Monthly Archives: June 2013

Turkey Announces Plan to Restrict ‘Fake’ Social Media Accounts

Turkey will prevent the opening of “fake” social media accounts as part of its efforts to criminalize the incitement of protests, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said today.

Hundreds of thousands of fake accounts have been opened since protests erupted on May 31, disseminating lies and slander and using social media like a “weapon” to incite hatred, Bozdag told reporters in Ankara today. “The opening of fake accounts by individuals will be prevented,” he said. “Slander is a crime under law whether it comes from Twitter, Facebook, news websites, television or from the squares.”

Bozdag ruled out any ban on social media, while warning that the government is working to regulate online activity. “Everyone should know that there is no freedom to commit crimes in this space,” he said. “If someone opens an account, everybody will know who it is.” He didn’t elaborate on how that will be achieved.

Anti-government protests have eased this week. Police cleared a protest camp out of Gezi Park in central Istanbul on June 15, and clashed with protesters in many parts of the city the following day. The demonstrations, which began in opposition to a planned redevelopment of the park, have broadened to target what participants say is the authoritarian approach of Prime MinisterRecep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.

The Turkish hacker group Redhack yesterday claimed responsibility on Twitter for all postings related to protests over Gezi Park. Redhack has given tips to protesters to avoid being charged with “sharing provocative messages,” after police detained 29 people in the Aegean city of Izmir for online activity, Hurriyet Daily News said today.

The group has advised individuals to blame Redhack for the tweets and say their accounts were hacked, the newspaper said.


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German authorities cremate Turkish Muslim woman’s body (Today’s Zaman)

German authorities have reportedly cremated the body of a Turkish Muslim woman after deeming she had “no religion” without informing the Turkish consulate, a German daily reported earlier this week.
The Turkish citizen, 47, was found dead in her house last month in Stuttgart’s Waiblingen and her body was taken to a local morgue, according to the report in Esslinger Zeitung. Authorities reached out to the woman’s adopted daughter but she never showed up to claim the body. The situation was then conveyed to the municipality authorities.

Authorities asked officials at the morgue to extend the stay of the body for a week but then cremated the body in the town of Schwaebisch Hall.   

According to the Islamic law, a body of a Muslim should first be washed and then buried following a funeral prayer.

Waiblingen Mayor Martin Staab also confirmed the cremation of the body of the Turkish woman. Staab said the local authorities registered woman as “agnostic,” acknowledging that the authorities made a mistake and that they should have informed the Turkish consulate.

In German law, if a foreign citizen without relatives dies on German soil, authorities have to inform his or her consulate to receive the body.

Stuttgart Consul General Türker Arı told the Cihan news agency that the cremation of the body was done “without our information or confirmation.”

Arı confirmed the incident and said the consulate has protested it with a letter to Baden-Württemberg Interior Minister Reinhold Gall. He added that the consulate also informed the state’s integration minister, Bilkay Öney.

He noted that he asked all relevant institutions in the state to immediately inform the consulate about the deaths of Turkish citizens.

“I stressed that cremation in our religion is unacceptable. We have not received any response from state authorities. We are closely following the issue,” Arı added.

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Turkey warns Germany as Berlin obstructs its EU path

Turkey warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday not to play politics with its European Union ambitions as Berlin blocked moves to open a new chapter in Ankara’s EU membership talks next week.

Turkey said failure to open the chapter would be a major setback in Ankara’s relations with the bloc and one senior Turkish official said it would “draw a strong reaction”.

Many EU capitals want to take the long-awaited step on Turkey’s path towards the EU next Wednesday, arguing Europe should capitalize on Ankara’s rising influence in the Middle East.

But Germany has criticized Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s heavy-handed response to weeks of anti-government protests and refuses to agree to open a new negotiation area, potentially the first such step in three years.

Germany blocked the opening of the new chapter, dealing with regional funding issues, at a meeting of EU ambassadors on Thursday, EU diplomats said.

