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Syria's Ministry of Health excluded the predominately rebel-held province eastern province of Deir Ezzor — where polio broke out this year — from a 2012 vaccination campaign, insisting that most residents had fled the violence and outbreak of disease, Reuters reported Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands of people remain, however, and at least 15 children have contracted polio, the World Health Organization announced in November. Public health experts and local doctors say the government’s failure to vaccinate citizens in the province contributed to polio's reemergence there.Polio — a highly infectious, incurable virus that causes paralysis in severe cases — has been eradicated in most parts of the world with the advent of a polio vaccine. Yet Syria is experiencing its first outbreak of the disease since 1999. Cases have also been recorded in Aleppo and on the outskirts of Damascus.
Alloush, the son of a prominent Syrian sheikh based in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in 2009 during a countrywide campaign against Islamists and found himself in Sednaya. Like Islamist prisoners across Syria, both he and the former inmate were released in the summer of 2011 as part of a so-called amnesty package from a government shaken by mounting protests, which had broken out that spring. And like many of their newly freed counterparts, both men quickly joined the insurrection’s fledgling armed wing. The former inmate is now a fighter with Ahrar Al-Sham, one of the most powerful groups in the rebellion and also among its most Islamist, founded by former inmates of Sednaya.
Alloush, meanwhile, has become one of the most influential rebels in Syria, with a fighting force that rivals Ahrar Al-Sham’s as the opposition’s largest, and an increasingly outsize reputation — for his skill as a commander and also his religiosity.
As the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) loses ground, Islamist groups like Alloush’s are surging — making the case inside Syria and abroad that they are the new power center on the ground. Alloush’s group, called the Army of Islam, is “probably the strongest fighting force in the rebellion right now,” said Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And they’re known for being good on the battlefield.”
A British surgeon who was arrested last November within 48 hours of arriving in Syria to offer his services as an emergency doctor has died in jail, his family said on Tuesday.
The family of Abbas Khan, 32, an orthopedic surgeon from south London who had planned to volunteer in rebel-held Aleppo, was told he would be released this week, his brother Afroze Khan told the BBC. But when his mother went to visit him in prison in Damascus on Monday she was told he had died, he said.
The BBC reported that a Syrian government official said Khan, a father of two, had committed suicide. But his brother said that was impossible, given that he was preparing to go home with his mother who had spent the past four months in the Syrian capital to be near her son.
"He was happy and looking forward to being released," Khan said. "We are devastated, distraught and we are angry at the Foreign Office for dragging their feet for 13 months."
The British foreign office said it was "extremely concerned" by the report, and defended its actions.
"If these tragic reports are true, responsibility for Dr Khan's death lies with them (the Syrian authorities) and we will be pressing for answers about what happened," it said in a statement.
The United States has not met representatives of Syria's Islamic Front but a meeting is possible to broaden the representation of moderate opposition groups in talks to end the Syrian war, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.The United Nations has scheduled a peace conference on Syria for January 22 in Geneva to discuss a political transition to lead the country out of war. Key issues over who will attend remain to be ironed out."The United States has not met to date with the Islamic Front but it's possible it could take place," Kerry told a news conference in Manila where he is visiting."There is an effort afoot among all of the supporting nations of the Syrian opposition to want to broaden the base of the moderate opposition and broaden the base of representation of the Syrian people in the Geneva two negotiation," he added.
"The living conditions are very primitive," said Ammar Mousa, managing coordinator for Syria Relief Authority's efforts inside the country. "These people have nothing."
On Monday, faced with this staggering reality, the United Nations launched its largest ever appeal for donations: $6.5 billion. The U.N. campaign was accompanied by pleas from international non-governmental organizations to put renewed focus on the situation inside Syria, rather than simply on refugees in neighboring countries.
"Civilians inside Syria are telling us that they are feeling increasingly abandoned and isolated and they are losing hope," one major NGO, the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a press release. "The outside world is failing to reach, protect and assist too many of the civilians trapped in the Syrian cross-fire."
Syrian Relief Authority has witnessed this shortfall firsthand. When news spread recently about the agency's plans to open a new camp for displaced people, just across the border from Reyhanli, desperate Syrians flooded to it before it had even been built, overwhelming Mousa's carefully laid plans to set up tents and construct waterproof living quarters. "I don't know how the people found out about it," he said.
Many of those arriving at the camps are coming from the north's major cities, where regime bombardment, a surge in Islamic extremists among the opposition, and a lack of basic services has made life virtually unbearable.
During a recent visit out of the country, a Syrian doctor who lives and works in Aleppo told HuffPost that the only people remaining in his hometown are aid workers, fighters and "poor people -- the poor people who have no choice but to live in Aleppo, or to die."
The number, announced by emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos at a meeting of donor countries in Geneva, is the highest-ever for an individual conflict.
Amos said that the overall number the U.N. is requesting, $12.9 billion for countries including Haiti, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is also the highest the U.N. has ever asked for overall.
