Deadly Syrian stalemate spurs new diplomacy, little hope

Syrian rebel amid rubble of recent battle near Aleppo
Galvanized by a Syrian death toll that has doubled to 36,000 in little more than a month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for a new rebel hierarchy to direct the fighting against President Bashar Assad and steer Syria back to peaceful ethnic and religious coexistence.

GlobalFocusThe latest proposal for halting Syria's 19-month-old civil war brings little new strategy to the crisis. Rather, it vents frustration with the international community’s own "divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness," as the International Crisis Group recently noted, that have prevented brokering an end to the bloodshed.

Like European leaders before her, Clinton acknowledged this week that the West’s reliance on out-of-touch exiles within the Paris-based Syrian National Council has done more harm than good in the effort to have opposition forces speak with one voice on their plans for a post-Assad future.

Clinton told reporters accompanying her on a trip to North Africa and the Balkans on Wednesday that the Obama administration will be suggesting names and organizations it believes should play prominent roles in a reconfigured rebel alliance that Western diplomats hope to see emerge from Arab League-sponsored talks next week in the Qatari capital, Doha.

But the U.S. push to get the opposition’s act together also exudes desperation. In the two months since a failed rebel campaign to take strategic ground around major cities, fighting has ground down to a bloody impasse, giving neither Assad nor his opponents hope of imminent victory on the battlefields.

The rebels’ summer offensive also exposed the widening role of Islamic extremists who have entered the fight, bringing arms and combat experience to the side of Assad’s fractured opponents. But the Islamic militants’ alignment with Syrians trying to topple Assad also gives weight to the regime’s claims to be fighting off terrorists, not domestic political foes.

Clinton reiterated the West’s insistence that Assad have no role in Syria’s future. That prompted immediate pushback by Russia and China, which have opposed what they call foreign interference in Syrian domestic affairs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Paris for talks with his French counterpart when Clinton announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative. A longtime ally and arms supplier to Syria, Russia has blocked three United Nations Security Council resolutions to censure Assad and, along with China, has rejected Western demands that the Syrian president resign and leave the country.

"If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue," Lavrov warned.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi registered Beijing’s objections by unveiling a "four-point plan" for bringing peace to Syria that reiterates the communist state’s position that the future of Syria be left for Syrians -- including Assad -- to decide.

Beijing has a solid history of blocking international intervention on human rights grounds, apparently fearing China could become a target of such actions because of its harsh treatment of dissent and political opponents.

For some Middle East experts, the solution to Syria’s crisis lies somewhere between the Russian-Chinese "hands-off" policy and the U.S.-led Western view that only regime change will bring about peace.

"This conflict is for Syrians and their neighbors to resolve, with European and Russian involvement. The U.S. should stay one removed," said Ed Husain, senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He described Clinton’s appeal for a new rebel leadership structure as "laudable, but a year too late."

"She’s driven by a desire to want to help now, but also to ensure a smooth transition in a post-Assad Syria. Sadly, reality on the ground dictates otherwise,” Husain said, alluding to entrenched battles that portend a long standoff.

Growing fears that extremists are gaining clout with the rebels also complicates diplomacy, as Syria’s Shiite, Christian, Kurdish and other minority sects are wary of how they would fare under a Sunni-dominated government allied with fundamentalist jihadis.

Clinton emphasized that extremist forces should be excluded from any new opposition forum that might emerge from Doha.

"It may seem ironic to call for a broad tent and then say 'except for those guys.' But I think the administration and other countries concerned about the future of Syria know that one of the challenges will be to have an analysis of who is who in the opposition,” said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

Ries sees the need for "more movement on the ground in Syria" before Assad or the rebels are ready to submit to negotiations on the country’s future.

He is hesitant to declare the civil war a stalemate or the Russian-Chinese position unchangeable in the long run. But with rebels pinned down in the urban areas they hold and warding off attacks by Assad’s superior armed forces, he said, no one seems to think Assad is in the kind of imminent danger of being ousted that would be the catalyst for negotiation and compromise.

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Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter last month defends territory near Aleppo, one of many urban battlegrounds the opponents of President Bashar Assad are now struggling to hold. Credit: Zac Baillie / AFP/Getty Images


U.S., allies marshaling African proxies for fight against terrorism

Ansar Dine militants in Mali
"A quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing."