The EU has so far not cancelled next Wednesday’s planned talks with Turkey, an EU source said.

EU governments agreed to think about the issue over the weekend, and may return to it next week, but at this stage, there were no firm plans to do so, the EU source said.

“The Germans have to report back home but it seems they are leaning towards not opening the chapter,” one EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ireland, which holds the EU presidency, said it continued to seek consensus to open a new chapter with Turkey next Wednesday.

Merkel’s conservatives have rejected Turkish EU membership in their German election program, saying the country would “overburden” the bloc because of its size and economy, sparking anger in Ankara.

“If Mrs Merkel is looking for domestic political material for her elections, that material should not be Turkey,” Turkey’s EU minister Egemen Bagis told reporters on Thursday.

“If Mrs Merkel looks into it she will see that those who mess about with Turkey do not have an auspicious end,” he said.


Opposition in Germany to Turkish EU membership has grown in recent years, with two thirds saying they opposed it in a new poll by Forsa for Thursday’s edition of weekly magazine Stern.

Merkel said on Monday she was “appalled” by the crackdown on protesters in Istanbul. The protests began over a redevelopment project in a park, but spiraled into an unprecedented show of defiance against what Erdogan critics call his authoritarianism.

Police fired teargas and water cannon to disperse stone-throwing protesters night after night in cities including Istanbul and Ankara, unrest which left four people dead and some 7,500 suffering from injuries ranging from cuts to breathing difficulties, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso declined comment on Turkey’s EU membership talks at a Vienna press conference on Thursday, but said: “Of course we have been following (with) concern recent developments in Turkey.”

“We believe it is good for Turkey and also in the interests of the European Union to remain engaged with them, but of course one way of remaining engaged is also very sincerely (to) express our concerns when we have this kind of concerns,” he said.

Erdogan and his government have bristled at foreign criticism of his handling of the unrest, saying the response was no different to police action taken in the past in countries including Germany and the United States.

Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper quoted a senior Turkish diplomat on Thursday as saying Ankara could suspend negotiations with Brussels altogether if the new chapter is not opened next week, although other officials were more cautious.

“A decision not to open this chapter would definitely send the wrong signal and will draw a strong reaction from Turkey,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters.

“We are telling everyone that this is what we agreed to do months ago … and if it does not happen, it would definitely be a political decision,” he said.

Germany is Turkey’s largest trading partner in the EU and is home to some three million Turks, the biggest diaspora in Europe.

All of the major German parties are trying to appeal to voters with immigrant backgrounds ahead of a federal election on September 22 in which Merkel will be trying to win a third term.

But Merkel’s party says Turks in Germany are more interested in jobs and conservative values than Turkey’s EU membership, supported by the opposition Social Democrats and Greens.

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In Syrian chemical weapons claim, criticism about lack of transparency

Despite months of laboratory testing and scrutiny by top U.S. scientists, the Obama administration’s case for arming Syria’s rebels rests on unverifiable claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, according to diplomats and experts.

The United States, Britain and France have supplied the United Nations with a trove of evidence, including multiple blood, tissue and soil samples, that U.S. officials say proves that Syrian troops used the nerve agent sarin on the battlefield. But the nature of the physical evidence — as well as the secrecy over how it was collected and analyzed — has opened the administration to criticism by independent experts, who say there is no reliable way to assess its authenticity.

The technical data presented by the three Western powers is of limited value to U.N. inspectors trying to determine whether
Syria’s combatants used chemical weapons during the country’s 25-month-old conflict. Under the United Nations’ terms of reference, only evidence personally collected by its inspectors can be used to fashion a final judgment.

But no inspectors have been allowed inside Syria, so Western governments have relied on physical evidence smuggled out of the country by rebels or intelligence operatives. Precisely who acquired the evidence and what methods were used to guard against tampering may be unknowable, according to experts experienced at investigating chemical weapons claims.

“You can try your best to control the analysis, but analysis at a distance is always uncertain,” said David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector who led the U.S. search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. “You’d be an idiot if you didn’t approach this thing with a bit of caution.”

