World Conflict: Iran to send 4,000 troops to aid Syria – U.S. urges allies to supply arms in conflict
Washington’s decision to arm Syria’s Sunni Muslim rebels has plunged America into the great Sunni-Shia conflict of the Islamic Middle East, entering a struggle that now dwarfs the Arab revolutions, which overthrew dictatorships across the region. For the first time, all of America’s ‘friends’ in the region are Sunni Muslims and all of its enemies are Shiites. Breaking all President Barack Obama’s rules of disengagement, the US is now fully engaged on the side of armed groups which include the most extreme Sunni Islamist movements in the Middle East. The Independent on Sunday has learned that a military decision has been taken in Iran – even before last week’s presidential election – to send a first contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against the largely Sunni rebellion that has cost almost 100,000 lives in just over two years. Iran is now fully committed to preserving Assad’s regime, according to pro-Iranian sources which have been deeply involved in the Islamic Republic’s security, even to the extent of proposing to open up a new ‘Syrian’ front on the Golan Heights against Israel. In years to come, historians will ask how America – after its defeat in Iraq and its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for 2014 – could have so blithely aligned itself with one side in a titanic Islamic struggle stretching back to the seventh century death of the Prophet Mohamed. The profound effects of this great schism, between Sunnis who believe that the father of Mohamed’s wife was the new caliph of the Muslim world and Shias who regard his son in law Ali as his rightful successor – a seventh century battle swamped in blood around the present-day Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kerbala – continue across the region to this day. A 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbott, compared this Muslim conflict to that between “Papists and Protestants.” America’s alliance now includes the wealthiest states of the Arab Gulf, the vast Sunni territories between Egypt and Morocco, as well as Turkey and the fragile British-created monarchy in Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan – flooded, like so many neighboring nations, by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – may also now find himself at the fulcrum of the Syrian battle. Up to 3,000 American ‘advisers’ are now believed to be in Jordan, and the creation of a southern Syria ‘no-fly zone’ – opposed by Syrian-controlled anti-aircraft batteries – will turn a crisis into a ‘hot’ war. So much for America’s ‘friends.’ Its enemies include the Lebanese Hizballah, the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus and, of course, Iran. And Iraq, a largely Shiite nation which America ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority in the hope of balancing the Shiite power of Iran, has – against all US predictions – itself now largely fallen under Tehran’s influence and power. Iraqi Shiites as well as Hizballah members, have both fought alongside Assad’s forces. Washington’s excuse for its new Middle East adventure – that it must arm Assad’s enemies because the Damascus regime has used sarin gas against them – convinces no-one in the Middle East. Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. For the real reason why America has thrown its military power behind Syria’s Sunni rebels is because those same rebels are now losing their war against Assad. The Damascus regime’s victory this month in the central Syrian town of Qusayr, at the cost of Hizballah lives as well as those of government forces, has thrown the Syrian revolution into turmoil, threatening to humiliate American and EU demands for Assad to abandon power. Arab dictators are supposed to be deposed – unless they are the friendly kings or emirs of the Gulf – not to be sustained. Yet Russia has given its total support to Assad, three times vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that might have allowed the West to intervene directly in the civil war.
