June 14th, 2011
08:04 AM ET

Security Brief Tuesday June 14: Libyan rebels advancing

Compiled by Tim Lister

Today's Security Brief includes:
* Libya: Rebels advancing on two fronts; Gadhafi forces shell Tunisian border
* Libya: UK military warns campaign “not sustainable”
* Libya: Congress and public restive about drawn-out campaign
* Yemen: CIA drone ops imminent against Islamists
* Yemen: Saleh develops “throat problem”
* Syria: Army advances on other towns in north; more military defectors surface
* Afghanistan: Petraeus in DC with troop recommendations
* Pakistan: Taliban persecute Shiites in remote border area – CNN exclusive

Events: The House Appropriations Committee takes up the fiscal 2012 defense spending bill

Libyan rebels advance out of Misrata

Libyan rebels edged slowly beyond their western stronghold of Misrata toward Tripoli, but faced supply shortages after shelling from Moammar Gadhafi’s forces hit a key refinery in the city. Rebel units pushed their front several kilometres west to the outskirts of Zlitan, a neighbouring town controlled by Col. Gadhafi’s forces.

Any fighting over Zlitan would bring the rebellion closer to the capital Tripoli, the Libyan leader’s stronghold which lies 200 kilometres west of Misrata. Rebels from Misrata say tribal sensitivities prevent them from attacking Zlitan, and they are instead waiting for local inhabitants to rise up. Late on Monday, six rockets hit generators at the refinery near Misrata port leaving them heavily damaged. An engineer on site said it was unclear how long it would take to repair.

According to Reuters: The opposition forces pushed to within 6 miles of Zlitan. A rebel commander said his forces, using arms seized from government weapons depots and fresh armaments shipped in from Benghazi, expected to be in Zlitan by today.

The rebels gained a diplomatic boost as well yesterday when the visiting German foreign minister said the nascent opposition government was “the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.’’

*Further east, there are reports that at least 25 anti-government fighters were killed and dozens more were wounded when security forces loyal to Muammar Ghadaffi attacked anti-government positions on the outskirts of the town of Brega.

Reuters reports: To the west of Tripoli, fighting has died down around the town of Zawiyah - clashes the rebel leadership said were a sign that the momentum in the four-month-old conflict was shifting their way. But Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have pulled out of the town of Kikla, about 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Tripoli, and rebels are now in control, a Reuters photographer there said on Tuesday.

Rockets fall into Tunisia

Libyan troops fired several Grad rockets from positions controlled by Muammar Gaddafi over the border into Tunisia on Tuesday, witnesses said, causing no damage. The explosions, close to rebel territory along the border in Libya's Western Mountains, caused no damage or injuries.

The last time Libyan forces fired rockets into Tunisia, on May 17, the Tunisian government threatened to report Libya to the U.N. Security Council for committing "enemy actions".

Gadhafi hides rockets in Roman ruins?

One of the greatest abandoned cities of the Ancient World is at risk of destruction after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces took over the ruins of Leptis Magna as a base for operations, rebel leaders claimed yesterday . Rebel commanders in the city of Misrata said that Libyan government troops had moved Grad rockets and munitions into the World Heritage Site, on the coast between Misrata and Tripoli, to avoid NATO bombing.

"We received information yesterday that Gaddafi's forces are hiding inside Leptis Magna," said Abu Mohammad, the overall commander of rebel forces for the nearby town of Zlitan. The commander, who is based in Misrata, declined to give his full name because Zlitan is still largely under the control of Colonel Gaddafi's forces and fighters fear reprisals against their families. Leptis Magna is one of the best preserved and most spectacular Roman ruins in the Mediterranean, with a theatre, baths, forums and numerous triumphal arches.


UK warns Libya campaign can’t be sustained

An extended military campaign in Libya will be challenging for British naval resources and the government may need to prioritise where its assets are focused, the UK's navy chief said on Monday. British aircraft and navy ships are playing a leading role in striking at Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces. Britain also has about 10,000 troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the second most after the United States.

Admiral Mark Stanhope said he was "comfortable" within NATO's new 90-day Libya mission mandate, which runs out at the end of September. "Beyond that ... we might have to request the government to make some challenging decisions about what priorities they want," he told reporters at a joint briefing with the head of the U.S. navy in London.


US pols and public tire of Libya engagement

*The House last night voted 248-163 to withhold funding in the military construction and veterans' affairs bill from activities that go against the 1973 War Powers Act. It's a mostly symbolic rebuke of Obama's policy – for now.

*Just 26 percent of likely U.S. voters approve of continuing military action in Libya and 59 percent believe President Barack Obama should get congressional approval for the mission, according to a Rasmussen poll released Monday. The poll of 1,000 likely voters on Friday and Saturday found 42 percent oppose American action against Moammar Gadhafi, while 32 percent are undecided.


