Refugee crisis puts Syria's neighbours under strain


AS THE last of the remaining United Nations monitors left Syria yesterday, opposition sources said fighting between troops and rebels had erupted in the Mezze district of the capital and the army was deploying artillery and helicopters. East Mezze, inhabited by the poor, has frequently been the site of protests and fighting. The nearby slum suburb of Mu’addamiya, 5km from Mezze, was reportedly surrounded by troops and under shelling.

Since there is a large military camp and officers’ housing complex between these two areas, it is regarded by the government as a major strategic location and as a target by rebels.

The handcuffed bodies of a dozen people, including two children, were said to have been found in Qaboun, 6km north of Damascus, showing signs of having been tortured. Opposition sources blamed the pro-government Shabiha militia.

Clashes were also reported in Darayya, south of Mu’addamiya. Activists said neighbourhoods of Deraa in the south and Aleppo in the north have also been shelled.

Meanwhile, Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said the rebels, short of weapons last week, seem to have received an infusion of western-manufactured arms, suggesting the US and Europe are fuelling the conflict.

“There is growing evidence, including in the media, that [the] Syrian opposition is massively supplied with western-made weapons through third countries,” he wrote on Twitter.

While the US and Britain say they are providing non-lethal aid to the rebels, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supplying funds and weapons. Secular units of the rebel Free Syrian Army complain that much of this aid is going to Muslim fundamentalist or jihadi groups, making them better paid and better armed than others.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmed Davutoglu reiterated Ankara’s call for the UN to create a safe zone in northern Syria to house refugees fleeing the violence.

“If the number of refugees in Turkey surpasses 100,000, we will run out of space to accommodate them. We should be able to accommodate them in Syria. The United Nations [should] build camps in a safe zone within Syria’s borders,” he told the newspaper Hurriyet. Last weekend Turkey began distributing aid to displaced Syrians within the country.

The burden on Jordan, which has a population of six million, and Lebanon, with 4.3 million, is far heavier than on Turkey, a vast country with considerable resources and 73.6 million people.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, on August 16th there were 47,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, about the same number in Lebanon and 61,450 in Turkey. A large percentage of those in Turkey are rebel fighters and their families, who are housed in separate camps.

Ankara has for many months been pressing for an externally protected zone in Syria in which refugees can find safety and from which rebels can mount attacks on government forces and facilities.

Jordan formally protested Syrian shelling that wounded a girl in a frontier village and panicked its inhabitants, information minister Samih Maaytah said. Jordanians and Lebanese have previously been caught in frontier crossfire between rebels and troops.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch called on the Lebanese government to “prosecute those responsible for the kidnapping of dozens of Syrian nationals and a Turkish man on August 15th”.

These men were abducted by the Shia Meqdad clan seeking to swap them for Hassan Meqdad, seized in Damascus by rebels who accused him of being a member of the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah movement. The Meqdads reportedly freed all but two of the 20 men but there have been subsequent kidnappings of Syrians and another Turk by unidentified elements.