U.S. defends analysis

The Obama administration announced last week that it was expanding military support to the rebels after concluding with “high confidence” that Syria’s government had used chemical weapons on a small scale, according to a White House statement. President Obama had warned Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in August that any use of his chemical arsenal would cross a “red line” and draw a strong U.S. response.

The first report of sarin attacks trickled out of Syria in January, and the administration initially played it down. By March, Britain and France reported that they had received evidence of such attacks and, in a joint letter, asked the United Nations to investigate rebel claims of chemical weapons use by Syrian authorities. Britain also provided soil samples it had tested. The Obama administration continued to collect and analyze data for three more months before reaching the same conclusion.

The number of deaths from poison gas was estimated at 100 to 150 — a relatively small number in a conflict that has killed more than 90,000 people. But the “red line” declaration had committed the administration — which had been resisting pressure to militarily intervene — to act. At the same time, the president’s language handed the Syrian opposition a powerful incentive to fabricate evidence, some weapons experts noted.

“If you are the opposition and you hear” that the White House has drawn a red line on the use of nerve agents, then “you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used,” said Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed up U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq during the 1990s.

U.S. officials staunchly defend what they describe as an extensive, rigorous and multilayered analysis that led to the White House’s June 13 pronouncement on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The conclusion that Assad’s forces used sarin was based on scientific assessments of dozens of evidentiary samples representing multiple attacks spanning several months, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the evidence.

The evidence came from a variety of sources, and some was collected by non-Syrians, said the sources, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing strict secrecy surrounding the operation. Details about how the evidence was gathered and tested could not be disclosed without compromising ongoing intelligence operations, the officials said.

Having been famously burned by the 2003 intelligence failure over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, U.S. analysts now approach all such claims with exceptional care, said a third administration official familiar with intelligence analysis. “You have to use sophisticated analytic techniques that account for, and carefully weigh, competing evidence and subject your findings to intense self-imposed scrutiny,” the official said.

But Western officials and diplomats also acknowledged that the lack of transparency undermined the credibility of the chemical-weapons claims.

“The chain-of-custody issue is a real issue,” said a senior Western diplomat whose government has closely tracked the Syrian investigation. But the official said the totality of the evidence “from different sources, different times, different locations” should convince the U.N. investigating body that the claims were real.

Challenge for U.N.

The key fact-finder for determining whether and how chemical weapons were used isAke Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist and the chief U.N. weapons inspector. He must try to link the physical evidence to a verifiable use of chemical weapons inside Syria, like a criminal prosecutor assembling a case that can stand up in court.

Sellstrom is scheduled to travel next week to Turkey, the first leg in a reporting trip that will include stops in Lebanon and Jordan. There, he is expected to interview Syrian witnesses and medical professionals who claim to have treated victims of chemical-
weapons attacks.

The senior Western diplomat said Sellstrom and his team should be able to put together a “pretty coherent picture of what happened,” though the diplomat voiced frustration that it has taken Sellstrom months to send a team to the region to interview refugees.

“If we have criticism with Sellstrom, it’s that he has been very passive,” the official said.

U.N. officials continue to push for an on-the-ground inspection in Syria, even as they acknowledge the diminishing chances that the Assad government will let them in.

“The validity of any information cannot be ensured without convincing evidence of the chain of custody,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautioned after the White House disclosed plans to arm Syria’s rebels. “That is why I continue to emphasize the need for an investigation on the ground in Syria that can collect its own samples and establish the facts.”

But even if inspectors are allowed in, the passage of time since the alleged attacks would make their task even more difficult, as sarin degrades quickly after exposure to air and sunlight, weapons experts say.

Jean Pascal Zanders, who until recently was a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said he has scoured the Internet for photographs, video and news reports documenting alleged nerve agent attacks in Syria. What he has seen has made him a skeptic.

