Archive for September 4th, 2012

Turkey to press for safe zone in Syria

August 29, 2012

ISTANBUL (AP) — There is no better lesson about the perils of setting up a safe zone in a country in conflict than Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs killed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 in what had been declared a U.N.-protected enclave. Now Turkey is pressing the United Nations to set up a safe haven inside Syria to protect thousands of people fleeing the country’s civil war as it strains to shelter an increasing flow of refugees.

Mindful of that bloody episode in the Balkans — Europe’s worst massacre since World War II — Turkey and its allies, particularly the United States, have conducted detailed planning and extensive diplomacy ahead of a possible occupation of some territory in Syria, where activists say more than 20,000 people have died since an uprising began in March 2011 — many of them civilians killed by regime forces.

Yet the idea of a buffer zone, or no-fly zone — or more likely a combination of the two — still poses complex legal and logistical challenges, as well as fears that intervention could trigger reprisal attacks and end up widening the conflict in an already combustible region.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday that he would press the U.N. Security Council on Thursday at a high-level meeting in New York to set up the safe zone, reflecting frustration at the failure of rhetoric, diplomacy, economic pressure and aid for the Syrian opposition to stop the bloodshed. However, such action amounts to military intervention because a security force would have to guard civilians, and Russia, an ally of Syria that has a military base there, and China have used their council votes to block action against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We expect the U.N. to step in and protect the refugees inside Syria, and if possible, to shelter them in camps there,” Davutoglu said. “When refugee numbers reach hundreds of thousands, this problem goes beyond being an internal issue and becomes an international one. No one has the right to expect Turkey to take on this international responsibility on its own.”

Turkey has long floated the idea of a buffer zone to protect displaced Syrians from attacks by Syrian regime forces, but the issue is more pressing because the number of refugees in Turkey has exceeded 80,000 — an amount it says approaches its limits. The U.N. refugee agency has said up to 200,000 refugees could eventually flee to Turkey, which shares a 566-mile (911-kilometer) frontier with Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians have also fled to Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.

However, the humanitarian crisis is clouded by geopolitical interests and rivalries. Russia felt betrayed by the NATO military mission in Libya, where it believes a U.N. mandate to protect civilians from attacks by forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi was used as legal cover to unseat him.

If Russian cannot be persuaded, a group of allies, including the U.S., Turkey, France, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, could choose to proceed with a safe zone without the legitimacy of a U.N. resolution. But Assad, who still counts regional power Iran among his few supporters, could gain political capital by characterizing an intervention as a Western or sectarian vendetta against him.

With Syria known to be in possession of chemical weapons, and Israel pondering an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, allied planners must consider the worst-case scenarios of intervention — an especially unappetizing prospect for the U.S. administration ahead of a presidential election in November. Turkey has said it will not act alone.

“Legally they need U.N. approval to create a buffer zone or no-fly-zone, but it doesn’t seem possible in the near future because of Russia’s opposition in the Security Council,” said Ercument Tezcan, an international law expert at USAK, a research center based in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Still, he said, allies could establish a no-fly zone in Syria, just as U.S.-led powers did in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Kurds and Shiite Muslims from dictator Saddam Hussein, and enforce it on the basis of humanitarian intervention even though they would be violating Syria’s sovereignty.

“There is no legal definition of humanitarian intervention,” Tezcan said. “It just needs strong willpower, but these countries may be criticized by their publics and by history.” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France, which backs Turkey’s idea for buffer zones, said in an interview Wednesday on France-Inter radio that setting them up without an internationally imposed no-fly zone to protect civilians is impossible.

“We continue to believe despite all the limits that there are, that something can be done in international legality,” he said, citing Russo-Chinese vetoes on tougher U.N. language against Syria. “We cannot just sit idly by.”

Since the powers that would establish any safe zone are also calling for Assad’s ouster and supporting the Syrian opposition, a so-called humanitarian mission could easily be construed as the first step in regime change managed from the outside. There would be concerns about whether Syrian rebels are using any foreign-protected camps to stage attacks on regime forces, which in turn could try to launch long-range artillery or air strikes on those same locations inside Syria.

The grave burden of protecting civilians was evident at Srebrenica, where thousands were slain in summary executions and their bodies plowed into mass graves. International courts have ruled the massacre amounted to genocide. Dutch troops stationed in the enclave as U.N. peacekeepers were undermanned and outgunned, and failed to intervene.

“To be effective, a safe zone requires a serious armed force that can defend it and serious logistics to supply it and that means a lot of military boots on the ground and serious commitment,” said Emir Suljagic, a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre who had worked as an interpreter for U.N. forces based in the town. He advocated an allied bombing campaign in Syria along the lines of those in Libya and Kosovo on the basis that, “the only answer to such violence is equally extensive violence.”

