Bashar al-Assad’s mother has fled Syria, US ambassador claims

The TelegraphAnisa Makhlouf, the president’s mother, has reportedly gone to the United Arab Emirates amid signs that her son’s grip on power is weakening while his sister, Bushra, fled to Dubai.

“Members of the regime, little by little, are flaking off,” Robert Ford, America’s envoy to Damascus until the breakdown of diplomatic relations, told CNN. “They themselves know they are losing.”

Mr Ford described how Assad family members at the presidential palace could hear gunfire in the streets outside as they met with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab league special envoy. “You can imagine what that does to their own spirits, their own morale.”

Mrs Makhlouf, who is in her late seventies, is the widow of Hafez al-Assad, the dictator who ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in 2000.

Although she has rarely appears in public, she is believed to have significant influence with the regime. Continue reading

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First Patriot missiles to be ready in Turkey at weekend

Yahoo-News-ImageThe first Patriot missile batteries being sent by NATO countries to defend Turkey from possible attack from Syria are expected to be in place and ready for use this weekend, a senior NATO officer said on Wednesday.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are each sending two Patriot batteries and up to 400 soldiers to operate them after Ankara asked NATO for help to beef up its air defences against possible missile attack from Syria.

Some Syrian shells have landed inside Turkish territory during the 22-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, prompting Turkish retaliation.

NATO says several Scud missiles fired by the Syrian army at rebels have landed near the Turkish border.

The six Patriot batteries are being stationed around three southeastern Turkish cities and NATO says they will protect 3.5 million Turks from missile attack.

The Dutch army will be the first to have some of its Patriots in place and that is expected to happen this weekend, said British Brigadier-General Gary Deakin, director of the Strategic Operations Centre at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, which oversees NATO military operations. Continue reading

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U.N. says Syria being systematically destroyed by own people

Yahoo-News-ImageSyria is being systematically destroyed by its own people, a senior U.N. relief official said on Tuesday after returning from a four-day visit to the civil war-wracked country.

Peaceful street demonstrations seeking democratic reform in March 2011 were met with a bloody military crackdown and escalated into an armed uprising aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad. More than 60,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Syria over 22 months of conflict.

“I didn’t realise until I entered the country and moving around just how much has been destroyed already of the very vital infrastructure for the functioning of a society,” John Ging, operations director at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said.

“It is a country being systematically destroyed by its own people on all sides,” he told a news conference in Beirut, sitting alongside a team of emergency directors from seven U.N. agencies who went to Syria to negotiate for greater aid access with government authorities and rebel forces. Continue reading

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Editorial: Obama’s failure in Syria

The Washington PostBy: Richard Cohen

There are two kinds of wars, we are told — wars of choice and wars of necessity. The former is to be avoided and the latter fought with appropriate reluctance. World War II was a good and necessary war but Vietnam was not. The war in Iraq was a matter of choice (also of imbecility) but Afghanistan was not — although it now may be. Wars can change over time. The one in Syria certainly has. It has gone from a war of choice to a war of necessity that President Obama did not choose to fight. A mountain of dead testifies to his mistake.

More than 60,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians. An estimated 650,000 refugees have fled across Syria’s various borders. They live in miserable conditions, soaked and frozen by the chilling rains of the Mediterranean winter, caked in mud. Children have died. More children will die.

The war threatens to destabilize a whole region. The Kurds in Syria’s north are restless. The Palestinians, refugees in Syria from their one-time homeland, are refugees yet again in Jordan. Lebanon is awash with Syrians, fellow Muslims but often of a different sort. The ethnic nitroglycerin of that country — an unstable mixture of Sunnis and Shiites, various Christians and Druze — looks increasingly fragile. All Lebanese are mental census takers: Has their group increased or decreased, and what does it mean?

And what of Bashar al-Assad, the unimpressive son of a frighteningly impressive father? Will he seek exile in Moscow, possibly rooming with that vulgarian, Gerard Depardieu? Not likely. Assad will retreat to the Alawite redoubt and the slaughter will continue. Bloodbath will follow bloodbath, a settling of scores from the recent past, the distant past and — just for good measure — the imagined future: Kill before you can be killed. It’s the earliest form of hedging. Continue reading

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Sexual Violence A Factor in Syrian Refugee Crisis

Voice Of America VOARape is becoming increasingly widespread in Syria, where a civil war has been underway for almost two years, and recent studies indicate much of it is being carried out by troops and militias loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

One new study by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reports that rape has become so prevalent it is a factor in driving thousands of Syrian families into exile—either inside Syria or into neighboring countries.

Another group investigating the prevalence of rape in Syria since the civil war started 21 months ago is Women Under Siege (WUS), part of the Women’s Media Center, which documents conflict-related sexual violence.

“What we are seeing in Syria is extraordinary prevalence, geographically widespread,” said Lauren Wolfe, director of WUS.

Wolfe and others, however, say exact figures on the number of rapes taking place are nearly impossible to achieve because of the ongoing civil war and because many rape victim are reluctant to talk about their experience.

The WUS website maps more than 130 reports in Syria that Wolfe says could involve thousands of women. Though WUS encourages Syrian victims to report sexual violence directly to the website, Wolfe says the majority of the reports come from other sources on the ground, i.e., human rights groups, the United Nations and the international media.

“We were all tied up in the town main square…We were afraid and asking for mercy. I was shaking. There were 30 of them with firearms and knives…They took the older women and children away and kept us, the younger women, in the square. They started with me…I eventually stopped moving. I felt paralyzed. I felt like I was suffocating. They smelled rotten, like death. They shouted, ‘You want freedom? This is freedom, freedom, freedom.’

