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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Syria: FSA says Iranian pilgrims really Republican Guard

             "I Hate Tricks Pilgrim"

                                 -John Wayne

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Yesterday, as soon as I heard the breaking news about the 48 pilgrims from Iran being kidnapped near Damascus by the armed opposition in Syria, I thought something wasn't right about the story. I mean, who goes on a pilgrimage in the middle of a war zone?

The Russian news source Ria Novosti reported the story this way:

Nearly 50 Iranian Pilgrims Kidnapped in Damascus

17:48 04/08/2012


A total of 48 Iranian Shia pilgrims were kidnapped in Syrian capital, Damascus on Saturday as they were heading to the country’s shrines, a spokesman for the Iranian Al-Alam TV channel said.

A bus carrying the pilgrims from the Damascus airport, was stopped by the armed militants from the opposition Syrian Free Army, the spokesman said, adding that under the preliminary information, there are no children and women among those abducted.

The pilgrims were on their way to the Sayeda Zeinab mosque and other holy sites in the Syrian capital, the spokesman told RIA Novosti. More ...

The Iranian based PressTV said the International community must call for release of Iranian pilgrims in Syria and Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called on Turkey and Qatar to assist in gaining the freedom of what they were calling hostages. And of course the point was made that these were Shiite pilgrims with the implication that sectarianism was behind whatever had happened to them. I covered the news in my Syria diary yesterday as part of the EAWorldView report and figured that this story would get sorted out in a few days.

It didn't take that long. From the beginning, the fact that they were all men drew suspicion because pilgrims usually travel as families. Already today, we know that they are being held by the Free Syrian Army and there is clear and convincing evidence that the 48 Iranian men aren't pilgrims at all but part of a 150 man strong Iranian Republican Guard force doing reconnaissance for the Assad regime in Syria. Al Arabiya News is reporting:
Kidnapped Iranians are Revolutionary Guards, FSA says in Al Arabiya video

Sunday, 05 August 2012

Syrian rebels claim that the 48 Iranians it kidnapped on Saturday are members of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards and not pilgrims as Iran alleges, in footage aired exclusively by Al Arabiya TV.

The rebels “captured 48 of the Shabiha (militiamen) of Iran who were on a reconnaissance mission in Damascus,” said a man dressed as an officer of the Free Syrian Army, in the video aired by Al Arabiya.

“During the investigation, we found that some of them were officers of the Revolutionary Guards,” he said, showing ID documents taken from one of the men, who appeared in the background with a large Syrian independence flag held by two armed men behind them.

Abdel Nasser Shmeir, interviewed later by Al Arabiya and presented as the commander of Al-Baraa Brigade, gave similar details.

“They are 48, in addition to an Afghani interpreter,” he said, claiming that the captives were members of a 150-strong group sent by Iran for “reconnaissance on the ground.”

Iran has appealed to Turkey and Qatar, both with close relations with the Syrian opposition, for help in securing the release of the hostages it claims were pilgrims visiting the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, a Shiite pilgrimage site in the southeastern suburbs of Damascus.  More...

The more Syrian soldiers defect the more the Assad regime is forced to rely on its foreign allies like Russia, Iran and China. Not surprisingly Tehran on Sunday dismissed claims "that the Iranian nationals recently abducted in Syria are military forces" and accused media outlets of "abusing the issue of the abduction of Iranians." In point a fact, their calls for help from Turkey and Qatar are more about making points about who they claim is really behind the uprising than it is about freeing their citizens. That will require negotiations with the Syrian opposition.

This incident reveals for the hundredth time the hypocritical nature of the anti-interventionist policies of Russia, Iran and their supporters. They are opposed to international support for the Syrian people against Assad, even things like humanitarian corridors or a no-fly zone because they want to see Assad stay in power. Publicly they they oppose any move to force an end to the Assad regime's slaughter and they decried any attempts to arm Syrians for their own self defense, privately their slogan is "Praise Assad and past the ammunition" as they continue the flow of arms and even troops that allow the regime to continue the slaughter.    

0819 GMT: Syria. Claimed footage of Free Syrian Army troops speaking in front of the 48 Iranians seized in Damascus on Saturday --- Iranian State media says the men are pilgrims, but the insurgents claim they are members of Tehran's military supporting the Assad regime:

                     "Hey Pilgrim, you forgot your pop-gun"

                                                               -- John Wayne

In other news and notes:

The forces are still building around Aleppo and the Assad regime is really pounding the opposition held areas with tanks long range artillery and its warplanes but the expected ground assault by the more than 20,000 troops they have amassed still hasn't come. Many, including this writer, are speculating that they are afraid to use the troops less the defect. For the Assad regimes its a case of "Use them AND lose them."

