Civilians leave the the besieged Syrian city of Homs as Syria’s regime and rebels accused each other of violating a truce. Bassel Tawil / AFP
September 4, 2014 by Hassan Hassan
Bashar Al Assad has a dilemma: ISIL has spun out of control, after once being seen as a useful tool with which he could prod and undermine the opposition. But, unless US air strikes against the group are part of a broader rapprochement with the regime, they will only serve to strengthen his opponents, since the jihadi group controls territory it has seized from the rebels. Furthermore, air strikes would reduce pressure on the rebels in Hasaka, Aleppo, Idlib and Hama and enable them to open new fronts against the regime.
The opposition seems to have a greater dilemma: ISIL now has a clear gateway into Idlib, in the north-west of the country, one of the last remaining strongholds of the moderate Free Syrian Army. Meanwhile, there has been a growing sense of apathy among the opposition’s backers. Since the appointment of new leaders for the National Coalition and the interim government, the opposition has not made any formal visit to Saudi Arabia. According to official sources, Riyadh and other key backers have been dissatisfied about recent infighting within the opposition.
Also, during a meeting in Ankara last month, Turkish and Qatari officials made a proposal to the Friends of Syria’s core group known as “London 11” to include the Islamic Front, a coalition of Salafi-armed groups, in the official western-backed scheme of financing and training the Syrian rebels. The scheme stipulates that governments can only support groups affiliated to the FSA’s general command, even though regional governments informally support other forces.
The Turkish-Qatari proposal, which came a month after the hardline group Ahrar Al Sham was excluded from a new formulation under the Islamic Front, was rejected. The proposal was an attempt to resuscitate the Islamic Front, significantly weakened in recent months in part because a US-supervised policy of blocking foreign funding to radical groups coincided with the alliance’s exhausting fight against ISIL. The demise of the Islamic Front has implications on the rebels’ military abilities.
Unlike the regime, which still fully controls six key provinces, the opposition has already lost the majority of its territories either to Al Assad (such as Homs) or to jihadist groups (Deir Ezzor and Raqqa) and Jabhat Al Nusra (Deraa). This situation is aggravated by the waning of support for the opposition and the simultaneous rise of ISIL.
It is hard to imagine how this can be reversed, even with increased support for the rebels. At the same time, the fight against ISIL will be significantly harder if it returns to the north of Syria.
So, what is the way forward? A fresh approach to the conflict is urgently needed. To fight ISIL effectively, a broader approach and deeper engagement are both vital, especially with the local populations under the jihadi group’s control. That requires going beyond containment and moving towards long-term political and military arrangements.
For example, training the rebels should be seen as a necessary tool to govern and police territories outside the regime’s control. Any political solution for the conflict should consider such local dynamics, rather than focus on a doomed power-sharing arrangement in Damascus.
Any prospect of a US-led coalition striking ISIL in Syria would present an opportunity to start such a process. There is already a nascent regional realignment to pursue a broader solution, not only in Syria but also in Iraq – with Qatar and Turkey moving slightly towards the Saudi position of prioritising the fight against radicals, and the Iranians and Saudis engaging with each other to deal with the crises in Iraq and Syria.
In Syria, both the regime and the opposition view ISIL as a serious threat, but each side also sees the air strikes as an opportunity and a challenge, depending on whether the international action will involve working with one party at the expense of the other.
This opportunity to work towards a lasting solution in Syria cannot be missed. The Al Assad regime, it should be emphasised, remains a spoke in the wheel. Although the regime has started to feel the heat from the rise of ISIL, it will continue to view the militant group as a useful tool for its survival. It might be interested in degrading the group’s assets but not in its elimination. On the other hand, the rebels are better positioned to eliminate ISIL and keep extremists at bay in the longer term, especially if they had the assistance of a regional coalition.
September 13, 2013
Syrian government and pro-government forces executed at least 248 people in the towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas on May 2 and 3, 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. It was one of the deadliest instances of mass summary executions since the start of the conflict in Syria.
The 68-page report, “‘No One’s Left’: Summary Executions by Syrian Forces in al-Bayda and Baniyas,”is based oninterviews with 15 al-Bayda residents and 5 from Baniyas, including witnesses who saw or heard government and pro-government forces detain and then execute their relatives.Working with survivors and local activists, Human Rights Watch compiled a list of 167 people killed in al-Bayda and 81 in Baniyas. Based on witness accounts and video evidence, Human Rights Watch determined that the overwhelming majority were executed after military clashes ended and opposition fighters had retreated. The actual number of fatalities is probably higher, particularly in Baniyas, given how difficult it is to access the area to account for the dead.
