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 Syrian troops capture village near Lebanon border
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5 months ago

Syrian troops capture village near Lebanon border

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Syrian troops pressed an offensive near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, capturing a village from rebels whose forces appear to be collapsing along a key central front, state media and activists said.

Ras al-Ayyn was the latest area in the Qalamoun region to fall to government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. On Sunday, they captured Yabroud, a town that had served for months as a main rebel logistics hub.

"It was a fast and crushing operation," an unidentified Syrian army officer in Ras Al-Ayn said on state television. "The operation will continue day and night until all terrorists are wiped out," he said, referring to the rebels. A brigadier general, also unidentified, told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV that "tens" of rebels were killed in the village.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops captured the village after fighting several rebel factions - including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front - for two days.

For months, Syrian troops have been on the offensive in the mountainous Qalamoun region, aiming to cut rebel supply lines crossing the porous Lebanese border.

Also Wednesday, Syria criticized Washington for ordering the closure of its diplomatic and consular missions in the United States, requiring all personnel who are not legal U.S. residents to leave the country.

"This American move reveals the real goals of America's policies against Syria and the interests of Syrian citizens," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement about Tuesday's decision. "It forms another step of the American support to terrorism and to shedding blood in Syria."

The American order should not affect Syria's mission at the United Nations, although the State Department earlier this month already imposed restrictions limiting its ambassador to New York.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry described the American order as an "arbitrary act" that it said came in violation of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.

Syria's uprising, which began with largely peaceful protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war that has killed more than 140,000 people.

Damascus says it is facing a Western conspiracy because of its support for groups opposed to the United States and Israel in the region.

Earlier in the day, Lebanese security officials said Lebanese government troops dismantled roadblocks and reopened a key road to a predominantly Sunni town near the Syrian border.

The officials said the road leading to the town of Arsal reopened Wednesday morning and that reinforcements were sent to secure the area. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters otherwise.

The development comes after days of high tension in the area, where Shiite Hezbollah gunmen and local residents had blocked off the road to the Sunni town of Arsal.

The Shiites blamed the townspeople and Syrian rebels who fled to Arsal for recent rocket fire on their villages and a car bombing that killed three people. The standoff prompted angry Sunnis to close off roads elsewhere around Lebanon on Tuesday.

Also Wednesday, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said two rockets fell in the Qaa area, causing damage but no casualties.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog said more than 45 percent of raw materials for Syria's poison gas and nerve agent program slated for destruction outside the country have been shipped out.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced Wednesday that two shipments were loaded onto cargo ships in recent days at Latakia port.

Syria has missed several deadlines on a timetable agreed last year to eradicate its chemical weapons by June 30, but the government recently pledged to remove all chemicals by the end of April.

The chemicals will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has been fitted with equipment to neutralize hundreds of tons of the most toxic chemicals under supervision by OPCW experts.

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6 months ago

14 companies bid to destroy Syria chemicals

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says 14 private sector companies have submitted bids to destroy chemicals removed from Syria as part of international efforts to dismantle Damascus' poison gas and nerve agent program.

The companies, from countries including the United States, Britain, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, submitted tenders to destroy 500 metric tons of chemicals and waste material resulting from the destruction of other Syrian chemicals.

The chemicals to be destroyed by the private companies are regularly used in the pharmaceutical and other industries and can be safely disposed of at civilian facilities.

The tenders were opened Monday. The OPCW says it will now conduct "technical and commercial" evaluations of the bids before announcing early next month which companies will be awarded contracts.

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8 months ago

Israel provides humanitarian aid to Syrians

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that it is providing humanitarian aid to victims of the civil war inside neighboring Syria, saying it has funneled food and other emergency supplies to embattled villages just across the frontier.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon made the announcement during a visit to the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights. Syrian troops and rebels have been clashing in the area for months, and hundreds of civilians have fled especially heavy fighting to neighboring Lebanon in recent days.

"We can't sit by and watch the humanitarian difficulties on the other side," Yaalon said. "We've transferred water, food, including baby food, taking into consideration that these villages are besieged and they don't have access to any other place. So therefore yes, we are assisting with humanitarian aid along the fence."

Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, and Israel has avoided taking sides in the Syrian fighting that pits President Bashar Assad's government against rebels seeking to oust it. Still, dozens of wounded Syrians have been treated at Israeli hospitals. Last month, a pregnant Syrian woman escaping the bloodshed gave birth in an Israeli hospital.

Yaalon's statement was the first time Israel has acknowledged sending supplies into the battle zone.

An Israeli defense official said the shipments have been going on for several months. He said much of the aid has been transferred through the United Nations, and other supplies are placed along the frontier so needy Syrians can get them directly.

The Israelis have not tried to hide the origin of the goods, and some items, including medicine and diapers, are made in Israel and have Hebrew writing on them, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.

Israel has been carefully monitoring the Syrian war since it erupted in March 2011. While relations are hostile, the ruling Assad family has kept the border area with Israel quiet for most of the past 40 years. Israel is concerned that Assad's ouster could push the country into the hands of militant Islamic extremists or sectarian warfare, destabilizing the region. More than 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011, according to U.N. estimates.

The Syrian fighting, mostly errant fire, sometimes spills over into Israeli border communities, damaging property and crops, spreading panic and sparking fires. Israel occasionally retaliates.

Israel is also believed to have carried out several airstrikes on several weapons shipments headed to the pro-Syrian Hezbollah group in Lebanon. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the airstrikes.

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8 months ago

UN: Syria peace talks to take place January 22

Syria's government and opposition will meet for the first time on Jan. 22 in Geneva, in an attempt to halt the nearly 3-year-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, the United Nations announced Monday.

Previous attempts to bring the two sides together have failed, mainly because of disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government, Syrian President Bashar Assad's future role in the country, and whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the government and opposition to help the conference succeed by taking steps to stop the violence, provide access for desperately needed humanitarian aid, release detainees, and help hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people return to their homes.

"We go with a clear understanding: The Geneva conference is the vehicle for a peaceful transition that fulfills the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people for freedom and dignity, and which guarantees safety and protection to all communities in Syria," he told reporters at U.N. headquarters.

He said a key goal of the conference would be the establishment of a transitional government with powers over military and security. A full list of participants has not yet been decided.

The U.N. did not specify who will be representing Syria's opposition at the talks, but Britain's foreign secretary said the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, will participate. The group has limited control over the myriad rebel groups fighting Assad's forces.

Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for group, said it had not yet decided who it would send, but remained dead set against inviting Iran to the talks.

Iran, a staunch supporter of Assad, has given him significant financial support and is believed to have sent military advisers, trained pro-government militiamen and directed one of its proxies, Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group, to fight alongside Assad's troops.

"We want to have a successful conference, and we are not interested in a conference that is going to waste time; we are not interested in a conference that is going to justify killing more Syrians," he said.

"As of now, what I can say is Iran is not a party that's welcome given the current circumstances to attend the conference. If they change their positions, they start pulling out, and stop killing Syrians; we will start talking about them attending to the conference."

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a letter to Ban that ending support for the "armed terrorist groups" in Syria is "crucial for any political solution to the crisis in Syria to succeed and to give such a political process credibility in the eyes of the Syrian people." Contents of the letter were broadcast on Syrian TV on Monday.

The U.N.'s goal is based on the roadmap for a Syrian political transition adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers at a Geneva conference on Syria in June 2012, to which the warring sides were not invited.

The roadmap envisioned the establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers agreed to by both sides, and ending with elections. But there has been no agreement on how to implement it. One of the biggest sticking points has been the future role of Assad.

Earlier this month, the Syrian National coalition agreed to attend peace talks if a number of conditions were met, including humanitarian corridors to give relief agencies access to besieged areas and the release of detainees, particularly women. But the group stressed that Assad could have no role in the transitional period.

Syrian government officials have insisted Assad would not step down and may even run for another term in presidential elections scheduled for mid-2014. Recent battlefield victories have shifted the momentum of Syria's conflict in Assad's favor.

The U.N.-Arab League's top envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said there is "no doubt that the formation of what we could call the transitional governing authority will be one of the most important elements that will have to be agreed upon during the conference."

Brahimi said the United States, Russia and the United Nations agreed on the January date for the conference at their daylong meeting Monday at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva, and that the three would meet again on Dec. 20 to prepare.

"We are still discussing the complete list of participants" for the Geneva meeting, Brahimi said.

"We are asking the (Syrian government and opposition) to name their delegations as early as possible, hopefully before the end of the year, because it's important that we meet them and speak to them, and listen to them."

Asked if Iran and Saudi Arabia would participate, Brahimi replied, "We haven't established a list yet. These two countries will certainly be among the possible participants."

He added that Ban and the Arab League's chief have said several times they want to invite Iran.

Russia has been the key sponsor and ally of Assad's government, blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions that would slap it with sanctions, and continuing to provide it with weapons.

Two people close to the situation told The Associated Press on Monday that U.N. and Western officials have been training members of the Syrian opposition in negotiating skills the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the meeting the best opportunity to "form a new transitional governing body through mutual consent_an important step toward ending the suffering of the Syrian people and the destabilizing impact of this conflict on the region.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague called on the Syrian government "to take immediate steps to alleviate humanitarian suffering across the country, and stop their brutal tactics, which include besieging and attacking civilian areas."

Hague's government and other major Western powers have backed the main Syrian opposition group.

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9 months ago

Syria releases 13 women detainees

BEIRUT (AP) - The Syrian government released 13 female detainees, an official and an activist group said Wednesday, in a move that appeared to be part of an ambitious regional prisoner exchange.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the women walked out of the headquarters of the Damascus provincial government Tuesday morning, but hasn't been able to contact them. A Syrian government official confirmed the women's release, but declined to provide further details. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to brief the media.

It was not immediately clear whether the women released were part of a complicated hostage swap last week brokered by Qatar and the Palestinian Authority that saw Syrian rebels release nine Lebanese Shiite Muslims, while Lebanese gunmen simultaneously freed two Turkish pilots.

Lebanese officials have said a third part of the deal called for the Syrian government to free a number of women detainees to meet the rebels' demands.

The agreement illustrated how far Syria's civil war, now in its third year, has spilled across the greater Middle East. It also appeared to represent one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of the war, in which the rival factions remain largely opposed to any bartered peace.

Syria's crisis began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad, and slowly turned into an insurgency and then a full-blown civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict, while another 2 million have sought refuge from the violence abroad.

On Wednesday, rebels and government forces clashed for the third consecutive day in the Christian town of Sadad north of Damascus, forcing desperate residents to flee.

The Observatory said fighters from the two al-Qaida-linked groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, captured a checkpoint that gave them control of the western part of the town. It said frightened residents were heading north to the central city of Homs some 55 kilometers (35 miles) away.

The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north from Damascus rather than because it is inhabited primarily by Christians. But Islamic extremists among the rebels are hostile to Syria's Christians minority, which has largely backed Assad during the conflict. Other al-Qaida-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have overrun.

In The Hague, the organization tasked with overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons program said its inspectors have visited 18 out of 23 sites declared by the government. The group said it expected to meet a Nov. 1 deadline to make all of the declared chemical weapons production facilities in the country inoperable.

Three teams of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had carried out "functional destruction activities" at almost all the sites, spokesman Michael Luhan said. The teams of inspectors have had "good access" to sites so far, and the Syrian government was cooperating, he said.

The OPCW is racing to meet the mid-2014 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. It is the tightest deadline in the organization's history, and the job is made all the more difficult by having to navigate a bloody civil war.

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9 months ago

Syrian president casts doubt on peace conference

BEIRUT (AP) - Syria's president said Monday that the factors needed for a proposed peace conference to end the country's conflict to succeed do not yet exist, raising doubts about renewed international efforts to bring the opposing sides in the civil war to the negotiating table.

The United States and Russia have been trying for months to convene an international conference in Geneva to negotiate a political solution to Syria's intractable civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and forced 2 million more to flee the country. The U.N. chief has set mid-November as a target for the proposed gathering, although no final date has been announced.

But Bashar Assad brushed aside the renewed efforts to coax the government and the opposition into taking part in a peace conference, telling Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV in an interview that "the factors that would help in holding it are not in place if we want it to succeed."

He said it's not clear who would represent the opposition, or what credibility they would have inside Syria.

"Who are the groups that will participate? What is their relation with the Syrian people? Do they represent the Syrian people or they represent the country that made them?" Assad asked. "There are many questions about the conference."

For its part, Syria's fractured opposition has yet to decide whether to attend the proposed Geneva conference.

The main Western-backed opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, is scheduled to meet Nov. 1-2 in Istanbul to decide whether to take part in the talks. One of the most prominent factions within the Coalition, the Syrian National Council, has said it has no faith in negotiations with Assad's regime and won't be part of Geneva.

But the Coalition's ability to speak for the broader rebellion has long been in dispute, and fighters inside Syria - many of whom reject negotiations with the regime - have accused the opposition leaders in exile of being out of touch with reality on the ground. The Coalition's credibility, already strained, took a major hit last month when nearly a dozen prominent rebel groups publicly broke with the opposition umbrella group. More rebel brigades have since followed suit.

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10 months ago

Sigrid Kaag to lead Syria chemical weapons mission

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed Dutch Mideast expert Sigrid Kaag to lead the team charged with destroying Syria's chemical weapons and announced stepped up efforts to hold a peace conference on Syria in mid-November.

The U.N. chief appeared with Kaag at a briefing Wednesday shortly after U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky announced her appointment and the official establishment of the joint mission of the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that she will lead.

Ban praised the U.N. Security Council for quickly approving the appointment of Kaag, saying that as the mission's special coordinator "she will be responsible for overseeing all activities on the ground undertaken by the OPCW and the United Nations personnel" from Cyprus.

Kaag has been the assistant administrator of the U.N. Development Program.

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10 months ago

Chemical weapons inspectors visit 3 Syria sites

BEIRUT (AP) - International inspectors have so far visited three sites linked to Syria's chemical weapons program, a spokesman said Thursday, as the team races to destroy the country's stockpile and delivery systems amid a raging civil war.

Underscoring the complexity of the mission, a regime warplane bombed the rebel-held town of Safira, an activist group said, where a regime-controlled military complex believed to include chemical weapons facilities is located.

The inspectors are to visit more than 20 sites around the country as part of the disarmament mission. The facilities they inspected in the past 10 days have been in government-held areas, making them fairly easy to reach, said Michael Luhan, spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Operating on rare consensus, the U.N. has mandated the OPCW to rid Syria of its stockpile by mid-2014 - the tightest deadline ever given to the OPCW. It's also the first conducted amid ongoing fighting. Syria's conflict, which erupted in March 2011, pits disorganized armed rebels against forces loyal to the regime of Bashar Assad.

At some point, the 27-member team may have to cross rebel-held territory to reach other locations linked to Syria's chemical weapons program. The U.N. hopes to organize cease-fires between rebels and government forces to ensure safe passage.

Shifting front lines crisscross the country, divided into a patchwork of rebel- and regime-held areas.

On Thursday, a regime warplane struck the town of Safira, killing at least 16 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which obtains its information through a network of activists on the ground. The group did not know what was hit.

Amateur video said to show the aftermath of the Safira airstrike was posted online later Thursday. The video showed men and boys hauling a blanket filled with body parts onto a jeep where another two charred bodies already lay.

"Who is this?" one man can be heard asking. "By God, we don't know brother," another responded. The video also showed twisted metal, blood splattered on the floor and smashed concrete in the area of the strike.

Safira is southeast of the heavily contested city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.

The Observatory said six people were killed in another airstrike, near the town of Manbij, also in the area.

In Aleppo, six people were killed by rebel fire, the official Syrian news agency SANA said.

Clashes also broke out between al-Qaida fighters from a group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Kurdish rebels trying to push back their advance in the northern border province of Azaz, the Observatory reported.

In Beirut on Thursday, a lucky few Syrians flew to Germany, where they were accepted for temporary resettlement.

Men and women sobbed and hugged as relatives said goodbye to each other, helping them haul overstuffed suitcases onto a bus leading to the airport.

They were 106 of the 4,000 refugees that Germany has accepted to receive on two-year visas, said Roberta Russo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

They remain a tiny minority of the 2 million Syrians now registered as refugees. Another 5 million Syrians are displaced within their own country because of the conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 Syrians.

Russo called on donor countries to provide more aid to Syria's neighbors, who are hosting over 97 percent of refugees.

She says they've only received one-third of the $1.7 billion in aid the U.N. is asking for to help refugees, particularly in Lebanon.

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10 months ago

Deal reached on UN resolution on Syria weapons

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The five permanent members of the often-divided U.N. Security Council reached agreement Thursday on a resolution to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, British and U.S. diplomats said, and the council was meeting to discuss it Thursday night.

The agreement by the permanent members, whose differences have paralyzed council action on Syria, represents a major breakthrough in addressing the 2 1/2-year conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people.

Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, tweeted that Britain, France, the U.S., Russia and China had agreed on a "binding and enforceable draft ... resolution."

He said Britain will introduce the text to the 10 other members of the Security Council at a meeting Thursday night.

The U.S. and Russia had been at odds on how to enforce the resolution, but Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power confirmed that the last hurdles to agreement had been overcome.

On Twitter, Power said the draft resolution establishes that Syria's chemical weapons "is threat to international peace & security & creates a new norm against the use of CW."

U.N. diplomats said it would be the first legally binding resolution on Syria in the conflict if adopted, which now appears virtually certain.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in hastily scheduled, closed-door talks Thursday afternoon at the United Nations, and the agreement was announced soon afterward.

The agreement came a day after Russia's deputy foreign minister said negotiators had overcome a major hurdle and agreed that the resolution would include a reference to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for military and nonmilitary actions to promote peace and security.

In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov offered to provide troops to guard facilities where Syria's chemical weapons would be destroyed.

The P-5 have been discussing for weeks what to include in a new resolution requiring that Syria's chemical weapons be secured and dismantled. The U.S. and Russia had been at odds on how to enforce the resolution.

The flurry of diplomatic activity is in response to an Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb, and President Barack Obama's threat of U.S. strikes in retaliation.

After Kerry said Syrian President Bashar Assad could avert U.S. military action by turning over "every single bit of his chemical weapons" to international control within a week, Russia, Syria's most important ally, agreed. Kerry and Lavrov signed an agreement in Geneva on Sept. 13.

Assad's government quickly accepted the broad proposal, but there have been tough negotiations on how its stockpile will be destroyed.

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10 months ago

UN diplomats: Apparent deal on Syria resolution

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The five permanent members of the divided Security Council have reached agreement on key elements of a resolution to require Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles, U.N. diplomats said Thursday.

