Hamas to end jihad against Israel


Political winds from the Arab Spring are filling the sails of the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas, as it seeks a course out of international isolation to the forefront of the Palestinian national movement.
This week, the two top men in the 25-year-old organization dedicated to crushing the Jewish state and establishing Palestine “from the [Jordan] river to the sea” headed off in different directions for high-level talks — and began to look intriguingly like rivals.
Khaled Meshaal, 55, the Hamas leader in exile long based in Syria, went to Jordan to see Western-backed King Abdullah, whose father made peace with Israel in 1994. He may move his headquarters there or to the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which brokered his first visit since Jordan expelled Hamas in 1999.
From the Gaza Strip where he serves as Hamas’ Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, 48, set off for talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President Israel’s sworn enemy.
Iran is displeased with Hamas’ failure to support Tehran’s main Arab ally Syria in its crisis. A diplomatic source says Iran has provided no funds to Hamas since August.
Analysts believe Mr. Meshaal has decided to end his close association with Syria to pursue reconciliation with the pro-peace Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, and to soften his anti-peace stance.
“Meshaal has been showing a tendency towards more flexibility. He is sincere about accomplishing reconciliation and he was flexible about President Abbas’ peace moves,” said Hani Habib, a Gaza political analyst. “His position did not go down well with Gaza leaders.”
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Mr. Meshaal “quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah” and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel’s creation in 1948.
He is also ready to suspend the jihad against Israel and go along with Mr. Abbas’s idea of “popular resistance” through non-violent mass protests, Mr. Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to “armed resistance.”
Analysts speculate Mr. Meshaal’s goal may be to end Hamas’ isolation and make it an essential partner in Middle East negotiations, one Israel and the West can no longer afford to ostracize as a terrorist group.
This would mean loosening ties with Iran.
The group’s political and spiritual roots lie with the Sunni Arab Muslim Brotherhood, not with the Shiite radicalism of non-Arab Iran, which has funded and armed Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon as proxies to threaten Israel.
In a Middle East increasingly divided between Sunni and Shiite powers, Hamas is embarrassed by ties to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, and his Alawite minority who, with roots in Shiite Islam, are now on the verge of civil war with Syria’s rebelling Sunni majority and its Muslim Brotherhood leaders.
Iran has certainly provided Hamas with money and — according to Israel — rockets and other weapons. But Shiite thinking, while not seen as a threat, is not accepted in Gaza. Hamas security has clamped down on attempts by its few supporters to build up a Shiite organization there.

After visiting Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Sudan this month, Mr. Haniyeh urged Mr. Abbas to cease peace talks and co-operation on security with the Israelis in the West Bank.
If Mr. Meshaal moves to Jordan or Qatar, one of the most outspoken Arab critics of Mr. Assad, Gaza analyst Ibrahim Abrash, says it would mean more than just a relocation: “It would mean a move in politics, too.” But Gaza remains the movement’s stronghold.

“Haniyeh is sitting in Gaza and nothing has really changed, while Meshaal is looking for a new home and in flux. Given that, I would say Haniyeh is sitting pretty,” said a Western diplomat.
Some in Hamas believe there is no need to take a softer line with Israel because Islamists, now in the ascendancy in the region, would deter any repeat of Israel’s 2009 offensive. Mr. Steinberg disagrees. “The Muslim Brothers don’t want trouble with Israel from Gaza while they are consolidating power in Egypt, which will take several years,” he said. “Meshaal is accommodating himself with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”

Source: Your Jewish News 
Syria violence worsening, civil war looms: Clinton


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the United Nations Security Council during a meeting at the United Nations in New York January 31, 2012. The Arab League asked the UN Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a resolution endorsing an Arab plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer powers to his deputy.

UNITED NATIONS — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the UN Security Council on Tuesday that the violence in Syria was getting worse, bringing the country closer to the brink of civil war.

"The evidence is clear that (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad’s forces are initiating nearly all the attacks that kill civilians, but as more citizens take up arms to resist the regime’s brutality, violence is increasingly likely to spiral out of control," Clinton told council.

