TIMELINE – 20th JANUARY 2012 14.25 GMT:
Perhaps signalling a sign of its desperation, the Assad regime’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, said yesterday that the “nationalistic Opposition” could join a Cabinet, if they agreed to “lay down their arms” and rejected foreign intervention.
Appearing completely delusional, he also said that any discussion of President Bashar al-Assad’s future was “unacceptable”, knowing full well that the Opposition will hold no talks with Government until Assad has stood down. The main Opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also welcome foreign intervention and there is therefore no chance of Muallem’s offer becoming a reality.
Seemingly acknowledging though that Assad is presiding over a “sinking ship”, Muallem said, “The US continues to have the president’s departure as a condition of regime change, ignoring the fact that the captain of a capsized ship does not jump into the first boat”.
That he should make such suggestions at this time is interesting, as clearly the Syrian Army are unable to push back the Opposition fighters and the Free Syrian Army and their independent allies continue to chip away at territory around Aleppo, in the rural areas and in the suburbs of Damascus.
The Army has been trying to retake the capital suburb of Daraya for 2 months but has not succeeded, despite bombarding it continuously.
Daraya was the subject of rocket and jet attacks again yesterday and today, Sunday, and dozens are reported killed or injured. 80 explosions were heard in Daraya on Saturday morning alone and Government tanks continue to shell the area indiscriminately as can be seen in this video footage, HERE:
The strain is also being felt in central Damascus where many people from the suburbs have now moved and been taken in by relatives or friends. Some houses are reported to be accommodating as many as 30 to 50 people and bread queues are starting to stretch into waits that last hours.
Inside the “Damascus Bubble”, citizens still drink hot chocolate inside cafes and civil servants still get on public transport to go to work, but the petrol queues now snake around the block and talk is of “high energy biscuits”, food normally reserved for countries in famine.
The BBC’s Lyse Doucet reports from Damascus, HERE:
In more rural areas, local residents have now taken to illegally cutting down trees in order to provide fuel for cooking and to keep warm. Al Jazeera has a video report, HERE:
Lyse Doucet has also now filed a video report and an updated article on the massacre at Hasawiya. What has emerged is that this was the work of the Alawite militia, the Shabiha, and latest reports suggest that as many as 150 died in the village.
Off camera women talk of how they were stripped naked and 44 were raped. Up to 100 men may have been kidnapped and the BBC saw of evidence of executed bodies that had been burnt in an attempt to destroy the evidence. The BBC has an article and video report (moderately gruesome), HERE:
This latest outrage prompted Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to plead with the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation, but Russia and China remain intransigent, continuing to block any move that criticises President Assad. Syria has never signed up to be an ICC member and the Security Council is the only body that can order such an investigation.
Pillay’s plea followed hard on a letter sponsored by Switzerland and now signed by 58 countries to the Security Council making a similar request.
Muallem, Syria’s Foreign Minister, accused some of the signatories of using “deceit and double standards”, requesting a human rights investigation on one hand and supplying weapons and ammunition to the Opposition on the other.
In Aleppo this morning, Sunday, it is reported from the FSA that Opposition forces have taken Base 599, one of the military emplacements defending Aleppo International Airport and there are heavy clashes around the Muhallab military barracks in the Sabeel district.
At the Menegh helicopter base, Opposition forces are able to freely survey the airfield and are within shooting distance of the aircraft remaining, HERE:
Russia, in another sign of the increasing isolation of Syria’s largest city, has suspended the operation of its consulate in Aleppo.
In the extreme north-east in Ras Al Ayn, the Kurdish National Council has called on the Syrian Opposition to stop Jihadists shelling Kurdish militia positions with tanks and heavy machine guns. Several hundred Jihadists crossed from Turkey earlier in the week and there is some suspicion that the Turkish authorities, in support of their own campaign against Kurdish militants both inside and outside Turkey, are encouraging the conflict between the two sides.
In Hasaka province, clashes between the Syrian Army and Kurdish Defence Units are being reported around the village of Karzero, just east of Al-Rmeilan city, Syria’s oil capital. The Syrian Army reportedly retreated under fire and 24 soldiers are said to have defected.
Lastly, on the “unconfirmed report” front there is one that the head of the police in Latakia has defected and another that a defected MIG pilot has attacked Assad military sites in the mainly Alawite neighbourhood of the mixed sect town of Moadamiyat al-Sham near Damascus.
At first Opposition activists thought the plane was attacking Opposition targets, but after several rocket strikes and the activation of Syrian Government air-defence systems, they concluded that the pilot had turned against the Assad regime. What happened to him or the plane is not know.
