Brussels: Britain's call to amend a European Union embargo on arms sales to Syria to help opponents of President Bashar al-Assad met opposition on Thursday when EU governments warned it could allow weapons to end up in the wrong hands.

A package of EU sanctions against Syria comes up for renewal at the start of March, and Britain, backed among others by France, has said EU rules should be eased to allow some equipment to be sent to the rebels.

But many EU capitals are reluctant to agree any changes, arguing they could open the way for more arms to reach Assad or Islamist groupings among the Syrian opposition.

At a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers agreed to continue discussions on the issue in February to determine what types of equipment, particularly protective gear, can be provided under existing rules and to find a compromise.

"On the one hand we have to support moderate forces of the opposition," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said after the meeting. "On the other hand it's also about avoiding escalating tensions."

British officials are talking about permitting non-lethal gear such as body armour and night-vision goggles to be sent to the Syrian rebels rather than weapons, but other diplomats are concerned that easing the embargo could open the door to sending arms. France has ruled out sending arms to the rebels.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago.

EU diplomats said several scenarios were under consideration in terms of what help could be offered to the rebels. One possibility would be to allow some shipments to areas under rebel control.

The EU could also draw up a list of permitted equipment, to differentiate between protective gear and weapons.

Further discussions are likely to be held during a summit of EU leaders next week in Brussels.

At their February meeting, EU foreign ministers will also meet U.N.-Arab League mediator for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

Source: Reuters

WASHINGTON — Iran is stepping up its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Russia is continuing to send money and arms to the regime, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Thursday.

"The Iranians have made it clear for some time that keeping Assad in power was one of their highest priorities. We believe they have acted on that by sending in more personnel, not only to help Assad, but to support and advise military security forces," Clinton said.

In her last media interview as secretary of state, Clinton said there was "a lot of concern that they are increasing the quality of weapons, because Assad is using up the weapons, so it's numbers and it's material."

"The Iranians have been actively involved from the very beginning. It appears that they may be increasing that involvement and that is a matter of concern to us," she told a small group of journalists including AFP.

But Clinton also warned that despite US efforts to bring Moscow on board to work for an international solution to the 22-month war in Syria that has claimed some 60,000 lives, Russia was continuing to prop up the regime.

"The Russians are not passive bystanders in their support for Assad. They have been much more active on a number of fronts," she said.

"Their defense of Assad in the Security Council has been the most public, visible sign of that. But there are other ways that they have tried to protect the regime," she added.

"We have reason to believe that the Russians continue to supply financial and military assistance in the form of equipment to Assad."

But Clinton voiced hope Moscow might still change its stand, "because they cannot look at what is happening and not believe that it could be incredibly dangerous to everybody interests, including theirs."

Vice President Joe Biden will be meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany opening on Friday, she announced.

And Clinton offered assurances that her successor as secretary of state, John Kerry, would "pick up where I left off and do all that we can do... with respect to a political transition in Syria."

One of the issues was helping to bring together and train the Syrian opposition as it tries to undertake and prepare for a political transition.

"You have to make it clear that there will be something other than hardened fighters when this conflict ends, otherwise it might never end in the foreseeable future because there will be so much to fight over," Clinton warned.

Source: AFP

International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said Thursday he has no plan to return to Damascus and gave a guarded response to an offer by an opposition leader for talks with government figures.

"It is worthy of note," Brahimi said of a statement by Syrian National Council leader Moaz al-Khatib that he was "ready for direct discussions" outside of Syria.

But the UN-Arab League envoy said the reaction of the government and other opposition figures would be crucial.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the offer by Khatib but said the conflict levels are already "intolerable."

Brahimi and diplomats have noted that Khatib has set major conditions such as the release of 160,000 detainees held by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Amid general gloom about prospects for a negotiated end to the escalating 22-month old war, Brahimi said he would not return to Syria unless developments change.

"If I go to Syria, it's because there is something that I need to do," he told the UN News Service.