The diplomats said Russia and the United States were still negotiating on a handful of unresolved issues, reportedly including details on how the chemical weapons will be destroyed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations have been private.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were set to meet in hastily scheduled, closed-door talks on Thursday afternoon at the United Nations in an effort to overcome the lingering differences, officials said.

The diplomats' comments came a day after Russia's deputy foreign minister said negotiators had overcome a major hurdle and agreed that the resolution would include a reference to Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for military and nonmilitary actions to promote peace and security.

White House spokesman Jay Carney wouldn't confirm that an agreement on a resolution had been reached.

"We have made good progress," Carney said. "We hope that this will be resolved and the process will move forward quickly."

In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov offered to provide troops to guard facilities where Syria's chemical weapons would be destroyed.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Thursday that a few subjects needed to be refined in the draft resolution but expressed optimism about a deal. "Things have advanced," he told reporters.

Fabius said Wednesday he thought the five veto-wielding permanent Security Council members - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France - known as the P-5 would agree on a text on Thursday or Friday, a prediction echoed by Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.

The P-5 have been discussing for weeks what to include in a new resolution requiring that Syria's chemical weapons be secured and dismantled. The U.S. and Russia had been at odds on how to enforce the resolution.

The flurry of diplomatic activity is in response to an Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb, and President Barack Obama's threat of U.S. strikes in retaliation.

After Kerry said Assad could avert U.S. military action by turning over "every single bit of his chemical weapons" to international control within a week, Russia, Syria's most important ally, agreed. Kerry and Lavrov signed an agreement in Geneva on Sept. 13.

President Bashar Assad's government quickly accepted the broad proposal, but there have been tough negotiations on how its stockpile will be destroyed.

Gatilov told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the resolution will not include an automatic trigger for measures under Chapter 7, which means the council will have to follow up with another resolution if Syria fails to comply.

Fabius reiterated Thursday that the P-5 had reached agreement on three difficult issues that France pushed for: the inclusion of a sentence saying the use of chemical weapons in Syria and anywhere else is a crime; the inclusion of a reference to Chapter 7 that contains the same wording as in the U.S.-Russia agreement reached in Geneva; and the inclusion of a statement saying those responsible for using chemical weapons must be held accountable.

The Security Council has been paralyzed in dealing with the 2 1/2-year Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people, because of differences between Russia and China, who back Assad's government, and the U.S., Britain and France, who support the opposition. Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the violence.

But Kerry said Thursday that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had "strong agreement on the need for a mandatory and binding U.N. Security Council resolution."

The U.S. and Chinese ministers "discussed the value of unity among the P-5, and both felt it is important to act quickly" at their meeting Thursday morning, a U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks.

But, the official added, the Chinese gave no indication about whether they would support a resolution agreed to by the U.S. and Russia.

Work on the resolution continues while the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the body that will be in charge of securing and destroying the stockpile, is working on its own document to set out its exact duties. The U.N. resolution will include the text of the OPCW's declaration and make it legally binding - so the OPCW must act first.

The Hague-based OPCW said Thursday it was optimistic it could quickly schedule a meeting of its 41-nation executive council to approve a roadmap for swiftly destroying Syrian Assad's chemical arsenal and production facilities.

A U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations have been private, said the executive board of the OPCW isn't likely to meet before Sunday, which means that Security Council adoption of the resolution likely won't take place until next week.

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10 months ago

Syria sends watchdog chemical weapons inventory

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - Syria has sent the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons an "initial declaration" outlining its weapons program, the organization said Friday.

Spokesman Michael Luhan told The Associated Press the declaration is "being reviewed by our verification division." The organization will not release details of what is in the declaration.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States and other nations that have joined the chemical weapons organization "will be making a careful and thorough review of the initial document."

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, polices a global treaty known as the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which bars the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical arms. The organization relies on a global network of more than a dozen top laboratories to analyze field samples.

U.S. officials said last week that the United States and Russia agreed that Syria had roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents, such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin.

In the aftermath of the U.N. report that concluded sarin had been used in an attack in Damascus last month, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which polices the treaty outlawing chemical weapons, is looking at ways to fast-track moves to secure and destroy Syria's arsenal of poison gas and nerve agents as well as its production facilities.

However, diplomatic efforts to speed up the process are moving slowly. A meeting initially scheduled for Sunday at which the organization's 41-nation executive council was to have discussed a U.S.-Russian plan to swiftly rid Syria of chemical weapons was postponed Friday, and no new date was immediately set. No reason was given for the postponement.

Harf said she did not know why the meeting was postponed, but said Syria's initial declaration was a step Washington was seeking "and we'll go from there."

Under a U.S.-Russia agreement brokered last weekend in Geneva, inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November. During that month, they are to complete their initial assessment and all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons is to be destroyed.

All components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons plan of action will be backed up by a U.N. Security Council resolution, and negotiations remain underway on the text of such a resolution.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he talked to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, about Syria's chemical weapons early Friday.

"I had a fairly long conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov," Kerry said in Washington. "We talked about the cooperation which we both agreed to continue to provide, moving not only toward the adoption of the OPCW rules and regulations, but also a resolution that is firm and strong within the United Nations. We will continue to work on that."

In an interview with Fox News Channel aired Wednesday, Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed terrorists for the Aug. 21 chemical attack, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children. He said evidence that terrorist groups have used sarin gas has been turned over to Russia and that Russia, through one of its satellites, has evidence that the rockets in the attack were launched from another area.

While the U.N. report did not lay blame, many experts interpreting the report said all indications were that the attack was conducted by Assad forces.

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11 months ago

Obama allies cite PR missteps in bid for Syria hit

WASHINGTON (AP) - Some of President Barack Obama's top allies say the president misread a few crucial political forces when he asked Congress to support his bid to strike Syria.

Chief among Obama's missteps, they say, was underestimating the nation's profound weariness with military entanglements in the Middle East, fed by residual anger over the origins of the Iraq war, and overestimating lawmakers' willingness to make risky votes 14 months before the next congressional elections.

"I can't understand the White House these days," said Rep. Jim Moran, an early and enthusiastic supporter of a strike against Syria over last month's chemical weapons attack. Rather than unexpectedly asking for Congress' blessing on Aug. 31, Moran said, Obama might have quietly called House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to say, "'I'm thinking of sending this vote to the Congress. How do you think it might turn out?'"

"She would have said, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Moran said. "She knows where the votes stand."

In recent days, Obama put military decisions on hold and asked Congress to halt plans to vote on a strike authorization while diplomats explore Russia's proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. The pause has given the president's friends time to ponder why Congress, and especially the House, seemed to be moving against his push for military action against Syria's government.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat like Obama and Moran, said calls and emails from his Baltimore district were running about 99-1 against military intervention in Syria. Many House colleagues, he said, report feedback nearly as one-sided.

Cummings said he told Obama at a recent meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus that "once he asked for Congress to give its consent, he also asked for the public's consent." Americans aren't willing to grant it, Cummings said.

"My constituents love the president," Cummings added. "They are just tired of war."

Cummings added that the nation is unwilling to forgive or forget President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq on eventually discredited claims about weapons of mass destruction and the likelihood of easy U.S. success.

Obama needed a concise, compelling argument to overcome resistance, but his team didn't produce one, several lawmakers said this week. They cited Secretary of State John Kerry's assurance of an "unbelievably small" U.S. military strike as one example of comments that left people bewildered.

"In times of crisis, the more clarity the better," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican and strong supporter of U.S. intervention in Syria. "This has been confusing. For those who are inclined to support the president, it's been pretty hard to nail down what the purpose of a military strike is."

Graham said the administration didn't adequately explain why Americans should be morally outraged - and militarily involved - by that chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 although the United States stood by as an estimated 100,000 Syrians were killed by convention weapons during a 2½-year civil war.

"Is it really about HOW people died?" Graham said.

As the U.S. debate over Syria grew, public sentiment increasingly turned against the military role Obama advocated. A four-day Pew Research Center survey, which ended the day after Obama asked for congressional approval, found 48 percent of Americans opposed to airstrikes against Syria. A Pew poll conducted a week later found 63 percent of Americans opposed to the idea.

The White House says Obama fully understood the public relations difficulties he faced. The president knows "the American people and their representatives are understandably and justifiably weary of military conflict and wary of new military conflict," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.

"The president acknowledged from the beginning that this would be a challenge," Carney said.

Underscoring that point, Obama was compelled to lobby the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state. He couldn't sway Smith, who candidly expressed concerns about military strikes.

Smith's frustration was evident at a closed-door Democratic meeting Thursday morning when he complained to White House legislative aides in the room about the answers he was getting, according to congressional aides.

Obama supporters cite other hurdles, including a tendency of many Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose almost anything Obama proposes.

Democrat Rep. Peter Welch said Obama was confronting public sentiments that may be insurmountable.

"The country is war-weary, and it's very powerful," Welch said. "People are burned by Iraq and Afghanistan."

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11 months ago

Kerry to see Russian FM in Geneva

WASHINGTON (AP) - A State Department official says President Barack Obama is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Switzerland this week to discuss a possible deal on Syria's chemical weapons with Russia's foreign minister.

The official said Kerry would meet with Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday to try to reach a deal on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would require Syria to give up its chemical weapons or face consequences.

The official was not authorized to discuss the mission publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The last-minute trip reflects a flurry of developments that have occurred since Russia said Monday it would push Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons stockpiles and Syria agreed.

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11 months ago

Syria accepts weapons plan, strike momentum eases

BEIRUT (AP) - President Bashar Assad's government on Tuesday accepted a Russian plan to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile as momentum mounted for a proposal that could avert American strikes against the regime. The U.S. and France turned to the United Nations for a resolution to ensure Damascus complies.

With domestic support for a strike uncertain in the United States and little international appetite to join forces against Assad, the developments had the potential to blunt a thorny diplomatic problem and allow the Obama administration to back away from military action.

But neither effort attempts to end or even address the civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead in Syria and the main opposition bloc dismissed the chemical weapons plan as a largely meaningless measure that would allow Assad free rein to fight on with conventional weapons.

Syria's foreign minister said the government would accept a plan from Russia, its most powerful ally, to give up its chemical weapons in order "to thwart U.S. aggression," offering a diplomatic option for how to respond to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that the Obama administration, France and others blame on Assad.

Damascus denies its forces were behind the attack. The U.S. has said more than 1,400 Syrians died; even conservative estimates from international organizations put the toll at several hundred.

France, a permanent member of the 15-nation Security Council, will start the process at the United Nations on Tuesday under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is militarily enforceable, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at a news conference organized shortly after meeting with the French president.

President Barack Obama threw his support behind the resolution even as he pushed the idea of U.S. airstrikes against Assad's regime if that effort fails. British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would join France and the U.S. in putting forward the proposal.

Fabius said the French resolution would demand that Syria open its chemical weapons program to inspection, place it under international control, and ultimately dismantle it. A violation of that commitment, he said, would carry "very serious consequences." The resolution would condemn the attack and bring those responsible to justice, he said.

Fabius expressed caution that French authorities "don't want to fall into a trap" that could allow Assad's regime to skirt accountability or buy time.

"We do not want this to be used as a diversion," Fabius said. "It is by accepting these precise conditions that we will judge the credibility of the intentions expressed yesterday."

The details and timeframe of the French proposal remained vague, but Fabius said he expected a "nearly immediate" and tangible commitment from Syria. Within two hours, he had a response from his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem.

"We agreed to the Russian initiative as it should thwart the U.S. aggression against our country," he said.

Moallem's comments amounted to the first formal admissions by top Syrian officials that Damascus even possesses chemical weapons. In interviews aired as recently as Monday, Assad repeatedly refused to acknowledge whether his regime did.

Russia is now working with Damascus to prepare a detailed plan of action that will be presented soon, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said. Russia will then be ready to finalize the plan with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to give a nationally televised address on Syria on Tuesday night, reached back into history - and the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union - to make his case against Syria, even as he cautiously welcomed the early developments.

"The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify," Obama told CBS. "The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed."

Obama said the idea actually had been broached in his 20-minute meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week on the sidelines of an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama said he directed Secretary of State John Kerry to have more conversations with the Russians and "run this to ground."

The Syrian National Coalition dismissed the Assad government's turnaround as a maneuver to escape punishment for a crime against humanity. The coalition had been hoping for military strikes from abroad to tip the balance in the war of attrition between rebels and Assad's forces.

In a statement Tuesday, the coalition said Moscow's proposal "aims to procrastinate and will lead to more death and destruction of the Syrian people."

"Crimes against humanity cannot be dropped by giving political concessions or by handing over the weapons used in these crimes," the group said.

Syria's acceptance on Tuesday did not detail how any disarmament could be carried out, and analysts cautioned that it was those details that would make the offer credible.

"I don't think this proposal was developed and thought through. I think it came a little bit out of the blue to solve a political crisis," said Ralf Trapp, a disarmament consultant who worked for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from 1997 to 2006. "Now we're in a situation where if we have political preparedness to go through with it, we now need to think in practical terms and that's where, as always, the devil is in the details."

But it was clear that many in the Mideast, Europe and the U.S. were cautiously seizing on the initiative as a way to untangle the diplomatic impasse before Obama takes the issue before Congress.

Britain's Cameron called the plan a "serious offer," and said he spoke to Obama about it Tuesday.

On Monday, Kerry said Assad could resolve the crisis by surrendering control of his chemical arsenal to the international community. Russia's Lavrov responded by promising to push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle them quickly, to avert U.S. strikes. Syria's acceptance came less than 24 hours later.

Fabius said Russia had information about Damascus' chemical weapons stockpile, and expressed hope that this time a tough resolution on Syria would not be thwarted, alluding to efforts led by Western powers at the U.N. body in recent months that were blocked by Russia and China.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the Russian proposal: "As long as it eases the tension and helps maintain Syrian and regional peace and stability, and helps politically settle the issue, the global community should consider it positively."

The chief of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, also expressed support for the proposal, telling reporters that it has been always in favor of a "political resolution." The league has blamed the government for the attack, but says it doesn't support military action without U.N. consent.

Fabius also warned that finding and destroying "more than 1,000 tons of chemical weapons" would be very difficult and would require international verification amid Syria's civil war. He reiterated France's position that Assad must leave power: "We can't imagine that someone who was responsible for 110,000 dead, it is said, can stay in power forever."

Jean Pascal Zanders, an international disarmament expert, said any agreement depends on trust that the Syrian government is telling the truth about its weapons: "It requires full comprehensive declaration, and any failure on the Syrian government would immediately destroy confidence of the international community and probably split it again."

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11 months ago

Talking diplomacy in Syria, Obama goes to Congress

WASHINGTON (AP) - Pushing military might and raising hopes it won't be needed, President Barack Obama threw his support Tuesday behind a plan for U.N. Security Council talks aimed at securing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, even as he pushed the fallback idea of U.S. airstrikes against Bashar Assad's regime if that effort fails.

Seizing on that two-track strategy, a bipartisan group of senators crafted a reworked congressional resolution calling for a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons by a set deadline and authorizing military action if that doesn't happen.

Obama discussed the plan for U.N. talks with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron before traveling to Capitol Hill to discuss diplomatic and military options with Democratic and Republican senators growing increasingly wary of U.S. military intervention. He was poised to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday night, still ready to press the case for congressionally-approved military action if diplomacy falls short.

"The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify," Obama said in an interview with CBS. "The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed."

The dramatic shift in the president's tone came after weeks of threatening tough reprisals on the Assad regime and in the face of stiff resistance in Congress to any resolution that would authorize him to use military force.

A majority of the senators staking out positions or leaning in one direction are expressing opposition, according to an Associated Press survey. The count in the House is far more lopsided, with representatives rejecting Obama's plan by more than a 6-1 margin even as the leaders of both parties in the House professed their support.

On Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell became the first congressional leader to come out against the resolution giving the president authority for limited strikes.

"There are just too many unanswered questions about our long-term strategy in Syria," he said in a speech on the Senate floor.

A bipartisan group of eight senators started writing an alternative resolution that would call on the United Nations to state that Syria used chemical weapons and require a U.N. team to remove the chemical weapons from Syria within a specific time period, possibly 60 days. If that can't be done, then Obama would have the authority to launch military strikes, congressional aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the reworked resolution.

The senators working on the proposal are Republicans John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss along with Democrats Chris Coons, Bob Casey, Chuck Schumer, Carl Levin and Bob Menendez.

The prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough unfolded rapidly as Assad's government accepted a Russia-advanced plan to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile, and France pitched a U.N. Security Council resolution to verify the disarmament. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said after meeting with the Russian parliament speaker that his government quickly agreed to the Russian initiative to "thwart U.S. aggression."

France, a permanent member of the 15-nation Security Council, will start the process at the United Nations on Tuesday under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is militarily enforceable. Russia, Assad's biggest international backer, championed the path forward in the hope of preventing the instability that might arise from a broader, Iraq-like conflict involving the United States.

Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee that the Obama administration would give any proposal a hard look, but that it must not be used as a delaying tactic and that it has to be verifiable, real and include tangible conditions for Assad to forfeit his chemical weapons.

For the Obama administration, presenting just the possibility of a diplomatic solution offered an "out" as it struggled to find the 60 votes needed for Senate passage of a use-of-force resolution. Reflecting the difficulty, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., unexpectedly postponed a test vote originally set for Wednesday on Obama's call for legislation explicitly backing a military strike. Reid cited ongoing "international discussions."

Several lawmakers, conflicted by their desire to see Assad punished and their wariness about America getting pulled into another Middle East war, breathed sighs of relief.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he was more open to the U.N. talks than Obama's plan for military action.

"I always thought an international coalition to secure and destroy the chemical weapons is a far better option than military intervention," McCaul said. He called for an "American plan" to do accomplish these tasks.

But there was plenty of skepticism about the latest diplomatic initiative, too.

"I hope it's not just a delaying tactic," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., after a closed meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday morning. But he added, "Let's see what the president has to say."

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, complained of reversals and inconsistency from the administration, saying he and other lawmakers had a classified briefing Monday with top Obama advisers in which they portrayed the Russian initiative as less than serious - then later heard the president had said it would be considered.

"This message seems to be changing mid-sentence," McKeon said. "This is a joke."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., appeared to be dropping her support for a military strike authorization.

"The few supporters that he had, he's losing them quick," she said. "This is crazy to say that the folks who started the fire - Syria and Russia - are now going to be the firefighters putting out the fires. It's crazy to have Putin be in charge and for us to put credibility and trust with him. Oh, and who's along with this? Iran thinks it's a great idea and China thinks it's a great idea. That should tell you a lot."

