confidence, that in fact, chemical weapons were used and that Mr. Assad was the source. And we want to join with the international community in an effective response that deters such use in the future.
Reuters asks: Have you made up your mind whether to take action against Syria, whether or not you have a congressional resolution approved? Is a strike needed in order to preserve your credibility for when you set these sort of red lines?
Obama answers: First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line…when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent
Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty
And so when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it. That’s point number one.
Point number two, my credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line, and America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. And when those videos first broke and you saw images of over 400 children subjected to gas, everybody expressed outrage. How can this happen in this modern world? Well, it happened because a government chose to deploy these deadly weapons on civilian populations.
And so the question is how credible is the international community when it says this is an international norm that has to be observed? The question is how credible is Congress when it passes a treaty saying we have to forbid the use of chemical weapons? And I do think that we have to act because if we don’t, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity.
And those international norms begin to erode and other despots and authoritarian regimes can start looking and saying that’s something we can get away with, and that then calls into question other international norms and laws of war and whether those are going to be enforced.
I’m very respectful of the U.N. investigators who went in at great danger to try to gather evidence about what happened. We want more information, not less. But when I said that I have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that the Assad government, through their chain of command, ordered their use, that was based on both public sourcing, intercepts, evidence that we feel very confident about, including samples that have been tested showing sarin from individuals who were there.
And I’m very mindful of the fact that around the world and here in Europe in particular, there are still memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations and people being concerned about how accurate this information is.
And by the way, Iran doesn’t deny it. Even Syria doesn’t actually deny that they were used. And that is what the U.N. investigators are supposed to be determining. And frankly, nobody’s really disputing that chemical weapons were used. The only remaining dispute is who used them — which is outside the parameters of the U.N. investigation. So the U.N. investigation will not be able to answer that preliminarily. They’re not supposed to.
But what we know is, is that the opposition doesn’t have the capability to deliver weapons on this scale. These weapons are in Assad’s possession. We have intercepts indicating people in the chain of command, both before and after the attacks, with knowledge of these attacks. We can show that the rockets that delivered these chemical weapons went from areas controlled by Assad into these areas where the opposition was lodged and that accumulation of evidence gives us high confidence that Assad carried this out.
Reuters are reporting that Assad’s former Defense Minister, General Ali Habib has defected and is now in Turkey, citing a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, who in turn cites a “Western diplomatic official”.
Reuters’ source, Kamal al-Labwani, said the Western diplomat told him that Ali Habib had been smuggled out of Syria with the help of a Western country and had “managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition.”
Reuters also cite a Gulf source as saying that Habib defected on Tuesday evening, arriving at the Turkish frontier before midnight with two or three other people, all military officers.
Turkey on Wednesday dispatched military reinforcements from Gaziantep to Kilis province on the Syrian border.
The move follows an explosion on Tuesday in a convoy of live ammunition smuggled into Turkey, which killed six people.
Russian-speaking activists report that there have been clashes on Wednesday between fighters from the predominantly Russian-speaking Jaish Al Muhajireen Wa Ansar (Army of Immigrants and Helpers) and regime forces in Kafr Hamra, Aleppo Province:
— UmmaNews (@UmmaNews_com) September 4, 2013
Russian President Vladimir Putin — who told Russia’s Channel 1 and AP on Tuesday that he would not rule out supporting military action if the U.S. proved Assad used chemical weapons — accused the U.S. Congress on Wednesday of lying when it said that strikes on Syria would not strengthen Al Qaeda. The Americans were also lying when they said that Al Qaeda is not present in Syria, Putin said.
“They’re lying, and actually they know they’re lying,” RIA Novosti quoted Putin as saying.
Putin described the discussion in Congress: “They’re lying, of course, it’s not pretty. I watched the debate in Congress. A Congressman asked Mr. Kerry, ‘Is Al Qaeda there? Aren’t people saying that it will grow?’—‘No, we speak responsibly when we say they are not there.'”
The Russian President added: “The most basic military unit, the so-called Al Nusra, is a division of Al Qaeda. They know about it. And this is what I find it just rather unpleasant and amazing: ‘we’re communicating with them, we believe that they are decent people’. Well, they’re lying.”
