08/31/21 By Karin Brulliard

BAB AL-SALAMA CROSSING, Syria — When their urban neighborhoods were bombed by government aircraft, many northern Syrians hid in nearby villages. When those were bombed, they fled to the fields. When the fields were targeted, the refugees had little option but to head for this rebel-held border station and try to cross into Turkey.

But as Turkey scrambles to build additional camps to accommodate the influx, thousands of Syrians have found themselves temporarily stuck here under the shelter of concrete vehicle-inspection hangars — and several said this week that they would stay put.

Rumors are rife that Turkish camps are squalid, and many refugees calculate that Syrian jets are unlikely to strike so close to the border. For now, this way station has become a de facto buffer zone, a default version of the haven that Turkey and many Syrians want created on a far grander scale inside Syria.

With such a haven, “it would take two or three days to topple the regime,” said Khaled Abdullah, 40, who sat in paralyzing midday heat on a dun-colored sheet, his back supported by tall piles of Syrian flat bread, and announced that he had no intention of leaving. “This place is safe.”

Abdullah was among 10,000 or so Syrians waiting on Turkey’s borders this week, most of whom were trying to join the 80,000 refugees already in that country. Turkey repeated calls Thursday for a humanitarian corridor inside Syria where civilians would be protected. Although some countries, including France, have expressed support for the idea, there is little international momentum on the issue. The United Nations said this week that the proposal “raises serious questions.”

“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said at the United Nations on Thursday. He added, “We need to focus on the steps which must be taken within the borders of Syria.”

That is a popular idea at Bab al-Salama, now a sort of accidental mini safe zone. Rebels smoking Gauloises cigarettes stamp passports near what was once an Aleppo post office branch; others keep watch and maintain order. A Turkish charity serves rice and bread, while workers assemble a trailer housing seven showers that the Turkish government had donated. A man who said the Syrian regime has kept his father imprisoned for 31 years sells Pepsis inside a shop.

Abdullah, a grocer from the nearby town of Marea, said that hiding from shelling under the stairs had worked for awhile. But things got unbearable when Syrian jets — MiGs, he and everyone here calls them — began pounding the region early this month.

The children jumped at any noise. The adults could not go out to buy milk. Finally, it fell to Abdullah, as the eldest son in his family, to lead 44 women and children to safety. His wife gave birth to their ninth child, a stillborn girl, as they hid in fields on the way, he said, betraying no hint of self-pity.

“I am ready to give three of my children to get rid of Bashar,” Abdullah said of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Instead, Abdullah’s children and countless others roam the grounds of this fenced station with a sort of aimless abandon, and he said he is sure many Syrian soldiers would defect if their families had such a place to come to. Next to him, a toddler in a cartoon sweatsuit fingered a bullet casing. Another small boy was summoned to belt out an anti-Assad song, which began: “You Iranians, say goodbye to your dog.”

No one claims, though, that Bab al-Salama is ideal, and many Syrians here do want to enter Turkey. Rockets can be seen flying in the distance. Government strikes on other rebel-held zones mean there is no guarantee of safety.

“The aircraft followed us to shoot fire on our house. When we escaped to another area, it also followed us,” said Abd Al-Moummen, 21, wringing his hands as he summoned words in fractured English, which he had studied at the University of Aleppo.

“Maybe Assad regime send aircraft to shoot this base,” he said. “And we are afraid of that.”

The town of Azaz, a 10-minute drive away, and the surrounding countryside have been hit by airstrikes regularly for three weeks, said Samir Haj Omar, a former teacher who now heads the Azaz political office of the rebel Free Syrian Army, or FSA.

“The regime wants to destroy all the country,” Omar said, walking briskly through Bab al-Salama. “The whole world watches, and nobody says a word.”

Conditions here are grim. There is water but only two bathroom facilities for thousands. The giant, open-walled hangars provide shelter and air circulation but also access for mosquitoes. Medical care is scarce, and refugees said stomach bugs are spreading among the children. On a curb near a sign marked “Loaded Truck Entry,” a graying man with a gangrenous, fly-encircled foot said he had entered Turkey, been denied medical care and now felt trapped.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” said Mohammed Noor, an FSA representative who pulled up in a silver Hyundai bearing a rebel license plate. “If these people go to Turkey, more people will come.”

At the back of the hangar, Abu Hassan, a neatly dressed tailor, dozed on a thin mat with his two young sons, who wore matching outfits. They had been here a week and still looked slightly bewildered.

In their Aleppo neighborhood, Hassan explained, they had a life with touches of luxury: a fifth-story apartment with a balcony and two showers a day. Then jets bombed the buildings in front of and behind his, he said, and soon he and 12 relatives were on the run for weeks, moving from village to village, until they ended up here.

Most would stay, he said, but he, his wife and three children would not.

“I’m going back to Aleppo tomorrow,” Hassan said. “It’s better to hide in a house than stay here.”