In interviews Monday, Obama conceded he might lose the vote in Congress and declined to say what he would do if lawmakers rejected him. But, he told CBS, he didn't expect a "succession of votes this week or anytime in the immediate future," a stunning reversal after days of furious lobbying and dozens of meetings and telephone calls with individual lawmakers.

A resolution approved by a Senate committee would authorize limited military strikes for up to 90 days and expressly forbids U.S. ground troops in Syria for combat operations. Several Democrats and Republicans announced their opposition Monday, joining the growing list of members vowing to vote "no." Fewer came out in support and one previous advocate, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., became an opponent Monday.

Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of U.S. military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. About a quarter of Americans want lawmakers to support such action, with the remainder undecided. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

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11 months ago

Obama agrees to UN discussion on Russia's proposal for Syria's chemical weapons

WASHINGTON (AP) - A White House official says President Barack Obama has agreed to discussions at the United Nations Security Council on a proposal from Russia to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

The official says Obama discussed the proposal Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron. France's foreign minister says France will float a resolution in the U.N. Security Council aimed at forcing Syria to make public its chemical weapons program, place it under international control and dismantle it.

Obama has said the proposal marks a potential breakthrough that could halt plans for a U.S. military strike, though he said the details remain unclear.

The official requested anonymity because the officials was not authorized to discuss the private conversations by name.

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11 months ago

Syria's Assad: An accidental heir proves resilient

BEIRUT (AP) - Those who knew Bashar Assad in earlier days say he was uncomfortable being the son of a president and never wanted to lead. A soft-spoken, lisping eye doctor, he enjoyed Western rock music and electronic gadgets - an accidental heir to power.

Yet Assad, who turns 48 on Wednesday, has proven to be relentlessly resilient, branded by opponents a brutal dictator who kills with chemical weapons.

His willingness to do whatever it takes in Syria's civil war, unleashing his military's might against entire towns and cities, has so far succeeded in keeping his regime core in power, even as large swaths of his country fall from his control or turn into devastated killing fields.

Nearly three years into the uprising against his family's more than 40-year-rule, he has defied every prediction that his end is near.

The West once had the impression Assad was weak or incompetent, said David Lesch, professor of Middle Eastern history at Trinity University in San Antonio. "It took this unleashing of violence and bloodshed for people to reassess their view of Bashar."

"There is revision, people saying he's a lot tougher than they thought," said Lesch, author of "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad," who had unusual access to Assad, meeting him regularly from 2004-2009.

In the eyes of opponents, Assad is a murderous autocrat who would do anything to cling to power. The U.S and its allies accuse him of resorting to gassing his own people, a claim the regime denies.

But for his supporters, he is a nationalist hero fighting Western imperialism and ensuring stable, secular rule in a turbulent region wracked by sectarian wars.

Assad himself appears fueled by an unshakeable belief that Syria would collapse without him, that he is not crushing a popular rebellion but fighting an attack by foreign-backed terrorists.

In a televised speech to parliament in June 2012, he likened his crackdown to a doctor trying to save a patient.

"When a surgeon... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him, 'Your hands are stained with blood?'" Assad said. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

The question that has always been debated about Assad is whether he leads his regime or is led by it.

The leadership he inherited was meticulously built by his father, Hafez Assad. The Assad family and its minority Alawite sect held the most sensitive positions in the military and intelligence agencies. But they weren't the only ones: Select families from the Sunni majority and from Christian and other minorities were given powerful posts or economic spheres that invested them in the regime, one of the most autocratic in the Middle East.

The son remains as reliant on them as his father did, if not more.

"He is not the strongman. How can he be?" an exiled cousin, Ribal al-Assad, told the AP in London. "He didn't come up through the military ranks ... He didn't put these people in, his brother did and his father did. He's more afraid of being assassinated by one of them than he is of Western airstrikes."

Bashar Assad's first months as president after succeeding his father in 2000 ushered in hopes he would loosen his father's iron grip. Even after it became clear he too would not tolerate dissent, he was still portrayed by many as a reformer at heart, fighting against an old guard who restricted his ambitions.

Even some of his strongest critics in the current war once believed he could be a positive factor.

As a senator, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited him repeatedly, dining with Assad and his wife at a restaurant in Old Damascus in 2009. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy invited him to Bastille Day celebrations in 2008. Even after his forces fired on protesters at the beginning of the uprising against him in March 2011, Hillary Clinton suggested he was different from his father - a "reformer" who should be given a chance.

So how did a purported reformer become a leader who Kerry now compares to Adolf Hitler?

"It's like a Greek tragedy," says Jean-Marie Quemener, whose biography of Assad, "Docteur Bachar, Mister Assad," was published in France in 2011.

"At each step of his existence, he had every chance of choosing the right way. But each time, either the rug was pulled from under him, or he took the wrong decision," he told The Associated Press in Paris. "Each time, his destiny was forced."

Assad came to power by a twist of fate.

The elder Assad was cultivating Bashar's older brother Basil to succeed him. But in 1994 Basil was killed in a speeding car crash in Damascus. Bashar was summoned home from his ophthalmology practice in London, put through military training and elevated to the rank of colonel to establish his credentials so he could one day rule.

When Hafez Assad died in 2000, parliament quickly lowered the presidential age requirement from 40 to 34. Bashar's elevation was sealed by a nationwide referendum, in which he was the only candidate.

"When his father called him, he wasn't ready to take power. He tried to get his younger brother to take his place," said Quemener, referring to Maher Assad, who now heads the powerful Presidential Guard.

"His destiny was forced on him, he never wanted to be leader of Syria."

The Syria that Hafez left his son was molded by 30 years of hidebound rule, with a Soviet-style centralized economy. The hand over dissent was so stifling that Syrians feared even joking about politics to their friends.

The younger Assad seemed a breath of fresh air.

Lanky with a slight lisp, he talked of his love of computers - in fact, his only official position before becoming president was head of the Syrian Computer Society. Assad enjoyed listening to Phil Collins and British rock group ELO, Lesch recalls.

His wife, Asma al-Akhras, whom he married several months after taking office, was attractive, stylish and grew up in a west London suburb. The young couple, who eventually had three children, seemed to shun trappings of power. They lived in an apartment in the upscale Malki district of Damascus, as opposed to a palatial mansion like other Arab leaders, and made surprise appearances in public, to the delight of their supporters.

The charming first lady provided a counterpoint to Bashar's geeky demeanor. Together they gave the appearance of a power couple who could bring progressive values to Syria.

One of the young female aides in his presidential office even referred to Assad as "the Dude," a familiarity inconceivable with his father, according to a trove of emails purportedly leaked from Bashar and Asma Assad's accounts and made public in late 2011 by London's The Guardian newspaper and WikiLeaks.

Hopes for a political opening dissipated quickly. Early on, Assad reversed a brief loosening of restrictions on political activity. Instead, he opened up the economy. Under free-market reforms, Damascus and other cities saw a flourishing of malls, restaurants and consumer goods. Tourism swelled.

Officials and Western diplomats who met with Assad speak of a vain man, convinced his was the only right way.

Assad sees himself "as a sort of philosopher-king, the Pericles of Damascus," Maura Connelly, then-U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus, wrote in a June 2009 secret diplomatic cable, released by WikiLeaks.

Assad's gravest challenge came when small protests erupted in the country's drought-stricken south in March 2011 and spread quickly to other areas, at the time of the Arab Spring uprisings.

His response was to use the brutal tactics of his father, hoping to nip the protests in the bud.

Security forces repeatedly opened fire on protesters. But the outrage only caused a snowball effect. As the uprising hemorrhaged into civil war, Assad unleashed his military to blast opposition-held cities, as well as the pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha," alleged to have carried out mass slayings.

His actions squandered the goodwill of those who still saw him as an instrument of change. Even the first lady was tarnished. The leaked emails showed her splurging on expensive jewelry, bespoke furniture and a vase worth more than $4,000 from Harrods department store in London, even as violence engulfed the country.

Assad turned to his family, but now that circle is dwindling. His younger brother, Maher, is still by his side but his elder sister, Bushra, a strong voice in his inner circle, is now said to be living in the United Arab Emirates. Her husband, Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat, was killed in a Damascus bombing last year. One of his closest confidantes, former elite commander Manaf Tlas, defected.

Quemener said only two people can reason with him at this point: His mother and his wife.

"Like all dictators he's very alone, so he's forced to take decisions, and that tortures him."

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11 months ago

Clinton endorses Obama effort to punish Syria

WASHINGTON (AP) - Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed President Barack Obama's attempt to win congressional approval of a military strike in Syria, saying Monday that any move by the Assad regime to surrender its weapons to international control would be an "important step." But Clinton cautioned that the removal of its chemical weapons stockpile should not be an "excuse for delay and obstruction" by Syria.

Clinton met with Obama at the White House as the administration sought to sway skeptical lawmakers in Congress to approve a plan to punish Syria's government for last month's chemical weapons attack. The former first lady offered her first public statements on the Syrian crisis, adding her voice to a series of Obama allies who have supported the military action.

"I will continue to support his efforts and I hope the Congress will as well," Clinton said at forum on wildlife trafficking, an issue that was one of her priorities at the State Department.

Clinton noted that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested a new proposal that would have Syria turn over its stockpiles but she said "the international community cannot ignore the ongoing threat of the Assad regime's stockpiling of chemical weapons."

"Now if the regime immediately surrenders its stockpile to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians that would be an important step. But this cannot be another excuse for delay and obstruction and Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely or be held to account," she said.

"The world will have to deal with this threat as swiftly and comprehensively as possible," Clinton added.

Clinton has largely avoided weighty foreign policy issues since leaving the State Department in February but her backing of Obama's plan could help persuade wary Democrats considering the administration's plan to use force in Syria in the aftermath of President Bashar Assad's alleged use on chemical weapons.

As the nation's top diplomat, Clinton supported intervening in Syria with a proposal in the summer of 2012, developed with then-CIA Director David Petraeus and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to arm vetted units of the Syrian rebels. The White House later rebuffed those efforts. Clinton also pushed attempts in the United Nations to develop a political transition in Syria and provide humanitarian aid to Syrians.

The former first lady is the Democrats' leading contender for the White House in 2016 if she decides to run for president again and any statements she makes on key policy issues could follow her into a future campaign.

Obama's quest for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was helped by his opposition to the Iraq war, a stance that he used effectively against Clinton. As a New York senator, Clinton voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war, but that position later put her in disfavor with many anti-war Democratic voters in many early voting states.

Clinton spoke about Syria at a White House forum on wildlife trafficking, where she was joined by her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other activists who discussed ways of disrupting the trafficking and poaching of African elephants and rhinos.

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11 months ago

Iraqi officials, militants warn of threat to US

BAGHDAD (AP) - Iranian-backed Shiite militias are threatening to retaliate against American interests inside Iraq if the United States goes ahead with strikes against the Tehran-allied government in neighboring Syria, according to Iraqi security officials and militants themselves.

Iraqi officials say they are taking the warnings seriously. The threats, which come as President Barack Obama's administration and Congress debate possible military action over the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons, risk exacerbating an increasingly deteriorating security environment inside Iraq.

Cleric Wathiq al-Batat, who leads the Mukhtar Army, a shadowy Iranian-backed militia, said his forces are preparing for a strong reaction against the interests of the U.S. and other countries that take part in any Syria strike. He claimed that militants have selected hundreds of potential targets, which could include both official American sites and companies "associated with the Americans."

"There is a good level of coordination with Iran on this issue and I cannot reveal more. But I can say that there will be a strong response," he told The Associated Press. "Each armed group will have duties to carry out."

Al-Batat was a senior official in Iraq's Hezbollah Brigades, which is believed to be funded and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

He rose to greater prominence earlier this year when the group he claims to lead issued threats against Sunni residents in parts of Baghdad. He later claimed responsibility for deadly rocket attacks on a Baghdad-area camp housing Iranian dissidents opposed to the clerical regime in Tehran.

Iraq's government is officially neutral on the Syrian civil war and it has called for a negotiated political solution. Iraq's Shiite leadership has bolstered ties with Shiite heavyweight Iran in the years since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and it is concerned about the threat posed by Sunni extremists, including Iraq's al-Qaida branch, fighting among the rebels

Other Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Tehran are talking tough, including the Hezbollah Brigades, which has claimed responsibility for previous attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and said recently that American and allied interests "must be removed from the region."

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed hard-line faction that also carried out deadly attacks against U.S. troops before their withdrawal, said in a statement this week that action against Syria "will set the region on fire. The interests of the Western countries will not be saved from this fire."

A senior Asaib Ahl al-Haq official said multiple armed groups within Iraq are "fully prepared to respond to any strike on Syria by attacking the interests of the countries that participate in this strike, including the United States," although he declined to specify any potential targets.

The Asaib Ahl al-Haq official, who refused to be identified, fearing retribution, said the militias are awaiting instructions from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the timing and method of any attacks.

Iranian officials in Tehran did not return calls seeking a response on Friday. The United States Embassy in Baghdad declined to comment on the reported threats.

The Wall Street Journal reported in its Friday edition that the U.S. has intercepted an order from Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, telling Iraqi militias to prepare to strike American interests inside Iraq. The Journal report quoted unnamed American officials, who said the U.S. Embassy was one potential target.

The Quds Force oversees external operations of the Guard throughout the world.

One senior Iraqi intelligence official said authorities have indications that militants are planning responses against American interests and other targets, but he declined to provide details. Another top intelligence official said that Iranian-backed militants have the ability to target sites such as the U.S. Embassy with rockets. Both officials insisted on anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss intelligence matters.

Ali al-Moussawi, the spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Iraq remains concerned about a possible military strike on Syria and reactions to it might bring in Iraq and the wider region. He was unable to provide details about any threats against the U.S. Embassy but said the government takes seriously its responsibility to protect diplomatic missions and other American interests.

"Our reaction will be strong and firm. The Iraqi government will not tolerate any groups that might be involved in such attacks, which are considered an aggression on Iraq's sovereignty," he said.

John Drake, an Iraq specialist for the British-based AKE security consulting firm, said Iranian-backed militants could respond to a Syria strike by attacking consular facilities with roadside bombs or indirect fire such as rockets and mortar shells.

"Indirect fire is often used as a tactic against facilities which are otherwise well defended," he said. It can also be very inaccurate, hitting unintended targets, he noted.

Western oil and gas facilities in Iraq's southern Shiite heartland might also be potential targets, although an attack on the lucrative energy sector "would harm the Iraqi government, which is something Tehran would want to avoid," he said.

The latest threats emerged as the U.S. State Department released an updated travel alert warning that Americans remain at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist attacks inside Iraq.

The alert did not specifically address the risks from Iranian-backed militants, although it noted that numerous insurgent groups are active and said "terrorist activity and sectarian violence persist in many areas of the country at levels unseen since 2008."

Violence in Iraq has been accelerating since April, with more than 4,000 killed in terrorist attacks over the past five months.

Sectarian tensions that are fueling the violence are being exacerbated by the civil war in Syria. Mainly Sunni rebels there are fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's Iranian-backed regime, which is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

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11 months ago

US: Chemical attacks make Syria top security risk

WASHINGTON (AP) - For the first time in more than two years of a bloody civil war, President Barack Obama has declared Syria a national security threat that must be answered with a military strike - and in doing so he is warning Americans as much about the leaders of Iran and North Korea as about Bashar Assad.

America's credibility with those countries will be an immediate casualty if it stands down now on Syria, administration officials say in making their case for U.S. missile strikes.

Following an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, the White House declared Syria's 2-year civil war a top risk to American interests. If the U.S. fails to respond, officials said this week, it could encourage other hostile governments to use or develop weapons of mass destruction without fear of being punished.

It's a connection that's not immediately clear to many Americans - especially after the White House refused to send military support earlier in the Syrian war. The recent chemical weapons attack killed 1,429 people, U.S. intelligence officials say. Other estimates are somewhat lower. The wider war has killed more than 100,000.

In House and Senate hearings this week designed to seek congressional approval to strike Assad 's government - probably with cruise missiles but not with ground troops - top administration officials pleaded with skeptical lawmakers to consider the risks of doing nothing.

"Iran is hoping you look the other way," Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Our inaction would surely give them a permission slip for them to at least misinterpret our intention, if not to put it to the test. Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day."

"They are all listening for our silence," Kerry said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised the possibility that Assad's chemical weapons stockpile, considered one of the world's largest, could be seized by his allies, including the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah. "We cannot afford for Hezbollah or any terrorist groups determined to strike the United States to have incentives to acquire or use these chemical weapons," Hagel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Vali Nasr, a former senior official in Obama's State Department, said Syria's spiraling death toll, the rise of fighters in Syria associated with al-Qaida and other extremist groups, and pressure on neighboring nations from a flood of refugees have already threatened U.S. security interests for years.

"For a very long time we reduced Syria to just a humanitarian tragedy that, as bad as it was, was not a sufficient cause for American involvement," said Nasr, now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "That meant we ignored all the other ways in which Syria was a national security threat. And for two years we tried to minimize the impact of Syria, and now all of a sudden the administration finds itself in the position of having to give sufficient urgency to Syria to justify action."

Over the past two years, the White House has mightily resisted intervening in Syria's civil war with U.S. military force. A year ago, Obama signaled the one "red line" exception would be the use of chemical weapons.

At the same time, the U.S. has used a heavy hand in years of negotiations with Iran as world powers try to persuade Tehran to significantly scale back its nuclear program, and seek to prevent its ability to build a bomb.

And Washington has repeatedly and sternly warned North Korea against launching underground nuclear tests and missiles that have rattled its regional neighbors and raised concerns that Pyongyang is building a nuclear-tipped rocket that can reach the United States.

"Iran and North Korea are carefully watching our next move," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said during the House hearing Wednesday. "A refusal to act in Syria after the president has set such a clear red line will be seen as a green light by the Iranian regime, who will see that we don't have the will to back up our words."

The administration's credibility was already at risk, however, after its muted response to a series of small-scale chemical weapons attacks this spring in Syria that killed a few dozen people.

As a result of those attacks, Obama pledged in June to increase aid to certain vetted rebel groups fighting Assad in a package that officials said included some weapons. But the aid did not start flowing until very recently and, overall, fell far short of being seen as a decisive or forceful action to punish Assad for the attacks.