Clinton also urged the 15-nation body to support a European-Arab draft resolution that endorses an Arab League plan that calls for Assad to transfer his powers to his deputy to prepare for elections.

The head of the Arab League and the prime minister of Qatar had earlier urged the Security Council to endorse an Arab plan for Assad to give up power.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby urged the council to take “rapid and decisive action” while Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani warned the 15-nation body that Syria’s “killing machine is still at work.”

Elaraby added that Arab nations are attempting to avoid foreign military intervention in the 10-month-old Syrian crisis, a point Sheikh Hamad also emphasized. The Qatari prime minister suggested the council should use economic leverage instead.

"We are not calling for a military intervention," Sheikh Hamad said. "We are advocating the exertion of a concrete economic pressure so that the Syrian regime might realize that it is imperative to meet the demands of its people."

"We are not after regime change, for this is a matter that is up to the Syrian people to decide," he added.

Their public rejection of the idea of foreign military intervention appeared to be directed at Russia, which Western diplomats are worried might veto the European-Arab draft resolution that endorses the Arab League plan for Syria out of fear that it could lead to a Libyan-style military operation.

Both men blamed the crisis in Syria squarely on the government, whereas Russia has sought to blame both the opposition and government equally. Elaraby said the opposition had resorted to arms because of what he called “the excessive use of force” by Syrian authorities.

Source: Ottawa Citizen

Syria: It’s not just about freedom


Imperial regimes can crack when they are driven out of their major foreign outposts. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not only signal the liberation of Eastern Europe from Moscow. It prefigured the collapse of the Soviet Union itself just two years later.

The fall of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria could be similarly ominous for Iran. The alliance with Syria is the centerpiece of Iran’s expanding sphere of influence, a mini-Comintern that includes such clients as Iranian-armed and -directed Hezbollah, now the dominant power in Lebanon; and Hamas, which controls Gaza and threatens to take the rest of Palestine (the West Bank) from a feeble Fatah. Additionally, Iran exerts growing pressure on Afghanistan to the east and growing influence in Iraq to the west. Tehran has even extended its horizon to Latin America, as symbolized by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s solidarity tour through Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba.

Of all these clients, Syria is the most important. It’s the only Arab state openly allied with non-Arab Iran. This is significant because the Arabs see the Persians as having had centuries-old designs to dominate the Middle East. Indeed, Iranian arms and trainers, transshipped to Hezbollah through Syria, have given the Persians their first outpost on the Mediterranean in 2,300 years.

But the Arab-Iranian divide is not just national/ethnic. It is sectarian. The Arabs are overwhelmingly Sunni. Iran is Shiite. The Arab states fear Shiite Iran infiltrating the Sunni homeland through (apart from Iraq) Hezbollah in Lebanon, and through Syria, run by Assad’s Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Which is why the fate of the Assad regime is geopolitically crucial. It is, of course, highly significant for reasons of democracy and human rights as well. Syrian Baathism, while not as capricious and deranged as the Saddam Hussein variant, runs a ruthless police state that once killed 20,000 in Hamaand has now killed more than 5,400 during the current uprising. Human rights — decency — is reason enough to do everything we can to bring down Assad.

But strategic opportunity compounds the urgency. With its archipelago of clients anchored by Syria, Iran is today the greatest regional threat — to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states terrified of Iranian nuclear hegemony; to traditional regimes menaced by Iranian jihadist subversion; to Israel, which the Islamic Republic has pledged to annihilate; to America and the West, whom the mullahs have vowed to drive from the region.

No surprise that the Arab League, many of whose members are no tenderhearted humanitarians, is pressing hard for Assad’s departure. His fall would deprive Iran of an intra-Arab staging area and sever its corridor to the Mediterranean. Syria would return to the Sunni fold. Hezbollah, Tehran’s agent in Lebanon, could be next, withering on the vine without Syrian support and Iranian materiel. And Hamas would revert to Egyptian patronage.

At the end of this causal chain, Iran, shorn of key allies and already reeling from economic sanctions over its nuclear program, would be thrown back on its heels. The mullahs are already shaky enough to be making near-suicidal threats of blocking the Strait of Hormuz. The population they put down in the 2009 Green Revolution is still seething. The regime is particularly reviled by the young. And its increasing attempts to shore up Assad financially and militarily have only compounded anti-Iranian feeling in the region.

