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Syria makes veiled hint of Bashar al-Assad resignation

By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent

7:10PM BST 21 Aug 2012

Syria offered a veiled hint that it was prepared to discuss the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, but in a proposal that was almost certainly too vague to be of interest to opposition groups fighting for his overthrow.

Qadri Jamil, the country's deputy prime minister, who was visiting Russia, said that the country would not allow negotiations predicated on Mr Assad standing down.

"As for his resignation, making his resignation a condition for dialogue effectively makes holding such a dialogue impossible," he said. "During the negotiating process any issues can be discussed, and we are ready to discuss even this issue."

Most Syrian opposition parties and rebels fighting inside the country have said they will not accept any solution to the crisis short of Mr Assad's resignation. The west has taken a similar stance, backing an Arab League proposal under which he would hand power to his vice-president, Farouq al-Sharaa.

Russia has backed an alternative approach under which the regime holds negotiations with internal opposition leaders to promote a "political transition plan" whose end result would be decided during the talks. Rebels fear such a plan would simply be an excuse to win time for the regime.

Mr Jamil also dismissed a warning by President Barack Obama that any hint of the deployment or transfer of Syria's chemical weapons was a "red line" that would trigger American intervention.


Syria: can Barack Obama prevent a chemical nightmare?

By Con Coughlin

8:23PM BST 21 Aug 2012

As one of the world’s leading pariah states, it should come as no surprise that the Syria of Bashar al-Assad takes enormous pride in the formidable array of chemical weapons it has acquired in order to sustain its rulers in power.

Having suffered two catastrophic defeats at the hands of Israel during the Sixties and Seventies, Assad’s predecessors resolved to make the development of chemical weapons a central feature of military doctrine, to ensure that Syria did not suffer similar humiliations in future.

Consequently, the regime’s stockpiles of these internationally outlawed weapons now include large quantities of mustard gas, used to devastating effect by Germany against British and French troops during the First World War, and sarin, a nerve agent that repeatedly stimulates the body’s glands and muscles, causing breathing problems that eventually result in complete paralysis, thereby causing death. And just in case neither of these proves effective enough, it also has at its disposal reserves of VX nerve gas – arguably one of the most dangerous chemicals ever created – as well as stores of cyanide.

Nor do Assad and his cronies make any bones about their willingness to use this Aladdin’s cave of diabolical compounds against their many enemies. Responding to American intelligence reports last month, which suggested that the regime’s loyalists had begun to move its stockpiles of chemical weapons, Assad’s official spokesman, who had previously denied any suggestion that his country possessed such weapons of mass destruction, declared that Syria was more than willing to use them in the event of “external aggression”.

To judge by the sudden upsurge in demand for gas masks in Israel, there are many in the region who believe that Damascus will not bother to wait for some perceived act of “external aggression” before unleashing its arsenal on its neighbours.

This is not paranoia. For decades, Syria and its ally Iran have helped to arm, equip and train the members of Hizbollah, the militia which controls southern Lebanon and regularly threatens Israel’s northern border. Such is the scale of their support, Israeli intelligence officials believe, that Hizbollah is now equipped not just with thousands of medium-range rockets, but long-range Scud missiles capable of hitting all of Israel’s major cities.

There is genuine concern within Israeli security circles that Hizbollah might be given access to those chemical weapons either by Mr Assad, or whoever gains control of them in his wake. That would trigger an alarming escalation of a conflict which, mercifully, remains largely contained within Syria’s borders.

In such circumstances, we should all applaud President Obama’s warning to Damascus this week that the use – or movement – of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that could provoke American military intervention. The dog days of August, when the world’s power-brokers are understandably distracted by such parochial concerns as family holidays, can be fraught with danger, a time when seemingly remote conflicts suddenly acquire a significance of alarming proportions. The origins of the First World War might lie in the failed diplomacy of July 1914, but catastrophe might still have been averted had the ruling classes spent August trying to resolve their differences instead of attending to their estates. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was another notable occasion when the major powers were caught off guard, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The same could still happen in 2012, particularly since the primary concern of those left in temporary charge is the likelihood of a Greek default, and its implications for the eurozone’s survival. For most people, the prospect of the violent unrest in Syria having any direct impact on their daily lives still appears remote. But that could easily change if the conflict grows to become a wider regional struggle, one that demands military intervention from outside.

Indeed, while the potency of Syria’s WMD stockpiles remains foremost among the West’s security concerns, there are many other factors that could lead to a major escalation of the conflict. Israel is keeping a watchful eye on events – and, as always, on the worrying progression of Iran towards acquiring an atomic bomb.

