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BEIRUT (Reuters) – An emboldened President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Monday to take back all of Syria, hours before the start of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, which Assad’s opponents described as stacked in his favor.

In a gesture loaded with symbolism, state television showed Assad visiting Daraya, a Damascus suburb long held by rebels but recaptured last month after fighters there surrendered in the face of a crushing siege. The Syrian leader performed Muslim holiday prayers alongside other officials in a bare hall in a Daraya mosque.

“The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists,” Assad said in an interview broadcast by state media, flanked by his delegation at an otherwise deserted road junction.

He made no mention of the ceasefire agreement, but said the army would continue its work “without hesitation, regardless of any internal or external circumstances”.

The ceasefire is due to take effect at sundown, and includes improved humanitarian aid access and joint U.S. and Russian targeting of hardline Islamists. But it faces big challenges, including how to separate nationalist rebels from the jihadists.

The rebels say the deal benefits Assad, who appears stronger than at any point since the early days of the war, with military support from Russia and Iran.

The capture of Daraya, a few kilometers (miles) from Damascus, followed years of siege and bombardment and has helped the government secure important areas to the southwest of the capital near an air base.

Backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, the army has also completely encircled the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, which has been divided into government and opposition-held zones for years.

In the footage of his visit to Daraya, Assad, 51, appeared to be driving his own vehicle, a silver SUV, as he arrived at the mosque. He smiled and waved as he entered.

FIGHTING CONTINUES

Daraya was evacuated following a local agreement between the army and rebels that let fighters escape to a rebel stronghold while civilians were sent to another government-held area. The U.N.’s aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, voiced “extreme concern”, emphasizing the harsh conditions that led to the surrender. The government has sought similar deals in other besieged areas.

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war a year ago has tilted it in Assad’s favor, after rebel advances had posed a growing threat to his rule. It has also given Russia decisive leverage over international diplomacy that has thus far failed to make any progress towards a political settlement.

The Russia-U.S. deal is the second attempt to bring about a ceasefire this year, after an agreement concluded in February collapsed as each side blamed the other for violations.

Washington, which supports some rebel factions, has been seeking to refocus the fighting in Syria on the Islamic State group, which still controls swathes of the country and has not been included in any ceasefires.

Fighting raged on several key frontlines on Monday, including Aleppo and the southern province of Quneitra.

“There are no signs we are going to a truce so far,” said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.

The Syrian war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced 11 million people from their homes in the world’s worst refugee crisis. The new truce has official support from countries on both sides, including both Iran, Assad’s ally, and Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against him.

TRICKY

Under the agreement, Russian-backed government forces and opposition groups, which are supported by the United States and Gulf States, would halt fighting for a while as a confidence building measure.

During this time, opposition fighters will have the chance to separate from militant groups in areas such as Aleppo.

But distinguishing rebels protected by the ceasefire from jihadists who are excluded from it is tricky, particularly with regards to a group formerly called the Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda’s Syria branch until it changed its name in July.

The group, which now calls itself Jabhet Fateh al-Sham, is playing a vital role in the battle for Aleppo allied with other rebel factions, but is still outside the ceasefire.

The United States has said the deal includes agreement that the government will not fly combat missions in an agreed area on the pretext of hunting fighters from the former Nusra Front. However, the opposition says a loophole would allow the government to continue air strikes for up to nine days after the ceasefire takes effect.

Nationalist rebel groups, including factions backed by Assad’s foreign enemies, wrote to Washington on Sunday to express deep concerns over the truce. The letter, seen by Reuters, said the opposition groups would “cooperate positively” with a ceasefire but believed the terms favored Assad.

It said the ceasefire shared the flaw that allowed the government to scupper the previous truce: a lack of guarantees, monitoring mechanisms or sanctions against violators.

It also said Jabhet Fateh al-Sham should be included in the truce, as the group had not carried out attacks outside Syria despite its previous ties to al Qaeda. Jabhet Fatah al-Sham said the deal aimed to weaken the “effective” anti-Assad forces, and to “bury” the revolution.

The government has made no comment on the agreement, but Syrian state media quoted what it called private sources as saying the government had given its approval.

The previous cessation of hostilities agreement resulted in a U.N.-led attempt to launch peace talks in Geneva. But these broke down before getting started in earnest.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said a new round of talks between the Syrian government and opposition may be held in early October, the RIA news agency said.

“I think that probably at the very beginning of October (U.N. Syria envoy Staffan) de Mistura should invite all the parties,” Bogdanov was quoted as saying.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed el Sherif in Cairo and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)

Photo: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with NBC News in this handout picture provided by SANA on July 14, 2016. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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