June 20th, 2011
08:08 AM ET

Security brief – June 20, 2011

Compiled by Tim Lister

Assad offers revision of constitution, calls on refugees to return

Assad speech arithmetic: # times each word used: Freedom: 1; Conspiracy: 8; Vandals: 18

Reaction to Assad speech: “more committees” – protests kick off

Who’s tipping off militants in Pakistan?

Drone attacks move to new region in pursuit of Haqqanis

The new generation of mini-drones

Talks with the Taliban – just who, what and where?

Libya: Intense shelling of Misrata

Libya: NATO admit targeting erroe

Yemen: political vacuum

Syria; Assad speech offers reform, but chaos must end…Opposition scorns “dialogue”

Highlights from President Bashar al Assad’s speech:

-"There is a possibility to amend the constitutional articles including article 8" (which stipulates the Baath party’s rule in Syria) – Forms committee to study reform of constitution and make recommendations within a month

-"What we are doing now is to shape the future ...it will have consequences for the future generations for decades from now ...We wish to ensure the most and the widest participation in the national dialogue."

-"We are working on getting the military back to their barracks as soon as possible."

-"We will work on tracking down everyone who shed bloods or plotted in shedding the blood of the Syrian people and we will hold them accountable"

-"I call upon all of those who were displaced, every family, every individual who left their villages, I call upon them to return to their villages and homes, especially in Jisr Al-Shugoor who fled to Turkey."

#assad speech tweets…

Demonstrations have started in Idlib, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and some Damascus suburbs in response to #AssadSpeech #Syria.

Reuters reports: Protesters took to the streets of Damascus suburbs and several cities across Syria on Monday to denounce a speech by President Bashar al-Assad they said did not meet mass demands for sweeping political change, activists said.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a commentator on Arab affairs, tweets: Over 1,400 Syrians were killed by security forces & Bashar's reaction is to form three month long committees to study forming committees.

Issandr El Amrani on the Arabist blog says Assad sounded weak:

The previous speeches were cocky and confident, arrogant even. In this one he seemed uncomfortable and nervous, gone was the joking and swagger of a month ago. He even appeared to have lost some weight. Assad offered a bunch of technocratic reforms: a new electoral law, a commitment to root out corruption, media reform, reform of municipal government, and the launch of a national dialogue for reform that will include 100 personalities. It was a technocrat's speech, not a leader or politician's speech, and he appeared rambling and perhaps even weak. Its contents were vague, and simply did not address the very serious crisis between the Syrian people and their state ...

Assad first addressed parliament on March 30, two weeks after the start of the anti-regime demonstrations, calling the deadly unrest a "conspiracy" fomented by the country's enemies. In a televised address on April 16, he announced that the emergency law in force in Syria for nearly 50 years would be abolished, expressed his sadness at the deaths of protesters and called for a national dialogue. Opposition activists announced on Sunday that they were setting up a "National Council" to spearhead the struggle against his regime.

Refugees stranded at Turkish border

More than 10,000 Syrian refugees have already crossed into Turkey and Turkish officials say another 10,000 are sheltering close to the border just inside Syria in the olive groves and rich farmland around the town of Jisr al-Shughour. But Syrian human rights campaigner Ammar al-Qurabi said the army was now stopping those still inside Syria from leaving.

"The Syrian army has spread around the border area to prevent frightened residents from fleeing across the border to Turkey," he told Reuters. Qurabi also accused pro-government forces of attacking people trying to aid the refugees as they fled.

Kids lead Syrian protests

Dozens of children called for freedom, held anti-government signs and criticized President Bashar al-Assad in at least two Syrian cities on Sunday, a day before al-Assad planned to make another speech to the unsettled nation.

In a video posted on YouTube, showing a demonstration the cameraman claims took place Sunday in the Damascus suburb of Kaboon, dozens of mostly young people walk down a street brandishing signs, chanting and in some cases wearing party hats with messages on them. They are joined by a handful of adults, including one man who puts a boy on his shoulders as they march.

Who’s tipping off Pakistani militants?

For the second time this month, bomb-making factories in Pakistan were evacuated shortly after American intelligence officials notified Pakistani security forces of their existence, fueling suspicions that such intelligence is being shared with insurgents.

It remains unclear whether the evacuations — four of them in the past month alone — were the result of deliberate or inadvertent leaks or were planned in advance of the intelligence sharing as part of a mobile production operation.

But the disclosure, which appeared in an article by The Associated Press over the weekend, prompted senior members of Congress on Sunday to accuse Pakistan of playing a double game.

Information on two of the locations, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, was shared only in the past week, and insurgents packed up and left both sites within days.

Associated Press reported: The Americans suspect that either lower-level Pakistani officials are directly tipping the militants off to the imminent raids, or the tips are coming through the local tribal elders that Pakistan insists on informing of the raids.

