Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya
Egyptian security forces storm Kerdasa to expel pro-Morsi militants from tourist town
Police chief killed during raid, which had been held by Islamists for a month
AHMED ABDEL-FATTAH , MOHAMMED WAGDY THURSDAY 19 SEPTEMBER 2013
Egyptian security forces backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters stormed a tourist town near the Great Pyramids today. The raid was part of a renewed campaign by the military-backed government to put down armed Islamist supporters of the ousted president, Mohammed Morsi.
Militants took control of the town just outside Cairo more than a month ago during a nationwide backlash of violence by Islamists enraged by the military coup in July that removed Mr Morsi and by the crackdown against his supporters that followed.
As they moved into Kerdasa at around 6am, troops and police came under fire from gunmen on rooftops. Nabil Farag, a police general, was shot in the first moments of the battle and pronounced dead in hospital.
Earlier in the week, security forces had stormed Dalga, a town in southern Egypt, to break the hold of Islamic militants who had seized control there.
Kerdasa, in an agricultural area west of Cairo, was once a village but has swelled into a densely populated town which carries more strategic importance than Dalga.
It is a short drive from Cairo’s centre and is about three miles from the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt’s chief tourist attraction. Kerdasa itself was a popular stop on tourist itineraries because of its shops selling traditional carpets and clothes.
Armed Morsi supporters drove police out of the town in mid-August, when a mob of Islamists attacked the local police station. They killed 15 policemen and mutilated their bodies, dragging some by cars, scalping at least one and pouring acid on another. It was part of a wave of retaliatory violence after security forces cracked down on the main pro-Morsi protest camps in Cairo with heavy assaults that killed hundreds.
Authorities named more than 140 people suspected of involvement in the police killings, including several members of Gamaa Islamiya, a hardline group that waged an armed insurgency in the 1990s. The group later renounced violence and was a strong Morsi ally before and during his year in office.
Today, a large combined force of troops and police officers surrounded Kerdasa, blocking entrances with armed vehicles, as security forces moved into the town. State TV said security forces were using loudspeakers to urge residents to stay indoors to avoid the crossfire.
General Hani Abdel-Latif, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said police planned to besiege the town working in tandem with the army, which would then deploy special forces to round up armed men.
“There will be no retreat until it is cleansed of all terrorist and criminal hideouts,” he said in a statement.
General Medhat el-Menshawy, a senior police commander at the scene, said police arrested 55 suspects in house-to-house raids in Kerdasa. Egypt’s official news agency said those detained included three men suspected of involvement in the killings of the policemen.
The scale and rapidity of the raids on Kerdasa and Dalga point to a new push by authorities to restore law and order in the country. Egypt has been rocked by unrest and violence from the time its autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011.
Hosni Mubarak's trial resumes in Egypt
Ex-president back in court on charges related to the killings of 900 protesters during 2011 uprising
Associated Press in Cairo
theguardian.com, Saturday 14 September 2013 12.08 BST
Egypt: A new banana republic?
The military-led removal of Mohamed Morsi belies free and fair elections, rule of law and human rights.
Last Modified: 25 Aug 2013 13:00
The simultaneous trial of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the release of Hosni Mubarak reflect the latest round in the collusion between Mubarak appointees in Egypt's military and judiciary, and with it the latest challenge in the struggle for democracy, rule of law and human rights in Egypt.
Despite post-coup claims by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his appointed interim president of Egypt, Adly Mansour, that it would support an inclusive democratic process, from the very beginning el-Sisi and the unelected government demonised the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and sought to eradicate them. The historical record and facts on the ground stand in stark contrast to the record of those who overthrew them. Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party came to power through ballots, not bullets.
For more than forty years, despite provocation, arrest, detention, rigged elections and state sponsored violence, the Brotherhood did not engage in political or religious violence. Militant Egyptian Islamist organisations, as well as Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the current Egyptian leader of al-Qaeda, have long opposed the Brotherhood because of its gradualism and willingness to compromise even during the Morsi presidency. Ironically and dangerously, the military junta is now purposefully eliminating the ability of the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood leadership and thus opening the way for extremists to mobilise sympathisers. The junta seems to have learned and decided to emulate the lessons of Algeria - you can stay in power if you are willing to sacrifice thousands of your fellow citizens (in Algeria's case 200,000).
The interim government, an illegitimate product of a military-backed coup, is acting very much like the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the past, seeking to crush and destroy the Brotherhood. It has massacred large numbers of the Brotherhood and other opposition in the largest bloodbath in modern Egyptian history. The security forces have deliberately used violence and killing to provoke pro-Morsi non-violent demonstrators to take up arms and fire back, and it has declared its intention to outlaw the MB (as Nasser did, but neither Sadat nor Mubarak did).
Now the military junta and its appointed government have turned to the courts, and charging Brotherhood leaders on trumped-up (false) charges and blaming the victims of violence is not a totally unexpected move. Trials of Morsi and others will no doubt be next. This is but another step in a process that emerged in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution led by of many Mubarak regime appointees, in particular the military and judiciary. The process is in fact a counter-revolution. The collusion between the military and the courts has been evident from the SCAF's policies, the Constitutional Court's invasive decisions such as the dissolution of the FJP and Salafi-dominated parliament as well as the Constitutional Assembly and culminated with the appointment as interim president of a key anti-Morsi judge and former head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Egypt crisis: Now Mohamed ElBaradei faces wrath of army after resigning from cabinet
Nobel laureate set to be tried for ‘betrayal of trust’ as Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader is arrested
ALISTAIR BEACH CAIRO TUESDAY 20 AUGUST 2013
Egyptians will no longer put up with authoritarians
By Ezzedine Choukri Fishere
August 20, 2013 6:00 pm
For millions of us who live in Egypt, the western bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood is unmistakable. Yes, innocent Islamists have been shot in the streets and the number of casualties is staggering. No one who is here will ever want to relive the bloodshed of the past week. The west needs to be clear about what the Brotherhood is, however.