Kerry on Wednesday said the scope of the August attacks - and strong intelligence indicating that Assad's government was to blame - convinced Obama that his red line had been crossed. Before now, "the president didn't want to rush into something," Kerry said.

The administration is alone in claiming such a high death toll, citing intelligence reports but refusing to be more specific. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists in Syria, said over the weekend that it has been compiling a list of the names of the dead and that its toll reached 502.

Obama, in Russia on Thursday for a world leaders' economic summit, has insisted that his red line merely mirrors that of an international treaty banning the use of chemicals weapons. The treaty has been signed by more than 180 countries, including Iran and Russia - two of Assad's key supporters.

Still, recent polls indicate meager support among Americans for using military force in Syria, and many lawmakers, including Obama's fellow Democrats, remain unconvinced.

"I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step toward full-fledged war," said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who voted against the Senate panel's plan to allow military force in Syria.

Alluding to U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost lives and money for more than a decade, Udall added: "We have been here before."

Mindful of the president's intended legacies of ending the war in Iraq and winding down the one in Afghanistan, the Obama administration recently has rejected any comparisons to Iraq, pledging that any U.S. military action will be very narrow and limited in its mission.

But in pressing the urgency in Syria, the administration reached back to the specter of 9/11 attacks - which killed almost 3,000 people 12 years ago next week - as an example of the danger of inaction.

U.S. intelligence officials warned for years before 2001 of a need to curb al-Qaida's threat before it could spread.

"What can I tell my constituents about why these strikes are in our national security interest? Why these matter to these folks who are struggling every day?" Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., asked at the House hearing.

Hagel cited "a clear, living example of how we are not insulated from the rest of the world, how things can happen to the United States in this country if we are not vigilant, and think through these things, and stay ahead of these things, and take action to prevent these things from occurring."

"Maybe something would not happen in this country for a couple of years," Hagel said. "But the 9/11 anniversary, I think, is a very clear example you can use with your constituents."

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11 months ago

La. members of Congress largely undecided on Syria

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana's congressional delegation remains hesitant and uncommitted to President Barack Obama's request for support of a U.S. military strike against Syria.

Only one member of the state's delegation, Republican Rep. John Fleming of Minden, has taken a definitive stance on the proposal. And he's in solid opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria for a suspected chemical weapons attack against its own people.

"I cannot condone putting our Armed Forces in harm's way or committing our military resources to a situation that is so filled with uncertainty and volatility. Our national security is not under threat from the Syrian civil war, and President Obama has shown no clear objective that would be accomplished by launching missiles into Syria," Fleming said in a statement.

Republican Sen. David Vitter received a classified briefing Wednesday as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Vitter came away undecided.

He called the hearing helpful, but added in a statement, "The bottom line is I walked into it with serious concerns about the President's plan and walked out with the same concerns."

Louisiana's two Democrats, Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Cedric Richmond, regularly vote with the president. But they also have not committed to support Obama's request for a military strike.

Richmond issued a statement that initially seemed to back the White House: "I support President Obama's decision to engage with Congress as we join the global community to ensure that this grave human offense is addressed. When the Assad regime decided to rain chemical warfare on more than 1,400 people, including 400 children, it became a matter of national security."

But Richmond spokeswoman Monique Waters said Wednesday that the statement just expressed general support for congressional engagement - not a specific yes vote for the military action - and she described the New Orleans congressman as undecided.

GOP Reps. Steve Scalise of Metairie and Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge agreed that Obama should pose the question to Congress, rather than take military action on his own, but they didn't say how they would vote now that the decision rests with them.

Rep. Charles Boustany, a Republican from Lafayette, was "skeptical" of such a military strike option, according to his spokesman Neal Patel.

The dean of Louisiana's House members, Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander, who is leaving Congress at the end of the month for a state cabinet position, appeared to be leaning against a military strike in Syria.

"At this time, Congressman Alexander does not feel it is in our best interests to take military action. However, he believes a thorough congressional debate is critical before any decisions are made regarding how to proceed," spokeswoman Jamie Hanks said in an email.

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11 months ago

US spies missed signs of Aug. 21 Syrian WMD Strike

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. intelligence agencies did not detect the Syrian regime readying a massive chemical weapons attack in the days ahead of the strike, only piecing together what had happened after the fact, U.S. officials say.

One of the key pieces of intelligence Secretary of State John Kerry later used to link the attack to the Syrian government - intercepts of communications telling Syrian military units to prepare for the strikes - was in the hands of U.S. intelligence agencies but had not yet been "processed," according to senior U.S. officials.

That explains why the White House didn't warn either the regime or the rebels who might be targeted as it had done when detecting previous preparations for chemical strikes.

"We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime's chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations," Kerry said as he presented the evidence in a State Department speech last week. "We know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons."

But the Obama administration only uncovered the evidence after Syrians started posting reports of the strike from the scene of the attack, leading U.S. spies and analysts to focus on satellite and other evidence showing a Syrian chemical weapons unit was preparing chemical munitions before the strike, according to two current U.S. officials and two former senior intelligence officials.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.

The spokesman for the director of national intelligence confirmed that U.S. intelligence did not detect the massive chemical weapons attack beforehand.

"Let's be clear, the United States did not watch, in real time, as this horrible attack took place," Shawn Turner said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday. "The intelligence community was able to gather and analyze information after the fact and determine that elements of the Assad regime had in fact taken steps to prepare prior to using chemical weapons," Turner said.

Turner offered no reason for the delay in processing the intelligence, but current and former intelligence officials said analysts were stretched too thin with the multiple streams of intelligence coming out of multiple conflict zones, from Syria to Libya to Yemen.

In December, U.S. intelligence detected Syria's military was readying chemical weapons for use, and President Barack Obama warned the Syrian government publicly that such use was "totally unacceptable" and that the country's leaders would be held accountable.

The White House is now asking Congress to approve a punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which the administration blames for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.

The administration says 1,429 died in the attack. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower.

Kerry and other officials are laying out the intelligence in open and closed sessions with lawmakers, explaining why the U.S. intelligence community last week issued a "high confidence" report implicating the Syrian regime - a conclusion echoed by British and French intelligence in similar reports made public since the attack.

Senior administration officials explained last week that the U.S. intelligence community had reconstructed a picture of the attack, from satellite and signals intercepts that indicated to them that troops from Syria's military unit that handles chemical weapons, the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, were readying such weapons. That conclusion was backed up, however, by a carefully written sentence that indicated the intelligence was somewhat circumstantial: "Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating ... near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin."

The report says U.S. intelligence intercepted communications after the attack by a "senior official intimately familiar with the offensive" who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government, and was concerned that the U.N. inspectors might find evidence of the attack. The report also says the U.S. has intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to "cease operations" on the afternoon of Aug. 21, several hours after the attack.

The U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence say such intercepts were in hand but waiting to be processed among hours of intercepted military communications.

The CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency have dozens officers on the ground in countries neighboring Syria, relying on a network of rebels and local agents to provide human intelligence on the goings on of both the regime and its opponents. The Pentagon also has satellites focused on the area, capturing images of the regime and rebel maneuvers, while various types of airborne platforms collect electronic transmissions such as military radio traffic or cellphone calls.

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11 months ago

Syria's neighbors seek more help for refugees

GENEVA (AP) - Top officials from four nations harboring more than 1.8 million Syrian refugees say they badly need outside help to care for those fleeing the violence.

In a joint statement Wednesday, the foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon's social affairs minister and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urgently appealed for greater international support for the refugees.

Guterres says Syria's neighbors are paying a heavy price to deal with Syria's civil war. His agency says the conflict has forced over 2 million people out of the country - more than half of them children - and displaced over 4 million others within its borders since March 2011.

He says there are 716,000 refugees in Lebanon, 515,000 in Jordan, 460,000 in Turkey, 168,000 in Iraq and 110,000 in Egypt.

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11 months ago

Boustany Says "No" on Syria Attack, For Now

U.S. involvement in Syria will all come down to a vote in Congress. The vote could possibly happen within the week. Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reached an agreement on a resolution to use military force against Syria. Congressional aides say the panel will vote on that measure tomorrow, which will limit the duration of any military involvement and ban U.S. troops from being on the ground.

Acadiana's congressional delegation is also weighing in on the issue. Congressman Charles Boustany met with constituents in a town hall setting in New Iberia. The town hall is used for any question to be asked to the congressman, but Syria dominated the conversation.

"I am very, very skeptical and very, very reluctant to agree to agree to an authorization of force," Congressman Boustany said.

He says if he had to vote tonight, his vote would be no.

"You can't solve a complex diplomatic problem and political settlement just by lobing a few rockets," he said.

Boustany reiterated his stance is against conflict at this time, but he has questions that need to be answered before a final decision can be made.

"The important thing is if there is going to be use of military force it's got to be coupled with a long term strategy and a real clear plan on how that's going to play out," he said.

As of now, Boustany believes if a vote were held today Congress would shoot down the idea of attacking. As for other government officials who feel not attacking would hurt U.S. credibility, Boustany points out the trouble of doing the wrong thing.

"Yeah credibility is at stake, but if we take the wrong action and we foul this up and we get ourselves into a quagmire our credibility is at stake."

Boustany says he will be returning to Washington D.C. early to get his questions answered through a series of classified meetings before congress begins voting. A vote could come as early as Monday.

Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter both applaud the President for seeking congressional approval. Vitter is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and tells KATC he'll be participating in a briefing Wednesday to get a clearer picture of the administration's strategy.

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11 months ago

Jindal: Obama must describe goal of Syrian strike

Governor Bobby Jindal, considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate, hasn't taken a side on whether he supports President Barack Obama's request for a military strike against Syria.

Jindal, a Republican, said Tuesday that the Obama administration needs to more clearly lay out its case for why the Syrian government should face U.S. military action for a suspected chemical weapons attack against its own people.

Congress will consider whether to authorize the military strike.

Jindal, a former congressman, says the president needs to articulate what America's "clear national, strategic interests" are in an intervention in the Syrian conflict, what the goal in military action would be and how America would achieve its objectives.

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11 months ago

Boehner says he supports Obama on Syria

House Speaker John Boehner says he will support President Barack Obama's call for the U.S. to take action against Syria for alleged chemical weapons use and says his Republican colleagues should support the president, too.

The Ohio Republican says the use of chemical weapons must be responded to. He says only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad and warn others around the world that such actions will not be tolerated.

Said Boehner: "This is something that the United States as a country needs to do."

He spoke at the White House Tuesday after he and other congressional leaders met with Obama.

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11 months ago

Obama seeks support for Syria strike at G-20

Facing roadblocks at home and abroad, President Barack Obama this week plans to urge reluctant world leaders to back an American-led strike against Syria even though the prospects for military action depend on the votes of a fractured U.S. Congress.

The uncertainty surrounding Syria will hang over the president's three-day overseas trip, which includes a global summit in Russia after a stop in Sweden. So will Obama's tense relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the world leader who is hosting the Group of 20 gathering and has perhaps done the most to stymie international efforts to oust Syria's Bashar Assad.

"It's been like watching a slow-moving train wreck for nearly two years," Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Obama-Putin relationship. "Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama don't like each other at all. I think there's a deep degree of disrespect."

That's not Obama's only headache as he embarks on the long-planned trip.

The timing pulls him away from Washington just as he's urgently seeking to rally lawmakers to support military action in Syria in response to what the administration says was a chemical weapons attack. And his unexpected announcement over the weekend that he would punt the decision to Congress on whether to strike Syria may have stoked doubts among world leaders about his willingness to make good on his threats to rogue nations.

Before a White House meeting Tuesday with lawmakers whose votes he'll need, Obama said he's confident he'll be able to work with Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the strike on Syria. Obama indicated that he's open to changes to his request for congressional authorization, which he said must send a clear message to Syrian President Bashar Assad and hamper his ability to use chemical weapons.

While Syria isn't officially on the agenda at the economy-focused G-20 summit, Obama administration officials say the president sees the gathering as an opportunity to press his counterparts to support military action against the Assad regime. World leaders also will seek guidance from the U.S. president about whether he plans to proceed with a strike if Congress rejects his proposed resolution - a question Obama's aides have refused to answer.

Obama spoke about Syria ahead of the meeting by telephone Monday night with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the White House said Tuesday. A White House statement said Obama and Abe pledged to consult on a possible international response.

Votes in the House and the Senate are expected next week, just after Obama wraps up his trip.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been pushing for stronger action in Syria, said he expected Obama to continue his outreach with Congress even while traveling.

"It's harder when you're overseas," McCain said after meeting with Obama at the White House on Monday, "but he's been manning the phones here the whole time and he'll continue to do that. He's all in on this, obviously."

Obama is to arrive in Stockholm on Wednesday morning after an overnight flight from Washington.

The White House hastily added the Sweden visit to Obama's schedule after he scrapped plans to meet one-on-one with Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20. That came in response to the Kremlin granting temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, defying Obama's requests to send the former NSA systems analyst back to the U.S. to face espionage charges.

Snowden's leaks to American and foreign news organizations about secret government spying programs have sparked outrage overseas, particularly in Europe. Obama is likely to face questions about the scope of the programs while overseas, as he did earlier this summer during meetings with the Group of 8 industrial nations.

Even before the Snowden incident, relations between the U.S. and Russia were already on the rocks amid differences on missile defense and nuclear weapons, as well as American concerns over human rights and a new Russian law that targets "homosexual propaganda." Russian gay rights activists say they have been invited to meet with Obama while he is in St. Petersburg this week.

Putin also has appeared to relish blocking American and Western European efforts to weaken Assad throughout Syria's 2½-year civil war. Russia remains one of Syria's strongest military and economic backers.

In a pointed jab last week, Putin asked Obama to reconsider a military strike, saying he was appealing to Obama not as a world leader, but as a Nobel Peace laureate.

"We have to remember what has happened in the last decades, how many times the United States has been the initiator of armed conflict in different regions of the world," Putin said. "Did this resolve even one problem?"

Administration officials insist the U.S. and Russia can still work productively together during the G-20, though in a slight to Putin, the White House has gone out of its way to characterize the trip as less of a visit to Russia than a trip to the G-20 that happened to be taking place there.

The White House also has ruled out a one-on-one meeting between Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the summit, though the two leaders certainly will spend time together in the larger summit sessions.

Obama is expected to have formal bilateral meetings with other leaders during the two-day summit. While those meetings are yet to be announced, the president may sit down with counterparts from Britain and France, two nations whose deliberations about Syria have affected his own.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has backed Obama's calls for a retaliatory strike against Syria. But seeking broader global consensus, Britain pushed for a U.N. Security Council authorization that flopped last week. A day later, Cameron suffered a stinging humiliation when Britain's Parliament voted against endorsing military action, all but guaranteeing Britain won't play a direct role in any U.S.-led effort.

But France provides Obama an opportunity to show it's not just the U.S. that's convinced it's time to act on Syria. French President Francois Hollande has said his country can go ahead with a strike, and the French constitution doesn't require such a vote unless and until a military intervention lasts longer than four months. France's parliament is scheduled to debate the issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled.

Obama's stop in Sweden on Wednesday will focus on issues such as climate change, security cooperation and trade. The trip marks the first time a sitting U.S. president has made a bilateral visit to Sweden.

While in Stockholm, Obama will hold private meetings with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and King Carl XVI Gustaf, and will break bread with Nordic leaders from Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. He also will highlight Sweden's technical research programs and celebrate Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited for saving at least 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust before mysteriously disappearing after being detained by authorities in the Soviet Union near the end of World War II.

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11 months ago

Cabinet officials to talk to Congress about Syria

President Barack Obama said Tuesday he's confident Congress will authorize a military strike in Syria, as lawmakers were holding their first public hearing about how to respond to respond to last month's alleged sarin gas attack outside Damascus.

Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House as part of his push to win over support for his request for authorization for limited military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. He indicated he is open to changing the language to address lawmakers' concerns, but urged them to hold a prompt vote.

"So long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished, which is to send a clear message to Assad, to degrade his capabilities to use chemical weapons, not just now but also in the future, as long as the authorization allows us to do that, I'm confident that we're going to be able to come up with something that hits that mark," Obama said.

With war-weary Americans skeptical of sparking another long-winded intervention, Obama tried to assure the public involvement in Syria will be a "limited, proportional step."

"This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan," Obama said.

After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, polls show most Americans opposed to any new military action overseas. That reluctance is being reflected by senators and representatives, some of whom say Obama still hasn't presented bulletproof evidence that Assad's forces were responsible for the Aug. 21 attack. Others say the president hasn't explained why intervening is in America's interest.

The meeting in the Cabinet room included House speaker John Boehner, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with other members of leadership and the heads of the committees on armed services, foreign relations and intelligence. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey also attended before heading over to Capitol Hill for testimony later in the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A classified briefing open to all members of Congress was to take place as well.

Obama won conditional support Monday from two of his fiercest foreign policy critics, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

A congressional vote against Obama's request "would be catastrophic in its consequences" for U.S. credibility abroad, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hour-long private meeting with the president.

But despite Obama's effort to assuage the two senators' concerns, neither appeared completely convinced afterward. They said they'd be more inclined to back Obama if the U.S. sought to destroy the Assad government's launching capabilities and committed to providing more support to rebels seeking to oust Assad from power.

"There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning," Graham said.

McCain said Tuesday he is prepared to vote for the authorization that Obama seeks, but the Arizona Republican also said he wouldn't back a resolution that fails to change the battlefield equation, where Assad still has the upper hand.

In an appearance on NBC's "Today" show, McCain called it "an unfair fight" and said that if the authorization for U.S. military intervention doesn't change the balance of power, it "will not have the desired effect."

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes the panel will back Obama if the administration explains "the full case" for the use of force as well as what it sees as the end result. "Not acting has huge consequences," Menendez said on "CBS This Morning" Tuesday.

"It sends a message" not just to Syria, he said, but to Iran, North Korea and terrorist groups.

After a Labor Day weekend spent listening to concerned constituents, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said the administration needed to make its case on these points, if only to counter the misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating about Obama's plans.

"Several people asked me if we were only interested in getting Syria's oil," Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It's important that Americans get the facts."

Petroleum is hardly the most pertinent question. Even before Syria's hostilities began, its oil industry contributed less than half a percent of the world's total output. And Obama has expressly ruled out sending American troops into Syria or proposing deeper involvement in the Arab country's violent civil war.

But such queries are a poignant reminder of the task awaiting the administration as it argues that the United States must exert global leadership in retaliating for what apparently was the deadliest use of chemical weapons anywhere over the past 25 years.

Obama has insisted he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes in the language of the resolution, which Congress was expected to begin considering next week.

