Syrian rebels seek support, reject al-Nusra blacklisting

The United States is expected to officially recognize a new Syrian rebel coalition this week in” a further attempt to bolster moderates and marginalize extremists in the opposition.”

But rebel activists in Syria are opposing a move by the United States to designate the radical Islamist al-Nusra Front as a terrorist entity linked to al Qaeda.

“All rebels are fighting to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and before we designate anybody or accuse anyone of being a terrorist we should tell what they have done to terrorize others,” the Free Syrian Army military command’s Brigadier General Salim Idris, told al-Jazeera television. “Not everyone wearing a beard is an extremist.”

Externally-based activists also criticized the move.

“Many groups labeled by the administration as al Qaeda are actually not,” said Radwan Ziadeh (left), the executive director of the Washington-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “What is the reason the U.S. administration is considering it [Nusra] al Qaeda? All of our focus is on getting rid of the Assad mafia. We welcome anyone in the fight against Assad.”

“The Obama administration is taking a calculated risk that embracing chosen leaders of Syria’s fragmented rebels will speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, moving this week to recognize a slate of opposition figures whose pledges of democracy Washington can do little to enforce,” The Washington Post reports

The action is part of fast-moving diplomacy to try to guard against chaos and collapse in Syria if rebel forces succeed in ousting or killing Assad. International efforts to support moderates as successors to Assad have taken on new urgency as rebels gain ground militarily.

“The United States decided to single out the Nusra Front because of their recent rejection to the political opposition front and (because) they have a different approach to post-Assad’s Syria,” Rami Abdelrahman, an official with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told CNN.

Some analysts believe the move to embrace the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (right) has come too late to affect the political dynamics within the opposition.

“People don’t really care how it happens, but they just want to be done with the regime,” said Aaron Zelin, who researches the Nusra Front and other Syrian militant groups at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Once that happens, the policy may be more effective because the goals of the different factions won’t be in line and there will be fissures between the secular and more moderate groups, and the Islamists.”

Other observers believe that “blacklisting the Nusra Front could backfire” and feed conspiracy theories about US intentions:

It would pit the United States against some of the best fighters in the insurgency that it aims to support. While some Syrian rebels fear the group’s growing power, others work closely with it and admire it — or, at least, its military achievements — and are loath to end their cooperation.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group that the United States seeks to bolster, expressed exasperation that the United States, which has refused to provide weapons throughout the conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people, is now opposing a group they see as a vital ally.

The Nusra Front “defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn’t do anything,” said Mosaab Abu Qatada, a rebel spokesman. “They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and the crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists.”

He added, “America just wants a pretext to intervene in Syrian affairs after the revolution.”

“It’s being seen as something where the U.S. is more concerned with counter-terrorism issues than the plight of the Syrian people,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“On Facebook, on blogs, people are very angry.”

The new opposition coalition is expected to improve relations and communications between exiled political figures and rebel combatants within Syria.

“They are trying to build a leadership of credible ground forces, and I think that is a huge distinction,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, an expert on the Syrian rebel groups at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “A lot of the people who are part of the new military leadership are influential and important leaders on the ground.”

But the US initiative to embrace the National Council is unlikely to resolve sectarian tensions within the opposition.

“Some leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army complained that they were not included in the new grouping, reports suggest, “which they charged was dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and would divide rather than unify the rebel fighters.”

Many analysts express concern that funding for radical Islamist groups from the Gulf may have shifted the balance power against democratic and moderate forces.

“The scariest thing about Syria, from the West’s point of view, may be the gap between the hair-raising scenarios senior officials are discussing about what may happen next and their limp strategies for preventing it,” writes analyst Jackson Diehl:

Inside the Obama administration, Syria is now likened by some to a second Somalia — only at the heart of the Middle East, and with the world’s third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons.  … The United States and France, along with a few Arab and European allies..are hoping to bolster the opposition political coalition they strung together last month, known as the Syrian National Coalition.

