Jordanian soldier killed in clash on border with Syria

A Jordanian soldier was killed in clashes with an armed group on the Syrian border, according to Jordan's official Petra news agency
BEIRUT -- A Jordanian soldier was killed Sunday night in clashes with an armed group on the Syrian border, according to Jordan's official Petra news agency.

Eight armed people were attempting to illegally cross into Jordan from Syria when fighting broke out between them and members of the Jordanian armed forces, the news agency reported, quoting an anonymous official from the military.

One member of the armed group was critically injured, and all eight were arrested.

"Another armed Takfiri group using Kalashnikov rifles and guns tried to cross the border," the official told the news agency, using a term that refers to an extremist Muslim ideology that accuses others of being infidels.

Continue reading »

U.S., allies girding for worst-case scenario with Syria's WMD

Chemical weapons response training site in Jordan
During a week that witnessed deadly artillery exchanges between Syria and Turkey and a tense showdown over a plane purportedly ferrying munitions from Russia, the arrival of 150 U.S. troops in Jordan was likely to be viewed as token support for an ally coping with a refugee influx from Syria's civil war.

GlobalFocusThe deployment, though, may be a response to mounting concerns at the Pentagon and among European and Middle East allies that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of hostile forces if the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is eventually toppled.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta disclosed little about the special-forces mission to Jordan when he confirmed it at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday. But he noted that the United States has been working closely with Jordan to keep track of Syria's weapons of mass destruction as the 19-month-old rebellion grinds on.

Unlike a decade ago, when bad intelligence on Iraq's alleged chemical and biological weapons spurred a clamor for U.S. military intervention, defense strategists appear to be approaching the suspected stockpiles of mustard and nerve gases in Syria with more collaboration and caution.

The resistance to preemptive action isn't just a consequence of lessons learned in Iraq. Syria is believed to have one of the world's largest chemical weapons arsenals, with commercial satellite surveillance and intelligence reports suggesting as many as 50 production and storage sites as well as missiles that could carry the deadly agents beyond its borders. Jane's Intelligence Review reported in 2009 that Damascus had embarked on a major upgrade of its chemical weapons facilities, transforming its Safir site near Aleppo, now the scene of intense fighting, into a credible deterrent to any threat from nuclear-armed Israel.

The scope of the Syrian chemical weapons program and the international community's failure to craft a cohesive plan to stop the fighting confront Western military strategists with the need to plan for a worst-case scenario rather than act to prevent it, analysts say. That means preparing allies in the region to launch a massive rapid-deployment operation after the Assad regime collapsed but before Al Qaeda-aligned fighters or rogue elements of the Syrian rebels could get their hands on the WMD.

Military exercises in JordanThe U.S. special forces sent to Amman are probably training Jordanian troops in containment techniques and checking their equipment and chemical-biological hazard protection and practices, said Steven Bucci, a former Army Green Beret officer and senior Pentagon official who is now a research fellow in defense and domestic  security at the Heritage Foundation.

"They will probably be running them through training procedures for dealing with this stuff to secure it and get it under control or to respond to it if it gets used" in a calamitous last battle, said Bucci. "This is about the best use of our military we could have now, and hopefully we're also helping out the Turks."

Bucci testified to Congress in July that even a limited operation to secure Syria's chemical weapons would require more than 75,000 troops -- and many more if launched amid the civil war now raging.

It is "not a viable option" to commit masses of U.S. ground troops to such an operation, Bucci told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. Any effective force, he said, would have to involve troops from allied Muslim countries also at risk of attack with Syria's chemical weapons.

That's why, he said in an interview Thursday, it is essential for the United States to coordinate with Syria's neighbors now to prepare a post-Assad operation that can prevent terrorist groups or smugglers from making off with the WMD.

Raymond Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological weapons program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, points out that assessments of Syria's chemical weapons program are largely unverified. But he, too, says the United States and its allies should be girding for the worst.

"From what I understand, these depots are pretty well guarded by the Syrian regime's forces, and they would probably be the last to give up their guarding duties," Zilinskas said. "But if there is a total collapse, there would of course be a threat of jihadists getting these weapons."