In the past week, the group and its allies have burnt down churches, killed police and military personnel, attacked police stations with heavy weapons and terrorised residential neighbourhoods – but this is not the impression one gets from the statements from outside the country.
One never hears about how, in 2011, the Brotherhood and its allies, Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya, used the electoral victory of their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, to hijack the democratic transition. This was achieved through legislating anti-democratic laws, restricting liberties, imposing an autocratic constitution, fostering sectarianism, intimidation, discriminating against women and minorities, and threatening their opponents.
Almost exactly like Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood tightened its grip on the political system, making change from within impossible. And, exactly like the former dictator, Mr Morsi was removed by a popular uprising – backed by the intervention of the military. They are, for an Egyptian liberal, two sides of the same coin.
This bias would not have been so upsetting if it were merely the result of the superior media campaigning on the part of the Brotherhood and its allies. But it seems to reflect a deeper and more sinister attitude; a return of orientalism in the name of universal democratic values.
Much western media and many experts fall victim to this vision. It suggests that the Arabs are a “special breed” of people, and an inferior one that cannot speak for itself but has to be spoken for by “those who know the Arabs best” – the good old orientalists populating think-tanks and framing media discourse. In the view of those “experts”, Islamism is the most important political force in the Arab world and will remain so for decades to come. This is because, they say, Islam plays a much greater role in the lives of Arabs. Consequently, the west should support Islamists even if their rule violates the basic values of a pluralistic democracy (such as equality and individual rights).
They recognise that Islamist rule would be an imperfect democracy, maybe even a majority tyranny, but they perceive this imperfection as inevitable, stemming from orientals’ “inherent” characteristics. The alternative to this “oriental democracy” would be an autocratic rule that is harder to support and can no longer work. So Islamists will provide the stability autocrats can no longer guarantee. They will rein in the more extreme Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya and they might evolve towards more respect of pluralistic values.
Where do I fit in to this analysis? I do not, and it does not matter to the neo-orientalists. They cast me aside as westernised, a minority, misplaced and incapable of rooting and connecting to the “majority” – almost an alien. But what about the 75 per cent of us who voted for Mr Morsi’s non-Islamist rivals in the first round of presidential elections? What about the millions who took to the streets to protest against his dictatorial “Constitutional Declaration” in November? What about the millions who demonstrated this summer? What about the tens of millions who today support the military – many of whom were its sworn enemies but converted out of fear of the Brotherhood? Are we all aliens and misfits? No. We are normal people who want a normal democracy; one that respects human rights, pluralism and the rule of law. We do not want fascistic majority rule delivered in ballot boxes.
However, we are made invisible, and our voice is silenced. Why? Because it is politically useful not to see or hear us. Ignoring us and our voices legitimates western governments’ support for Islamist authoritarian rulers who will give them the benefits of stability offered by dictators, while at the same time looking democratic because they are elected. For these governments, a Morsi is a new and a better Mubarak.
Neo-orientalism is as blind as the old one, however. The majority of Egyptians do want pluralism. Although we are disorganised and leaderless, we are not insignificant: nobody can govern this country without our support. We brought down Mr Mubarak and Mr Morsi – and we will not accept a return to authoritarianism, in the name of either religion or security. We know our struggle is far from over. The Brotherhood and its allies will not disappear overnight, but they have lost popular support. The military will not give up power easily, but we know we can stop them becoming putschists. The entrenched orientalism will not go away either, but it will not convince us to accept anything less than a truly pluralistic democracy.
Egypt: Are foreign journalists lying?
We examine the accusations of bias and lack of objectivity against international media over coverage of recent events.
Inside Story Last Modified: 20 Aug 2013 09:03
Egypt: Polarisation and genocide
In these morbid days in Egypt, there are some home truths that are worth reflecting upon.
Last Modified: 20 Aug 2013 16:51
In retrospect, Tahrir Square was "a revolution" that never was, which has now been superseded by "a counter-revolution" that was never possible. The dislodging of a Mubarak dynasty in 2011 did not even achieve "regime change", much less initiate a transformative political process. There was no revolution to counter. Even more modest hopes for political reform and humane governance were doomed from the start.
What then was Tahrir Square? Part project (getting rid of Mubarak and sons), part fantasy (hoping that the carnivalistic unity of the moment would evolve into the sustained pursuit of a just society), and part delusional experiment (believing that the established order of Mubarak elites and their secular opponents would be willing to rebuild a more legitimate political and economic order even if it meant that would be losing significant power and status).
Egypt soldiers killed in Sinai ambush
At least 25 troops killed after rocket-propelled grenades strike buses near Rafah, officials say.
Last Modified: 19 Aug 2013 20:01
Egypt army crackdown splits Morsi opponents
Violent reaction to anti-military protests spurs some coup supporters to join the Brotherhood in the streets.
Dahlia Kholaif Last Modified: 19 Aug 2013 11:32
How some ordinary Egyptians became ‘malicious terrorists’
It’s our dear friends the Saudis whom the Egyptian army and police can count on
Sunday 18 August 2013
Disgust, shame, outrage.
All these words apply to the disgrace of Egypt these past six weeks. A military coup, millions of enraged supporters of the democratically elected but deposed dictator – reports that indicate well over 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers slaughtered by the security police – and what were we told by the authorities yesterday? That Egypt was subject to “a malicious terrorist plot”.
The language speaks for itself. Not just a common or garden “terrorist” plot – but a “terrorist” plot so terrible that it is “malicious”. Naturally, the government acquired this use of the “terrorist” word from Bush and Blair, another Western contribution to Arab culture. But it goes further. The country, we are now informed, is at the mercy of “extremist forces who want to create war”. You would think, on hearing this, that most of the dead these past six weeks were soldiers and policemen, whereas in fact most were unarmed demonstrators.
And who is to blame? Obama, of course, for “encouraging terrorism” by his wimpish complaints last week – so claim the Egyptian authorities. And our old friend, the “foreign media”. It is the infidel channels – including al-Jazeera – which has been feeding hatred into the land of the Pharaohs, according to the Egyptian press (which is now almost as wimpish as Obama in its fealty to its new rulers).