In the Middle East, there is cynical disbelief at the American contention that it can distribute arms – almost certainly including anti-aircraft missiles – only to secular Sunni rebel forces in Syria represented by the so-called Free Syria Army. The more powerful al-Nusrah Front, allied to al-Qaeda, dominates the battlefield on the rebel side and has been blamed for atrocities including the execution of Syrian government prisoners of war and the murder of a 14-year old boy for blasphemy. They will be able to take new American weapons from their Free Syria Army comrades with little effort. From now on, therefore, every suicide bombing in Damascus – every war crime committed by the rebels – will be regarded in the region as Washington’s responsibility. The very Sunni-Wahabi Islamists who killed thousands of Americans on 11th September, 2011 – who are America’s greatest enemies as well as Russia’s – are going to be proxy allies of the Obama administration. This terrible irony can only be exacerbated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adament refusal to tolerate any form of Sunni extremism. His experience in Chechenya, his anti-Muslim rhetoric – he has made obscene remarks about Muslim extremists in a press conference in Russian – and his belief that Russia’s old ally in Syria is facing the same threat as Moscow fought in Chechenya, plays a far greater part in his policy towards Bashar al-Assad than the continued existence of Russia’s naval port at the Syrian Mediterranean city of Tartous. For the Russians, of course, the ‘Middle East’ is not in the ‘east’ at all, but to the south of Moscow; and statistics are all-important. The Chechen capital of Grozny is scarcely 500 miles from the Syrian frontier. Fifteen per cent of Russians are Muslim. Six of the Soviet Union’s communist republics had a Muslim majority, 90 per cent of whom were Sunni. And Sunnis around the world make up perhaps 85 per cent of all Muslims. For a Russia intent on repositioning itself across a land mass that includes most of the former Soviet Union, Sunni Islamists of the kind now fighting the Assad regime are its principal antagonists. –The Independent excerpt
President Mohamed Morso said Saturday night that Egypt had decided to break off ties with the current regime in Syria, close its embassy in Cairo and recall Egypt’s charge d’affaires. He was addressing the Support for Syria rally organized after the Muslim Brotherhood denounced Hizballah’s intervention in Syria and backed calls for a Jihad there. Mursi urged world powers to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria - Debka.com
Lebanese troops blocked streets in Beirut with tanks and barbed wire for several hours on Sunday after the killing of a protester outside the Iranian embassy raised factional tensions already inflamed by the war in Syria. The man died during a clash between rival groups of Shi’ite Muslims after militiamen from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement opened fire when protesters drew up at the embassy, the latest sign of Syria’s violence spilling over to its neighbors. In Syria itself, fighting intensified in the north, where rebels said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies were preparing an offensive after success last week in seizing a strategic town further south. In the past week Assad’s forces and Hezbollah captured the town of Qusair, which controls vital supply routes across Syria and with Lebanon, a sign of reversing momentum after the rebels seized swathes of the country in the second half of last year. Battles raged on Sunday near Al-Nubbul and Zahra, two rural Shi’ite Muslim enclaves outside the commercial hub Aleppo in Syria’s north, and intensified in Aleppo itself. “The aim is to use the two villages as forward bases to make advances in Aleppo and its countryside,” said Brigadier General Mustafa Al-Sheikh, a rebel commander and former senior officer in Assad’s military, referring to government tactics. “The regime considers that it has received a shot in the arm after the Qusair battle, but they will find that it will not be easy to advance in Aleppo,” Sheikh said, speaking from an undisclosed location in northern Syria. The civil war now pits Assad, from the Alawite offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, and Shi’ite Hezbollah against mainly Sunni Muslim rebel groups. Assad is backed by Shi’ite Iran and armed by Russia. The rebels are armed by Sunni Arab countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and backed by Turkey and the West. Much of the north near the Turkish border has been held by rebels since last year and frontlines inside Aleppo itself have been largely static for months. An article in the semi-official Syrian al-Watan daily said the Syrian army was “deploying heavily in the countryside near Aleppo in preparation for a battle that will be fought inside the city and on its outskirts. Besieged areas will be freed in the first stages and troops which have been on the defensive will go on the offensive,” the article said. Activists said at least ten rebel fighters and six loyalist troops were killed in intensifying combat in the last 24 hours in Aleppo, Syria’s largest metropolis, which has been divided into rebel-held and loyalist controlled sectors for a year. Sheikh said the army has been using helicopters to re-enforce Nubbul and Zahra with loyalist troops including Hezbollah fighters and recruits from Iraq. There was no independent confirmation of any Hezbollah presence near Aleppo. Hezbollah has pledged to fight alongside Assad until victory in the Syrian war, in which at least 80,000 people have been killed. It does not comment on the specific activities of its fighters in Syria. Hezbollah’s participation raises the prospect of fighting spreading to Lebanon, which has never fully recovered from its own 1975-1990 civil war. In Beirut, the Lebanese army, which has limited means to impose itself on armed factions, deployed armored vehicles and set up roadblocks to cordon the city center and neighborhoods controlled by Hezbollah. Traffic was restored toward evening. Demonstrators from a variety of groups, including Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians, in protest against Hezbollah’s newly prominent role supporting Assad. When protesters from a small Shi’ite party opposed to Hezbollah arrived at the Iranian embassy in a bus, a Reuters journalist saw them clash with black-clad Hezbollah militiamen, who opened fire. Lebanese security officials said one of the protesters, who was unarmed, was killed and several people were hurt. “What happened today makes us feel there is a very difficult period ahead. We are bringing disasters upon ourselves by interfering in others’ affairs,” said hotel owner Ali Hammoud. “No one will come to Lebanon now; our concern now is just to stay alive.” –Reuters
Moscow sets up Russian Golan brigade, warns Israel Sunnis plus al Qaeda are bigger threat than Assad
Moscow is not ready to give up on getting Russian troops posted on the divided Golan as part of the UN force policing the Israeli-Syrian separation sector, even after rejections by the UN and Israel. Monday, June 10, the Russian lawmaker Aleksey Pushkov, an influential foreign relations policy adviser to the Kremlin, said: “The issue has not been yet solved, it is being considered. We must take some real action because we cannot exclude that the Syrian-Israeli topic would be involved in large-scale military action.”