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TIMELINE – 15th JANUARY 2012 UPDATED 20.11. GMT:
Since the fall of the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib province last Friday, the Assad regime, in an apparent frenzy of retaliation has bombed and shelled Opposition held positions and districts across Syria, killing in the last few days more than 30 children and at least 11 women, plus many men both combatants and civilians.
In the aftermath of the capture of Taftanaz, the largest regime helicopter base in northern Syria, video footage has revealed seized stocks of barrel-bombs and a helicopter prepared to deliver them, HERE: and a destroyed helicopter, still with the bodies of Assad’s dead troops inside it (CAUTION: moderately gruesome), HERE:
The town of Taftanaz itself has come under heavy rocket and shell attack since the nearby base was taken. However, continuing their campaign of targeting Assad’s air power and the bases it operates from, Opposition forces have continued attacks on the Menegh, Quwayres and Jarah bases in Aleppo province and Deir El-Zour airport.
At Menegh, the Opposition fighters are making progress, breaking through the perimeter of the base and raising the revolutionary flag, HERE: and shelling Government positions with a powerful 130 mm Howitzer, HERE:
This video footage shows Opposition fighters attacking the military airbase at Deir El-Zour, HERE: while there are also reports that a Government convoy transporting senior military officers, including a brigadier general, was successfully attacked between Deir El-Zour and Palmyra.
The suburbs around Damascus and its rural areas are currently seeing some of the heaviest fighting, bombing and shelling.
To try and slow the Opposition attacks on the Mezzeh military base, the regime has bombed all the houses in the immediate area to deny the fighters cover.
The regime also claimed over the weekend that it had seized the Opposition suburb of Daraya, where heavy fighting has continued for weeks, but as clashes have continued in the last few days, despite most of the area being destroyed, the fighters continue to hold out. The effects of shelling on Daraya can be seen, HERE:
Bombardments have continued against the Damascus suburbs of Hazeh, Douma, Jesrin, Irbin, Moadamiyeh, Shebaa and Beit Saham and particularly on the East Ghouta region near the capital where the Opposition fighters are especially strong and well organised.
This morning, Tuesday, heavy clashes are reported between the 2 sides in the neighborhood of As-Sayeda Zeinab and near the Air Defense headquarters in the Al- Maliha district of Damascus.
There are also reports that the regime launched 3 Scud missiles from the
outskirts of Damascus city (Battalion 578) heading towards northern areas of Syria at 2.30 am this morning, Tuesday. This follows on from another confirmed missile launch logged by NATO tracking radar at the weekend.
One of the worst attacks in the last few days was on the Opposition held town of Azaz in Aleppo province where MIG fighters targeted an open-air market on Sunday killing 20 and wounding more than 90.
Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF – Doctors Without Borders), who operate in the area said they were inundated with bodies and casualties.
In the view of their spokesman, the Assad regime had deliberately targeted civilians, many of whom were children out with their parents innocently enjoying the first sunshine after the winter storms.
“The cars and ambulances kept on coming and patients flooded the hospital,” said Adriana Ferracin, an MSF nurse in Syria. “We received many patients with limb amputations, head injuries and bleeding eyes and ears.”
Heavy bombing and shelling has also been reported on Idlib and on Houla, where 10 people have been killed in an artillery attack this morning, and Rastan in Homs province, as well as the suburbs of Homs city itself. Some districts of Homs have been under constant Government siege for more than 6 months.
Heavy clashes continue to be reported in the south of Syria around Deraa, credited with the start of the revolution. Opposition fighters attacking a Government position can be seen, HERE: and targeting a building with Assad snipers on top, HERE:
An explosion at Aleppo University has additionally been reported this morning, which the Government are blaming on “terrorists” but which activists say was an aerial attack by Government aircraft.
7,000 students were reported to be taking their exams at the time and unconfirmed reports say deaths are anything from 15 to “70”.
The latest statement from a military official in Aleppo told the AFP news agency that the explosion occurred after rebels tried to shoot down a warplane with a missile, but failed to hit their target.
A Syrian government official in Damascus told The Associated Press that two rockets hit the university’s Information Technology Academy. The official said the two rockets were fired from a rebel-held area in Aleppo.
Latest details from the Opposition side put deaths at 52 and expected to rise, while Government sources are saying 80 dead and 160 injured. Further details as the position becomes clearer.
While clashes are reported as ongoing in the city’s Old City and throughout the suburbs, Aleppo, once Syria’s business and industrial heart has been largely destroyed but some clusters of buildings remain by mutual consent.
