Refuge Without Respite

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Even here at the Western tip of the Sahara, there are refugees from Syria. At least, this is their claim when they knock at the door with sorrowful faces. Most often they are older women, their black garb streaked with white desert dust. Piercing dark eyes, once and forever their best feature, plead with you for charity.
They almost sing their tale of murdered husband, lost child – so often told it has become their signature tune in this “land of a million poets.”
I grab a small note, anxiety rising in my throat, and thrust it into the tiny outstreched hand with a sypathetic squeeze. I want them to go quickly. Before they suspect that I’m British. Before they can sense my humiliation and anguish over my country’s action and inaction. Before the sorrow can change its tune.

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Photo: @YaronGlazer

Iran in Syria: Death buys chocolate

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Hezbollah convoy in Syria

Hezbollah convoy in Syria

Dutch TV reporter Roozbeh Kaboly and the Nieuwsuur team have put together this report, with English subtitles, based on a video said to show Iranian troops training militia in Syria, using a village school as a base.  The man being interviewed has been identified as Revolutionary Guards Commander Esmail Heydari, who reportedly died in Syria a few weeks ago, and was later given a public funeral in his hometown of Amol, about 180km north of Iran’s capital, Tehran. He describes the mission, working with teams which are on 25-day rotation, adding that some were previously trained in Iran. Part of the mission’s objective appears to be securing access for Hezbollah to deliver weapons and supplies.

Esmail Heydari| Photo: http://fajrenoor.blogfa.com/

Esmail Heydari| Photo: http://fajrenoor.blogfa.com/

Followers of human rights abuses in Iran, used to reading about the indescribable torture and cruelty dispensed to prisoners in the “special” IRGC detention centres and isolation wards, may be surprised by the smiling, relaxed, countenance of this commander. Heydari reveals the secret of his team’s success on their training mission is that they treat fighters with respect, “We haven’t paid them or anything,” he comments. Respect is a sentiment Heydari claims to extend to the local people: for example, by driving military vehicles slowly in civilian areas to avoid raising dust. While driving through a village Heydari says was deserted until his unit came to the area and cleaned up, he greets children warmly, offering candy. “When we came, there was no human being,” says Heydari. One of his team responds, “There are still no humans now, just Arabs.” The Nieuwsuur translation then relates the cameraman suggesting the Iranians also offer candy to the women they are passing on the road, but misses what I consider to be an implied threat in the reply: “We’ll give them some(thing), and you can film.” This is more typical of the IRGC behaviour I am familiar with.

The regime in Iran celebrated his death by burying Commander Heydari with honor, as a martyr who died defending the Shrine of Syeda Zainab, granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed.

At least 6 more videos were posted to YouTube by the admin of a rebel group’s Facebook page, and were later verified by France24 journalists working with translators, who helped to produce a detailed analysis. The links to the original videos were shared on Twitter, but were either shared only with selected contacts, or the settings were later changed to prevent public access. Copies of the videos, which seem to show Iranian military officers working with soldiers from Syria’s regular army, giving them advice and instructions for combat, can be seen here.

The film appears to have been recorded by Hadi Baghbani, a young Iranian documentary maker, who reportedly died during an incident on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, where he is said to have been on a 10-day assignment, his second such visit. A second group of Iranians reportedly died while on the road in Syria, either because of a traffic accident or because their driver was killed by a sniper. The rebels believed to have found Baghbani’s video camera, the Idblib-based Dawood Brigade, which released the video, claimed responsibility for “most” of the deaths in an interview with al-Aan TV. The group’s spokesperson, Hosam Alsermene, told Al-Jazeera that they killed about 15-20 members of an Iranian team after hearing about their Syrian operations. Their identities and operational details were confirmed after taking possession of mobile phones and the video camera of an independent journalist who just happened to be there. The 30-year-old filmmaker received a burial ceremony in his hometown of Babolsar, Iran.