Pro-government forces stand in the main square of the town of al-Bayda on May 2, 2013 where residents were gathered and executed at close range. Syrian government forces and pro-government militias clashed with a group of opposition fighters earlier that day. Once the opposition fighters retreated, pro-government forces and militias rounded up many men in al-Bayda and executed them. Women and children were also executed. Photo: AP
“While the world’s attention is on ensuring that Syria’s government can no longer use chemical weapons against its population, we shouldn’t forget that Syrian government forces have used conventional means to slaughter civilians,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Survivors told us devastating stories of how their unarmed relatives were mowed down in front of them by government and pro-government forces.”
The Syrian government acknowledged its military operations in al-Bayda and Baniyas but said that its forces had killed only “terrorists.” Ali Haidar, minister of state for national reconciliation affairs, told the Wall Street Journal that “mistakes” may have been committed in the operations and that a government committee was investigating. But he also said that the government was forced to act to deny rebels a foothold in a part of Syria that many considered the heartland of the Alawites.
On the morning of May 2, Syrian government forces and pro-government militias clashed with opposition fighters in al-Bayda, a town of about 7,000 residents 10 kilometers from the coastal city of Baniyas. The area is considered a Sunni antigovernment enclave within the largely Alawite and pro-government Tartous governorate. Witnesses said that after the local opposition fighters retreated, at about 1 p.m., government and pro-government forces entered the town and proceeded to search the houses.
Over the next three hours, the forces entered homes, separated men from women, rounded up the men of each neighborhood in one spot, and executed them by shooting them at close range. Human Rights Watch also documented the execution of at least 23 women and 14 children, including infants.
One witness in al-Bayda described how government soldiers entered her home, took her husband, his three brothers, and a neighbor, to the next-door apartment and executed them:
Suddenly we heard gunshots. I started screaming to my father-in-law, “The men are gone, Abu Muhammad, the men.” I ran to the window and saw around 20 soldiers leave the apartment next door. As soon as they left, we broke out of the apartment where they had left us and rushed to the apartment where they had taken the men. I first saw my husband’s body by the door. Then I found Sa`id’s body in the hallway. The remaining three were in a room on top of each other. Each of the men had three bullets in him.
In many cases, pro-government forces burned the bodies. In one particularly gruesome case, they piled up at least 25 bodies in a cell phone store on the village square and set them on fire, based on witness statements and video evidence Human Rights Watch reviewed. Government and pro-government forces also burned and looted homes and intentionally destroyed property, based on accounts by a number of witnesses and video footage likely filmed by pro-government forces and eventually obtained by someone who posted it on YouTube and by local residents showing burning homes and cars.
The next day, in a pattern closely resembling events in al-Bayda, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that after storming Ras al-Nabe`, a neighborhood in Baniyas, government forces and pro-government militias executed dozens of residents.
In some cases, government and pro-government forces executed, or attempted to execute, entire families in the two towns. Three local residents who found the bodies after the forces had left al-Bayda, said that they executed all the members of one of the branches of the Bayasi family who were in their homes on May 2 – at least nine men, three women, and fourteen children –with the exception of a 3-year-old girl who they said was wounded by three bullets but survived.
One of the first responders to find the Bayasi bodies described to Human Rights Watch how he found them:
I was busy helping the surviving residents leave the town when the fiancé of one the Bayasi women asked me to go with him to check on her. We went to the house of Mustafa Ali Bayasi. We entered. We saw no one in the first room. As we entered further into the house, we got to a room where we found so many corpses. Mothers and children piled on top of each other. One mother was still covering her son. I thought he may have survived but as I turned her over, I saw that he had been also shot. My friend’s fiancé was also killed. We closed the windows of the house because we did not want any wild animals to come in.
In Ras al-Nabe` residents also told Human Rights Watch that they located the bodies of entire families, including children, who were killed together. Their wounds, including gunshot wounds to the head and chest, and the location of the bodies, sometimes found in piles on the street, led them to conclude that they had been executed.
Two Ras al-Nabe` residents told Human Rights Watch that during the evening of May 3 they saw near the edge of the neighborhood a pile of approximately 30 corpses, including at least 7 women and 6 children, primarily from the Suleiman and Taha families. One resident, Bassam, told Human Rights Watch that after seeing armed men whom he believed were members of the security forces or army he heard his neighbor from the Suleiman family screaming in the street that his parents had been killed. Bassam said that he found the neighbor standing over the 30 bodies on the street.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the forces who entered the two towns were a mix of regular government troops; members of the National Defense Force, a paramilitary group organized earlier in the year by the government from pro-government militias; and armed pro-government residents of neighboring villages. One witness said that soldiers who enteredher house had black tags on their sleeves identifying them as Special Forces. Reporters for pro-government media outlets on May 2 interviewed soldiers on the outskirts of al-Bayda, who indicated that it was the army and National Defense Force that led the attack.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented summary and extrajudicial executions by government and pro-government forces following ground operations in many parts of Syria, including in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, and Homs and Idlib governorates. Human Rights Watch has also documented executions carried out by opposition fighters in areas under their control in Homs and Aleppo governorates and has just concluded a field investigation into executions committed by opposition fighters during their offensive in Northern Latakia in early August.