Outside the al-Fath mosque in Cairo on Saturday, supporters of the military were roughing up reporters and cameramen, Italians and Germans among them, and even al-Jazeera briefly high-tailed it from the scene. The Independent took its chances, with Alastair Beach inside the besieged mosque with the Brotherhood. Outside, I was wearing a scruffy tourist hat among the security thugs and Army supporters, where an Egyptian friend helped me – rather unkindly, I thought – by explaining to men with clubs that I was an elderly English tourist who had just popped out from his Cairo hotel to see what was going on. I kept my notebook and my mobile phone in my pocket. “Welcome to Cairo,” I was repeatedly told.
To be fair, let me just recount one little, heartening moment amid Saturday’s mosque drama. Two Egyptian men walked up to me and said, quite simply, that “it is very unfair to keep these people in the mosque without water and food. They are human beings just like us.” The men were not Morsi supporters, but didn’t seem too keen on the police. They were just good, decent, humane Egyptians, the kind we all hope are in the real majority.
But this leads me to remember a typically Obama-like piece of lying last week. It came when the US president decided to take a break from his golfing holiday to comment on the violence in Egypt. He described Morsi’s opponents – now represented by a general, Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, who is also the defence minister and the deputy prime minister – as “many Egyptians, millions of Egyptians, perhaps even a majority of Egyptians”. And there you had it – Obama had credited the coup with a majority following.
How General al-Sisi – who speaks excellent American English – must have been delighted with this little set of code words.
And it’s odd, isn’t it, how the supposedly malicious journalists have been playing down the murderous actions of the Egyptian security cops. They were repeatedly referred to on Al-Jazeera last week as “armed men” – as if they were not in uniform and shooting from the roof of a police station. Western editorials have described Egyptian police killings as “heavy-handed’, as if Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway had biffed a few bad guys over the head.
A trustworthy friend of mine put it to me the other day that our Western leaders are so sick of the demonstrators that plague G8 summits – where the usual “terror” warnings always apply – that they have an innate sympathy with policemen and a built-in hatred of protesters.
But it’s our dear friends the Saudis whom the Egyptian army and police can count on for help. King Abdullah himself has promised billions of dollars for poor old Egypt, now that Qatari generosity has dried up. But Egyptians should beware Saudis bearing gifts. The House of Saud is not really interested in helping foreign armies – unless they are coming to save Saudi Arabia – but it is very much involved in supporting the Salafists of the Egyptian Noor party. It is the Noor religious fundamentalists who won an extraordinary 24 per cent in the last parliamentary election – and who ruthlessly decided to ally themselves with General al-Sisi when Morsi was dethroned. The conservative Salafists are much more to Saudi taste than potentially liberal members of the Brotherhood. It is for them that the King is opening his purse. And if by some mischance, the Salafists can drum up a majority from disenchanted members of the Brotherhood in the next election,
then the Caliphate of Egypt is a step nearer.
And the Other Side of the Story. It is true that gunmen have fired from Brotherhood crowds. A handful at most – and it does not justify the Egyptian press calling tens of thousands of people “terrorists” – but both my colleague and I have seen armed men among protesters. The attacks on the churches are real. Churches have been burned, Christian homes vandalised.
The anti-Christian fury is now political-ideological. It is persecution. Pope Tawadros might perhaps now regret having his photo taken alongside the coup supporters. But the sheikh of Al Azhar was in the same picture – and so were the Salafists.
Oh yes, and the government is now rumbling on about the need to “dissolve” the Brotherhood. Since members are already being rounded up by the cops, I’m not quite sure what “dissolution” is supposed to achieve. Didn’t the Brits once declare the IRA “illegal”? Did that make them go away?
I was crossing the 6 October bridge over the Nile after curfew on Friday when I found more than 30 young men in galabia gowns sitting on the pavement with their hands over their heads. Striding among them were black-uniformed cops with shotguns, and gangs of “beltagi” – the bully-boys employed by state security (I suppose we might call them the “good’ terrorists”) – and I suddenly saw what “state of emergency” means. Fear. No rights. No arrest warrants. No law.
Egypt unrest: 36 Islamist prisoners die in 'escape bid' as state sets about wiping out Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood described the incident as "cold-blooded killing"
ALASTAIR BEACH CAIRO MONDAY 19 AUGUST 2013
Will Egypt repeat Algeria's 'black decade'?
Comparisons between Egypt's present crisis and the upheaval in 1990s Algeria gain credibility.
Massoud Hayoun Last Modified: 19 Aug 2013 13:15
Cairo massacre: After today, what Muslim will ever trust the ballot box again?
This marks a tragic turning point, from which it will take Egypt years to recover
Wednesday 14 August 2013
Egypt's day of shame: Scores killed and hundreds more injured as government declares war on Islamists
Mohamed el-Baradei, the vice President and Nobel laureate, resigns in protest over the crackdown
ALASTAIR BEACH CAIRO THURSDAY 15 AUGUST 2013
In Pictures: Killings in Cairo
Injured demonstrators mass at makeshift clinics during security forces' grisly assault on pro-Morsi protesters.
Scott Nelson Last Modified: 15 Aug 2013 13:37
Egypt's sexual assault epidemic
Women at Egypt's protests often must fight more than the political cause that brought them into the streets.
Bel Trew Last Modified: 14 Aug 2013 10:57
It is the night of July 3, and on the streets of downtown Cairo thousands are celebrating the ousting of Egypt's deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. But below ground, in the police booth of Tahrir Square's metro station, Joanna Joseph is attempting to comfort a young girl.
She had been surrounded by dozens of men in the square, stripped and sexually assaulted. And now, on the request of her family, a medic is trying to conduct a virginity test on the floor of the police booth.
"I was shouting at the doctor not to touch the girl. The girl couldn't even cope with hearing the crowds," says Joseph, who is a volunteer with the Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign (OpAntiSh), a grassroots organisation set up in November 2012, which sends teams of volunteers to protests to intervene in mob assaults. "The policeman said he had received four or five girls in this state every day," she adds.
