EU may decide to endorse Syrian opposition

Updated 20 November 2012
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EU may decide to endorse Syrian opposition

BRUSSELS: The newly formed coalition of some Syrian opposition groups is likely to get significant new international support, as the European Union appears ready to call it a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people, a EU official said yesterday.
The move, if it comes, would not amount to official diplomatic recognition, as that is within the purview of the EU’s member countries, not the union as a whole. But if, as seems likely, the EU calls the new coalition of opposition groups fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad a legitimate interlocutor, that would represent a major boost for a group still struggling to establish its legitimacy and coherence.
Foreign ministers from the EU’s 27 countries, meeting in Brussels, are expected to take such a step, an insider with knowledge of the talks said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss closed-door talks that were still on-going.
So far, among Western nations, only France has extended diplomatic recognition to the coalition of disparate opposition groups in Syria. The UK has indicated it will consider the issue later this week.
“I hope this meeting here today will give a boost to that opposition, to the coalition, and will appreciate that they have made a big step forward,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on his way into the meeting in Brussels. “I will speak about the question of recognition when I talk to the House of Commons later this week.” Italy said yesterday it is giving the group political but not diplomatic recognition.
The international support comes at a difficult time for the new coalition, and at a time when events and alliances within Syria are fast-moving and fluid. Late Sunday, a group of extremist Islamist factions in Syria rejected the new opposition coalition, saying in a video statement they have formed an “Islamic state” in the embattled city of Aleppo to underline that they want nothing to do with the Western-backed bloc.
Some EU members have suggested arming the Syrian opposition, but officials said the idea is likely to get little traction in the meeting. A senior EU official said last week that shipping weapons to Syrian weapons while keeping an embargo against the Assad regime in place would be very difficult to enforce.
The newly formed Syrian opposition bloc that has received Arab and international backing is to be based in Egypt, its head Ahmed Moaz Al-Khatib told the official MENA news agency on Monday.
“It has been decided that the Syrian National Coalition will have its headquarters in Egypt,” Khatib was quoted as saying after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr.
Amr said Egypt was willing to “offer any assistance to the coalition in the coming phase.”
On the ground, fighting flared along the Turkish border after rebels took control of a large army base in the northern province of Aleppo that had been besieged for weeks.
Six rebels killed in clashes with Kurdish fighters and the head of the local Kurdish People’s Assembly was shot dead in the town of Ras Al-Ain, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. The clashes erupted after a Kurdish demonstration demanding that all rebels not from the town leave. The insurgents refused and attacked Kurdish militiamen at a checkpoint, with nine wounded on both sides, the Observatory said.
The Kurdish fighters belonged to the People’s Defense Units, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to Turkey’s rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
A Ras Al-Ain activist said tension has been high between rebels and the PYD since the insurgents took the town last week.
“The rebels burned a flag of the (Kurdish) Democratic Union Party and the Kurds reacted by burning the FSA flag,” Havidar said.
Rebels accuse Kurdish groups of negotiating directly with Assad’s regime, while Kurds question why the rebels entered a safe area.
“The Kurdish regions provide safe havens to thousands of refugees from Damascus, Hama and Homs,” PYD leader Saleh Muslim said by phone.
“We are not looking for a confrontation with the FSA, but its members who provoked the incident today in Ras Al-Ain receive their orders from Turkey,” he said.
Fighting also erupted at a border post near the town of Kasab in Latakia province, the Observatory said.
In the mountainous region of Jabal Al-Turkman, eight rebels and four soldiers were killed after insurgents attacked an army convoy en route to Kasab. Kasab residents told AFP the violence had not spilled over into the town.


The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics, puts the death toll in more than 20 months of conflict at upwards of 39,000.


Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

Iraqi activist Hajjar Youssif hands out masks to protesters for a demonstration last week in Basra. (AP)
Updated 13 min 37 sec ago
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Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

  • Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals

BASRA: Hajjar Youssif was on her daily commute to work, staring at her phone and flicking through her Instagram account when she looked up to find herself in an unusual location. The taxi driver had turned into an alley. When she questioned the driver, he sped up.
“I started to feel uneasy and knew that something bad was going to happen,” said the 24-year-old office administrator, who had taken part in protests over lack of clean water, frequent power cuts and soaring unemployment in her hometown of Basra, Iraq’s oil capital and main port.
She yelled and tried to open the door, but the driver had locked it. The taxi swerved into a courtyard where three masked men were waiting.
“They immediately told me, ‘We’ll teach you a lesson. Let it be a warning to other protesters’,” Youssif said in an interview several days after the incident.
The men slapped and beat her and pulled off her Islamic headscarf, she said. “At the end, they grabbed me by my hair and warned me not to take part in the protests before blindfolding me and dumping me on the streets,” she said, her cheeks still bruised.
Youssif believes the attack was part of what she and other activists describe as a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.
Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals.
Earlier this month, protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government offices, the headquarters of the Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Consulate in Basra — in a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran’s outsized control over local affairs.
The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the militias, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from Daesh militants, who are Sunni Muslims.
Shortly after IS militants captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shiite men answered a call-to-arms by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and destruction of homes.
Buoyed by victory against IS, some of the most feared Shiite militias took part in the May national elections and their list — Fatah — won 48 seats in the 329-seat Parliament.
Fatah and other factions formed a wider Iran-backed coalition in Parliament earlier this month and will likely be tasked with forming the new government.
In Basra, some alleged the militias were working with local authorities to quell the protests — a charge denied by Bassem Al-Khafaji, head of Sayyed Al-Shuhada, one of several Basra militias.
He said threats and intimidation of protesters were “individual acts,” but not the result of a central directive.
“Our order for all the factions in Basra ... is not to confront the protesters who burned down the offices of the militias,” Al-Khafaji said, arguing that the militias are trying to prevent more bloodshed.
He accused infiltrators of turning the protests violent and said the alleged saboteurs must be dealt with by the security agencies.
Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the US, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
A local leader of a prominent militia vowed to retaliate.
“We have pictures of those who burned down our headquarters and they will pay dearly,” he said on condition of anonymity in line with his group’s rules for speaking to the media. “We will not let them attack us again and if they do we’ll open fire. That’s what we’ve agreed on, all of us.”
The government has said protesters’ demands are legitimate, but claims infiltrators were behind the violence.
A senior official in the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service said dozens have been arrested since the protests began. He acknowledged that others may be held by political parties and their militias, but said his office has no way of tracking that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.