Few of the photographs, Zanders said, have borne the trademark symptoms of a chemical weapons attack. In a paper he presented last week to the E.U. Non-Proliferation Consortium, he compared photographs documenting Iraq’s 1998 chemical weapons attack against Kurds in the town of Halabja.

The Halabja victims appeared to have died instantaneously from chemical agents, he said, and their bodies showed telltale signs of exposure to sarin: blue lips and fingertips caused by suffocation and a pink hue brought on by excessive sweating and high blood pressure. “No press reports from Syria refer to those descriptions, which is one of the reasons why I am skeptical about those reports,” he said.

Zanders said the problem with the U.S., British and French evidence is that it cannot be tested by independent scientists. Some of the published reports of chemical weapons use “make certain alarm bells ring,” he said, but it is impossible to reach a definitive conclusion on the basis of what governments have put forward. “We don’t have the barest of information. There is not even a fact sheet documenting the samples,” he said. “This is an immensely political process, and there is no way of challenging the findings.”

Other weapons experts were prepared to accept that sarin was used but said the allegation that the Syrian government has deliberately used toxins against its own people appeared to based on circumstantial evidence.

“There are so many people who would like us to believe that the regime used chemical weapons,” said a former senior U.S. official who had been involved in intelligence assessments of claims about weapons of mass destruction. “You have to question whether any of those advocates were involved in collecting the evidence.”

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Turkey protests put strain on Syria planning

The Obama administration’s decision last week to send weapons to Syrian rebels has made the United States more dependent than ever on Turkey — at the same time that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to act on Syria may be newly constrained.

The protests rocking Turkey this month have given new life to old grievances among those opposed to Erdogan, and his active support for the Syrian rebels is on the list. Now, as the United States needs Turkey’s help to get weapons into the hands of those fighters, Erdogan faces the threat of more street protests the moment he pursues unpopular policies.As opposition forces speak out, Turkish leaders may face new constraints in fighting Assad.

In fiery speeches, the Turkish leader has vowed to continue targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and top U.S. officials have spoken to their Turkish counterparts repeatedly in recent days to coordinate Syria policy. But with a refugee crisis along the Turkish-Syrian border and increasing Syria-related violence on Turkish soil, many Turks say they wish their leader had never become embroiled in the sectarian conflict next door.

The need for Erdogan’s cooperation on Syria has tempered the Obama administration’s repeated condemnations of police violence against Turkish demonstrators, analysts say, despite U.S. surprise at his hard-line approach toward those who have turned to the streets primarily to protest encroachments on personal liberties. As the United States and Turkey’s government navigate what comes next, many demonstrators say that a mental barrier to voicing dissent has been broken, even as Erdogan and his associates have blamed terrorists, foreigners, Jews and news organizations for stoking unrest in the country.

From now on, “anytime the government comes up with a controversial policy, it will find opposition on the streets, organized through demonstrations,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. On Syria, he said, “Turkey and the United States will compete to lead from behind,” cautiously inching forward on involvement while allowing other countries to go further in their commitments to the rebels.

The political and human risks of Erdogan’s support for the Syrian rebels were underlined May 11, when two car bombs killed at least 52 people and injured more than 140 in the border town of Reyhanli. Erdogan swiftly blamed Assad’s security forces for the attack, and although Turkish officials have offered no definitive evidence, the conclusion is widely shared among Turks, who cited it as one reason for their objections to Erdogan’s Syria policy. The 363,000 Syrian refugees on Turkish soil are another, with many Turks voicing sympathy for the displaced Syrians but saying there are scarce resources to deal with the influx.

Residents of a town near the border with Syria say tensions are rising.

“Hatay is becoming a city of war because of Erdogan’s policies,” Akin Bodur, a local journalist, said by telephone.

Now Erdogan’s freedom to do as he pleases on the Syria issue will be limited, some analysts say.

On Syria, Erdogan’s “wings have been clipped,” said Osman Faruk Logoglu, a deputy chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party and a former ambassador to the United States.