"This is the largest amount we have ever had to request at the start of the year," Amos told a news conference, referring to the worldwide appeal.Read more at Al Jazeera America
We are all now acutely aware that chemical weapons were used not only in the appalling August attack in the Ghouta area of Damascus, but also on several other occasions, including on a small scale, against civilians and military targets.
This new and broader knowledge should be of deep concern to all of us. Any use of chemical weapons, by anyone, under any circumstances, is a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other relevant rules of customary international law. The use of chemical weapons in Syria was a deplorable offense against the universal values of humankind.
Those responsible must be held accountable. The Security Council has said repeatedly that the use of weapons of mass destruction is a serious threat to international [peace] and security, and thus the Council has a primary role in bringing perpetrators to justice.
We must also do our utmost to deter future incidents, in Syria or elsewhere. I continue to urge all States that have not yet done so to sign, ratify and accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention without delay.
It is a 15-minute drive from the five-star hotel that houses U.N. aid staff in Damascus to rebel-held suburbs where freezing children are starving to death.
Yet it is months since convoys from the United Nations and other agencies have delivered food or medical care to many such areas - prevented by a Syrian government accused of using hunger as a weapon of war against its people.
As the United Nations launched an annual appeal on Monday to help 16 million people affected Syria's civil war, divisions among world powers that have crippled peacemaking are also denying U.N. staff the power to defy President Bashar al-Assad's officials and push into neighborhoods now under siege.
"In government-controlled parts of Syria, what, where and to whom to distribute aid, and even staff recruitment, have to be negotiated and are sometimes dictated," said Ben Parker, who ran the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria for a year until last February.
"According to the Syrian government's official position, humanitarian agencies and supplies are allowed to go anywhere, even across any frontline," he wrote last month in the journal Humanitarian Exchange. "But every action requires time-consuming permissions, which effectively provide multiple veto opportunities." Fighting and rebel groups are also obstacles.
Faced with the prospect of a worsening situation inside Syria and growing numbers of refugees in 2014, UN agencies on Monday appealed to donors for US$6.5 billion in funds – the biggest amount so far requested for a single humanitarian emergency.
The response plans for 2014 were presented to donors today in Geneva on behalf of UN agencies, including UNHCR, and non-governmental organizations by the Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. The two organizations they represent lead the multi-agency international humanitarian responses under way inside Syria and in the surrounding region.
"As we look towards the fourth year of this appalling crisis, we see that nearly three-quarters of Syrians will need humanitarian aid in 2014. With the help of the international community, the United Nations, Red Crescent and partner NGOs will continue to deliver vital aid and seek protection for the ordinary men women and children caught up in the conflict," said Valerie Amos.
Monday's appeal is based on projections of continuing humanitarian needs and large-scale displacement both inside Syria and into neighbouring countries during the coming year. Some US$2.3 billion of the US$6.5 billion total is for the OCHA-led Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan for people inside Syria.
The remaining US$4.2 billion is for the UNHCR-led Regional Response Plan 6, which helps refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries. The 2014 appeals represent the support plans of more than 100 partner organizations – UN agencies, national and international NGOs – who are working together to address the needs of Syrians.
"We're facing a terrifying situation here where, by the end of 2014, substantially more of the population of Syria could be displaced or in need of humanitarian help than not," said High Commissioner Guterres. "This goes beyond anything we have seen in many, many years, and makes the need for a political solution all the greater."
He added, "For now it remains of live-saving importance that the international humanitarian response is supported. Massive international solidarity is crucial, not only to support suffering Syrians, but also for the countries that have so generously taken in refugees. The Syria crisis is having a dramatic impact on their economies, societies and even on their security."
More than 2.3 million people have fled Syria since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, in one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. Support for the surrounding countries includes help for refugee-hosting communities in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which provide Syrians with basic shelter, protection and other essential support.
Amos emphasized the fact that to end the suffering altogether Syrians need a political solution. "As humanitarians, our focus must be on continuing to do everything we can to reach people with life-saving and life-sustaining aid. This includes mobilizing funding and urging the commitment of all who have influence over the parties who perpetuate this conflict, to ensuring the flow of aid and to protecting civilians," she said.
The UN World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), and UNICEF have started airlifting urgently needed humanitarian aid from Erbil, Iraq, to Qamishly in northeast Syria as displaced families start to face one of the harshest winters ever as winter storm "Alexa" dumped large amounts of snow and brought cold temperatures to the region.
The first WFP-chartered flight landed today in Qamishly airport from Erbil with almost 40 metric tons of food including wheat flour, pasta, oil, sugar, salt, rice, canned beans and bulgur wheat. Over the next few days, WFP plans to use 11 more airlifts to move enough food to feed over 30,000 people for one month.
People across the Middle East have come face-to-face with the ferocity of winter earlier than expected as the storm front named "Alexa" by meteorologists halted relief convoys and closed Qamishly airport for several days, delaying the UN’s aid flights.