It’s not just the Sunni Arabs lining up against Assad. Turkey, after a recent flirtation with a Syrian-Iranian-Turkish entente, has turned firmly against Assad, seeing an opportunity to extend its influence, as in Ottoman days, as protector/master of the Sunni Arabs. The alignment of forces suggests a unique opportunity for the West to help finish the job.

How? First, a total boycott of Syria, beyond just oil and including a full arms embargo. Second, a flood of aid to the resistance (through Turkey, which harbors both rebel militias and the political opposition, or directly and clandestinely into Syria). Third, a Security Council resolution calling for the removal of the Assad regime. Russia, Assad’s last major outside ally, should be forced to either accede or incur the wrath of the Arab states with a veto.

Force the issue. Draw bright lines. Make clear American solidarity with the Arab League against a hegemonic Iran and its tottering Syrian client. In diplomacy, one often has to choose between human rights and strategic advantage. This is a rare case where we can advance both — so long as we do not compromise with Russia or relent until Assad falls.

Source: The Washington Post 

U.S., EU, Arabs compromise Syria sanctions

United Press International - News. Analysis. Insight." - 100 Years of Journalistic Excellence2/2/2012

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 2 (UPI) — A draft resolution proposed in the U.N. Security Council would back off sanctions and an arms embargo on Syria and allow Damascus to buy Russian weapons.

The deal under discussion by the United States, European and Arab nations with Moscow’s envoy would scrap demands for more sanctions opening the way for a resolution asking President Bashar Assad to give up power to a vice president who would form a national unity government, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

Syria is a major weapons buyer from Russian and getting Moscow on board the Arab League plan for new Syrian elections is seen as worth the compromise, diplomats said.

In October, both Russia and China vetoed a U.N. draft resolution threatening sanctions against Syria.

If the latest draft proposal is approved it would mark the first time the 15-member Security Council has unanimously adopted a binding resolution setting a two-month timetable for the end of the Assad regime.

"I don’t want to predict … but today’s discussion was conducted in a constructive and roll-up-your sleeves manner and that if that continues, there’s a possibly that we’ll reach agreement, but there’s no certainty," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said after a three-hour meeting Wednesday. "We have more work to do, but I think it was a constructive session conducted in a good spirit."

The United Nations estimates 5,000 to 6,000 people have been killed in Syria since pro-democracy demonstrations began last March.

Source: UPI

Foreign Ministry: Turkey concerned over growing violence in Syria


Azerbaijan, Baku, Feb.2 / Trend A. Taghiyeva /

Turkey is concerned over growing violence in Syria and increasing number of victims of unrest in the country, the Zaman newspaper quotes Turkish Foreign Ministry as saying in its statement on Thursday.

According to the statement, all political forces of Syria should immediately stop the bloodshed and begin negotiations.

Anti-government protests, which began in mid-March, continue in Syria for already ten months. Daily reports are received about death of people - both civilians and security forces. According to the UN statistics, the total number of victims in the country exceeds 5,000 people. The Syrian authorities accuse armed militants of the clashes, who receive assistance from neighboring countries.

Source Trend

Greek State Racing Firm CEO Arrested in Debt Case

ABC News


The head of Greece’s state-controlled horseracing company was arrested Wednesday on charges that the corporation withheld taxes and owed debts of €83 million ($109 million) to the state, officials said.

The detention of Alexandros Zaharis, head of Horseracing Organization of Greece SA., or ODIE, is the latest of several arrests for debts to the state in the near-bankrupt country. But it is the first involving an official from a company in the broader state sector.

A police official confirmed Zaharis’ arrest on condition of anonymity in line with police rules.

Police say ODIE failed to pay the state some €277,000 ($365,000) in withheld taxes on profits and a further €741,000 ($976,000) in other dues between January and May 2011, in addition to the €83 million debt.

The criminal charges, if proved in court, carry a minimum five-year prison sentence. Greece, the country at the heart of Europe’s financial crisis, is under intense pressure from its international bailout creditors to contain large budget deficits and slash public spending.