That was how British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain saw the Nazi threat against the Czech Sudetenland in 1938, a sentiment freshly evoked among war-weary citizens as the United States and its allies ponder moves to oust Islamic extremists from northern Mali, a country most Americans couldn't find on a map.

GlobalFocusU.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and diplomatic counterparts from France have been shopping around a plan to train and equip West African troops to drive out the Al Qaeda-aligned militants who hold sway over a swath of northern Mali the size of Texas. Ultraorthodox Muslims this year hijacked a long-simmering rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs and began imposing an extreme version of Islamic law once in power. In July, they took axes to "idolatrous" cultural treasures in Timbuktu, provoking worldwide horror at the destruction.

Like Afghanistan before 9/11, when Taliban collusion with Al Qaeda made the country a training ground for terrorism, Mali left in the grip of militant Islamists runs the risk of becoming the next launch pad for attacks on the United States and its allies.

U.S. interest in rooting out Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from northern Mali has intensified in the seven weeks since a suspected terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The Al Qaeda affiliates in Mali are believed to have played at least a supportive role in the Benghazi attack.

"The Benghazi event, with the murder of Chris Stevens, has really precipitated American intervention. It's turned the tables in the region," said Ghislaine Lydon, a history professor at UCLA and expert on precolonial Northwest Africa.

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At least eight dead in suicide attack on Nigerian church

Suicide attack on Nigerian church
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- At least eight worshipers were killed Sunday in a suicide attack on a Roman Catholic church in northern Nigeria, according to officials. About 100 other people were injured, raising fears the death toll could rise.

Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency confirmed in a statement Sunday that eight people died in the blast in Kaduna. No group claimed responsibility; however, the attack bore the hallmarks of previous terrorist attacks by the Islamist insurgent militia Boko Haram, which models itself on Afghanistan's Taliban and wants to impose Sharia law across the country.

“A number of casualties were evacuated to hospitals. The incident was suspected to be triggered by a suicide bomber in a car which relevant security agencies may soon determined,” NEMA spokesman Yushau Shuaib said in the statement.

The bombing follows a string of deadly terrorist attacks in the north, many targeting churches. Extremists also have launched assaults on police stations, burned schools, bombed automatic teller machines and assassinated politicians.

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Pentagon decided not to send troops to Benghazi during attack

Leonpanetta
WASHINGTON -- U.S. military commanders decided against sending a rescue mission to Benghazi during the attack against the American diplomatic mission last month because they didn’t have enough clear intelligence to justify the risk to the troops, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday.

Panetta, in his fullest comments yet on the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, said Pentagon officials were aware of the assault by armed militants soon after it began Sept. 11. But he said they never had more than fragmentary information during the course of the attack.

The “basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s taking place,” Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “This happened within a few hours, and it was really over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”

He said he, Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all believed“very strongly that we could not put troops at risk in that situation.”

Panetta’s comments came after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) released a letter he had sent to President Obama demanding more details of the administration’s handling of the incident, including the military response.

Panetta said there was “a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on.”

The Defense secretary and other senior Pentagon officials were at the White House that afternoon for a previously scheduled meeting. Later that evening, they decided to order two warships to the coast of Libya and send a special operations team from Central Europe to Sicily to be closer to Benghazi.

But because of the lack of precise information, they didn't make that decision until after the attack was over, officials said. A small team of soldiers flew to Benghazi from Tripoli, 400 miles away, and ultimately helped evacuate about two dozen diplomats and other embassy employees.

Republicans have sought to portray the attack as a symbol of a failed administration policy. U.S. officials have said they had no credible intelligence indicating that an attack was being planned in Benghazi.

The incident is under investigation by House and Senate committees, the FBI and a special State Department review panel.

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Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey answer questions at a Pentagon news conference on Oct. 25, 2012, about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images


Suspect in Libya consulate attack killed in Cairo, reports say

CAIRO -- A gunman reportedly linked to the militant attack last month on the U.S. mission in Libya was killed in a shootout with police in Cairo on Wednesday, according Egyptian state TV and independent news media.  

The Egypt Independent newspaper reported that the man, whom security officials identified only as Hazem, was described as a terrorist. The newspaper and the state TV website said the heavily armed suspect was killed after a long gun battle with police in the Nasr City section of Cairo.