Brahimi this week urged the UN Security Council to end its wrangling over Syria and unite to force talks to end the conflict which the UN says has left more than 60,000 dead.

The veteran envoy said that political talks had to be pursued as the fighting worsens.

"Our efforts at starting negotiation have not been very successful. But the military campaigns have not been successful either in finishing the conflict," he told the UN agency.

"Nobody has said it's going to be easy," he added. "But perhaps negotiating is better than killing each other."

Brahimi again called on the Security Council to unite and use a statement agreed by the major powers in Geneva on June 30 as a basis to force a political transition.

The statement -- agreed by Russia, which has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, and the United States -- calls for a transitional governing body with full executive powers.

Russia says Assad cannot be forced to stand down. The United States and the Syrian opposition say the president cannot take any role in the process.

Brahimi said that the Geneva statement remains a basis for a political solution, but stressed divisions among the Security Council permanent members -- Russia and China on one side and the United States, France and Britain on the other.

The permanent powers must come to "a common understanding of what Geneva meant," said Brahimi, whose frustrations with the Security Council were shared by the last Syria envoy Kofi Annan.

"I think they can make the Geneva agreement operational," he said. "I think they could do that if they speak in one voice."

In his comment on the Syrian opposition offer, Ban said he welcomed the move but joined with Brahimi in stating that "the levels of suffering and destruction in Syria are already intolerable," said a UN spokesman.

Ban and Brahimi called for "a credible process that would lead to a real change, a clear break from the past, and fulfill the legitimate and democratic aspirations of the Syrian people," added the spokesman.

Source: AFP/Now Lebanon
01/31/13 By Sue Turton

So the global community has responded to the call for help from Syria's desperate people with pledges of huge sums of aid money. Perhaps million-dollar donations will salve the conscience of countries reluctant to get involved in sorting out this spiralling conflict.

It shouldn't.

The chance of aid reaching some of the most in need is very slim.

The UN channels all its aid through Damascus and the main distributor of this aid is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent which operates predominately in government-controlled areas.

The activist network, Avaaz, calls this supply line an "insane and immoral handout" to the Syrian regime.

Aid workers inside Damascus tell us that even aid earmarked for disputed areas outside of the city is often commandeered by government soldiers never to be seen again.

The SARC's own website lists the areas it has distributed aid to in Aleppo. All are held by the regime.

We've heard occasional stories of Red Crescent heroics.

Desperate plea

Jamal, a former SARC employee who defected with the rebels and now operates on his own delivering aid from Turkey into Idlib province, contacted his old colleagues with a desperate plea for aid last summer.

He says some of those still working in the SARC office in Idlib loaded up their truck and headed towards the frontline, telling soldiers manning a government checkpoint that they had a delivery for the government base.

Out of sight of the soldiers, they took a detour into rebel territory and got the supplies to those living on the other side of the battlelines.

The UN is looking into the possibility of taking aid into the country through other borders but says the Syrian government would still need to be consulted.

To those living in many rebel held areas the news from Kuwait will make little difference to their daily struggle to stay alive.

It won't help Ahmad who fled with his daughters from the bombing in the city of Maarat al-Numan with just the possessions they could carry.

They now live in a cave up in the snow-covered mountains of Jabal Zawiya. They've nothing to keep them warm but the sticks they collect to build a fire. They get thinner every day.

The $1.5bn is unlikely to reach doctors like Hani Marouf who is trying to treat thousands of patients in Idlib with scarcely any medicine or medical equipment.

We watched his frantic efforts to revive a 20-day-old baby with adult-size instruments. The day after baby Moutassim Bilah died on the doctor's living room floor a grandmother was hit in an air strike two streets away.

Cemeteries growing

The cemeteries are growing but the aid stocks are not.

Marouf Mohammad's mother has brought him to see the doctor, another baby struggling to breath.

He has a throat infection, a treatable complaint if treated quickly but the doctor ran out of paediatric medicine last summer.

Just a dribble of food, medicine and fuel makes it to these communities whose numbers have more than tripled as more and more people arrive looking for shelter from the bombardment that's now reached their own town or village.