The BBC has this up to the minute report on the situation in Aleppo this morning:

Syria conflict: Troops 'mass for Aleppo assault'

 5 August 2012 Last updated at 11:23 ET

More than 20,000 Syrian troops are massed around Aleppo, military sources say, as fighting rages for control of the country's second city.

Fighter jets, helicopters and artillery have pounded rebel positions ahead of a feared full-scale assault within days.

Tanks are trying to push into two key rebel-held areas, the opposition says.

In Damascus, another vital battleground in the war, army sources said rebels had been pushed from a last stronghold. The rebels said they had withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Iran is seeking the release of 48 Iranians kidnapped on Saturday. More ...

I found a new facebook page Alawites in the Syrian Revolution designed to combat the Assad regime propaganda that the the struggle in Syria is organized along sectarian lines. It says the following about itself:


من اجل بناء وطن ديموقراطي على اسس المساواة و العدل في دولة مدنية تعددية قانونية.

Toward building a democratic secular,pluralistic, just nation


سجل عن مشاركة السوريين العلويين في الثورة السورية, ثورة الكرامة.

This page provides a record and archive of Syrian Alawite participation in the Syrian Revolution - the Dignity Revolution
The Assad regime would like it to be organized along sectarian lines, and so would their Russian and Iranian backers. They all know that Assad's chances of weathering this storm is to convince most of the Alawites, and Shiites and Christians that they will be in big trouble if the opposition wins and Assad goes down. They are trying to use fear of change to keep their people in line. It is also used by the international Assad supporters to portray this popular uprising as a sectarian squabble that will only get worst if Assad if forced out.

Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the Assad regime is using cluster bombs on Syrian civilians. I say again, this is a sad legacy for a world that does nothing to stop this and a sad, sad legacy for the left that is mostly silent while violence being used by a totalitarian government against its civilian population escalates seemingly without limit. International Business Times carried this report yesterday:
Assad Using Cluster Bombs On Syrian Civilians, Says Human Rights Watch

By Rasha Elass

August 4, 2012 12:09 PM EDT

Human Rights Watch has confirmed for the first time claims that the Syrian government has used cluster bombs against its civillian population during the 17-month conflict.

"We have been able to verify the use of cluster bombs," Nadim Houry, regional Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, told the International Business Times in Beirut, Lebanon.

The verification comes before the third meeting of states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, to be held in Oslo, Norway, on September 11.

Houry added that there was no evidence of cluster bomb use in the ongoing major clashes in Syria's biggest city and commercial hub, Aleppo. More...

Jonathan Schanzer has an interesting piece on CNN on:
Why the Palestinians are turning against al-Assad

Even if Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad somehow survives the current uprising aimed at toppling his regime, the beleaguered dictator will have a lingering identity problem. Indeed, a long-standing pillar of Syria’s foreign policy has been support to the Palestinian “resistance” against Israel. But in the wake of the Syrian onslaught, the country’s estimated 500,000 Palestinians are abandoning – even challenging – their long-time champion. With this dramatic shift, al-Assad is left more isolated in the Middle East than ever before.

Reports from the region continue to confirm what would have been deemed impossible just two short years ago: Palestinians are turning against the regime. Human Rights Watch notes that, “Palestinians have joined anti-government protests.” One FSA commander, meanwhile, has boasted, “Palestinians are fighting alongside us, and they are well trained.”

It doesn’t help that the regime is murdering Palestinians. On Thursday, the regime reportedly killed 20 when it shelled a refugee camp. Reports before that indicated that al-Assad’s campaign had already claimed the lives of some 300 Palestinians. It’s still unclear just how many Palestinians have responded by taking up arms to challenge the regime, but a clearer picture is emerging of who is abandoning al-Assad in his hour of need.

The most prominent Palestinian defection has been Hamas. The Islamic Resistance Movement, as it is officially known, established its headquarters in Syria in the late 1990s. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal reportedly liaised with Iran and other regional financiers from this office, which also played a key role in supporting Hamas’ military operations in the Gaza Strip. Not surprisingly, when the Syrian uprising began in early 2011, the faction stood by their patron. But there is a level of violence that even a group designated a terrorist organization by the United States can’t bear. In February, as the body count continued to rise inexorably, Meshaal left Syria for Qatar. Amidst the ongoing violence, Hamas spokesman Izzak Reshak recently condemned Syria for massacring 17 Palestinians. More...

EAWorldView has this on Syria today:
Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Planning for Life After Assad

Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 9:24 | Scott Lucas

An 8-minute drive through "liberated" parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, on Friday --- "Quiet but devastated streets. Tons of garbage. And a long bread queue that I was told was actually short --- they get much longer than this later in the day"

Saturday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Has the Regime Lost Aleppo?