The latest incidents bring to a total of four bomb-making sites that the U.S. has shared with Pakistan only to have the terrorist suspects flee before the Pakistani military arrive.

CNN’s Reza Sayah reports: A senior military official rejects allegations that Pakistani security forces are leaking information to insurgents and tipping them off before raids on bomb-making factories.

The official called the latest report by the NYT inaccurate and rejected allegations by US lawmakers that the ISI has relations with the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

Drone attacks shift to Kurram – going after Haqqanis…

Suspected U.S. drones fired missiles at a vehicle and a house in northwest Pakistan, killing at least seven people Monday in a rare attack in an area where some of NATO's fiercest enemies have reportedly traveled, Pakistani officials said. The first attack in the Kurram tribal area hit a vehicle, killing five suspected militants, said Noor Alam, a local government official.

The tribal district of Kurram is an area rarely targeted by drone missiles, with some officials saying this is only the third such attack in the region. Other stretches of the border, notably the militant stronghold of Waziristan, have been targeted on scores of occasions in recent years. The identities of the suspected militants killed in the strikes Monday in Kurram were not yet known. The attacks were confirmed by two Pakistani intelligence officials.

The new generation of drones – the size of birds

Two miles from the cow pasture where the Wright Brothers learned to fly the first airplanes, military researchers are at work on another revolution in the air: shrinking unmanned drones, the kind that fire missiles into Pakistan and spy on insurgents in Afghanistan, to the size of insects and birds.

The base’s indoor flight lab is called the “microaviary,” and for good reason. The drones in development here are designed to replicate the flight mechanics of moths, hawks and other inhabitants of the natural world. “We’re looking at how you hide in plain sight,” said Greg Parker, an aerospace engineer, as he held up a prototype of a mechanical hawk that in the future might carry out espionage or kill.

Militants attack anti-Taliban elders in Pakistan

AFP reports: The raid on the homes of anti-Taliban elders happened in the Ziarat Masood village of Mohmand district, another area where the Taliban have been attempting to establish themselves. There have been frequent military operations in the area in an effort to combat the insurgents infiltrating the district. Establishing "peace committees", tribal groups opposed to insurgents, is a key part of the security strategy, correspondents say.

The attack comes just one day after Pakistani war planes bombed a militant stronghold in the region and also launched ground attacks against insurgents there.

Afghanistan: Talking to the Taliban

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged on Sunday that the United States had begun preliminary talks with members of the Taliban as part of an effort to end the war in Afghanistan.

But as he pressed his case against withdrawing a significant number of American troops from the region this year, he said that he did not believe the negotiations would produce any positive results unless the Taliban continued to feel military pressure through the end of the year.

In an appearance on CNN’s "State of the Union," Mr. Gates cautioned that the talks were in such early stages — having begun a few weeks ago — that officials were still uncertain the Taliban participants were genuine representatives of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He said the effort was being carried out by American diplomats but did not directly involve the secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And he said several other countries were participating, though he did not specify which ones.

"We have said all along that a political outcome is the way most of the wars end," Mr. Gates said. "The question is when and if they are ready to talk seriously."

The Guardian adds: Direct talks have taken off between US officials and a credible representative of the Taliban, Tayyab Agha, formerly Mullah Omar's personal assistant. President Hamid Karzai referred to the talks publicly for the first time on Saturday. European officials they say deplore the leak, as they undermine attempts to build a modicum of trust, but they confirm the basic facts.

The first meeting was in Qatar 'several months ago', probably in the first few weeks of 2011. There have been at least two subsequent meetings, both in Germany. The US has been represented by mid-ranking state department and CIA officials.

As for the Taliban delegation, there seems to be no doubt this time that the man at its head is who he says he is. There will be no repeat of the embarrassment of last year's meeting with the 'fake Taliban'. Tayyab Agha is still believed in be in personal touch with Mullah Omar, and has been involved in all the exploratory talks involving the Taliban, including a dinner with Kabul government officials hosted by Saudi's King Abdullah in 2008.

Afghan drawdown “faulty logic”

FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN in the Weekly Standard:

Simply put, if the U.S. abandons the mission in Afghanistan before achieving the objectives President Obama announced at West Point, the "counter-terrorism" operations in Pakistan will also fail.

It is faulty logic of the worst kind to take the situation in Afghanistan that makes it so inhospitable to al Qaeda as a given, regardless of the presence or absence of U.S. forces or their activities. If the U.S. withdraws prematurely from Afghanistan and the country collapses again into ethnic civil war, then al Qaeda will have regained its original and most dangerous sanctuary.

Al Qaeda is not finished because of bin Laden’s death, moreover. Senior leaders continue to live and work in Pakistan, coordinating operations with other al Qaeda franchises around the world to attack Americans and America. What is the strategy for finishing this fight if we abandon Afghanistan prematurely or put progress toward stabilizing that country at risk?