The one change that could really turn things around for these people is to stop the bombings and the air strikes. Then they could get to proper hospitals.

The NGOs would deliver supplies. Fuel and food would start to flow back into the country.

It's not enough to just stock up the warehouses. Not if you want a clear conscience.

Source: Al Jazeera

The governments of countries abutting Syria have long worried that the civil war there may spill over the border, stirring strife across the region. Whereas refugees were leaving Syria last year in a steady trickle, now they have become a flood. In the past few weeks as many as 5,000 people a day have been coming over. Entire villages are emptying out. The office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) previously said it reckoned 1m people would have fled Syria by June. But already more than 700,000 have done so—and that includes only those who have been registered. The UNHCR will have to reassess an already dire situation.

Agencies and host countries are struggling to cope. Most of the refugees are women and children. In Lebanon there are no official camps, so they lodge with families. Conditions in camps in Jordan and Iraq are grim. Earlier this year rainstorms and even snowy blizzards turned some camps into quagmires. Children died of cold. Some tents went up in flames as refugees stoked fires inside them to be warm.

The plight of an estimated 2m Syrians displaced inside the country is even worse, since many are in areas deemed too dangerous for humanitarian agencies to venture. The UN says it is helping over a fifth of the country’s 23m citizens, inside and out. “We are all asking where it will end,” says Panos Moumtzis, who heads UNHCR’s mission to Syria. “This is the most complex and dangerous situation I’ve seen.”

For Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which host nearly all the refugees, the cost is growing. Schools and hospitals are crowded. Neighbouring governments are still more worried by the political instability that a refugee influx invariably brings.

The Lebanese are bitterly divided over Syria. President Bashar Assad is backed by the Shia party-cum-militia, Hizbullah, but is hated by Lebanon’s Sunnis. Many Lebanese are afraid that the refugees may upset the country’s fragile sectarian balance.

Jordanians worry that Syrian and other jihadists will use their country as a base, stirring up Jordan’s own Islamists. Turkey is wary of fleeing Syrian Kurds, since it has long battled against its own large Kurdish minority. And Iraq’s Shia-dominated government fears that restless Iraqi Sunnis may be bolstered by their co-religionists fleeing from Syria, who make up the bulk of the fighting opposition to Mr Assad.

Matters have been made worse by the aid agencies’ lumbering reaction. Refugees have rioted over conditions at Zaatari, a camp in the Jordanian desert not far from the border. Médecins Sans Frontières, a French charity which is one of the few to work in rebel-held areas, where it runs field clinics, has complained that too little aid is getting through. This is because the UN works through the Syrian government and its authorised agencies, which tend to favour government-controlled areas. Governments including those in Europe and the Gulf have been slow to fulfil past pledges. The UNHCR says it has received only 3% of the $1.5 billion it has asked for to fund its work from now until June, though at a meeting in Kuwait on January 30th donors promised $1.5 billion, with the emir pledging $300m.

The rich world’s failure to embrace the refugees more generously mirrors the ineffectiveness of its diplomacy. “No one is willing to lead policy on Syria,” bemoans Salman Shaikh, who runs a centre in Qatar for the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington. “Other organisations can work in the north [of Syria], if the UN can’t. The opposition coalition has a plan for humanitarian aid but no one is giving them the money that was promised,” he says.

Western governments are still loth to arm the rebels. Meanwhile, a sea of tents is growing on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, where refugee camps are already bursting. And Jordan is turning back Palestinians fleeing from Syria, fearing lest they brew trouble among Jordan’s own disgruntled Palestinian people. The Jordanian government has threatened to shut the borders completely if the rate of incoming refugees gets even bigger.

On January 29th around 80 male corpses, their hands bound and heads holed with gunshot wounds, were pulled out of a river near Aleppo. Mr Assad is pummelling rebel-held areas such as the Damascus suburb of Daraya into rubble in his determination to keep them under his control. In such circumstances, the incentive to leave is plainly growing. Syria’s refugee crisis is out of hand.

