Both Syrian sides intensifying violence: U.N. monitor

MOSCOW/BEIRUT Fri Jun 15, 2012 6:38pm EDT

1 of 11. Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Kafranbel, near Idlib, June 15, 2012.

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MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Both rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are intensifying violence in Syria and striving for military gains rather than peaceful transition, the chief U.N. monitor in Syria, Major-General Robert Mood, said on Friday.

Russia dug in further against Western pressure to discuss a post-Assad Syria, and France's foreign minister said Paris was considering whether to equip rebels with communications equipment to encourage a "stronger revolt".

At least 34 people were killed in Syria on Friday, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of them by Assad's forces. The group, which has a network of activists across Syria, said the death toll included at least six members of Assad's forces who were killed in clashes with rebels.

"Violence over the past 10 days has been intensified, again willingly by both parties, with losses on both sides and at significant risk to our observers," Mood told reporters in Damascus.

"There appears to be a lack of willingness to see a peaceful transition. Instead there is a push towards advancing military positions."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said discussions regarding a political transformation in Syria after Assad "are not being held and cannot be held, because to decide for the Syrian people contradicts our position completely".

"We do not get involved in overthrowing regimes - neither through approval of unilateral actions by the U.N. Security Council nor by participation in any political plots," he said.

His comments were a response to a remark by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland suggesting Washington and Moscow were discussing a post-Assad strategy in Syria.

Russia's Foreign Ministry also rebutted accusations by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria. It said Moscow had made no new deliveries, but had at some point carried out "previously planned repairs of (helicopters), which were delivered to Syria many years ago".

WORLD DIVIDED

World powers are deeply divided over Syria, with Russia and China - both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and holding vetoes - blocking efforts by Western powers to condemn Assad or call for his removal after 15 months of bloodshed.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country still supported the UN-backed peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan.

"But we are also considering - and the Americans have done this - not giving weapons but providing communications equipment so that a stronger revolt develops among the population," said Fabius.

His spokesman appeared to play down the comments, saying it was important for Syrians to have communications tools so they could be warned if tanks were heading toward their cities, but adding no decision had been taken yet.

Violence has surged in recent weeks after government forces and allied militia launched offensives to regain territories controlled by the opposition, and rebels abandoned a ceasefire negotiated by international envoy Kofi Annan.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said his worst fears were being realized in Syria.

"Our biggest fear was to reach this point that we are in today, it is almost at a state of civil war. We did what we could, unfortunately the situation is worse," he said on Turkish-language channel CNNTurk.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Assad's forces of using rape and other sexual violence against men, women and children, citing interviews with victims.

"The assaults are not limited to detention facilities - government forces and pro-government shabiha militia members have also sexually assaulted women and girls during home raids and residential sweeps," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was striving to alleviate growing suffering.

"More and more people are in need of help," said Alexandre Equey, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Syria. "In some areas, people are unable to get out, and help cannot get in.

Heavy clashes were reported across Syria on Friday. Opposition activists said they would hold peaceful protests. In amateur video footage posted on the Internet, demonstrators held signs saying: "Russia: enemy number one for the Syrian people."

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut, Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Seda Sezer in Istanbul; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Andrew Roche and Ralph Gowling)

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Comments (27)
Per alakhbar English:

It has now become official. Propagandists of the Syrian regime (most of whom are Lebanese and are awarded hours of airtime on Syrian regime TV and its sister Dunya TV) have declared war on Arab uprisings – all Arab uprisings. Syrian regime propaganda now peddles the silly New York Times theory that Americans (Gene Sharp or Freedom House or some other outfit) plotted and orchestrated the Arab uprisings to benefit Israel.

Rafiq Nasrallah, a staunch Lebanese supporter of the Syrian regime and a known presence on Lebanon’s TV scene (he used to be Beirut bureau chief for UAE TV but was fired after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri for political reasons) even blatantly declared his preference for all Arab regimes.

Syrian regime propaganda now offers no sympathy for Arab uprisings. All are now treated with suspicion and hostility. The uprisings were of course cheered when they hit Egypt: here was Israel’s close ally and the chief opponent of Syria and Hezbollah in the Arab region. Syria and Hezbollah perhaps (arrogantly) assumed that the uprisings would stop at the gates of Syria and that it would only target the clients of the US. Bashar Assad gave an early interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he analyzed at length the reasons for his popularity. But once the uprisings reached Syria, the tone and rhetoric of the regime and its allies changed dramatically.

