Saturday, December 29, 2012

Egypt's Morsi says Assad regime has no future in Syria

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said on Saturday his country supported the Syrian revolution and that President Bashar al-Asasd's administration had no place in Syria's future.

Morsi said Egypt's priority was to halt the bloodshed and to work, with "Arab, regional and international support and consensus", for a political solution that would allow "the Syrian people to replace the current regime" with elected leaders.
"All of that while preserving the unity of Syria," Morsi, an Islamist, said during a televised speech to Egypt's Shura Council, or upper house of parliament. "There is no place for the current regime in the future of Syria."
Assad has been losing ground to rebels waging a 21-month-old uprising. Egyptians ousted their longtime authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, in a popular revolt in February 2011. Morsi won office in a free election earlier this year.
"The revolution of the Syrian people, which we support, will go forward, God willing, to realise its goals of freedom, dignity and social justice," Morsi added.

Iraqis stage large anti-government rallies

Tens of thousands of Iraqi protesters have poured onto the streets against Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, keeping up a week-long blockade of a major highway in Iraq.

Around 60,000 people blocked the main road through Falluja, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, after Friday prayers, setting fire to the flag of Iran and shouting "Out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free!" and "Maliki you coward, don't take your advice from Iran!"
Many Sunni Iraqis accuse Maliki of being sectarian, of refusing to share power and of being under the sway of Iran. "We will not leave this place until all our demands are fulfilled, including the toppling of the Maliki government," said 31-year-old Omar Al-Dahal at a protest in Ramadi, where more than 100,000 protesters blocked the same highway as it leads to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.
Activists' demands include an end to the marginalisation of Sunnis, the abolition of anti-terrorism laws they say are used to target them, and the release of detainees.
Protests flared last week in Al-Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold in western Iraq where demonstrators have mounted the blockade, after troops loyal to Maliki, Shia, detained the bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.
Demonstrations were also held in the northern city of Mosul and in Samarra, where protesters chanted "The people want to bring down the regime!" echoing the slogan used in popular revolts that ousted autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
The protests are driven in part by the alleged rape of a female detainee in a government prison near Mosul by an army officer, and where the government refused to arrest the accused. 
Maliki's security forces did not move to break up the protests in Al-Anbar, but prevented people from other provinces from heading to Al-Anbar to join the rallies there.
Speaking at a "reconciliation" conference broadcast on television, Maliki called for dialogue. "It is not acceptable to express something by blocking roads, inciting sedition and sectarianism, killing, or blowing the trumpet of war and dividing Iraq," he said.
A masked protester who refused to give his name recalled the role of Anbar's tribes, first in fighting US troops before then driving militants out, turning on Al-Qaeda, which attempted to take root in the province, because of its indiscriminate use of violence. "Just as we terrified the Americans with this mask, and kicked Al-Qaeda out, we will terrify the government with it," he said.
Highlighting the increasingly regional dimension, protesters in Falluja raised pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who has lined up against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and has sparred increasingly often with Maliki.
In Iraq's largely Shia populated south, a small anti-Erdogan protest was held in the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Baghdad.
Sunni complaints against Maliki grew louder a week ago following the arrest of Finance Minister Rafaie Al-Esawi's bodyguards hours after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and understood as playing a balancing role, was flown abroad for medical care.
For many, it was reminiscent of a move to arrest Sunni Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi a year ago, just as US troops had withdrawn. Hashemi fled into exile and was subsequently sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki has sought to divide his rivals and strengthen alliances in Iraq's complex political landscape before provincial elections next year and a parliamentary vote in 2014.
A face-off between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces over disputed oilfields in the north has been seen as a possible way of rallying Sunni Arab support behind the prime minister.

The future is bright despite difficulties: President tells Shura Council


In his speech before the newly-reconstituted Upper House of parliament (Shura Council), President Morsi passes on legislative authority to the 270—member body assembly as stipulated by the new constitution.

"This esteemed council will, for the first time, effectively assume its legislative role," said Morsi, who completed last week the quorum of the council by appointing 90 members.
The constitution was approved by 64 per cent of 17 million voters out of 52 million registeered voters in a two-phase referendum that took place on 15 and 22 December.
Morsi had temporarily assumed the legislative authority upon assuming the presidency on 30 June since the High Constitution Court had dissolved the main legislative body in the country, the People’s Assembly, in mid-June.
"The new constitution ends a transitional period that has lasted too long. As we celebrate our constitution, it is now the time to build a professional state, founded on accountability," the president said.
Morsi added that building an accountability-based state "cannot succeed without empowering the civil society."
The president has also called on all political parties to engage in a national dialogue he said will sponsor before the looming parliamentary elections, which were stipulated to take place within 60 days after the ratification of the constitution.
Some opposition figures refused appointment-to-Shura Council offers by the president. The National Salvation Front, the main opposition umbrella, has announced its rejection of the constitution, which gave the Shura Council its legislative authorities, calling it “illegitimate” and “unrepresentative” because it was written and approved by the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly.
Morsi reiterated support of the Syrian uprising as well as the Palestinian cause. He also reaffirmed Egypt's commitment to all international agreements.
The president also spoke of a larger Egyptian role in regional politics.
"We have extended diplomatic efforts towards the East. The security of the Gulf region is crucial to us. We are also building strategic ties with the Nile Basin countries."
'Egypt will never go bankrupt'
As fears mount of a sharp economic downturn, the president said he has set out a clear economic agenda.
"The government's top priority is to fight poverty, unemployment, price hikes and implement a framework of social justice."
The Egyptian pound has recently lost considerable ground to the dollar, and a $4.8 billion IMF loan was postponed after weeks of political turmoil.
"We must as a nation address the economic challenges that are facing our economy, we must all work hard to restart the economy that has huge potentials of growth", explained Morsi.
Recent political conflict in the country over a controversial constitutional draft, which turned violent in some instances, compelled the ratings agency Standard and Poor's to downgrade Egypt's long-term credit rating to "B-.", despite the adoption of the new constitutional charter.
"Unfortunately our credit-rating has been downgraded due to the political faceoff the country was witnessing, let it then be a lesson to us all that political disputes should be resolved through democratic means, and that political forces should never rely on violence to reach their political goals to avoid such negative consequences," Morsi asserted.
With conflicting reports in the media last week around a potential resignation by the head of the Central Bank, rumours have circulated in business circles that Egypt could soon be facing bankruptcy as its capacity to make payments on its foreign debt diminishes.
"Those who claim that Egypt is on the brink of bankruptcy are (politically) bankrupt and unaware of the consequences their allegations could have on the country's stability, Egypt will never go bankrupt", Morsi attempted to calm investors.
President Morsi said that Egypt's economy was starting to recover and that recent indicator, including the growth rate, inflation rate, unemployment, reserves and levels of foreign debt point to “a prosperous future.”
"GDP growth rate in the first quarter of fiscal year 2012 reached 2.6 per cent; Egypt's public debt  amounts to about 87 per cent of GDP, which is a rate lower than most European countries today; the number of tourists doubled in the first quarter in 2012 compared to the same period last year; all those are indicators that Egypt will be able to overcome the economic obstacles it is facing.”
Morsi announced that the government would set up a new state-body, the council on economic development, with main goals of: restarting Egypt's economy, reaching higher growth rates, and curbing public debt.     