Since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, then the Egyptian president, attacks like these have become an epidemic in Tahrir Square, the site of many of the protests. And in the week surrounding the ousting of Morsi, 150 such cases were reported. Many others, of course, go unreported. The level of violence involved is often extreme - in January, two teenage girls were raped with knives.
Thirty-year-old musician Yasmine el-Baramawy, who was attacked in Tahrir Square last November, describes the pattern: Men surround the woman, rip off her clothes and then perform manual rape, while an outer circle fends off anyone who might try to help her with sticks, blades and belts.
"They were taking photos of me and laughing," Baramawy says. "They pinned me naked to the hood of a car and drove me around."
The speed, efficiency and ferocity of the attacks imply that they are orchestrated, and many believe they are used by political factions as a tool to deter women from protesting while simultaneously discrediting demonstrators. But the fact that the assaults occurred under Mubarak, the military, Morsi and the current interim president, Adly Mansour, suggest the problem may have far deeper roots.
And while the attacks are most prevalent and brutal in Tahrir, they also occur outside of a political context: In May, rights groups reported similar assaults at a pop concert in the coastal city of Ain Sokhna.
"The problem of sexual harassment and assault has been evident for a very long time," says Amal Elmohandes, the director of the Women Human Rights Defenders programme. "They took place as far back as 2006 during Eid celebrations, at the metro stations or near the cinemas."
In fact, a study by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women released in April reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while 96.5 percent have been subject to harassment in the form of touching.
But activists say the number of sexual assaults has increased post-revolution as there has been a surge in the number of women present in public spaces. Furthermore, Elmohandes says, "as society is more brutalised, people are increasingly expressing themselves through violent actions".
'Blaming the victim'
Increased opportunity and a traumatised population, however, does not fully explain the extent of the problem in Egypt. And the language used to describe the assaults reveals just how deeply embedded the problem is.
The word "taharush", which means "harassment", was only adopted in the context of sexual assault in the last decade. "Instead, people used to say 'flirtation' ['mo'aksa'] - they sugar-coated the problem," explains Mariam Kirollos, a women's rights activist and volunteer with OpAntiSh.
The use of the term "flirtation" rather than harassment implies a consensual act, and contributes to an already entrenched culture of "blaming the victim", as women are perceived to be somehow complicit.
Consequently, answering back is widely considered inappropriate in Egypt - and can, in some instances, provoke a violent reaction. When, in 2012, 16-year-old Eman Mostafa spat at the man who groped her breasts, her attacker shot her dead.
The roots of the problem, women's rights activists say, are in the home. And with domestic violence and marital rape not considered crimes under Egyptian law, it is hard to change attitudes on the street.
Women's rights groups had worked on legislation to criminalise domestic abuse, but this was shelved when Mubarak's parliament was dissolved post-revolution. Since then there have been two further attempts. El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an Egyptian NGO that offers legal and psychological support to victims of assault, drafted a law addressing domestic violence, marital rape and sexual violence against women. But the effort was abandoned when the parliament was again dissolved by the then-ruling military council last year.
Similar umbrella legislation put forward by the state-run National Council for Women this year was also put on hold when the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament, was dismantled after Morsi was ousted. "Egypt is never stable enough for us to introduce these draft laws," explains Farah Shash, a psychologist and researcher at El-Nadeem Centre.
As it stands, under Egyptian law sexual harassment is not criminialised, and rape by objects or hands is only classified as assault.
Shash says young boys are rarely reprimanded by their parents for harassing girls in public, and that it is not uncommon to see children speaking inappropriately to women as they mirror the adult behaviour around them. "Often, families will just laugh," she says.
The issue is not addressed in schools either, where the curriculum reinforces traditional gender roles. "You'll see textbook examples of girls helping their mother in the kitchen, while the boys are with their fathers at work. It sets this idea in kids' minds that women are meant to be at home [and] men on the streets," Shash says.
These attitudes contribute to a sense that men have power over women, who in turn become commodities, activists say. "Women are dehumanised, their bodies can be tampered with," explains Elmohandes.
A culture of impunity
There is also a culture of impunity at the state level, with assailants rarely facing any consequences for their actions. Baramawy filed a joint complaint with six other women about their sexual assaults in Tahrir before the Qasr el-Nil prosecution in March. Prosecutors were reportedly cooperative but they had no evidence: they kept asking women to identify their attackers, an impossible request with such large mobs.
And, according to Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, the security forces compound the problem. "Both the police and the military have been involved in sexual violence against women. They get away with it, so there has been no accountability," she says, noting that the military conducted forced virginity tests on female demonstrators in March 2011. Elmohandes says it has become socially unacceptable for a woman to even enter a police station because of the fear of being sexually harassed.
Successive governments have failed to prioritise fighting sexual violence against women. "The problem is always postponed until the political situation 'settles down'," notes Morayef.
In February, on the one occasion that sexual assault was addressed by the human rights committee of the Shura Council, members of the council blamed women for the attacks in Tahrir, suggesting that they should not attend protests. One committee member from a Salafist party, Adel Afifi, even declared: "The woman has 100 percent responsibility."
Activists are pushing for streetlights to be placed in locations like Tahrir and are requesting that dedicated security forces units be set up to tackle the problem. But these are just partial steps. "This is not something that can be addressed from a piecemeal approach. It has to be a comprehensive strategy on behalf of the government," Morayef says.
In the meantime, volunteers in grassroots campaigns are left to plug the gaps. The male and female volunteers at OpAntiSh not only attempt to rescue women from sexual assaults, they also run hotlines and document cases. Societal awareness campaign Harassmap tracks sexual harassment across Egypt using an online interactive map. Meanwhile, Kirollos says, a coalition of rights groups are working on drawing up key articles focusing on the protection of women for the country's new constitution.
