From the May 2014 LDESP Middle East News Update.
News from Iraq has ebbed considerably since the U.S. pulled out of the country in late 2011. Nonetheless, at times it seems that the civil strife gets continuously worst. Among the daily tempo of car bombings and attacks on Shia-populated areas, there was a glimmer of good news in early May as Iraqis “held a democratic vote to choose a leader with no foreign troops present for the first time.” Reuters reports, “Iraqis Vote as Violence Grips a Divided Country”:
“Since the last American soldiers pulled out in 2011, eight years after toppling dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq has descended back into extreme violence, with hundreds of civilians killed each month by al Qaeda-inspired Sunni insurgents, and with Shi’ite militia once more taking fearsome revenge.
Voters chose from nearly 10,000 candidates for 328 seats in parliament, from political parties that range from zealous Islamists to liberals and communists.
Non-Shi’ite parties complained of obstacles to voting in the outer suburbs of Baghdad and saw in it a deliberate effort by Maliki to keep their numbers down in the next parliament.
“It was all to be expected,” said Muhannad Hussam, a candidate who supports Sunni deputy prime minister Saleh Mutlaq. “They didn’t want the Sunnis to move for the election.”
Hussam said some voting machines broke down and that security forces prevented people trying to reach polling stations in Abu Ghraib, Yusifya and Latifya, all around Baghdad.
“From our view it is not a fair election,” he said.
Sunni allegations of irregularities risks strengthening the hand of armed groups.
Even more than in the last election four years ago, parties with sectarian and ethnic agendas are expected to lead the field, potentially exacerbating the divisions that underlie the worsening carnage.
Baghdad, a city still carved up with some fortress-like neighborhoods surrounded by razor wire and giant concrete barriers, had been festooned with political posters of men in suits, traditional robes, clerical garb or military fatigues, and women in glamorous makeup or modest Islamic dress.
But despite the myriad parties, the election is widely seen as a referendum on Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim who has governed for eight years. He says he is the only politician with enough strength to battle insurgents; his opponents say his bullying of his political enemies has brought Iraq to the verge of collapse.
The past year has seen violence return to levels unseen since the darkest days of the U.S. military “surge” under President George W. Bush. Government forces are fighting Sunni militants across western Anbar province, northern Iraq and in the countryside surrounding Baghdad. Shi’ite militia, once kept in check by Maliki and the Americans, have resurfaced to join the battle.” (Reuters)
For background, Ahmed Ali, an Iraq expert at the Institute for the Study of War, published an in-depth report on “Iraq’s 2014 National Elections”:
“Iraq’s 2014 national elections are taking place at a difficult time. The country is at a crossroads, presented with the possibility of widely different futures. Deteriorating security conditions frame political thought in ways that harken back to Iraq’s first national elections in 2005. The Iraqi state does not hold control of territory in some of Iraq’s key political provinces, such as Anbar, Ninewa, and Diyala. The disenfranchisement of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis; the rising threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS); and the activation of Ba‘athist groups collectively discourage electoral participation.
Shi‘a militias that threatened Iraq’s security in 2004 have reactivated in 2014, though Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization, and parties affiliated with the Sadrist Trend are actively participating in elections as well. The political mobilization of these groups, some in competition with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, demonstrates a retreat from Iraqi Shi‘a political unity; however, it also raises new concerns about public perceptions of the need for personal protection beyond what the state has been able to provide. The increasing threat of spillover from the Syrian war and high levels of violence in Iraq have cast doubt on the ability of Iraq’s national elections to generate an outlet of healthy political competition that empowers Iraq’s population to participate.