In a conference call Monday with House Democrats, several members of Obama's own party challenged the administration's assertions.

In a post on his website, Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., reflected a view shared by at least some of his colleagues: "I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."

Their skepticism is shared by many tea party Republicans and others, whose views range from ideological opposition to any U.S. military action overseas to narrower fears about authorizing the use of force without clear constraints on timing, costs and scope of the intervention.

The most frequent recurring questions: How convinced is American intelligence about the Assad regime's culpability for the chemical attack, a decade after woefully misrepresenting the case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction? And how does a military response advance U.S. national security interests?

Pressuring the administration in the opposite direction are hawks and proponents of humanitarian intervention among both Democrats and Republicans who feel what Obama is proposing is far too little.

Obama's task is complicated further because he leaves for a three-day trip to Europe on Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden and then attending the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The White House said Tuesday that Obama spoke to a key ally in the G-20, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, by telephone Monday night to discuss Syria and pledged to continue to consult on a possible international response.

The simple case for action is the administration's contention that the sarin gas attack violated not only the international standard against using such weapons but also Obama's "red line," set more than a year ago, that such WMD use wouldn't be tolerated.

The U.S. said it has proof that the Assad regime is behind attacks that Washington claims killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-regime activists, says it has so far only been able to confirm 502 dead.

Intervening in Syria's conflict is no light matter, however. Having claimed more than 100,000 lives in the past 2½ years, the fight has evolved from a government crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement into a full-scale civil war scarily reminiscent of the one that ravaged Iraq over the last decade. Ethnic massacres have been committed by both sides, which each employ terrorist organizations as allies.

Since Obama's stunning announcement Saturday that he'd seek congressional authority, dozens of members of Congress have issued statements. Most have praised the administration for its course of action, and several have suggested they are leaning one way or another. But precious few have come out definitively one way or another.

McCain said he believed many members were still "up for grabs."

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11 months ago

Obama tries persuading the skeptical on Syria

WASHINGTON | President Barack Obama worked on Monday to persuade skeptical lawmakers to endorse a U.S. military intervention in civil war-wracked Syria, winning conditional support from two leading Senate foreign policy hawks even as he encountered resistance from members of his own party after two days of a determined push to sell the plan.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama still needs to make a strong case for attacking the regime of President Bashar Assad, but they toned down past criticism that the president's plan was too weak to change the course of the fighting in Syria in favor of the opposition.

"We have to make it clear that a vote against this would be catastrophic in its consequences," now and in future international crises, McCain told reporters outside the White House following an hour-long private meeting that he and Graham had with Obama and White House national security adviser Susan Rice.

But the outcome of any vote remained in doubt amid continued skepticism in a war-weary Congress. Several Democrats in a conference call with administration officials pushed back against military action, questioning both the intelligence about a chemical attack last month outside Damascus and the value of an intervention to United States interests, according to aides on the call. Others demanded narrower authorization than that requested by the administration.

"The White House has put forward a proposed bill authorizing the use of force that, as drafted, is far too broad and open ended, and could be used to justify everything from a limited cruise missile strike to a no fly zone and the introduction of American ground troops," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House intelligence committee.

Obama has insisted that he will not send troops into Syria and that he was considering a military operation that was limited in duration and scope. The White House said Monday that Obama was open to working with Congress to make changes to the language of the resolution.

In a post on his website, Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan of Minnesota reflected a view shared by others: "I want you to know that I am vehemently opposed to a military strike that would clearly be an act of war against Syria, especially under such tragic yet confusing circumstances as to who is responsible for the use of chemical weapons."

After changing course and deciding to seek congressional approval for military action, Obama is confronted with one of his most difficult foreign policy tests and faces a Congress divided over an unavoidably tough vote-of-conscience on overseas conflict rather than the more customary partisan fights over domestic policy.

"My impression is that a lot of people are up for grabs," McCain said.

Following months of rejecting direct intervention in Syria, Obama and his aides now want to strike at the Assad regime in response to a reported chemical attack that the Obama administration says was carried out by Assad's military. The administration says more than 1,400 people were killed, including more than 400 children.

Obama was trying to find a middle ground that would attract a majority in the House and the Senate - a difficult task complicated further because Obama is leaving for a three-day trip to Europe Tuesday night, visiting Stockholm, Sweden, and then attending an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The visit is all the more significant because Russia has sided with the Syrian regime. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Monday the information the U.S. showed Moscow to prove the Syrian regime was behind the chemical attack was "absolutely unconvincing."

In a daring move, Russian President Vladimir Putin was considering sending a delegation of Russian lawmakers to the United States to discuss the situation in Syria with members of Congress, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.

The White House is engaging in what officials call a "flood-the-zone" persuasion strategy with Congress, arguing that failure to act against Assad would weaken any deterrence against the use of chemical weapons and could embolden not only Assad but also Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah - an argument Obama reiterated in his meeting with McCain and Graham.

On Tuesday, Obama scheduled a meeting with leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees, the foreign relations committees and the intelligence committees.

On Tuesday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify publicly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier Tuesday, other members of the administration's national security and intelligence teams were to hold a classified, closed-door briefing for all members of Congress. A similar session was held Sunday and more will be held Thursday and Friday.

Kerry will also testify Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Kerry and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper will hold a classified briefing Wednesday with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Members of the House Democratic caucus participated in an unclassified conference call Monday with Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, Kerry, Hagel, Clapper and Dempsey.

Following their white House meeting, McCain and Graham, who often speak in unison on foreign policy matters, said they were more inclined to back Obama's call for military action against Syria if it helps destroy the regime's missile launching capabilities and if the U.S. commits to provide more assistance to Syrian opposition forces.

"A degrading strike limited in scope could have a beneficial effect to the battlefield momentum," Graham said. "There will never be a political settlement in Syria as long as Assad is winning."

McCain, who was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 and lost to Obama, said Obama clearly was asking for his help in rounding up votes. "I don't think he called us over because we're old campaign pals," he joked.

A senior state department official said Kerry called Syrian rebel commander Salim Idris on Monday discuss Obama's decision to seek congressional authority and to express confidence that U.S. military action would hold Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons, deter his behavior and degrade the regime's ability to carry out such attacks. He also stressed the need for a "strong and unified moderate opposition."

As recently as Saturday, McCain and Graham issued a joint statement saying they could not support isolated military strikes that were not part of a broader strategy to change the momentum of the civil war and result in Assad's removal from power.

After Monday's meeting, McCain said: "Now we are talking about ways of approaching this issue in a way that could be effective. We've got to see more, but at least they are talking about some options that I think could work. "

Asked whether Obama would expand his targets in Syria, McCain alluded to the Navy's decision to place two aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. The USS Truman arrived in the region to take the place of the USS Nimitz, which was supposed to head home. But the Navy ordered the Nimitz to stay for now.

"I don't think it's an accident that the aircraft carriers are in the region." McCain said.

U.S. officials, however, have described the decision as prudent planning and have said it doesn't suggest the Nimitz would play a role in any possible strikes in Syria.

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11 months ago

Obama seeking lawmakers' approval for Syria strike

President Barack Obama says he has decided that the United States should take military action against Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack.

But he says he will seek congressional authorization for the use of force.

He says congressional leadership plans to hold a debate and a vote as soon as Congress comes back in September.

Obama says he has the authority to act on his own, but believes it is important for the country to have a debate.

Military action would be in response to a chemical weapons attack the U.S. says Syrian President Bashar Assad's government carried out against civilians. The U.S. says more than 1,400 Syrians were killed in that attack last week.

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11 months ago

Obama holds Syria meeting ahead of intel release

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama is convening senior national security advisers at the White House to discuss plans for possible military action against Syria.

The meeting should be followed by public release of a report on intelligence the U.S. has gathered about last week's deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Obama says the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad (bah-SHAR' AH'-sahd) perpetrated the attack. But he has yet to present definitive evidence to back up the assertion.

Secretary of State John Kerry will speak about the intelligence report and the broader situation in Syria from the State Department Friday afternoon.

Obama may also speak about Syria during the public portion of a White House meeting with Baltic leaders.

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11 months ago

Mounting tensions with Syria sink US stocks

NEW YORK (AP) - Fears of an escalating conflict in Syria rippled across financial markets on Tuesday, sinking stocks, lifting gold and pushing the price of oil to the highest in a year and a half.

A day after Secretary of State John Kerry said there was "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical attack in Syria, tensions between the U.S. and the regime of Bashar Assad mounted. Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel said the U.S. military was ready to strike if President Barrack Obama gave the order. Syria's foreign minister said his country would defend itself.

The threats raised worries on Wall Street that the U.S. was more likely to attack Syria. That could disrupt energy trade in the region, which in turn could hurt other markets as well as the economy.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 159 points, or 1.1 percent, to 14,791 in late afternoon trading, the biggest decline in two weeks. The drop extended losses from Monday afternoon, when Kerry denounced Syria and caused the market to sag in the final hour of trading.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 23 points, or 1.4 percent, to 1,634 and the Nasdaq composite fell 71 points, or 1.8 percent, to 3,586.

"The law of unintended consequences and the history of previous military interventions in the region is not a recipe for political and economic stability," said Neil MacKinnon, global macro strategist at VTB Capital.

The sell-off in U.S. stocks was broad. All 10 industry sectors in the S&P 500 index were in the red, and only 21 of the 500 stocks in the index rose. Utilities and other high dividend-paying stocks escaped the selling.

The impact wasn't just in stocks. Gold prices advanced and government bond prices jumped because traders see those investments holding their value better in times of uncertainty. Oil surged $3.03, or 2.9 percent, to $108.94, a level last reached in May 2011.

While Syria itself has little oil, traders feared an intervention in Syria could cause further instability in the Middle East and possibly disrupt the flow of oil from the region.

"People worry about this becoming a worst-case scenario and turning into a regional conflict," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Asset Management.

Energy prices dragged down the airline sector on concerns that higher oil prices could lead to higher fuel costs. United Continental Holdings, the world's largest airline by revenue, dropped $2.11, or 7.1 percent, to $27.75 and Delta Air Lines lost $1.25, or 6.1 percent, to $19.02.

Stone said oil prices could start weighing on consumer spending down the road, but it is still too early to gauge the longer-term impact.

The average price for a gallon of gasoline remained unchanged in the U.S. at $3.54 a gallon. Prices have held steady over the past week, and are down 9 cents from a month ago.

Concerns over a U.S.-Syria conflict spilled over into global markets.

In Europe, the Britain's FTSE 100 index fell 0.8 percent at 6,440 while Germany's DAX fell 2.3 percent to 8,242. The CAC 40 in France was 2.4 percent lower at 3,968.

In corporate news, discount shoe seller DSW jumped $6.33, or 7.8 percent, to $87.65 after the company reported an adjusted profit of 97 cents per share, easily beating analysts' estimate of 80 cents per share, according to FactSet.

J.C. Penney rose 20 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $13.55 after the company's biggest investor, Bill Ackman, said he plans to sell his entire stake in the discount department store chain.

Wall Street is also digesting two economic reports, one on U.S. consumer sentiment, the other on home prices. The Conference Board said its consumer confidence index rose to 81.5 in August, up from 80.3 the month before. Economists had expected 79, according to FactSet.

The Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index rose 12.1 percent in June from a year earlier, nearly matching a seven-year high. But month-over-month price gains slowed in most markets, a sign that higher mortgage rates may be weighing on the housing recovery.

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11 months ago

Israel's Peres calls on UN to stop Syria bloodshed

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's president is calling on the United Nations to appoint the Arab League to set up a temporary government in Syria to stop the bloodshed.

Shimon Peres' comments Monday mark the highest-profile Israeli call for international intervention in neighboring Syria. Israel has been careful to stay on the sidelines of Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 100,000. But international demands have been growing for action amid allegations that the regime launched a chemical weapons attack against rebels last week.

Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate, said the international community must first remove all chemical weapons from Syria so they cannot be used again. Peres said "foreigners will not understand what is going on in Syria" so the U.N. should give task the Arab League with setting up a government.

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11 months ago

US pressed to react to violence in Syria, Egypt

WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. is poised to suspend another major weapons shipment to Egypt amid deep divisions within the Obama administration over whether to cut off aid to the military-backed government. The debate mirrors similar disagreements over intervening in Syria, where there are new reports that chemical weapons have been used by the government.

Factions within the administration line up largely along two fronts: those who want the U.S. to take more decisive action to counter widespread violence in both Egypt and Syria, and senior military and some diplomatic leaders who are arguing for moderation.

The lack of a unified position - both within the administration and on Capitol Hill - is giving Obama time and space for his cautious approach. But it also poses a moral question: How far should the U.S. go to stop violence against civilians when its actions could drag America into the war in Syria or damage U.S. relations with Egypt - and undermine the Egypt-Israel peace accord.

The next military weapons shipments for Egypt are scheduled for next month - including 10 Apache helicopters at a cost of about $500 million. Also scheduled for delivery are a number of M1A1 tank kits, including machine guns and other equipment used with the tanks, as well as some used missiles. The missiles, which have been moved and handled, but not yet fired, could be used for spare parts by the Egyptian military or they could be refurbished and fired.

According to senior U.S. officials, however, the administration is expected to delay the delivery of Apache helicopters. That move, which may not come until next week, would be the second major weapons sale put on hold by the U.S. in an effort to pressure the Egyptian military to halt bloodshed and take steps toward a more peaceful transition to democracy.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly

The Pentagon has argued for pragmatism in the U.S. response to Egypt. Defense officials say cutting off aid would threaten key national security agreements and could rattle the peace between Egypt and Israel. Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say that would rob the U.S. of any continuing leverage, and also risk agreements that give America access to the Suez Canal and allow military flights over Egypt.

Even as officials continue to review aid to Egypt, the U.S. military has continued shipments of thousands of spare parts for American weapons systems used by the Egyptian forces, including armored bulldozers for border security, radars and missiles.

Meanwhile, the latest concerns about chemical weapons in Syria prompted a 90-minute meeting of the U.S. national security team. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is on vacation, attended via video teleconference and made a flurry of telephone calls to world leaders to discuss the unrelenting bloodshed in Syria.

So far, the U.S. response on both Egypt and Syria has been measured. That cautious approach is riling those who believe America should take immediate action against actions by Egypt's military and Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

To express displeasure about the Egyptian crackdown on demonstrators calling for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, the U.S. suspended the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt and canceled biennial U.S.-Egyptian military exercises planned for next month. Obama has said that America's long-term cooperation with Egypt "cannot continue as usual."

On Syria, the United States said in June that it had conclusive evidence that Assad's government had used chemical weapons against opposition forces. That crossed what Obama had called a "red line" and prompted a U.S. decision to send arms to Syrian rebels, including guns, ammunition and shoulder-fired, anti-tank grenades.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said between 1,000 to 1,800 people were killed in the latest alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus. She said Obama had directed the U.S. intelligence community to urgently gather additional information but that "at this time right now, we are unable to conclusively determine chemical weapons use."

"The red line is the use of chemical weapons," she said. "That was crossed a couple of months ago. ... If these reports are true, it would be an outrageous and flagrant escalation of use of chemical weapons by the regime."

She said Kerry had spoken on the phone with Syrian National Coalition chief, Ahmad al-Jarba, to express U.S. condolences to the Syrian people, to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and to other foreign officials.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday raised the possibility of the international community using force. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said at a news conference in Berlin, "Several red lines have been crossed - if sanctions are not imposed immediately, then we will lose our power to deter."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading advocate of a more aggressive U.S. response to the events in Syria, said on CNN that "If (Assad) feels there's not going to be any retaliation," he would see that "the word of the president of the United States can no longer be taken seriously."

So far, top military leaders have cautioned against even limited action in Syria.

Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said in a letter this week to a congressman that the U.S. military is clearly capable of taking out Assad's air force and shifting the balance of the war toward the armed opposition. But such an approach would plunge the U.S. into the war without offering any strategy for ending what has become a sectarian fight, he said.

But Congress is divided.

The GOP is split between hawks such as McCain and tea party isolationists including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. In between there is no clear picture either, with moderates such as Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee voicing opposition to a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone while others say it is time to act.

On Egypt, the picture is even murkier. Paul, Cruz and 11 other senators voted to halt all U.S. aid to military leaders last month, but were defeated as a majority of Republicans and all Democrats backed continued assistance. Many in both parties stressed the importance of maintaining U.S. leverage and supporting Israel's security. Since then, however, McCain and some others have switched sides, saying U.S. funds now should be suspended given the harshness of the Egyptian government's crackdown on Islamist opponents.

Among Democrats, Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Carl Levin of Michigan believe U.S. law compels a halt in aid to Egypt until democracy is restored. Most of their colleagues disagree. And on Syria, some in Obama's party see the president wading dangerously toward war by authorizing weapons deliveries to the rebels, while liberal hawks and humanitarian interventionists believe he is doing far too little.

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11 months ago

Syrian activists claim deadly 'toxic gas' attack

BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian anti-government activists accused the regime of carrying out a toxic gas attack that killed at least 100 people, including many children as they slept, during intense artillery and rocket barrages Wednesday on the eastern suburbs of Damascus, part of a fierce government offensive in the area.

The attack coincided with the visit by a 20-member U.N. chemical weapons team to Syria to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred during the past year. Their presence raises questions about why the regime - which called the claims of the attack Wednesday "absolutely baseless" - would use chemical agents at this time.

Shocking images emerged from the purported attack, showing pale, lifeless bodies of children lined up on floors of makeshift hospitals and others with oxygen masks on their faces as they were attended to by paramedics. One appeared to be a toddler clad in diapers. There was no visible blood or wounds on their skin.

The reported death toll Wednesday would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria's civil war. There were conflicting reports, however, as to what exactly transpired and the death toll ranged from a hundred to 1,300. Syria's Information Minister called the activists' claim a "disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead" the U.N. mission.

France's president demanded the United Nations be granted access to the site of Wednesday's alleged attack, while Britain's foreign secretary said if the claims are verified it would mark "a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria."

The White House said the U.S. was "deeply concerned" by the reports. Spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House had requested that the U.N. "urgently investigate this new allegation."

"If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the U.N. team's immediate and unfettered access to this site," Earnest said.

The Egypt-based Arab League condemned the "horrific attack" against civilians and called for an investigation.

The heavy shelling starting around 3 a.m. local time pounded the capital's eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. The intensive bombardment, as well as the sound of fighter jets, could be heard by residents of the Syrian capital throughout the night and early Wednesday. Gray smoke hung over towns in the eastern suburbs.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said the activists in the area said "poisonous gas" was fired in rockets as well as from the air in the attack. He said that he has documented at least 100 deaths, but said it was not clear whether the victims died from shelling or toxic gas.

Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the shelling. The Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main opposition group in exile, put the number at 1,300. The group said it was basing its claim on accounts and photographs by activists on the ground.

Such different figures from activists groups are common in the immediate aftermaths of attacks in Syria, where the government restricts foreign and domestic reporting.

George Sabra, a senior member of the Coalition, blamed the regime, as well as "the weakness of the U.N. and American hesitation" for the deaths. "The silence of our friends is killing us," he said, adding that Wednesday's attack effectively killed off any chance for peace negotiations with the regime.

Syria is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin. The government refuses to confirm or deny it possesses such weapons.

In June, the U.S. said it had conclusive evidence that Assad's regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. That crossed what President Barack Obama called a "red line," prompting a U.S. decision to begin arming rebel groups, although that has not happened yet.

An opposition activist and a pharmacist in the town of Arbeen who identified himself by the pseudonym Abu Ahmad said he attended to dozens of injured people in a field hospital after the shelling on Zamalka and Ein Tarma early Wednesday. He said many were moved to Arbeen.

He said bodies of 63 of the dead had indications of a chemical weapons attack but he could not confirm this.

"Their mouths were foaming, their pupils were constricted, and those who were brought in while still alive could not draw their breaths and died subsequently," he told The Associated Press via Skype. "The skin around their eyes and noses was grayish."

Abu Ahmad, who declined to give his real name fearing for his own safety, said he based his belief that the symptoms could indicate a chemical weapon attack because he had attended to two victims two months ago brought in from Jobar, a neighborhood in Damascus, who had the same symptoms and were believed to have been injured in a chemical attack.

Activists in Zamalka told Abu Ahmed that an additional 200 people died in that town on Wednesday. Arbeen is 5 kilometers (3 miles) to the northeast of Damascus.

The Syrian government denied the claims of a chemical weapons attack Wednesday.

"All what has been said is ridiculous and naive, unscientific, illogical and subjective," said Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, speaking to Syrian state television.

He said the organized media campaign was a result of the regime's successful operations against rebels on the ground.

The head of the U.N. team in Syria to investigate previous claims of alleged chemical attacks said he wants to look into the latest claims.

Speaking to Swedish broadcaster SVT, Ake Sellstrom said the high numbers of killed and wounded being reported "sound suspicious."

"It looks like something we need to look into," Sellstrom, who is Swedish, was quoted as saying.

He said a formal request from a member state would have to go through U.N. channels and Syria would need to agree - and there is no guarantee that it would.

France said they will ask the U.N. to visit the site of Wednesday's alleged attack.

President Francois Hollande, speaking at a regular Cabinet meeting, said the latest allegations "require verification and confirmation," according to government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Hollande would ask the U.N. to go to the site "to shed full light" on the allegations.

The EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, said the accusations should be immediately and thoroughly investigated. "The mission must be allowed full and unhindered access to all sites on the Syrian territory according to its requirements," her office said in a statement.

Germany and Turkey also called for immediate U.N. access to the site of the alleged attack.

The Syrian government long has denied claims by the opposition on chemical weapons use, while saying rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad's government have used such weapons.

Following Wednesday's reports, the Observatory called upon the U.N. team in Syria and all international organizations "to visit the stricken areas and to guarantee that medical and relief supplies reach the people as soon as possible." It also called for an investigation into the attack.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the area, told the AP via Skype that hundreds of dead and injured people were rushed to six makeshift hospitals in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

"This is a massacre by chemical weapons," Saeed said. "The visit by the U.N. team is a joke. ... Bashar is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care."

An activist group in Arbeen posted on its Facebook page pictures purporting to show rows of Syrian children, wrapped in white death shrouds, and others with their chests bared. There appeared to be very little signs of blood or physical wounds on the bodies.

An amateur video showed four children on the floor of a makeshift hospital, apparently unconscious, as a doctor is seen giving them some sort of shots. A bit later, a child starts shaking slowly.

"Is this baby girl a terrorist?" a man could be heard asking. "God willing, we will bring his regime down. He (Assad) is killing Sunni children in front of the whole world."

"Oh, Bashar, you son of a dog," another man says. "We will come and get you in your place."

Other videos show bodies of children lined on the floor of a room, showing no signs of life, and rows of dead men who appeared to be fighters. Very few of them showed signs of blood or physical wounds on their skin.

The photos and videos distributed by activists to support their claims were consistent with AP reporting of shelling in the area, though it was not known if the victims died from a poisonous gas attack.

Sellstrom's team of U.N. experts is meant to probe three sites: the village of Khan al-Assal, just west of the embattled northern city of Aleppo and two other locations, which are being kept secret for security reasons.

Wednesday's claim of the chemical attack, if confirmed, would be the most serious since the March 19 incident in Khan al-Assal when at least 30 people were killed. Assad's regime and the rebels have blamed each other for that attack.

Unrest in Syria began in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

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1 year ago

Officials: US training Syrians forces in Jordan

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States is training secular Syrian fighters in Jordan in a bid to bolster forces battling President Bashar Assad's regime and stem the influence of Islamist radicals among the country's persistently splintered opposition, American and foreign officials said.

The training has been conducted for several months now in an unspecified location, concentrating largely on Sunnis and tribal Bedouins who formerly served as members of the Syrian army, officials told The Associated Press. The forces aren't members of the leading rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, which Washington and others fear may be increasingly coming under the sway of extremist militia groups, including some linked to al-Qaida, they said.

The operation is being run by U.S. intelligence and is ongoing, officials said, but those in Washington stressed that the U.S. is providing only nonlethal aid at this point. Others such as Britain and France are involved, they said, though it's unclear whether any Western governments are providing materiel or other direct military support after two years of civil war that according to the United Nations already has killed more than 70,000 people.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the program.

Officially, the Obama administration has been vague on the subject of what type of military training it may be providing, while insisting that it is doing all it can - short of providing weapons to the rebels or engaging in its own military intervention - to hasten the demise of the Assad family's four-decade dictatorship.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday the U.S. has "provided some logistical nonlethal support that has also come in handy for the Syrian rebels who are, again, fighting a regime that is not hesitating to use the military might of that regime against its own people.

"That is something we're going to continue to work to bring to an end," he told reporters.

It's unclear what effect the training has had in the conflict, which has become a quagmire with Assad's regime unable to snuff out the rebellion and Syria's opposition incapable thus far of delivering any serious blow to the ruling government's grip on Damascus and control over much of the country.

Some of the Syrians the U.S. is involved with are in turn training other Syrians inside the border, officials said.

They declined to provide more information because they said that would go too deep into intelligence matters. Defense Department officials insisted the Pentagon isn't involved with any military training or arms provisions to the Syrian rebels, either directly or indirectly. The CIA declined to comment.

The New York Times reported Monday that the CIA helped Arab governments and Turkey sharply increase their military aid to Syria's opposition in recent months, with secret airlifts or arms and equipment. It cited traffic data, officials in several countries and rebel commanders, and said the airlift began on a small scale a year ago but has expanded steadily to more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari planes landing in Turkish and Jordanian airports.

The training in Jordan, however, suggests the U.S. help is aimed somewhat at enhancing the rebels' capacity in southern Syria, the birthplace of the revolution two years ago when teenagers in the sleepy agricultural outpost of Dara'a scribbled graffiti on a wall and were tossed into jail, spurring Syria's own version of an Arab Spring uprising. Much of the violence since, however, has been in the northern of the country where rebels have scored several military successes after the Assad regime cracked down brutally on peaceful protesters.

Despite months of U.S. and international support to build a cohesive political movement, however, Syria's fractured opposition is still struggling to rally Syrians behind a common post-Assad vision. And the opposition coalition appears as much hampered by its political infighting as its military deficiencies against an Assad regime arsenal of tanks, fighter jets and scud missiles.

The coalition's president, Mouaz al-Khatib, resigned his position on Sunday because of what he described as restrictions on his work and frustration with the level of international aid. He said Monday he would still represent the opposition this week in Doha, where the Gulf state of Qatar will host a two-day Arab League summit starting Tuesday.

Al-Khatib's resignation comes only days after the opposition chose Ghassan Hitto, a long-time Texas resident, to head its interim government after intense wrangling over posts and influence that U.S. officials say has strained the opposition's unity and caused friction among its primary benefactors Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

It's also unclear how al-Khatib's departure will affect the U.S. goal of political negotiations with amenable members of the Assad regime to end the civil war, given the moderate preacher's support for talks. Much of the Syrian opposition rejects such talks.

"He's been a courageous leader," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said of al-Khatib.

"But the bottom line is what we're looking for is unity," Ventrell said. "We continue to support the coalition's vision for a tolerant, inclusive Syria. We want them to continue to work together to implement that vision."

Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Paris on Wednesday to meet French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius for talks expected to focus on arming Syrian rebels. The discussions also are expected to touch on the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria, according to French officials.

U.S. officials say there are strong indications that chemical weapons weren't used in an attack last week in northern Aleppo, over which the regime and the rebels have issued counterclaims.

Washington has said it will support a U.N. investigation.

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1 year ago

Kerry urges Syrian opposition to attend Rome talks

LONDON (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tried Monday to patch back together a conference with Syrian opposition leaders that was to be the centerpiece of his debut overseas trip, urging Syrian rebel leaders not to boycott the meeting and insisting that more help is on the way in their fight against President Bashar Assad.

Kerry not only made a public plea at a joint news conference Monday with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, he also called Moaz Khatib, leader of the Syrian Opposition Council, "to encourage him to come to Rome," a senior U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Kerry was in London for the first leg of his first trip as secretary of state - a hectic nine-country dash through Europe and the Middle East. The trip includes a Syrian opposition conference Thursday in Rome, which some members of the sharply divided Syrian opposition council have threatened to boycott.

Kerry also dispatched his top Syrian envoy to Cairo in hopes of convincing opposition leaders that their participation in the conference in Rome is critical to addressing questions from potential donors and securing additional aid from the United States and Europe.

The Rome meeting is the centerpiece of Kerry's nine-nation tour of Europe and the Middle East

"We are not coming to Rome simply to talk," Kerry told reporters in London. "We are coming to Rome to talk about next steps."

Kerry said he was sympathetic to the opposition's complaints that the international community had not done enough, and noted that as a senator he had called for the Obama administration to consider military aid to the Syrian opposition.

But he also noted that he now is part of the administration and "and the president of the United States has sent me here ... because he is concerned about the course of events."

"This moment is ripe for us to be considering what more we can do," he said, adding that if the opposition wants results, "join us."

Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Monday the regime of President Bashar Assad was ready to hold talks with opposition leaders, the first time that a high-ranking Syrian official has stated publicly that the government would meet with the opposition. Al-Moallem made his comments after meeting in Moscow with Russian officials.

Administration officials have debated whether the U.S. should arm the rebels, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey having said they urged such a course of action. The White House has been unwilling to do so for fears the weapons could end up in the wrong hands. Currently, the U.S. provides only non-lethal support and humanitarian aid.

The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed in Syria's 2-year civil war, which began as an uprising against Assad's regime.

"We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind, wondering where the support is, if it is coming," he said. ""We are not going to let the Syrian opposition not have its ability to have its voice properly heard in this process."

Kerry said the Syrian people "deserve better" than the violence currently gripping their country as he stood alongside Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Hague also stressed the need for action, saying an "appalling injustice" is being done to Syrian citizens.

"In the face of such murder and threat of instability, our policy cannot stay static as the weeks go by," Hague told the press conference. "We must significantly increase support for the Syrian opposition. We are preparing to do just that."

Associated Press writer Cassandra Vinograd contributed to this report.

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1 year ago

As she leaves, Clinton sounds warning over Syria

WASHINGTON (AP) - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is issuing a parting warning about Iranian involvement in Syria's civil war and the rising threat of a larger regional conflict growing from it.

As she winds up her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton says, "I've done what was possible to do."

But she calls Syria's violence "distressing on all fronts."

Speaking to a roundtable of journalists on the eve of her departure, Clinton said Tehran is dispatching more personnel and better military supplies to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. And it is working with its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to fight Syrian rebel forces.

Clinton also criticized Russia for its continued financial and military support to Assad.

And she defended a much-maligned leader of Syria's opposition for suggesting negotiations with Assad's regime.

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1 year ago

Syria threatens retaliation for Israeli airstrike

BEIRUT (AP) - Syria threatened Thursday to retaliate for an Israeli airstrike and its ally Iran said the Jewish state will regret the attack.

Syria sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General stressing the country's "right to defend itself, its territory and sovereignty" and holding Israel and its supporters accountable.

"Israel and those who protect it at the Security Council are fully responsible for the repercussions of this aggression," the letter from Syria's Foreign Ministry said.

U.S. officials said Israel launched a rare airstrike inside Syria on Wednesday. The target was a convoy believed to be carrying anti-aircraft weapons bound for Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group allied with Syria and Iran.

In Israel, a lawmaker close to hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped short of confirming involvement in the strike. But he hinted that Israel could carry out similar missions in the future.

The attack has inflamed regional tensions already running high over Syria's 22-month-old civil war.

Israeli leaders in the days leading up to the airstrike had been publicly expressing concern that Syrian President Bashar Assad may be losing his grip on the country and its arsenal of conventional and nonconventional weapons.

Regional security officials said Wednesday that the targeted shipment included sophisticated Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which if acquired by Hezbollah would enhance its military capabilities by enabling the militants to shoot down Israeli jets, helicopters and surveillance drones.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

The Syrian military denied there was any weapons convoy and said low-flying Israeli jets had crossed into their country over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to bomb a scientific research center near Damascus.

It said the target was in the area of Jamraya, northwest of Damascus and about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the Lebanese border.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem al-Shallal, who in December became one of the most senior Syrian army officers to defect, told The Associated Press by telephone from Turkey that the site they said was targeted is a "major and well-known" center to develop weapons known as the Scientific Research Center.

Al-Shallal, who until his defection was commander of the military police, said no chemical or nonconventional weapons are at the site. He added that foreign experts, including Russians and Iranians, are usually present at such centers.

Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali threatened retribution for the Israeli airstrike, saying Damascus "has the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation."

He told Hezbollah's al-Ahd news website that it was up to the relevant authorities to prepare the retaliation and choose the time and place.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry summoned Major-General Iqbal Singh Singha, the head of mission and force commander for United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights, to complain about the Israeli violation.

The force was established in 1974 following the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces in the area and has remained there since to maintain the cease-fire. Israel captured the Golan, a strategic plateau, from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, deputy U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey said: "UNDOF did not observe any planes flying over the area of separation, and therefore was not able to confirm the incident." UNDOF also reported bad weather conditions, he said.

Hezbollah condemned the attack as "barbaric aggression" and said it "expresses full solidarity with Syria's command, army and people."

The group did not mention any weapons convoy in the statement but said the strike aimed to prevent Arab and Muslim forces from developing their military capabilities.

In Iran, the country's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said "the Zionist regime will regret its aggression against Syria," Iran state television said.

The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as saying the raid will have significant implications for Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi condemned the airstrike on state television, calling it a clear violation of Syrian sovereignty. Iran is Syria's strongest ally in the Middle East, and has provided Assad's government with military and political backing for years.

Russia, Syria's most important international ally, said this appeared to be an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation. Moscow said it was taking urgent measures to clarify the situation in all its details.

"If this information is confirmed, we have a case of unprovoked attacks on targets in the territory of a sovereign state, which grossly violates the U.N. Charter and is unacceptable," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "Whatever the motives, this is not justified."

Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, who is close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, said pinpoint strikes are not enough to counter the threat of Hezbollah obtaining sophisticated weaponry from Syria.

"Israel's preference would be if a Western entity would control these weapons systems," Hanegbi said. "But because it appears the world is not prepared to do what was done in Libya or other places, then Israel finds itself like it has many times in the past facing a dilemma that only it knows how to respond to," he added.

He was referring to NATO's 2011 military intervention in Libya that helped oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

"Even if there are reports about pinpoint operations, these are not significant solutions to the threat itself because we are talking about very substantial capabilities that could reach Hezbollah," he said.

Syria's civil war has sapped Assad's power and threatens to deprive Hezbollah of a key supporter, in addition to its land corridor to Iran. The two countries provide Hezbollah with the bulk of its funding and arms.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu warned of the dangers of Syria's "deadly weapons," saying the country is "increasingly coming apart."

The same day, Israel moved a battery of its new "Iron Dome" rocket defense system to the northern city of Haifa, which was battered by Hezbollah rocket fire in the 2006 war. The Israeli army called that move "routine."

The Israeli army won't say whether Iron Dome was sent north in connection to this operation. It does note that it has deployed the system in the north before.

A U.N. diplomat confirmed that the organization received a letter from the Syrian ambassador but said it did not contain a request for a Security Council meeting.

A U.N. statement said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed grave concern over reports of Israeli airstrikes on Syria but said the U.N. does not have details of the reported incident and cannot independently verify what happened.

"The Secretary-General calls on all concerned to prevent tensions or their escalation in the region, and to strictly abide by international law, in particular in respect of territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries in the region," the statement said.

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1 year ago

Kremlin to start evacuation of Russians from Syria

MOSCOW (AP) - The Russian government says it is sending two planes to Lebanon to evacuate Russians from Syria, the first such effort since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in March 2011.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said two of its planes will fly to Beirut on Tuesday to carry more than 100 Russians from Syria.

Monday's announcement appears to reflect Moscow's increasing doubts about Assad's ability to cling to power and growing concerns about the safety of its citizens.

Russia's Foreign Ministry has said that it has contingency plans in place to evacuate thousands of Russians from Syria.

Russia has been the main ally of Assad since the start of the conflict, using its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to shield the Syrian strongman from sanctions.

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1 year ago

French journalist killed in Syria

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) - French President Francois Hollande offered condolences Friday for a French journalist slain in the Syrian city of Aleppo while reporting on the civil war there.

The journalist, Yves Debay, was covering clashes between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad when he was shot by a regime sniper on Thursday, according to the Aleppo Media Center, a network of anti-regime activists in the city. It said the sniper was positioned on the roof of the Aleppo central prison near the Museilmeh district.

Syrian rebels reportedly brought him across the border to Turkey, where a Foreign Ministry official said he was pronounced dead on arrival at the state hospital in the border province of Kilis early Friday. He had been shot in the heart, according to an initial autopsy report, the Turkish official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with government rules that bar civil servants from speaking to journalists without prior authorization.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Debay was born in what was then the Belgian Congo in 1954. He joined the Belgian army but became bored and joined the white Rhodesian army, which was fighting black Marxist guerrillas.