Talk of airstrikes to remove the threat is nonsensical, Zilinskas said. Syria has formidable antiaircraft defenses built with Russian assistance, and the international community lacks crucial information on the precise locations, quantities and containment of the gases to be able to bomb them without risking spreading the deadly substances.

"Sarin is pretty volatile. If all these other problems could be resolved, the sarin would probably be destroyed or would be so volatile that it would disappear quickly," Zilinskas said. "But that's not necessarily the case with mustard gas. It's much less deadly but much more persistent. And if the Syrians turn out to have VX, which is a persistent nerve gas, that could cause real problems. That is the worst-case scenario they have to prepare for."


U.S. Embassy employee is killed in Yemen

Syrian rebel group claims responsibility for Damascus blast

Hezbollah claims responsibility for drone shot down in Israel

Follow Carol J. Williams at

Photo, top: A military training facility in Russeifeh, Jordan, where U.S. forces and a handful of British allies began training Jordanian commandos this week to respond in case of an attack with chemical weapons from neighboring Syria. Credit: Mohammad Hannon / Associated Press

Insert: A scene from U.S.-Jordanian military exercises in the Qatrana desert in June. Credit: Jamal Nasrallah /AFP/Getty Images

U.S. has sent troops to Jordan-Syria border, Panetta says


The United States has sent troops to Jordan to help improve its military capabilities in case the fighting in Syria spills onto its soil, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters Wednesday in Brussels.

Panetta made the remarks at a NATO meeting of defense ministers. The revelation comes at a time of growing fears that the chaos and bloodshed in Syria for more than a year and a half could spread beyond the country across the Middle East.

Turkey has retaliated against Syria after repeated attacks on its territory, including shelling last week that killed five people. Though Turkey has said it does not want war, the two countries have continued to trade fire this week.

PHOTOS: Living under siege: Life in Aleppo, Syria

In Jordan, the enduring conflict has ramped up fears over the fate of Syrian chemical weapons and pushed more than 100,000 refugees into the country as winter approaches.

Defense spokesman Lt. Col. Jack Miller said in an email that the exact number of troops was “an issue we don’t want to get into,” but that the U.S. had been working closely with Jordan “on a variety of issues related to Syria for some time now,” including the refugees.

The number of refugees who have left Syria for Jordan is expected to swell to 250,000 by the end of the year, according to the United Nations. The U.S. has provided medical kits, water tanks and other humanitarian aid to help Jordan care for refugees, Miller wrote.

The allies are also eyeing the security of chemical and biological weapons stockpiled by Syria, a threat that President Obama has warned could change the tack toward the continuing conflict. If the Syrian government unleashes those weapons, Obama said, that would be a "red line" triggering U.S. military intervention.

Continue reading »

More than 103,000 flee Syria in August in biggest outpouring yet


More than 103,000 refugees fled Syria in August, more than any other month since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began nearly a year and a half ago, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday.

The August outpouring nearly doubled the number of Syrians registered or waiting to be registered as refugees to more than 235,000, the U.N. agency said, a reflection of the grave escalation of violence in the embattled country. Thousands more refugees may still be uncounted.

The exodus has flooded neighboring countries with refugees in need. Turkey, which says it is already hosting more than 80,000 Syrian refugees, has left its borders open but roughly 8,000 people are believed to be waiting to cross because of the backlog in processing.

Continue reading »

Jordan Web 'blackout' protest targets alleged censorship

AMMAN, Jordan -- Black Iris, 360East, and 7iber are names that may not be familiar to U.S audiences, but for the Jordanian online community they represent websites and blogs with the online presence of Daily Kos or the Huffington Post.

Although the websites' purposes and the people behind them differ, on Wednesday these and other leading Jordanian blogs and online news sites shared the same home page: A black screen.

This “blackout” campaign is an online protest against proposed changes in Jordanian laws that social media and free-press advocates call censorship under the cover of anti-pornography legislation.