Source: Economist

Photo: CH4
01/31/13 By Jonathan Miller

The tank-shelling and gunfire started shortly after sunset. Major Adil, a brigade commander with the Jordanian Army border guards, was giving us the lie of the land from his desolate, wind-whipped army outpost, on a desert knoll, 500 metres from the Syrian frontier.

But bleak and uninviting as it seemed, Katiba Jaber base could never be described as "God-forsaken" - despite our first impressions. By the time the night was out, the cheerless, lonely hilltop would be resounding to the tearful exclamations of 149 muddy, exhausted Syrians - "Hamdulillah"... "Thank you, God!"

The major was just explaining that, from this command post, his men controlled three secret crossing points along Jordan's 387km-long border with its war-wracked northern neighbour. As he motioned towards one of these, down in the blackness below, the first shell streaked low across the horizon right in front of us. "They're firing at the refugees," he said. A flash, then... crump. And then another.

The gunfire started up. It was alarmingly close-by; but it took a moment to realise it was actually aimed at us. Bullets whistled low over our heads. The Jordanian soldiers broke into a run and hustled us behind some freshly bulldozed earth berms, then down, to their barracks - a right-angle of white shipping containers. Body armour, helmets: on.

"They shoot at us a lot,” said the major. "That's why we had to build the berms."

"Do you fire back?"

"No. This is not our job," he said. "Our duty is to rescue refugees. They also shoot the refugees."

"Really? What, on this side?"

"Every night. Sometimes the refugees are shot."

If the Syrian Army's intention was to kill the refugees in order to prevent them from telling the world of the unspeakable cruelty they'd suffered at the hands of their armed forces, you could almost understand the logic. But that's not what it's about. It just seems that after 22 months of ever-escalating violence, Bashar al-Assad's soldiers - brutalised and brimming with sectarian hatred - have simply dehumanised their victims.

They shoot them down like dogs and leave their bodies to rot in the streets.

Later on Wednesday night, I would hear harrowing accounts of this depravity. Accounts delivered matter-of-factly from the mouths of children, as their mothers watched and wept.

Major Adil's men were in radio contact with the rebel Free Syrian Army commanders who shepherd the escaping refugees through the hazards along a frontier bristling with Syrian armour. Just before it got dark, we'd seen one of these tanks prowling along a road between government positions, not much more than a stone's throw from the base. At 8pm, I climbed Katiba Jaber's observation tower, which presented a three-storey target for the Syrians below.

A night-vision scope was bolted onto the roof, and in the tiny room underneath, Lieutenant Nawaf was directing proceedings. "Down, down, down; right 300..." I squeezed in to the airless room. A small gas fire was roaring at the lieutenant's feet. He was staring at a screen, the size of a small TV, on which the drama playing out in the darkness 500m from where we sat could be watched as though it was a movie.

"This tank. It has just fired," said the lieutenant.

"Which tank?"

"Here," he said. "He is hiding."

And there, plain as daylight, sat a Russian-built T-72 tank, partly obscured by olive trees. Another lurked close by.

"And here is what he is firing at." The scope-operator scrolled across to the left. "In this ditch there are more than 80 refugees. And here; this is the FSA commander. This is the most dangerous time," he said.

I made out the rebel commander before I could see the refugees. He was crouching next to a small mound, presumably out of sight of the tanks. After a couple of minutes, the refugees began to stand up; first just one or two; then the entire screen filled with a line of little black silhouettes.

Adults, children, some stooped and crouching, some carrying burdens on their heads; others laden with bags and babies. All, fearfully scuttling forwards in the blackness.

"They're coming now. Yalla, yalla, let's go," said Lieutenant Nawaf.

With a group of Jordanian soldiers, we headed down the hill. The moon had gone behind clouds; we stumbled over rocks, radios crackling as the FSA commander on the other side announced a change of plan. The gun and shellfire now made the intended route too risky. This was now Plan B.