The UN Security Council should ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council should also insist that Syria cooperates fully with the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry by giving it unrestricted access to al-Bayda and Baniyas. The Syrian government should make public any findings by the government committee that Haidar, the government minister, said had been formed to investigate the killings in al-Bayda and Baniyas.
“The Security Council has the opportunity to deter future killings – not just by chemical weapons, but by all means and by all parties–by referring the situation to the ICC,” Stork said. “As the US and Russia negotiate over Syria’s chemical weapons, they should remember that for the victim and their relatives, the method of killing is secondary.”
Syrian refugee children stand inside their family caravan at the Mrajeeb Al Fhood refugee camp, 20 km (12.4 miles) east of the city of Zarqa April 29, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed
United Nations, July 16, 2013 by Michelle Nichols
The number of people fleeing the conflict in Syria has escalated to an average of 6,000 a day during 2013 - a rate not seen since the genocide in Rwanda nearly two decades ago, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday.
Guterres said two-thirds of the nearly 1.8 million refugees registered with the United Nations in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere had left Syria since the beginning of the year.
"We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago," Guterres told a rare public briefing to the U.N. Security Council on Syria, where a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests more than two years ago has spiraled into civil war.
Thousands of people fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic told the Security Council that between March 2011 and the end of April 2013 at least 92,901 people were killed in Syria of which more than 6,500 were children.
The Security Council has been deadlocked on Syria. Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and China have three times blocked action against Assad that was backed by the remaining veto powers - the United States, Britain and France.
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said the Syrian government was doing “everything possible to shoulder its responsibility and its duty to its people, to meet the humanitarian needs and the basic needs of its citizens.”
U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos said the world was “not only watching the destruction of a country but also of its people.”
"The security, economic, political, social, development and humanitarian consequences of this crisis are extremely grave and its human impact immeasurable in terms of the long term trauma and emotional impact on this and future generations of Syrians," Amos told the council.
She said 6.8 million Syrians need urgent humanitarian assistance, including more than 4.2 million internally displaced, and that almost half of those needing help were children. The latest assessment by the World Food Programme was that 4 million people can no longer meet their basic food needs.
Amos said another $3.1 billion was needed to help people in Syria and neighboring countries for the rest of the year.
There are more than 600,000 refugees registered in Lebanon, 160,000 in Iraq, 90,000 in Egypt and 1 million in Turkey and Jordan, said Guterres, who described the impact as “crushing.”
Lebanon’s U.N. Ambassador Nawaf Salam said his country’s borders would remain open to Syrian refugees, even though the conflict was threatening Lebanese security and stability. He said the Lebanese General Security Directorate puts the number of Syrians in Lebanon at 1.2 million.
"It is as if your country, the United States of America, were going to have an influx of over 75 million refugees, or over twice the population of Canada," Salam said to U.S. Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, the council president for July.
"Could you imagine the impacts of an influx of such magnitude on your own country?" he asked.
Members of the Free Syrian Army walk along a damaged street filled with debris in the besieged area of Homs July 13, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Yazan Homsy
Islamabad/Peshawar, July 14, 2013 by Maria Golovina and Jibran Ahmad
The Pakistani Taliban have set up camps and sent hundreds of men to Syria to fight alongside rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, militants said on Sunday, in a strategy aimed at cementing ties with Al-Qaeda’s central leadership.
More than two years since the start of the anti-Assad rebellion, Syria has become a magnet for foreign Sunni fighters who have flocked to the Middle Eastern nation to join what they see as a holy war against Shiite oppressors.
Operating alongside militant groups such as the al Nusra Front, described by the United States as a branch of Al-Qaeda, they mainly come from nearby countries such as Libya and Tunisia riven by similar conflict as a result of the Arab Spring.
On Sunday, Taliban commanders in Pakistan said they had also decided to join the cause, saying hundreds of fighters had gone to Syria to fight alongside their “Mujahedeen friends”.
"When our brothers needed our help, we sent hundreds of fighters along with our Arab friends," one senior commander told Reuters, adding that the group would soon issue videos of what he described as their victories in Syria.
The announcement further complicates the picture on the ground in Syria, where rivalries have already been on the boil between the Free Syrian Army and the Islamists.
Islamists operate a smaller, more effective force which now controls most of the rebel-held parts of northern Syria. Tensions erupted again on Thursday when an Al-Qaeda linked militant group assassinated one of Free Syrian Army’s top commanders after a dispute in the port city of Latakia.
It also comes at a time when Assad’s forces, with backing from fighters from Hezbollah and Iran, have been making gains on the Syrian battlefield.
Another Taliban commander in Pakistan, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision to send fighters to Syria came at the request of “Arab friends”.
"Since our Arab brothers have come here for our support, we are bound to help them in their respective countries and that is what we did in Syria," he told Reuters.
"We have established our own camps in Syria. Some of our people go and then return after spending some time fighting there."
Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban operate mainly from Pakistan’s insurgency-plagued ethnic Pashtun areas along the Afghan border - a long-standing stronghold for militants including the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies.
Taliban militants in Pakistan, who are linked to their Afghan counterparts, are mainly fighting to topple Pakistan’s government and to impose their radical version of Islam, targeting the military, security forces and civilians.
But they also enjoy close ties with Al-Qaeda and other jihahist groups who have, in turn, deployed their own fighters to Pakistan’s volatile tribal region on the Afghan border known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.
In the latest sign of this trend, at least two suspected foreign militants were killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan, local security officials said.
Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani author and expert on the Taliban, said sending Taliban fighters to Syria was likely to be appreciated as an act of loyalty towards their Al-Qaeda allies.
"The Pakistani Taliban have remained a sort surrogate of Al-Qaeda. We’ve got all these foreigners up there in FATA who are being looked after or trained by the Pakistani Taliban," said Rashid, who is based in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
"They are acting like global jihadists, precisely with the agenda that Al-Qaeda has got. This is a way, I suppose, to cement relationships with the Syrian militant groups … and to enlarge their sphere of influence."
Actress and UNICEF Ambassador Lucy Liu visits Syrian children in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon who fled the civil war.
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, July 15, 2013 by Lucy Liu
In my nine years as a UNICEF ambassador, I’ve been to camps for people displaced by conflict. Though hardly luxurious, they usually have some kind of structure: a water source, latrines, even schools.
In Lebanon, even the most basic services are hard to come by as the small country staggers from the flow of refugees from its larger neighbor. The places I saw had no toilets, no clean water sources, no places to shower and no areas for cooking. Cases of painful scabies, lice and fleas are on the rise.
I met mothers and children who have witnessed unspeakable acts of violence, including the death of loved ones. Often arriving in Lebanon with no more than the clothes on their backs, moms are trying to hold their families together with no idea how they will feed, clothe or shelter their traumatized kids.
Many of these refugees lived a middle-class life in Syria, where they had homes, jobs, electricity and plumbing.
Now, their savings dwindled and many of them are dependent on the generosity and hospitality of strangers. They are living in tents constructed from discarded objects such as burlap sacks and plastic sheets. They might rent land from a farmer or squat in an abandoned construction site. These new “homes” leave them exposed to all sorts of dangers, respiratory infections and other diseases. And because there are no official camps, people are scattered, which makes identifying the informal settlement sites extremely challenging.
We traveled to a cement factory, where some Syrian mothers were renting tiny rooms to house their entire families. I noticed one young girl who had dull, patchy skin. Her eyes sparkled and she was quick to smile, but her hair, eyebrows and lashes were sparse. When I asked about what happened, I was told that she became ill after playing in the factory’s toxic waste.
Since January, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon has more than tripled. More than a million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.
Considering Lebanon has a population of 4 million people, this is a crisis of epic scale that is putting enormous strain on local communities.
According to UNICEF, there are more than 150,000 refugee children who are not in school in the country; by the end of the year, the number could exceed 400,000. Some of them have missed out on more than a year of learning. Syrian children can enroll in public schools in Lebanon as long as there is space, but many schools are already at capacity.
In the United States, much of the discussion about Syria has been focused on politics. But for the kids I met, and millions more like them all across the region, politics is the farthest thing from their minds.
Despite bearing no responsibility for the violence, children are paying the heaviest price for the conflict. They desperately need water, medical attention, sanitation, psychological support and the opportunity to receive an education, but there are simply not enough resources to alleviate suffering.
In spite of the enormity of the crisis, funding for lifesaving aid is in short supply.
UNICEF has received only a fraction of the $470 million it needs, which means programs to support these children are threatened. Clean water, schools, health care and nutrition are all at risk.
I was overwhelmed by the deprivation and trauma the children we met have endured. But they rushed up to us with kisses and hugs, asking only for the chance to go to school. They deserve that chance.
What’s at stake is an entire generation of children who are carrying the emotional and physical scars of war. Time is running out for them. They need our help to stay alive, to go to school and to be kids again.A woman refugee holds her son outside a tent shelter in a makeshift encampment in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Photo: UNICEFA woman prepares a meal outdoors in a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon. Photo: UNICEFRefugee children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photo: UNICEF
Hatay, July 1st, 2013
Iraqi, Jordanian, and Turkish border guards are pushing back tens of thousands of people trying to flee Syria. Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey have either closed numerous border crossings entirely or allowed only limited numbers of Syrians to cross, leaving tens of thousands stranded in dangerous conditions in Syria’s conflict-ridden border regions. Only Lebanon has an open border policy for Syrians fleeing the conflict.
On June 25, 2013, airstrikes reportedly hit the Syrian Bab al-Salam camp for displaced Syrians near the Turkish border, where thousands of people have been stuck since August 2012 because Turkey refuses them entry.A Syrian activist who visited the camp on June 26 told Human Rights Watch that the attacks injured seven people and residents. He said that the seven were allowed into Turkey for treatment but that the Turkish authorities had kept the nearby border crossing closed, despite protests from Syrians living in the Bab al-Salam camp.