Yemen: CIA drone campaign imminent  

U.S. officials said the CIA would operate alongside, and in close coordination with, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which has been flying Predators and other remotely piloted planes over Yemen for much of the past year. Because it operates under different legal authorities than the military, the CIA may have greater latitude to carry out strikes if the political climate shifts in Yemen and cooperation with American forces is diminished or cut off. The expanded drone campaign will make use of “a mix of U.S. assets,” said a U.S. official familiar with the plan. “It’s not like you’re going to have a change of command ceremony that goes from U.S. military to CIA.”


*Sources familiar with the situation tell CNN that reports an FBI forensic team has arrived in Yemen to probe the cause of the explosion that wounded President Saleh are incorrect.

Yemen V-P meets opposition

As violence flared in Yemen’s restive south, opposition groups met with Yemen’s acting head of state Monday to discuss ways to solve the country’s political crisis and transfer power from embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is running the country while Saleh receives medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, urged opposition leaders to work with the government to first improve security and economic conditions. Then, Hadi told them, he would be willing to begin talks on finding a way to transfer power from Saleh in accordance with an initiative proposed by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors led by Saudi Arabia.


Saleh has “throat” problem – PM in bad way

From the Associated Press in Riyadh: A senior Yemeni official in the Saudi capital says President Ali Abdullah Saleh has developed a problem with his throat but that his overall condition is stable.

Saleh is being treated in Riyadh along with several to government officials wounded in a rocket attack on the mosque where they were praying in the presidential compound on June 3.

In a telephone conversation with The Associated Press on Tuesday, the official said he could not identify the nature of the throat problem, and would not be named because of the sensitive nature of the information. The prime minster was badly burned. His condition is "tragic," the official said. The Shura Council speaker is critical, lost his left eye and will be treat further in London.

*And so Yemen remains in limbo, caught between fear and celebrating the health of a leader who is hospitalized in another country. Without a clear head of state or viable government, Yemenis who have remained in cities fear that violence could break at out any moment. Citizens caught in the middle are frustrated and weary, having weathered more than four months of protests, state violence against protesters, and a 13 day long war between loyalist troops and anti-government tribesmen.


Yemen: Gates doubts civil war

Defense Secretary Robert Gates sounded cautiously optimistic about developments in Yemen, where the government and opposition tribes have engaged in armed clashes, pushing the country toward civil war. Gates said in an interview with the Associated Press that the Yemen situation has calmed since President Ali Abdullah Saleh left for neighboring Saudi Arabia on June 5 for medical treatment of wounds he suffered in an attack on his compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa.

"I don't think you'll see a full-blown war there," Gates said.

Sarah Phillips at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney and longtime Yemen watcher agrees. Writing in Foreign Policy:

Yemen is not necessarily headed for a long civil war. Despite the situation's obvious combustibility, several factors could still help pull the country back from the brink.

First, though Saleh's son commands the Republican Guard, many of the guardsmen have family and tribal kinsmen in Ali Mohsen's 1st Armored Division and the tribes that support the Ahmar family. The relatively narrow geographical and tribal origins of these three key groups could help to at least limit the potential for resorting to deadly force over an extended period.

Second, though Yemen's famously gun-toting culture is often touted as a reason to fear civil war, it could also work the other way. Ordinary Yemenis are acutely aware that violence can spiral exponentially as a result of small miscalculations. The fact that the protesters have been resolutely nonviolent despite the regime's violence against them is just one indication of how well this is understood.


…but it’s still chaotic in the south

The Yemen-based al-Qaida wing said that they held 10 hostages of government troops late Monday during battles in the southern province of Abyan.
"The al-Qaida militants, also known as Mujahedeen, announced through loudspeaker in their stronghold of Abyan's city of Jaar that they captured 10 soldiers on Monday evening and killed hundreds of government soldiers during fight over the past few days," an official told Xinhua on condition of anonymity.
In their statement, the militants claimed that one of their fighters died of gunshot during Monday clashes, the official added.

Syria: more refugees, more military action

A fresh wave of refugees poured across Syria's border with Turkey on Monday, fleeing an ongoing military crackdown in the northern city of Jisr Shughur and surrounding areas, according to witnesses and activist accounts. Violence appeared to have intensified in areas near Jisr Shughur a day after Syrian troops said they had regained control of the town of 50,000. Syrian government news outlets said Monday that army units were hunting down remaining members of what it called "armed terrorist gangs" in the mountainous area along the border and in the village of Mhambel.