Security and local identity are dominant themes in the 2014 elections. This is a stark contrast to Iraq’s 2010 elections, which primarily involved strategies of ethno-sectarian unity. The major Iraqi Shi‘a groups in 2010 coalesced and formed the Iraqi National Alliance (INA). At the same time, the Iraqi Sunnis joined forces under the umbrella of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya alliance; and the Iraqi Kurds formed the Kurdistani alliance, unifying the efforts of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Instead, pre-election coalitions in 2014 have re-crystalized around primary stakeholders within the main Iraqi Sunni, Shi‘a, and Kurdish blocs, generating competition rather than unity.” (Institute for the Study of War)
The country’s problems seem insurmountable. From the spill-over effect of the Syrian revolution to Iran’s destructive meddling, to Prime Minister Maliki’s slip toward authoritarianism, to an embattled Al Qaeda off-shoot gaining momentum and territory, the country is facing threats to its stability from every angle. Looking first to the internal security issues, in late April, Vice Magazine published a detailed account of the gains made by the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in recent months. “ISIS Insurgents Have Almost Surrounded Baghdad”:
“In late December 2013, Iraqi security forces stormed a Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s restive Anbar province. The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that the protest camp had become a haven for militants with ties to al Qaeda.
Maliki’s crackdown provoked an uprising in Anbar’s cities, as tribal rebels assaulted and seized control of government buildings and police stations. As he seemed set to lose his grip on Anbar, Maliki withdrew the army from Ramadi and Fallujah, Anbar’s main cities, on New Year’s Eve. Unhelpfully for the Prime Minister, this proved an even more disastrous step, and as the Iraqi army moved out, in poured hundreds of vehicles flying the flag of the al Qaeda originated, homegrown jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from the surrounding desert.
By early January, the government’s control over Anbar’s main cities had almost entirely collapsed, with ISIS and groups of tribal insurgents taking over Fallujah, and controlling nearly half of Ramadi.
ISIS was able to take the former city despite being outnumbered by local government-aligned tribal fighters and other insurgent groups. In early January, as ISIS convoys moved in, its fighters reportedly declared Fallujah an Islamic emirate, and hoisted their black flags over police stations and the main government buildings. Soon, the radical cleric Abdullah al-Janabi was back on the scene. Al Janabi used to lead the Mujahideen Shura Council in Fallujah, a group established by ISIS’ precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq. Last time he was in the city, he took it upon himself to set up Sharia courts whose punishments “made the Taliban look soft.” Now he is back, openly preaching in mosques.
ISIS has also announced the establishment of a “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” to enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and in a coalition with other insurgent groups set up an administrative structure to control the city and keep public services running.
Despite its reputation for fearsome brutality ISIS has moved cautiously in Fallujah, indicating that in Iraq, at least the jihadist group appears to have learnt the lesson of the 2006 Anbar Awakening. Back then, local tribes and insurgents who’d grown resentful of ISIS’ domination allied with the Americans and the Iraqi government to drive the group out of the province.
“ISIS’ strategy has been much more conciliatory then was initially expected when it entered the town,” observes Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, noting that despite fears of mass executions of local police and their families, ISIS has not moved against them. Al Tamimi also notes that “the group’s financial resources have enabled it to engage in outreach to residents, sheikhs and religious scholars.” Finally, in a Sunni city with a history of rebellion against the US occupation and the Iraqi government, “there is undoubtedly appreciation on the part of many people in Fallujah that ISIS plays the main role in leading the boldest offensives on Iraq’s security forces in the wider Anbar area.”
The provincial capital of Ramadi, which the Iraqi government has repeatedly claimed to have cleared of ISIS insurgents, has proven to be a meat grinder for the Iraqi army. There has been continuous fighting in the city since January and ISIS still controls several neighbourhoods in southeastern Ramadi. In response, the Iraqi government has deployed elite Special Operations units that include the notorious Golden Division, which answers directly to Prime Minister Maliki.
The fighting has been merciless and brutal: in March, video footage emerged on social media of an ISIS fighter moving down along a row of kneeling Iraqi soldiers, executing them one by one with a pistol. Iraqi army units have also reportedly carried out extrajudicial killings of ISIS fighters, parading images of the mutilated bodies on social media. In gruesome scenes reminiscent of the Blackwater guard killings that sparked the first battle of Fallujah in 2004, ISIS militants have responded by burning the bodies of Iraqi soldiers and dragging the corpses behind a captured Humvee.