Source: Washington Post

Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP
08/31/12 By Sammy Ketz

DAMASCUS: Conscript Mussa al-Aswad was on a routine army patrol in the Palestinian camp near Daraa, the cradle of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, when he lost his right leg in an ambush.

Lying on his bed in the Tishrin military hospital in Damascus, the 22-year-old originally from the central province of Hama recounts the events of a day he is unlikely to forget.

"I was on patrol with 40 other soldiers in the camp when we were shot at. We managed to get to cover but two of my friends were wounded," he tells AFP.

"I was able to help get them out, but then when I tried to recover their weapons I was hit in the leg. It must have been some kind of poisoned bullet, because doctors at the hospital had to amputate my leg."

Aswad's mother listens sadly as she offers sweets to visitors.

The continuous crump of exploding artillery rounds outside rattles the windows of the hospital which is near Qaboon, a rebel neighbourhood in the north of the capital.

Asked when he thinks the conflict might end, the soldier replies wearily with a question of his own: "Do you not hear that artillery piece firing away without a break?"

Since the start of the revolt against Assad in March 2011, more than 8,000 soldiers and members of security forces have been killed and even more wounded, says the hospital's director of what has become a highly brutal conflict.

The vast majority of the wounded are conscripts. Military service in Syria used to be for 18 months, but since the uprising began, soldiers can be kept in the ranks indefinitely.

In the same room as Aswad is Ghalib Mohammed, 23, a member of the security forces who had been shot eight times in the back and left leg.

"We were called in to lend a hand at a police station in Assad al-Ward," he says, referring to a town 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of Damascus near the border with Lebanon.

'I kept on firing'

"From the hill in Lebanon, they attacked us with weapons of all calibres. The other members of my group left the fields because they had no more ammunition. I kept on firing and was hit in the back and legs."

"When this war will end I don't know, but it will be us or them," adds Mohammed's brother who was part of the same group but emerged unscathed.

In another room, Abdullah al-Ali is in a coma.

He cannot tell his own story.

Shrapnel lanced a seven-centimetre (nearly three-inch) hole in his skull when he was stationed at Al-Bab in Aleppo province in the north.

For two months his mother has been looking after him, 550 kilometres (340 miles) away from the family home in Raqa in northeastern Syria.

"Many of these young people will suffer from after-effects and 20 percent will be paralysed for life," says a Paris-educated neurosurgeon who specialises in head and spinal surgeries.

The hospital chief says 10 percent of the wounds treated at the military hospital are to the head and neck, 10 percent in the abdomen, 10 to the chest and 70 percent in legs and arms.

Most of the casualties were brought in from Daraa in the south, where the uprising began, from the province of Damascus, Homs in the centre, Latakia in the northwest and Deir Ezzor in the east.

On the ground floor, ambulances halt outside the hospital morgue and medics remove the bodies of two more members of the security forces on stretchers. Saad Saadeddin had been shot in the back and Fathi Bdoun in the head.

"We were manning a checkpoint at the entrance of Ain Tarma (east of Damascus) when we were attacked from several points. Two were killed and seven wounded. It lasted no more than 20 minutes," says Firas, one of their comrades.

Fifteen minutes later a ceremony is held to honour the dead.

Soldiers carry their plywood coffins stained with blood but draped in the Syrian flag and carrying ribboned wreaths from the company commander.

The Last Post sounds to honour the 47 soldiers reported killed the day before before the bodies of the dead soldiers are sent back for burial to their home provinces.

"They (rebels) are like rats -- they attack and flee. This is not a conventional war, it's a war of shadows," says Firas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights says that more than 25,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict since it erupted in March 2011.

Source: AFP/Daily Star

08/30/12 By Brian Murphynasser Karim

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — In a sweeping message that Iran is on the wrong side of Syria's civil war, Egypt's new president urged the world Thursday to support the rebels seeking to topple Bashar Assad and suggested that Tehran could risk a deepening confrontation with regional powers over the fate of the regime in Damascus.

The stinging comments by President Mohammed Morsi — making his first visit to Iran by an Egyptian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution — was another blindside blow for Iran as host of an international gathering of so-called nonaligned nations.

His speech, delivered while seated next to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prompted Syria's delegation to walk out of the gathering.

Iran's leaders have claimed that the weeklong meeting, which wraps up Friday, displayed the futility of Western attempts to isolate the country over its nuclear program.

But Iran also was forced to endure criticism from Morsi and another high-profile guest, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who cited concerns about Iran's human rights record and called its condemnations of Israel unacceptable.

It's highly unlikely that Iran would abandon Assad as long as there is a chance for him — or at least the core of his regime — to hang on. Iran counts on Syria as a strategic outlet to the Mediterranean and a conduit to its anti-Israeli proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the meeting highlighted how much Iran is out of step with the rest of the region over Syria. Other major rebel backers at the conference included Gulf states led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia.