My resignation is not 'personal' against PM Qandil: former minister Mahsoub


Egypt's resigned Mohamed Mahsoub, Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, explains his resignation on Thursday does not reflect a personal conflict with Prime Minister Hisham Qandil or a change of heart within the former's moderate Islamist Al-Wasat Party, supporting the newly approved constitution.

"My resignation was not in protest over Prime Minister Hisham Qandil as a person, whom I respect. It was, however, due to differences in points of view about how affairs should be handled to reunite the nation after the ratification of the constitution," Mahsoub said on his personal Twitter account Friday afternoon.
Vice president of the party said on Thursday that the resignation of Mahsoub, the only Wasat representative in Hisham Qandil’s Cabinet, is a sign of the party’s protest against the president’s decision to keep Qandil as prime minister.
Mahsoub also added on Friday, "My resignation also does not reflect any changes of stance in Al-Wasat Party, who has supported the legitimacy of the constitution produced by the Egyptian people."
Mahsoub has explained in his resignation letter to President Morsi that he realised many of the policies adopted by the government “contradict” his personal beliefs and “do not reflect the aspirations of the people after the revolution or the sacrifices they made for it to succeed.”
Also, Mahsoub, who was a member of the constituent assembly that drafted Egypt’s newly approved constitution, slammed the government for not dealing with the file of returning the country’s stolen money seriously, although he had submitted a full report three months ago.
He is the second minister to resign publicly in the last few days. The Minister of Communications and Information Technology Hani Mahmoud also announced his resignation on Twitter on Tuesday.
Informed sources told Ahram Online that the new cabinet reshuffle announced by President Morsi in his speech on Wednesday night will include 10 portfolios, together with the Ministry of Justice headed by reformist Judge Ahmed Mekki, who is believed to have submitted his resignation a few weeks ago.

El-Nour Party chairman resigns, set to found 'Al-Watan Party'

Emad El-Din Abdel Gafour has officially resigned as El-Nour Party chairman Saturday and is poised to launch a new political party named Al-Watan (homeland), as announced on his Facebook page.

"He is now on his way to establish Al-Watan Party, [which will be] the largest Egyptian Party and include under its umbrella all spectrums of Islamist and national forces," reads the statement.
The announcement was made after recent contradictory reports about Abdel Gafour's fate amid growing rifts within the party, which is considered the largest Salafist political arm.
Yosri Hamad, a former spokesperson of El-Nour who is set to join the new party, confirmed to Ahram Online the news, saying a press conference will be held Thursday to reveal more details about Al-Watan Party.
On his Twitter account, Hamad said the founders of Al-Watan Party met Friday and agreed to appoint Abdel Gafour as representative of the founders.
"A number of figures from the Salafist current were met with the past few days to inform them of the goal behind establishing Al-Watan Party," he said.
The current wave of resignations from the Salafist El-Nour Party already comes after several months of truce between what is known as Emad Abdel-Ghafour’s front and Yasser El-Borhamy’s coalition.
In September, El-Nour Party's Supreme Committee — backed by El-Borhamy — announced it had withdrawn confidence from Abdel Ghafour, replacing him with El-Sayid Mostafa Hussein Khalifa.
Abdel Ghafour, for his part, retaliated by calling for the dismissal of Supreme Committee members.
A truce was found between the two fronts, saving the party from a spilt when the Shura Council of the Salafist Call interfered. 
This month, El-Nour Party saw some 150 members publicly resign.
El-Nour Party has been considered the second largest Islamist party behind the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party with strong representation in the former parliament.

Egypt's Shura Council to plunge into busy legislative schedule

After 90 of its newly-appointed members swore in on 26 December and gathered to listen to a speech by President Mohamed Morsi on 29 December, the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, will soon plunge into business.