Pro-Syrian regime propaganda outlets (including Hezbollah media) now look at Arab uprisings with suspicion. Arab uprisings are now portrayed as part of a US/Israel plot to control the region. The scenarios that appear in such media wildly exaggerate the power of the US and even, unwittingly, conform to a long-standing Mossad aim to convince Arabs that they can’t change their lots, that Israel can shape the region in any way it wants and, that developments will only be allowed if they are consistent with Israeli interests.

Syrian regime propagandists have had a hard time: how to praise Arab uprisings while demonizing a popular uprising inside Syria? The NATO rule in Libya has convinced the Syrian regime that the US/Israel are managing all Arab uprisings. To be sure, some Arab opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council, have allowed themselves to serve outside agendas, but the underlying causes for the Syrian uprising are internal/domestic. But tyrannical regimes are incapable of admitting their own unpopularity.

Jun 14, 2012 12:14am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Per alakhbar English:

It has now become official. Propagandists of the Syrian regime (most of whom are Lebanese and are awarded hours of airtime on Syrian regime TV and its sister Dunya TV) have declared war on Arab uprisings – all Arab uprisings. Syrian regime propaganda now peddles the silly New York Times theory that Americans (Gene Sharp or Freedom House or some other outfit) plotted and orchestrated the Arab uprisings to benefit Israel.

Rafiq Nasrallah, a staunch Lebanese supporter of the Syrian regime and a known presence on Lebanon’s TV scene (he used to be Beirut bureau chief for UAE TV but was fired after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri for political reasons) even blatantly declared his preference for all Arab regimes.

Syrian regime propaganda now offers no sympathy for Arab uprisings. All are now treated with suspicion and hostility. The uprisings were of course cheered when they hit Egypt: here was Israel’s close ally and the chief opponent of Syria and Hezbollah in the Arab region. Syria and Hezbollah perhaps (arrogantly) assumed that the uprisings would stop at the gates of Syria and that it would only target the clients of the US. Bashar Assad gave an early interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he analyzed at length the reasons for his popularity. But once the uprisings reached Syria, the tone and rhetoric of the regime and its allies changed dramatically.

Pro-Syrian regime propaganda outlets (including Hezbollah media) now look at Arab uprisings with suspicion. Arab uprisings are now portrayed as part of a US/Israel plot to control the region. The scenarios that appear in such media wildly exaggerate the power of the US and even, unwittingly, conform to a long-standing Mossad aim to convince Arabs that they can’t change their lots, that Israel can shape the region in any way it wants and, that developments will only be allowed if they are consistent with Israeli interests.

Syrian regime propagandists have had a hard time: how to praise Arab uprisings while demonizing a popular uprising inside Syria? The NATO rule in Libya has convinced the Syrian regime that the US/Israel are managing all Arab uprisings. To be sure, some Arab opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council, have allowed themselves to serve outside agendas, but the underlying causes for the Syrian uprising are internal/domestic. But tyrannical regimes are incapable of admitting their own unpopularity.

Jun 14, 2012 12:14am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Per the national review:

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Western media sources have accepted bait provided by Bashar al-Assad’s most prodigious propagandists, who regularly weave tales of anti-Assad, al-Qaeda-style groups’ expelling or murdering members of minority groups. These claims touch on issues that play well for Bashar Assad’s regime, especially the claim that without the regime, the country will turn into Iraq.

The outcome of Assad’s removal, assuming that Syria or even its Sunni heartland can hold together, may well be a new Sunni Islamist regime. However, this does not excuse the regime’s attempts to disseminate patent falsehoods.

In a post on National Review Online, John Rosenthal quotes a June 7 article from a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), that discusses the recent massacre in Houla. Rosenthal also cites an article written by Mother Agnès-Mariam de la-Croix, of the St. James Monastery in Syria, regarding a massacre of 50 that took place in Homs in March.

The line immediately presented by the Syrian regime regarding the Houla massacre was that anti-Assad “armed terrorists” carried it out. This is the same line the regime took regarding Homs. Now, FAZ alleges that not only did opposition-group members carry out the Houla massacre, but the victims were principally Alawites — that is, part of Assad’s religious sect — along with some Sunni families that had converted to Shiism.

One might be tempted to think that FAZ has got hold of a real scoop, but the truth is that these allegations have their origins on outlandish conspiracy websites. Often, the many propaganda purveyors with a direct interest in defending Assad have engaged in a circular routine of feeding one another details. In turn, these narratives find their way into legitimate outlets.

For example, in March, Agenzia Fides, an official Vatican publication, republished (almost verbatim) material provided by the Syrian propaganda website Syria Truth. The article claimed that jihadists had expelled Christians from Homs. This information eventually found its way into outlets such as the Los Angeles Times. When we demonstrated the dubious veracity of these claims, Syria Truth went ballistic. A subsequent McClatchy article corroborated our refutation.

