The Syrian military has held war games that included test-firing of missiles and air force and ground troop operations "similar to a real battle," state-run media reported Sunday -- a show of force as Damascus continues to defy pressures over its deadly crackdown on regime opponents.
Syria is under both Arab and international pressure to end its crackdown on an eight-month uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime that the United Nations says has killed more than 4,000 people.
The maneuvers, which state TV said took place over the weekend, came as Syria said it was still negotiating with the Arab League over the bloc's request to send observers into the country.
Tightening sanctions by Arab and other nations have failed to halt the crackdown on anti-government protesters.
State TV said the exercise was meant to test "the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression." The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were "ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security" and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, the TV said.
In October, al-Assad warned the Middle East "will burn" if the West intervenes in Syria and threatened to turn the region into "tens of Afghanistans." Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds, capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.
Although the U.S. and the European Union imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in the past months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil as they did in Libya.
Meanwhile, al-Assad has a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure; a conflict in Syria risks touching off a wider Mideast confrontation with Israel and Iran in the mix.
Syria wouldn't have to look far for prime targets to strike, sharing a border with U.S.-backed Israel and NATO-member Turkey. Al-Assad's regime is the closest Arab ally of Iran and also has ties to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and other radical groups, including the militant Palestinian Hamas.
The state-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers "to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them." The uprising against al-Assad's regime began in mid-March, during a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In case of international intervention, al-Assad and his main Mideast backer, Iran, could launch retaliatory attacks on Israel or more likely unleash Hezbollah fighters or Palestinian militant allies to do the job.
Northern neighbor Turkey has imposed sanctions on Syria and opened its doors to anti-al-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels, which also could bring Syrian reprisals.
Suspending Free Trade Pact Will Harm Syrians: Turkey
Syria is punishing its own people by suspending a free trade agreement with Turkey in retaliation for Turkish sanctions against the Damascus regime, Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan said Sunday.
Damascus decided last week to suspend the 2004 trade pact after Turkey, one of Syria's closest economic partners, followed in the footsteps of the Arab League in announcing a series of sanctions on the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad for its eight-month-long crackdown on anti-regime protesters that has claimed more than 4,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
Among the measures, Ankara froze trade and severed links between the two countries' central banks. Turkey has a trade surplus with Syria, exporting goods worth a total of $1.8 billion to its neighbor in 2010, while imports from Syria were $663 million, accounting for only 0.3 percent of Turkey's total imports, Caglayan said. However, 10.6 percent of Syria's total imports are from Turkey, he added.
"Suspending the agreement means Syria will be exposed to economic problems more, as it already suffers from procurement issues," Caglayan said.
The free trade agreement, reached after long negotiations, marked a thaw in bilateral relations after a long period of friction. The deal was followed in 2009 by the creation of a joint panel tasked with forging closer ties.
Syria Reacts Positively to Arab League
Syria has responded positively to an Arab League request to send observers to the country as part of a peace plan to end the nation's eight-month crisis, the Foreign Ministry said Sunday, but only if the decisions made by the Arab League in Syria's absence, including economic sanctions against Damascus and the suspension of its membership, are annulled when the protocol is signed.
Makdesi said Syria also wanted statements by the Arab League secretary general and Qatar's prime minister opposing foreign intervention in Syria to be formally included in the agreement. But on Sunday, Syrian security forces shot dead five civilians in Homs province, a day after at least 30 people died in violence in the flashpoint central region, a human rights group said.
Secure Afghanistan is of Great Import for Region, Turkish Foreign Minister Says
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday that a secure Afghanistan would be of great importance for the region's security.
Davutoglu participated in the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, Germany.
"Regional cooperation constitutes an indispensable pillar of the comprehensive efforts of the International Community aimed at addressing the challenges facing Afghanistan and beyond," he said. "Forming the very heart of Asia, Afghanistan is a country whose present and future is inseparably bound with those of its neighborhood.
"Upon the request of Afghanistan, and believing that it was time to further the shared vision and principles of cooperation enshrined in the 'Istanbul Statement on Friendship and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia' adopted in January 2010 to a new level, Turkey hosted the Istanbul Conference for Afghanistan last month which convened the immediate and near neighbours of Afghanistan and its major supporters from around the world," he said.
"Turkey's commitment to Afghanistan is for the long-term. The solidarity between the Turkish and Afghan peoples has a very long history," Davutoglu said. "Today, Turkey conducts the most comprehensive assistance program of its history, in Afghanistan. We are committed to stand by our Afghan brothers and sisters as long as they want us to do so.
"Since 2001, Afghanistan has attained undeniable progress in numerous fields affecting the lives of its citizens. However, the immense challenges, which are still ahead of us, demand that all Afghans and their friends in the International Community continue to strengthen their solidarity into the future," he said.
Davutoglu to Attend Ministerial Council Meeting of OSCE in Lithuania
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will participate in the 18th Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation, or OSCE, in Europe on Dec 6 and 7, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Ministerial Council is the central decision-making and governing body of the OSCE. The meeting, held annually, provides the foreign ministers of the 56 OSCE participating states an opportunity to review and assess the organization's activities during the past year and offer national viewpoints on security matters.