Although Tahrir has become a no-go area for some women, and protesters now cordon off those who do attend into gender-segregated pens, many survivors are joining movements to combat the violence. But they fear that without effective state institutions as Egypt again finds itself in political limbo, the issue will continue to be ignored - with devastating consequences for the country's women.
"It is becoming more violent and increasing in number," says OpAntiSh spokesperson Enjy Ghozlan. "For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue."
Syria: 'Bashar al-Assad ordered me to gas people - but I could not do it'
General Zaher al-Sakat tells Richard Spencer that he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people in Syria - but he could not go through with it.
By Richard Spencer, Amman7:00PM BST 21 Sep 2013
Few thought that the Syrian regime's promise to destroy its chemical weapons would be the end of the story. Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, a former chemical weapons chief in President Bashar al-Assad's own army, certainly did not.
Gen Sakat says he was ordered three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.
He also insists that all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.
Now he also claims to have his own intelligence that the Syrian president is evading the terms of a Russian-brokered deal to destroy his chemical weapons by transferring some of his stocks to his allies – Hizbollah, in Lebanon, and Iran.
Gen Sakat spoke to The Sunday Telegraph last week, his first interview with a western newspaper, as Mr Assad confirmed for the first time what he and much of the rest of the world already knew – that regime possessed a huge arsenal of chemical weapons, and the delivery systems to go along with them.
The Syrian leader's admission came in the form of written declarations on Friday and Saturday to the United Nations' Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It was an extraordinary and unexpected outcome of the wrangling between the United States and Russia which followed the murderous attack on the Damascus suburbs of East and West Ghouta a month ago.
But now attention is turning to whether Mr Assad will comply with the deal's terms – and whether it will lead to a wider opportunity to bring the warring parties together. On that score, both sides' backers, pleased with progress so far, profess less optimism.
Gen Sakat's personal history gives new insight into the extent to which, it is said, the Assad regime gradually turned to the use of chemical weapons, despite angry public denials, after rebels encroached on Damascus and Aleppo, the country's two biggest cities, in the summer of last year.
As chief scientific officer in the army's fifth division, he ran chemical weapons operations in the country's southern Deraa province, where the uprising began in March 2011. He says he witnessed the first uses of violence against peaceful protesters – and the first use of "dirty tricks", placing weapons in the mosque where the protests started to suggest the protesters were armed.
Gen Sakat said the regime wanted to "annihilate" the opposition using any means, and said he received his first orders to use chemical weapons in October last year. On three occasions, he said he was told to use a mixture of phosgene and two other chlorine-based agents against civilian targets in Sheikh Masqeen, Herak, and Busra, all rebel-held districts.
However, under cover of darkness, he said he had replaced the canisters containing the chemicals with ones containing water mixed with dilute bleach which would give off a similar chlorine smell.
At first, his trick worked. "They were completely convinced that this was the same poisonous material," he told the Sunday Telegraph in an interview. "In this way I saved hundreds of lives of children and others."
But after the third occasion, in January, his bosses became suspicious at the lack of deaths in his "attacks" and he began to plot his escape to Jordan, where he has been based since the spring.
Gen Sakat believes chemical weapons have now been used 34 times, rather than the 14 occasions cited by international intelligence agencies. But he agrees with a variety of assessments that differing substances and concentrations are used, which would account for the differing death rates, with some attacks killing very few or none.
Although phosgene has been banned internationally since the 1920s, it is much less potent than sarin, the chemical now known to have been deployed in Ghouta. The army was concerned not to use the most dangerous chemicals in the far south because of its proximity to Israel, Gen Sakat said.
In other parts of the country, notably the Damascus suburbs, Homs and Aleppo, the regime was subsequently accused of using small quantities of stronger chemicals, culminating in the attack on Ghouta, where UN inspectors found traces of sarin across wide areas. The US, and the rebels themselves, believe that more than 1,400 people were killed there.
Now the world waits to see whether Mr Assad will comply with the Russian-led deal to dismantle his nuclear stocks which saw American missile strikes postponed indefinitely.
Last week, more details emerged of the behind-the-scenes negotiations which preceded the deal, and which make it seem like much less of a victory for Mr Assad. He will no doubt be aware of the subsequent fates of the two most recent Arab leaders to have abandoned their chemical weapons at the West's command – Saddam Hussein and Col Muammar Gaddafi.
The proposal for Mr Assad to hand over his weapons had been discussed previously between the United States and Russia, so that the suggestion by John Kerry, the secretary of state, that it might be a way out of the missile crisis was less off-the-cuff than it appeared.
Russia then enforced the deal on Mr Assad, despite Moscow's public claims that it was the rebels rather than the regime which perpetrated the Ghouta massacre.
In another sign of Moscow's apparent scepticism, President Vladimir Putin said last week he was not "100 per cent sure" Mr Assad would comply, and the Kremlin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said on Saturday it was making contingency plans if he were to fail to do so.
"I am speaking theoretically and hypothetically, but if we become convinced that Assad is cheating, we can change our position," he said.
Gen Sakat says the deception has already begun.
"Before the Lavrov deal, they were already mobilising them to move to Lebanon and even Iraq," he said. "There have already been weapons handed over to Hizbollah."
Both the political opposition and the armed rebels have complained that the deal lets Mr Assad off the hook, making their claims that Mr Assad is now trying to hide his chemical weapons stocks convenient.
Their claims cannot be verified, but they cite a variety of sources for their allegations.
American newspapers have already reported western intelligence agencies' allegations that Unit 450, the central command-and-control structure of the chemical weapons programme, has been dispersing the arsenal to different sites inside the country.
"We, along with many other international sources learned, through documents and other evidence about the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon nearly three months ago," Fahad al-Masri, a spokesman for the western-backed Free Syrian Army said.
He said the rebels had a network of informers inside the regime's chemical weapon apparatus, who sympathised with the rebels but were being prevented by threats to their lives from defecting. He said the FSA had also been shown intelligence estimates by western governments which said the same thing.
He said the weapons were being stored at four sites under the direct control of Hizbollah.