Russian State news outlet RIA Novosti is reporting that the Russian Embassy in Damascus on Wednesdsay has come under extensive mortar attacks.
An employee of the Embassy is quoted as saying: “This morning between 08.00-10.30 local time, the area surrounding the Embassy was heavily shelled with mortars. Altogether, about 20 bombs were dropped. Embassy employees were not injured, four local residents were wounded and one was killed in the shelling.”
The Russian Embassy in Damascus is located on Omar Ben Al-Khattab Street in Adawi, north of the Old City in the Al Mazra’a neighborhood. The building is West of Jobar, which is possibly where the shells were fired from.
Syrian State news agency SANA also reports the incident — but with a twist. SANA claims that the attacks targeted the Al Faihaa Sport Hall in Damascus, which is directly north of the Russian Embassy, and that the attacks killed Mohammad Ali Nu’meh of the Syrian national Taekwondo team.
Al-Ayyam offers more detail on the fall of Ariha on Tuesday, which EA began the day by reporting:
Mere days after its liberation, the central Idlib city of Ariha was retaken by the Syrian Army on Tuesday, according to opposition sources.Hundreds of rebels fortified in Ariha, who were outnumbered by Assad’s regular troops that focused their assault on the strategic city, were reportedly forced to retreat, calling it a “tactical withdrawal” due to the shortage of ammunition and the lack of support by other rebel factions operating in Idlib’s numerous towns and villages. Regular troops managed to advance to the heart of Ariha in Kou’ea Al-Hatab, and are currently gaining ground in Al-Araba’een Mount that overlooks the city. Shelling it with heavy artillery at a rate of 4 shells per minute.
Most of the city is now in ruins following days of shelling that has flattened entire neighborhoods, turning shops and buildings into piles of rubble.
Turkish news sources are quoting Turkish prime minister Erdoğan has described Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks on a possible Syria intervention as “odd”.
The Turkish Prime Minister said:
“Putin saying that [Russia is] against a military intervention in Syria but approve of it if chemical weapons were used is very interesting…You will kill people with planes and this won’t be a crime. But when you kill with chemicals, then this is a crime. First we should decide if killing is a crime or not. [Killing] with chemicals is more barbaric, maybe. When you talk about the level of savagery, killing by airstrikes could be more barbaric. You won’t call the killing of 100,000 people a crime, but when 1,300 or 130 people are killed, you say you will stand by the UN if the use of chemical weapons is proven. This strikes me as odd.”
Footage from inside Muadamiyyat Ash-Sham on Wednesday shows the effects of shelling by Assad’s mechanized forces from the Fourth Division.
Muadamiyyat Ash-Sham is the West Ghouta town hit by one of the August 21 chemical weapons attacks.
Muadamiyyat Ash Sham, like Jobar in East Ghouta, has been a headache for the Assad regime, which despite heavy shelling and a blockade has been unable to break insurgent control there, although regime forces have overrun the town several times.
Over the past 40 years, the Assad regime has confiscated much of the town’s surroundings to expand the Mezze military airport and Republican Guards and Fourth Division compounds. It is from those compounds, which surround the town, that Assad’s forces are continuing to shell Muadamiyya.
Most of the town’s residents have already fled but around 9,000 remain in the district, opposition activist Wassim al-Ahmad told Reuters recently.
The regime offensive on the Damascus suburbs continues on Wednesday, with heavy airstrikes on Jobar:
Jobar — along with other towns in the Ghouta region of the Damascus suburbs — has been a major problem for Assad for some time. Jobar is just three kilometers from the central Abbasiyyin Square, an area with regime targets which insurgents based in the area managed to hit several times in the days leading up to the August 21 chemical assaults. Moreover, insurgents in Jobar had managed to open a supply corridor to the insurgent-controlled and heavily besieged Damascus neighborhoods of Barzeh and Al-Qaboun.
In a separate analysis, EA’s Joanna Paraszczuk evaluates the key point of an interview with Vladimir Putin: the Russian President is backing away from unconditional support of President Assad, saying Moscow might support military intervention if the regime’s use of chemical weapons is proved.
However, many media outlets have missed the message. For example, The Guardian headlines, “Putin Warns West Against Military Action“.