The reports could not be independently confirmed, and there were conflicting reports over the incident.

“Security authorities said they had acquired information implicating the man of involvement in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi,” the newspaper reported. The attack on the consulate in September killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

State TV and the Egypt Independent reported that the suspect died in an apartment during the gunfight and a fire. Police reportedly seized bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition from the scene.

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Guantanamo terrorism convictions proving vulnerable on appeal

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
Salim Hamdan has been home in his native Yemen for nearly four years since completing his sentence at Guantanamo Bay for providing "material support to terrorism" -- six years of domestic service to Osama bin Laden as gardener, bodyguard and driver.

GlobalFocusOne of only seven Guantanamo captives to be sentenced for alleged war crimes by the Pentagon's military commissions, Hamdan had his conviction vacated this week by a unanimous federal appeals court panel on grounds that the assistance he provided the late Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan wasn't defined as a war crime until five years after his 2001 capture.

Hamdan is already at liberty and moving on with his life, his pro bono attorney reported Thursday after informing his client by telephone that his appeal was successful. The 40-year-old taxi driver with a fourth-grade education was pleased to be cleansed of the "war criminal" label but doesn't plan to pursue an uphill battle for compensation, said the attorney, Harry Schneider of Seattle.

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government was still reviewing the ruling and would have no comment.

The ruling will serve as binding precedent in the appeals of other Guantanamo detainees convicted for war crimes ex post facto, Schneider predicted. The next likely beneficiary of the tribunal's overreaching prosecutions, defense attorneys say, could be defiant Al Qaeda propagandist Ali Hamza Bahlul, who is serving a life sentence at the U.S. military prison in southern Cuba.

Within hours of the decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Australian convict David Hicks' lawyer announced that he would seek to have his client's guilty plea revoked and conditions of his release to Australia stricken. Attorney Stephen Kenny also said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Co. that he would pursue compensation for Hicks and an investigation of whether the Canberra government aided and abetted his wrongful imprisonment.

A kangaroo skinner who trained at an Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan before fleeing the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Hicks was arrested trying to cross into Pakistan and held at Guantanamo for six years. He was released to his homeland as part of his plea deal, which prohibits him from appealing his case or disclosing details of his experience for monetary gain.

Bahlul, a Yemeni like Hamdan, also was convicted at his uncontested 2008 trial of solicitation of murder in a recruiting video he produced for Al Qaeda. David Glazier, an international law professor at Loyola Law School, said legal scholars began speculating that the solicitation charge might be ruled beyond the commissions' jurisdiction after the same Washington appeals court that threw out material support as a legal charge canceled oral arguments in the Bahlul appeal just before it issued the Hamdan decision.

"There's been some discussion in the blogosphere about whether or not this means the end of conspiracy as well," said Glazier, who was a career Navy surface warfare officer before earning his law degree.

Only one of the seven Guantanamo convictions has involved crimes recognized as a violation of the international law of war: the murder, attempted murder and spying charges against Canadian Omar Ahmed Khadr, who was recently transferred to Canadian custody to serve out the six years left on his term.

Prosecutors at the military commissions have relied on material support and conspiracy to get convictions or plea bargains in the few completed cases, but Glazier argues that those "inchoate offenses" aren't considered war crimes under international law. Only after Congress passed the 2006 Military Commissions Act did the Guantanamo tribunal have jurisdiction to try suspects for those crimes, said the appeals court panel, which is made up entirely of Republican appointees.

J. Wells Dixon, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal representation to hundreds of the nearly 800 men detained at Guantanamo since 2002, predicted that "conspiracy is the next military commissions charge on the chopping block."

"The Hamdan decision is significant because it is an illustration of the inherent problems in creating a second-rate system of justice that we make up as we go along," he said of the commissions, the original version of which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2006, prompting a hurried redo, the Military Commissions Act, three months later.

Five "high-value detainees" facing death penalty trials for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been in the Guantanamo courtroom this week, bringing pretrial motions and theatrics to the forum.

In the first prosecution on charges widely accepted as war crimes, Army Col. James Pohl, the presiding judge, has been inundated with peripheral considerations, such as whether self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should be allowed to wear a camouflage hunter's vest in the courtroom to project a warrior image.