 The coalition is getting money from France and a couple of other governments, but the State Department’s lawyers have ruled that the United States cannot directly fund rebel organizations. Al-Qaeda’s units are meanwhile flush with contributions from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Prominent voices in favor of a more forceful US and Western intervention include former State Department policy planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter,  a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

“The longer the Syrian civil war drags on, the more likely it becomes that Mr Assad’s departure will only open a wider, more sectarian, civil conflict with unsettling ramifications for several neighboring states,” says James Dobbins, director of the Rand Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center.

But any decision to intervene must pass three tests, he suggests. “First, is such an intervention morally and legally justified? Second, is it militarily and politically feasible? Third, would it significantly advance an acceptable resolution to the conflict?”

The moral case is perhaps the most straightforward. In Syria, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya before, a national uprising is seeking to overthrow a long-running dictatorship. In response, the regime is using extreme violence to hang on to power. ….

There are several possible legal bases for a military intervention. The most clear cut, if least likely at the moment given Russia’s position, would be a UN Security Council resolution. Western powers may alternatively recognise an insurgent authority as the legitimate government of Syria, and then respond positively to a request for assistance from it..

The most feasible and efficacious external intervention would be one designed to prevent Mr Assad from bombing his own cities. … Depriving the regime of its air force would significantly alter the military balance on the ground and expedite a rebel victory – one which is likely to emerge eventually, but may otherwise be a long time coming.

The political prerequisites for such an attack are, first, a clear request for such by the Syrian rebel authorities; second, an endorsement by most if not all of the Arab League; third, leadership by regional states, .. and finally, the participation in the operation by Nato allies, even if the bulk of the assets are to be supplied by the US.

“Expediting the fall of the Assad regime is not a sufficient condition for bringing an end to Syria’s civil war, but it is a necessary one,” argues Dobbins, , a former US assistant Secretary of State.

“The longer this war drags on, the more radicalized become the insurgents, the more brutalized the population, the more inflamed the sectarian passions, and the more destabilized neighboring societies. The post-Assad situation will be truly messy, but the longer his fall is delayed the more unmanageable its aftermath will become,”


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Killing of Afghan women’s activist highlights threat to civil society

Credit: AFP

A prominent women’s rights advocate in Afghanistan was killed by unknown assailants Monday, officials said:

Two assailants riding a motorbike gunned down Najia Seddiqi as she was heading to her office in eastern Laghman province, said Helai Nekzad, the chief of information at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul. Seddiqi was the head of women’s affairs for Laghman province. Her predecessor in that post was killed five months ago when explosives hidden in her car were detonated.

“We have launched an investigation to find out whether Najia Seddiqi’s killing was politically motivated,” Nekzad said.

President Hamid Karzai described the assassination as “terroristic,” a term he often uses to describe attacks by Taliban-led insurgents or al-Qaida militants.

The attack appears to be the latest in a series of attacks on government officials and civil society activists by the Taliban, and highlights the serious threat to Afghanistan’s fragile gains in rights and freedom following the forthcoming withdrawal of international security forces.

Afghan civil society groups are concerned about fragility of democratic institutions and the threat to human rights, especially women’s freedoms, once international security forces leave Afghanistan.

A former U.S. envoy to Kabul is trying to ensure a smooth transition when President Hamid Karzai leaves office in 2014.

Afghan politicians “need to make sure that there is a constitutional, democratic and orderly change of government,” said  Zalmay Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

“The picture looks very bleak for international oversight and attention to human rights in the region,” said Jacqueline Hale, a Central Asia specialist at the Open Society Foundations, a democracy assistance group.

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Two Years Later: The Ongoing Detentions of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo and His Wife, Liu Xia

China’s ruling Communist Party is correct in seeing imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo as a subversive, said Perry Link. They fully understand that his notion of democratization by peaceful, gradual means would be widely popular – if his ideas were allowed to circulate. 