After his mercenary period, Le Monde said, Debay "satisfied his passion for war" by writing for magazines specializing in military matters, including, finally, a magazine that he founded, called "Assault."

But the paper called him attentive and kind, and reported that, after 30 years of reporting from around the world, he said he had learned to respect all people, regardless of their origins or ideas.

"France condemns this heinous act and expresses to the family and friends of Yves Debay its condolences, sympathy and solidarity," Hollande said in a statement. "France pays tribute to Yves Debay and other journalists who, in Syria, pay with their lives for their commitment to freedom of information."

Twenty-eight journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to name Syria the most dangerous country in the world to work in last year.

Among the journalists killed while covering Syria are award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain's Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. Also, Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died after an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.

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1 year ago

NBC correspondent escapes Syria kidnapping

BEIRUT (AP) - NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel said he and his television crew were kidnapped for five days by pro-regime gunmen who subjected them to mock executions and kept them bound and blindfolded. They escaped during a firefight between their captors and rebels and reached Turkey on Tuesday.

However, it was not immediately clear whether all those abducted with Engel were accounted for.

Speaking to NBC's "Today" show one day after the escape, an unshaven Engel said the kidnappers executed at least one of his rebel escorts on the spot at the time he was captured. He also said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which is fighting a deadly civil war against rebels.

"They kept us blindfolded, bound," said 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads Arabic. "We weren't physically beaten or tortured. A lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused, there were mock shootings," he added.

"They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government," Engel said. He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group.

Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian regime, which has become a global pariah since it unleashed its forces in March 2011 to crush mostly peaceful protests against the regime. The bloody crackdown on protests led many in Syria to take up arms against the government, and the conflict has morphed into a civil war.

Engel said he was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by the rebels.

"They captured us in order to carry out this exchange," he said.

Around 11 p.m. Monday, Engel said he and the others were being moved to another location in northern Idlib province.

"And as we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn't expected. We were in the back of what you would think of as a minivan," he said. "The kidnappers saw this checkpoint and started a gunfight with it. Two of the kidnappers were killed. We climbed out of the vehicle and the rebels took us. We spent the night with them."

Engel and his crew crossed back into neighboring Turkey earlier Tuesday.

NBC did not identify the others who were kidnapped along with Engel. The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no request for ransom during the time the crew was missing.

The Syrian government has barred most foreign media coverage of the civil war in Syria, which has killed more than 40,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011. Those journalists whom the regime has allowed in are tightly controlled in their movements by Information Ministry minders. Many foreign journalists sneak into Syria illegally with the help of smugglers.

Several journalists have been killed covering the conflict. Among them are award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain's Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. Also, Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died after an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.

Engel joined NBC in 2003 and was named chief foreign correspondent in April 2008. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, including during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has lived in the Middle East since he graduated from Stanford University in 1996, according to his biography from NBC.

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1 year ago

US set to boost ties with Syrian opposition

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is getting ready to tighten its ties to Syria's main opposition group, a step in the intensifying diplomacy that officials hope will craft an end to Syrian President Bashar Assad's embattled regime.

Officials say the administration is on track to recognize the new Syrian opposition council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people at an international conference on the crisis in Morocco this week.

The move will pave the way for greater U.S. support for those seeking to oust Assad and follows the blacklisting of a militant Syrian rebel group with links to al-Qaida. That step is aimed at blunting the influence of extremists amid fears that the regime may use or lose control of its stockpile of chemical weapons.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the Syrian government seems to have slowed preparations for the possible use of chemical weapons against rebel forces. Last week, U.S. officials said there was evidence that Syrian forces had begun preparing sarin, a nerve agent, for possible use in bombs.

"At this point the intelligence has really kind of leveled off," Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Kuwait, where he will visit U.S. troops at the start of a four-day trip. "We haven't seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been due to attend Wednesday's meeting in the Moroccan city of Marrakech but canceled her trip because she was ill with a stomach virus, her spokesman, Philippe Reines, said. Instead, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns will lead the U.S. delegation.

On Monday, Clinton designated Jabhat al-Nusra, or "the Support Front" in Arabic, a foreign terrorist organization. The move freezes any assets its members may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bars Americans from providing the group with material support. The designation is largely symbolic because the group is not thought to have holdings or support in the United States, but officials hope the penalties will encourage others to take similar action and discourage Syrians from joining.

That step was part of a package intended to help the leadership of the newly formed Syrian Opposition Council improve its standing and credibility as it pushes ahead with planning for a post-Assad future.

The administration took further action Tuesday against extremists on both sides, with the Treasury Department setting separate sanctions against two senior al-Nusra leaders and two militant groups operating under the control of the Syrian government. Two commanders of the pro-Assad shabiha force also were targeted.

"We will target the pro-Assad militias just as we will the terrorists who falsely cloak themselves in the flag of the legitimate opposition," said David S. Cohen, the department's sanctions chief.

More significant, though, will be the upgraded status for the council that the U.S. is preparing to announce in Marrakech. That is expected to be accompanied by pledges of additional humanitarian and nonlethal logistical support for the opposition. It's unlikely that the U.S. would add military assistance to that, at least in the short-term. Providing arms remains a matter of intense internal debate inside the administration, officials said.

Recognition of the council as the sole representative of Syria's diverse population will bring the United States into line with Britain, France and several of America's Arab allies, which took the same step shortly after the body was created at a meeting of opposition representatives in Qatar last month.

The U.S. had been leading international efforts to prod the fractured Syrian opposition into coalescing around a leadership that would truly represent all of the country's factions and religions. Yet it had held back from granting recognition to the group until it demonstrated that it could organize itself in credible fashion.

In particular, Washington had wanted to see the group set up smaller committees that could deal with specific immediate and short-term issues, such as governing currently liberated parts of Syria and putting in place institutions to address the needs of people once Assad is ousted. Some of those committees could form the basis of a transitional government.

Officials said the U.S. evolution in recognizing Syria's opposition would closely mirror the process the administration took last year in Libya with its opposition.

"I would remind you of how this went in the Libya context where we were able to take progressive steps as the Libyan opposition themselves took steps to work with them, and to advance the way we dealt with them politically," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.

In that case, Libya's National Transitional Council moved from being "a'' legitimate representative to "the" legitimate representative of the Libyan people. While the revolution was still going on, the council then opened an office in Washington, and the administration sent the late Ambassador Chris Stevens to Benghazi, Libya, as an envoy in return. The move also opened the door for Libya's new leaders to access billions of dollars in assets frozen in U.S. banks that had belonged to the Gadhafi regime.

The move could allow the Syrian opposition to set up a liaison office in Washington with a de facto ambassador.

It is unclear, however, given the level of violence in Syria and the potential threat of chemical weapons, if the U.S. would soon send a representative to rebel-controlled areas of the country.

The conflict started 20 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

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1 year ago

Archaeologists explore site on Syria-Turkey border

ISTANBUL (AP) - Few archaeological sites seem as entwined with conflict, ancient and modern, as the city of Karkemish.

The scene of a battle mentioned in the Bible, it lies smack on the border between Turkey and Syria, where civil war rages today. Twenty-first century Turkish sentries occupy an acropolis dating back more than 5,000 years, and the ruins were recently demined. Visible from crumbling, earthen ramparts, a Syrian rebel flag flies in a town that regime forces fled just months ago.

A Turkish-Italian team is conducting the most extensive excavations there in nearly a century, building on the work of British Museum teams that included T.E. Lawrence, the adventurer known as Lawrence of Arabia. The plan is to open the site along the Euphrates river to tourists in late 2014.

The strategic city, its importance long known to scholars because of references in ancient texts, was under the sway of Hittites and other imperial rulers and independent kings. However, archaeological investigation there was halted by World War I, and then by hostilities between Turkish nationalists and French colonizers from Syria who built machine gun nests in its ramparts. Part of the frontier was mined in the 1950s, and in later years, creating deadly obstacles to archaeological inquiry at a site symbolic of modern strife and intrigue.

"All this is very powerfully represented by Karkemish," said Nicolo' Marchetti, a professor of archaeology and art history of the Ancient Near East at the University of Bologna. He is the project director at Karkemish, where the Turkish military let archaeologists resume work last year for the first time since its troops occupied the site about 90 years ago.

At around the same time, the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad was escalating. More than 100,000 Syrian refugees are sheltering in Turkish camps, and cross-border shelling last month sharpened tension between Syria and Turkey, which backs the rebellion along with its Western and Arab allies. Nuh Kocaslan, mayor of the nearby Turkish town of Karkamis, said he hoped the Syrian war would end "as soon as possible so that our region can find calm," and that the area urgently needs revenue from tourists, barred for now from Karkemish because it is designated a military zone.

Archaeologists say they felt secure during a 10-week season of excavation on the Turkish side of Karkemish that ended in late October. One big eruption of gunfire from the Syrian side turned out to be part of a wedding celebration. The team arrived in August, one month after Syrian insurgents ousted troops from the Syrian border town of Jarablous. A Syrian government airstrike near Jarablous killed at least eight people that same month.

About one-third of the 90-hectare (222-acre) archaeological site lies inside Syria and is therefore off-limits; construction and farming in Jarablous have encroached on what was the outer edge of the ancient city. Most discoveries have been made on what is now Turkish territory.

When a British team began work in 1911, the undivided area was part of the weakening Ottoman Empire. Germans nearby were constructing the Berlin-Baghdad railway, which traverses the ancient site along the border. Archaeologist C.L. Woolley and his assistant, Lawrence, found basalt and limestone slabs carved with soldiers, chariots, animals and kings; many are displayed today in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, the Turkish capital. The remains of palaces and temples were also uncovered.

A 1913 photograph shows Woolley and Lawrence at Karkemish. They appear to squint in harsh sunlight. Lawrence's hands rest, partly clenched, over his bare knees. He wears Western dress.

Lawrence wrote letters about making casts of Hittite inscriptions, mending pottery, photographing items, settling "blood feuds" among workers on the dig, a foray into gun-running in Beirut, and a sense of wonder on a visit to nearby Aleppo, today the scene of fierce battles in Syria's civil war.

"Aleppo is all compact of colour, and sense of line: you inhale Orient in lungloads, and glut your appetite with silks and dyed fantasies of clothes," he wrote. "Today there came in through the busiest vault in the bazaar a long caravan of 100 mules of Baghdad, marching in line rhythmically to the boom of two huge iron bells swinging under the belly of the foremost."

Lawrence later acquired fame for his role in an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, who allied with the Germans during World War I. Photographs of Lawrence in Arab garb, his later writing, and eventually the cinema epic "Lawrence of Arabia" elevated his legend.

The Bible's Jeremiah refers to Karkemish for a battle there in which the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar II, defeated the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies. Invading forces sacked the city on several other occasions. Irene Winter, an archaeologist who visited Karkemish in 1974 and recently retired from Harvard University, said the place was significant as a "hub of all east-west traffic" and "a powerful, crucial juncture in the topography of movement and trade and military activity."

In the ruins of the excavation house of its British predecessors, the Turkish-Italian team discovered old archaeological tools, statue fragments and a Roman mosaic. Elsewhere, they found a bronze cylinder seal inscribed with hieroglyphs that belonged to a town official and a bronze statuette of a god with a double-horned tiara and a skirt, along with a silver dagger set into the left hand.

"You do feel a connection with what has been written, with what has been found and, of course, with the people who were here," said Marchetti, whose team used a laser scanner to create digital models of artifacts. It got a more complete picture with satellite imagery as well as aerial photos taken from a kite.

The British only excavated a small area of Karkemish, and the Turkish military occupation shielded the site from smugglers, suggesting its archaeological potential remains vast. Despite the many finds, there are gaps in the understanding of the city's chronology.

Philologist Hasan Peker of Istanbul University, deputy director of the project, said he hoped to find the city's "royal archives" dating from the height of the Hittite empire more than 3,000 years ago. The team has asked the Turkish military for access to the acropolis, where a watch tower stands.

A demining agency from Azerbaijan helped Turkey to remove anti-tank and anti-personnel mines around Karkemish under a program to rid the nation's borders of minefields, mostly near Syria. There remains a statistical risk of mine blasts, however remote. The new team, which includes university students, sticks to approved paths. Plans for tourist facilities include paths with rails on both sides to ensure the safety of visitors.

In 2009 and 2010, Prof. Tony Wilkinson, an archaeologist at Durham University in Britain, participated in a survey of the Syrian side of Karkemish. He could not return in 2011 because of the uprising. As late as May this year, Wilkinson said, Syrian colleagues from the archaeological museum in Aleppo reported that they were checking the Karkemish site.

Since then, fierce fighting has swept Aleppo. Contact has faded. Last month, Wilkinson received a nighttime telephone call from Syria.

"It didn't get through. They tried to call me and I tried to call back," he said. "Communications with Syria are very, very difficult."

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1 year ago

Gunmen kill brother of Syrian parliament speaker

BEIRUT (AP) - Syria's state-run TV reports that gunmen have assassinated the brother of the parliament speaker.

The report on Tuesday said Mohammed Osama Laham was killed in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. It did not say when it happened, but a Syrian official said Laham was killed Monday night.

The TV and the Syrian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media, said Laham was a brother of Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham.

A number of officials and top army officers have been assassinated in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March last year.

1 year ago

Turkey authorizes military operations in Syria

AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) - State media says Turkey's Parliament has approved a bill authorizing the military to conduct cross-border operations in Syria after a deadly shelling from the Syrian territory killed five civilians.

The Anadolu Agency says legislators on Thursday voted in favor of the bill that gives the government authority for one year to send troops or warplanes to strike Syrian targets whenever it deems it necessary.

A senior official has said Turkey has no intention of declaring war but the move adds a dangerous new dimension to a conflict that is pulling Syria's neighbors deeper into what already resembles a proxy conflict.

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1 year ago

Team of doctors set up secret Syria field hospital

PARIS (AP) - A group of physicians says an international team of doctors turned a villa under construction in Syria into a secret hospital, spending two months treating wounded who sometimes traveled two days for help.

Medecins Sans Frontieres said Tuesday that it took the doctors a week to transform the home in northern Syria into a field hospital. The aid group, known in English as Doctors Without Borders, sent the international team.

Brian Moller, an Australian anaesthetic nurse on the team of seven foreigners and about 50 Syrians, says they made sure the Syrian government was aware of their presence without letting authorities know where the field hospital would operate.

2 years ago

General Assembly to ask Syria's Assad to step down

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Arab countries are pushing ahead with a symbolic U.N. General Assembly resolution that tells Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign and turn over power to a transitional government. It also demands that the Syrian army stop its shelling and helicopter attacks and withdraw to its barracks. A vote is set for Thursday morning.

The draft resolution takes a swipe at Russia and China by "deploring the Security Council failure" to act. Moscow and Beijing have used their veto in the Council three times to kill resolutions that might have opened the door to sanctions on Syria.

While the 193-member General Assembly has no legal mechanism for enforcing such a resolution, it can carry moral and symbolic power if a vote is overwhelming.

The U.N. is reporting a significant escalation in Syria's civil war Wednesday, with the military using warplanes to fire on opposition fighters in the 12-day battle for Aleppo.

2 years ago

US warns of possible massacre in Syrian city

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is warning of a possible Syrian massacre in the city of Aleppo.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the U.S. has "grave concerns" about tanks and fighter jets being used in a densely populated city.

She says thousands of people are spilling out of Aleppo and calls the onslaught a "desperate" attempt by a government losing control of its country.

Rebels who've been fighting for six days in Syria's commercial capital of 3 million people are bracing themselves amid reports the government is massing reinforcements to retake the city. They are reporting artillery strikes and strafing by attack helicopters and fighter jets.

Nuland said: "The concern is that we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that's what the regime appears to be lining up for."

2 years ago

Russia halts sales of new weapons to Syria

MOSCOW (AP) - Russia on Monday signaled that it would not sign new weapons contracts with Syria until the situation there calms down.

The country will continue with previously agreed exports, but will not be selling new arms to Syria, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy chief of the Russian military and technical cooperation agency, told Russian news agencies on the sidelines of the Farnborough air show southwest off London.

Putting it in conflict with the West, the Russians have blocked the U.N.'s Security Council from taking strong, punitive action against the Assad regime and are seen as the country's key arms supplier. Syrian activists say that about 14,000 people have been killed in an uprising in the country since March 2011.

Russia has been providing Syria's army with spare parts and assistance in repairs of the weapons supplied earlier, Dzirkaln said. He insisted that Russia does not sell helicopters or fighter planes to Syria.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday said he welcomes the decision, but added that Britain "would like to see a halt of all deliveries of weaponry to a regime that has embarked on the killing of so many of its own people."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month issued a harsh reprimand to Russia, saying that Moscow "dramatically" escalated the crisis in Syria by sending attack helicopters there. The State Department acknowledged later that the helicopters were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Syrian regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier on Monday said that Russia is still committed to a peace plan by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, saying that the Syrian government and opposition groups should be "forced" to start a dialogue.

Annan's six-point peace plan was to begin with a cease-fire in mid-April between government forces and rebels seeking to topple Assad, to be followed by political dialogue. But the truce never took hold, and almost 300 U.N. observers sent to monitor the cease-fire are now confined to their hotels because of the escalating violence.

Hague on Monday called on Russia to show "a strong commitment to secure the implementation and mandate the implementation of what Kofi Annan has put forward."

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2 years ago

WikiLeaks has data from 2.4 million Syrian emails

LONDON (AP) - The secret-spilling group WikiLeaks said Thursday it was in the process of publishing material from 2.4 million Syrian emails - many of which it said came from official government accounts.

WikiLeaks' Sarah Harrison told journalists at London's Frontline Club that the emails reveal interactions between the Syrian government and Western companies, although she declined to go into much further detail.

Harrison quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying that "the material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria's external opponents."

It is unclear what exactly is in the documents. WikiLeaks only posted a handful of them to its website Thursday, but the disclosure - whose source WikiLeaks has not made clear - wouldn't be the first major leak of Syrian emails.

In February, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published excerpts of what it said were emails hacked from Syrian servers by Anonymous, the shadowy Internet activist group. In March, Britain's Guardian newspaper published emails it sourced to Syrian opposition activists.

The messages appeared to catch the glamorous wife of Syrian President Bashar Assad shopping for pricey shoes while her country slipped toward civil war.

Harrison said the WikiLeaks emails dated from August 2006 to March 2012 and originated from hundreds of different domains, including Syria's ministry of presidential affairs.