Hadi Baghbani

Hadi Baghbani

It’s not completely clear, from the available accounts, how the bodies were returned to Iran. Can we assume that this happened with the help of Syrian authorities or the militia which were being trained? Alternatively, other Iranians still present in Syria might have been able to repatriate the dead themselves.

Defending the Shrine of Syeda Zainab

In July 2012, it was reported that about 5,000 Shiite Muslims were living in the neighbourhood of the shrine, including some who fled there to seek refuge from sectarian violence. Local youths armed with sticks were said to be defending the site, with Iran alleging clerics in Saudi Arabia had issued a fatwa demanding its destruction. A group of 48 Iranians, including members of the IRGC who claimed they were in retirement and making a pilgrimage to the shrine, was taken hostage in August 2012, before being traded in exchange for 2,130 prisoners of the Syrian regime in January 2013. Abdel Nasser Shmeir, interviewed by Al Arabiya and presented as the commander of Al-Baraa Brigade, claimed the hostages, plus their Afghan interpreter, were members of a 150-strong group sent to Syria by Iran for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. Shia news organisations claim that the shrine is now being protected by hundreds of Shia militants from Iraq and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Recent reports say a custodian of the site, Anas Romani, was killed, and the building damaged, when it was attacked by mortar shells in July 2013.  The Syrian government accused militants of the attacks.

Putting Iran In Context

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Sensible letter to the Economist from Sir Richard Dalton, a former Ambassador to Iran:

SIR – Do you really think Iran could become a regional hegemon (“Can Iran be stopped?”, June 22nd)? In one respect or another, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia, Turkey and Egypt are all as strong or stronger. Iran cannot even dominate the Gulf. The six Arab countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, tend to exaggerate Iranian influence, including in Bahrain and Yemen.

Only from southern Lebanon does Iran have the ability to project serious power. For sure, it has a strong influence in Iraq, some in Gaza, and a tightening alliance with Syria, but this merely allows Iran to maintain the position it has enjoyed for many years. This still doesn’t amount to “regional hegemony”.

You also did not mention that Iran has a policy of converting its 20% enriched uranium into oxide, ready for research-reactor fuel-making. This puts the material beyond use for bombs (short of a time-consuming, detectable and technically demanding process to turn it back into gas, which can be discounted in the medium term). That is why the United States and Israel seem relaxed about waiting for the autumn before a new round of negotiations.

The idea that everyone would bow down before Iran if it got nuclear-weapons capability is fanciful. Actions lead to reactions, and one of the reactions to deployed weapons (if there were no immediate war) would be sanctions in perpetuity and possibly an American nuclear umbrella over the West’s friends in the region. In such circumstances, what power would Iran acquire as a result of having nukes, other than deterrence?

Finally, it should be noted that Iran’s economy has been floundering, its armed forces out of date. It has minimal stocks of modern air and land weapons and has lost influence in Arab countries as a combined result of sanctions, the turmoil caused by repression after its disputed election in 2009, and the Arab spring. Since the shah’s day, the balance of power has tilted heavily against Iran, especially as the armies of the GCC have become far stronger. Some experts think the air force of the United Arab Emirates alone could take out the entire Iranian one.

Iran’s influence has fluctuated. It is rising in Iraq. Its help is desperately needed by Bashar Assad in Syria. But elsewhere, the “rise of Persia” is a myth.

Sir Richard Dalton

British ambassador to Iran, 2003-06

London

via Letters | The Economist.

My Take on #BanglaSpring: #MangoDown

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I checked out  the #BanglaSpring tag on Twitter yesterday. First impression was yet another social media engineering event using realistic looking but fake accounts.

A lot of the information being posted is hard to verify –

https://twitter.com/AzharVadi/status/331386653388189696

I just saw a Facebook post about Bangladesh in Arabic from a page supposedly created to support Syria. Really? With everything happening in Syria right now that page admin thought this was the time to focus on Bangladesh? The post showed 165 likes and 100 shares in one hour. A post on the same page about a distress call from Syria had just 3 shares and 38 likes after 2 hours.