The growth of the insurgency has not been restricted to Anbar. In early April, video footage emerged of a 100-vehicle ISIS convoy parading through Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of Baghdad. The site of the notorious prison is located a mere 30 miles from the Green Zone, the center of the Iraqi government, and five miles from Baghdad International Airport and Camp Victory, the former US headquarters in Iraq. Insurgents have also asserted control over vast rural areas west and south of the capital, moving to encircle the city from all sides in a repeat of the push they made into Baghdad at the height of the Iraq war in 2006 and 2007.
Some ten years after it first began, the Iraqi insurgency has been fully reborn, and the conflict is escalating into a bloody new phase.” (Vice Magazine)
Moving to internal political issues in the country, the recent elections have brought to light the complicated inner workings of Prime Minister Maliki’s administration, whose State of Law coalition is expected “to win the most ballots from Iraq’s 21m registered voters (in an estimated population of 33m) but not an outright majority of seats to let it govern on its own.”
War correspondent and New Yorker staff writer recently wrote a must-read on “What We Left Behind: An increasingly authoritarian leader, a return of sectarian violence, and a nation worried for its future”:
When the last American soldiers left Iraq, at the end of 2011, the bloody civil war between the country’s Sunni and Shiite sects had been stifled but not resolved. Now the sectarian violence had returned, with terrifying intensity. For more than a year, thousands of Iraqis, nearly all of them members of the Sunni Arab minority, had been gathering to rail against Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Although the protests were mostly peaceful, security forces responded harshly, detaining thousands of Sunni men without charges and, in one encampment, touching off a spasm of violence that left hundreds of civilians dead. Across the Sunni heartland, north and west of Baghdad, the town squares filled with angry crowds, and the rhetoric grew more extreme. In Ramadi, protesters raised black jihadi flags, representing the extremist Al Qaeda offshoot that had dominated the city during the American occupation. “We are a group called Al Qaeda!” a man shouted from a stage in the protesters’ camp. “We will cut off heads and bring justice!” The crowd cheered.
Speaking into the television cameras on Christmas , Maliki ordered the protesters to disband. Largely ignoring his own men’s excesses, he claimed that the protests were dominated by extremists. “This site has become a base for Al Qaeda,” he said, filled with “killers and criminals.” Maliki ended his speech with what for him was a flourish of emotion, lifting a hand from the lectern. “There will be no negotiations while the square is still standing.”
In the protests at Ramadi, a Sunni member of parliament named Ahmed al-Alwani had inflamed the crowds, accusing Maliki of being in league with the Iranian regime, the region’s great Shiite power. “My message is for the snake Iran!” Alwani shouted into a microphone, jabbing his finger into the air. Referring to Maliki and those around him as “Safavids” and “Zoroastrians,” terms that denote Iranian invaders, he said, “Let them listen up and know that those gathered here will return Iraq to its people!”
The capture of Iraqi territory by Islamic extremists, barely two years since the last American soldiers left, prompted an extraordinary wave of soul-searching in Iraq and the United States, which lost more than thirteen hundred men and women in Anbar Province. Much of that reflection, in both countries, centered on Maliki, the man in whom the United States invested so much of its hopes and resources. Among many Iraqis, the concern is that their country is falling again into civil war, and that it is Maliki who has driven it to the edge. On April 30th, Iraqi voters will go to the polls to choose a parliament and ultimately a Prime Minister; after eight years in office, Maliki is seeking a third term. Many fear that victory would allow him to tighten his hold on the state. “If he wins this time, he will never leave,” the longtime Maliki associate told me.