Harrison said her group was "statistically confident" that the body of material was genuine.

Assange, who is currently seeking asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, was not at the brief presentation. He is wanted by British police for possible extradition to Sweden to face questions about alleged sexual misconduct there.

He has denied wrongdoing but faces arrest if he leaves the embassy.

Harrison acknowledged that WikiLeaks is facing "a difficult time at the moment" but said "we are continuing to work through that."

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2 years ago

Syria Conference Leaves Open Assad Question

GENEVA (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the Syria plan agreed to by major powers "paves the way for a post-Assad" government. She said Saturday that Syrian President Bashar Assad "will still have to go, he will never pass the mutual consent test given the blood on his hands."
The international conference meeting accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan for Syria, but left open whether the country's president could be part of a transitional government.
Moscow had refused to back a provision that would call for Assad to step aside, insisting that outsiders cannot order a political solution for Syria.
Clinton says "It is now "incumbent on Russia and China to show Assad the writing on the wall"

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2 years ago

Obama targets Iran, Syria with new sanctions

WASHINGTON (AP) - Surrounded by the haunting memories of the Holocaust, a solemn President Barack Obama on Monday announced a new crackdown on Iran and Syria and said the world must never again allow hatred to take root into the "madness" of mass atrocities.

The president announced new sanctions on people and entities in Iran and Syria who have deemed to use technology to target citizens and erode their human rights. More broadly, Obama spoke of the work that "will never be done" - the global challenge of preventing atrocities.

To Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Obama said: "You show us the way. If you cannot give up, if you can believe, then we can believe."

In his first appearance as president at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Obama broadly defended his government's steps to protect innocent people, saying: "We have saved countless lives."

His words came as the United States is under pressure to help rally an international solution in Syria, where President Bashar Assad is accused of running a lethal crackdown on his people.

"National sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your people," Obama said.

The president announced he would be giving a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a wartime emissary of the Polish government-in-exile who was among the first people to provide accounts of the Holocaust to the world.

Obama's new steps aim to counter violations of human abuses through technology. While rebellions in countries like Libya and Egypt have been fueled by cellphones and social media, other regimes have used technology to track dissidents or block Internet access.

For example, Iran has provided the regime of Assad with technology to jam cellphones and block or monitor the social networking sites rebels would use to organize demonstrations.

Obama has also asked the U.S. intelligence community to include assessments of the likelihood of mass killings in its National Intelligence Estimates.

The White House also announced a set of "challenge" grants for companies that help create new technologies to help warn citizens in countries where mass killings may occur.

Before delivering remarks, Obama spent about 30 minutes touring the museum with Wiesel. The president and Wiesel quietly entered the museum's Hall of Remembrance, where they lit candles and paused, heads bowed, for a moment of silence.

Obama placed his candle in the hall's Buchenwald section in memory of the concentration camp his great-uncle helped liberate at the end of World War II.

2 years ago

White House: Wait and see on Syria cease-fire deal

WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House says it is watching Syria for signs it will comply with a Thursday cease-fire deadline, but it cautioned that President Bashar Assad's regime has offered empty promises in the past to ease its aggression against domestic opposition.

President Barack Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, said Wednesday that the administration supports a cease-fire plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan. Syria promised to stop its fighting by the deal's deadline, but indicated it retained the right to respond to aggression.

Carney said it was important to judge Syria by its actions, not its promises.

He said that depending on how events play out on Thursday, the administration would consult with allies on any additional measures toward Syria.

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2 years ago

White House: Reported Syria defections a good sign

WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House is calling reports of more defections among senior Syrian government officials a good sign the regime is cracking from within.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest says he can't confirm reports from Turkey that a pair of Syrian generals, as well as other military personnel, have defected.

Those reports followed word that Syria's deputy oil minister has defected, and recorded a scathing denunciation of the Assad regime that was posted on YouTube.

Earnest calls the reported defections a "courageous step" that backs up the U.S. view that Syrian President Bashar Assad will fall.

For the past year, Syria's government has tried to crush a popular uprising inspired by the Arab Spring movements. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed.

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2 years ago

Top military leader talks of risk for US in Syria

WASHINGTON (AP) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pushed back on Wednesday against fresh demands for U.S. military involvement in Syria to end President Bashar Assad's deadly crackdown on his people.

"What doesn't make sense is to take unilateral action right now," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee about advising President Barack Obama to dispatch U.S. forces. "I've got to make very sure we know what the mission is ... achieving that mission at what price."

The panel's top Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said the estimated 7,500 dead and the bloodshed calls for U.S. leadership that a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, displayed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and that Obama eventually showed on Libya last year.

"In past situations, America has led. We're not leading, Mr. Secretary," McCain told Panetta.

The Pentagon chief later added that the United States is not holding back and is leading in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the war on terrorism.

Testifying before the committee, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Panetta offered a cautionary note to the call by McCain to launch U.S. airstrikes against Assad's regime.

"This terrible situation has no simple answers," Panetta told the panel.

Obama has resisted calls to step into the turmoil in Syria to stop Assad's crackdown on protesters. He told a news conference Tuesday that the international community has not been able to muster a campaign against Syria like the one in Libya that ousted Moammar Gadhafi last year.

"For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake," Obama said. "What happened in Libya was we mobilized the international community, had a U.N. Security Council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time. This is a much more complicated situation."

Obama's strategy has been to use sanctions and international diplomatic isolation to pressure Assad into handing over power.

The Pentagon chief said the United States is currently focused on isolating the Assad regime diplomatically and politically, arguing that it has lost all legitimacy for killing its own people. He left open the possibility of military action, saying the Obama administration continues to assess the situation and would adjust its strategy as necessary.

Dempsey said among the military options are enforcement of a no-fly zone and humanitarian relief. He said a long-term, sustained air campaign would pose a challenge because Syria's air defenses are five times more sophisticated than Libya's. He said Syria's chemical and biological weapons stockpile is 100 times larger than Libya's.

"We also need to be alert to extremists, who may return to well-trod ratlines running through Damascus, and other hostile actors, including Iran, which has been exploiting the situation and expanding its support to the regime," Dempsey said. "And we need to be especially alert to the fate of Syria's chemical and biological weapons. They need to stay exactly where they are."

McCain, along with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have called for U.S. military involvement. But the issue has divided Republicans, with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, insisting on Tuesday that the situation is too muddled and U.S. military involvement would be premature.

Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said there is no consensus on how to get Assad to leave.

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2 years ago

Speaker says air strikes against Syria premature

WASHINGTON (AP) - House Speaker John Boehner says the situation in Syria is muddled and U.S. military involvement to end the bloodshed would be premature.

The Ohio Republican was asked Tuesday about Republican Sen. John McCain's call for the United States to launch airstrikes against President Bashar Assad's regime to force him out of power. McCain has the backing of Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Independent Joe Lieberman. The three were at the forefront in pressing for military intervention last year against the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

Boehner told reporters at a news conference that the Syrian situation is too complicated and until there is a clear direction, it would be premature for the U.S. to get involved militarily.

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2 years ago

McCain calls for US to lead on Syria airstrikes

WASHINGTON (AP) - Arizona Sen. John McCain is calling for the United States to lead an international effort to begin air strikes on Syria.

McCain says that the Syrian government's brutal crackdown on its opponents has resulted in war crimes and that its neighbors in the region will intervene militarily, with or without the U.S. From the Senate floor on Monday, McCain said the United States has a moral and strategic obligation to force out President Bashar Assad and his loyalists.

Last month, McCain urged international cooperation to help supply the anti-Assad rebels with weapons and other aid. At the time, he stopped short of endorsing direct U.S. military involvement.

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2 years ago

Canada closes embassy in Syria

TORONTO (AP) - Canada has closed its embassy in Syria because of the crackdown by President Bashar Assad's government.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chris Day said Monday the country has pulled its people out and the embassy and consulate are closed.

Britain, the United States and France also have closed their embassies in Syria.

Canada has been advising its citizens to leave for some time.

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2 years ago

Jolie hopes her film draws notice to Syria

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) - Angelina Jolie said Tuesday she hopes her directorial debut, "In the Land of Blood and Honey," can serve as a "wake-up call" for the international community to pay more attention to atrocities and act in time to prevent them - including in Syria.

Jolie arrived in Sarajevo with partner Brad Pitt to attend the premiere of her film, which already has been released in the U.S.

The film tells the fictional tale of a romance between a Bosnian Serb man and a Bosnian Muslim woman, and what happens when he becomes an army officer and she is held in a military prison camp where rape occurs.

Jolie said the movie was "heavy" but that she was happy with it because it shows what horrors can occur in the absence of a timely intervention.

"I am satisfied with what we made, I feel very strongly about it and I believe that its core issue - which is the need for intervention and need for the world to care about atrocities when they are happening - is very, very timely and especially with things that are happening in Syria today," she said.

"I think it is very important that this film is out at this time and ... if this film points the finger at anybody it is the international community," she said.

But even before it was screened in Bosnia, the film divided the country along ethnic lines and touched off anger left over from the conflict.

Muslim Bosniaks expect "In the Land of Blood and Honey" to focus on their plight during the brutal 1992-1995 war. But the distributor in the Serb part of Bosnia said he won't show it there because it portrays Serbs as the villains and they wouldn't put up with that.

"There is simply no interest for this movie here, so I can't sell any tickets," Vladimir Ljevar told The Associated Press. "The fact that the Serbs are the bad guys in it is the reason why there is no interest. The film is lousy. I watched it. It has had bad reviews. It is unprofitable."

But Jolie rejected the claim that her film was anti-Serb.

"I understand that it's sensitive," she said. "But I also know that the Serbian people are intelligent and open-minded people. They will know the difference between what's been forced upon them and what they feel in their own hearts."

She said that "although it's difficult, I hope that they see intention behind it."

Jolie noted she worked on the plot with people from both sides of the conflict.

"We were trying to find humanity on all sides and yet we were addressing the horrors of something that we felt we must show in a horrific way," Jolie said. "That is not an easy balance to find in such a sensitive subject matter, so we did our best; that was very hard, the politics of this region are very complicated."

Thousands of women were raped during Bosnia's war, which also included the notorious Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 and the 44-month siege of the capital, Sarajevo. Most of the rape victims were Muslim Bosniak women, often the target of mass rape used as a weapon of terror.

Many of the victims were raped repeatedly. Some were brought back to their homes and dumped in front of their husbands. Other women were violated in their husbands' presence as part of a shock campaign.

Defying the unofficial censorship in the Serb part of the country, Ana Vidovic, a Bosnian Serb woman from Prijedor organized a private screening in her home Saturday after she got approval from Jolie.

She told local media she was annoyed by claims there is no interest in the movie among Bosnian Serbs. "I am the public and as far as I remember, nobody asked me," she said.

Jolie said Vidovic's gesture meant very much to her team, so she wrote her a letter and approved the screening.

"We will do that for anyone who wants to have a private screening. And we hope that we encourage the people to see it somehow," Jolie said.

A group of Muslim Bosniaks who now have returned to their homes in the Serb part of the country say they are interested in seeing Jolie's movie and plan to organize private screenings.

Jolie said she made this film because "I just felt that this subject was important and I was really moved by it."

She said she may direct again.

"If I can find something that means as much to me, I will try, but if this is the only thing I ever directed, I would be very happy."

2 years ago

High-level offensive launched on Syria at UN

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Western and Arab nations launched a major diplomatic offensive at the U.N. on Tuesday in hopes of overcoming Russia's opposition to a resolution demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad relinquish power.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British and French foreign ministers traveled to New York for the afternoon Security Council session on the situation in Syria. Nabil Elaraby, the chief of the Arab League, and Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani, Qatar's prime minister, also were to brief council members.

"Realizing the hopes of the Syrian people is in your hands," Sheikh Hamad told council members, asking them to adopt the resolution, based on the Arab League's peace plan for the country. "It is part of your responsibility under the (U.N.) charter."

It was unclear if the high-level push would succeed.

Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the council, has objected to the draft, which is backed by Western and some Arab powers. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Tuesday on Twitter that the resolution is a "path to civil war."

Russia says it worries that the new measure could lead to military action and regime change, just as an Arab-backed U.N. resolution led to NATO airstrikes in Libya that allowed rebels to oust the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

Backers of the draft point out that it says specifically that "nothing ... compels states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force."

An actual vote on the resolution was considered unlikely until later this week.

The debate came amid rising violence Tuesday in Homs, a Syrian center of opposition to Assad's regime. The U.N. estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed since last March in the Syrian government crackdown against protesters.

The draft resolution demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab League peace plan calling for him to hand over power to his vice president. If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider "further measures," a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, that he was "encouraged by the League of Arab States' initiative to seek a political solution" to the Syrian crisis.

"It is more urgent than ever to put an end to this bloodshed and violence, to start a credible political solution that addresses the legitimate aspiration of the Syrian people and to protect their fundamental freedoms," Ban said.

If Russia choses to use its veto, there isn't much more council members can do except draft a nonbinding statement that would have to be approved by consensus.

In October, a Western-backed resolution condemning the violence in Syria was blocked by a double veto of Russia and fellow permanent member China.

Syria has been Moscow's top ally in the Middle East since Soviet times, when it was led by the incumbent's father, Hafez Assad. The Kremlin saw it as a bulwark for countering U.S. influence in the region.

While Russia's relations with Israel have improved greatly since the Soviet collapse, ties with Damascus helped Russia retain its clout as a member of the Quartet of international mediators trying to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

For decades, Syria has been a major customer for Russian arms, buying billions of dollars worth of combat jets, missiles, tanks and other heavy weapons.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based monitoring group U.N. Watch, said it was time for Russia to end "its increasingly futile effort to shield the doomed Assad regime.

"Russia would do better to prepare the dictator's Moscow asylum, something he will need sooner rather than later," Neuer said.

German Ambassador Peter Wittig told Al-Jazeera Arabic Monday that he understood that "Russia is in a difficult position" but said the council needed to act.

The German mission to the United Nations provided a text of Wittig's comments to reporters.

"I believe we are at a fork in the road," said the text. "Either the council contributes to stop the violence, to start a meaningful political process or Syria might slight into a full scale civil war."

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3 years ago

Clinton presses world to shut tap on Syrian oil

WASHINGTON (AP) - The United States wants a global embargo on Syrian oil and gas.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says countries buying fuel from Syria should "get on the right side of history" and not provide President Bashar Assad's government any financial support for its crackdown.

She also wants arms sales to Syria halted.

Clinton said Friday that international opinion is hardening against Assad's regime.

Some European countries, China and India have energy investments in Syria. Russia sells it weapons.

But Clinton suggested that tougher international action might come soon.

She said Assad "has lost the legitimacy to lead and it is clear that Syria would be better off without him."

3 years ago

Syrians Fire on Thousands of Protesters, Killing 1

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Police fired live ammunition and tear gas
Sunday at thousands of Syrians protesting in a tense southern city
for a third consecutive day, killing one person and signaling that
unrest in yet another Arab country is taking root, activists said.
Enraged protesters set fire to several local government
buildings, according to state media and a witness.
The violence in Daraa, a city of about 300,000 near the border
with Jordan, was fast becoming a major challenge for President
Bashar Assad, who tried to contain the situation by freeing
detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the
violence.
Protesters in Syria, however, would face a tough time trying to
pull off a serious uprising along the lines of those that toppled
leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. Assad's Syria is a country that
crushes political dissent, closely controls the media and routinely
jails critics of the regime.
Despite the political repression and rights abuses, Assad
remains popular among many in the Arab world, in particular,
because he is seen as one of the few Arab leaders willing to stand
up to Israel. It is also not clear how much support any uprising
would have within the country. A few earlier attempts to organize
protests through social networking sites fell flat.
The confrontations in Syria began Friday when security troops
fired at protesters in the city and killed five people.
Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian writer and activist who is in
contact with residents and witnesses in Daraa, said one person,
Raed al-Ekrad, was killed Sunday and two others suffered serious
gunshot wounds when police opened fire on demonstrators calling for
political freedoms and shouting anti-government slogans.
He said more than 200 people were treated for tear gas
inhalation at a nearby mosque that has been transformed into a
field hospital.
State-run television reported that "trouble makers" took
advantage of a peaceful demonstration and set fire to several
public buildings in the city. The official news agency, SANA,
reported that they also opened fire at security forces who did not
return fire. They said the incidents happened as a delegation sent
by Assad was paying condolences to the families of the dead.
State-run media did not say what public buildings were attacked,
but a witness in the city said they included the governorate
office, the ruling Baath Party office, the main court building and
the governor's house.
A witness in Daraa told The Associated Press by telephone that
protesters were angry about Friday's deaths and mass arrests that
followed. They demanded officials involved in the violence be
fired.
Other activists in the capital, Damascus, confirmed the reports
of police gunfire.
Neither the activists nor the Daraa witnesses would allow their
names to be used for fear of government retaliation. Syria keeps a
tight lid on information, particularly when it comes to security
issues.
Some reports said protesters tore down pictures of Assad, but
that could not be immediately confirmed.
Syria's government appeared to try to calm the situation later.
An official promised to free 70 people held after the deadly
protests Friday as well as the teenagers whose detention after
scrawling anti-government graffiti touched off the unrest. The
official said later that some of those arrested were released after
it was determined they were not involved.
The Syrian official said an investigative committee recommended
firing several government and security officials in Daraa, accusing
them of mishandling Friday's protests.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA said Deputy Foreign Minister
Faisal Mikdad and a Cabinet minister, Tamer al-Hajah, were in Daraa
to offer condolences on behalf of Assad to the families of those
killed.
It quoted Al-Hajah as saying that Assad ordered the adoption of
necessary measures to hold all of those responsible for Friday's
killings accountable.
The Damascus activists said thousands of people who took part in
Sunday's protests called for an end to emergency laws that have
been in place since the ruling Baath Party took power in 1963.
Syrian police sealed off Daraa after Friday's demonstrations,
allowing residents to leave the city but not to enter.
The National Organization for Human Rights said authorities
randomly arrested people who participated in Friday's protests in
at least five cities, including the coastal town of Banyas, Homs
and the capital.
Ammar Qurabi, who heads the rights group, said those arrested
were charged with writing anti-government slogans.
A Syrian official acknowledged only two deaths in Friday's
violence and said authorities would bring those responsible to
trial. The official said that even if an investigation shows
security officers were guilty, they will be put on trial "no
matter how high their rank is."
The violence was the worst since 2004 when clashes that began in
the northeastern city of Qamishli between Syrian Kurds and security
forces left at least 25 people dead and some 100 injured.

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