According to Article 230 of  the recently-approved constitution, the Shura Council shall take charge of the power of legislation once the constitution goes into effect and until a new House of Representatives (formerly the People’s Assembly) is elected in about two or three months.
In his speech before the Shura Council on 29 December, Islamist President Morsi indicated that not only would the Shura Council take charge of drawing up Egypt’s legislative map in the next period, it will also be tasked with overseeing independent supervisory institutions and selecting their chairmen.
On top of these is a new Press and Media Authority tasked with regulating state-owned press and media activities.
Morsi indicated that a draft law regulating the upcoming parliamentary elections should be a top priority on the council’s legislative agenda. In Morsi’s words: "There must be a national dialogue on the amendments of this law so that they gain the satisfaction of all political parties and the upcoming House of Representatives comes expressive of the true will of the people."
Noteworthy is that Mahmoud Mekki, Morsi’s vice-president who resigned from office last week, is currently holding a national dialogue on amendments to the parliamentary elections law. The dialogue was boycotted by the National Salvation Front (NSF), a secular coalition led by ex-UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei. Although the Front said it does not have trust in this dialogue, it said it would instead send its proposed amendments on the elections law to the Shura Council. “And we will wait to see how this Islamist-dominated council will respond to our proposals,” said Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leading official of the NSF, indicating that “the reaction of the Shura Council to our proposals will determine whether we will participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections or not."
For his part, chairman of the Shura Council Ahmed Fahmi vowed that all draft legislation will be put to a national dialogue first, before it is passed by the council. "We have high hopes that the Shura Council becomes a forum for national consensus and free constructive debate," he said.
No sooner had Morsi ended his speech on 29 December than the council’s General Committee (including Fahmi and his two deputies, chairmen of 13 sub-committees and representatives of political forces) held a meeting to discuss the legislative agenda. A statement by the General Committee said: "The amendments to the 1956 Law on the Exercise of Political Rights — known as the Election Law — will be the council's top priority."
The Shura Council will hold a general plenary meeting next Wednesday, after which the amendments of the election law will be discussed. Younis Makhyoun, a member of the Salafist El-Nour Party, told Ahram Online that "the amendments of the 1956 Political Rights Law will be discussed by the council’s Legislative Committee — most probably on Monday."
Makhyoun indicated that political parties were asked to submit their proposed amendments to the law before the afternoon of 29 December. "I think that the amendments of this law will be approved by the council next Wednesday or Thursday and then sent to President Morsi to be finally ratified," said Makhyoun, indicating that "once ratified, President Morsi will issue a decree setting a date for the upcoming election of the House of Representatives."
According to Article 231 of the new constitution, the upcoming parliamentary elections will be held under a mixed electoral system. "Two thirds of seats of the House of Representatives will be elected under the party-based list system, while the remaining third will be governed by the individual candidacy system,” states the article.
It also gave party-based members teh right to compete for the one third of seats reserved for independents. This system was ruled unconstitutional by the High Constitutional Court (HCC) last June, after which the then current People’s Assembly was dissolved.
According to Article 177 of the new constitution, amendments of laws regulating parliamentary and presidential elections must be first revised by the HCC before they are enacted. This means that amendments of the 1956 Elections Law will have to be vetted first by the HCC.
Article 228 of the new constitution states that the current Supreme Electoral Commission will be officially in charge of monitoring the upcoming parliamentary elections.
In its draft proposals, the opposition National Salvation Front said the 1956 Elections Law must be amended to comply with the new constitution. Abdel-Ghaffar Shura, a leftist in charge of the NSF’s Legislative Committee, announced this week that the front submitted 94 amendments to the 1956 law.
On top of these is that the Supreme Electoral Commission must adopt internationally-accepted standards required for ensuring the integrity of elections. "One of these is that judges in charge of this commission must not be members of any authorities affiliated with the executive branch of power in any way, to ensure that they are impartial and unbiased," said Shukr, also indicating that "the commission must embark upon updating voter lists, redistributing electoral districts, and excluding any executive authorities from having a hand in supervising the election."
Shukr said the NSF insists that a special police force be formed and put at the disposal of the Supreme Electoral Commission to safeguard judges from any attacks and to prevent vote rigging.
The front also proposed penalties imposed on election fraud be stiffened and that human rights organisations have the right to file lawsuits against officials accused of involvement in rigging practices. The front said the party-based lists of candidates must include one or two women at least.
Shukr indicated that the amendments must also stress that religious slogans are strictly banned and that places of worship must not be used in any way for electioneering. "Candidates found guilty of these practices must be excluded from the parliamentary race and each fined LE50,000," said the front.
For its part, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) — the political arm of Muslim Brotherhood — held a meeting last week to debate the law. The FJP's secretary-general, Mahmoud Amer, said the "FJP wants the election law be amended to state that judges take charge of counting votes and announcing the results in each auxiliary polling station, and that representatives of candidates take a copy of the official result statement, as was the case with last summer’s presidential election."
The Shura Council is expected to discuss other complementary political laws, such as stripping leading officials of former president Hosni Mubarak’s defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) from standing in elections for 10 years.
The council is also expected to discuss amendments to the statute of the High Constitutional Court. The economic agenda includes laws aimed at setting up an anti-corruption commission and an authority with the job of recovering money stolen by the former regime and sent abroad.
Mohamed El-Feki, chairman of the Shura Council’s Economic and Financial Committee, said the council will also discuss the government’s economic agenda in the next period, on top of which raising the prices of some commodities to generate more revenues necessary to cover the budget deficit.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Iraq President Talabani stable after stroke

Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, is in "stable condition" having suffered a stroke and a hardening of his arteries this morning, officials have said.
Talabani is being treated in the intensive care unit of a Baghdad hospital after being rushed there on Tuesday morning, a statement from his office said.
"Tests show that his bodily functions are normal and his excellency's condition is stable," the statement said. "He is under intensive medical supervision."
Earlier, a statement from Talabani's office said that he had suffered a "health emergency".
The Iraqi president has struggled with various health problems in recent years. He underwent successful heart surgery in the United States in August 2008.
A year earlier, he had to be flown to neighbouring Jordan to be treated for dehydration and exhaustion. He has also travelled to the United States and Europe for treatment for a variety of ailments.
Talabani survived wars, exile and in-fighting in northern Iraq to become the country's first ever Kurdish president a few years after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The Iraqi presidency is a largely ceremonial post, though it does retain some powers under Iraq's constitution.

Russia may ease Muslim Brotherhood ban to boost Egypt ties

Russia may ease restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood soon to improve relations with Egypt and rebuild influence lost during the Arab Spring revolutions, diplomatic sources say.

The election of President Mohammed Mursi, propelled to power by the Islamist group, offers President Vladimir Putin a chance to improve relations with Cairo that were strained during the long rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011.

Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Muslim Brotherhood from operating in Russia in 2003, describing it as a terrorist organization.

But Moscow is now trying to beef up ties with Egypt, partly to offset some of the influence it has lost in the Arab world in the past two years, particularly in countries such as Libya and Syria that have been recipients of Russian arms.

Easing restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood would follow a similar move by the United States, which tweaked its ban on formal contacts with the Islamist group, banned under Mubarak, early in 2012. Mursi is expected to visit Washington in 2013 for the first time since his election in June.

Western diplomatic sources say Mursi also accepted an invitation to visit Russia when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt during a Middle East tour last month.

“The visit is expected close to the end of the first quarter in 2013. The Brotherhood being on the list remains the problem and Lavrov is said to have given assurances that they will deal with that,” one of the sources said.

Russia has in the past accused the Muslim Brotherhood of supporting rebels who want to create an Islamist state in Russia's mainly Muslim North Caucasus.

The Kremlin is still struggling to contain the Islamist insurgency, which Putin has warned could fuel violence in other regions closer to the capital.

But during his trip to Cairo, Lavrov endorsed an initiative by Mursi to resolve the conflict in Syria and political analysts say Moscow appears to be looking for ways to engage more with Egypt, a popular holiday destination for Russians as well as being a regional power.

Better ties?

“As far as I know, Minister Lavrov wants to ‘delist’ it (the Muslim Brotherhood),” said Alexei Grishin, head of the Religion & Society think tank who used to be a presidential adviser on Islam.

“Any fresh decision by the Supreme Court would be a very lengthy procedure, so maybe what can be done is to restrict the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood only to the faction that fought in Russia, in the Caucasus, for example,” he told Reuters.

Russia’s Supreme Court and anti-terrorist committee were not available for comment. The Foreign Ministry declined immediate comment.

The Arab world’s biggest nation is engulfed in a prolonged political crisis nearly two years after the fall of Mubarak that pits Mursi’s Islamist supporters against liberal, secular and Christian opposition groups.

