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All sides in Syria's civil war are using shelling and siege tactics to punish civilians and big powers bear responsibility for allowing such war crimes to persist, U.N. human rights investigators said on Wednesday.
In their latest report documenting atrocities in Syria, they called again on the U.N. Security Council to refer grave violations of the rules of war to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution.
"The Security Council bears responsibility for allowing the warring parties to violate these rules with impunity," the report by the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria said.
"Such inaction has provided the space for the proliferation of actors in the Syrian Arab Republic, each pursuing its own agenda and contributing to the radicalization and escalation of violence."
Divided world powers have supported both sides in Syria's three-year-old conflict and a diplomatic deadlock has exacerbated the bloodshed.
The independent investigators, led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, said that fighters and their commanders may be held accountable for crimes, but also states which transfer weapons to Syria.
Syrian government forces under President Bashar al-Assad have besieged towns including the Old City of Homs, shelling relentlessly and depriving them of food as part of a "starvation until submission" campaign, the report said.
It said the Syrian air force had dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo with "shocking intensity", killing hundreds of civilians and injuring many more.
Insurgents fighting to topple Assad, especially foreign Islamic fighters including the al-Qaeda affiliated ISIS, have stepped up attacks on civilians, taken hostages, executed prisoners and set off car bombs to spread terror, it said.
The 75-page report, covering July 15-January 20, is the seventh by the United Nations since the inquiry was set up in September 2011, six months after the anti-Assad revolt began.
It was cold and dark in the psychiatrist's office in downtown Damascus. The electricity had just gone out, a regular occurrence these days in the Syrian capital, and he wore a jacket and scarf for warmth.
Patients used the light from their mobile phones to climb a narrow staircase up five floors. The doctor, who asked that his name not be used, says his clients used to drive from all over the country. But Syria's civil war means many can no longer reach the capital across frontlines.
When pro-democracy protests started three years ago, Syrians had access to government-subsidized health care. But in the armed revolt that followed a government crackdown on the protesters, many hospitals have been destroyed, and psychiatric facilities have become almost non-existent.
Family networks have also collapsed under the pressure of war. Like other Arab countries,Syria had a long tradition of community involvement in the individual's wellbeing. But since the war began, communities have been uprooted and entire villages and towns have been destroyed, leaving society's most vulnerable people without a safety net.
The demand for psychiatric care has never been greater. Psychiatrists find themselves overwhelmed by cases of war-related trauma.
Today in Damascus, it is not unusual to see flyers with photos of patients who have disappeared after being displaced.
Even the more fortunate patients who live at home in relatively safe central Damascus, with access to the few remaining psychiatrists, find the stress of war can precipitate a crisis.
In the case of Sawsan, a 40-year-old woman living with schizophrenia, the sounds of war trigger her agitation and paranoia.
"On bad nights, when we can hear a lot of shelling and gunfire, she gets stressed," her mother said. "(Sometimes) she locks herself in her room for days, barely coming out to eat. It's been very difficult for us."
Gunfire crackled and warplanes buzzed overhead as Syria's military fought on Tuesday to take a town that would help President Bashar al-Assad seal a link between his coastal bastions and Damascus.
Government fighters backed by the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah and local paramilitaries bombarded the areas around Yabroud, the last major town held by mostly Sunni Muslim rebels near the Lebanese border.
Journalists were given a state-led tour of government-held areas around Yabroud on Tuesday including Al-Sahl, a town about 2 km (a mile) to Yabroud's north which the army took this week.
Buildings in the town appeared undamaged and electricity was running, but shops were closed and the streets empty except for Syrian soldiers who patrolled with assault rifles, many smiling and flashing V for victory signs.
Thousands of people fled Yabroud, a town of an estimated 40,000-50,000 people roughly 60 km (37 miles) north of Damascus, and the surrounding areas after it was bombed and shelled last month ahead of the assault.
A Syrian military officer who asked that his name not be used told reporters that civilians were still leaving Yabroud, meaning fighting was still light. Some who "had problems" with the government chose to flee across the border to the Lebanese town of Arsal, he added.
The Syrian Arab Republic has submitted to the OPCW a revised proposal that aims to complete the removal of all chemicals from Syria before the end of April 2014.
The OPCW-UN Joint Mission also verified that two more consignments of chemicals have left the port of Latakia, including a quantity of mustard gas - a Priority 1 chemical - which was previously reported last Wednesday. Another movement, a significant consignment of other Priority 1 chemicals, is scheduled to arrive in Latakia during this week, which will bring the total number of movements thus far to six.
The six movements represent more than 35% of all chemicals that must be removed from Syria for destruction, including 23% of Priority 1 chemicals and 63% of Priority 2 chemicals. In addition, the OPCW has verified that Syria has destroyed in situ more than 93% of its stock of isopropanol.