1520 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report 72 deaths at the hands of security forces so far today, including 34 in Damascus and its suburbs.

1432 GMT: Egypt. Al Jazeera English's Rawya Rageh reports from Dahshour, south of Cairo, where Christian residents have reportedly been driven from their homes by violence (see 0814 GMT):

1102 GMT: Syria. Syria's first astronaut, General Muhammed Ahmed Faris, has defected and entered Turkey, according to the Turkish news agency Anatolia.

1058 GMT: Syria. A bit of context to the story of the 48 Iranians seized by insurgents near Damascus on Saturday....

Before reports of the capture emerged, Iranian Minister of Defense Ahmad Vahidi said the Islamic Republic has not sent any military forces to Syria and the Syrian regime has never asked it to do so.

Vahidi was responding to claims in Israeli media that more than 3,000 Iranian snipers had arrived in Damascus to aid President Assad's forces.

1052 GMT: Syria. The leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sieda, has said he is ready to negotiate with regime officials whose hands are not "stained with blood", after President Assad and his inner circle leave power.

Sieda said in a newspaper interview:

As far as we are concerned, the authorities have lost their credibility and legitimacy, and we have said this in Moscow bluntly: that dialogue with this regime is no longer possible.

Bashar and his gang must leave and after that we will move to negotiate with other officials whose hands were not stained with Syrian blood and who were not involved in big corruption cases.

0949 GMT: Syria. More on the video of the 48 Iranians captured by insurgents on Saturday near Damascus (see 0819 GMT)....

Troops of the Al Baraa Brigade of Free Syrian Army said the Iranians are "shabiha (militiamen)...who were on a reconnaissance mission in Damascus".

He continued, "During the investigation, we found that some of them were officers in the Revolutionary Guards."

Abdel Nasser Shmeir, a commander of the Al Baraa Brigade, said later, "They are 48, in addition to an Afghani interpreter," among a 150-strong group sent by Iran for "reconnaissance on the ground".

(Cross-posted from Iran Live Coverage)

0927 GMT: Syria. Demonstration this morning in Latamneh in Hama Province:

0639 GMT: Syria. Confusion this morning over 48 Iranian pilgrims who were abducted on Saturday as they travelled to the Damascus airport --- al-Mayadeen TV said they were released, but an official in the Iranian embassy denied the report.

0625 GMT: Syria. Last week we reported a ruling by the US Treasury that American citizens can provide money, through the Syrian Support Group, to aid the insurgency.

The Treasury has posted a copy of the License, which effectively bypasses US sanctions on Syria.

The leaders of the Syria Support Group include Mazen Asbahi, who briefly served as the director of Muslim and Arab American outreach for the Obama Presidential campaign in 2008, and Jamal Said, an unindicted co-conspirator in the Justice Department’s case against a Texas-based charity called the Holy Land Foundation, an alleged fundraiser for the Gazan group Hamas.

The chief lobbyist is Brian Sayers, who served in the State Department during the George W Bush Administration and was a Political Advisor at NATO until the SSG was officially founded in June.

0555 GMT: Syria. C.J. Chivers of The New York Times writes of the strain on the Assad military:

Analysts said Syria’s fleet of Mi-25 Hind-D attack helicopters, which numbered 36 at the start of the conflict, is insufficient to hold back rebels as the number of fronts, from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to the suburbs of Damascus in the south and Hama and Homs in the center of the country, continues to proliferate.

Maintenance technicians are struggling to keep the machines aloft in an intense campaign and in the searing heat and sand associated with summer desert war. Estimates are that only half his fleet can be used at a given time, with some helicopters cannibalized for spare parts and Mr. Assad dependent on supplies from Russia....

Defections of government troops and seizures of armaments are also a growing problem. Rebels in Aleppo claim to have control of a total of 14 T-72 and T-55 tanks and many indirect-fire weapons, including artillery pieces as well as mortars.

0530 GMT: Syria. We open this morning by noting stories, fed by Turkish and US officials, of planning for a post-Assad Syria.

The Americans use The New York Times to put out the message that they are "quietly sharpening plans to cope with a flood of refugees, help maintain basic health and municipal services, restart a shattered economy and avoid a security vacuum", while a Turkish diplomat said General Manaf Tlass, who defected last month and been upheld as a possible leader in a transitional administration, had talks at Ankara's Foreign Ministry on Friday.

Of course, Assad has not given up. Despite --- or because of --- reports of insurgents expanding their presence in Aleppo, regime artillery, tanks, and a helicopter gunship pounded Free Syrian positions on Saturday, trying to break the insurgent hold on the district of Salaheddin.

The Local Coordination Committees said 145 people were slain by security forces on Saturday, including 53 in Damascus and its suburbs.

Click here for a list of my other dairies on Syria

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