"The bloodshed in Syria is the responsibility of all of us and will not stop until there is real intervention to stop it. The Syrian crisis is bleeding our hearts," Morsi told delegates at the 120-nation Nonaligned Movement, a Cold War-era group of mostly developing nations that Tehran seeks to transform into a powerful bloc to challenge Western influence.

A major effort by Iran has been trying to showcase its nuclear narrative and cementing oil deals and trade with Asia and Africa to offset the hits from Western sanctions.

But some critics question whether the group — promoted as a third way for developing nations during the decades of Washington-Moscow brinksmanship — is too diverse and splintered by too many divisions, such as Syria, to find any common policies.

"Morsi's comments violated the traditions of the summit and are considered interference in Syrian internal affairs," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who headed the Syrian delegation. He also accused Morsi of "instigating bloodshed in Syria," according to quotes reported by the state-owned Al-Ikhbariya TV. He didn't elaborate.

Morsi's address pushed Iran further into a corner. In effect, he demanded Iran join the growing anti-Assad consensus or risk deeper estrangement from Egypt and other regional heavyweights such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell welcomed Morsi's comments on Syria as "very clear and very strong," particularly as they were made in Tehran "to some people who need to hear it there."

"We share Egypt's goal to see an end to the Assad regime, and an end to the bloodshed, and a transition to a democratic Syria that respects human rights," Ventrell told a news conference in Washington.

Ahram Online, a state-owned news website in Egypt, said Morsi "all but equated the Assad regime with the Israeli occupation of Palestine when he referred to the struggle for freedom by the Palestinian and Syrian peoples."

Morsi has proposed that Iran take part in a four-nation contact group that would include Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to mediate an end to the Syrian crisis. Ban also said Iran has a key role to play in finding a solution to end Syria's civil war, which activists say has claimed at least 20,000 lives.

But Syrian rebels say they reject Iran's participation in any peace efforts.

Morsi reiterated his position against any kind of foreign military intervention in Syria, but is working closely with countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that have openly backed the rebel forces.

Morsi held talks on Syria with Ahmadinejad in a closed-door meeting that lasted 40 minutes in the same conference center where the summit was taking place, diplomats said. He told Ahmadinejad that Tehran must end its support for Assad in order prevent any chance of Western intervention, according to the diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

At the United Nations, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was expected to urge the Security Council later Thursday to set up a zone in Syria to protect thousands fleeing the civil war. But the initiative is almost certain to meet resistance from Council members such as Russia, which has supported the Assad dynasty for decades.

"We should all express our full support to the struggle of those who are demanding freedom and justice in Syria and translate our sympathies into a clear political vision that supports peaceful transfer (of power) to a democratic system," Morsi said.

He added that the world had a "moral duty" to stand with the Syrian people in their struggle "against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy."

Morsi's Sunni Muslim Brotherhood backers — Egypt's most powerful political group since the Arab Spring uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak — oppose Shiite Iran's staunch backing of the Syrian regime. Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while rebel forces are mostly Sunni.

Iran's state media generally avoided direct mention of Morsi's comments on Syria. The official news agency IRNA did not immediately note the remarks in its report. State TV broadcast Morsi's speech, delivered in Arabic, but did not translate it into Farsi. Another channel has only sporadic translations.

Despite the strong remarks on Syria, Morsi's visit represents a major step toward ending decades of friction between the two countries. Tehran cut ties following the 1979 Islamic Revolution because of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. A street in Tehran is even named after the ringleader of the 1981 assassination of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat.

Morsi made it clear his six-hour stop in Tehran was intended as an ice-breaker. He referred to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "my dear brother" and paid homage to "the sister Islamic Republic of Iran" — significant departures from the bitter rhetoric of the Mubarak era.

"His visit signifies that Iran is an important regional power that cannot be ignored," said Mohamed Abbas Nagi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Cairo's Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"However, Morsi's rise came out of Egypt's own revolution, so how can Egypt pursue better ties with Iran now when that country is suppressing a revolution in Syria?" added Nagi, noting that Egypt's immediate priority appears to be restoring relations with Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf states that were close to Mubarak.

Morsi also gave a nod to Iran by stressing the rights of countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under international protocols. The West fears Iran's uranium enrichment could lead to atomic weapons, but Iran has insisted that it only seeks reactors for energy and medical purposes.

The U.N. chief called Iran's nuclear program a "top concern" of the international community and urged Tehran's "full cooperation" with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, which seeks greater access to Iranian sites for inspections. The IAEA said Thursday that Iran has effectively shut down a probe of its Parchin military site southeast of Tehran believed to have been used for work on nuclear weapons.

Ban also urged all parties — apparently including Israel — to "stop provocative and inflammatory threats; a war of words can quickly spiral into war of violence."