Two years ago, the Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the prominent intellectual and democracy advocate “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Today, he remains in a Chinese prison serving the fourth year of an 11-year sentence, while authorities hold his wife under a de facto form of house arrest.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China this week holds a hearing to discuss Liu’s views on Chinese political reform and his co-authorship of Charter 08, a grassroots political reform treatise signed by thousands of Chinese citizens.  The hearing will also discuss the essays that formed the basis of the government’s “inciting subversion” charges against Liu.  Witnesses will discuss Liu’s current legal status and ongoing international advocacy efforts on Liu’s behalf.  In addition, witnesses will discuss conditions for Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, whose illegal home confinement has been referred to as the “most severe retaliation by a government given to a Nobel winner’s family.”

Representative Christopher Smith, Chairman and Senator Sherrod Brown, Cochairman

of the

Congressional-Executive Commission on China

announce a hearing on

“Two Years Later:  The Ongoing Detentions of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo and His Wife Liu Xia”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

2172 Rayburn House Office Building

Washington, DC


Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy

Dr. Yang Jianli, President, Initiatives for China 

Patrick Griffith, Program Attorney, Freedom Now

Yu Jie, Independent Author and Associate of Liu Xiaobo

Liu Min, Wife of Yu Jie; Friend of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia  

Click here to download a copy of the Commission’s full 2012 Annual Report.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, established by the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000 as China prepared to enter the World Trade Organization, is mandated by law to monitor human rights, including worker rights, and the development of the rule of law in China. The Commission by mandate also maintains a database of information on political prisoners in China-individuals who have been imprisoned by the Chinese government for exercising their civil and political rights under China’s Constitution and laws or under China’s international human rights obligations. All of the Commission’s reporting and its Political Prisoner Database are available to the public online via the Commission’s Web site,

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Cuban dissidents denounce wave of Human Rights Day detentions

“Cuban dissidents accused authorities Monday of a wave of arrests to prevent them from gathering to mark International Human Rights Day,” AP reports:

More than 100 government opponents were briefly detained and promptly sent back to their homes, human rights monitor Elizardo Sanchez said.

‘‘The saving grace is that (the arrests) are of short duration,’’ said Sanchez, who heads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

A leader of the group known as the Ladies in White said they were rounded up Sunday when they held their weekly protest march outside a Havana church.

‘‘They told us we were being provocative,’’ Alejandrina Garcia said by phone.

The Obama administration said that it was “deeply concerned by the Cuban Government’s repeated use of arbitrary detention and violence to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly, and intimidate independent civil society.”

We understand that across Cuba, 94 members of the peaceful pro-democracy group – The Ladies in White – were reportedly beaten and detained on December 9. Just ahead of Human Rights Day, the women had used their weekly gathering, church attendance, and peaceful march to focus attention on continued human rights abuses in Cuba.

“We call on the Cuban Government to end the increasingly common practice of arbitrary and extrajudicial detentions, and we look forward to the day when all Cubans can freely express their ideas, assemble freely, and express their opinions peacefully,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The Ladies in White group won the European Parliament’s Sakharov human rights prize in 2005, was formed by the wives and relatives of jailed political prisoners.

“Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent,” according to Human Rights Watch. “Raúl Castro’s government continued to enforce political conformity using short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, forced exile, and travel restrictions.”

Cuba’s efforts to small-scale private enterprise and attract foreign investment are floundering due to the government’s innate authoritarianism, say analysts.

Swept up in a recent wave of arrests in Cuba, former political prisoner of conscience Iván Hernández features in a must-see film (above) shot undercover by Al Jazeera, using hidden cameras to portray the experience of Berta Soler, Angel Moya, Antonio Rodiles, Elizardo Sanchez and other leading dissidents.

The film features moving footage from the funeral of Oswaldo Paya and shocking scenes of police attacks on the mourners.

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