Bosnian Serbs also took peacekeeping soldiers hostage in an attempt to deter United Nations commanders from ordering NATO air strikes against Serb forces surrounding Bosnian safe zones. This hostage situation blocked any serious military action by the U.N.

In 1994, under a U.N. mandate, France established a humanitarian zone in Rwanda in response to the genocide there, but the project was plagued by accusations that perpetrators of the violence benefited from it.

Human Rights Watch has urged countries that have taken in Syrian refugees to keep their borders open despite the pressure of greater numbers, and said the international community should contribute aid. In Beirut, HRW representative Lama Fakih expressed concern that the establishment of any safe zone could leave fleeing civilians in a potentially more precarious situation against their will.

“Under international law, they have a right to be able to leave their country and seek asylum in another country,” Fakih said. Turkey has experience with a buffer zone, helping to set one up in 1991 to deal with hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees flooding to the border from Iraq during Saddam’s war with a U.S.-led coalition. International aid groups assisted Kurds on the Iraqi side of the border. The numbers flooding across from Syria are not as great, but Turkey is building four new camps to accommodate new arrivals. One opened late Tuesday, allowing authorities to start letting in several thousand more displaced Syrians who were waiting on the Syrian side of the border.

“If the situation in Syria becomes graver, it is possible that we will experience a mass exodus,” said Atilla Sandikli, an analyst at BILGESAM, a research center in Istanbul. “A buffer zone has become inevitable.”

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed.

UN says 100,000 refugees fled Syria in August

September 04, 2012

GENEVA (AP) — Some 100,000 refugees fled Syria during August making it by far the highest monthly total since hostilities began, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday.

The tide in people fleeing the civil war, a figure that includes both refugees who are registered and those awaiting registration with the Geneva-based U.N. refugee agency, underscores the intensifying violence between the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and the armed anti-government groups.

The August total represents more than 40 percent of the 234,368 Syrian refugees who, as of the last count on September 2, had fled for surrounding countries since the uprising began 17 months ago. “If you do the math, it’s quite an astonishing number,” U.N. refugee agency spokesman Melissa Fleming told reporters Tuesday at the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva. “And it points to a significant escalation in refugee movement and people seeking asylum, and probably points to a very precarious and violent situation inside the country.”

The refugee agency and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are continuing to expand their operations to support displaced Syrians and appealing to all nations to take in Syrians who need asylum. There are now more than 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, where the borders remain open, and there is a backlog of some 8,000 Syrians waiting to be processed at the border, Fleming said. Jordan has more than 77,000 Syrian refugees; Lebanon has more than 59,000; and Iraq nearly 18,700, according to the agency.

The U.N.’s World Food Program spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters that her agency is scaling up operations to provide food urgently needed by 1.5 million people this month, mainly in areas where there has been fighting and people made at least temporarily homeless.

Activists say some 5,000 people were killed in August, the highest toll in the 17-month-old uprising and more than three times the monthly average. The U.N. children’s agency says 1,600 were killed last week alone, also the highest figure for the entire revolt.

The two major activist groups, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, have raised their total death toll to between 23,000 and 26,000.

Egypt reopens Gaza border crossing for passengers

By ASHRAF SWEILAM, Associated Press
Aug 26, 2012

EL-ARISH, Egypt (AP) — An Egyptian security official says Egypt has reopened its passenger terminal with the Gaza Strip and resumed normal operations there after nearly three weeks of disruption following a deadly attack on Egyptian soldiers by Islamic militants.

The official said from inside the Rafah crossing that it will be open six days a week, with normal security measures. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

The closure of the terminal raised tensions between Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Gaza’s ruling Hamas, which had hoped Morsi would end the enclave’s five-year isolation.

Egypt shut down the terminal after 16 Egyptian soldiers were shot dead by masked gunmen while breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan on Aug. 5.

Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

AP IMPACT: With war, Syrians in constant flight

August 23, 2012

KAFAR HAMRA, Syria (AP) — Civil war has chased Fatima Ghorab and her brood of some two dozen women and children across Syria in search of safe havens that keep disappearing in the booms of artillery shells. They now shelter in an unfinished apartment in this Aleppo suburb, crowded into two rooms with a few plastic chairs and some thin mattresses. If their neighbors didn’t bring them bread, they’d have none.

As her daughters and daughters-in-law and their kids tuck into a simple lunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, canned meat and apricot jam, the 56-year-old housewife from Damascus struggles to comprehend what has become of her life.

“Before all this we were living well,” said Ghorab, whose family ran a supermarket in the capital until it and their home were torched during a government attack on rebels. “Our house was full and our shop was full. Now we’re 100 degrees below zero.”

Across Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been thrown into a life on the move by the widening fight between President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebels seeking to end his rule. Some 1.2 million people are displaced inside Syria, according to the United Nations, on top of a quarter-million who have fled to neighboring countries.