Gen Sakat says he has his own sources: a network inside the country of activists who are specifically monitoring the programme. One member, calling himself Abu Mohammed, told The Telegraph he had hacked into Unit 450 computer systems and read orders, including some relating to the transfer to Hizbollah.
Gen Sakat said a team of his activists had observed a column of more than 20 vehicles, some identifiable as belonging to the programme, heading towards the Lebanese border. He also alleged that other stocks were being transferred through Iraq to Iran.
"They saw these shipments start before Lavrov appeared and mentioned the deal," he said.
International agencies are monitoring the possible transfer of weapons to Lebanon closely, and Israel has declared this its own "red line" – and it has already bombed Syria twice since the start of the uprising, including Unit 450's presumed base north of Damascus.
Israeli intelligence sources would not comment on the allegations. But one retired Israeli Major-General and former attache to Washington, Gadi Shamni, said: "I am positive they're already trying to move things from one location to another to hide it.
"It will be very hard to cheat in one week. But November is a very long time away – in winter, the sky is cloudy, and visibility is low. US satellites cannot be very effective – it's a very problematic issue and the Syrians understand it very well."
Additional reporting by Inna Lazareva
Bashar al-Assad's hometown defiant amid threat of rebel and US-led attacks
People in the Alawite heartland of Qerdaha have formed a home guard and say they are willing to die for the Syrian president
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 September 2013 18.18 BST
As the threat of a US-led foreign intervention in Syria flickers on the global stage, the elite Alawite families living in Qerdaha, the hometown of President Bashar al-Assad, refuse to pay it any attention.
Qerdaha is the heart of Alawite Syria, a hub for senior army officers and Shabiha, the pro-Assad militia accused of tremendous brutality in their three-year campaign to thwart the rebel uprising. The mountain town is defiant and unconcerned that its powerful scion makes it a glaring target to thousands of rebel fighters – and US missiles – intent on delivering a punishing blow to their president. As a brutal war ravages the country, life here charges on regardless.
A few local men have formed a home guard of volunteers called the People Committees. But rather than taking up arms, their focus is maintaining civic order. As they see it, the greatest threat is not American or the Free Syrian army, but the public chaos that an attack might unleash.
Aiham Attaf has five brothers in the army. Before the war he was a college student, but his studies became insignificant following the threats posed to the Alawite regime. Protecting the Assad heartland is a role he takes great pride in.
"Being called Shabiha is an honour for me rather than an accusation. Any man who marches in support of the Syrian regime is named Shabiha by these terrorists. It is true, there are a few bad members but most are competent and very human," he says.
Qerdaha residents are confident that the US is unlikely to strike them because there are no strategic military sites within their borders. But for the Syrian rebels, massed on the nearby Al-Akrad mountain launching wave after wave of attacks on Qerdaha, it is the elusive prize that could decide the war.
Abu Musa'ab defected from the Syrian army's Air Defence intelligence unit two years ago and now fights with the Islamic brigade Ansar Al-Sham in Latkia.
"Qerdaha does not have rockets, air defences or artillery brigades. It is a normal town," he concedes. "But if we put our hand on it, the balance of power will be completely shaken. It will be a huge blow to the regime. If he [Assad] can't protect his hometown, the hub of Alawites and the Shabiha, how can he protect the other lands of Syria?
"The Alawites' Plan B - if Damascus falls - is to form an Alawite state in Latakia with Qerdaha as its capital. To lose this would be a disaster. The battle here is a battle for Syria."
It is a not a victory the rebels can win easily. Lines of Syrian army troops circle Qerdaha, adding an additional defence to the natural protection offered by the mountain it perches on, overlooking Latakia. Qerdaha's men are dying in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs – not at home.
"The main chat now among people of Qerdaha is Obama's hesitation and the confusion over fixing a date for [US] aggression against Syria. It's the funniest topic in town. Every one here bursts out laughing when they mention Obama," says Muhammed AlBadi - one of the many residents who think it will be impossible for the Americans to attack Assad as long as he has Moscow's support. If they do attack, however, AlBadi says he and his comrades are ready to fight "to our last drop of blood".
AlBadi, has just graduated from high school and has joined the ranks of young Alawite men working for the People Committees to defend Qardaha.
"I'm civilian but have been trained in light weapons by the People Committees to be able to handle an armed engagement on the ground. Our morale is super and we are ready to defend our country against the terrorists and US agents," he added.
Despite the community's confidence, some are making practical preparations for a siege. Haitham Jameel, a college student, has been helping his parents stockpile food and water in readiness for the possible US attack.
"We are buying lots of bread and storing water in case the aggression goes on for a long time. We won't leave Qerdaha," Jameel says, adding: "We're not scared of Obama or his soldiers. I ask the US soldiers to bring all their guns and bombs but not to forget to bring their coffins, which they'll be sent home in."
In three years of the Syrian conflict, President Assad has not made a single trip to Qerdaha. Delegations have visited on his behalf and, through these proxies, he has accepted People Committees' offer to defend the town freeing the army to fight bigger battles.
"Everyone knows if the [US] strike happens, our answer will need to be direct and within 72 hours. All indicators confirm that Israel will be our first target. And when Israel is hit, it is going to be a hell, hundreds of rockets are going to fall on it. Neither the Iron Dome or Patriots can foil 400 rockets in a single hour," Attaf says.
There are rumours that Alwaites - hearing the recent rhetoric from Paris and Washington - have fled across the border to Lebanon to escape the expected US strike. These stories, Jameel insists, are nonsense. It would be more safer for Assad's allies to head to the mountains, he argues, rather than Lebanon, which, thanks to the activities of Hezbollah, will be just as vulnerable in the event of international military action and a regional war. Rather, the opposite is true.
"Alawite families who have been living outside Qerdaha are coming home now, to protect their land and resist the aggression. They won't give up," Jameel says.
Qerdaha has already sacrificed a great deal for the regime. At least 400 local men have died fighting rebel forces. Some have suggested changing the town's name to "The Town of Martyrs". There is also the very real threat of kidnapping. A relative of Jameel's - an officer in Syrian army - was snatched along with his wife, sister and two kids in Damascus and held and tortured, they claim, for almost three months. They paid 30m Syrian pound (£145,000) to be released.