Pohl has also had to rule on whether mold and rodent infestation at the defense attorneys work space on the remote base compromises their ability to prepare for trial, and whether any mention of mistreatment during CIA interrogations risks revealing national security secrets.

"Regardless of the underlying conduct and the quality of evidence the government presents at trial, there is no certainty that those convictions will stand" federal civilian court review, Dixon said. "For the Obama administration to continue to pursue military commissions charges is a real gamble."

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Photo: Artist's sketch shows alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, right, speaking with a member of his legal team during a hearing at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Credit: Janet Hamlin

 


Former Balkan leader proclaims innocence of genocide charges

KaradzicLONDON -- Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic declared his innocence and argued that he tried to stop the violent 1990s conflict in his Balkans homeland as he began his defense against war crimes charges Tuesday before an international tribunal in The Hague.

The ex-president of the wartime Republika Sprska faces 10 counts of genocide and related war crimes  committed during the Balkan conflict that followed the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

“Instead of being accused, I should be rewarded for all the good things I’ve done, namely that I did everything in human power to avoid the war," said Karadzic, 67, who looked relaxed but resigned with a professorial air. "The number of victims in our war was three to four times less than the number reported.” 

Karadzic stands accused of aiding and abetting some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II, committed primarily against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. He is charged with having a hand in the notorious killing of over 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica; in the “sniping and shelling to kill, maim, wound and terrorize the civilian inhabitants of Sarajevo” resulting in the death of thousands of civilians; and in the taking of hostages, including U.N. peacekeepers and military observers, to use as a human shields against NATO airstrikes.

“Everybody who knows me knows that I am not an autocrat ... that I am not intolerant, on the contrary I am a mild-mannered man, a tolerant man, with a great capacity for understanding others,” Karadzic told the court as he denied the charges.

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Pakistani girl shot by Taliban arrives in Britain for treatment

Malala
LONDON -- A Pakistani teenager who was wounded by Taliban gunmen opposed to her support of education for girls arrived in Britain on Monday for medical care and rehabilitation.

Malala Yousafzai, 14, was transported by air ambulance provided by the United Arab Emirates from the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi to Birmingham in central England and taken to the Queen Elizabeth hospital. She will receive post-trauma treatment, skull reconstruction and neurological rehabilitation for damage caused by a bullet that penetrated her skull.

The newly built hospital where she will be treated is Britain’s main receiving unit for military casualties, specializing in the treatment of firearms and burns victims. A brief hospital statement announcing her arrival said she was “currently stable and being assessed by a team of multi-specialist doctors,” including “clinicians from neurosurgery, imaging, trauma and therapies.”

PHOTOS: Malala Yousafzai

Medical director David Rosser said Malala will be treated by a team whose long experience in battlefield wounds predates the opening of the hospital. “We’ve taken every British battle casualty for over 10 years now,” he told reporters.

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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."

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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


Pakistani teen shot by Taliban undergoes surgery, out of danger

Pakistan-teenISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Outrage swept across Pakistan on Wednesday over the Taliban’s attempt to kill a 14-year-old girl who had spoken out against militants’ attempts to ban education for girls.

Malala Yousafzai was recovering from surgery to remove a bullet that had lodged in her neck and appeared to be out of danger, doctors said.

On Tuesday, gunmen in the Swat Valley city of Mingora stopped the school bus she was riding in and shot her in the head. Two other girls were also shot but not seriously hurt. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it revenge for the girl's advocacy against the group.

While Pakistan has grown accustomed to years of suicide bombings and other terror acts by Islamic militants, the attempt on Yousafzai’s life sent shock waves through the country, largely because this time the target was a young girl admired for her defiance of a movement bent on denying girls the chance to go to school.

Yousafzai emerged as a national figure in 2009 when she contributed diary entries to a blog published by the BBC Urdu Service. Those missives described the trials of trying to attend classes at a time when Taliban fighters had taken control of her Swat Valley homeland and were bombing schools and issuing edicts barring girls’ education.

On Wednesday, Pakistani commentators and columnists denounced the attack on Yousafzai as a barbaric act and expressed hope that it would galvanize the country against Islamic extremism. One newspaper, the News, wrote in an editorial that Pakistan was “infected with the cancer of extremism, and unless it is cut out, we will slide even further into the bestiality that this latest atrocity exemplifies.”

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