But he added specific censure for Iranian condemnations of Israel. Earlier this month, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Israel will "disappear from the scene of geography." In his speech Thursday, Ahmadinejad called Israel a "fake regime."

"I strongly reject threats by any member states to destroy another or outrageous attempt to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust, claiming that another state, Israel, does not have the right to exist or describing it in racist terms," Ban said.

Aaron David Miller, a scholar at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson Center and former Mideast negotiator under four U.S. presidents, described Morsi's first major foreign policy foray as a deft balancing act before his scheduled trip to the U.S. next month.

"He loses points with the U.S. by going to Iran, but he balances that by criticizing Syria and, by extension, Tehran," he said, adding: "He split the difference as far as the U.S. is concerned, and that's a smart play."

Source: AP/Bloomberg
Photo: Muhammed Muheisen/AP
08/31/12 By Deborah Amos

Syria's president has vowed to crush the rebels by any means; his air force has not spared the towns and villages that support rebel brigades. In August, the death toll often topped 250 a day, according to Syrian activists. The fighting between troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces has also sparked a refugee crisis for Syria's neighbors as thousands flee to the borders.

Much of northern Syria is now in rebel control, from the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria's financial hub, to the Turkish border. But the regime still controls the skies and the rebels lack the weapons to challenge the air force attacks.

Camped at a border post waiting to cross into Turkey, Syrian refugees tell a similar story about why they packed up and ran from home. Like many others Yousef decided to leave a rebel-held town.

"Because the airplane takes the city every day, I feel terrible, horrible," says Yousef, who's from Aleppo province. "We are tired."

Like many others, Yousef decided to leave a rebel-held town. Rebel brigades have grown bolder in ambushing regime troops and tanks, but are mainly powerless against the air force attacks.

'An Attempt To Incite People'

Just a few miles down the road into northern Syria, a middle school has been battered with gaping holes in the two-story concrete walls.

A rebel group, the Northern Storm Brigade has set up a headquarters here. The Brigade is the largest in this part of Aleppo province and sends men to Aleppo city to fight alongside other brigades says commander Abu Joulan. The 26-year-old fighter defected from the Syrian army last year. He can see the refugees heading by car and on foot to the Turkish border. He believes the regime is targeting civilians even more than the rebels.

"It's an attempt to incite people against us because the moment we are gaining control over areas then it is increasing," he says. "There are areas where there are no military battles, but they are targeting it, so people turn against us."

The rebel base is on the outskirts of Azaz, a prosperous border town that once was home to 70,000 residents. Now, only 10,000 remain. Rebels pushed the army out last month in a series of street battles that left four army tanks buried in rubble in front of the town's largest mosque.

In the town square, children play in the wreckage and families pose for photographs in front of the burned out symbols of regime defeat.

But daily life in Azaz is hardly normal. Regime loyalists are gone, but garbage is piled in the streets and the schools are closed.

At the local hospital, the windows of the X-ray room are shattered. There is only one doctor who sees patients. The rest fled to Turkey.

The shops are mostly empty. Not much food gets delivered to Azaz. International aid is almost nonexistent; baby formula is now impossible to find. On the main street, residents line up for bread at a bakery where flour is supplied by a Turkish charity. But there won't be enough for everybody.

Refugees At Home

The larger hardship comes from the mortars and artillery shells that land in Azaz almost every night. The Syrian military still controls an airbase about 10 miles outside town. A fighter jet dropped two bombs in one neighborhood, killing at least 60 people earlier this month.

At sunset, many here clear out of town, says shopkeeper Hamid Ajuma. That's when the shelling often starts.

"Many people just take their families. We take a mattress, we take whatever we can," he says. "We spend the night outdoors, and then, in the day, we come back to our houses."

Many more are now heading for the Turkish border — about five miles away — to join the mass of Syrian refugees.

Source: NPR


Turkey has appealed to a reluctant United Nations Security Council for a safe haven for thousands of Syrians facing a "humanitarian disaster" as Britain and France said they would rule out no options - including a no-fly zone - to help people fleeing an escalating civil war.

But Turkish leaders held out little hope for the endorsement of a deeply-divided council that has been paralysed on taking action to stop the 18-month uprising that has killed more than 20,000 people.

"How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?" foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said. "Let's not forget that if we do not act against such a crime against humanity happening in front of our eyes, we become accomplices to the crime."

Mr Davutoglu proposed that the security council establish camps for refugees forced to flee their homes and take "long overdue steps" to help the suffering people. "Apparently, I was wrong about my expectations," he told the council. "This meeting will not even end with a presidential or press statement, let alone a robust resolution."

The path to the security council's agreement on a safe zone for Syrians is fraught with obstacles, headed by the reluctance of Russia and China, Syria's most important allies. The countries have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions in the security council seeking to pressure President Bashar Assad's government with the threat of sanctions.