Beset by flagging revenues, rampant tax evasion and an inefficient tax collection system, the government has toughened tax fraud laws and cracked down on debtors, naming more than 4,000 individuals from the private sector who allegedly owe up to €1 billion ($1.3 billion) in taxes.

In the second half of December alone, 492 arrest warrants were issued over debts to the state and tax evasion, the financial prosecutor’s office said Wednesday.

A list of corporate debtors was topped by the state railways and included several public sector entities.

Total outstanding debts to the state reach an estimated €60 billion ($78 billion) — little more than a tenth of which is seen as collectible.

ODIE, which is fully state-owned, is due for privatization this year under the government’s ambitious plans to sell or lease €50 billion ($66 billion) worth of state assets by 2015.

The privatizations are part of a program of harsh austerity and sweeping market and public sector reforms pledged in return for the international rescue loans that are keeping Greece solvent.

Source abc 

Canadian held in Mexico facing charges in Gadhafi plot


Cynthia Vanier, a Canadian woman being held in Mexico since the fall over an alleged plot to smuggle one of Moammar Gadhafi’s son, is now formally facing charges, the Mexican government announced Wednesday.

Five people are now facing warrants on charges of attempted trafficking of undocumented people and organized crime, said a statement released by the Mexican Attorney-General.

The statement did not specifically named Ms. Vanier but the details match her case and Deputy Attorney-General Jose Cuitlahuac Salinas spoke about her at a press conference.

Four of the five also face counterfeiting charges but the statement didn’t identify them either.

A mediator from Mount Forest, Ont., Ms. Vanier was arrested Nov. 10 in Mexico City. She says she was there on a business trip and has complained that a female officer elbowed her in the kidneys so roughly she later urinated blood.

According to Mexican media, at a press conference to present his department’s statement, Mr. Salinas acknowledged a staffer had been punished after Ms. Vanier complained of physical abuse.

The statement said the case stemmed from a probe in the May 2009 theft of 4,586 blank passports from the foreign affairs ministry.

However, according to Mr. Salinas, Mexican authorities also received anonymous e-mail tips that led them to make arrests before the second of two alleged plane trips.

The statement alleges that the group wanted to spirit one of the late Libyan leader’s surviving sons, Saadi Gadhafi, into Mexico by plane but the pilot refused to fly them clandestinely.

A second attempt was organized, with false papers and photo IDs, the statement said, adding that the group acquired a house near the resort of Puerta Vallerta and also tried to buy an apartment at the Hotel St. Regis in Mexico City where the younger Mr. Gadhafi would have initially stayed.

In a six-page attestation written in jail and obtained by the CBC, Ms. Vanier said “there was no evidence to support their accusations.”

She complained that she had been denied adequate legal representation, was questioned about her work and a trip she made to Libya in July.

After the female officer hit her with an elbow, “I could hardly breathe it hurt so much. I started to cry and they laughed at me,” Ms. Vanier wrote.

Ms. Vanier had travelled on a fact-finding trip to Libya with a Canadian-based security consultant who is a former bodyguard to Saadi Gadhafi.

Ms. Vanier and a female co-defendant have been taken to a penitentiary in Chetumal, in the Quintana Roo state while two male accused were sent to a prison in Veracruz, the statement said.

While the defendants were not explicitly identified, Mexican officials previously identified them as Ms. Vanier, a Mexican woman, Gabriela Dávila Huerta, and two men, Pierre Flensborg, a Danish national living in Houston, and Jose Luis Kennedy Prieto, a Mexican citizen.




(AGI) Washington - Hillary Clinton said the UN Security Council should send a clear message of support to the Syrian people.
  “Every member of the Council has to make a decision: whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the Syrian people? Are you on the side of the Arab League? Are you on the side of the people of the Middle East and North Africa who have during this past year spoken out courageously and often for their rights? Or are you on the side of a brutal dictatorial regime? Each country will have to be mulling that over and making a decision”, the US Secretary of State said when asked to comment on Russia’s opposition to a resolution backed by the Arab League and Western countries condemning the brutal crackdown on protests by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime…

Source AGI

State Dept: Americans take refuge at Cairo embassy


CAIRO (AP) — Three American citizens barred from leaving Egypt have sought refuge at the American Embassy in Cairo amid growing tensions between the two allies over an Egyptian investigation into foreign-funded pro-democracy groups.