Despite these losses, Qedaha's faith in Assad remains unshaken. The Alawite youth claim it is an honour to be martyred in defence of their land.
"No one can blame us for our love to President Bashar," Haitham says, "He is my neighbour - something even more important than sharing a religion. What I love most about Bashar is his resistance to any foreign pressure. Whether we have war or peace, he makes sure it is Syria's decision."
UN confirms sarin gas used in Syria attack
Report says there is "clear evidence" chemical weapons were used in last month's attack in Damascus suburbs.
Last Modified: 17 Sep 2013 02:30
UN investigators found "clear and convincing evidence'' that chemical weapons were used on a relatively large scale in an attack last month in Syria that killed hundreds of people.
As expected, the report, released on Monday, did not say who launched the attack in rebel-held Damascus suburbs.
It said: "The environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used ... in the Ghouta area of Damascus'' on August 21.
"The conclusion is that chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic ... against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale,'' the report said.
Addressing the media after he had presented the report to the Security Council, UN chief Ban Ki-Moon described the chemical attack as a "war crime".
"It is the worst use of chemical weapons on civilians in the 21st century," he said.
The White House said on Monday the report bolstered the US argument that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical attack.
Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, said in a written statement that the technical evidence in the UN report, including that the sarin nerve agent was high quality and that a particular rocket was used in the
attack, was significant.
The UN report said that weather conditions had ensured that as many people as possible were injured or killed.
Temperatures were falling between 2am and 5am, it said, which meant that air was not moving upwards but downwards towards the ground.
"Chemical weapons use in such meteorological conditions maximises their potential impact as the heavy gas can stay close to the ground and penetrate into lower levels of buildings and constructions where many people were seeking shelter," it said.
Al Jazeera's diplomatic editor James Bays, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, said the key issue after the release of the report was that of accountability.
"Here we have all of the evidence about a crime but we don't so far have a court that's going to look into the crime," he said.
"Ban Ki-moon doesn't have the power to refer [the case] to the International Criminal Court. That is the role of the Security Council," our correspondent said, adding that all attempts in the last 2,5 years to get the Council to act have been blocked by Russia.
The August 21 attack took place as a UN chemical weapons team was in Syria to investigate earlier reported attacks.
The inspectors were allowed access to victims, doctors and others in the Damascus suburbs.
The team was mandated to report on whether chemical weapons were used and if so which ones - not on who was responsible.
The opposition and its Western and Arab supporters blame President Bashar al-Assad's forces for the attack, while the Syrian regime insists that the attack was carried out by rebels.
Chief weapons inspector Ake Sellstrom handed over the report to Ban on Sunday amid a diplomatic push to get Syria to put its just-acknowledged stockpile of chemical weapons under international control for destruction.
John Kerry, US secretary of state, has acknowledged that a chemical arms deal would have little immediate effect on the bloodshed in Syria, which has killed more than 100,000 people, but he said full compliance was a key first step.
Meanwhile in Geneva, the chairman of a UN war crimes panel, independent from the weapons inspectors, on Monday said it was investigating 14 suspected chemical attacks in Syria.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro also said the panel believes Assad's government has been responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while rebel groups have perpetrated war crimes but not crimes against humanity "because there is not a clear chain of command'."
Damascus residents 'hold their breath' as strike looms
By Lina Sinjab
Former BBC correspondent in Damascus
Syria crisis: US and Russia agree chemical weapons deal
Inspectors to be given 'immediate unfettered access' with a 'comprehensive list' of weapons from Damascus within a week, says Kerry
theguardian.com, Saturday 14 September 2013 11.32 BST
Cash-strapped Syrians struggle in Lebanon
Skyrocketing rent in Beirut has forced Syrian refugees into alternative shelters.
Sophie Cousins Last Modified: 13 Sep 2013 14:50
Beirut, Lebanon - Unable to pay rent for his family, Syrian refugee Shabkaji Abdelrahma sent his children to work in Beirut when they arrived.
That was until his eight-year-old son was raped on the streets.
"I could afford the rent because I sent three of my four children to work," Adelrahma, from Zamalka, in southern Syria, told Al Jazeera. "Everything was OK, but then my life changed. My son was subjected to rape and we had to move houses one month ago."
The 42-year-old, who works as an electrician and came to Lebanon last year, said he had to move his family of six into his sister's apartment so they could have a roof over their heads.
They pay $350 a month, for one small bedroom, in a two-bedroom apartment which is home to 11 people.
"My children are now at home," Adelrahma said. "They are afraid to go outside because of what happened to my son.
"In Lebanon it is very difficult to find a house," he said. "It is crazy at home because there are a lot of kids in the same room."
Seventy-five percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in rented accommodation, according to Joelle Eid, the public information associate for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon.
At the beginning of the crisis, more than two years ago, most refugees lived with Lebanese families - but that number now stands at less than 20 percent.
Eid said that an increasing number of refugees were unable to afford rental accommodation.
"With rents across the country continuously on the rise, the demand for alternative shelter solutions continues to increase - as many refugees are not longer able to pay rent," Eid said.
"[Refugees have] had to be relocated into improvised solutions including informal tented settlements and collective shelters."
Some vulnerable refugees, such as single women with children, are eligible for rent assistance under a programme titled Cash for Rent.
But while about 23,000 Syrians have received shelter support, there are more than 720,000 refugees in Lebanon.
Georges Massabri from Phoenicia Properties in Beirut said he has had an influx of Syrians calling to find accommodation.
"A few months ago, many Syrians were calling to find a flat in Beirut, but now most can't afford it," Massabri said.
"It is a big problem because the flats are very small and those who can afford it are very uncomfortable because they have to share it with many other families.
"It has gotten so bad that rich families have to pay upfront - and that's what agents are preferring now."