That was evident, Logoglu said, after the United States said the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons, crossing a “red line” that President Obama had set. “Normally [Erdogan] would have said this is the time to take more action against Syria. We haven’t seen that,” Logoglu said.

Erdogan’s ‘aura is gone’

The intersection of the protest movement with Obama’s policy change on Syria has created a quandary for U.S. officials, analysts say, with unhappiness about Erdogan’s crackdown mixing with surprise that a leader they considered a consummate politician would react as he did to the challenge to his decade-old rule.

“The perception of Erdogan in Europe and the United States has dramatically shifted,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University who worked at the State Department under President Bill Clinton. Washington “respected the fact that these guys were supreme politicians. Now that aura is gone, because Erdogan really did miscalculate.”

The domestic pressure may actually push Erdogan to be less, not more cautious, in his desire to remove Assad from power, Barkey said, and lead Turkey to push arms shipments toward the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, considered the best-organized rebel fighting group in Syria.

“The danger to me is, will he decide this has lasted too long and help whoever is able to fight?” Barkey said.

Delicate situation for U.S.

U.S. officials are weighing how to handle Erdogan, whom they feted in Washingtonjust last month. Early in the protests, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he was “concerned” about reports of police violence. Vice President Biden also voiced worries.

But many direct discussions have concentrated on Syria. Last week, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay was in Washington to meet with top U.S. security officials.

Syrian issues dominated Kerry’s phone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Saturday, according to State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. Just hours later, police started using tear gas and water cannons to clear Istanbul’s Taksim Square and adjoining Gezi Park of protesters, initiating a still-unfolding crackdown in which dozens of doctors, lawyers and political opponents have been detained.

And a Wednesday statement from Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, was far milder than previous U.S. assessments of the protests.

“I’m very confident about Turkish democracy,” Ricciardone told Turkish journalists in Ankara after meeting with a senior adviser to Erdogan. “You are having a conversation within your Turkish family. The United States is not participating in it, except the full-out faith in you, the Turkish people, and the Turkish government.”

European condemnations have not been similarly restrained, leaving Turkey’s prospects for joining the European Union in doubt and the fate of British and French cooperation with Turkey on Syrian issues uncertain, analysts said.

But with the E.U. already unpopular in Turkey, the new tension helps rally Erdogan’s base despite his nominal desire for membership in the bloc. He considers his relationship with Obama far more precious than that with any European leader, according to Erdogan officials and Turkish opposition leaders, perhaps giving the United States extra leverage.

“Erdogan takes heed of Obama,” said Sedat Ergin, a columnist at the daily Hurriyet newspaper who has written about the relationship between the two leaders. “But the president has refrained from using this margin at the expense of U.S. interests in the region.”

MarkThomason wrote: It is long past time for some sound, substantive reporting on what is actually going on in Turkish territory in support of the Syrian insurgency, who is actually doing it, what role the Turkish government really has in it, and how the Turkish people of various background feel about that. 
Erdogan is far out on his own on this as he was in the Istanbul park, and he is not supported by secular Sunnis, nor Shiites, nor Alawites, nor Alewis, nor the Army, nor the population of Hatay Province in which all this is happening. Even many of his Muslim supporters fear the jihadis. Of course, the Kurds are an entirely separate complex question, siding at least in part with Assad. 
The training camps, which are also refitting and supply camps, are run by the CIA, including for their language skills a great many dual passport Israelis pretending not to be Israelis. They are on Turkish soil, but Turks have little to no role in them. What is really going on in them? 
This is a leading national newspaper that addresses the topic every day, and there has not been one single substantive report in it of any of these questions. You never tried to find out, or you don’t want to say?

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Special Report – Syria’s Islamists seize control as moderates dither

As the Syrian civil war got under way, a former electrician who calls himself Sheikh Omar built up a brigade of rebel fighters. In two years of struggle against President Bashar al-Assad, they came to number 2,000 men, he said, here in the northern city of Aleppo. Then, virtually overnight, they collapsed.