Some businessmen persuaded both sides in the conflict to largely leave some of the industrial areas alone and although it has not been immune to shell strikes, some industrial buildings are now home to groups of internally displaced refugees. NOW Syria has further details, HERE:
Aleppo is also home to some of Syria’s jihadist fighting groups, including the US banned Al-Nusra Front.
This terrifies many Western governments who fear that if they get a foothold and establish an Islamic state which then democratic countries and their assets will come under threat worldwide.
The problem is the jihadist fighters are often the most effective in combat, the best experienced, having fought in other war-zones, the best disciplined and the most dedicated and formidable foes of the Assad Government.
Even secular members of the Free Syrian Army give them grudging respect for their fighting skills and achievements. You can read more from Reuters, HERE:
A report just in from Jordan says that the legal leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Al-Nusra Front), Riyad Hdeib, known as Abi Hamza, has been killed in Tafas near Deraa following Government shelling.
Hdeib, aged 32, was a Jordanian national. Around 300 Jordanians are believed to be be fighting in Syria on the Opposition side.
After the killing of so many children in Syria in the last few days Human Rights Watch based in New York has called on more countries to sign to sign up to the letter drafted by Switzerland calling on the Security Council to refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation.
So far 57 countries, including all of the EU except Sweden and newly independent countries such as Tunisia and Libya, have endorsed the letter but as yet it has not been signed by the US.
In a statement, Switzerland said “the numerous allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria need to be investigated and those responsible on all sides of the conflict brought before court. ” Russia has called the request “ill-timed and counter-productive”.
Two interesting rumours about President Assad, both unconfirmed. One says, in reports originating from Saudi Intelligence, that he and his family are living safely on a Russian warship in the Mediterranean, Assad himself travelling to meetings in Damascus by helicopter. You can read more,HERE:
The second unconfirmed rumour is that Assad has given instructions that if he is assassinated then the military should launch rocket attacks against Israel, though the source of the information is the Arabic version of Russia Today (EDITOR: Not my favourite source of reliable postings!).
If you are in the West, next time you are comfortably filling up your car at the gas/petrol station, contemplate these pictures, guys smuggling plastic cans of gasoline from Iraq to Syria on their backs, through the snow with open-toed sandals, HERE:
Or these children living in concrete block buildings with no doors, no heating, not enough clothes and the ground covered with snow, in this BBC video HERE:
And lastly, just to lift your spirits a little bit, someone has done an “Syria job” on the old Hitler apoplectic rage excerpt from the film “Downfall”. Hitler, informed of the impending defeat of President Assad, loses it, HERE:
TIMELINE 30th SEPTEMBER 2012 15.05 GMT:
For months now the loyal fans of British football club Leeds United have been waiting not for news of the latest new player signing but for the details of a proposed takeover of their club by middle-east investors.
A member of the Bahraini royal family, Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarak Hamad Al Khalifa, who claimed to have “fallen in love with the club when he was 11 years old”, tried to take over Leeds United in 2003.
More recently he has been named as being involved with a consortium that has been negotiating with the football club’s owner – 80 year old Ken Bates – all summer.
Sheikh Abdulrahman is also well known in the UK for an alleged betting debt in excess of £350,000 (BHD207,230 or $565,000) which he is reputed to have owed to the British betting firm Spreadex since 2008. (See previous article: “Fake Sheikhs and Bahrain’s Fake Olympic Team” )
In the murky world of Middle East finance, it is likely that the Sheikh is still involved somewhere along the line, but his name was not mentioned when it was announced this week that an outfit called “GFH Capital” from Dubai have signed an agreement to take over the club.
Although financial details have not been released, it is thought the price the group is paying for Ken Bates shareholding is around £50 million (BHD 30,274,234 or $80.8 million dollars).
Four businessmen associated with GFH Capital attended last week’s game at the Elland Road ground, when Leeds beat Nottingham Forest 2-1, including the deputy chief executive officer of GFH Capital, David Haigh, and their chief investment officer, Salem Patel.
According to Patel, one of the their interests in the football club is that, despite having financial troubles in the past, it currently has no debt other than its ongoing lease.
GFH Capital hope to acquire the Elland Road site at some time in the future.
But their main interest is without a doubt that as from next season broadcasting rights for Premium League clubs will be a minimum of £60 million.
If Leeds, to the delight of their fans no doubt, can return to the top league, then £60 million would soon cover any interest payments that GFH Capital will probably be paying on money they will have borrowed to buy the club in the first place.
Apart from David Haigh (whose parents were from Leeds apparently and who also set up the political group “Conservatives in the Gulf” ) and Salam Patel, also present at last week’s game in Ken Bates’ director’s box was Hisham Alrayes, currently acting CEO of Gulf Finance House (GFH) of Bahrain.