The frontier, when we reached it, was a muddy ditch, backed by rolls of razor wire. Four rebel soldiers, heads swathed in red-and-whitekaffiyeh, were digging at the banks. They were trying to build a bridge across the deep and treacherous mud to allow the escapees to quickly cross to safety.

I heard their voices first. Urgent whispers. A baby crying. Crouching down, I could see heads and shoulders against the night sky. There were so many; easily more than a hundred, I reckoned. Behind them, in the distance, a building, hit by shellfire, blazed orange.

Operation Mud Bridge took less than 10 minutes. This place was out of sight of the nearest tank position; the refugees used our camera light to pick their way across. You could see their breath in the crisp night air. I watched old ladies, clad in black abayas mumbling prayers, fumbling beads, take the hands of waiting Jordanian troops, who pulled them up the bank.

A mother, in a crimson coat, tears streaming down her face, four under-10s in tow. Another young woman with a newborn; a father, toddler on one arm, his family's possessions stacked on his other shoulder. There were old men who could barely walk and young men – probably FSA, but passing as civilians – there to oversee this exodus.

The trudge up the hill to Katiba Jaber was as much as these people could take after hours of walking, then hiding in ditches, stressed and braced for instant death. Grannies groaned with the exertion; family groups - three generations - trudging onwards, upwards in the darkness, eyes fixed straight ahead. It was distressing to witness so many people at the limit of endurance.

And then, suddenly, the "Hamdulillah" chorus started. We'd reached the camp. There were lights; gas fires, cold water, food, shelter and a dawning realisation that the terror of their flight into exile was now behind them. And that the terror of life in Bashar al-Assad's Syria was behind them too.

As they recovered from their journey and completed registration before their bus trip to Za'atari refugee camp, I sat and listened to the stories which came fast and furious from people who needed to talk about what they'd been through.

Not all talked. Some squatted silently, head-in-hands, rocking on the heels. Some wept quietly. Perhaps it was relief; perhaps it was for those they'd left behind. But there was a hamdulillah hubbub in that reception tent.

It was the sound of survival.

"Tonight we died many deaths," a woman called Fawzi told me. She said the refugees were repeatedly shot at and that five tank shells had been fired at them as they fled. Remarkably, we don't think anyone was shot.

A mother called Marwa - the one in the red coat, whom I recognised from the ditch - told of the heartless violence meted out on her family by soldiers of the regime.

"We begged him not to burn our house down," she said. "Hamad, my son, even grabbed his leg and called him 'Uncle' and pleaded with him. But he called me a bitch and said if I didn't leave the house, he'd burn us in it." What traumatised her most was what her children had been forced to witness.

Ten-year-old Hamad, she said, had seen severed heads and bodies littering the street of his home village, Bosra al-Sham, near Dara'a. "One day they fired 200 shells at our village," said Marwa. "In the end, there was no electricity, no gas, no food, no water. We had no choice. We had to go."

I am writing this in our car, as we speed southwards towards Amman. We're now in the small hours of the morning. I have only my scribbled notes to work from, in torchlight in the back; later today we'll work on the full translations of the interviews we've done, with Fawzi, Marwa, Hamad and others.

Source: CH4

Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters
01/31/13 By Harriet Sherwood and Reuters

Syria's ambassador to Lebanon has said Damascus has the option to respond to what it says was an Israeli air strike on a research centre on the outskirts of the Syrian capital on Wednesday.

Syria could take "a surprise decision to respond to the aggression of the Israeli warplanes", Ali Abdul Karim Ali was quoted as telling a Hezbollah-run news website.

"Syria is engaged in defending its sovereignty and its land," he said, without spelling out what the response might entail.

Syrian state television said the country's military command had confirmed a "scientific research centre" north-west of Damascus had been struck at dawn on Wednesday, causing damage. Two people were killed and five wounded in the attack on the site, it said, which was engaged in "raising the level of resistance and self-defence".

US officials quoted in the New York Times said they believed the target was a convoy carrying sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry and Israelhad notified Washington of the attack.

Syria and Israel have fought several wars and in 2007 Israeli jets bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site, without retaliation.