The White House said Monday it was disappointed with Egypt’s handing of the issue, which U.S. officials have warned could stand in the way of more than $1 billion in badly needed U.S. aid.

The growing spat between the two longtime allies reflects the uncertainty as they redefine their relationship nearly one year after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak following an 18-day popular uprising.

Mubarak was a steadfast U.S. ally, scrupulously maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and while seeking to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians — a clear American interest.

Now, Egypt’s council of ruling generals, who took power when Mubarak stood down last Feb. 11, often accuse “foreign hands” of promoting protests against their rule.

At the same time, members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the new parliament, have suggested that they could seek to re-negotiate parts of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty, causing alarm in Israel and concern in Washington over the possibility that Egypt will no longer serve as its solid anchor in the Middle East.

Egypt’s investigation into foreign-funded organizations burst into view last month when heavily armed security forces raided 17 offices belonging to 10 pro-democracy and human rights groups, some U.S.-based. U.S. and U.N. officials blasted the raids, which Egyptian officials defended as part of a legitimate investigation into the groups’ work and finances.

Last week Egypt barred at least six Americans and four Europeans who worked for U.S.-based organizations from leaving the country. They included Sam LaHood, the head of the Egypt office of the Washington-based International Republican Institute and the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the only Republican in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.

On Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington that some of the Americans under investigation were in the embassy, although she would not identify them or their affiliations, citing privacy concerns.

"We can confirm that a handful of U.S. citizens have opted to stay on the embassy compound in Cairo while awaiting permission to depart Egypt," she said.

Nuland added that those seeking refuge in the embassy were not “seeking to avoid any kind of judicial process,” noting they had been interrogated before.

The U.S. Foreign Affairs Manual states that such request for refuge are generally granted only when the U.S. citizen “would otherwise be in danger of serious harm.”

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said three Americans were at the embassy.

It was unclear if LaHood was among them. In a text message, LaHood referred queries to an IRI spokeswoman in Washington, who did not respond to requests for comment. LaHood said last week that he had been told by his lawyer that he was under investigation on suspicion of managing an unregistered NGO and receiving “funds” from an unregistered NGO — namely, his salary.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. had been in touch with Egyptian officials about the issue.

"We’ve made clear our concerns about this issue and our disappointment that these several citizens are not being allowed to depart Egypt," he told reporters in Washington Monday. Last week, Obama discussed the issue by phone with Egyptian military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

U.S. officials have warned that restrictions on civil society groups could hinder aid to Egypt, funds the country badly needs given the severe blows continued unrest has dealt its economy over the last year.

The U.S. is due to give $1.3 billion in military assistance and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt in 2012. Washington has given Egypt an average of $2 billion in economic and military aid a year since 1979, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Recent U.S. legislation conditions the continuation of that aid on Egypt’s taking certain steps in its transition to democracy. These include abiding by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, holding free and fair elections and “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion and due process of law.”

The new strain on the U.S.-Egypt relationship underlines the wider question of where the various groups struggling for power will lead the country. For months, the ruling military council has faced frequent protests over its handling of the transition and calling for it to immediately hand over power to civilians.

Military leaders have blamed unidentified “foreign hands” for these demonstrations, saying they sought to destabilize Egypt.

On Monday, a member of the civilian panel created by the military to advise it said the army was considering ways to speed up the transition.

As a sign, however, that U.S.-Egypt military cooperation will continue, a delegation from Egypt’s Defense Ministry arrived in New York Sunday. Egypt’s state news agency quoted military attache Gen. Mohammed el-Kishki as saying that the delegation would visit U.S. military bases, meet with members of Congress and discuss bilateral military cooperation.

It remains unclear how many foreigners have been barred from leaving Egypt.