The mis-leading emphasis has been fed by the Associated Press, which conducted the interview. In this video extract, Putin’s statement that he will not rule out intervention is covered up by the headline, “Putin Warns West on Syria Action”.
Some unintended comedic moments ensue in this video, posted on Tuesday as the former second-in-command of the predominantly Russian-speaking Army of Immigrants and Helpers (Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar), Seyfullakh, announces a new brigade, named the Mujahideen of the Caucasus and Syria (Mujahideen Kavkaz wa Ash-Sham).
Seyfullakh has previously been seen with the leader of the Army of Immigrants and Helpers, Abu Omar Al Shishani — who is conspicuously absent from this video.
The group seems to be a partnership between Russian-speaking fighters from the Caucasus and Arabic speakers.
Seyfullakh explains, in heavily accented Russian that:
Today we are in the land of Sham [Syria] and we came here to wage Jihad. Our Brigade was the Mohajarin wa Ansar, we came from Mohajarin wa Ansar, and our brigade, in short, became the Mujahideen Kavkaz wa Sham, and our brigade has divisions from every place that people came to fight, we came here to make jihad and we will wage jihad.
Seyfullakh then attempts to translate — badly — the words of an Arabic-speaking fighter next to him.
Trying to establish the autonomy of the new faction, the Arabic speaker says that the new brigade is not the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham (ISIS), which Seyfullakh translates as “We are not Jabhat al-Nusra”.
The Arabic speaker says that ISIS are apostates and creates unjustified divisions among insurgents, and that they do not properly understand Islam.
Seyfullakh translates this as the new brigade will perform Da’wah — the preaching of Islam — every day and will become stronger.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi has insisted that “in spite of the media, psychological and economic war against [Syria], the strategic stockpile of different materials is good and the price of the Syrian pound against foreign currencies is gradually returning to stability”.
Speaking to the Cabinet on Tuesday, al-Halqi called on all ministries “to confront any urgent challenge”, providing the basic needs of electricity, water, communications, health, oil, and food.
The Local Coordination Committees claim 66 people were killed on Tuesday, including 28 in Damascus and its suburbs.
The Violations Documentation Center put the number of dead at 72,090 since the conflict began in March 2011, an increase of 148 from Tuesday. Of the dead, 54,391 are civilians, a rise of 23 from yesterday.
Leaders of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee have agreed on a draft authorization for the use of military force, with a vote by the committee expected on Wednesday.
The draft sets a 60-day limit on military action in Syria, with a possibility for a single 30-day extension. It
bans any use of US armed forces on the ground.
If the document is approved by the committee, it will then be sent to the full Senate for a vote after members return on September 9 from their summer recess.
Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, were questioned by the committee.
The major talking point was Kerry’s initial declaration that it was important to leave options open for using troops in a scenario where “Syria imploded” and stockpiles of chemical weapons needed to be secured.
When some Senators objected, Kerry back-tracked, saying the administration had “zero intention” of putting troops on the ground and would work with Congress to ensure that the authorization did not permit ground forces.
While most of the world’s media looked to Washington on Tuesday, where the first Congressional hearings were being held on President Obama’s proposal for a military response to last month’s chemical weapons attacks by the regime, President Assad’s military was winning a notable victory in northwest Syria.
After days of intense bombardment, President Assad’s troops re-took the town of Ariha, captured by insurgents in August. The battle continues in neighboring areas in Idlib Province with sustained regime airstrikes on nearby villages.
The report from Iran’s Press TV:
As we noted on Tuesday, Ariha is important because it is one of the key points near the highway to Aleppo, where regime-held sections have been under an insurgent siege for months. It has also been a launching pad for attacks on two vital strongholds of the Syrian military — the “Brick Factory” and the “Youth Camp” — at the foot of the Jebel al-Zawiya mountain range.
Despite Tuesday’s success, the regime still do not control the length of the road to Aleppo, and their convoys face ambushes. In contrast, insurgents were able to send reinforcements to Lattakia Province in western Syria, where the opposition has waged a month-long offensive.
Ariha is one battle for a regime supply line. While the debate continues in the US, there are likely to be more.