A member of an Islamist group holds a flag during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Deir el-Zor in this February 25, 2013 file picture. Picture taken February 25, 2013. To match Special Report SYRIA-REBELS-ISLAMISTS REUTERS-Khalil Ashawi-Files (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT CIVIL UNREST)

The Islamists moved against them at the beginning of May. After three days of sporadic clashes Omar’s more moderate fighters, accused by the Islamists of looting, caved in and dispersed, according to local residents. Omar said the end came swiftly.

The Islamists confiscated the brigade’s weapons, ammunition and cars, Omar said. “They considered this war loot. Maybe they think we are competitors,” he said. “We have no idea about their goals. What we have built in two years disappeared in a single day.”

The group was effectively marginalised in the struggle to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Around 100 fighters are all that remain of his force, Omar said.

It’s a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country.

The moderates, often underfunded, fragmented and chaotic, appear no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organisations designated “terrorist” by the United States.

The Islamist ascendancy has amplified the sectarian nature of the war between Sunni Muslim rebels and the Shi’ite supporters of Assad. It also presents a barrier to the original democratic aims of the revolt and calls into question whether the United States, which announced practical support for the rebels last week, can ensure supplies of weapons go only to groups friendly to the West.

World powers fear weapons could reach hardline Islamist groups that wish to create an Islamic mini-state within a crescent of rebel-held territory from the Mediterranean in the west to the desert border with Iraq.

That prospect is also alarming for many in Syria, from minority Christians, Alawites and Shi’ites to tolerant Sunni Muslims, who are concerned that this alliance would try to impose Taliban-style rule.


Syria’s war began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and turned into an armed rebellion a few months later following a deadly crackdown. Most of the rebel groups in Syria were formed locally and have little coordination with others. The country is dotted with bands made up of army defectors, farmers, engineers and even former criminals.

Many pledge allegiance to the notion of a unified Free Syrian Army (FSA). But on the ground there is little evidence to suggest the FSA actually exists as a body at all.

Sheikh Omar told the story of his brigade while sitting in a cramped room at his headquarters, a small one-storey building surrounded by olive tree fields in Aleppo province. Wrapped around his chest he wore a leather bandolier that held two pistols, grips pointing outwards, ready to be drawn by crossing his arms.

He said he was from a poor background in rural Aleppo province. When he and a handful of others had started a rebel group to oppose Assad, fear had made it hard to recruit. The rich and law-abiding were scared. Only outlaws and reprobates would join him at first.

“We were looking for good people. But who was willing to work for me and help me? Those who used to go to bars, to fight with people and steal. Those are the people who allied with me and fought against the regime.” As he spoke some of his remaining fighters tried to interject; he silenced them, saying he wanted to be honest.


Ghurabaa al-Sham started with modest aims, Omar said. They would enter small police stations and negotiate a handover of weapons in return for free passage out of the area for the police.

But their numbers grew to 2,000 men, he said, and they fought battles to take border posts withTurkey and were one of the first rebel brigades to move into Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city with 2.5 million inhabitants.

More than half of the city fell to the rebels, but Assad’s army pushed back, fighting street by street for months. A stalemate ensued. Very little progress has been made from either side for almost a year.

Where the government forces did cede ground, Aleppo’s residents did not welcome the rebels with open arms. Most fighters were poor rural people from the countryside and the residents of Aleppo say they stole. Omar acknowledged this happened.

“Our members in Aleppo were stealing openly. Others stole everything and were taking Syria’s goods to sell outside the country. I was against any bad action committed by Ghurabaa al-Sham. However, things happened and opinion turned against us,” he said as his men squirmed in their seats, uncomfortable with his words.

Ghurabaa al-Sham was not the only group to take the law into its own hands. In Salqin, a town in Idlib province bordering Turkey, fighters from a rebel brigade called the Falcons of Salqin have set up checkpoints at the entrances to the town.