Shortly before he spoke, the military announced in Moscow that the Russian Airborne Troops had formed a separate brigade especially designed to serve as peacekeepers “under the aegis of the United Nations or as part of the force set up by the Russian-led CSTO (Russian-Asian) security bloc for combating
terrorism. Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan contribute special units.
Vladimir Shamanov, commander of Russian Airborne troops, said the new brigade had been awarded the status of “a peacekeeping unit” on June 1. He did not say by whom. DEBKAfile’s military sources disclose the Moscow proposes to give the “peacekeeping” brigade from the Russian Airborne Troops “teeth” in the form of of MI-24 combat helicopters.
The idea of placing Russian peacekeepers on the Golan was first voiced by President Vladimir Putin on June 7, after Austria decided to withdraw its 377-strong contingent from the area over an outbreak of fighting there between Syrian troops and rebels.
The idea was quickly shot down by the United Nations and Israel on the grounds that the Israeli-Syrian 1974 ceasefire accord barred veto-wielding UN Security Council members from participation in the peacekeeping force.
On June 8, DEBKAfile reported exclusively that Putin was determined to override Israeli and UN objections and get Russian troops deployed on the Syrian Golan by hook or by crook.
On June 9, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly rejected the Putin offer, saying Israel could not afford to place its security in the hands of international forces.
Speaking at a Moscow press conference on Monday, MP Pushkov went on to say that it was too early to say that Vladimir Putin’s suggestion of placing Russian peacekeepers on the Golan Heights lacked perspectives or could not be implemented.
As though on cue, the Hizballah-controlled Lebanese Al Akhbar Monday quoted President Bashar Assad as warning that, for him, opening a front on the Golan against Israel was “a serious matter” and would not just consist of firing a few improvised rockets from time to time.
This gave Pushkov the opening for his warning to Israel: That Israeli authorities would oppose this step (Putin’s offer) was not surprising, he said, but he warned about possible consequences: “Assad could be replaced by radical Islamists in comparison with whom Assad would seem an angel from heaven,” said the Russian lawmaker.
“The people who are now offering friendship to Israel would not necessarily see Israel as their partner when they come to power, rather they would see it as an enemy,” the Russian MP said, hinting at the references made by Hizballah and Syrian government spokesmen to the relations Israel had purportedly formed with certain Syrian rebel groups. Hizballah broadcasts even depicted outdated Israeli tanks and other equipment, booty captured in its 2006 war with Israel, to prove its point.
Therefore, Pushkov advised Israeli leaders to pay more attention to the possible future scenarios in Syria and take into account that Russia could play a positive and stabilizing role in the region.
DEBKAfile notes that this was the first time any Russian official had mentioned the unmentionable: a possible future turn in the wheel of the Syrian conflict that would oust Assad and bring his foes, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda, to power in Damascus. - Debka
Just 24 hours after Austria decided to withdraw its 380-strong contingent from the UN force policing the Golan separation zone, President Vladimir Putin stepped forward Friday, June 7, with an offer of a Russian force to take its place on the highly sensitive Syrian-Israeli border. Thursday, two peacekeepers were injured by falling ordnance from a battle between Syrian and rebel troops around Quneitra.
DEBKAfile: The Russian president saw his opportunity to pluck the fruits of Moscow’s success in backing the Syrian-Hizballah forces’ advances in major battles against rebels, notably at al Qusayr, and position Russian troops face to face with the Israeli army. They would constitute a barrier against any military intervention being mounted against the Assad regime from Israel.
UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Hak said: "The UN would welcome Russia’s contribution to peacekeeping efforts in the region."
Our military and intelligence sources doubt whether the Israeli government will be enthusiastic about Russian troops policing the Golan sector separating Israeli and Syrian forces. Jerusalem may be expected to seek advice from Washington in order to get the Russian contribution disqualified on the grounds that Moscow can hardly claim to be a neutral party when it is so heavily committed militarily to one side of the Syrian conflict.
The Obama administration’s reaction to Putin’s move is hard to predict because a rejection could torpedo the fading prospects of the US-Russian-sponsored Geneva conference for a political solution of the Syrian war - for which no date has yet been set. The Russian president appears to be aiming at having Russian troops posted on Syrian soil under the US flag when – and if - the conference ever gets off the ground.
What Putin said was this: “In view of the complicated situation which is currently unfolding on the Golan Heights, we could replace the Austrian peacekeeping contingent, which is withdrawing from this region, on the disengagement line between Israeli troops and the Syrian army.”
The Russian president made no mention of the presence of Syrian rebels on the Golan.
Israel has four major concerns in this matter:
1. The presence of Russian troops on the Syrian side of the Golan would inhibit Israeli cross-border military action should it become necessary for its security.
2. It would upset the relations the IDF has developed with certain Syrian rebel units, manifested by their war wounded receiving treatment at the military field hospital set up especially at the Tel Hazaka post on the Golan and transferred in severe case to hospitals in Haifa and Safed.
Last week, US military released data with pictures showing the movements of Israeli special forces in and out of Syria.
3. The possibility of Russian officers in blue helmets interfering with Israeli military movements on the Israeli side of the Golan as well cannot be ruled out.
4. Some of the Russian contingent may be assigned to gather intelligence on Israeli military movements in the north of the country. There is no way to stop them handing those secrets over to the Syrian and Hizballah.
In the event, the UN thanked Moscow but explained that the Syrian-Israeli 1974 disengagement accord did not allow permament UN Security Council members with veto power to serve in UNDOF. - Debka
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has deployed a naval unit to the Mediterranean Sea, it said on Thursday, a move President Vladimir Putin said was to defend Russian security but which comes as Moscow faces off with the West over Syria. In what is Russia's first permanent naval deployment in the Mediterranean since Soviet times, it has stationed 16 warships and three ship-based helicopters in the region, the chief of staff said. Putin said the deployment was not "saber-rattling" and not meant as a threat to any nation. Russia cooperates with NATO navies against piracy and its ships call at Western ports. But its support for President Bashar al-Assad as he fights rebels have put Moscow at odds with the West. "This is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation," Putin said. Large-scale naval exercises Russia held in March and ship movements near Syria have been seen in the West as muscle-flexing by Moscow, which has sold weapons to Assad's government and shielded it from any action by the U.N. Security Council. Russia also has a naval maintenance and supply facility in Syria. The announcement comes days after Moscow said it planned to resume patrols by nuclear-armed submarines in the southern seas as part of a Putin's broader effort to revive Russia's military might. Putin has stressed the importance of a strong military since returning to the presidency last May. In 13 years in power, he has often cited external threats when talking of the need for agile armed forces and Russian political unity. - Reuters
Syria's war has reached "new levels of brutality", the UN says, with evidence of fresh suspected massacres, sieges and violations of children's rights. Children have been taken hostage, forced to watch torture and even participate in beheadings, it says; others have been killed while fighting. It says it suspects there are "reasonable grounds" to believe chemical weapons have been deployed. It urges foreign powers not to increase the availability of arms in Syria. The issue of arms has been high on the international agenda of late, with the EU lifting an embargo on the sale of arms to Syria while Russia has insisted it is going ahead with the sale of an advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile defence system to Syria. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the contract had not yet been fulfilled and Russia did not want to "disturb the balance in the region". He said he was "disappointed" by the EU move. Meanwhile, a civilian died when shells exploded near the Russian embassy in Damascus, according to the UK-based activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Russia is an ally of President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels have targeted the embassy several times since the uprising against his regime began two years ago. The international powers are struggling to set a date for a peace conference on Syria, where the conflict is believed to have cost at least 80,000 lives. - BBC NEWS
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