Middle East

Humanitarian challenges mount in Syria

Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, meets with Peter Maurer, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, right, in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)

DAMASCUS: Syrian President Bashar Assad promised Tuesday to allow the Red Cross to expand its humanitarian operations in his country, as the head of the United Nations blamed those providing weapons to “either side” in the conflict for spreading misery.

Red Cross President Peter Maurer met the Syrian leader in Damascus for 45 minutes and they discussed improving the delivery of aid to civilians as well as resuming prison visits which have stalled since May, the ICRC said.

The developments came as a U.N. official said the number of people fleeing Syria had risen sharply in August, with more than 100,000 seeking asylum in surrounding countries – the highest monthly total during the 17-month-old uprising against Assad.

ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said in Geneva that “President Assad gave positive commitments to our requests,” but declined to give details.

Syrian television quoted Assad as telling Maurer that Syria welcomed the ICRC’s work “as long as it is carried out in an independent and neutral way.”

The ICRC has 50 foreign and Syrian aid workers in the country, but all have been confined to Damascus since late July due to heavy fighting.

In New York, U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon accused countries who send arms to Syria of spreading “misery” as he called on governments around the conflict-stricken state to help end the war.

“Those who provide arms to either side are only contributing to further misery – and the risk of unintended consequences as the fighting intensifies and spreads,” Ban told the 193-member U.N. General Assembly.

Ban did not name any country, but Russia is President Bashar Assad’s main arms supplier while U.N. officials say Iran has made arms deliveries to his forces. The Syrian government accuses Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of arming the opposition.

The U.N. secretary-general said there had to be a greater international effort to end the 18-month-old conflict and to counter the growing humanitarian and refugee crisis.

“Regional leaders have a key role to play in creating the conditions conducive to a solution,” Ban told the assembly as he urged leaders and the divided Security Council to unite behind the mediation efforts of new U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

In his first comments to General Assembly, Brahimi the death toll in Syria was “staggering” and destruction from its war “catastrophic.”

Brahimi said he would go to Damascus “in a few days” and that a united international stance on Syria was “indispensable and very urgent.”

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees said the outflow of 100,000 Syrians last month represented a tripling of the 35,000 who fled in July and a significant proportion of the overall total of 235,368 Syrian refugees who have registered in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey during the conflict.

“It is quite an astonishing number and points to a significant escalation in the refugee movement and people seeking asylum,” Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency told a news briefing in Geneva.

In Berlin, the head of the Syrian National Council said that his country would require a Marshall Plan in the event of the fall of the Assad regime.

Abdel-Basset Sayda, told a meeting of opposition representatives and diplomats that Assad’s regime has devastated public finances and institutions to such an extent that Syria won’t be able to rely immediately on oil revenues and taxes in any rebuilding effort.

The gathering of a working group on economic rebuilding, which Germany chairs jointly with the United Arab Emirates, is designed to address how to prevent basic services and infrastructure collapsing, and how to revive the economy in a post-Assad Syria.

“In the aftermath of the destruction ... we are convinced Syria needs a Marshall-style plan to ensure it stands again on solid financial and economic ground,” Sayda said. “Without real comprehensive development we will open up the opportunity for the growth of all kinds of extremism in the region.”

The meeting’s host, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, said economic recovery and a successful political transition must go hand in hand.

Westerwelle said a common platform of opposition groups is urgently needed.

“The people in Syria must see that there is a credible alternative to the regime of Bashar Assad,” he said. He called on the opposition “to create as fast as possible the conditions for ... a transition government,” but stopped short of French President Francois Hollande’s call last week for the formation of a provisional government.

Activists reported clashes across the country, including heavy fighting between government forces and rebels in many suburbs outside Damascus.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists, said 150 people were killed, with more than half in Damascus and areas surrounding the capital.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of six men were found in the southern neighborhood of Tadamon, with their hands bound and bearing signs of torture.

Battles and bombardment raged on in the country’s economic hub Aleppo and nearby towns, local activists said. Many homes had collapsed due to shelling, they said.

In Idlib, rebel fighters claimed to have downed a Sukhoi warplane, and posted a video on YouTube that purportedly showed the plane’s wreckage and the body of the pilot.

In Cairo, dozens of protesters attempted to storm the Syrian Embassy and hoist the rebel flag, but were rebuffed by plainclothes security personnel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 05, 2012, on page 8.




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