Lebanese media claimed a dozen Israel Defence Forces (IDF) fighter planes had flown sorties over Lebanon's airspace from Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday morning.

A Lebanese army statement said: "Four Israeli planes entered Lebanese airspace at 4.30pm on Tuesday. They were replaced four hours later by another group of planes, which overflew southern Lebanon until 2am, and a third mission took over, finally leaving at 7.55am on Wednesday morning."

The IDF said it had no comment.

Russia said it was concerned about reports of the air attack.

"If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the UN charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

Moscow has been trying to shield the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, from international pressure to end the civil war, which has killed an estimated 60,000 people. It has repeatedly spoken against any foreign interference in Syria, especially military action.

Israel has previously publicly warned that it would take military action to prevent the Syrian regime's chemical weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon or "global jihadists" fighting inside Syria. Israeli military intelligence is said to be monitoring the area round the clock via satellite for possible convoys carrying weapons.

Hezbollah is believed to have extensive stockpiles of conventional weapons in warehouses inside Syria. The group's leader, Hassan Nazrallah, "wants to remove everything from Syrian soil to Lebanon", said Amnon Sofrin, a former head of intelligence in the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Israel was "looking very carefully at convoys heading from Syria to Lebanon", he said.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was reported earlier this week to be conducting intense security consultations on the possible response to the movement of weapons.

The deputy prime minister, Silvan Shalom, told Army Radio on Sunday: "If there is a need, we will take action to prevent chemical weapons from being transferred to Islamic terror organisations. We are obligated to keep our eye on it at all times, in the event chemical weapons fall into Hezbollah's hands."

Israel's concern over the civil war in Syria has mounted over recent months as Assad's regime has come closer to collapse, and fighting has bordered on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Although Israel has been technically at war with Syria since 1967, the Golan Heights has been mostly quiet since Israel occupied it almost 46 years ago.

But Israel fears that the implosion of the Assad regime could herald an Islamist Syria, which could seek to reignite hostilities with its neighbour.

Alex Fishman, a defence analyst for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote earlier this week: "In the light of Assad's increasingly unsteady status, Hezbollah figures have understood that [its stockpiles of conventional] weapons cannot remain there. And as soon as these weapons reach Lebanon, they are swallowed up in secret underground stockpiles. Looking for them will be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

"If chemical weapons are brought into Lebanon, Israel will probably not hesitate – and will attack."

Netanyahu told Sunday's cabinet meeting Syria was "increasingly coming apart". He added: "The reality is developing apace. In the east, north and south, everything is in ferment, and we must be prepared: strong and determined in the face of all possible developments."

In the past few months, errant shells from fighting in Syria have landed in the Golan Heights, prompting Israel to lodge formal complaints with the United Nations. In November, Israeli forces fired tank shells at Syrian artillery units, causing casualties, over two consecutive days after a mortar shell landed close to an Israeli army post.

Netanyahu recently announced plans to build a steel security fence along the armistice line in the Golan Heights, similar to the one constructed on the Israel-Egypt border.

Source: Guardian

01/31/13 By Caroline Gluck

As donors met in Kuwait, to pledge millions of dollars in help to those affected by conflict in Syria, I spent the day in Jordan's Zataari camp, now home to more than 70,000 Syrian refugees.

Kitted out in a padded down jacket, jumper, scarf and goretex boots, I still felt the biting cold.  Around me young children, their faces red and raw from the low temperatures, played around.  Most didn't have proper shoes but ran around barefoot wearing plastic slippers.

This region has seen its coldest winter in 20 years.  Earlier this month, Lebanon and Jordan faced severe winter storms and heavy snow.  It was an especially miserable time for the refugees, many of whom fled with just the clothes they were wearing.  Large numbers are living in tents, damp unfinished buildings, or makeshift self-built shelters without heating or electricity.  In Zataari, many tents collapsed or flooded in the heavy storms.

Oxfam and other agencies have been providing warm blankets, mattresses, heating oil and stoves to try to provide some relief during this difficult time of the year.  