With 56 states from Europe, Central Asia and North America, the OSCE is the world's largest regional security organization. It offers a forum for political negotiations and decision-making in the fields of early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation, and puts the political will of its participating states into practice through its unique network of field missions.
The OSCE has a comprehensive approach to security that encompasses politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects. It therefore addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities.
Politics Infected by Match-Fixing Scandal
A heated debate over an ongoing rigging scandal has engulfed Turkish politics with rifts beginning to emerge between the president and Parliament and within the ruling party on a law reducing penalties for match fixers.
President Abdullah Gül on Sunday accused Parliament of not sufficiently working on the bill and strongly defended his veto on the law, which would have negated an earlier regulation stipulating harsh punishments against those who corrupt Turkish football.
"I have realized an imbalance between the crime and the punishment. I have also seen that this law negated the deterrent effect [in match fixing]," Gül told reporters on the sidelines of a ceremony held at the Presidency.
The bill was vetoed in a rare move by Gül, who was elected as president in 2007 from the ranks of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Provisions in the existing law on violence in sports led to the launch of the match-fixing probe, resulting in a total of 31 football figures being jailed pending trial. If the amendments to the law had been accepted, the jail sentence of five to 12 years would have been reduced to between just one and three years.
Gül received an unusual reaction from Mustafa Elitaş, an AKP deputy parliamentary group leader and a native of the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri, which is also the president's hometown.
"We do respect our president's reasoning of his veto on the law," Elitaş told reporters. "We are respectful of the president's will, but in this case, Parliament's will comes to the forefront."
Elitaş called all parties who signed the law to stand behind their signature. All parties, except for the Peace and Development Party, or BDP, voted in favor of the law.
"If we have signed the law altogether, then we should be able to stand behind it. It would be wrong for parties to withdraw their signatures now," he said.
Top members of the AKP brass have already held meetings behind doors to find a way to solve the problem, according to information gathered by the Hürriyet Daily News. The first option is to resend the law without any amendments, given that the president has no right to veto the same law a second time. The second option is to send the law to the parliamentary commission. In either case, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's view will be decisive.
"I do not think it will be resent to the Presidency," a senior government official said Sunday. "But this all depends on how our prime minister evaluates the situation."
The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, deputy parliamentary group leader Muharrem İnce said he found Gül's veto dubious.
"I am really surprised," İnce said. "The president has not vetoed many laws that the AKP has passed thanks to their majority [in Parliament]. Did [Gül] just remember his presidential duty? Is he playing the hero now?"
AKP Calls on Parties to Stand Behind Vetoed Match-Fixing Law
The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, on Monday called on the political parties in Parliament who supported a series of amendments to a law covering sports crimes to stand behind the changes, which reduced prison terms for match-fixing convicts, in the wake of President Abdullah Gül's veto.
"Everyone should stand behind their signature," AKP parliamentary group Deputy Chairman Mustafa Elitaş told reporters on Monday. Noting that the party respects Gül's decision, he said, however, the will of Parliament should be the last word.
A bill that proposes an amendment to the Law on the Prevention of Violence and Disorder at Sporting Events, which governs crimes related to professional sports and was passed in Parliament six months ago, and was approved in Parliament last week. Elitaş recalled that the bill was drafted through a consensus among parliamentary group deputy chairmen of all political parties in Parliament, urging these parties to act together in the wake of the veto as well.
The much-debated bill calls for shorter prison terms for individuals convicted of match-fixing, who can currently receive a maximum of 12 years in prison. The bill reduces the maximum sentence to three years.
Gül vetoed the amendments on Friday, saying amendments to the law so soon after it had been passed created the impression that the changes are specifically aimed at reducing prison terms for the benefit of suspects in an ongoing match-fixing investigation.
The match-fixing investigation Gül referred to is one that has been shaking Turkish football since July. The investigation concerns allegations that some club officials and footballers rigged games in the Spor Toto Super League (first division) and the Bank Asya League 1 (second division).
Many high-ranking football officials from various Turkish clubs, including Fenerbahçe and Beşiktaş, have been arrested on charges of fraud and match-fixing.
EU to Call on Turkey for Reforms
European Union leaders will come together Dec. 8 and 9 for the European Summit of the Heads of state and Government, after which they are expected to call on Turkey to improve laws related to freedom of expression and the press.
Based on a leak, Hürriyet Daily News reporters discovered EU leaders are expected to announce that they expect Turkey to further improve the laws and implementations in areas such as human rights, basic freedoms, and press freedoms. The leak showed that leaders will voice their concerns in regards to bans on websites and trials against writers, journalists, academics and human rights activists.
The leak also indicated that EU leaders would push for more regulations on complying with the Copenhagen criteria, such as the right to property, freedom of religion, women's and children's rights, gender equality and fighting against torture.