“Syria’s neighbors should stop pushing desperate people back to places where their lives are in danger,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch. “International donors should help Syria’s neighbors by generously supporting them and humanitarian agencies assisting almost two million refugees.”
Human Rights Watch has documented the refugee situation on Syria’s borders:
- Although Jordan denies it has closed its borders, recently arrived Syrian refugees in Jordan say that Jordanian border guards blocked their and others’ entry for days or weeks in May. Since late 2011, Jordan has preventedPalestinians, Iraqis, single military-aged men, and anyone without identity documents from entering Jordan.
- Authorities in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) admit that they closed their border with Syria in May, and that since mid-June only some Syrians in need of emergency humanitarian assistance have been allowed to cross.
- Authorities in central Iraq maintain that they will admit “urgent humanitarian cases” and family reunification cases. But they have severely limited the number of Syrians allowed to enter since August 2012, and new arrivals virtually ceased in late March.
- Turkey is blocking the entry of thousands of Syrians at the Bab al-Salam, Atma, and other border crossings with Syria. Turkey only sporadically allows small numbers from the Bab al-Salam camp and other displaced Syrian camps in Syria close to the Turkish border to cross into Turkey, with thousands blocked for weeks or months inside Syria. In October, a senior Turkish official told Human Rights Watch that the country’s refugee camps were full and said that instead of allowing more Syrian refugees to enter, the government was making sure that assistance reached Syrians in areas close to the border.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of mid-June Jordan was hosting over 480,000 Syrian refugees who were either already registered or being registered by UNHCR, while Turkey was hosting over 387,000, and Iraq over 158,000. Lebanon has over 550,000 UNHCR-registered or registering Syrian refugees, adding approximately 10 per cent to its population, while the Lebanese government estimates the number of Syrians in the country at more than one million.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, customary international refugee law and international human rights law require all countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement. They are prohibited from sending anyone back to – or pushing back anyone trying to leave – a country where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face a serious risk of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds “the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
International donors should urge Syria’s neighbors to keep their borders open to asylum seekers. The donors should also provide generous financial support to humanitarian agencies addressing the refugee crisis and operational support to the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, Human Rights Watch said.
“Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey risk turning Syria into an open-air prison for tens of thousands of Syrians unable to escape the carnage in their country,” Simpson said. “Neither the pressure those countries are under due to rising refugee numbers, nor giving aid inside Syria, can justify violating people’s basic right to seek asylum from persecution and other abuse.”
For further details about the border closures, and extracts of interviews with Syrian refugees blocked at the Jordanian border, please see below.
Pushbacks at the Iraqi Border
As of June 25, UNHCR had registered 159,140 mostly Syrian Kurds in Iraq. About 5,500 live in the al-Qa’im camp, while the rest live in Iraq’s Kurdistan region: about 60,000 in Domiz camp and about 100,000 others who mostly live in Duhok city, about 60 kilometers from the Syrian border.
Despite taking in these numbers, the Iraqi authorities have blocked thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of Syrians at the border.
August 2012 Closure of the al-Qa’im Border Crossing
In mid-August 2012, senior officials in Baghdad ordered local authorities and the Ministry of Displacement and Migration to close the al-Qa’im border crossing, located near al-Qa’im town in Iraq’s Anbar province and near the Syrian town of Abu Kamal. The local authorities told Human Rights Watch that they were reluctant to close the border but had to comply with the orders from Baghdad.
In late August, Salam al-Khafaji, Iraq’s deputy displacement and migration minister, told Human Rights Watch the authorities had closed the crossing to everyone while they expanded the nearby al-Qa’im refugee camp, which was sheltering a few thousands refugees. However, other senior officials said the crossing had been closed for security reasons, and implied that al-Qaeda operatives might use it to enter Iraq.
The authorities re-opened the crossing on September 18, but refused entry to all single men of military age and limited the entry of other refugees, citing security concerns.
In late September, Syrians stranded on the Syrian side told Human Rights Watch that they and thousands of others had not been allowed to cross into Iraq since mid-August. In late October, a local aid agency told Human Rights Watch that between September 24 and October 10, Iraqi authorities allowed only about 125 people to cross per day. On October 15, Human Rights Watch called on Iraqi authorities to reopen the crossing.
On June 13, Iraq’s Interior Ministry spokesperson, Saad Maan, told Human Rights Watch that the Interior Ministry controlled central Iraq’s border crossings and that the al-Qa’im crossing had been closed to all refugees since October. On June 13, the mayor of al-Qaim told Human Rights Watch al-Qa’im had been closed for “humanitarian reasons,” but did not elaborate.