“Ten beasts took turns raping me. When I looked around I saw my mom dead on the ground, covered with blood with all the rest. They killed them, even the children…One of them wanted to cut my neck, but his friend said, ‘She is dying anyway. Look how she is breathing.’ I was barely taking any breaths. Most of my ribs were broken. They dragged me and threw me in a garbage container.” – Testimony of a young girl documented by WUS.

Civilian-directed

Sara Meger researches gender and international relations at Australia’s University of Melbourne. She says most of the sexual violence is carried out by Syrian military forces and the allied shabiha militia. Members of both groups, she says, seem to have used rape as a form of torture to extract information during interrogations and to punish the population for supporting the rebels. Continue reading

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Syria: Journalists’ deaths send chills through media on the ground

Global PostThe death of two journalists in separate incidents in Syria yesterday has sent a new wave of dread through the media world covering the long-running conflict.

The deaths of Belgian reporter Yves Debay as he reported from the Aleppo frontline and Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Al-Massalma who was shot by sniper fire in Daraa Friday, marks the first two deaths this year.

Syria holds the 2012 title for the deadliest country in the world for journalists. Last year alone, 33 journalists lost their lives while reporting in Syria. This figure does not include Debay and Al-Massalma who died this year or Ferzat Jarban and Basil al-Sayed killed in Homs in 2011.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded 15 arrests and at least 21 journalist abductions in country last year. More than a third of that number remains missing, including James Foley, an American freelancer that reported for GlobalPost, who was abducted at gunpoint eight weeks ago.

Dozens more have been injured or expelled from the country. It is unknown how many other cases have gone unreported.

As the dangers rise, the number of journalists venturing into Syria slowly decreases. In order to keep journalists coming in and the flow of information coming out, many opposition groups are pooling their resources in an effort to reduce the risks of reporting in their areas.

“As the Free Syrian Army, our mission is to protect everyone in our area; this includes any journalist coming here,” said FSA fighter Muhamad Raslan after posting a YouTube declaration on behalf of the Syrian Martyrs Brigades announcing the establishment of an office to protect reporters. “They come so far to show the people the reality of what is happening here.” Continue reading

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Syria: ‘The War for Idlib’ begins

Global PostA coordinated attack on seven prime military checkpoints on the western border of Idlib city signaled the beginning of the “War for Idlib,” according to opposition commanders who led the attack Sunday.

The ambush opened a key route into the city and isolated the Almarkazi Prison, which is under siege by rebel forces tonight as the Syrian conflict nears its two-year mark.

The attack was the first in a series designed to penetrate Idlib city, the last major stronghold of Syrian regime forces in Idlib district.

If the city falls, the few small towns in the area that remain under government control are likely to follow quickly and rebel forces would have gained control of the entire province.

At 4 p.m. Sunday, the sound of tank fire cut through the late afternoon silence. The strike was accurate, hitting the Rodko checkpoint, the closest of the seven to the prison. Fifteen minutes of solid incoming fire from all directions followed.

As around 50 guards manning the government-held area took cover, the ground attack began, led by Suqur al-Sham Brig. Com. Ayachi Abdel Rahman, known to his men as Abu Hajar.

“The objective is to get within close proximity of Idlib to begin the Idlib War,” Rahman said as he headed in on foot to take position an hour before the strike.

“We have heard the call of the people of Idlib, oppressed by the regime and now we are responding.”

The attack comes after rebels have made significant advances in Idlib district over the past few months. The most recent was the victory at Taftanaz airport, the biggest military base in northern Syria. Continue reading

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Syrian refugees gunned down by Assad’s forces at Jordanian border

Al-ArabiyaSyrian refugees seeking shelter away from violence in the country are being gunned down by President Assad’s forces alongside the Jordanian border, a recent video has revealed.

The video, aired by Al Arabiya television on Sunday, showed several individuals struck down by the Syrian regime forces as they try to cross into Jordan.

Reporting from the area, Al Arabiya correspondent Rima Maktabi said Syrian refugees have been using illegal passages as a fleeing tactic to reach the safety net of the bordering countries. Continue reading

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UNHCR: At Least 212,000 Syrian Refugees Currently in Lebanon

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced on Saturday that the number of Syrians and Palestinians who have fled the neighboring war-torn country and came to Lebanon has exceeded 212,000.

“These 212,000 refugees are currently receiving aid from the Lebanese government, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations,” a statement released by the U.N. said.

The UNHCR pointed out: “This number is the highest since the eruption of Syria’s conflict”.

The statement detailed that the majority of refugees reside in the north of Lebanon with their number reaching 73,970. Meanwhile, 56,284 refugees are in the Bekaa and 17,404 are spread between Beirut and the South.

Of these refugees, 147,000 are registered while the names of 64,000 others will be listed soon. Continue reading

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Massacre of over 100 reported in Syria’s Homs

Yahoo-News-ImageMore than 100 people were shot, stabbed or possibly burned to death by government forces in the Syrian city of Homs, a monitoring group said on Thursday, and fierce fighting raged across the country.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said women and children were among the 106 people killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad forces who stormed Basatin al-Hasawiya, a poor district on the edge of Homs, on Tuesday.

The massacre in the central city came the same day twin explosions killed over 80 people at Aleppo’s university in the north, according to the group.

Reuters cannot independently confirm reports due to reporting restrictions in Syria.

Syrian warplanes and troops pursued a countrywide offensive on Thursday, activists and state media said, bombing rebel-held areas and clashing with insurgents who have pushed into cities.

Government forces clashed on Thursday with insurgents in the cities of Deraa, Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and east of Deir al-Zor, the Observatory said. Only the coastal Assad strongholds of Latakia and Tartous were spared violence. Continue reading

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