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The US and its allies have held direct talks with key Islamist militias in Syria, Western officials say, aiming to undercut al-Qaeda while acknowledging that religious fighters long shunned by Washington have gained on the battlefield.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is taking its own outreach further, moving to directly arm and fund one of the Islamist groups, the Army of Islam, despite US qualms.
Both the Western and Saudi shifts aim to weaken al-Qaeda-linked groups, which Western officials now concede are as great a danger in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The Saudis and the West are pivoting toward a newly created coalition of religious militias called the Islamic Front, which excludes the main al-Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria — the Nusra Front and the Islamic Army of Iraq and the Levant.
Over the past two months, the militias, which command the loyalty of tens of thousands of fighters driving the conflict in Syria, have begun to consolidate their ranks. In late November, they announced they were banding together and forming the Islamic Front.
Ban voiced his concerns in a letter to the U.N. Security Council, which provides fresh details on international plans for the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons. A copy of the letter, which had not been made public yet, was posted on the web site of a reporter from Arab language broadcaster Al Hurra. Sigrid Kaag, a Danish national who heads the U.N.-backed joint mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, will brief the Security Council on Wednesday on Ban's letter.
The joint mission, comprised of 15 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 48 U.N. personnel, is preparing the ground for the latest and most perilous phase of the operation: transporting large quantities of chemical agent through a war zone to the Syrian port of Latakia, where they will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels, and then transferred to American vessels for destruction at sea, according to diplomats.
Ban said the U.N. has received assurances from the warring parties to cooperate in the transport of chemical materials. The Syrian government, which will take the lead in packing and trucking the toxic materials to the port, has continued its "constructive cooperation" with the mission while "representatives of the Syrian opposition based in Istanbul have also indicated their support for the safe transportation of convoys containing chemical material."
"Nevertheless, recent fighting in the Syrian Arab Republic shows that the security situation is volatile, unpredictable and highly dangerous," Ban's letter adds. "The Director General of the OPCW and I remain deeply concerned about the safety and security of the joint mission personnel."
The latest umbrella organization for key rebel factions in Syria may not include U.S.-designated terrorist groups, but it does oppose many U.S. objectives.
The recent merger of several Syrian rebel groups into the Islamic Front (IF) is one of the war's most important developments. Although the political and military opposition has long been fragmented, the new umbrella organization brings seven groups and their combined force of 45,000-60,000 fighters under one command. It also links the fight in the north and the south. Most notably, though, it affirms the troubles Washington will have setting policy in Syria going forward.WHO ARE THEY?
Formally announced on November 22, the IF includes groups from three prior umbrella organizations: the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), and the Kurdish Islamic Front (KIF). From the SIF, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (HASI), Kataib Ansar al-Sham, and Liwa al-Haqq joined, as did the KIF as a whole and former SILF brigades Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Jaish al-Islam. None of these groups has been designated by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization.
The political negotiations over Syria, now set to continue next month in Geneva, will be tortuous and lengthy at best, while the Syrian government and certain opposition groups continue to commit horrible abuses against innocent civilians. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing the international community can do in the meantime—especially to ease the plight of civilians suffering at the hands of their own government.
There is no time for delay. The fast-approaching winter will make the situation in besieged and hard-to-reach areas even more dire, placing the civilian population in a desperate situation. The U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, is set to brief the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria again on Dec. 3, and she is likely to report some progress. But incremental improvements should not distract the Security Council from the underlying humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
Unless humanitarian organizations are able to access all areas in need by the time of the briefing, the Security Council should show Syria it is serious by adopting a binding resolution to show there will be consequences for defying the council’s authority.
Evidence collected by U.N. investigators probing Syrian war crimes implicates President Bashar al-Assad, United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Monday.
Pillay later denied having direct knowledge of their secret list of suspects, but her revealing remarks about the head of state were at odds with a policy of keeping the identity of alleged perpetrators under wraps pending any judicial process.
The U.N. investigators, who collect testimony in utmost secrecy and independently from Pillay, have previously said the evidence points to the highest levels of Syria's government, but have not named Assad or any other officials publicly.
They have compiled secret lists of suspects and handed them to Pillay for safe storage, in hope that one day suspects will face trial for violations including torture and mass killings.
"They point to the fact that the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state," Pillay told a news conference.
The death toll in Syria's civil war has risen to at least 125,835, more than a third of them civilians, but the real figure is probably much higher, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.
The pro-opposition monitoring group also appealed to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and "all people in the international community who have a conscience" to increase their efforts to end the 2-1/2 year war.
The conflict began as peaceful protests against four decades of rule by President Bashar al-Assad's family, but under a fierce security force crackdown, turned into an armed insurgency whose sectarian dimensions have echoed across the Middle East.
The Observatory, based in Britain but with a network of activists across Syria, put the number of children killed in the conflict so far at 6,627.
At this sprawling desert camp in Jordan, home to thousands of children who fled Syria's civil war, a few found a moment to smile Sunday watching a troop of clowns.
Five European comedians working for Mabsutins, a private circus and clown group in Spain affiliated with the U.S.-based group Clowns Without Borders, performed for some 60 children. More than 100,000 people live at the wind-swept camp, only 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the Syrian border, and for the children lucky enough to see the performance, it helped them forget about the challenges they face.
"It was best thing I have seen in my life," said 10-year-old Rana Ziad, who fled from her restive southern border town of Daraa with her parents and six brothers and sisters a year ago. "It was very much fun and I loved it."