The resurgence of Iraq’s Shiites is the greatest legacy of the American invasion, which overthrew Sunni rule and replaced it with a government led by Shiites—the first since the eighteenth century. Eight years after Maliki took power, Iraqis are sorting through the consequences. The Green Zone—still known by its English name—has the same otherworldly feel that it did during the American war: a placid, manicured outpost in a jungle of trouble. Now, though, it is essentially a bastion of Shiite power, in a country shot through with angry Sunni citizens. Politicians hustle from meeting to meeting, rarely venturing past the gates. When I asked Yasin Majid, a member of parliament, to meet me for coffee, he said, “I don’t want to come out of the Green Zone.”
This month’s election will be the first without American supervision. The recent violence, along with Maliki’s growing authoritarianism, has prompted many to imagine the future in the darkest terms. Hanaa Edwar, who runs a nonprofit called Al-Amal (Hope), told me over tea at her home that she had opposed the American invasion, even though she loathed Saddam Hussein. “I thought it was an Iraqi issue, not an American one,” she said. Still, the Americans could not have dreamed of a better friend. Threatened by insurgents and harassed by the government, Edwar built an organization that, among other things, trains women to campaign for elected office. She is proud of her work but ashamed of the Iraq that Maliki and his American sponsors have made. She recited a list of woes: “Divisions among people. The failure of public services. The corruption. The human-rights abuses. The judicial system? There is no judicial system, really. We are losing everything.”
Frustrated, Khalilzad turned to the C.I.A. analyst assigned to his office, a fluent Arabic speaker whose job was to know Iraq’s leaders. “Can it be that, in this country of thirty million people, the choice of Prime Minister is either Jaafari, who is incompetent, or Ali Adeeb, who is Iranian? Isn’t there anyone else?”
“I have a name for you,” the C.I.A. officer said. “Maliki.” (New Yorker)
As previously mentioned, the security situation within Iraq is very much impingent on the conflict in Syria and its increasingly regional effects. This next section will look at the latest news from the Syrian conflict as well as its impact on neighboring countries.
Syrian Rebels Who Received First U.S. Missiles of War See Shipment as ‘an Important First Step’
Under the leadership of a young, battle-hardened rebel commander, the men entrusted with the first American missiles to be delivered to the Syrian war are engaged in an ambitious effort to forge a new, professional army. Abdullah Awda, 28, says he and his recently formed Harakat Hazm — or Movement of Steadfastness — were chosen to receive the weapons because of their moderate views and, just as important, their discipline. At the group’s base, sprawled across rocky, forested wilderness in the northern province of Idlib, soldiers wear uniforms, get medical checkups and sleep in bunk beds under matching blankets. The scene is a far cry from the increasingly pervasive view of a chaotic, ragtag rebel movement that has fallen under the sway of Islamist extremists. Such concerns have long deterred the Obama administration from arming the Syrian opposition. But the arrival at the base last month of U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles, the first advanced American weaponry to be dispatched to Syria since the conflict began, has reignited long-abandoned hopes among the rebels that the Obama administration is preparing to soften its resistance to the provision of significant military aid and, perhaps, help move the battlefield equation back in their favor. The small number of BGM-71 missiles, about two decades old and hardly better than similar Russian and French models acquired by the rebels from allies and the black market over the past year, will not change the game in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the fighters say. Three years into the war, the government has pushed opposition forces out of many of their most important strongholds, deferring their hopes of victory indefinitely. However, the shipment “is an important first step,” Awda said during the first visit to his base by a journalist since the missiles arrived. The weapons were not directly provided by the United States. “Friends of Syria” delivered them, he said, referring to the U.S.-backed alliance of Western powers and Persian Gulf Arab states established to support the opposition Free Syrian Army. The rebels had to promise to return the canister of each missile fired, to not resell the weapons and to protect them from theft. (Washington Post)
How Do You Teach an Old Gun New Tricks?
The CIA wants to use fingerprint scanners and GPS devices to make sure Syria’s rebels target Assad – not the West.