Road access into northeastern Syria's Al Hassakeh Governorate remains perilous for aid agencies and no significant deliveries of relief items have reached the region overland since May, making alternative routes into the region necessary.
Two planes are contracted to do 23 rotations over the next 10 days between the two countries. It is the first humanitarian airlift of supplies from Iraq into Syria since the crisis in Syria erupted in March 2011.
The UN refugee agency plans to send some 300 metric tons of urgently needed relief items to Qamishly on 12 flights from its regional stockpile in Erbil using a chartered Iluyshin IL-76. UNHCR’s aid is intended to help some 60,000 displaced people and includes 50,000 blankets, 10,000 kitchen sets, 10,000 plastic sheets, 10,000 jerry cans, 30,000 sleeping mats and 10,000 hygiene kits among other supplies.
UNICEF is sending a plane-load of health kits, water and sanitation supplies to the displaced in northeast Syria.
The supplies are desperately needed in hard-to-reach areas where some 188,000 displaced people live under extremely difficult conditions in one of Syria’s coldest regions.
"Our food assistance is reaching displaced families in 13 Governorates in Syria except for Al Hassakeh which we have not been able to reach consistently for over five months now due to insecurity on the roads," said Matthew Hollingworth, WFP's Country Director in Syria. "We cannot leave these victims of war hungry in one of the harshest winter months of the year in Syria."
UNHCR teams based in Al Hassakeh and Qamishly will help distribute the organization’s aid.
"The number of particularly vulnerable people in Al Hassakeh Governorate is estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 but we are still doing assessments," said Amin Awad, UNHCR's Director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Hassakeh has been out of reach for a long time but this massive airlift will ensure that many thousands of needy Syrians receive the winter aid they require."
Both the Syrian and Iraqi governments authorized the passage of humanitarian supplies between the two countries.
"We have been particularly worried about the situation of children and families in the northern parts of Syria because of the insecurity and limited access," said Maria Calivis, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. "These airlifts will help ensure they have access to safe water and health care through the tough winter months ahead."
Syrian rebel leaders said they would do all they could to protect journalists but were hampered by infighting, after international news organizations complained kidnappings were preventing full media coverage of the civil war.In a letter over the weekend, the western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), which is in charge of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), said it would seek to free all journalists who have been abducted.At least 30 journalists are estimated by media organizations to be being held.The SMC is the main body representing moderate rebel fighters but it has no sway over extremist groups suspected of carrying out abductions."It is imperative that we reiterate that the FSA, along with all of its units and brigades, will do its utmost to protect and support journalists in order that they can fulfill their vital work," a letter from the SMC said.
A Danish chemical expert says Danish and Norwegian ships can safely ferry up to 500 tons of Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons out of the strife-torn country.
Bjoern Schmidt says sealed containers full of chemical compounds, which when mixed can create lethal Sarin and VX gases, will be loaded at opposite ends of the two cargo ships.
Schmidt said Saturday the exact quantity of chemicals to be taken out of Syria is unknown.
Cmdr. Henrik Holck Rasmussen, of Danish frigate HDMS Esbern Snare, said two cargo ships will go to Syria as many times as needed to pick up all chemical weapons.
The Danish warship and a Norwegian frigate will act as escorts. Both are docked in Cyprus along with a cargo ship. The second cargo ship hasn't arrived yet.
Syrian rebel commanders from the Islamic Front which seized control of bases belonging to Western-backed rebels last week are due to hold talks with U.S. officials inTurkey in coming days, rebel and opposition sources said on Saturday.
The expected contacts between Washington and the radical fighters reflect the extent to which the Islamic Front alliance has eclipsed the more moderate Free Syrian Army brigades - which Western and Arab powers tried in vain to build into a force able to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The talks could also decide the future direction of the Islamic Front, which is engaged in a standoff with yet more radical Sunni Muslim fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant
Ake Sellstrom (C), head of the United Nations mission to investigate allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Angela Kane (R), U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, and Maurizio Barbeschi, scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO), brief the press during a news conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York, December 13, 2013. Chemical weapons were likely used in five out of seven attacks investigated by U.N. experts in Syria. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
"The reality is that the Islamic Front are holding, now, the hardware," said Monzer Akbik. "They should return it."
The apparent seizure of rebel weaponry by fighters loyal to Syria's newly created Islamic Front has dealt a serious blow to the Syrian opposition, which is struggling to maintain international support as extremists expand their hold across rebel-held territories. The Islamic Front is an umbrella group of powerful conservative Muslim fighters.
Akbik said Gen. Salim Idris, the Free Syrian Army commander, was in southern Turkey meeting with members of the Islamic Front to demand the return of the weapons.
There are conflicting stories over how the Islamic Front won control of the warehouses. The Islamic Front denies that it took the weapons by force, saying it was responding to a call for help from the Free Syrian Army after the group came under attack from unknown gunmen.
Akbik refused to give any details on what happened, saying the situation was "foggy," but said ammunition — mostly AK-47 bullets — and heavy machine guns were seized.