Also, I saw Facebook posts and tweets exposing a fake “anon” #OpBangladesh campaign:

#OpBangladesh featured on this site after the April clothing factory fire. The original incarnation of this site was abused by certain individuals for purposes of infiltration and manipulation back in 2009 with #IranElection. It has since been upgraded and old links no longer work.

Finally, here is a call from Anonymous Bangladesh via Anon Arts International

Attention Call from Anonymous Bangladesh

***********************************
Dears friends,
We want to tell you that and be sure about that. We Anonymous Bangladesh is not associated with Updates regarding #OpBangladesh by #Anonymous. Not only Anonymous Bangladesh, Team Anonymous also is not associated with any hacktivism related with this operation.
Stay sharp. Don’t believe in any spam reports.
943646_477764295637675_1034305695_n

Taken together, these facts clinch it for me: way too much mango-flavored kool-aid.

If there are any real #BanglaSpring activists they are going to have to work real hard to get support and attention from anyone in the “activist diaspora” who is now wary because of these operations. They also need to wise up and watch out for astroturfing.

To be honest I was expecting the next event to be in the Caucasus/former Soviet region because I saw signs of old bots being reactivated. There’s still time for that to kick off!

astroturfing

 

Iraq Protests – 9 Demands

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Elections looming on the horizon and 5 days of protests have led to a sudden burst of interest in Iraq, the country the world usually chooses to ignore. The protests erupted after the arrest of the Finance Minister’s bodyguards sparked already simmering anger. Prime Minister Maliki has denied ordering last Thursday’s arrests and suggested that they were the result of an investigation undertaken by the judiciary. Protesters say the issues are far greater than these recent arrests.

Western media is playing up the Sunni-vs-Shia “rising sectarian tide” angle on these events, which bear all the hallmarks of other similar uprisings in the MENA region, starting with Tunisia a little over 2 years ago. One of the protest areas, Anbar, is also claimed to be a location currently favoured by al Qaeda, with the suggestion it might be used as a transit point for fighters en route to Syria. The government is reported to have imposed emergency situation restrictions there.

28 Dec 2012

Tens of thousands protest in Iraq 28 Dec 2012

No revolution is complete without a Facebook page these days and Iraq has one, because in fact there have been protests there for at least two years; they just didn’t get the same level of attention as some countries.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have joined demonstrations in Anbar, Falluja, and Ramadi, chanting slogans against Mr Maliki. During the protest in Ramadi a mock funeral was held for the Iraqi judiciary. Asharq Alwasat reports that around 60,000 people blocked the main road through the city of Falluja, 50 km (32 miles) west of the capital, setting fire to the Iranian flag and shouting “out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free” and “Maliki you coward, don’t take your advice from Iran”. At demonstrations in the northern city of Mosul and in Samarra, protesters chanted “the people want the fall of the regime”, the slogan used in popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Some journalists attempting to reach the city were held at an army checkpoint some 50km east of Ramadi for six hours, and were unable to cover the demonstration, says the BBC’s Rami Ruhayem who was at the scene.

Al Jazeera has already hosted a discussion asking “What is stoking Iraqi rage?”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vcGsVc5Opug]

In one protest today, community leaders issued nine demands and an ultimatum to the government during  a video interview:

  1. immediate release of detained protesters and dissident prisoners
  2. approve the amnesty law for innocent detainees
  3. the abolition of anti-terrorism laws used to target them
  4. repeal unfair rulings against dissidents
  5. provide essential services to areas which have been neglected by the state
  6. hold all members of official or security organisations who have committed crimes against dissidents accountable, especially those who have violated the honor of women in prisons
  7. stop financial and administrative corruption
  8. stop agitating divisions between groups, end marginalization of Sunnis
  9.  fight sectarianism

From tomorrow, Saturday 29 December 2012, an open-ended sit-in will begin, until these demands are met.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?&v=QQ5hw-PDvWU]