After more than three years of civil war in Syria, the Obama administration may soon send shoulder-fired missiles to the rebels fighting the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. But before the first missiles fly, they’ll have to be outfitted with fingerprint scanners and GPS systems designed to keep the weapons from falling into the wrong hands. There’s only one problem: It’s not clear the relatively high-tech security equipment will be compatible with the decidedly low-tech, twenty-year old missiles. The weapons in question are the awkwardly named man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS. The mujahadeen battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s used U.S.-supplied versions of them to shoot dozens of enemy helicopters out of the sky. The beleaguered Syrian insurgents fighting Assad today say they need the missiles to prevent Syrian aircraft from strafing and bombing their positions. The rebels have been steadily losing ground to Assad, and officials in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations argue that the MANPADS may be one of the last, best chances to give the rebels a potentially game-changing weapon. The White House has considered giving the weapons to the rebels in the past, but held back because of fears that the weapons — which are extraordinarily easy to use — might be taken out of Syria and used against Western airliners. Typically weighing between 28 and 55 pounds, they can be carried by a single person and launched quickly without sophisticated targeting information. The missiles are stored in a tube that’s between four and 6 1/2 feet long — easy to hide in the trunk of a car or in a case.
Fears about the weapons winding up with Islamist militants have led the CIA to look for technological ways of ensuring that they can only be used against Assad’s forces. The agency, according to people familiar with the matter, is considering a pair of options. One would involve installing fingerprint scanners, which would prevent the missiles from being fired by anyone who hadn’t been vetted by the U.S. The other would be a GPS-based system that would render a shoulder-fired missile inoperable if it was taken outside of certain parts of Syria. Versions of both systems are standard equipment in iPhones and other modern gadgets. Making them standard equipment in the MANPADS would be far harder. The biometric system, for instance, would require the U.S. or its allies to take the fingerprints of authorized rebels and then program them into the devices attached to each missile. That, in turn, would require either smuggling the fingerprint-taking equipment into Syria or getting the rebels to CIA bases in Jordan or Turkey. The second option would be just as challenging. According to officials with knowledge of the matter, technical experts with the CIA have struggled to get a locking mechanism linked to GPS satellites to work with the older variety of missile launchers. Even when the GPS systems are ready for use, CIA engineers will need to install them on individual MANPADS, a potentially lengthy process that could further slow the weapons’ introduction to the battlefield. Even if the GPS locks are made to work, some fear that they could still be disabled in the field. (Foreign Policy)
Reports: Ceasefire Reached in Syrian City of Homs
Syria’s government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire on 2 May in the battleground city of Homs to allow hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a move that would surrender almost total control of the city once known as the “capital of the revolution” to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. The capture of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, would be a significant victory for Assad, weeks before presidential elections set for June 3 — if the agreement goes through and rebel fighters leave. The 48-hour cease-fire deal came after weeks of unprecedented pounding of rebel-held districts by government force. One Homs-based opposition activist said it was a bitter moment for the rebels who have been barricaded in 13 neighborhoods around Homs’ historic center. “This isn’t what we wanted, but it’s all we could get,” Beibars Tilawi told The Associated Press in a Skype interview. “The regime wanted to take control of the heart of the revolution.” Evacuations may start on Saturday, he said. Residents of Homs, in the central western plains of Syria, were among the first to rise fiercely against Assad’s rule three years ago, earning it the nickname of the “capital of the revolution.” After waves of anti-Assad protests by its residents, rebels seized control of much of the city and Homs quickly became the focus of the worst violence of the uprising, now in its fourth year. Homs, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Damascus, is particularly important for its centrality. It links the capital with Aleppo in the north — the country’s largest city and another key battleground.