On June 18, al-Khafaji acknowledged the al-Qa’im border closure, but told Human Rights Watch the border was “not entirely closed” and that since October a limited but unknown number of Syrians facing “humanitarian emergencies” had been allowed to cross.
UNHCR and local aid agencies say that between October and late March 2013, the authorities allowed only a few Syrian refugees to cross at al-Qa’im, mainly for family reunification purposes.
On June 4, UNHCR said the authorities had completely closed al-Qa’im at the end of March, which had the effect of “impeding … Syrians seeking refuge in [Iraq’s] Anbar Governorate” and has “led to the return of many registered refugees to Syria as they can no longer bring family members into Iraq, in addition to not being able to access the labor market” in al-Qa’im.
The Iraqi government should immediately reopen the al-Qa’im border crossing and allow to UNHCR to register Syrians as they cross, Human Rights Watch said.
May 2013 Closure of the Unofficial Peshkapor Border Crossing
UNHCR says that since October, most Syrian refugees trying to enter Iraq have only been allowed to cross into Iraq’s Kurdistan region through the unofficial Peshkapor border crossing, which the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) administers. The crossing is about 20 kilometers from Duhok city and 60 kilometers from the Domiz refugee camp.
According to UNHCR, on May 19 the KRG authorities completely closed the crossing. In mid-June, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that “the closure of the…border crossing into northern Iraq for all except family reunion” was “of greatest concern.”
In June, Human Rights Watch spoke with a number of local officials and aid agency staff working with Syrian refugees, who confirmed the closure and gave different explanations for it.
An official in the KRG’s Council of Ministers said that although he was not aware of any official reasons for the closure, the KRG felt that not all Syrian Kurds fleeing to KRG-controlled areas were refugees because the situation in the Kurdish part of Syria was “not so bad.” He also said the KRG was frustrated about the lack of support from Baghdad and the international community for the Domiz camp, where the living conditions were “terrible.”
A UNHCR staff member said that officials told UNHCR that they had closed the border “until further notice for technical reasons.”
A staff member of a local aid agency told Human Rights Watch that the KRG and Iraqi central government had agreed to close the border temporarily because of poor conditions in the severely overcrowded Domiz camp. On April 2, UNHCR reported that the camp sheltered 35,000 people and was “critically overcrowded.” According to camp residents and local aid workers, as of late June the camp sheltered around 60,000 people.
A person in contact with Syrian opposition officials said the KRG authorities had closed the border while they discuss new plans to share revenues from the border crossing with Syrian officials.
Other sources said the KRG’s President, Massoud Barzani, personally ordered the closure after the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria allegedly detained 75 members of the Syrian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in mid-May.
On June 18 a local aid worker told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had opened the border the day before to allow “humanitarian emergencies” to cross and that the KRG Interior Ministry had said the border would reopen by the end of June.
In late June, a UNHCR official told Human Rights Watch that KRG authorities partially opened the border on May 29 to allow Syrians wishing to return home to leave Iraq and that the authorities had allowed a very limited number of people to cross on “exceptional humanitarian grounds, [such as] medical [and] family re-unification [cases] or of third country nationals,” and on an ad hoc basis.
Human Rights Watch said it was concerned by UNHCR statements that KRG authorities reopened the crossing in June only to allow Syrians to return to Syria.
In mid-June, aid workers told Human Rights Watch that KRG authorities had pledged to build a new refugee camp near the town of Duhok, and that the KRG authorities would reopen the border crossing at the end of June.
KRG officials have not responded to Human Rights Watch requests for official comment on the border closure.
Human Rights Watch said it was also concerned by reports from aid workers in the area that since mid-June, hundreds of people have been stranded in Syria, just across the border from the Peshkapor crossing, and are at risk of violence, disease, and food shortages.
The Iraqi and KRG governments should immediately reopen the al-Qa’im and Peshkapor border crossings and allow UNHCR to register Syrians as they cross. The KRG authorities should also fulfill their pledge to build a new refugee camp near Duhok, to reduce overcrowding at the Domiz refugee camp.
Pushbacks at the Jordanian Border
As of June, UNHCR had registered or was registering over 480,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. However, Jordanian authorities are preventing thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, single males, and undocumented people fleeing the Syrian conflict from crossing into Jordan.
Human Rights Watch first reported on Jordan’s border pushbacks and forced return of Palestinian refugees trying to flee Syria in July 2012. In March 2013 Human Rights Watch also reported on Jordan’s rejection since late 2011 of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, single males and undocumented people seeking asylum at its border with Syria.
Since late May 2013, Jordanian authorities have also temporarily prevented thousands of Syrians from crossing into Jordan to seek refuge, according to local and international aid agencies and refugees who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Jordanian Royal Court officials told Human Rights Watch on May 27 that border authorities had neither closed the border nor limited the number of refugees permitted to enter. They said that fierce fighting in the border area and the Syrian armed forces’ deliberate targeting of fleeing refugees had prevented refugees from reaching the border.