LaHood said last week that three other employees of his organization were on the no-fly list, two Americans and one European.

From the National Democratic Institute, which was also raided in December, three Americans and three Serb employees are on the list, the group’s Egypt director, Lisa Hughes, said last week.

Hughes said in a text message Monday that none of NDI’s employees are staying at the U.S. Embassy.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

Source Yahoo News

Bashar Al-Assad’s Family Tried to Flee Syria - Report


Bulgaria: Bashar Al-Assad's Family Tried to Flee Syria - Report
A handout photograph released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivering a speech at Damascus University, Damascus, Syria, 10 January 2012. EPA/BGNES

Key family members of Syria's embattled dictator Bashar Al-Assad made an unsuccessful attempt to flee the country, according to media reports.

Syrian anti-government forces have told an Egyptian newspaper that Al-Assad’s wife Asma, her children, the dictator’s mother and one of his nephews tried to escape from the country late on Sunday.

According to the opposition, Bashar Al-Assad's family members were detected in a convoy heading to the airport in Damascus.

There was a heavy exchange of fire, which prevented the family's escape, who then returned to the presidential palace, The Jerusalem Post reports, citing Al-Masry-Al-Youm.

There has been no word from the Syrian authorities on the incident.

On Monday, the heavy clashes between the Syrian army and rebel forces continued around Damascus.

The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed during the 10-month-long crackdown on anti-government dissenters.  

Source Novinite

Report from Syria: The Brutal, Shadowy War for Hearts and Minds


On a cool winter day in the city of Deraa, a young man walking by me on a busy commercial street grazed me gently. In any large city outside of Syria, it would have gone unnoticed. But as I made eye contact with the young man, he gestured with his head to follow him in between two buildings. I quickly sensed the nudge was not accidental.

I had been standing on the busy street filming with my cameraman, part of a government-sanctioned tour of the restive city where Syria’s uprising began. Shops were open, traffic flowing and people hurrying about their business. There was a sense of normalcy to the street until, that is, I followed the young man into the alleyway. “Nothing is what it seems,” he said. “This is what they want you to see, so you think everything is normal.” (PHOTOS: Protests in Syria.)

The young man began speaking at a dizzying pace, describing for me the horrors of what happened and is happening in this city, including daily raids of resident homes, ubiquitous security checkpoints and crackdowns on dissent. He lifted his shirt up to show me gunshot wounds he says he suffered during the crackdown on Deraa. “Come back after a few hours and see what happens in Deraa after it gets dark.” As he pulled his shirt back down, he looked at me squarely and said, “The only gangs in these cities are the armed gangs that belong to Assad… Only the Free Syrian Army will protect us and will not stop until the regime falls.”

As quickly as the conversation began, it ended. I was back on the street in the company of the government minders off to our next stop. Earlier in the day, a group of journalists were taken to meet the governor of Deraa, Mohammed Khaled el Hannous. Ironically, his message was very similar to what the young man on the street would tell me a few hours later. “The situation in Deraa and Syria is not what you see on TV,” he added. “Three quarters of our problem come from Al Jazeera and satellite channels exaggerating what is happening. Today, you will go out and see for yourself what Deraa is like.”

According to el Hannous, and by extension the Syrian government, what began as a legitimate protest against corruption and political stagnation back in March was addressed and resolved with “respectable residents.” Today, those in the streets “are armed gangs and terrorists” and not the same as those who originally took to the streets. “They are bought with money and drugs.” (PHOTOS: Bomb Blast In Damascus.)

Once again, the reality in the country was different depending on whom you asked. In Syria, there are concerns that the protracted conflict has become a battle over perception as much as it has become a battle for the future of the country.

Each side claims a monopoly on the truth, making it harder for everyone to really understand what is happening on the ground, especially journalists relying on unverifiable amateur footage from inside the country, government escorted minders on the other side, statements from exiled opposition and Syrian government officials who rarely grant journalists interviews.

On the streets of the capital Damascus, many supporters of President Bashir al-Assad know who to blame for the recent unrest. They blame Qatar and Arab Gulf countries, accusing them of inciting violence to weaken and divide Syria. At pro-government rallies, Syrians say Gulf Arab countries take orders from the United States and Israel to weaken the alliance of Iran, Syria and Hizballah.