In the region, "one of the central challenges to success at the moment is the expectation that we're going to leave before the situation is stable," says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. "The difference between (withdrawing) 30,000, 15,000 or 5,000 troops at any given moment is probably less important to the outcome than the widespread perception in the country (Afghanistan) that we're going to leave and the Taliban is going to take over again."

Karzai broadside against NATO draws sharp rebuke

In what’s become a familiar pattern, Afghan President Karzai delivered a speech on Saturday afternoon blasting the US and NATO for “using our country.” “The nations of the world which are here in our country are here for their own national interests,” said the president during a youth conference at the presidential palace. He went on to accuse them of polluting Afghanistan with military vehicles and also announced that negotiations have started with the Taliban.

Outgoing US ambassador Karl Eikenberry rebuked Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday, saying his criticism of the United States and NATO is hurting public support for allied operations in Afghanistan. "When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on," he said in a speech in Herat. "I would ask ...that your leaders please bear this in mind when they speak of my nation, my armed forces, and my people, as well as those others who also are making contributions to and sacrifices for your country."

Winning over mid-level Taliban a tall order

Toor Jan’s switch may represent a hopeful sign for the government’s plan to reintegrate the Taliban into Afghan society — but it is also a rarity. Of the 1,700 fighters who have enrolled in the 10-month-old program, only a handful are midlevel commanders, and two-thirds are from the north, where the insurgency is much weaker than in the south, said Maj. Gen. Phil Jones, the director of a NATO unit that is monitoring the program.

The total is only a fraction of the 20,000 to 40,000 Taliban insurgents, and many of the fighters who have taken advantage of the program may not even be Taliban, just men with weapons. The Taliban’s leaders, most of whom are in Pakistan, have yet to embrace reconciliation. Other diplomats said that a significant number of Taliban fighters will not switch sides unless such talks advance.

Syria: war crimes?  

The Obama administration, seeking new ways to force the Syrian leadership to halt its violent crackdown on domestic dissent, is examining whether war crimes charges can be brought against President Bashar al-Assad, senior administration officials said.

The officials said the effort was part of a broader government campaign to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian leader One senior administration official disclosed that the United States was examining whether Mr. Assad’s actions constituted war crimes and whether it was possible to seek international legal action against him, his government or Syria’s police forces and military

Russia: no UN resolution on Syria

PRESIDENT Dmitry Medvedev said Russia was ready to use its veto to block a Western-sponsored resolution on Syria at the United Nations as it could be used as cover for military action. Speaking in an interview with the Financial Times whose full transcript was released by the Kremlin on Monday, Medvedev argued that March's UN Security Council vote on Libya had paved the way for a military operation.

"What I am not ready to support is a resolution (similar to the one) on Libya because it is my deep conviction that a good resolution has been turned into a piece of paper that is being used to provide cover for a meaningless military operation," he said.

Libya: NATO acknowledges civilian casualties

An alliance statement released in Brussels late on Sunday said "NATO acknowledges civilian casualties in Tripoli strike" during action targeting a missile site. "It appears that one weapon did not strike the intended target and that there may have been a weapons system failure, which may have caused a number of civilian casualties," the statement added.

The admission that the civilian deaths were caused by NATO was an embarrassment for the alliance which has led the bombing campaign under a UN mandate to protect civilians. Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim accused the Western alliance of "deliberately targeting civilians", insisting there were no military targets anywhere near the residential area of Tripoli that was hit early on Sunday.

Libya: Debate over war powers heats up

Two influential Republican senators said Sunday they oppose any effort by House Republicans to cut funding for U.S. participation in the Libya military mission.

The comments by conservative Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina came on the 90th day of the Libya campaign - which House Speaker John Boehner says is the deadline in the War Powers Resolution for the Obama administration to get congressional authorization it has yet to seek.

Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that cutting funding for the mission was an option that the Republican-controlled House will consider when it takes up a defense appropriations bill this week. He contended that President Barack Obama has failed to comply with the War Powers Resolution, and that the main tool Congress has to respond is to control the spending.

However, McCain and Graham told Sunday talk shows such a move would send the wrong signal and undermine NATO allies leading the Libya mission with U.S. support.

Ultimately, there are two issues at play: The first is whether the U.S. should be involved in Libya, and the second is whether the president needs congressional approval to continue American operations in that theater. After three months of debate on Libya, they have become intertwined in some minds. Republicans who have historically backed a robust presidency say Obama is violating the War Powers Act. Meanwhile, Democrats who have sought to limit presidential war-making power are comfortable with Obama’s belief that the War Powers law doesn’t apply to the situation in Libya.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched into a robust defense of the legality of the operation: “I believe that President Obama has complied with the law consistent in a manner with virtually all of his predecessors,” Gates said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t think he’s breaking any new ground here.” “From our standpoint at the Pentagon, we’re involved in a limited kinetic operation,” Gates told Wallace. “If I’m in Gadhafi’s palace, I suspect I think I’m at war.”