Reuters adds: Troops pushed towards the northern town of Maarat al-Numaan on the Damascus-Aleppo highway after rounding up hundreds of people in a sweep through villages near Jisr al-Shughour, fleeing residents said. Late on Monday witnesses said troops and armoured vehicles had reached the village of Ahtam, 14 km (nine miles) from Maarat al-Numaan where there have been large protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

CNN’s Arwa Damon profiles a man, his wife and young child who've managed to escape from Syria into the safety of Turkey. This man has been crossing back and forth into Syria to help others seeking refuge from the violence in Jisr al-Shugur and the surrounding area. He talks about the wounded and explains how many are dying before the ambulance arrives.


Syrian army defectors detail events in Jisr

When some police started shooting in Jisr al-Shughour, others refused to do so. The two camps ended up battling each other, killing dozens. Alarmed by this mutiny, the government of President Bashar al-Assad sent troops last weekend to wipe out the town, forcing more than 7,000 refugees to flee to nearby Turkey. Such a brutal response was meant to send a message of fear to would-be defectors and prevent that region from being controlled by opponents. But by killing even more civilians – in such a wholesale way – the regime may only drive more soldiers to defy their superiors.

In a prominent defection posted on YouTube by a Syrian dissident group, a soldier named Sgt. Ali Hassan Satouf from the town of Sahl al-Ghab explains his reasons for leaving the Army: "What is taking place right now is haram [forbidden]. They are killing my people, our brothers, whether they are Christian, Alawite, or Sunni."


Another defector – a Colonel – speaks with Time.  Harmoush says that in al-Serminiyye on Friday, June 3, he decided enough was enough. "When we saw them shelling the town, shelling it indiscriminately, I decided to defect. I knew my men. They are largely conscripts. I know that if given the chance — and a guarantee that they won't be shot for defecting — three-quarters of them will leave, but fear keeps them in their place. I told them I took an oath to protect my people and my country, whoever wants to do the same and is a man of honor, follow me. Thirty did immediately."


From the Jeruslaem Post:   The problem for the regime has long been its narrow, sectarian base of support, centered on the Alawite community, to which the Assad family belongs. In the armed forces and the security services, the regime has sought to counter this by ensuring Alawite domination of the officer corps and of certain units.

The Syrian Arab Army, as it is officially called, has 11 divisions, of which two, the Presidential Guard and the 4th Armored Division, are largely Alawite and are considered reliably loyal to the regime. The regime also has a number of special forces units on which it can rely. The other nine regular units are mainly Sunni, and are worse trained and equipped. It is from units of this type, such as the 11th Division, that the defections to the uprising have come. The officers of these units are preponderantly Alawite, with a number of regime-supporting Sunnis also represented.

The command of the security services shows the way that the regime has sought to co-opt Sunnis, while retaining overall Alawite domination. Of the four security services, two (Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence) are under the control of Alawites, while two (Political Security and State Security) are headed by pro-regime Sunnis.


Syrian clashes expose sectarian rifts

The Syrian government’s retaking of a town this weekend that had teetered beyond its control is sharpening sectarian tensions along one of the country’s most explosive fault lines: relations between the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Alawite sect to which the family of President Assad belongs, residents and officials say.

Each side offered a litany of complaints about the other, according to interviews with refugees, residents and activists, suggesting, even in a small sample, deepening animosities in a country where the fear of civil war is at once real and used as a pretext for suppressing dissent. Syria is a volatile blend of Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Kurds and others inhabiting the same land, but with disproportionate political power vested in the Alawite elite.

“I’m so worried that the country might be dragged toward a sectarian confrontation,” said Aqsam Naisi, an Alawite lawyer and human rights activist in Damascus. “Jisr al-Shoughour is one example, and I hope it will be one that passes.”

The prospect alarms outsiders as well, and has been one reason that the United States and Arab neighbors have as a whole been reluctant to push out President Assad. “The sectarian aspect, the divisions and the animosity are getting worse,” said an Obama administration official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity.


Iraq militants strike in Baquba

Insurgents were holding several people hostage inside a provincial council building in Baquba after launching a brazen attack that killed at least seven people Tuesday, interior ministry officials said. The militants were shooting randomly from the roof of the Diyala provincial council building at Iraqi security forces who surrounded the building, said the officials who did not want to be named because they are not authorized to release information to media. The assault began with a suicide blast at the checkpoint to the compound, followed by a car bomb a few feet away, the officials said.


Somali government dispute gives Shabaab time to recover

The problem is, just as the military equation is changing in Somalia, the government is about to go through a seemingly pointless upheaval — again.

The president has made an agreement with the speaker of Parliament, Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, an illiterate but wily livestock trader who used to be his friend and recently had become his nemesis, to extend the transitional government by one more year. As part of the arrangement, the two leaders also agreed to dismiss the prime minister, so the speaker could bring more allies into high positions.