Speaking of Iran, it has not escaped the attention of that country’s Shia ayatollahs that the insurgents seeking to overthrow Assad’s Alawite regime (the Alawites are a minority Shia sect) enjoy the backing of rival Sunni powers, such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

This issue was the subject of heated discussion at a recent meeting of Iran’s National Security Council, chaired by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. As we report today, the meeting ended with Khamenei ordering the commander of the elite Quds Force unit of the Revolutionary Guards to intensify its attacks against the West and its allies in retaliation for their attempts to overthrow Assad.

Iran is already actively supporting the efforts of its fellow dictatorship to crush all opposition, as the recent capture by Syrian rebels of 48 Iranian agents on a “reconnaissance” mission to Damascus has confirmed. Any further moves by Tehran to save its ally, either through the Revolutionary Guards or Hizbollah, could result in an escalation of the conflict.

Yet while Mr Obama is right to warn both Damascus and Tehran that Washington will not tolerate any violation of the “red lines” it has set for containing the conflict, it is highly questionable whether, given the conflict-averse nature of his presidency, his warning will actually have the desired effect.

The President entered the White House in 2009 oozing goodwill towards a region that rarely rewards it. His keynote speech in Cairo in June 2009 was a crude attempt to distance his administration from the more confrontational approach of George W Bush, and seek a “new beginning” between the US and the world’s Muslims. But in reaching out to the Arabs, he alienated the Israelis, with the result that his hopes of reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have got nowhere.

Similarly, his efforts to rebuild relations with Iran have been an unmitigated failure, with the mullahs much closer to building a nuclear bomb today than they were three years ago.

Add to this Washington’s precipitate withdrawal from Iraq after Mr Obama took office, and the President’s declared intention to leave Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity, and it is not difficult to see why the tyrants of the Middle East believe that the leader of the world’s only superpower has no stomach for a fight. Even his much-lauded despatch of Osama bin Laden was, it is now being claimed, a product less of presidential courage and more of Hillary Clinton’s insistence.

In fact, Mr Obama has devoted his entire presidency to avoiding war, rather than waging it. He must now be desperately hoping that Damascus in 2012 does not become a re-run of Sarajevo in 1914.


Barack Obama 'red line' warning over chemical weapons in Syria

By Raf Sanchez, Richard Spencer and Damien McElroy

8:11PM BST 20 Aug 2012

President Barack Obama has warned that the use or movement of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a “red line” that could trigger an American intervention.

Mr Obama said that Bashar al-Assad would face “enormous consequences” if he deployed chemical weapons as he battles to put quell the 17-month uprising against his regime.

The threat of chemical weapons could “change the calculus” on the need to intervene, Mr Obama warned.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he said. “We’ve been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.”

Last month, Mr Assad’s government shocked the West by openly threatening to use its significant chemical weapons stockpiles, although it insisted they would only be deployed against foreign troops and would not be used in Syria’s internal conflict.

Mr Obama said that given the volatile situation on the ground he could not be “absolutely confident” that Syria’s weapons were still secure but said the US and its allies were closely watching sites where they are known to be stored.

Mr Obama’s warning came as the new UN envoy on the crisis had a disastrous first day in the office by angering both sides of the conflict.

Lakhbar Brahimi, a 78-year-old Arab diplomat, was pilloried by Damascus for suggesting Syria was in a civil war, and condemned by the opposition for backtracking on his predecessor’s belief that President Assad must leave office to stop the bloodshed.

Mr Brahimi, a veteran Algerian foreign minister who has been a troubleshooter in Lebanon and Iraq, said he would take no decision on the fate of the regime until he had met with leading figures at the UN and with Syria.

“There are a lot of people who say that we must avoid civil war in Syria; me I believe that we are already there for some time now,” Mr Brahimi said. “What’s necessary is to stop the civil war and that is not going to be easy.”

Syrian officials retorted that promoting talk of civil war amounted to joining the “conspiracy” against it.

Mr Brahimi also incurred the wrath of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) after he refused to endorse remarks by Kofi Annan, the previous envoy, that Mr Assad must quit.

The SNC said such remarks took the pressure off the regime. “Whoever gives this criminal regime an opportunity to kill tens of thousands more Syrians and destroy what is left of Syria does not want to recognise the extent of the tragedy,” it said.

Turkey increased pressure for international efforts to contain the regime by formally raising the prospect of creating a safe zone for refugees inside Syria, saying it could not cope with many more arriving inside its border.

“If the number of refugees in Turkey surpasses 100,000, we will run out of space to accommodate them,” Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “We should be able to accommodate them in Syria. The United Nations may build camps in a safe zone within Syria’s borders.”

An estimated 70,000 Syrians have fled over the northern borders into Turkey. Tens of thousands more have fled their towns and villages but stayed in the country with relatives or in makeshift camps in schools and government buildings.

The numbers are threatening to overwhelm facilities provided by Turkey.

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