Their argument goes that because Syria dares to stand up to the U.S. while supporting resistance to Israel’s occupation of Arab lands, a conspiracy has been hatched with the support of foreign media to topple Assad’s pan-Arab nationalist regime. Had Gulf Arab countries been genuine about reform and democracy, they would have been more vocal about countries like Bahrain where a reform movement was also crushed militarily.

It’s a different story in parts of the country where anti-government sentiment runs high. Their struggle, they say, is for freedom from oppression and tyranny. Popular unrest is the same as it was in other Arab countries fighting to end one-family rule and dictatorships. Opposition forces inside Syria say the crackdown by pro-Assad forces and “gangs” is the work of foreign hands too. But the foreign hands are Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizballah who want to preserve their patron in Damascus.

In Zabadani, a Syrian town that is nestled along the Lebanese-Syrian border, members of the Free Syrian Army, a loose knit group of fighters made up of military defectors and their anti-government supporters, openly profess their disdain for Hizballah and Iran. When I visited the town with Arab League monitors, the city was swept up in a hysterical frenzy over rumors that Hizballah had amassed fighters on the Lebanese side of the border to coordinate a join attack with the Syrian military against Zabadani. Hizballah denied the charges.

Syrian activists inside the country have recently been circulating amateur footage of what they claim to be Iranian forces captured while operating inside Syria. A member of the Iranian parliament who chairs the Security and Foreign policy committee in the legislature, described 11 missing Iranian nationals as religious pilgrims, further sowing confusion over what is fact or fiction. The U.S. has also accused Iran of supporting the government in Damascus, saying high-ranking Iranian military officials have visited Syria in recent weeks. MAGAZINE: “The Real Threat in the Middle East.” (Subscription)

Iran has reiterated its support for Assad’s government. According to Iran’s official news agency, Iranian officials say Assad still has the majority of support in his country and that Tehran stands by the President’s reform plans against what it calls “terrorists attacking the central government.” The Syrian government claims weapons are being smuggled in from Turkey and Jordan to arm rebel fighters attacking the state. Gulf Arab countries are financing the Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has repeatedly criticized the Arab League and the West for not doing more to intervene to stop the bloodshed. They call on the United Nations Security Council powers to impose tougher sanctions on Syria and have openly called for military intervention including the imposition of no-fly zones or “safe-zones” and humanitarian corridors that would restrict the movement of the Syrian military inside the country.

Syria’s main ally, Russia has also been involved in the media blame game. According to a pro-Assad satellite channel, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has blamed members of the U.N. Security Council for fueling the divisions in Syria by not exerting more pressure on the opposition movement known as the Syrian National Council to enter direct negotiations with the Assad government to resolve the conflict.

The media in Syria has become a vital tool in the battle for the country. Pro-government channels dedicate considerable resources and airtime to scrutinize amateur cell phone footage used by protestors and circulated globally via the internet to undermine reports of atrocities and massacres spread by the opposition. They also dissect foreign news bulletins looking for errors and biases they say are evidence of a foreign conspiracy against them.

As the conflict drags on and becomes increasingly militarized, many people feel the wounds of a full-blown war between the government and armed insurgents would destroy Syria and that fear has paralyzed some into supporting the president — for the time being. It is difficult to gauge how much support the President or his policies actually have. Syrians I spoke to have expressed support for the regime out of fear of the alternative. They don’t know what a post-Assad Syria would look or function like. Many of those I spoke to blame the Syrian opposition for not doing a better job of communicating their vision for the day after.

For the time being, foreign journalists inside Syria are still under restrictions as to where they can go in the country, though more and more, they are pushing the limits — at great personal risk — by venturing out without the permission or the presence of government minders. The government says restricting the movement of journalists is for their safety. Critics say it’s to control the message.

Unlike Arab revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya where critical masses quickly and overwhelmingly exposed the unpopularity of their regimes, the battle for the hearts and minds of Syrians and those watching the uprising from afar still rages, just like the 10-month conflict itself.

Source Time