Jordan's relaxed censorship laws and its relatively open Internet policy have long been credited with fostering a flourishing online community in the Middle Eastern kingdom, where King Abdullah II has publicly spoken of a Silicon Valley-like status for Jordan in the region. Nonetheless, the increasing number of online portals, many critical of Jordan’s rulers, have drawn concern from various arms of a government wary of dissent.

Nassim Tarawneh, blogger at the Jordan affairs blog "Black-Iris," writes in his post on the blackout: "Someone, somewhere, is convinced that Jordan’s online news sites need to be controlled, and that’s that. The state has spent the better part of half a decade trying to find ways to do it without coming off as the bad guy.”

The government's latest maneuver, according to critics, has been proposed anti-pornography legislation, supposedly at the behest of a Facebook group demanding official censorship of porn sites. The government has moved ahead with the drafting of amendments to the Press and Publication Law, and has now sent the bill to parliament.

Critics contend that proposals create an opportunity for censorship on the basis of ill-defined and arbitrary criteria that would apply far  beyond online pornography -- to news and general interest sites as well as sites with user-generated content. Media owners in violation of the new law would face a range of fines and penalties.

The government argues that the changes are needed to protect people, especially minors, from online pornography. Web and free-press advocates, on the other hand, say there is no shortage of self-regulation and screening tools.

Many major Jordanian websites participated in Wednesday’s “blackout,” with their homepages changed to a black screen displaying information about the campaign against the proposed changes in law.

Given the tag #BlackoutJo, the efforts attracted the attention of several high-profile figures in the kingdom, including U.S.-born Queen Noor, widow of the late King Hussein.

The queen came out strongly against censorship in a Twitter post: "Hypocrisy, lies, intolerance, hate, violence -- all unhealthy evils. Where  does it start and end. #censorship #BlackOutJO — Noor Al Hussein (@QueenNoor) August 29, 2012"


Arafat poisoned? Death inquiry opened in France

Envisioning a post-Assad Syria as civil war grinds on

Police arrest ex-London Times journalist in computer hacking case

--Nabih  Bulos

Syrian refugees number more than 210,000; seven die at sea

Syrian refugees are becoming an increasingly dire problem, U.N. officials say

Seven Syrians fleeing their country on a fishing boat have died off the north coast of Cyprus, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday, in what appears to be a new hazard as refugees pour out of the bloodied nation.

Four men, one woman and two children died as the vessel sank late last week, the U.N. agency said. The deaths at sea are the first such fatalities among Syrian refugees that the agency is aware of, spokesman Adrian Edwards said, though they were not the first Syrians to attempt the trip. Scores of Syrian refugees were reportedly aboard a boat intercepted off Italy earlier this month.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries by land rather than taking to the seas, Edwards said. About 15,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Europe since the uprising began, he said, a fraction of the more than 210,000 Syrians now registered as refugees or waiting to register.

The flow of refugees has turned into a deluge in recent weeks as violence has intensified, the U.N. says. Last week, more than twice as many Syrians surged into the Jordanian refugee camp of Zaatri than the week before, officials said. Growing numbers of unaccompanied children are among them.

The outpouring is even more dramatic at the Turkish border, where up to 5,000 people are arriving every day, a tenfold increase over previous weeks, officials said.

Continue reading »

Syria conflict expected to fester as world's attention strays

Shaken by defections and rebel encroachment on its strongholds, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is thought by some in the international community to be headed for collapse after a nearly 17-month uprising.

GlobalFocusBut independent political analysts unencumbered by wishful thinking tend to see the latest developments in the conflict as evidence of its descent into a long, bloody fight to the death as the world's attention drifts from the savagery that diplomacy has failed to stop.

Two weeks of intense fighting around Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the center of its battered economy, have inflicted untold new casualties, sent thousands more into foreign refuge and laid bare the goal of each side to annihilate the other.

The United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union and the United States failed to force out Assad and steer the combatants toward agreement on  transitional leadership. That has sent the war spiraling out of the control of outside forces. And it looks likely to rage on with mounting civilian casualties and sectarian atrocities, according to the latest accounts by international security experts.

"Increasingly entrenched and fearing neither threats nor sanctions, the regime has burned all its domestic bridges, and hard-liners with little capacity for compromise are firmly in control," the International Crisis Group says of the Assad government in "Syria's Mutating Conflict," a dire report forecasting unbridled bloodshed.