In the fog surrounding the Houla massacre, there seems to be more seepage of hazy data into mainstream outlets.

A June 5 article by Thierry Meyssan argued the same point as the FAZ article: namely, that the massacre arose in the context of a nearby rebel offensive against the Syrian army, and that some of the victims were Sunni families that had converted to Shiism. Meyssan is a well-known French 9/11 conspiracy theorist who believes that the Beslan Massacre in Russia — an action in which Chechen and Ingush jihadists killed hundreds of Russian schoolchildren — was actually planned and directed by the CIA and the U.S. government.

In turn, Meyssan cited Mother Agnes’s affiliated outlet Vox Clamantis, which on May 26 issued a press release claiming that the Syrian army was not in the vicinity of Houla and did not bombard the area. The outlet then offered the purported testimony of an anonymous eyewitness from Kfar Laha, a town in the vicinity of Houla.

This supposed eyewitness claimed that on the night of the massacre, armed rebels first entered a hospital at around 8 p.m., murdered all those inside, removed the corpses, and then burned the hospital. Next, the rebels entered Tal Daw at around 10 p.m.and proceeded to massacre some Alawite families. Then, all the corpses were gathered and taken to a mosque in Houla to show to the U.N. observers and create the impression of a massacre perpetrated by the Syrian army.

Like Nizar Nayouf of Syria Truth, Mother Agnès-Mariam often assumes the slick veneer of a moderate; she even wrote an open letter to Assad about the condition of people affected by the fighting in Syrian hospitals. It’s hard not to conclude that Mother Agnès-Mariam is little more than another Assad propagandist using her religious credentials to push a particular narrative.

According to the Swiss newspaper Le Courrier, Agnès-Mariam was “comfortable among [Assad’s] security services,” and she told their reporter it was hoped he could “dismantle the propaganda of Western media.” Thierry Meyssan also conducted a revealing interview with Mother Agnès-Mariam about Middle Eastern Christians. During the interview, the mother superior repeated the typically farcical Assad line that the dictator was truly trying to “reform.”

Agnès-Mariam told Meyssan that she “deplored the fact that the so-called opponents didn’t accept President Bashar Al-Assad’s invitation to debate with him the series of reforms which he is in the process of carrying out.” (Of course, it would be of no consequence to the sister (who never recanted her earlier statements) that in leaked private e-mails Assad told his wife, “We are going to adopt [a plan that left him in power] instead of the rubbish laws of parties, elections, media [i.e., actual democratic reforms].”)

Mother Superior Agnès-Mariam continued by claiming that the opposition was just a puppet in a conspiracy guided by foreign powers. She also proffered the Assad narrative of Arabism, arguing that Middle Eastern Christians are truly Arabs. Many Middle Eastern Christians (including Eastern Catholics such as the Chaldeans and Maronites) have not adopted the Arab identity, but Arabism is part and parcel of Assad’s own ideology.

Going back to Meyssan’s June 5 article, the conspiracy theorist cites a May 31 TV report from a Russian news channel known as Vesti24. In a report reprinted on Meyssan’s site, Vesti24’s Marat Musin follows the pro-Assad line, which should come as no surprise given Musin’s past reports on Homs, which promoted claims that French military officers are present in Syria assisting the rebels. Thus, based on interviews with “law enforcement officials” and Syrian army soldiers, Musin advances the claim that the victims were loyalist civilians — Sunni families who had converted to Shiism — and portrays the entire affair as a “provocation” by the opposition designed to trigger an intervention by NATO countries, which according to him “directly threaten to bomb Syria.”

Though this review of the evidence might seem tedious, it should now be apparent that FAZ is not reporting a new theory: Rather, the outlet is simply recycling dubious claims coming from pro-Assad propagandists and conspiracy theorists.

The claims made by Meyssan et al. are not ignored by the mainstream media because the media want a narrative of a heroic, popular, democratic uprising against a brutal regime. Indeed, legitimate reports on gross human-rights abuses by rebel forces and members of the opposition have been widely documented and circulated by non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and prominent publications such as Der Spiegel. Instead, the claims of Meyssan and his ilk are ignored because they have no basis in reality.

Accurate reporting in Syria is difficult, and has been made more so by the widespread violence. And despite the existence of legitimate data furnished by Syrian citizens, there is a cottage industry of nonsensical reports presented specifically to alter the perceptions of observers. Autocratic regimes retain their own propagandists and have a cordon of “useful idiots” disseminating the former’s data for their own reasons; Syria is no different. Damascus has its “Baghdad Bobs”; they’ve just been taken more seriously. As the West sits on its hands to see what may become of Syria, analysts must be circumspect in assessing the situation.

Jun 14, 2012 12:25am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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