But while many Syrian families have no option but to squeeze more than 10 people into a tiny apartment, some have reported that landlords have been financially exploiting them, according to Roberta Russo, the spokeswoman for the UNHRC in Lebanon.
"We do get informal reports that sometimes landlords prefer to rent their apartments to several Syrian families sharing very small spaces rather than giving them to Lebanese or Iraqi families, as they make more money on the rent," Russo said.
Caritas Lebanon's recent report into older Syrian refugees emphasised the same problem, adding that rising rents were heightening social tensions.
"Some landlords have evicted Iraqi refugees from their apartments because they are able to charge higher rents to Syrians," the report noted.
But while some landlords are willing to take advantage of those in need, others have turned their backs on the situation, according to Michel Zeid, the manager of National Properties in Beirut.
"Landlords do not trust Syrians any more, because of their unsure [situations]," Zeid said.
"Syrians are very good bargainers. They are fitting unlimited families in apartments. When they are asked why they have extra people in the apartment, they say it is members of the same family.
"My customers now have to pay six-months ahead; those are my rules."
'I have nothing'
At 80 years old, Syrian refugee Ezzedine Ratibeh Wajih was forced to flee her home in Homs after it was bombed six months ago.
Travelling to Beirut with her son, his wife and their eight children, finding an affordable and comfortable apartment to rent was impossible.
"We have 11 people in two rooms," she said.
"The landlord is pulling some people out because we can't afford the rent. It is $400 a month but we haven't paid for three months.
"I cannot work and neither can the children. The landlord just wants more money."
Wajih has also been left to care for her grandchildren, many of whom are under five.
"My son has travelled to Jordan to find work. He had problems with his wife and she has left Lebanon," Wajih said.
"They do not send us any money."
While Wajih is registered with the UN refugee agency, the children are not.
As a result, they are unable to claim any assistance, such as food vouchers.
"I have nothing," Wajih said.
"My neighbour gives us some food. But for my [grand]children - I cannot afford diapers, medicine or any food. And what about school? I cannot manage that."
How Assad chose his killing fields: The greatest threat to the Syrian leader lies on his doorstep – in the district of Ghouta which was targeted by his chemical weapons
Kim Sengupta meets the local businessman leading the fight against the dictator – and hears his account of that tragic day
KIM SENGUPTA Author Biography ALEPPO PROVINCE TUESDAY 10 SEPTEMBER 2013
What the world overlooked in Syria
Major events taking place across Syria have been overshadowed by the chemical attack saga.
Basma Atassi Last Modified: 10 Sep 2013 08:51
Syrian rebels say Iranian fighters involved
Opposition group releases video it says it found after a battle with Iranian fighters in Aleppo.
Last Modified: 09 Sep 2013 14:26
A Syrian rebel group has released video it says it found after a battle with Iranian fighters in Aleppo.
It is said to show an Iranian-run camp which is also home to Syrian troops.
Al Jazeera's Jamal Elshayyal explains.
War comes to Syria's quiet Christian hinterland
World View: A rebel attack on Maloula is a warning for a minority accused of supporting government
Sunday 8 September 2013
Syria crisis: General deserts Damascus and flees to Turkey
If confirmed, Ali Habib would be the highest ranking figure from the minority Alawite sect to defect since the uprising began
FERNANDE VAN TETS BEIRUT WEDNESDAY 04 SEPTEMBER 2013
A former Syrian defence minister who was once a top aide of President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly defected from the government side, fleeing across the border to Turkey in the dead of night.
If his defection is confirmed, General Ali Habib would be the highest ranking figure from the minority Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs, to defect since the uprising began two and a half years ago.
“Ali Habib has managed to escape from the grip of the regime and he is now in Turkey, but this does not mean that he has joined the opposition. I was told this by a Western diplomatic official,” Kamal al-Labwani, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition said from Paris. Syrian state television denied that Gen Habib had left Syria and said he was still at his home. The general, who was Defence Minister from 2009 to August 2011, stepped down because of health reasons, according to the regime.
Rumours circulated that he was dismissed for opposing the killing of peaceful protesters, after which he pledged allegiance to the regime on state television. Mr Labwani said Gen Habib was smuggled out of Syria with the help of a Western country.
“He will be a top source of information. Habib has had a long military career. He has been effectively under house arrest since he defied Assad and opposed killing protesters,” Mr Labwani said.
Syrian opposition members have been hoping that the threat of US military strikes would lead to mass defections. “We’re getting a lot of calls from officers who want to defect,” said Adib Shishakly, who represents the Syrian Coalition to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
He says eight other generals, including an Alawite, are in the process of defecting. Their primary concern is for their families; in the past those left behind have been incarcerated or killed.
Damascus remained defiant in the face of the defection and said it was mobilising its allies against potential military strikes. Faisal Mokdad, the Deputy Prime Minister, said: “The Syrian government will not change position even if there is World War Three. No Syrian can sacrifice the independence of his country,“ he told the AFP press agency.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal he threatened to hit not just Israel, but Turkey and Jordan too if they took part in the strikes.
Chemical Watershed: Momentum Shifts again in Syrian Civil War
By Christoph Reuter and Holger Stark
September 02, 2013 – 06:10 PM
Revealed: UK Government let British company export nerve gas chemicals to Syria
UK accused of ‘breath-taking laxity’ over export licence for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride
CAHAL MILMO Author Biography , ANDY MCSMITH , NIKHIL KUMAR MONDAY 02 SEPTEMBER 2013
Iran, not Syria, is the West's real target
Iran is ever more deeply involved in protecting the Syrian government. Thus a victory for Bashar is a victory for Iran. And Iranian victories cannot be tolerated by the West
Friday 30 August 2013
New footage emerges of Syria 'gas attack'
Video shot by independent journalist purports to show aftermath of chemical weapons attack in Damascus suburbs.
Last Modified: 23 Aug 2013 20:39
UN seeks clarity on Syria gas attack claim
UN Security Council has called for "prompt investigation" of allegations of chemical weapons use outside Syrian capital.
Last Modified: 21 Aug 2013 22:48
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