Large swathes of Homs have been blasted into rubble as Assad’s forces engaged in grueling urban warfare trying to wrest the city back. For more than a year, government troops have blockaded rebels inside a string of districts spread over some eight miles (13 kilometers), causing widespread hunger and weakening the fighters. (Washington Post, Associated Press)
UN Looking for Syria Envoy as Brahimi Prepares to Quit after Failed Peace Talks
Urgent efforts are under way to find a replacement for the UN’s special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is expected to resign his post by the end of this month. After the failure of the Geneva peace talks and President Bashar al-Assad‘s confident decision to stand for re-election, Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Labour prime minister, and Michael Williams, a British veteran of the UN and now a peer, have emerged as leading candidates for the most important – and probably the most thankless – role in world diplomacy, which is in effect paralysed in the fourth bloody year of the Syrian crisis. Diplomatic sources confirmed on 1 May that the other names on the UN shortlist are Kamel Morjane, a former Tunisian foreign minister, and Javier Solana, the Spanish politician who has been both Nato secretary general and the European Union’s foreign policy supremo. Brahimi is due at the UN in New York in early May and is expected to brief the security council on 13 May. But the Guardian understands that it is almost certain to be his final appearance. The veteran Algerian mediator, who is 80, has been in the job since September 2012, when he replaced Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general. Brahimi had threatened to resign almost from the start of his mission but officials at the UN and elsewhere insisted that this time he meant it. Annan and Brahimi both represented the UN and the Arab League – as “joint special representative” – but the new appointee is expected to report only to the UN because of the deep divisions within the Arab world over Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states openly back the anti-Assad rebels, while countries such as Algeria and Iraq stand solidly behind Damascus. “The Arab League’s role has become a drag because of the divisions,” said one well-placed source. “It’s not an asset but a hindrance.” (The Guardian)
Syria’s Assad Seeks Re-Election in Poll
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has registered to stand in the country’s presidential elections due to be held in June. Parliamentary speaker Mohammad al-Laham made the announcement on 28 April during a televised session of Syria’s parliament. Assad is widely expected to secure a third term in office despite a thee-year old civil war that stemmed from protests against his rule, the Reuters news agency reported. The president’s letter to Syria’s constitutional court, read out in parliament by Laham, said: “I Dr Bashar Hafez al Assad wish to nominate myself for the post of president of the republic, hoping that parliament will endorse it.” Arab and Western opponents of the Syrian government have condemned the election as a mockery of democracy. Critics say no credible vote can take place in a country where 6 million people have been displaced and 2.5 million have fled as refugees. A number of other candidates will also be competing in the election, but Syria’s opposition leaders in exile, who are barred from standing dismissed the vote, called it a charade. Syria’s constitution says presidential candidates must win the backing of 35 members of the parliament and cannot have lived outside the country in the last 10 years. The Assad family have ruled over Syria for four decades and the current three-year old uprising has been the most serious challenge to their grip on power. The conflict is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 people. (Al Jazeera)
Syria Misses New Deadline as It Works to Purge Arms
Syria missed a revised deadline on 27 April for completing the export or destruction of chemicals in its weapons arsenal, but the government of the war-ravaged country may be only days away from finishing the job, according to international experts overseeing the process. The Syrian government had agreed to complete the export or destruction of about 1,200 tons of chemical agents by 27 April after missing a February deadline, but by 27 April, it had shipped out or destroyed 92.5 percent of the arsenal, said Sigrid Kaag, the coordinator of the joint mission by the United Nations and the watchdog agency the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Syria had made significant progress but must “take the final step very soon” to purge the remaining 7.5 percent of the arsenal, Ms. Kaag told reporters in Damascus, according to a report on the United Nations news service website. It was unclear from the report what chemical, or chemicals, were in the remainder. (New York Times)
Syria’s Homs Attacks: Death Toll Reaches 100