The fractured opposition fighting to oust Assad has also become radicalized and unmanageable, "threatened from within, despite its efforts, by sectarianism, retaliatory violence and fundamentalism," the just-released ICG report says.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday while traveling in Africa that the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab demonstrated the urgency of devising a coordinated plan for a post-Assad Syria. On Monday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the defection, coupled with others by high-level military and government officials, "indicated that the Syria regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power."

On the periphery of Syria's civil war, there is less confidence that an end is nigh.

Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been traveling in the Lebanese border regions where refugees huddle and fighters regroup. He sees the defections as having had little influence on the determination of Assad to press on with the effort to eradicate opponents he labels "terrorists."

"These defections are not from the inner circle. The government in Syria doesn't run the country, the regime does," Tabler said in a telephone interview from northern Lebanon. "The prime minister was not the person who called the shots."

The resignation last week of the special envoy on Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was seen as Annan's recognition that political divisions within the U.N. Security Council were undermining any chance of getting either Assad or the rebels to comply with the world body's peace plan.

With nothing left to negotiate, a mood of quiet desperation has set in among those monitoring the conflict, now estimated to have taken 20,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million. 

"What we have witnessed in the past 16 months of revolt might just be the harbinger of a far greater human disaster to come," Martin S. Indyk, a former diplomat now directing the foreign policy program  at the Brookings Institution, testified last week at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Indyk sees the Assad regime, made up of fellow members of the minority Shiite Alawite sect, as motivated to destroy the rebels out of fear that they would be slaughtered by the Sunni majority if Assad is driven out.

Alawites and other minority sects that make up more than a quarter of Syria's population see their choice in the conflict as "kill or be killed," said Indyk, noting that the regime, despite a few high-profile defections, has a well-armed fighting force of 300,000, thousands more shabiha paramilitary fighters  and the backing of Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.

With virtually no hope of foreign military intervention in a U.S. election year, the analysts say, it falls to the underdog rebels to offer assurances to Syrian minority communities that their rights would be respected and their interests represented in a post-Assad leadership.

“For those Syrians who have endured 17 months of repression, for whom the instinct of revenge must be hard to suppress, this might seem an inappropriate, unrealistic mission,” said Robert Malley, the crisis group's Middle East program director. "But it is a necessary and inescapable one if the transition is to be worth the enormous price that is being paid."

Tabler, of the Near East Policy institute, doubts that the scattered rebel units could provide such assurances.

"After 17 months of slaughter, I wouldn't rely on the better angels of anyone's nature," he said, predicting the war will be "a grinder."


Iran on diplomatic blitz to free hostages in Syria

Dire shortage of medicine reported in Syria as clashes escalate

Iran reaffirms support for Syria's Assad; U.S. warns of proxy war

Follow Carol J. Williams on Twitter @cjwilliamslat


Photo: A Syrian boy peers out Tuesday from a schoolhouse in the town of Kafr Hamra, north of Aleppo, where his family has taken refuge from intensifying fighting between rebels and government forces. Credit: Khalil Hamra / Associated Press


Iran on diplomatic blitz to free hostages in Syria

Iran launched a diplomatic offensive, led by security chief Saeed Jalili, apparently aimed at helping to free 48 Iranian hostages kidnapped in Syria last weekend. Syrian rebels say they are holding the Iranians
TEHRAN -- Iran launched a diplomatic offensive Tuesday apparently aimed at helping to free 48 Iranian hostages kidnapped in Syria last weekend. Syrian rebels say they are holding the Iranians.

Iran says the hostages are religious pilgrims who were snatched on Saturday as they were en route to their hotels near Damascus, the Syrian capital.

But a Syrian rebel brigade publicly labeled the captives Iranian militiamen visiting Damascus on a "reconnaissance mission." The rebel brigade says it abducted the Iranians in an operation planned for several months. The rebel faction has threatened to execute the captives.

It is unclear if the rebel group has made any specific demands in exchange for the release of the Iranians.