Abu Naim Jamjoom, deputy commander of the brigade, said the rebels take a cut of any produce – food, fuel or other merchandise – that enters Salqin. The goods are distributed to the town’s residents, he said, but some rebel groups steal this “tax” for themselves.

Part of the problem is that the rebel groups are poorly equipped and badly coordinated. Jamjoom said he had 45 men with guns and two homemade mortar launchers but was desperately low on ammunition. “Everything we have has been looted from the regime,” he said, echoing the response of most rebel commanders when asked if they have received any outside support.

Jamjoom, who wore a blue camouflaged outfit and kept a grenade in his left pocket, said he had registered his group with the Supreme Military Council, a body set up by the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition of opposition groups to help coordinate rebel units.

“We haven’t received any help from the military council,” Jamjoom said, drinking sweet tea on the balcony of his headquarters, the house of a pro-Assad dignitary who had fled the area. “We have to depend on ourselves. I am my own mother, you could say.”

He tugged at his uniform. “I bought this myself, with my money,” he said. He also said his group buys weapons from other brigades, “from those who have extra.” Weapons trading by rebel groups raises the risk that arms supplied by Western powers may fall into the hands of Islamist groups.

Western officials say military aid will be channelled through the Supreme Military Council. A Western security source told Reuters the council is trying to gain credibility, but as yet it has little or no authority.

Meanwhile, Jamjoom and his men were largely staying around Salqin, low on ammunition and low on energy. Inside the mansion they have commandeered, rebels lazed about on the gaudy fake-gold furniture in a room full of books, including religious texts and a copy of “The Oxford Companion to English Literature.”


The Islamists are more energetic and better organised. The main two hardline groups to emerge in Syria are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot that has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings, including several in Damascus in which civilians were killed.

But Islamist fighters, dressed in black cotton with long Sunni-style beards, have developed a reputation for being principled. Dozens of residents living in areas of rebel-held territory across northern Syria told Reuters the same thing, whether they agreed with the politics of Jabhat al-Nusra or not: the Islamists do not steal.

Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who researches Islamic militants, said the main reason groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have become popular is because of the social provisions they supply. “They are fair arbiters and not corrupt.”

In Aleppo four Islamist brigades, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, have taken over the role of government and are providing civilians with day-to-day necessities. They have also created a court based on Islamic religious laws, or sharia.

The Aleppans call it “the Authority” and it governs anything from crimes of murder and rape tobusiness disputes and distributing bread and water around the city. The power of such courts is growing, Authority members and rebels said, and is enforced by a body called the “Revolutionary Military Police.”

At the police’s headquarters, a five-storey building surrounded with sandbags, a large placard outside read: “Syrian Islamic Liberation Front.” It referred to a union of several Islamist brigades, forged in October 2012, which seeks to bring together disparate fighting groups. Its Islamist emphasis has already alienated some other fighters.

The head of the Aleppo branch of the Revolutionary Military Police, Abu Ahmed Rahman, comes from Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest rebel force in Aleppo. Ostensibly al-Tawhid has pledged its support for the U.S.-recognised Syrian National Coalition, but its role in the Authority alongside Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra shows an alliance with more radical groups.

As Rahman sat at a large desk on the ground floor, people rushed in and out, asking him to stamp and sign documents. He said that the worst problem the police had encountered so far was with Ghurabaa al-Sham, who had clashed with a sub-division of Liwa al-Tahwid for control of Aleppo’s industrial city, a complex of factories and office blocks sprawling over 4,000 hectares on the north-east outskirts of the city.

“Ghurabaa al-Sham fighters were annoying people, looting,” he said. The industrial area offered plenty of plunder. Residents of Aleppo said rebels found machinery and equipment in the factories that could be sold in Turkey.

Rahman said the Authority summoned Ghurabaa al-Sham to a hearing but they didn’t show up. “Then all the brigades went to get them. Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel units,” he said.

Abu Baraa, an employee at the Authority, said: “We gathered a lot of people with guns and everything. We went to the industrial city and we arrested everyone who was there. Then we did the interrogation. Those who did not steal were set free, and the others were put in prison.