Parents complained their children were getting sick - coming down with colds and bronchial infections. 

The children still played outdoors - seemingly resilient to the horrors many had witnessed back home. But watching some youngsters in one neighbourhood sheltering refugees in Lebanon, playing mock war-games with sticks and hiding behind building blocks to escape mock sniper fire, I realised that the scars of conflict will take a long time to heal.

Five year old Mahdi, a sweet-faced boy with twinkling eyes, has very real scars that his family showed to me. He was shot at by a sniper. Miraculously, the bullets exited his back, leaving ugly scars but no other serious physical damage.

Children like Mahdi need more support than they're getting now - not just now but probably for a long time to come.

The UN and aid agencies have been struggling with big funding shortalls, hampering their ability to provide the scale of aid that's needed  to respond to what's become a massive flow of refugees - more than 700,000 at the latest count.  In the past month alone, more than 40,000 Syrians have crossed the border seeking safety in Jordan.

Today's promises of large-scale aid are encouraging.  But promises and pledges must be quickly turned into real aid on the ground so that families quickly get the help they so desperately need.

Source: Independent

01/31/13 By Basma Atassi

Aleppo, Syria - Nineteen-year-old Khalifa is on a mission: to camouflage signs of death and destruction in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo with expressions of hope.

The computer-programming student roams the battered streets in rebel-held areas with bottles of spray paint, looking for suitable canvasses for his art.

Colourful flowers on the remains of shelled houses and a happy Mickey Mouse on the wall of a bombarded military complex are some of his most recent works.

In Dahret Awwad district, he chooses a house struck by a missile to be his atelier. He waves his hand in dramatic gestures in front of the stone wall, creating an imaginary outline before he shakes the spray can and starts drawing.

Using blue and red paint, he creates a big, round smiley face and writes "I love you Syria" next to it.

Ten minutes later he takes a step back to give his artwork a final look before walking away as the cans in his bag make rhythmic clanking sounds.

"I will come back in a few hours," the young painter told Al Jazeera. "I usually visit my paintings every now and then to see the reaction of those who live around it. A child’s smile upon seeing it makes my day. It means I have done my job."

An artist 

Khalifa always wanted to be an artist. When he graduated from high school last year, he enrolled in the fine arts school in Aleppo. But he could not afford the high cost of the equipment required for his education, so he transferred to computer programming.

He dropped out of university altogether two months ago after his face appeared on television while he was yelling in an anti-government protest.

"I was scared that if I went back to university, the security forces would arrest me in the classroom. They have done that with others. So I stopped showing up," he says.

His venture into graffiti stemmed from a desire to do something for his city. He did not want to join the armed opposition after his two brothers were killed fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

"My mom can’t handle more misery. I want to take good care of myself to make her happy," Khalifa says.

Some Aleppo neighbourhoods have become unrecognisable since fierce battles for control of the city began in July last year. What used to be the commercial capital of Syria has become the scene of house-to-house combat, where government forces’ heavy weaponry have burned and flattened buildings to the ground.

The city’s walls are scarred with bullets and rocket shrapnel. They are also full of signatures of opposition battalions operating in the city: "Liwaa al-Tawheed passed from here,"We are all Jabhat al-Nusra," "Salute to the heroes of Ahrar al-Sham", in addition to phrases like "The dog [President] Bashar al-Assad, "We will not bow but to Allah," and the trademark slogan of the Arab Spring, "The people want the fall of the regime".

Thoughts of destruction

But Khalifa’s graffiti stands out. It is colourful, creative and hopeful. He draws cartoon characters, flowers and rainbows and writes words like "hope", "love", and "freedom".

"Some people have to endure seeing their houses and memories destroyed in front of their eyes. It is shocking, and their minds cannot take it," Khalifa says.

"My graffiti may be successful in taking their attention away from their destroyed house for a minute. They may ask: ‘what is this?’ ‘Who drew it?’ ‘What does it mean?’

"These thoughts replace the sad thoughts of destruction. This is my intention".