Syrian army helicopters bombarded the northern rebel-held town of Al-Bab for a second day on Sunday, killing 20 people including four women when they dropped improvised barrel bombs on a market district, a monitoring group said.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll could rise because many people were severely wounded in the raid, which came a day after 26 people were killed in a similar attack on the same town by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.The British-based Observatory said three rebels from the Tawhid Brigade were killed in Saturday's raid, which appeared to target their headquarters in Al-Bab.Sunday's attack may have been aimed at another rebel group, it said. However, barrel bombs - explosive-filled cylinders or oil barrels - are usually rolled out of the back of helicopters and are rarely delivered with any accuracy.
Three people were killed overnight in fighting in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, security sources said on Sunday, raising to nine the death toll in 24 hours of violence fuelled by sectarian tensions over Syria's civil war.
The clashes between Tripoli's Alawite minority, which supports Syria's Alawite President Bashar al-Assad, and majority Sunni Muslims who back the Syrian rebels, is the latest round of violence which has killed more than 100 people in the Mediterranean city this year.
Gun battles have broken out five times since March, killing dozens of people, and twin car bombs at Sunni Muslim mosques in Tripoli killed 42 people in August. The latest clashes were preceded by repeated attacks on Alawite targets over the last week in which several people were wounded.
Tripoli residents said the sounds of heavy gunfire and rocket explosions echoed across Lebanon's second city from midnight to 6 am.
Prime Minister Wael Halki said on Saturday Syrian government forces were winning the war with rebels and would not rest while a single enemy fighter remained at large.
Maintaining Syria's unyielding response to Western calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, Halki said the era of "threats and intimidation has gone, never to return, while the era of victory and pride is being created now on Syrian soil".
He was speaking during a visit to Iran, which has provided military support and billions of dollars in economic aid to Assad during a 2-1/2-year-old civil war which has killed 100,000 people and shows little sign of being halted by diplomacy.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have recaptured a Christian town on the main highway north of the capital, the army said, putting them back on the offensive in the strategic region near the Lebanese border.Assad's forces have made advances in recent months and are trying to secure the highway linking Damascus to the coastal heartland of his Alawite minority sect, but faced a setback last week when they lost the town of Deir Attiya to al Qaeda-linked fighters.The town is in the mountainous Qalamoun area overlooking the highway near the Lebanese border, a region that has emerged as the main battleground as Assad and his opponents try to secure a strategic advantage ahead of a peace conference in January."Units from the army managed to defeat terrorist groups which had infiltrated Deir Attiya... The operation eliminated many terrorists from different nationalities," a Syrian army statement said. The government refers to opposition fighters as terrorists.
A significant part of Syria's declaration of its chemical weapons includes chemicalsthat fall in the category of common industrial chemicals, or otherwise chemicals thatcan safely be rendered harmless or destroyed.
A critical related aspect of carrying out the destruction of these chemicals is theassociated costs. In line with the request of the Executive Council, I have establisheda special trust fund. The projected costs for the treatment and disposal of thechemicals declared by the Syrian Arab Republic and of the effluent generated duringthe destruction of mustard and binary chemical weapons components are in the rangeof EUR 35 to 45 million. This figure does not include the costs of transporting thechemicals to be destroyed, which are expected to be covered through in-kindcontributions. I wish to thank Denmark, Italy, and Norway, who have come forwardwith generous offers for maritime transportation.
A Maritime Planning Group is expected to meet in Cyprus to discuss and arrive atarrangements between States Parties offering to assist in transportation and to supportthe OPCW-UN Joint Mission. The Executive Council has requested me to submit, by17 December, a plan for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons outside itsterritory. The Council has furthermore asked that the plan include provisions forensuring clear responsibility at each stage for all chemicals, including responsibilityfor the requirements of safety and security. It is my hope that the Maritime PlanningGroup will contribute to identifying the responsibilities of the States assisting in themaritime transport in accordance with existing legal regimes.Meanwhile, a large part of the materials and items necessary for the safe and securepackaging of chemicals has begun to arrive in Lebanon and arrangements are ongoingfor their onward transportation to Damascus, from where they will be distributed tothe various sites.
Following the issuance of the second monthly progress report regarding the OPCW- UN Joint Mission in Syria, a meeting of the Executive Council of the OPCW was held on 26 November 2013.
In his opening statement Director-General Üzümcü stated that “the resolve to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons in the safest and soonest manner possible reflects a collective commitment,” and added that “States Parties, especially those with the capacity to safely dispose of such chemicals, can and must play their part.”
A significant part of Syria’s stockpile falls in the category of common industrial chemicals - or chemicals that otherwise can safely be rendered harmless or destroyed by commercial chemical disposal companies. The Director-General urged Member States to encourage qualified firms based in their countries to participate in this process.
A large portion of the materials necessary for the safe and secure packaging of Syria’s declared chemicals has arrived in Lebanon. Arrangements are currently underway for their onward transportation to Damascus from where they will be distributed to the various relevant sites.
At the same time, the verification of destruction activities being conducted by Syria continues. The number of OPCW inspectors there will soon be increased in keeping with the need to run verification activities in parallel at different locations. This includes witnessing the decanting and packing of chemicals, collecting samples for further analysis, as well as monitoring the loading and embarkation of chemicals for transportation outside Syrian territory.
The programme to remove chemical weapons from Syria to locations elsewhere continues to pose challenges due to the security situation on the ground.
I welcome the fact that UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon has now set a concrete date for the Geneva peace conference on Syria. This is our only real opportunity to finally embark upon a political process.
We call on all political stakeholders in Syria to participate in the Geneva conference.
We will use the remaining time to work closely with our international partners in order to make the Geneva peace process a success.
Germany is making available an additional 2 million euros to the United Nations to support the Geneva peace process and the work of the UN Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.