“Nobody really knows what will come out of this, but Egypt is such an important country that no matter what we think of its new authorities, we need to have a dialogue,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent foreign policy analyst.

“It makes sense for Russia to make a bet on Egypt, or at least seek ties with them very actively. So I think they will soon solve the issue with the Muslim Brotherhood in Russia.”

In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman said the ban on the group in Russia was “a very bad thing” and made clear any real improvement in ties was unlikely before that was settled.

“Our leader (the head of the Brotherhood group) had mentioned that issue to the Russian ambassador in Cairo during a joint meeting where he told the ambassador: ‘How come you are asking to have a strong relationship with us while you see as a terrorist group?’,” spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said.

Turkey urges Iran to ‘send clear message’ for Syria to end violence

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged Tehran on Tuesday to “send a clear message” to Syria’s embattled regime to stop the violence against its own people.

“Instead of criticizing the (Patriot) system, Iran should say stop to the Syrian regime that has been continuously oppressing its own people and provoking Turkey through border violations,” AFP reported Davutoglu as saying. “It is time to send clear messages to the Syrian regime.”

Iran is still resilient in its support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime. Like Russia, Iran has been a staunch ally of Assad throughout the 21-month uprising against his rule.

On Tuesday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said he does not believe that Assad and his government are about to fall.

Asked after talks in Moscow about Western suggestions that Assad and his government might soon be ousted, he told Reuters through a translator: “We have serious doubts about that. The Syrian army and the state machine are working smoothly.”

The minister dismissed suggestions that Moscow had altered its stance on Syria, despite remarks by a senior Russian diplomat last week acknowledging that Assad’s opponents could win the conflict.

“During our talks with our Russian partners, we have found there has been no change in the Russian position on Syria,” he told a news conference.

Russia has shielded Assad’s government from U.N. Security Council censure and sanctions, resisting Western pressure to join efforts to push him from power.


PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) -- Gunmen shot dead a woman working on U.N.-backed polio vaccination efforts and her driver in northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, officials said, just a day after similar attacks across the country killed five female polio workers.
The killings are a major setback for a campaign that international health officials consider vital to contain the crippling disease but which Taliban insurgents say is a cover for espionage.
In Wednesday's attack, the woman and her driver were gunned down in the northwestern town of Charsadda, said senior government official Syed Zafar Ali Shah. He said gunmen targeted two other polio teams in the same town, but no one was wounded in those attacks.
Earlier in the day in the northwestern city of Peshawar, gunmen shot a polio worker in the head, wounding him critically, said Janbaz Afridi, a senior health official. There were also attacks Wednesday on polio workers in the cities of Charsadda and Nowshera, but no casualtties were reported there.
Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio is endemic. Militants accuse health workers of acting as spies for the U.S. and claim the vaccine makes children sterile.
The Taliban in the lawless northwestern tribal region also blame the U.S. drone strikes for their opposition to the vaccinations.
On Tuesday, gunmen killed five female polio workers in a spree of attacks in several southern and northwestern cities, prompting authorities to suspend the vaccination campaign in the southern Sindh province.
The three-day campaign, which started on Monday, continued in the northwest and elsewhere in the country.
Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the attacks on Tuesday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Wednesday's killings.


BEIRUT (AP) -- NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel said Tuesday he and members of his network crew escaped unharmed after five days of captivity in Syria, where more than a dozen pro-regime gunmen dragged them from their car, killed one of their rebel escorts and subjected them to mock executions.
Appearing on NBC's "Today" show, an unshaven Engel said he and his team escaped during a firefight Monday night between their captors and rebels at a checkpoint. They crossed into Turkey on Tuesday.
NBC did not say how many people were kidnapped with Engel, although two other men, producer Ghazi Balkiz and photographer John Kooistra, appeared with him on the "Today" show. Another member of Engel's team, Aziz Akyavas of Turkey, also escaped. It was not confirmed whether everyone was accounted for.
Engel said he believes the kidnappers were a Shiite militia group loyal to the Syrian government, which has lost control over swaths of the country's north and is increasingly on the defensive in a civil war that has killed 40,000 people since March 2011.
"They kept us blindfolded, bound," said the 39-year-old Engel, who speaks and reads Arabic. "We weren't physically beaten or tortured. A lot of psychological torture, threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first and when we refused, there were mock shootings," he added.
"They were talking openly about their loyalty to the government," Engel said. He said the captors were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, but he did not elaborate.
There was no mention of the kidnapping by Syria's state-run news agency.
Both Iran and Hezbollah are close allies of the embattled Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, who used military force to crush mostly peaceful protests against his regime. The crackdown on protests led many in Syria to take up arms against the government, and the conflict has become a civil war.
Engel said he was told the kidnappers wanted to exchange him and his crew for four Iranian and two Lebanese prisoners being held by the rebels.
"They captured us in order to carry out this exchange," he said.
Engel and his crew entered Syria on Thursday and were driving through what they thought was rebel-controlled territory when "a group of gunmen just literally jumped out of the trees and bushes on the side of the road."
"There were probably 15 gunmen. They were wearing ski masks. They were heavily armed. They dragged us out of the car," he said.
He said the gunmen shot and killed at least one of their rebel escorts on the spot and took the hostages into a waiting truck nearby.
Around 11 p.m. Monday, Engel said he and the others were being moved to another location in northern Idlib province.
"And as we were moving along the road, the kidnappers came across a rebel checkpoint, something they hadn't expected. We were in the back of what you would think of as a minivan," he said. "The kidnappers saw this checkpoint and started a gunfight with it. Two of the kidnappers were killed. We climbed out of the vehicle and the rebels took us. We spent the night with them."
Engel and his crew crossed back into neighboring Turkey on Tuesday.
The network said there was no claim of responsibility, no contact with the captors and no request for ransom during the time the crew was missing.
NBC sought to keep the disappearance of Engel and the crew secret for several days while it investigated what happened to them. Major media organizations, including The Associated Press, adhered to a request from the network to refrain from reporting on the issue out of concern it could make the dangers to the captives worse. News of the disappearance did begin to leak out in Turkish media and on some websites on Monday.
Syria has become a danger zone for reporters since the conflict began.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Syria is by far the deadliest country for the press in 2012, with 28 journalists killed in combat or targeted for murder by government or opposition forces.
Among the journalists killed while covering Syria are award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain's Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. Also, Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times, died after an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria.
The Syrian government has barred most foreign media coverage of the civil war in Syria. Those journalists whom the regime has allowed in are tightly controlled in their movements by Information Ministry minders. Many foreign journalists sneak into Syria illegally with the help of smugglers and travel with rebel escorts or drivers.
Engel joined NBC in 2003 and was named chief foreign correspondent in 2008. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, including during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford University in 1996.


ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) -- The Qaed Ibrahim mosque, revered by Alexandrines as the embodiment of their Mediterranean city's cosmopolitan heritage, has become a battleground between the two visions fighting over the future of Egypt, literally.
When prominent ultraconservative cleric Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi denounced opponents of the Islamist-backed draft constitution as "followers of heretics" in a sermon, angry protests erupted, turning into clashes between sword-wielding supporters of the cleric and rock-throwing opponents, while police did nothing. The 87-year-old el-Mahalawi was trapped inside for over 12 hours during the battle, while protesters outside tried to free several of their comrades detained - and beaten, they say - in the mosque.
Afterward, powerful Islamist groups in Egypt's second largest city threatened to deploy their own armed militias in the streets to protect their symbols.
Alexandria is often seen as a predictor of Egypt's trends - one prominent local writer, Alaa Khaled, calls it "Egypt's subconscious," where the country's true nature comes out.
So the battle at Qaed Ibrahim last Friday could be a sign of the volatile direction Egypt's political crisis is taking. On one side, Islamists threaten to take up arms to defend what they call their right to propagate Islamic rule. On the other, a cocktail of young, secular, revolution-minded activists have grown bolder in rebelling against their domination, willing to directly assault long untouchable religious symbols like mosques.
Ostensibly, Egypt's crisis is centered on a controversial draft constitution that would bring greater rule by Islamic law. A first round of voting in a referendum on the charter took place last Saturday, and the final round is to be held the coming Saturday - with the "yes" vote so far ahead by a slim 56 percent margin.
But more broadly, it is a conflict of visions. The opposition accuse President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and his Islamist allies of steamrolling anyone who disagrees with them and imposing their domination. Many of Morsi's supporters, in turn, vow to defend "God's law" and accuse liberals and secular opponents of trying to subvert their election victories the past year. Both sides have brought mass crowds into the streets around the country the past weeks.
The Qaed Ibrahim clash represents an intensified version of that conflict, centered on a battle for Alexandria itself.
In ancient times, Alexandria was a symbol of enlightenment. In the first half of the 20th Century, it was synonymous with modernist, multicultural ambitions for Egypt. In the past two decades, the sprawling city of 5 million became a stronghold of Egypt's most ultraconservative Islamists. With last year's uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it has also become a hotbed for revolution movements.
Now there is a backlash against the Islamists' domination of the city, fueled by young activists. For years, Alexandrines allowed the city to grow more conservative, but now that the conservatives have political power, more residents see them as a threat, said Khaled, the writer.
"Alexandria is very angry. People are feeling that a new style is being imposed on them," he said. "What is happening here is the beginning of a conflict that can develop in other places." In line with the city's anti-authority fervor, hundreds of women blocked a street with a protest on the referendum day, accusing a judge of blocking them from voting against the constitution.
Islamists are rising to face the challenge.
The day after the clashes, leaders of the top Islamist groups in Alexandria, held a press conference on the roof of el-Mahalawi's home, outraged by what they called an attack on an esteemed cleric and the mosque itself. The leaders - some in clerical turbans and robes, others in suits, most with long beards - billed themselves as the "Agency for Unifying Islamist Ranks," representing groups ranging from the Brotherhood to the ultraconservative Salafi movement to the radical Gamaa Islamiya, which once waged a terror campaign against the regime but later renounced violence.
"We never imagined the day will come that we will gather to speak about an attack on God's house," Medhat el-Haddad, a prominent local Brotherhood leader, screamed. "Is this the revolution? Are these the revolutionaries who want to lead Egypt in the next phase?"
One cleric sneered that police would have been quicker to protect "a belly dance club or a church."
Turning red in the face, Refaat Abu Assem, of the Gamaa Islamiya, addressed the interior minister, who heads the police.
"If you don't carry out your duty, we are able to protect our mosques, figures," he said. "We now tell you we will do it, and we can."
In Cairo, a leading figure in the Brotherhood's political party, Essam el-Erian, seemed to echo that call, saying that for the first time the group was thinking of arming its guards to protect its offices, which have come under attack by opposition crowds repeatedly the past weeks.
"This people are able to defend themselves, their country and their choice," el-Erian said on Mehwer TV.
The Islamists' comments fueled fears that they were building up militias to crush their critics - at a time when Egypt is awash with weapons smuggled in from conflict-torn Libya.
The host of one of Egypt's most prominent TV political talk shows, Ibrahim Eissa, accused the new Islamist rulers of weakening official security agencies and allowing vigilante groups to operate. "There is political cover for these groups supporting and using terror and fear against the opponents of Morsi, and no one can touch them because this is as the presidency likes it," he said Sunday.
On Tuesday, el-Erian told Sky News Arabia that it "was nonsense" to take his comment to mean creating militias.
For the activists' side, the Alexandria clashes were an attempt to push back against Islamist control.
The Qaed Ibrahim mosque, a prominent landmark overlooking the Mediterranean built in the 1940s by an Italian architect, stands on a main square that was the epicenter of Alexandria's protests against Mubarak and against military rule after his fall - the city's equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square. The mosque and the square were considered a place where Alexandrines could mass regardless of political affiliation.
Activists say el-Mahalawi and his supporters broke an unspoken agreement to avoid divisive politics in the mosque and tried to turn it into a die-hard Islamist center. For weeks, el-Mahalawi used sermons for Islamist political campaigning and his supporters have been squeezing out other worshippers, said Mustafa Sakr, a 20-year-old activist.
"Some have stopped coming to pray at this mosque," he said.
The last straw, he said, was el-Mahalawi's sermon Friday on the eve of referendum voting, accusing the charter's opponents of causing chaos and campaigning for a "yes" vote. The sermon started a commotion in the mosque. The cleric's supporters lined up on the mosque walls to guard the entrances, clashing with worshippers who were praying on the outside grounds.
Protesters threw rocks at the line of supporters, who taunted the protesters, accusing them of being Christians, and made throat-slitting gestures, Sakr said. More Islamists in long beards moved in, waving swords and machetes at their rivals. Then the protesters attacked cars parked nearby believed to have brought in the Islamists's weapons, setting at least one on fire.
For hours, the mosque was surrounded. The Islamists say the protesters were trying to attack the mosque and el-Mahalawi inside. Sakr and other protesters say they were trying to retrieve three of protesters snatched by Islamists and locked inside.
At the Islamist press conference the next day, el-Mahalawi denied calling on worshippers to vote yes for the constitution - though video posted online from the scene show him saying it in his sermon.
At the press conference, he praised his supporters, some of whom offered to come from other parts of the country with automatic weapons to defend him. He said his own appeals for restraint had prevented bloodshed.
"We are lucky to have this crowd," he said of his supporters. "We want these forces to be ready at all times ... and maintain discipline, because this will be a support for the police force, until it recovers."
Khaled, the Alexandria writer, said the Islamists are "creating a system within the system."
"Are they now planning to create neighborhoods for themselves, creating a Beirut?" he said in reference to the Lebanese capital at the height of its civil war.


ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) -- Syrian rebels are closely monitoring the regime's chemical weapons sites but don't have the means to seize and secure them, their newly elected military commander told The Associated Press.
Gen. Salim Idris, who defected from the Syrian army in July, said he is "very afraid" a cornered Syrian President Bashar Assad will unleash such weapons on his own people.
Syria is said to have one of the world's largest chemical arsenals. Earlier this week, Syria's U.N. ambassador said the regime would not use such weapons under any circumstances. However, recent U.S. intelligence reports indicated the regime may be readying chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them.
Idris, a 55-year-old German-trained electronics professor, was chosen earlier this month as chief of staff by several hundred commanders of rebel units meeting in Turkey.
With the election of Idris and a 30-member military command center, Syria's opposition hopes to transform largely autonomous groups of fighters into a unified force. The reorganization came after Syria's political opposition won international recognition this month as the sole representative of the Syrian people.
In an interview late Tuesday, Idris said the rebels could defeat the regime within a month if supplied with anti-aircraft weapons. Assad's troops are stretched thin and have lost ground in recent months, particularly in northwestern Syria, but have kept rebel fighters pinned down with massive air bombardments.
The West has refused to supply Syria's opposition with weapons for fear they could fall into the hands of Islamic militants among the rebels, such as the al-Qaida-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra, which was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. last week.
Idris estimated that about a fifth of al-Nusra's fighters are foreigners, but said he believes they will leave Syria once the regime has been toppled. He said the Syrians in the group, which is believed to number several hundred fighters in all, could be brought back to a more mainstream Islam after the war.
"They are not terrorists," he said of al-Nusra, adding that the group chose not to be part of the rebel command.
Speaking in a hotel lobby in the southern Turkish town of Antakya near the Syrian border, Idris said that without foreign military help, driving out the regime could take "one, two or three months."
He claimed that more than 120,000 armed men are fighting Assad's military, a figure difficult to confirm independently in the chaos of the civil war.
Idris said the new military command represents the vast majority of these fighters, and that he has begun taking command inside Syria in recent days. The ex-general said he has set up five regional operations centers, staffing each with about 15 defected army officers.
He said he is frustrated at times with the lack of discipline among the rebels, the vast majority of them civilians without proper military training. "We need a lot of patience," he said. "If we have a battle, some show up without invitation. They want to take part and shoot."
Idris said that on Tuesday, he spent much the day near the central city of Hama, observing a successful rebel attempt to capture five regime checkpoints.
Syria's conflict began with a popular uprising in March 2011, but quickly turned violent, with protesters taking up arms in response to a brutal regime crackdown. Activists say more than 40,000 Syrians have been killed and aid officials estimate some 3 million people have been displaced by the fighting.
Idris portrayed Assad as a powerless figurehead, saying decisions are made by his inner circle of fellow Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The ruling elite won't surrender and is willing "to set everything on fire," warned Idris, who served in the military for 35 years, including as dean at the military's technical college in the city of Aleppo, now a major battleground.
The regime "can and will" use chemical weapons unless the international community forces Assad to leave, Idris said, speaking in fluent German.
He said rebel fighters are trying to monitor the chemical weapons sites. "We know exactly where they are and we are watching everything," Idris said. "But we don't have the capability to put them under our control."
The West has shown little desire to intervene militarily in Syria's conflict, but President Barack Obama has said the regime's use of chemical weapons against the rebels would be a "red line."
Earlier this week, the Syrian U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, claimed extremist groups could use chemical weapons against Syrians and then blame the government.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the Obama administration holds the regime in Damascus responsible for securing the chemical weapons. She said that "any effort to abrogate that responsibility, any effort to shift that on to others is just (adding) further to the kind of garbage that we've seen from the regime."
U.S. officials have also said the Syrian regime launched more than a half-dozen Scud missiles in recent days, the first time it has used such weapons in this conflict.
Idris said he was aware of three launches, including two missiles that fell in Syria's eastern desert and a third on the outskirts of a town close to Aleppo.
Idris, citing information from rebel sympathizers within the regime, said Scud missiles are being trained at northwestern Syria, the area close to the Turkish border, and could be fired at any moment.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Russia denies 'Syria regime falling' remarks

Russia has denied that its deputy foreign minister said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was losing control of his country. 
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday Mikhail Bogdanov did not say that "an opposition victory can't be excluded".
Bogdanov: Syrian opposition victory 'cannot be ruled out'
The statement said Bogdanov was simply citing the stance of the Syrian opposition while giving a speech on Thursday.
"We would like to remark that he [Bogdanov] has made no statements or special interviews with journalists in the last days," Alexander Lukashevich, the ministry spokesman said in a statement on Friday.
Lukashevich confirmed that the hearing with the Social Chamber, where Bogdanov's comments were recorded, had taken place but said his remarks focused on Moscow's stance on the crisis. 
"Bogdanov reiterated Russia's position there is no alternative to a political solution in Syria, based on the final
communique of the Action Group which was approved by consensus at a ministerial meeting in Geneva," the statement said. 
In what analysts said were the clearest sign that Moscow was preparing for possible defeat of its ally, Bogdanov said: "One must look the facts in the face. The regime and government in Syria is losing control ... Unfortunately, a victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out."

The US seized on Bogdanov's comments, saying Russia is "waking up to the reality'' and analysts viewed the diplomat's statement as Russia's attempt to begin positioning itself for Assad's eventual defeat.
The comments came on the same day that NATO chief also said that he believed Assad's government was nearing "collapse".
'Weapons of terror'
Anders Fogh Rasmussen also condemned the alleged use by Assad's forces of Scud missiles to attack rebels.
"I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse," he told reporters after a meeting with the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, at the military alliance's headquarters in Brussels.
"I think now it is only a question of time."
Rasmussen said the reported use of Scud missiles by the Syrian government showed "utter disregard" for the lives of Syrian people. 
Scud missiles "are weapons of terror," said Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
Aaraba Idriss, a former first lieutenant who defected 10 months ago, said members of his former battalion told him they fired five Scud missiles for the first time on Monday from their location in Nasiriyeh on the highway between Damascus and the central Syrian city of Homs, according to the AFP news agency.