Moscow and Beijing were highly critical of the no-fly zone established by Nato to protect civilians during last year's Libyan revolt against long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, saying its enforcement went beyond the security council mandate. But Western diplomats said enforcing the zone required taking out Libya's air defences and attacking tanks and military vehicles that posed threats to civilians.

Before Thursday's meeting, Britain and France announced new funding for refugees and left open the possibility of more aggressive action, including a military-enforced no-fly zone to protect a safe area for those fleeing the war. "We are not ruling out any options for the future," Foreign Secretary William Hague told a news conference.

Mr Hague said safe zones should remain an option, although he did not say when they might be seriously considered. "We do not know how this crisis will develop ... over the coming months. It is steadily getting worse," he said. "We are ruling nothing out, and we have contingency planning for a wide range of scenarios."

Britain and France are veto-wielding members of the security council as well as key Nato members. Asked whether the options would include a Nato-enforced no-fly zone, without security council authorisation, Mr Hague said: "We are not ruling out any options."

Mr Hague said Britain would contribute an additional £3 million to the £27 million it had already given for humanitarian aid to the displaced and to refugees.

Source: UKPA
Photo: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal

BEIRUT: Syrian rebels attacked a security service building in Aleppo early Friday as clashes rocked both the main northern city and the outskirts of Damascus, a human rights group said.

The assault on the feared security services came in west Aleppo, sparking a firefight between rebel fighters and agents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Clashes also broke out between troops and rebels in the battleground districts of Saif al-Dawla and Salaheddin in the southwest of the city and Hanano in the northeast, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Around the capital, rebel fighters captured nine soldiers in clashes in Sayyida Zeinab, a southeastern suburb which houses a Shiite shrine that draws pilgrims from around the world, it added.

North of Damascus, troops bombarded the mountain resort of Rankus, an opposition stronghold.

In Albu Kamal, on the border with Iraq, rebel fighters attacked an air defence base, sparking fierce clashes.

On Thursday, 119 people were killed in violence nationwide, the Observatory said. Ten children and 14 women were among 79 civilian dead.

The biggest loss of life was in Idlib province in the northwest, a major battleground on the border with Turkey.

Shelling in the Abu Zohur area of the province, where rebels claimed to downed a MiG warplane on Thursday, killed 20 civilians, including eight children and nine women, the watchdog said.

Army fire in the Idlib town of Ariha killed another 17 civilians, it added.

Source: AFP/Daily Star

08/30/12 By Hannah Allam

WASHINGTON — Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist covering the civil war in Syria who was last heard from in mid August, remains unaccounted for and is likely being held by the Syrian government.

Statements in recent days by Czech diplomats, information from Syrian rebel supporters and reports from people inside Syria indicate that the 31-year-old Houston native, who contributed to McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post and CBS News, was detained by Syrian government forces near the Damascus suburb of Daraya, his last known location.

The U.S. State Department says the Syrian government has not responded to inquiries about Tice that were made through official channels and that U.S. diplomats were “working through our Czech protecting power in Syria to get more information on his welfare and whereabouts.” A Syrian official in the United States declined to comment Thursday.

Tice entered Syria in May without a visa – a common practice for journalists attempting to cover the rebel side of the conflict there – and traveled throughout the country with rebel forces, reaching the Damascus area in late July. He remained in that area, basing himself in Daraya, a city of 200,000 southwest of Damascus proper, but had planned to leave Syria to meet friends in Lebanon on Aug. 19 or 20. He last communicated with colleagues on Aug. 13, but did not reveal precisely how he intended to exit Syria.

On Monday, the Czech ambassador to Syria, Eva Filipi, told a Czech television interviewer in Prague that “sources” had informed her mission that Tice was in detention, though further information had been hard to come by because of an Islamic holiday at the time. The Czechs, who oversee U.S. interests in Damascus because the U.S. closed its embassy there in February, sent a formal diplomatic note about Tice to Syrian counterparts, she said.

“Our sources report that he is alive and that he was detained by government forces on the outskirts of Damascus, where the rebels were fighting government troops,” Filipi said in response to a question about Tice. “Our additional steps were halted by the fact that the report came at the beginning of the final holidays of Ramadan and therefore we had a week off in Syria and some our contacts were not in Damascus.”

The remarks followed a Czech radio report over the weekend that also said Tice had been detained by the government.

Since then, other information, gathered from a variety of people by the news organizations that publish his work, has provided support for that version of events.

One reporter for a Western news organization who had seen Tice in Daraya around Aug. 7 said that during a return visit Aug. 18, rebels who had been with Tice expressed concern , saying he had left abruptly three days earlier and not returned. The rebels were worried that he might have been taken captive, according to the reporter, who is not being identified out of security concerns.

Thursday, executives at both McClatchy and The Washington Post renewed their calls for information about Tice, and urged his release if he is in Syrian government custody.