This deal came after months of intense international pressure, and many diplomats who work on Somalia seem exasperated by the government’s seemingly endless capacity for squabbling.

"This is such a waste," said one Western diplomat in Nairobi on Sunday. "It’s not like we’re trying to reconcile the government with the Shabab. We’re trying to bring two guys together who were together just a year ago."


Bahrain: medical staff on trial

CNN’s Nic Robertson reports:


Bahrain's military court Monday pressed the government's case against 47 doctors and nurses, ordering the medics to plead guilty or not guilty to felony or lesser charges but prohibiting any mention of mistreatment while in detention.

The hearing, which was attended by Stephanie Williams, the top U.S. diplomat in Bahrain, was the latest sign of the continuing crackdown against mainly Shiite protesters who in February started an "Arab Spring" uprising against the minority Sunni government in the small Gulf kingdom. Apparently emboldened by the presence of a top U.S. representative, Dr. Ali al Ekri, an orthopedic surgeon, and Rula al Saffar, the head of the nursing society, said their confessions were extracted after they'd been tortured. They said they had to sign the papers while blindfolded. But the military judge said the only response permitted was "guilty" or "not guilty," according to family members who witnessed the hearing.


Lebanon: Hezbollah in ascendancy in new Cabinet

Hezbollah and its allies rose to a position of unprecedented dominance in Lebanon's government Monday, giving its patrons Syria and Iran greater sway in the Middle East.

Lebanon Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a new Cabinet dominated by the militant group and its allies after the country has operated for five months without a functioning government. The move caps Hezbollah's steady rise over decades from resistance group against Israel to Lebanon's most powerful military and political force.

Pakistan: In a remote border town, Taliban persecute Shiites

CNN’s Phil Black reports: Some 300 km from Pakistan's capital Islamabad, lies the quaint town of Parichinar, along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. A single highway connects this remote area with the rest of the country. There, Shia Muslims are literally trapped by the Sunni Taliban; enduring a siege underway for four years.

Afghanistan: Petraeus in DC to talk troop #

From CNN’s Barbara Starr: General David Petraeus, commander of the war in Afghanistan, has arrived in Washington D.C. for a one-two national security punch, certain to leave ripples over the next several days. Petraeus is in Washington for final preparations in advance of his June 23 hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be confirmed as the next director of the CIA. But Petraeus has a piece of important business to finish: handing his personal recommendations to the Pentagon and White House about beginning a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting next month. Importanly, Petraeus has not shown his hand. Several aides say he has not shared his recommendation with any of his senior staff in Kabul and is virtually ‘hand carrying’ his proposal to Washington, according to one official. He is expected to begin meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other key leaders this week. And several defense officials say it’s likely he will discuss all of this with the president, although no meeting has been announced.


Talks in tandem with offensive

LA Times argues that it’s time to step up jaw-jaw:  Fighting must continue, but talking and engagement are even more urgent. Although recent exploratory talks with credible Taliban leaders represent an encouraging breakthrough, these openings could be for naught if the military campaign is not waged in concert with this political initiative.

Recent contacts made through official and unofficial channels suggest that there is genuine interest among some portion of the insurgency in a negotiated settlement. However, like any political movement, the Taliban will have to sell de-escalation and potential compromise to its own fighters and constituencies.


Karzai opponents weak, divided

Stunned by a string of assassinations and fearful that President Hamid Karzai will cede too much ground to the Taliban in peace negotiations, his ethnic rivals are struggling to form a coalition that will give them more say in the peace process and offer a credible alternative to his administration. Their effort has foundered despite high-profile leaders, a strong presence in parliament, a flurry of meetings and a large rally in the capital last month. Even as Karzai’s domestic popularity dwindles and his hostility increases toward Western forces fighting the Taliban, he remains largely unchallenged.

Karzai comes from the Pashtun south; opponents from the former Northern Alliance, which once fought the Taliban, represent a mix of minority groups from the north. Within the opposition, there are generational divisions, grudges dating to the civil war of the 1990s and the temptation of lucrative government posts.


*As the West and President Hamid Karzai's government redouble efforts to coax insurgents into peace negotiations, a loose coalition of women's groups, human rights activists, professionals, Karzai critics and ethnic groups is beginning to coalesce in opposition to such talks.

Most Afghans believe a negotiated settlement is the only way to bring the decade-old conflict to an end. But many also fear the price of any peace, worried that desperation for a deal will result in too many concessions to the militants, potentially paving the way for a return of notoriously repressive elements of Taliban rule.

"The problem is the tools and the method that the Afghan government has chosen for approaching negotiations," political analyst Sanjar Sohail said. "There are other ways to get a better result."


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