However, refugees who spoke to Human Rights Watch after they entered Jordan only with great difficulty in the second half of May said that Jordanian border officials were also responsible for the decrease in the number of refugees entering Jordan. Some said that officials told them that the border was temporarily closed, while others claimed that officials said they were limiting the number of refugees allowed to enter Jordan to 150 each day.
Any attempt to block or limit the number of refugees seeking refuge in Jordan puts them at grave risk, Human Rights Watch said. King Abdullah acknowledged this in March, when he told a questioner that Jordan would not close its borders to Syrian refugees: “How are you going to turn back women, children? This is something we just can’t do. It’s not the Jordanian way.”
In mid-May, there was a sharp reduction in the number of Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan.
Between March and May, UNHCR registered between 1,000 and 2,000 every day in the Za’tari camp. Between May 11 and May 16, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – which pre-registers Syrian asylum seekers as they cross the border into Jordan before transporting them to the Za’tari refugee camp for UNHCR formal registration – registered an average of 1,553 a day.
On May 17, IOM registered only 369 people and on May 18, the figure dropped to 107. Between May 19 and May 23, only 34 people were registered and the daily average between May 24 and May 27 was 133. At the end of May, the numbers increased again but then varied considerably over the coming weeks: 1,328 on May 28, extreme variations between May 29 and June 4 with a high of 982 and a low of 48, and between June 5 and 15 an average of 430 per day.
Although Jordanian officials deny closing the border and attributed the fluctuation to fighting near the border, eight refugees who finally managed to cross the border in May told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian officials had tried to prevent them and many others from crossing. They said officials told them the border was temporarily closed to all refugees or that only between 50 and 150 people would be allowed to cross each day.
Amna, a 27-year-old woman from the Syrian city of Homs who arrived to the Jaber border crossing in mid-May with her husband and three children, told Human Rights Watch that Jordanian border officials stamped their passports but then cancelled the stamps before they were able to cross the border. They waited for eight days before Jordanian officials finally allowed them to enter:
At first we came through the official border with our passports … We went to the Jordanian side to get [our passports] stamped to go through. First they stamped it but then they cancelled the stamp and we had to go back to Syria. They just yelled and screamed at you: “get out of here, go back to Syria!”….
They left us at the Syrian entrance to the Jaber border crossing. We sat on the ground. We stayed there for eight days. There were a lot of people, maybe 50 or 60 families. They didn’t say why we had to stay there. The [Jordanian] security said if you can bring someone who can vouch for you, if you know someone, then you can go in [the border]…They just didn’t allow us to get too close to their border. They yelled at us, “Why are you staying here in the street? Why don’t you go back to your country?” We told them our houses were destroyed and we can’t go back.
Other asylum seekers said that Jordanian border officials or Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters told them Jordan was only allowing a limited number of Syrians to cross.
Mohammed, a 20-year-old from Syria’s Daraa Governorate who crossed to Jordan on May 27 with his 59-year-old mother, said that FSA officials told Syrians approaching the Jordanian border near the Tel Shehab border crossing that Jordanian officials had told the FSA they would only allow 50 Syrians to cross each day. He told Human Rights Watch that when he and others approached the border, Jordanian border guards prevented them from entering, saying, “Only 50 can cross at a time.”
A Syrian 17-year-old, Walid, said he and his family waited for eight days near the Tel Shebab crossing before Jordanian officials allowed them to cross on May 29:
According to their mood [the Jordanian border authorities] maybe let 50 people pass. Then they say, “No more” … The first 50 people would enter, and then they close it and say no one else can enter.
Fatima, a 31-year-old single mother of three from a small village south of Damascus, waited for three days in the border area before crossing:
The first day we were told the border was closed. The rebels made a phone call to the Jordanian side. They said, “They said for today it is enough – 60 people. You have to wait for tomorrow.” They said, “We can only take a certain amount because they [the Jordanians] gave us a quota.” Some people were waiting two or three weeks to cross. We saw them talking to [the Jordanians] on the phone … When we got to the border we saw them talking face to face but we women were far away so we couldn’t hear what they were saying. The first day we didn’t go out. The second day [the FSA] said we couldn’t go – they were trying to take the disabled and sick.
Pushbacks at the Turkish Border
In October 2012, Human Rights Watch reported on Turkey’s blocking of thousands of Syrians since August at the Bab al-Salam, Atma, and other border crossings with Syria.
The same month, a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that he knew that large numbers of Syrians were close to the Turkish border, but did not know whether the authorities had prevented them from crossing. He said his government was assisting Turkish groups to take aid across the border to Syrians who required humanitarian assistance but whom the Turkish government did not consider to be in danger.
In June 2013, humanitarian assistance providers working with Syrian refugees and Syrian activists told Human Rights Watch that Turkish border guards at some official border crossings were preventing thousands of Syrians from entering Turkey, allowing only those with urgent medical needs to cross.