Misrata: intense shelling by Gadhafi forces

From CNN’s Ben Wedeman: At least eight people were killed and 30 were wounded in fighting in Dafniya, west of Misrata, according to records at Al-Hikma hospital and a field hospital that are treating casualties. Most of the dead appear to be rebel fighters.

A rebel who identified himself only as Walid said he and fellow fighters came under "intense, intense, intense" shelling when they tried to advance on Gadhafi forces Sunday. They were forced to retreat, allowing Gadhafi forces to advance, he told CNN.

Bombardments began in the Dafniya area on Sunday morning, and a CNN crew could hear them continue on a fairly regular basis through the day.

A stream of wounded people flowed into a makeshift hospital in Dafniya, and witnesses reported seeing intense artillery fire coming from both sides of the clashes.

Libyan rebels try to fashion own weapons

Associated Press reports: Aref Abu Zeid used to be a heavy equipment engineer at the Libya Steel Company. Now he runs an 80-man team working 12 hours a day turning out rockets and weapons to fight Moammar Gadhafi's forces. In this rebel stronghold in western Libya, civilian engineers, mechanics and tradesmen are pumping out materiel to arm the uprising against Gadhafi's rule that has become a civil war.

"None of us here have anything to do with the military," said Abu Zeid, 50, a short man with a thick salt and pepper beard and an easy smile. "Our need to protect our homes, our lives and our city forced us into this war work."

Yemen; political vacuum

The acting head of state, vice-president Abdo Rabu Hadi, is fielding demands from religious leaders, opposition groups, youth protesters and the international community to form a joint transitional government, a senior aide to the vice president said yesterday.

"Vice-president Abdo Rabu Hadi was given a short deadline to reach agreement between political factions and he is taking this seriously," the aide said. Even so, the fractious nature of the country's political arena has made the composition of any new government, or even the transitional council, increasingly complex. As Tawakkol Karman, a leader of Yemen's democratic youth movement, wrote in an opinion piece for Saturday's New York Times, "Following months of peaceful protests that reached every village, neighbourhood and street, Yemen is now facing a complete vacuum of authority; we are without a president or parliament. Mr. Saleh may be gone, but authority has not yet been transferred to a transitional presidential council endorsed by the people."

Yemen: battles continue with Islamic militants

Yemeni security forces continued to battle Islamic militants in southern Yemen, leaving at least 21 dead over the weekend, according to a military official and a local doctor.

On Saturday, in the coastal city of Zinjibar, 12 militants and two soldiers were killed during a clash after soldiers came across militants planting a roadside bomb in an apparent effort to attack security forces entering the city, said a military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media. Five other soldiers were killed on Sunday there, the official said, and a doctor at a local Zinjibar hospital said he had received the bodies of two dead militants.

Riyadh has also tried to broker a succession on its own terms.

That has entailed forging relationships with tribal chieftains, politicians and army officers long cultivated by the Saudis as counterweights to Saleh’s 33-year rule, but they are too many and too fractious to provide a ready-made successor. And the very process of negotiating a political exit for a neighboring ruler it no longer supports has raised talk of representative government, feared by the world’s top oil exporter.

"It [Saudi Arabia] will try to stop a move to any real democratic system in the country," political analyst Ahmad al-Zurqa said. "This is the problem."

MSF accuses Bahrain security forces of beating patients  

One of the world's most respected humanitarian organizations, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), alleges that security forces loyal to the tiny Gulf state's authoritarian leader, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, regularly beat hospital patients who had injuries that could have been sustained during the rallies that started in February. It also says that, after working alongside the country's doctors and nurses for months, the charges against them are without merit.

The MSF testimony is the first to document the existence of what was effectively a torture chamber maintained by Bahraini forces within the hospital. And it provides fresh evidence that retribution was not limited to the alleged ringleaders of the protests.

LulzSec – the new wave of hackers  

LulzSec — which appears to have splintered from renowned hacktivist group Anonymous — has also successfully hacked Sony several times, as well as the FBI, Fox, PBS, Nintendo and others.

The Sony hacks stemmed from the entertainment giant suing a young hacker, George Hotz, for reprogramming his PlayStation 3 gaming console; the PBS hack followed the network's airing of a Frontline documentary LulzSec deemed unfair to WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group.

LulzSec says it is not seeking criminal profit nor participating in cyberespionage. "We do things just because we find it entertaining." The group's name is a play on LOL (laugh out loud) Security. It issues bombastic press releases, produces animated videos, and uses a mustachioed cartoon character as a logo.

Yet behind the surface frivolity lies a smooth-running campaign orchestrated by highly skilled programmers and creative multimedia artists, security analysts say.

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