At least 100 people, mostly civilians, were killed in twin car bomb attacks claimed by jihadists in a pro-regime area of Syria’s Homs, an NGO said on 30 April, updating an earlier toll. The attack on 29 April was the deadliest of its kind in Homs since the start of Syria’s conflict three years ago, and comes as government forces launch fresh offensives in a bid to overrun a handful of besieged rebel quarters in the central city. Two car bombs exploded in a pro-government neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs on 29 April, The Associated Press quoted state media and activists as saying. The attack in the Abbasiyeh neighborhood of Homs came just hours after one of the deadliest mortar strikes in the heart of the capital, Damascus, killed more than a dozen people, the agency quoted officials and activists as saying. The official Syrian news agency had said on 29 April at least 40 people were killed and another 116 wounded in the attack in Abbasiyeh – a predominantly Christian and Alawite area. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll from the double car bombing at 37, including five children. It said more than 80 were wounded. Such discrepancies in casualty figures are common in Syria in the immediate aftermath of attacks. Homs has been an opposition stronghold since the beginning of the uprising against President Bashat Assad that erupted in March 2011. The city, Syria’s third largest, has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the civil war. A devastating government siege has squeezed rebels in the last outpost in the Old City, and the remaining fighters there have lashed back with suicide car bombings on pro-Assad areas. (Al Arabiya)
Children’s Art at Syria School, and Then a Bomb
Organizers had worked until dawn hanging children’s artwork on the wall of an elementary school in Syria’s largest city: a bright green tank under a round yellow sun, a girl in pigtails defying a soldier’s bullets, a missile plunging from a warplane toward the school building. But hours before the exhibit was to open on 30 April, creating a rare space for children’s creativity in a ravaged district of the northern city of Aleppo, Syrian government aircraft bombarded the school, residents and anti-government activists said. At least 20 people, including 17 students and two teachers, were killed, they said, and many were wounded, including the school principal and the local artist who mounted the exhibit. “She asked each one to draw what he dreams of,” said the distraught sister of the organizer, a painter and volunteer with a psychological support group called Fingerprints of Hope. The children’s art, she had written on the exhibit’s flier, reflected not only “blood and pain,” but also perseverance and hope that “stands as a blockade in front of death.”
The attack was one of scores of aerial bombardments, including at least 85 barrel bombs, explosives-filled barrels dropped from helicopters that the government has unleashed on insurgent-held areas of Aleppo since the United Nations Security Council called in February for all parties to end such indiscriminate bombings. Hundreds have died. It was the type of attack that opposition figures seek to halt with a renewed push for military aid to defend against aerial bombardments. Leaders of the armed opposition and the main exile opposition coalition plan to travel to Washington in May to push the Obama administration to lift its objections to allowing antiaircraft missiles to flow to insurgents deemed to be moderate, coalition officials said on 30 April. The goal is to push for antiaircraft and antitank missiles “and to change the American public opinion” regarding support for Syria’s armed opposition, said Bahia Mardini, a media adviser to the exile body, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. (New York Times)
Jordan Opens Syria Refugee Camp for 130,000 People
Jordan opened a new, sprawling tent city on 30 April to accommodate tens of thousands more Syrian refugees who are expected to flee their country’s fighting – another grim indicator for a deadly war now in its fourth year. The new Azraq refugee camp is built to host 130,000 people, said Brig. Gen. Waddah Lihmoud, director of Syrian refugee affairs in Jordan. It cost $63.5 million dollars to build, the U.N. said. Once full – a process expected to take months – the camp will outstrip Zaatari, currently Jordan’s largest camp. That camp is now the country’s fourth largest city and the second largest refugee camp in the world. The Dadaab camp in Kenya is the largest. The huge tent city underscores the staggering effect of Syria’s refugee problem on its neighbors. Jordan already hosts some 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, forming 10 percent of the country’s population. Jordanian officials estimate the real number is closer to 1.3 million Syrians. The conflict has caused some 40 percent of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million to flee their homes. There are nearly 2.7 million Syrian refugees, mostly in neighboring countries, and another 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes inside the country, the U.N. estimates. (…)The Azraq camp stretches for 9 miles (15 kilometers), and lies 55 miles (90 kilometers) from the Syrian border, said Lihmoud. There are currently 247 refugees within the camp, and all new Syrians arriving into Jordan will be settled there, officials said. About 600 refugees cross into Jordan daily, the U.N. estimates. (…) Zaatari camp currently holds over 100,000 people, although it was only meant to hold 85,000, Byrne said. It is widely seen as a miserable, often dangerous place. Unemployed men lout in the camp, and women said they feared using distant toilets at night.