GFH are 100% owners of GFH Capital, its subsidiary, and GFH’s Chairman, Esam Janahi, who was unavailable for last week’s meeting with Bates for “personal reasons”, has a long history of financial dealing across the Middle East, India and beyond.
However, red cards have been raised over the ability of GFH, which has suffered from the world economic crisis and in particular from falling land prices in Bahrain, to properly fund the Leeds deal.
Exotix, an investment firm that specialises in distressed assets, says in a research note that GFH is at “serious risk of default” and that its operations were not producing significant cash enabling it to pay future debts. “We remain wary of GFH’s ability to carry on as a going concern …” the research note continued.
According to Exotix, GFH has total debt amounting to $252 million and in May it received permission from creditors to restructure a $110 million debt that was outstanding. The National has further information, HERE:
A letter dated May 14 from the group’s auditors, KPMG, apparently says GFH “had accumulated losses of $300.69 million contractual obligations… and its current contractual obligations exceeded its liquid assets”. In other words, GFH already owes more than the value of any saleable assets that it holds.
While GFH Capital is a separate legal entity with its own funds and balance sheet, some are concerned that it plans to purchase Leeds with debt that could be put on the club’s balance sheet, an approach used in several foreign takeovers of English football clubs, notably Liverpool and Manchester United. More in the Independent, HERE:
GFH is well known in Bahrain for building the twin glass towers in the Financial Harbour district of Manama, the capital, a controversial development whose expensive office blocks remain largely empty.
According to an article published by Reuters in June 2011, “Land in the Gulf Arab region is largely controlled by a small number of ruling families who use it as a kind of currency, doling out plots to favored families and developers to forge political relationships and make money.
For it to work, the system depends on businessmen like Janahi, merchants who ostensibly operate independently from the state but whose success rests, at least in part, on political connections”.
“Our investigation shows,” continues Reuters, “The company charged investors huge markups on land deals and took out enormous up-front fees.
Such fees are legal in the Gulf but western bankers say they would be highly unusual in Europe or the United States, where the industry collects big payouts only when a project is successfully built and sold.
Documents obtained show that GFH, which has teetered on the brink of collapse for several months , also sometimes shifted investor money from one project to plug holes in another. The documents also suggest that GFH’s property projects were hurt by blurred lines between the personal interests of Janahi [the Chairman] and GFH itself. Investments and payments seemed to move back and forth between the two with very little scrutiny”.
Reuters says that “investors in GFH have been left with huge losses — $1.07 billion in 2009 and 2010 — and plenty of questions about whether the company’s myriad projects were ever going to be built in the first place”.
More recently GFH reported a profit of $4.7 million in the 2nd quarter of 2012, compared with a loss of $11.2 million in the same period a year earlier.
There are also questions around the connections of Bahrain’s dictators, the Al Khalifa family with GFH.
Documents shown to Reuters suggest that the “Ministry of Finance transferred the land on which GFH built its towers to the Bahrain Financial Harbour Company in 2003.
Bankers with knowledge of the deal say Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has governed Bahrain since independence four decades ago, granted the land in return for a 50 percent stake in the project. The other 50 percent was owned by GFH”.
The Bahrain Financial Harbour Company is chaired by Sheikh Rashid Khalifa Hamad al-Khalifa, the antique Prime Minister’s son-in-law, just another member of the ruling family that holds 50% of the Government’s cabinet positions and controls almost every other aspect of Bahrain’s political life, economy, judiciary, military and security forces and its media.
“Local bankers estimate GFH raised a total of $5 billion between 2002 and 2011 – much of that money is still locked up in unfinished projects”. You can read much more detail of on GFH’s “dodgy deals” in the Reuters special report, HERE:
For the majority of Bahrainis, the Financial Harbour and companies like GFH have come to symbolise everything they hate about the Al Khalifa Government, accusing it of corruption, lack of transparency, torture, human rights abuse and the trial of dissidents who oppose it, on false charges.
Commenting on the takeover of Leeds United by the Bahraini financial conglomerate, Gary Cooper, Chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust, said, “We’re hoping for investment in the team and for Leeds United to be glorious again”.
Leeds was relegated from the Premier League in 2004. With the right investment, good management and purchasing power to buy more first-class players, it stands a chance of making a significant come back.
However, given the risks with GFH, lets hope its fans are not left yet again with a club weighed down with financial problems – but this time with the added tarnish of being run and financed by leading members of one of the world’s most suppressive dictatorships.