Syria: 1.2 million displaced, 3 million face hunger

This week's media headlines about the Syrian crisis have focused on a walk-out by the Syrian delegation at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi called the regime "oppressive"; and a TV interview in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he needed more time to win the war. But the humanitarian situation of hundreds of thousands of people in need of assistance inside Syria has been—as usual, aid workers would say—largely neglected. As violence spreads to previously unaffected areas, internal displacement has reached unprecedented levels. Three million people are in need of food assistance or agricultural support. Many more have been affected by a crumbling economy and a lack of social services, especially health care. Meanwhile, funding for humanitarian aid has not matched the strong rhetoric on Syria in the international community.

Increasingly, aid workers feel it is time to speak out. "We have kept silent for quite a while. The political debate has been predominant," said Radhouane Nouicer, the UN's top humanitarian official in Syria. "We need to remind people that beyond the political debate, there are also people who are suffering and who are not having their needs met."

Nouice told the UN-affiliated news service IRIN: "People have to realize that the situation has further deteriorated in recent weeks and that the violence has spread and intensified. Areas which used to be rather safe have become part of the war zone, like Aleppo and even Damascus… We are estimating the number of internally displaced people to be 1.2 million. This comes in addition to the people who have been affected even if they have not been displaced: affected by the war... by the non-functioning public services; the unemployment; the miserable conditions that are prevailing. I would highlight particularly the [lack of] medical services, hygiene, water and sanitation, basic shelter and basic household items."

From the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), Aug. 31

Assad bombs his own people —again

Wow. Remember how the Assad fan club on the supposed "left" had all touted the "inconclusive" findings of the UN report on the Houla massacre back in June, loaning legitimacy to Assad's appalling claptrap about how the massacre was the work of a "foreign conspiracy"? Predictably, the silence has been deafening from this crowd over the past two weeks since the UN released a new report placing the blame for the massacre flatly with the regime. Gee, what intellectual courage. Now we wonder how they are going to explain this one away. From Middle East Online, Sept. 3:

A Syrian warplane bombed a building in the northern rebel-held town of Al-Bab in Aleppo province on Monday, killing at least 10 men, six women and two children, a watchdog said...

Among the dead in the Al-Bab strike were a girl and a boy, Rami Abdel Rahman, director of Britain-based Observatory, said. "They died when the fighter jet bombed the building where they were sheltered..."

The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists on the ground, said the toll was likely to rise.

"There are still people stuck in the rubble but nobody can go and help them because the aerial attacks have not ceased," it said.


UN report blasts both sides in Syria —but not equally

After hearing testimony from UN Human Rights Council investigators, Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, stated that both sides of the Syrian conflict have committed "war crimes"—but charged that the government is guilty of "crimes against humanity." He accused  anti-government forces of abducting, torturing and executing members of government and loyalist forces, and failing to distinguish themselves from civilians. But he charged that the government is using regular bombing of residential neighborhoods with both artillery shelling and air-strikes to clear out anti-government groups.  Pinheiro also expressed concern with the growing number of Islamic militants entering the country, potentially radicalizing the anti-government forces. (OHCHR, Sept. 17)

Syrian Christians exploited for regime propaganda?

The threat to Syria's Christians seems real enough, alas, but it is also inevitable that the Assad regime and its apologists will seek to exploit it, hype it and (perhaps) exaggerate it. An Oct. 13 interview in The Australian with Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun from the Monastery of St James the Mutilated in Syria, is being picked up by regime apologists on Facebook to portray the insurgents as a hive of jihadi extremists bent on exterminating Christians. The piece, entitled "Christians a target for Syrian rebels we back" (who exactly is "we"?), is by one Angela Shanahan—who seems not to have picked up on the controversy surrounding Agnes-Mariam's previous stops on her world tour, when she was accused of fudging the facts and shilling for the regime. National Review has picked up on such claims, but we will quote from the more objective Irish Times, whose Mary Fitzgerald reported Aug. 18:

Nun on Irish visit accused of peddling 'regime lies' about crisis in Syria
An Italian Jesuit expelled from Syria in June due to his outspoken criticism of government violence has accused a controversial nun who visited Ireland last week of peddling “regime lies” about the crisis there.

Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who lived in Syria for 30 years and has been heavily involved in interfaith work in the country, described Mother Agnes Mariam as "an instrument" of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. "She has been consistent in assuming and spreading the lies of the regime, and promoting it through the power of her religious persona," he told The Irish Times yesterday. "She knows how to cover up the brutality of the regime."

During her four-day visit to Ireland last week, Mother Agnes Mariam, who is superior at the Melkite Greek Catholic monastery in Syria, gave media interviews in which she claimed Christians in Syria were facing "extinction" and that rebels battling Assad were predominantly foreigners linked with al-Qaeda.

Fr Dall’Oglio, who has spent time with opposition activists in several restive parts of Syria, said these claims were "ridiculous" and constituted regime propaganda.

"I have been there, I know the people, including the youth, who are working for the revolution, and I know that what she is saying is insane. It corresponds with the regime version of the facts," he said.

Mother Agnes Mariam, who visited Dublin and Belfast, had separate meetings with representatives of the Irish Bishops Conference justice and peace committee, Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe, Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, and an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

One of her interlocutors here was taken aback when the nun claimed during their meeting that the Houla massacre, in which more than 100 civilians, more than half of them children, were killed, was an elaborate hoax concocted by rebels. This week a UN commission of inquiry concluded that Syrian government forces and the pro-Assad militia known as shabiha were responsible for the massacre.

In March, Mother Agnes Mariam was accused of running a “misinformation campaign” by a US-based Syrian opposition group called Syrian Christians for Democracy.

It said she maintains "close ties" to the Assad family and alleged she had fed selected visiting journalists "distorted facts and fake testimonies for the sole purpose of tarnishing the opposition’s image".

Pretty embarrassing that she is still peddling discredited nonsense about the Houla massacre, no less. Mother Superior jumped the gun...

Syria military using banned cluster bombs: HRW

The Syrian military is using cluster munitions against opposition forces, Human Rights Watch reported on Oct. 14. A YouTube video, posted by Syrian opposition forces, showed remnants of cluster munitions allegedly near several towns. Markings on the remnants suggest they were dropped from aircraft. The report details several instances of cluster munitions being used and being reported by civilians. HRW has called for Syria to stop using these munitions and for local media to detail the dangers of them more extensively.The use of these munitions are prohibited according to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) (PDF), which Syria has neither signed nor ratified, because of the potential harm they pose to civilians. The CCM bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster bombs, weapons that break apart, releasing large numbers of smaller, self-contained explosives which spread out before detonating on impact.

This is not the first HRW report calling attention to Syria using cluster munitions. In July HRW reported evidence of Soviet-made cluster munitions being used in Syria. The Convention was initially agreed upon by nations in May 2008 following 10 days of negotiations at the Dublin Diplomatic Conference on Cluster Munitions while the US, Russia and China each declined to sign it. In November 2010 the former UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro had urged more states to join the CCM at the First Meeting of States Parties. The CCM officially went into effect in August 2010, six month after the UN's announcement, as binding international law with 107 countries having signed the treaty and 37 countries having ratified it. 

From Jurist, Oct. 14. Used with permission.

UN: Syria execution video may show rebel war crimes

A UN official said on Nov. 2 that a video [WARNING: graphic content] posted on the Internet of Syrian rebels executing government soldiers who had surrendered may be evidence of war crimes. Syrian rebels killed 28 government soldiers in attack around the town of Saraqeb on Thursday. The video appears to depict the rebels executing some of the soldiers after they had surrendered. The UN official stated that once the soldiers surrendered they appeared to no longer be combatants, thus executing them was a war crime. The UN called for an investigation into the executions and for the offenders to be prosecuted. An estimated more than 32,000 people have been killed since the Syrian rebellion began.

From Jurist, Nov. 2. Used with permission.