Idriss said the "Golan-1 missiles were either Russian-made or Russian modified" and had a range of up to 300km.
Syria's foreign ministry has denied using Scud missiles against rebels and called the statements "biased and conspiratorial rumours".
"It is known that Scuds are strategic, long-range missiles and are not suited for use against armed terrorist gangs," the ministry said.


JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli security guards at the Western Wall on Friday searched women worshippers arriving at the holiest place where Jews can pray for a seemingly inoffensive object - the Jewish prayer shawl, which under the Orthodox tradition can be worn only by men.
Once the shawls were found, dozens of women had to deposit them before proceeding to pray in the section reserved for women. A few, who managed to sneak the shawls in under their coats and wrapped them around their shoulders, were promptly evicted or detained.
Similar scenes have played out almost a dozen times every year since the group known as Women of the Wall was first established nearly 25 years ago.
Its members have endured arrests, heckling and legal battles in a struggle to attain what they consider their inalienable right - to pray and worship at the Western Wall like men do.
Under Israel's predominantly Orthodox Jewish tradition, only men may wear a prayer shawl, a skullcap and phylacteries. Liberal Reform Judaism, marginal in Israel but the largest denomination in the United States, allows women to practice the same way as men do in Orthodox Judaism: they may be ordained as rabbis, read from the Torah, the Jewish holy book, and wear prayer shawls.
The multi-denominational Women of the Wall adheres to that liberal stream. Since 1988, its members have come to the holy site 11 times a year to pray on the first day of the new Jewish month, except on the New Year.
The police know they are coming and are on the lookout. The group's members have been repeatedly detained, as soon as they are perceived to be offending Orthodox sensibilities - such as carrying a Torah scroll or if they try to drape themselves in the shawls. They are usually released after a few hours.
They have never been charged - evidence, the women say, that what they are doing is not illegal.
"We want to have the ability to pray out loud, to wear a prayer shawl, to read the Torah. And we want to do it without fear at the Western Wall," said Anat Hoffman, the group's chairwoman.
Opponents see the Jerusalem-based group, which has hundreds of members and supporters, as provocateurs or kooky agitators. Supporters say they are civil rights activists working to achieve equality. Angry worshippers have hurled plastic chairs at them while others have yelled and taunted them.
Hoffman, who has been detained several times in the past, was held in 2010 for several hours after she brought a Torah scroll to the Western Wall - another violation for Orthodox Jews, who do not allow women to hold the Torah.
A video of the event shows police attempting to pry the scroll away from her as she shouts back: "It's mine." Hoffman also spent a night in jail in October, when she was banished by a court from the Wall for 30 days.
She says a lack of religious pluralism in Israel has prevented the group from achieving its goals.
While most Israelis are secular, Judaism has a formal place in the country's affairs and Orthodox rabbis strictly govern religious events such as weddings, divorces, and burials for the Jewish population. Also, the ultra-Orthodox are perennial kingmakers in Israeli coalition politics, though they make up only about 10 percent of the country's population.
Israel's Orthodox establishment was also granted responsibility for the Western Wall and seeks to ensure its traditions are followed there.
"We try to follow the customs that our grandfathers did, what was done 100 years ago, 200 years ago, and we try to keep extremism away," said the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.
The Women of the Wall "insist on coming here just to stoke the flames, to cause a provocation," he said, adding that if other customs were permitted, "there would be chaos."
The police say they are enforcing a Supreme Court decision from 2003, which ruled that allowing the group to pray with the shawls at the Western Wall constituted a danger to public safety. The women have been offered an alternative place nearby where they can don the shawls, wear phylacteries and read from the Torah. They use the place but continue to demand full access to the Wall.
More liberal streams of Judaism have been hard-pressed just to be recognized in Israel, which only this year granted funding for non-Orthodox rabbis. The plight of the Women of the Wall also highlights a growing rift between the world's two largest Jewish communities, the one in Israel and the one in the U.S.
Reform and Conservative streams, which are large in the U.S., have been at odds with Orthodox Israeli rabbis in Israel. Many members and supporters of Women of the Wall are American and are appalled at the authorities' reaction to their attempts to wear the shawls and pray at the Wall.
Laura Geller, a rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, was one of the women forced to leave her prayer shawl behind on Friday.
"It's interesting that Israel is one of the few countries in the world where I can't be the Jew that I am," she said, a blue and white skullcap placed atop her grey curls. "The Wall needs to be big enough for us to find a way to share it."

IAEA says 'progress' in Iran nuclear talks

The UN nuclear agency expects to reach a deal with Iran enabling it to resume a stalled probe into the country's disputed nuclear programme by next month, the chief UN inspector has said after returning from Tehran.
Even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) failed to gain access to the Parchin military complex during Thursday's visit to the Iranian capital, as it had requested, Herman Nackaerts, the head of the delegation, said progress had been made.
"We had good meetings," Nackaerts, the deputy director general of the UN watchdog, told reporters at Vienna airport.
According to Iranian state media on Thursday, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, also said the talks were constructive and good progress had been made.
"Intensive negotiations were held ... There was good progress made. The two sides agreed to hold the next round of talks on January 16 in Tehran," the IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
The agency believes Iran has conducted explosives tests with possible nuclear applications at Parchin, a sprawling facility southeast of Tehran, and has repeatedly asked for access.
The IAEA wanted an agreement that would enable its inspectors to visit Parchin and other sites that it suspects may be linked to what it has called the "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear programme.
Iran says Parchin is a conventional military site and has dismissed allegations that it has tried to clean up the site before any visit.
Western diplomats say Iran has carried out extensive work at Parchin over the past year - including demolition of buildings and removal of soil - to cleanse it of any traces of illicit activity. The IAEA said a visit to Parchin would still be "useful".
The latest talks were the first between the UN agency and Iran since August, and the outcome could give some indication whether Iran, which denies it wants to develop nuclear weapons, is any more willing to address international concerns over its nuclear programme after US President Barack Obama's re-election last month.
Additional US sanctions
On Thursday, the US imposed more sanctions on seven Iranian companies and five individuals that it said were providing support to Iran's nuclear programme.
The US Treasury Department said the action would bar those companies and individuals from doing business with US firms or citizens, and freeze any assets that they have in the United States.
The IAEA's meetings with Iran are separate from but closely linked to broader efforts by six world powers to resolve the decade-long nuclear dispute.
On Wednesday, senior European Union and Iranian diplomats discussed the timing of possible new talks between Iran and Britain, France, Germany, United States, Russia and China.
The powers want Iran to curb its uranium enrichment program - work which can have both military and civilian purposes - and cooperate fully with the IAEA.
Iran wants sanctions that are severely hurting its oil-dependent economy lifted.


