recent developments across the region ‘may offer one last chance to liberate the Lebanese people. The Syrian regime might crumble and, with it, Iranian influence. If so, that moment should not be missed.’
Reporting from Beirut—At least one Western government is bankrolling a project to gather evidence that could be used to indict Syria’s President Bashar Assad at an international tribunal over his crackdown on the country’s democracy movement, said a jurist leading the effort and a diplomat whose government is sponsoring it.
The fact-finding mission mostly involves assembling testimony from Syrian refugees that conforms to standards of international law necessary to sustain a war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Western official stressed that no decision had been made among diplomats to press the Security Council to refer Assad and his family to the court.
As part of the effort, international legal experts also held a workshop in Turkey last month to train Syrian activists in how to document alleged crimes against humanity, said Nabil Halaby, a Lebanese-based human rights lawyer who is part of the project. A report detailing the unnamed group’s findings is scheduled to be released to governments, human rights groups and the media by the end of the month.
“We have interviewed Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and northern Lebanon and have also met with Syrian activists,” Halaby, who identified his backers as unspecified foreign governments, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.
“The witnesses testified to being victims of crimes against humanity,” Halaby said. “For example, arbitrary kidnapping, arrest without warrants, unlawful killing, torture, torture until death, tanks in neighborhoods.”
An ICC indictment would add to the Syrian regime’s growing isolation. Over the last week, the Security Council, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council all issued statements condemning the crackdown. Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies pulled their ambassadors from Syria.
And the foreign minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, met Assad in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Tuesday for talks that could be a prelude to pulling its envoy from the country. That could deliver even more of a blow than the Arab withdrawals.
“Turkey has had far better relations with Damascus than most Arab governments,” said Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs at Tufts University and the author of several books on the Middle East and South Asia.
“Turkey is a big army and a big economy next door. It has a stick to carry with the Syrians. Most Arab governments at best have a checkbook influence on Syria.”
Some current and former Western officials have already publicly stated that they believed the violence in Syria had risen to the level where Assad could be prosecuted in The Hague, the Dutch city that hosts the ICC. Nick Harvey, British minister of state for the armed forces, told lawmakers in May that the court was “highly likely to arrive at a similar conclusion” in Assad’s case to the one it reached in the case of Kadafi.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher called on the Security Council in June to authorize the ICC to investigate Assad on charges of crimes against humanity. “The charge: using lethal violence to repress peaceful demonstrations in support of democratic rule,” they wrote in a piece published by the Financial Times.
Syrians welcomed what appeared to be a decisive turn against the government in Damascus by the international community, especially Saudi King Abdullah’s demand for an end to the “killing machine” targeting civilians. Syria, a strategic partner of Iran, and Saudi Arabia, which is close to the West, have long competed for influence in the region.
“What Saudi Arabia has done is open a new and blank page with the Syrian people,” said Kassem, a 23-year-old Damascus university student who asked that his last name not be published. “After all of its financial support to the regime, which certainly prolonged the regime’s life, Saudi Arabia is finally saying it is with the Syrian people.”
Special correspondents Roula Hajjar and Ellen Knickmeyer in Beirut and a special correspondent in Damascus contributed to this report.
Lebanese show their support to the Syrian protesters who demonstrate against the Syrian President Bashar Assad, at the Martyrs square, in downtown of Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday Aug. 8, 2011. Lebanese intellectuals and journalists make the word of Hama in Arabic with candles as they light them during a vigil sit-in against the Syrian regime and to show their support to the Syrian protesters who demonstrate against the Syrian President Bashar Assad.
(Reuters) - Most of Iran’s breaches of a U.N. arms embargo have been illegal weapons deliveries to Syria, which Western diplomats say were to be passed on to Lebanese and Palestinian militants, a U.N. report says.
The report by the U.N. Security Council’s so-called Panel of Experts, a newly formed committee that reports on compliance with four rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iran for refusing to halt its nuclear enrichment program, also says Tehran flouts the sanctions as it continues to develop its atomic program.
Western powers and their allies say they suspect Iran is developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program. Iran insists its only aim is the peaceful generation of electricity and refuses to halt its enrichment program.
“The Panel notes that most reported incidents of conventional arms-related violations involve Syria, which has a long and close relationship with Iran,” said the confidential report, which was obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.
“In all such incidents inspected by the Panel, prohibited material was carefully concealed to avoid routine inspection and hide the identity of end-users,” it said.
The panel noted that it was likely that “transfers took place undetected and that other illicit shipments were identified but not reported to the (Sanctions) Committee.”