“We welcome any news about Austin, after three long weeks without word. He is a widely respected and dedicated journalist,” Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy Newspapers vice president for news, said in a statement. “If he is in fact being held by the Syrian government, we would expect that he is being well cared for and that he will quickly be released.’’

“We’re investigating reports that Austin Tice is in custody of Syrian authorities,” Marcus Brauchli, the Post’s executive editor, said in a statement. “If the reports are true, we urge these authorities to release him promptly, unharmed. Journalists should never be detained for doing their work, even - and especially - in difficult circumstances.”

Tice’s parents, Marc and Debra, pleaded for his safe return.

"Austin is our precious son, and we beseech the Syrian government to treat him well and return him safely to us as soon as possible," they said in a statement.

In recent months, Daraya had become a stronghold for the rebels who are battling to topple the government of President Bashar Assad. Syrian government forces began shelling the area in mid August and then fought pitched battles with rebels there for several days before the rebels reportedly abandoned their positions late Aug. 24 and Syrian troops entered the city Aug. 25. Hundreds of people died in the violence, though it was impossible to know how many of those were combatants.

Tice, however, apparently had left the area before the fighting began.

A number of foreigners, including at least one other American besides Tice, are believed to be in Syrian custody, according to people familiar with the matter in Damascus and outside of Syria who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic. It could not be determined if all the unnamed individuals remain in Syrian captivity.

Tice, a law students at Georgetown University and a former Marine infantry officer, was one of the few foreign journalists to report from inside Damascus as fighting raged in Syria’s nascent civil war. Tice’s reporting drew on his own military background to explain fierce battles between regime forces and guerrilla groups. The opposition forces he traveled with weren’t immune to his scrutiny; Tice reported on their own apparent battlefield atrocities in addition to the bloody setbacks they endured from the better-armed Syrian military.

Apart from McClatchy and The Washington Post, Tice also contributed to CBS News, Al Jazeera English, AFP news agency, and the MCT Photo Service.

Tice was keenly aware of the dangers he faced, he wrote in a posting on his Facebook page, but he implored his friends and family to “please quit telling me to be safe.” He wrote that he drew inspiration from Syrians in the throes of conflict, and that “coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”

Source: McClatchy
08/30/12 By John Irish and Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 30 (Reuters) - France and Britain warned Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday that military action to secure safe zones for civilians inside the country was being considered despite the paralysis of the U.N. Security Council over how to end the 17-month conflict.

While the Security Council impasse between western nations and Russia and China means a resolution to approve such a move appears impossible, countries could act outside the authority of the world body and intervene, as happened in Kosovo in 1999.

"We're ruling nothing out and we have contingency planning for a wide range of scenarios," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told a news conference at the United Nations ahead of a meeting of Security Council foreign ministers later on Thursday to discuss how to ease Syria's humanitarian crisis.

"We also have to be clear that anything like a safe zone requires military intervention and that of course is something that has to be weighed very carefully," Hague said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is attending the meeting, urged the United Nations on Wednesday to protect displaced Syrians inside their country, but Assad dismissed talk of a buffer zone.

Creating a buffer zone for displaced Syrians would be difficult because a U.N. Security Council resolution would be needed to set up a no-fly zone to protect the area, and Russia and China would not approve such a move, diplomats said.

It is not the first time Russia has posed difficulties for the United States and its allies on the Security Council. In the 1990s, Moscow strongly supported Serbia in the Balkan Wars and acted as Belgrade's protector on the council.

After an ineffectual U.N. presence failed to stop genocide in the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, the United States and its European allies infuriated Russia by bypassing the deadlocked Security Council and turning to NATO to halt the Serbian onslaught in Kosovo with a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

As Syria spirals deeper into a civil war, the 15-member council is paralyzed as Russia and China have blocked three Western-backed resolutions that criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and threatened sanctions.

France, which is council president for August, had hoped the body could unite to deal with a shortfall in humanitarian aid and convened Thursday's meeting, which will also be attended by ministers from Syria's neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

"If Assad falls quickly, then the reconstruction can take place, but if sadly the conflict continues then we have to examine various solutions. We have to be realistic," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the joint news conference with Hague.


But the absence of the U.S., Russian and Chinese foreign ministers at Thursday's meeting highlights the Security Council's failure to end Syria's conflict, which the United Nations says has killed nearly 20,000 people.

Less than half the council members have sent ministers, and of the permanent members - the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France - only Fabius and Hague are attending.

The two countries announced an increase in their humanitarian aid on Thursday - 3 million pounds ($4.74 million)from London and 5 million euros ($6.25 million) from Paris - and called on other states to boost their commitments.

Diplomats said the meeting would not produce any further action on Syria from the Security Council.

"We wanted a resolution on humanitarian issues, but we faced a double refusal," said a French diplomat, who did not want to be identified. "The United States and Britain believe we have reached the end of what can be achieved at the Security Council, and Moscow and Beijing said that such a resolution would have been biased."