According to unconfirmed accounts, the rebels say three of the hostages were killed this week in government shelling.

Saeed Jalili, Iran's security chief, arrived Tuesday in Damascus, where he was to meet with President Bashar Assad, Iranian media said. Iran is a close ally of Assad, whose forces are battling a rebellion now in its 17th month.

"Kidnapping innocent people is not acceptable anywhere in the world," Jalili told journalists on arriving in Damascus, reported the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Tehran's top security man is said to be close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, adding to the importance of his trip. Jalili arrived in Syria after an official visit to Lebanon. He was expected to travel to Iraq after his stay in Syria, Iranian media reported.

Meantime, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi is scheduled to arrive in Ankara on Tuesday for talks with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.

Iran has publicly asked for help from Turkey and Qatar in securing the release of the hostages. The two nations have supported the Syrian opposition.

Meanwhile, Iran says it plans to hold a ministerial meeting in Tehran on Thursday with nations having a "principled and realistic position on Syria," Iranian media reported.

The Iranian government has not identified the 10 nations expected to participate.

Iran denies allegations that it is providing military assistance to Assad's government. Tehran has been harshly critical of aid flowing to the rebels from the United States and its allies, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.


Plastic pellets blanket Hong Kong beaches after typhoon

Venezuelan diplomat charged with murdering ambassador to Kenya

After second Mexican mining disaster, critics call for stronger regulation

-- Ramin Mostaghim

Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

Photo: Saeed Jalili, Iran's security chief. Credit: Nabil Mounzer / EPA

Syrian prime minister reportedly defects


BEIRUT -- Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab was reported Monday to have defected, delivering a stunning new blow to the embattled government of President Bashar Assad.

Hijab would be the most senior defector to date from the government, which is fighting a rebellion now in its 17th month and struggling to maintain control of the northern city of Aleppo.

Pan-Arab satellite network Al Jazeera reported that Hijab had arrived with his family in Jordan and joined the opposition.

"I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime, and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution," Hijab said in a statement read by his spokesman, Muhammed el-Etri, Al Jazeera reported. "I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution."

Syrian state media announced in a terse report that Hijab had been "dismissed" and that a caretaker premier had been named in his place.

Hijab was appointed prime minister in June following a May parliamentary election that Assad called a centerpiece of his "reform" agenda but the opposition boycotted as a fraud.

The Assad government has suffered a number of high-profile defections, including diplomats and generals. But analysts say the government's core security and political leadership remains in place, especially those from Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Alawites dominate the security apparatus.

Continue reading »

As refugees surge, some Syrians turned away from Jordan

AMMAN, Jordan -– When Hamid, a Syrian writer living in Jordan, decided to leave his home here in the Jordanian capital for a short trip to Paris, he worried about rumors that Syrians were being kept out of Amman. He wanted to be sure he wouldn’t face any problems coming back from France.

"On the way out, I asked the border policeman about it. He said, ‘You will not have any troubles,'" Hamid  recalled. "He lied."

Despite being told he would have no difficulties, Hamid,  was stopped for four hours at Queen Alia International Airport and interrogated about why he wanted to come to Jordan. An intelligence officer told him to go to Beirut, Cairo or Istanbul instead, he said.

"Jordan became like a huge prison. You are not able to get in or out. Every day we are hearing about dozens of Syrians stopped at the border," said Hamid, 35, who had left Syria in November after security forces started asking about him at his home. He decided to seek a new life in Jordan with his wife.

Jordan has been praised for welcoming tens of thousands of fleeing Syrians. The United Nations refugee agency has registered roughly 35,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, but there are reported to be far more Syrian refugees along its borders, upward of 140,000 people. The latest round of violence has sent thousands more Syrians streaming to the Jordanian border, seeking help.

Jordan has agreed to create camps to house the swelling numbers of refugees, including one camp already in the works in northern Jordan that could hold up to 113,000 people. But the crisis seems to have tested Jordanian officials' patience, as Syrians report being turned away.

Continue reading »


Recommended on Facebook


Times Global Bureaus »

Click on bureau location to view articles

In Case You Missed It...


Recent Posts



In Case You Missed It...