But despite Azraq’s new, better-planned facilities, it’s unclear if Syrians will choose to flock there. Syrian’s aren’t allowed to work in Jordan, keeping them impoverished and restless. Many illegally work in urban areas, where Syrian refugees prefer to live. Others are engaged in small trades within refugee camps. With only 243 families so far, it still doesn’t have the economic opportunity offered in other areas. (The Daily Star of Lebanon, Associated Press)
Kuwait, a U.S. Ally on Syria, is Also the Leading Funder of Extremist Rebels
Kuwait, a U.S. ally whose aid to besieged Syrian civilians has been surpassed only by the United States this year, is also the leading source of funding for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists fighting in Syria’s civil war, according to Obama administration officials. The amount of money that has flowed from Kuwaiti individuals and through organized charities to Syrian rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to experts whose estimates are endorsed by the Treasury Department. Until recently, tiny, oil-rich Kuwait avoided public scrutiny as attention to terrorist financing focused more sharply on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. But the fact that those countries have made strides in addressing the problem, a senior Treasury official said, has “shed more light on the less forward-leaning steps taken in Kuwait.” Last month, the administration decided to go public with its concerns. In a remarkably undiplomatic statement that officials said had been cleared at senior levels, Treasury Undersecretary David S. Cohen called Kuwait “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.” Such fundraising was not illegal in Kuwait until last year, when the government took advantage of an unrelated parliamentary boycott to push through a new law. “Disappointingly, since then there has not been much vigor shown in implementing” a ban on terrorist financing, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration assessments of Kuwait. The government has also recently established a U.S.-recommended Financial Intelligence Unit, which governments use as clearinghouses for reports of suspicious transaction and to investigate terrorist financing and money laundering. But “their FIU is still not operating,” according to the Treasury official. “It just sort of calls into question whether there is sufficient will to follow through on the legal steps.”
Unlike other monarchies and autocracies in the region, Kuwait’s politics are relatively open and combative. The executive branch, headed by Emir Sabah Ahmed al-Sabah, frequently clashes with a feisty parliament composed of warring political groups within both the Sunni majority and the Shiite minority. Unlike other Gulf countries, Kuwait allows broad freedom of association for its 2.7 million citizens, and Sabah’s rule is characterized more by political incorporation than confrontation, according to Elizabeth Dickinson, a journalist in the region whose lengthy analysis of Kuwaiti extremist financing was published in December by the Brookings Institution. In contrast to highly regulated fundraising elsewhere in the Gulf, many of Kuwait’s charities “are autonomous and regulated with minimal interference” from the government, Dickinson wrote. While some of these groups are widely respected in the philanthropic world for their humanitarian work, “other groups are directly linked to religious sects or organizations” with long histories of support for Salafist movements, which practice a strict form of Islam. At the same time, mosques and private groups often raise money outside the confines of any recognized charity. In this unregulated stew, fundraising for Syrian rebel groups has become a source of competition among Kuwaiti religious and business leaders, as well as a funnel for contributions from private citizens in other Gulf states with more stringent rules. Touting their exploits in pictures and videos posted on social media, wealthy and prominent religious Kuwaitis often deliver money and supplies directly to rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which the State Department has designated an al-Qaeda affiliate. Many of the groups, which at times have named military brigades after the donors, have their own representatives and liaison entities in Kuwait. Competition for funds and disputes among benefactors for prominence have become so pervasive that they have contributed to the rise of extremist groups within the Syrian opposition and the inability to organize a critical mass of rebel fighters under a U.S.-approved “moderate” banner, Dickinson wrote. (Washington Post)
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