Fabius said Paris was channeling some of its aid to areas of Syria no longer under government control so that local communities can self-govern, encouraging people not to flee Syria to neighboring countries.

More than 200,000 Syrians, and as many as 300,000 according to some aid groups, have poured out of Syria since the uprising against Assad's rule began last year, while up to 3 million are displaced. Turkey, which has seen the highest refugee influx, wants a solution to the problem.

The Security Council is due to hear from Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and ministers from Turkey and Jordan.

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who will replace Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League Syria mediator on Saturday, will also attend but will not brief members. Annan blamed the Security Council impasse for hampering his six-month-old bid to broker peace and leading to his decision to step down.

Brahimi met informally with the Security Council on Wednesday and his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told reporters he had been in "listening mode" while he works out how to approach the Syria conflict.

While Thursday's meeting was focusing on the humanitarian crisis, Fabius and Hague urged members of Assad's government and military to defect and renewed their call for Assad to be held accountable before the International Criminal Court.

"Assad is a criminal and a criminal must be judged and punished," Fabius said.

Source: Reuters
08/30/12 By Kareem Fahim

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian opposition activists said that rebel fighters shot down a government warplane on Thursday in the northern province of Idlib, the latest in a series of insurgent attacks targeting the Syrian military’s airpower.

On Wednesday, fighters in Idlib said they had attacked a military airport and destroyed at least 5 government helicopters, and on Monday, opposition fighters said they had downed an attack helicopter over the Damascus suburbs. The government disputed the details of both episodes, saying that it had repulsed the assault on the airport and that the helicopter had malfunctioned.

Earlier this month, rebels in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour said they had shot down a Russian-made MIG of the Syrian Air Force and had captured the pilot.

In a broad, government offensive in recent weeks, the Syrian military has become increasingly reliant on airpower as it tries to dislodge rebel fighters from positions in Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and Idlib province. The airstrikes, carried out with little precision, have struck buildings and markets, killing scores of civilians, according to witnesses.

The strike claimed by insurgents on the warplane on Thursday could not be independently verified. Video purportedly of the aftermath showed what appeared to be the pilot parachuting to the ground. In another clip, men stand over what appears to be a man’s corpse clothed in a military uniform, with blood trailing from his head and a parachute strapped to his back. A second parachute on the ground could be seen in the distance.

The reported downing of the plane came a day after Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, sought to rally public support for the counterinsurgency, which has strained his military, subjected his government to defections and assassinations and delivered deadly violence to every corner of the country.

Appearing confident and relaxed during a televised interview inside what he said was the presidential palace in Damascus, Mr. Assad said Syria was facing a “regional and international war” that would “take time to resolve.”

His statement was a rare, belated acknowledgment that as the conflict entered its 18th month there was no sign that either the government or any of its disparate groups of opponents was strong enough to prevail. But the interview, carried on a private television channel owned by Mr. Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, also appeared intended to convey a sense that the government’s survival was inevitable. Mr. Assad said the country was moving forward and the situation getting “better.”

“When we get this done,” he said, “Syria will return to the Syria before the crisis.”

Source: NY Times
Photo: Aris Messinis, AFP/Getty
08/30/12 By Mike Giglio

Alarm is rising in Turkish border towns like Antakya among residents and politicians who fear the onslaught of refugees—now estimated at 80,000—will overwhelm them and bring sectarian unrest across the border.

Malik Balian thinks he has as good an idea as anyone about the number of Syriansin Antakya these days. Since they began to appear last year, he has sold them mobile phones from his busy Turkcell shop in the center of town. They come as refugees to this city near the Turkish border with Syria, but many are revolutionaries too, looking to continue their work for the uprising at home. Revolutionaries need to stay connected, and they come to Balian for SIM cards and USB Internet sticks.

“From 9 in the morning until 12 at night, the Syrians come in and out,” Balian says. He guesses that he’s served 3,000 to date—and that thousands more now live in Antakya and the surrounding border province of Hatay. “There are a lot of Syrians here,” he says.

Like most Antakya residents, Balian is Alawite, hailing from the same religious sect as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As in Syria, Turkey’s Alawites—an off-shoot of Shiite Islam—are a minority in a predominately Sunni country, and many express solidarity with Assad. But Balian says he’s one of the good guys, harboring nothing in the way of sectarian concerns.

Sitting in his shop’s basement, where hundreds of chargers and USB cords dangle from hooks on the walls and scores of cell phones await repair, Balian flips through stacks of Turkcell receipts, many bearing the sort of nicknames—Abu Rami, Abu Ramen, Abu Ibrahim—that Syrian activists and rebels use to keep their identities obscured. (Abu translates to “the father of.”) Balian then pages through a six-inch stack of the passport scans he takes to issue his SIM cards. Almost all the passports are Syrian. “I could make millions selling all this information to Alawites in Syria,” Balian says. “But I wouldn’t do it, even if they threatened to cut my head off.”