Many have picked up and fled multiple times, pushed from town to town by fighting. When they find a place that appears safe, they pile into half-built apartment buildings or sleep on tile floors in schools or on the dirt in olive groves. In tow, they bring shell-shocked children who wet their beds, get nosebleeds and vomit when they hear explosions or fighter jets.

For many, no place feels safe as the regime ramps up its use of attack helicopters and fighter jets, carrying out near daily airstrikes on towns and villages. While some towns are largely destroyed and empty, others are packed. One day, villagers watch refugees from elsewhere flood in. The next day, they themselves load their belongings into rented trucks and clear out.

Ghorab’s turmoil began several months ago, when three of her sons were arrested for anti-regime protests. They were freed, but then her husband was arrested. When he was released, his feet were so swollen from beatings he couldn’t walk, Ghorab said. Then last month, security forces torched the family’s home and supermarket during an assault to push rebels from their battle zone neighborhood of Tadamon.

By that time, Ghorab had already fled with her daughters and daughters-in-law, fearing they could be arrested too. They went first to Aleppo, 200 miles to the north. The city, Syria’s largest, had been quiet for most of the 17-month-old uprising. But then last month, rebel fighters pushed into Aleppo and the government tried to bomb them out, turning the city into a war zone.

So Ghorab and her family fled once more, to nearby Kafar Hamra. They have little money, and all their men remain in the cities to protect their remaining properties from thieves. “I have to take care of all these women and children, and there are no men here and no money,” Ghorab said.

Her family has it better than some. Nearby, a public school is packed with some 15 families who fled the town of Anadan, which regime forces have reduced to a rubble-strewn ghost town. More than 17 months of violence in Syria have ravaged entire communities across this country of 22 million and killed more than 20,000 people, according to anti-regime activists.

Recent months have been particularly bloody as rebel forces have grown more adept at attacking government troops and pushed the battle into the country’s two biggest cities — Aleppo in the north and the capital Damascus. In retaliation, the regime has turned increasingly to air power.

But no community has been left unaffected, whether by rising prices for food and fuel, destruction brought by fighting or influxes of civilians. Every morning in the tiny village of Sawran near the Turkish border, hundreds of men and boys form long, dense lines that snake from the two windows of a small bakery under the glare of the sun. Most of them have fled to the area from Aleppo or from largely destroyed towns further south and now sleep in schools or farmhouses, often 10 to a room.

Ali Jassem, a stonemason, brought his family from Aleppo and hasn’t worked in two months. He said he can barely afford bread, much less gas for his car, so he walks eight kilometers (5 miles) each morning to the bakery, waits in line for an hour, then walks back to the farmhouse of friend where he is staying.

“The hardest part is food and poverty because there is no work anywhere,” he said. Minutes later, a fight broke out in the line and men rushed to intervene. “This happens all the time,” Jassem said with a shrug. “It’s chaos.”

For Mariam, a 42-year-old mother of four, life has become a series of rushed moves whose end has yet to come. Three months ago, Syrian forces started firing occasional artillery shells at her home village of Mayer, north of Aleppo, she said. Residents guessed their Sunni Muslim village was targeted because they live near a Shiite village that supports Assad’s regime.

At first, the family would sleep in nearby fields, but the shelling continued, so they moved to Aleppo. Then Aleppo’s fighting erupted, and neighborhoods were consumed by fighting between rebels and government forces. Mariam’s family moved three times inside the city, and finally returned to Mayer.

“We decided that if we were going to get shelled, it might as well be in our own house,” she said. The family had also run out of money to rent places to stay. The shells continued to fall and the family slept in an underground storeroom, though the summer heat made it sweltering. The booms terrified her children, who sometimes screamed in their sleep.

“They all started wetting their beds. Even the teenagers,” said Mariam, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisals against her family. Then the fighter jets came, dropping bombs that shook the walls and destroyed buildings, so a group of families rented a vegetable truck to take them to the Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey. Most didn’t have passports, making it hard to leave, so they laid out a plastic mat on the sidewalk to sleep on until they could decide what to do next.

Scores of other families had camped out nearby. Ironically, other families have fled the same Aleppo suburb that Ghorab fled to. Abdel-Basit Mustafa’s family once ran a successful construction company in Kafar Hamra, which he said remained quiet while violence further north drove entire towns into the town.

Then the shells came their way, too. On two successive days, several artillery shells hit the town, Mustafa said, one peppering his brother’s car with shrapnel. The next day, an airstrike killed three people who had fled to the area from Aleppo.

The next day, Mustafa’s family hired a truck to take them to a large olive grove along the Turkish border where many Syrians collect before entering refugee camps on the other side. Unlike many, the family had the money to rent an apartment in Turkey, but many lacked passports, making it unsure if they could cross at all.

So they waited. “That’s our family over there,” Mustafa said, pointing to a dozen women and children in the scant shade of an olive tree. “We’ll probably sleep there tonight, on the dirt.”