“Before this Sharia Authority, every brigade did whatever it wanted. Now they have to ask for everything. We are in charge now, God willing. We are the supervisors. If you do something wrong, you will be punished.”


Members of Ghurabaa al-Sham gave a different version of events and have a different world view. “Why is the Sharia Authority allowed to control us? We didn’t elect them,” said Abdul-Fatah al-Sakhouri, who works in the media centre for Ghurabaa al-Sham, an old taxi station in Aleppo where he and some other fighters upload videos of battles against the Syrian army onto YouTube.

Al-Sakhouri, previously a mathematics teacher, said the head of the Ghurabaa al-Sham unit in the industrial city had gone to the Authority to sort out the dispute. “Commander Hassan Jazera was there for three hours and then left. It shows that they didn’t arrest him and there were no real charges against us,” he said.

The dispute, Ghurabaa al-Sham fighters said, was really about power. They said their brigade, made up of fighters ranging from Islamists to secularists but all in favour of a civilian state, was not part of the Islamist alliance formed between Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid.

Another member of Ghurbaa al-Sham, who called himself Omar, said the Islamist alliance wanted to weaken his group because it disagrees with Islamist ideology and seeks democracy.

Illustrating his fear of Islamist cultural restrictions, Omar said he was a fan of the American heavy metal band Metallica and pulled out a mobile phone to show a Metallica music video. The 24-year-old said Syrian businessmen once promised millions of dollars to bring Metallica to Aleppo but, in the end, the government rejected the plan.

“Jabhat al-Nusra wouldn’t want this either,” he said.

So far the Islamist groups have been the ones to attract outside support, mostly from private Sunni Muslim backers in Saudi Arabia, according to fighters in Syria.

With the help of battle-hardened Sunni Iraqis, these groups have been able to gain recruits. “They had military capabilities. They are actually organised and have command and control,” said Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

As moderate rebel groups dithered, so did their backers outside the country. Bickering among the political opposition, a collection of political exiles who have spent many years outside Syria, also presented a problem for the United States about whether there would be a coherent transition to a new government if Assad fell.

But most importantly, Western powers fear that if weapons are delivered to Syrian rebels, there would be few guarantees they would not end up with radical Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, who might one day use them against Western interests.

The moderates are losing ground. In many parts of rebel-held Aleppo, the red, black and green revolutionary flag which represents more moderate elements has been replaced with the black Islamic flag. Small shops selling black headbands, conservative clothing and black balaclavas have popped up around the city and their business is booming.

Reuters met several Islamist fighters who had left more moderate rebel brigades for hardline groups. One member of Ahrar al-Sham, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said: “I used to be with the Free Syrian Army but they were always thinking about what they wanted to do in future. I wanted to fight oppression now.”

Omar’s group, Ghurabaa al-Sham, wasn’t defeated by the government. It was dismantled by a rival band of revolutionaries – hardline Islamists.

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Glenn Greenwald: As Obama Makes “False” Spy Claims, Snowden Risks Life to Spark NSA Debate

Dandelion Salad

Dandelion Salad

democracynow on Jun 18, 2013 – Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the NSA surveillance story earlier this month, joins us one day after both President Obama and whistleblower Edward Snowden gave extensive interviews on the surveillance programs Snowden exposed and Obama is now forced to defend. Speaking to PBS, Obama distinguished his surveillance efforts from those of the Bush administration and reaffirmed his insistence that no Americans’ phone calls or emails are being directly monitored without court orders. Greenwald calls Obama’s statements “outright false” for omitting the warrantless spying on phone calls between Americans and callers outside the United States.

“It is true that the NSA can’t deliberately target U.S. citizens for [warrantless] surveillance, but it is also the case they are frequently engaged in surveillance of exactly that kind of invasive technique involving U.S. persons,” Greenwald says. After moderating Snowden’s online Q&A with Guardian…

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