The report said Syria was the stated destination of the weapons in six out of nine incidents of conventional arms transfers reported to the panel. It said the panel “awaits Syria’s response to its queries.”
Israeli, U.S. and other Western officials say that Syria has become a conduit for Iranian transfers of arms to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Iran and Syria have denied the charges.
EXPANDING PRESENCE IN AFRICA
The expert panel noted that Iran appeared to be “expanding its presence in Africa, both through increased trade and diplomatic activity. Concurrent with this, it has been alleged that the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) is also expanding in the region.”
The report mentioned a case in which Nigerian authorities complained to the Iran sanctions committee about an Iranian arms shipment it seized last year. Tehran said that arms shipment was a legitimate trade deal with Gambia.
Nigeria is prosecuting one of two Iranians allegedly involved in the deal.[ID:nLDE7101UB] U.N. diplomats say both Iranians appeared to have connections to the IRGC.
There were other cases of attempts by Iran to export conventional weapons in violation of the U.N. embargo. Among the countries that uncovered such attempts were Turkey, Cyprus, Germany, Israel and Britain. The weapons ranged from bullets, machine guns and explosives to small missiles and launchers, the report said.
As for Iran’s nuclear program, the report said Tehran is believed “to be coming close to exhausting its supply of uranium oxide.” It said Iran may therefore be seeking additional sources of uranium that would be needed to realize its planned expansion of uranium enrichment activity.
The report said Iran was exploiting loopholes in the sanctions regime “by seeking to procure equipment and technology that fall below the thresholds for listed (banned) items, but which are still useful, in an attempt to evade sanctions while maintaining its nuclear activities.”
Iran has also been trying to purchase nuclear technology in developed countries with strong export controls by placing orders with intermediaries in countries without rigorous export oversight, the panel said. It added that the front companies then re-export the items to Iran.
The report concludes that the sanctions are “slowing Iran’s nuclear program but are not yet having an impact on the decision calculus of its leadership with respect to halting uranium enrichment and heavy water-related activities.”
16 killed by Syrian security forces
Updated: 05:45, Saturday June 18, 2011
Syrian security forces killed at least 16 people on Friday, including a teenage boy, as thousands of people poured into the streets across the country calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad’s autocratic regime, activists said.
The unrest also appeared to be spilling over into neighboring Lebanon. A senior member of a Lebanese political party allied with Syria was killed on Friday after gunmen opened fire and lobbed a grenade near hundreds of people holding an anti-Assad protest in northern Lebanon, a security official said in Beirut.
The protests in Syria came hours after Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships seized control early on Friday of another northwestern town in the latest military operation to quell the dissent.
Since the protests erupted in mid-March, Assad has unleashed the military to crush street demonstrations. Human rights activists say more than 1400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained.
‘What is our guilt? We just demanded freedom and democracy, nothing else,’ said Mohamed, who spoke to The Associated Press from a refugee camp in neighbouring Turkey and asked to be identified only by his first name. He and other refugees offered fresh accounts of summary executions to suppress the pro-democracy movement.
‘I saw people who were beheaded with machinegun fire from helicopters,’ and a man tortured to death when security forces ‘poured acid on to his body’, he said.
Mohamed fled with his family as the military besieged Jisr al-Shughour, a rebellious town the government recaptured last Sunday.
He said a sugar factory in the city was turned into a jail where they ‘hold quick trials and execute anyone who they believe participated in protests’.
He is among about 9600 people are seeking shelter in Turkish refugee camps. On Friday, UN envoy Angelina Jolie travelled to Turkey’s border with Syria to meet some of the thousands of Syrian refugees.
The Syrian crackdown has brought international condemnation and sanctions on the regime. On Friday, a French official said the European Union was preparing new, expanded sanctions that would target the economy.
The Syrian government claims armed gangs and foreign conspirators are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers. In what has become a weekly back-and-forth between activists and the government, both sides offered divergent death tolls.
Syria’s state-run TV said on Friday that a policeman was killed and more than 20 were wounded when ‘armed groups’ opened fire at them. It added that six police officers were wounded in Deir el-Zour when gunmen attacked a police station in the area.
But the Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents the protests, and Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press that eight people were killed, all of them civilians, citing witnesses on the ground.
Nine people were killed in the central city of Homs, two in the eastern town of Deir el-Zour and two in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, one in the northern city of Aleppo. The 16-year-old, who was in the streets protesting, and another person died in the southern village of Dael, the Local Coordination Committees said.