But not all of Balian’s clients trust that their information is safe. “He gives it all to the Syrian regime,” one of his regular Syrian customers says.

Antakya has become a nerve center for the uprising against Assad. The city buzzes with activists, rebel fighters, and refugees who forgo camps along the border to pile into houses and apartments around town. Syrians of all creeds have joined the uprising, but the bulk are Sunni, while Alawites make up a bastion of Assad support. As the conflict grinds on, the political dialogue in Turkey has become fixated on the idea that sectarian tensions might spread across the border into Hatay—which has resulted in what Ceren Kenar, a Turkish columnist and journalist, calls “a panic among Turkish public opinion.”

Politicians from the Turkish opposition have demonized the refugees—one recently claimed Turkey is training terrorists in the camps—and raised the alarm about coming sectarian unrest. The Turkish press, meanwhile, has been filled with accounts from Hatay residents who say they no longer want the Syrians in town. Syrians have been accused of everything from jumping cabs and restaurant bills to making unwanted advances on Turkish women and sowing Islamic extremism. Rumors of big anti-Syrian protests, meanwhile, have become a constant in Antakya of late.

“The media, the opposition parties—everybody is only speaking about Syria. We don’t have any other agenda,”  Kenar says. “Politics has become very polarized around these lines. And the refugee crisis is the new hot-button issue. The language some people are using now is that Hatay is occupied by a foreign army.”

As the Turkish worries mount, meanwhile, Syrians are becoming increasingly wary of their hosts. “We’re very concerned about an extension of the sectarian problem,” says Miral Biroreda, a veteran activist who has been living in Antakya for four months. “This is fertile ground.”

Turkey has been one of the Assad regime’s most vehement critics. As the number of refugees pouring across its borders has surged amid spiraling violence inside Syria—there are now more than 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, according to the foreign ministry—the government in Ankara has pushed to make the refugee issue an international one. Turkey temporarily closed its borders to Syrian refugees this week, saying it was scrambling to put together new camps, while its foreign minister called on the United Nations to establish a buffer zone to safely house the refugees on Syrian soil. (In a rare interview this week, Assad dismissed such a notion, and insisted his army is winning the civil war.)

Refugees are increasingly becoming a domestic issue for Turkey too—one that seems to have put the government in a difficult spot. “It’s a long-standing criticism from the opposition that the Syria policy is creating more problems in Turkey than anything else, and I think it’s resonating,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The government has gotten itself into a corner, in that it’s on one side of the conflict, and it’s not winning. And there’s no end in sight. The refugees are still knocking on the door. The fighting is still going on.”

Some well-known Syrian activists in Antakya say they were summoned to a meeting with local government officials to address the refugee issue Monday night. According to the activists, the officials suggested that all Syrians should leave Antakya and Hatay—either for the refugee camps, or to head deeper into Turkey, away from the border. The officials, they say, painted this as a move for the Syrians’ own good—in the camps they could receive more Turkish support. But the Syrians reacted with defiance. “We understood the message,” says Amin Ahmed Abid, a schoolteacher and activist from the Syrian city of Latakia. “They want to move all Syrian people away from Hatay.”

This account of the meeting was put forward by three Syrians who say they attended—Abid, along with Nasr Adin Ahmah and Abu Mohamed Jablawi—as well as a representative of an international NGO. Abid and the others were convinced the meeting was prompted by Turkey’s struggle to respond to the recent outburst of concerns over refugees in Hatay.

“Syrian people have been here for more than a year, and they never thought about this before,” Abid says. “They don’t have enough space in the camps to accept more people from Syria, and now they want to bring everyone here inside? It doesn’t make any sense.”

It’s unclear whether the Turkish government is considering a push to relocate the refugees or how such a measure would be enforced. “We have no exact information on this topic,”  a foreign ministry spokesman said, directing questions about the supposed meeting to the local government in Hatay. At the press office inside the government building, meanwhile, a spokesman for the governor said there was nothing he could say. “You heard what you heard,” he said of the meeting. He then referred questions to Hatay’s director of emergency relief, who referred them back to the foreign ministry.

Many locals, like Balian, insist that any tension is being stirred from the outside, not from the Antakya community that has long welcomed the Syrians as guests. On Tuesday, the governor of Hatay and mayor of Antakya gave a joint news conference that put the same message across. But Ahmah, the local activist, was busy worrying that an already a difficult situation for the Syrians in town was getting worse. Ahmah keeps a house in Antakya for the young activists who tend to turn up without a place to stay—there usually are about 10 living there at a time—that he says he funds largely by “begging my friends for their money,” and contributing his own. Rocks recently crashed through the windows on two consecutive nights. No one saw the culprits, but Ahmah is sure who they were. “Supporters of the regime,” he said.

Source: The Daily Beast