But Khalifa says not everyone appreciates his artwork on their walls.

"I once painted a teddy bear on a semi-destroyed house with a writing under it that said ‘tomorrow is more beautiful’. I came back to it few days later to find that the owner of the house had covered it with white paint."

The owner of the house said he did not want the second half of his house to be shelled because of the drawing.

"But how can the fighter jet in the sky see the teddy bear on the wall?"Khalifa asks, before adding that he does not blame the man for being worried.

"While the regime has no presence on the ground here anymore, the fear it instilled in people for decades has not yet left.

"Even a drawing of a teddy bear can still scare people."

Source: Al Jazeera

Photo: Alessio Romenzi
01/30/13 By Ruth Sherlock

Busran al-Qasyr, Aleppo: The 14-year-old was excited to be leaving Syria. The war had ravaged his home neighbourhood in Aleppo, his school had shut, and much of his family had already escaped.

In just over a week, his uncle had promised, he would be joining his parents, already abroad and working in Libya. Instead, 1,000 miles from his mother and father, Amnajid became the youngest target of a mass execution, the 100 victims of which continued to be lifted from a river in the city.

Like many of the victims, Amnajid and his uncle, Majid, who died with him, had been carrying out the ordinary tasks of civilian life despite being in the middle of a city at war.

"They disappeared three days ago," Majid's brother, Ahmed, said. He asked for the family's full name not to be given because his home was in government-held territory. "Majid had a shoe shop in al-Azizia, which is under the regime's control. He closed the shop last month because there are no customers, but he still went to check on the store every few days.

"We told Amnajid that he shouldn't go. But he insisted. He was a strong boy."

Ahmed stared down at the two corpses, which had been carefully wrapped in white shrouds in preparation for burial. Beside them, in the schoolyard in the rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr district, lay dozens of other bodies that had not yet been identified.

The killers had shown little mercy. All of the victims' hands had been roughly tied and shot in the head at close range.

More than 24 hours since the bodies began to be pulled out of the nearby Quwek River – which divides Bustan al-Qasr from government-held territory – there still seemed to be little reason for the killings.

Most of the victims were dressed in civilian clothes. In accounts gathered by The Daily Telegraph, many seemed to have had little responsibility for the war that raged around them. One of the victims was an elderly homeless man. Another had come to Aleppo from out of town to buy farming equipment: Abu Ahmed, 48, said that his cousin, Mohedin Bash, came from the northern Syrian city of Raqqa to do so. He said his son, a student taking a degree in hotel management, had gone with his relation to help him bring back the goods.

"They left together from Bustan al-Qasr on Monday morning and never returned," Abu Ahmed said. "They are civilians and so they thought they had nothing to fear crossing into government territory. We have done so many times before without a problem."

It is impossible to say exactly who were the perpetrators were. The account given by the relations of Amnajid, Mohedin and of several other victims is that they had all been on their way to or were known to be inside districts of Aleppo under regime control when they disappeared.

As the families spoke, more bodies were being taken from the river. Standing knee deep in the water, seven men grappled to place a grate horizontally across the fast flowing current. "We are trying to catch more of the corpses," one worker said.

"The area upstream where we found them is in a district where there is heavy fighting, so we were not able to drag them out. Some men pushed them deeper into the current so they would come down the stream to us."

It was still dangerous work. The area was in sight of a government sniper.

In Bustan al-Qasr, preparations for the mass burial of unclaimed bodies began. A digger excavated a hole in a nearby children's playground, the only patch of muddy ground safe for their interment.

Though there was no doubt in people's minds which side had committed the killings, the anger and resentment was directed at all parties fighting in the Syrian civil war.

A sign left at the feet of one of the bodies read: "To the FSA and the Syrian political opposition; if this doesn't make you act, what will?" After he finished the call to his wife in which he told her that her son was dead, Abu Ahmed lost all restraint. "There is no safety; neither here, nor there," he said. "It's a battle between two sides and our children are being killed in it, so I blame the rebels as well as the regime. We just need this to stop."

Source: Daily Telegraph