It’s impossible to independently confirm many accounts coming out of Syria. Foreign journalists have been expelled from the country and local reporters face tight controls.
Meanwhile, troops in large numbers poured into Maaret al-Numan, 45km from the Turkish border, said rights activist Osso. He said other forces were now massing around Khan Sheikhon, to the south, where gunmen attacked army forces earlier this month.
Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees said government forces had taken full control of Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 on the highway linking Damascus, the capital, with the major city of Aleppo.
Many of its residents had fled as troops swept through Idlib province in recent days.
There was no immediate word on casualties in Maaret al-Numan.
Protests were reported across the country on Friday, with thousands pouring into the streets of the central cities of Homs and Hama, the southern villages of Dael and Otman, coastal cities of Latakia and Banias, the Damascus suburbs of Qudsaya and Douma as well as the capital, Damascus.
In the northeast, about 2000 protesters marched in the towns of Amouda and Qamishli, chanting for the regime’s downfall, the Local Coordination Committees said. In the southern village of Dael, activists said cracks of gunfire could be heard at the centre where a protest was held.
Some of the protesters shouted against Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, the country’s most influential businessman who is widely reviled by Syrians for alleged corruption. On Thursday, apparently as an overture to the protesters, he announced that he will now concentrate on charity work.
‘Go play another game Makhlouf,’ protesters shouted in Daraa, a city near the Jordanian border where the uprising began in mid-March.
Friday has become the main day for protests in the Arab world, and Syrians have turned out every week in large numbers nationwide, inspired by democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Violence erupts on Israel’s borders
Posted 6 minutes ago
Violence erupted on Israel’s borders with Syria, Lebanon and Gaza on Sunday, leaving at least eight dead and dozens wounded, as Palestinians marked what they term “the catastrophe” of Israel’s founding in 1948.
Israeli troops shot at protesters in three separate locations to prevent crowds from crossing Israeli frontier lines in the deadliest such confrontation in years.
Israeli and Syrian media reports said Israeli gunfire killed four people after dozens of Palestinian refugees infiltrated the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from Syria, along a disputed border that has been quiet for decades.
Witnesses on the nearby Lebanese frontier said four Palestinians were killed after Israeli forces fired at rock-throwing protesters to prevent them from crossing the border.
The Lebanese army had also earlier fired in the air in an attempt to hold back the crowds.
On Israel’s tense southern border with the Gaza Strip, Israeli gunfire wounded 60 Palestinians as demonstrators approached Israel’s fence with the Hamas Islamist-run enclave, medical workers said.
In Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial hub, a truck driven by an Arab Israeli slammed into vehicles and pedestrians, killing one man and injuring 17 people.
Police were trying to determine whether the incident was an accident or an attack. Witnesses said the driver, who was arrested, ran amok with his truck in downtown traffic.
Israeli security forces had been on alert for violence on Sunday, the day Palestinians mark the Nakba, after the 1948 war when hundreds of thousands of their brethren fled or were forced to leave their homes.
In the Druze village of Majdal Shams, on the Golan Heights captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, Mayor Dolan Abu Salah said between 40 and 50 Nakba demonstrators from Syria tore through the frontier fence.
Hundreds of protesters flooded the lush green valley that marks the border area, waving Palestinian flags. Israeli troops attempted to mend the breached fence, firing at what the army described as infiltrators.
“We are seeing here an Iranian provocation, on both the Syrian and the Lebanese frontiers, to try to exploit the Nakba day commemorations,” said the army’s chief spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Yoav Mordechai.
Syria is home to 470,000 Palestinian refugees and its leadership, now facing fierce internal unrest, had in previous years prevented protesters from reaching the frontier fence.
“This appears to be a cynical and transparent act by the Syrian leadership to deliberately create a crisis on the border so as to distract attention from the very real problems that regime is facing at home,” said a senior Israeli government official who declined to be named.
In a Nakba protest in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian youths threw rocks at Israeli soldiers, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets in a clash at the Israeli military checkpoint outside the city of Ramallah - a constant flashpoint.
A Palestinian teenager was shot dead during protests in Jerusalem on Friday. Police said it was unclear who had shot him and they were investigating.
That shooting took place in the tense neighbourhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, where violence regularly breaks out between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli police and Jewish settlers.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they intend to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Arms exports to Syria from neighbouring states are reportedly on the rise since the unrest in the country began in March.
Lebanon and Syria share an often porous border and some experts say that not all the arms being smuggled across it are for self-defence.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr reports from Beirut where various weapons are available on the black market.