A Syrian activist said that Turkish authorities had refused to admit 150 to 200 families at the Atma crossing in the preceding two weeks because nearby refugee camps in Turkey were full. The activist said they were forced to join the thousands of would-be refugees in makeshift Internally Displaced People camps on the Syrian side.
He also told Human Rights Watch that, on June 25, the Syrian government conducted aerial attacks against the Bab al-Salam camp where would-be refugees were staying, injuring seven people and terrifying the residents. The seven injured people were allowed into Turkey for treatment, but the nearby border crossing remained closed. Following the attack, camp residents protested the Turkish government’s unwillingness to let them cross into safety.
Another Syrian activist confirmed that as of mid-June, the Bab al-Salam border crossing was no longer open to Syrian refugees, leaving families stranded on the Syrian side and vulnerable to attack. The activist said some had crossed into Turkey clandestinely and were living in a makeshift camp they had set up in a public park in Killis, a Turkish town near the border crossing.
Human Rights Watch said that neither a lack of space in refugee camps nor the provision of cross-border humanitarian assistance could justify preventing or delaying Syrians’ fleeing conflict access to Turkey. Instead, Turkey should immediately assist Syrians in Turkey while they are screened, and then allow them to move freely or accommodate them in open camps.
Security Risks to Would-be Refugees in Syrian Border Areas
Human Rights Watch said there have been less air and artillery strikes by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s border regions than in other areas. However, thousands of would-be refugees who have been denied entry to Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey are in areas that have seen and experienced aerial attacks and artillery fire, Human Rights Watch said.
One aid worker in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region told Human Rights Watch in June that an increased spate of bombings and other attacks near the town of al-Rabea in northeastern Syria had made that area unsafe. The aid worker said that the attacks had led the Iraqi central government and the KRG authorities agree to close the Peshkapor crossing.
Refugees attempting to cross into Jordan have recently faced danger due to fighting between the Syrian armed forces and the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the border areas. Jordanian officials have told Human Rights Watch that in May and June 2013, Syrian soldiers fired directly at refugees to prevent them from reaching the border and Human Rights Watch has previously reported on Syrian soldiers shooting at Syrians as they try to cross the border to Jordan.
Refugees who spoke with Human Rights Watch in June and media reports confirm that fierce clashes took place in the border areas in late May 2013, increasing the risk to refugees stuck in those areas.
The large internal displacement camps in Bab al Salam and Atma in Syria near the Turkish border have also been hit by Syrian air force air strikes, including the most recent attack on June 25 at Bab al-Salam and an attack on Atma on November 26.
“On May 25, 2012, 108 people were murdered in the Syrian town of Houla. Gruesome videos of woman and children slaughtered in their homes spread like wildfire across the Internet, the United Nations issued a report that attempted to discern exactly what happened, and the United States expelled Syria’s top diplomat in Washington.
Fast-forward 11 months: The Syrian military has reportedly launched an offensive in the Damascus suburbs of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz — part of a broader effort to secure the capital from rebel assault — and the Local Coordination Committees of Syria are reporting that more than 400 people have been massacred. Other opposition networks cite a lower death toll, but still point to a significant loss of life: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for instance, is reporting that 101 people have been documented killed, but that the final death toll could exceed 250 Syrians.
The two events may be equally horrifying, but there are few similarities in the international response to them. The coverage of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz has been limited to a fewnewspaper articles — top U.S. officials have not felt compelled to respond, and the United Nations has not sprung into action.
Part of the reason for the lack of an international response this time around is the absence of any information coming from the Damascus suburbs. Even though Jdeidet al-Artouz is only about 10 miles from the center of Damascus, the Syrian military has locked down the area — no journalists or NGOs have been able to get close enough to report on what is going on. The lockdown is also preventing information from getting out of the towns, which explains the murkiness about the casualty figures. Even so, a few videos have leaked out, purporting to show dead men, women, and children.
But it’s hard to avoid another conclusion: The international community is simply growing desensitized to reports of massacres in Syria. At the time of the Houla massacre, the conflict had killed an estimated 10,000 Syrians — 11 months later, the United Nations estimates the death toll at more than 70,000 people. In the face of such unrelenting violence, the world simply looks away.”
what scares me about all of this is that the staggering death toll we had seen in yesterdays massacres might become the new “norm” shame on the world for turning a blind eye on our people.
Syrian Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said that neither the forces of President Bashar al-Assad nor rebels seeking to overthrow him can win the war which is now being fought on the outskirts of Assad’s powerbase in Damascus.
Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by Assad’s…
Millions of Syrians are using social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Skype to disseminate and discuss the conflict. Each week our Mohammed Sergie monitors the online conversation in English and Arabic, pulling out the highlights in a feature called the Social Media…
Nov 23/12 By Christina Chew
With winter arriving soon, some 200,000 Syrian refugee children are at “serious risk.” More than 2 million people have been displaced as the 20 month conflict drags on and the United Nations expects that some 700,000 people will register as refugees by the end of this…