BEIRUT (AP) -- With rebels trying to penetrate Syria's capital, Damascus, President Bashar Assad may appear to be heading for a last stand as his weakened regime crumbles around him.
But the Syrian leader is not necessarily on his way out just yet.
He still has thousands of loyal troops and a monopoly on air power. A moribund diplomatic process has given him room to maneuver despite withering international condemnation. And the power of Islamic extremists among the rebels is dashing hopes that the West will help turn the tide of the civil war by sending heavy weapons to the opposition.
"The West, for all its rhetorical bombast, has restricted the flow of important weapons," said University of Oklahoma professor Joshua Landis, who runs an influential blog called Syria Comment. "They have not brought down this regime because they are frightened of the alternative."
There is no appetite for intervening actively against Assad - as NATO did against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya - and run the risk of having him replaced by an Islamist regime hostile to the West. Those concerns have deepened after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and political turmoil in Egypt where a bid to promote an Islamist agenda threatens to tear the nation apart.
Also working in Syria's favor is its alliance with Russia, which could be losing faith in Assad but will probably not abandon him. Russia has been Syria's key protector at the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has used its veto power to shield Damascus from world sanctions. On Friday, Russia distanced itself from a statement by its Middle East envoy, who said a day earlier that Assad is losing control and the rebels may win.
During a reign of more than 40 years, the Assad family has built a powerful military and paramilitary force controlled by fellow members of their Alawite sect who are committed to maintaining the once-marginalized religious minority and its allies in power.
While the opposition is making significant gains, the forces propping up the regime are far from spent. For many of them, defeat would mean not only the end of Assad but an existential threat by vengeful rebel forces.
Some observers believe the die-hard loyalists around Assad - a man who has vowed to live and die in Syria, despite the uprising - may not allow him to abandon ship, even if he wanted to.
"Assad has effectively held his community hostage and convinced them to go down this road, which could very well lead to horrible retribution," Landis told The Associated Press. "He cannot leave them defenseless by swanning off."
Torbjorn Soltvedt, a senior analyst with the Britain-based Maplecroft risk analysis group, said the close links between the regime and many senior military officers act as a brake on defections in Assad's inner circle. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military leadership could envision a prominent role after the removal of the old regime, the fate of many of Syria's senior commanders is linked with that of the Assads, he said.
"A large portion of the Syrian top military elite is unlikely to turn against the regime despite the lack of a successful strategy to regain the initiative in the conflict," Soltvedt said.
So far, air power has been the regime's most potent tool against the rebels, who remain largely helpless in the face of jets and attack helicopters that drop bombs from the sky. The rebels have managed to seize large swaths of territory in the north, overrun military bases and expand their control on the outskirts of the capital.
But rebels admit there is little to do about the threat from above, even though they appear to have shot down a few aircraft in recent months. The airstrikes, which often kill civilians, have in some cases turned residents off the rebellion by making them angry that insurgent fighters are effectively bringing the fight to their doorsteps.
A slow-moving and so-far ineffective diplomatic process also plays directly into Assad's hands. The U.S. has warned the Syrian leader not to cross a "red line" and unleash chemical weapons against the rebels, but beyond that threat there is no clear sign that Washington or its allies want to get involved by sending troops or arming the rebel forces.
That stance may have the unintended consequence of giving Assad broad leeway to continue cracking down in other ways, short of a chemical attack, without any fear of retribution.
The U.S. and NATO this week accused Assad's forces of firing Scud missiles at rebel areas, but the regime has denied that. The government also has been careful not to confirm it even has chemical weapons, while insisting it would never use them against its own people.
Syria is believed to have a formidable arsenal of chemical weapons, including sarin and mustard gas, although the exact dimensions are not known.
While the conflict drags on, there are widening fears that the civil war will ignite neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where pro- and anti-Assad forces have clashed. On Friday, the Pentagon said the U.S. will send two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 troops to Turkey as part of a NATO force also including Germany and the Netherlands. The force is meant to protect Turkish territory from potential Syrian missile attack.
A number of Syrian shells have landed in Turkish territory since the conflict began in March 2011, and Turkey has been one of Assad's harshest critics.
But NATO's move was not a step toward intervention in Syria. In a statement Friday, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said "the deployment will be defensive only."
"It will not support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation. Its aim is to deter any threats to Turkey, to defend Turkey's population and territory and to de-escalate the crisis on NATO's south-eastern border," Lungescu said.
Many rebel fighters are bitter that the U.S. and others have not intervened to stop Assad's air force as they did in Libya against Gadhafi.
The fractious nature of the opposition and the increasing power of Islamic extremists among the rebel fighters have been a boon for the regime, as well.
On Wednesday, the U.S., Europe and their allies recognized the newly reorganized opposition leadership, giving it a stamp of credibility though it remains to be seen if the new bloc holds much sway with fighters on the ground.
Those fighters are a growing problem for the West. Some of the rebels' greatest battlefield successes have been carried out by extremist groups with links to al-Qaida. The West, of course, does not want see such organizations wielding any power in the region - much less running Syria.
Moreover, the opposition appears split over how much to embrace the Islamist fighters.
The president of the new opposition coalition, Mouaz al-Khatib, has disagreed publicly with the U.S. decision to blacklist Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked force that has proved to be one of the most successful fighting groups in the war against Assad.
Support for al-Nusra appears to be gaining traction among those who support the rebellion - no doubt alienating many Syrians who hope for a secular future. On Friday, according to amateur video footage posted online, some crowds calling for the downfall of the regime rejected the U.S. designation of al-Nusra as terrorists and carried signs that said: "We are all Jabhat al-Nusra."
The AP could not independently verify the videos, but they appeared to be in line with other reports coming out of the area.
The threat of Islamic extremism resonates deeply in Syria, a country with many ethnic and religious minorities. The Assad dynasty has long tried to promote a secular identity in Syria, largely because it has relied heavily on its own Alawite base in the military and security forces in an overwhelmingly Sunni country. Assad has warned repeatedly that the country's turmoil will throw Syria into chaos, religious extremism and sectarian divisions.
The opposition has so far failed to put forth a credible alternative to Assad, a shortcoming which has kept many Syrians on the fence even as he appears increasingly to be losing control.
"The opposition is not a government," Landis said. "They do not offer social security or retirement payments or a pension. There are millions of Syrians who depend on that government. ... Can this new coalition that America just recognized step in and take their place?"
Still, Landis said, Syrians will likely abandon the regime in increasing numbers - but "with a fearful heart."
"They've got nobody to look after them," he said. "There are 23 million Syrians who are going to be out of luck, out of food, and out of money."