In his report to the opening session of the Executive Council, Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said that all materials and equipment required by Syria are now in place for the expeditious removal of its remaining chemicals, including armoured jackets for the protection of containers.
“Given delays since the lapse of the two target dates for removal, it will be important to maintain this newly created momentum,” the Director-General told the Council. “For its part, the Syrian Government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner.”
The Special Coordinator for the OPCW-UN Joint Mission, Ms Sigrid Kaag, also briefed the Council on recent progress in the Syria mission.
"Nearly one third of Syria's chemical weapons material has now been removed or destroyed," the Special Coordinator told the Council. "This is good progress and I expect further acceleration and intensification of effort."
Prior to initiating operations in January to remove its chemicals, in late 2013 Syria completed the functional destruction of its chemical weapons production facilities, mixing and filling equipment, and all of its munitions that were designed for use with chemical warfare agents.
1. It’s the regime’s fault.
Ford placed the blame for the failure of two rounds of peace talks in Geneva squarely on the regime. Citing private comments by the United Nations special envoy to Syria, he said:
“The major reason for the deadlock, I want to be clear with everyone here. The mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has decades, decades of experience negotiating transitions and negotiating cease-fires, negotiating political settlements… was extremely clear as to what was the problem. He said it is – and this is a quote – 100 percent the fault of Jaafari,” he said, referring to Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, who led the regime delegation at peace talks.
“I’ll give you this little detail about it. Most of the discussions behind closed doors were the regime throwing out insults at the opposition delegation, basically saying they weren’t representative.”
2. But the opposition isn't helping its cause.
Assad’s Alawite support base is much shakier than it appears, Ford said, noting that there have been anti-government demonstrations even in his family hometown of Qerdaha. What keeps the Alawites and other minorities from deserting is a genuine fear that they will be massacred by foreign terrorists if Assad falls. Only the opposition can assuage those fears, he said.
“The Syrian opposition itself has done a miserable job distinguishing itself from the Al Qaeda elements. There are some really bad people in Syria right now, on the opposition side. Can the opposition show that it is willing to reach out and figure out a way security-wise and politics-wise to reunify across that sectarian divide?” he said.
“The sooner the opposition does that, the faster Assad’s support base will crumble.”
At the last round of talks, international representatives were surprised at the number of messages they got from Damascus saying that they hoped the talks succeeded. “Even in the Alawi community, they want an out. They don’t like where they are,” he said.
7. The end game is a bunch of cantons controlled by armed local factions.
So what happens?
Ford was unsparing in his summary: The state is “little by little collapsing.” It lacks the manpower to take back places like Raqaa province and Deir al-Zour, or the Kurdish north. The foreign fighters the regime increasingly relies on cannot be compelled to take on that fight. But neither can the opposition overcome the regime in much of the country.
The most likely end game? De-facto cantons, some of them controlled by local armed factions. Certainly nothing like the Syria Ford saw when he arrived in Damascus in 2010.
Spanish journalist kidnapped by al-Qaida-linked militants in Syria crossed the border into Turkey on Sunday, his newspaper reported, as activists said government airstrikes killed at least 13 people in a northwestern border town.
Veteran war correspondent Marc Marginedas was abducted on Sept. 4 near Hama by jihadists belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a breakaway al-Qaida group. He was "moved repeatedly" while in captivity and accused him of spying for the West before his release, his newspaper El Periodico said.
The newspaper did not elaborate on how Marginedas was released or whether a ransom was paid. It said he was undergoing medical tests in Turkey under the watch of Spanish state officials after speaking by telephone with his family in Barcelona and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The Spanish federation of journalist associations said in a short statement that it was delighted with the news and hoped for a similar outcome with Spanish journalists Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, also currently held in Syria.
Syria, engulfed in a nearly three-yearlong civil war, has become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, and the number of abductions has soared to an unprecedented level over the past year.
Many of the kidnappings go unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the abductions out of public view may help with negotiating the captives' release. The scale of the abductions — more than 30 are believed to be currently held — and the lack of response to individual mediation efforts have encouraged some families and employers to speak out.
The Government of Syria today transported a fourth consignment of chemicals, a quantity of sulfur mustard, to the port of Latakia where it was loaded onto a cargo ship and removed from the country. The sulfur mustard is one of five “priority chemicals” in Syria’s chemical weapons programme and will be destroyed at sea aboard a U.S. vessel, the MV Cape Ray.
“The removal of this sulfur mustard is an encouraging and positive development,” said the OPCW Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü. “Much work nonetheless remains to be done, and we look to the Syrian Government to accelerate its efforts to transfer the remaining chemicals in regular, predictable and systematic movements."
Today, a shipment of the Syrian Arab Republic's stockpile of sulphur mustard, commonly known as "mustard gas," has left its territory. I welcome this shipment as an important step in the elimination of the Syrian Arab Republic's chemical weapons programme, said Special Coordinator Sigrid Kaag.The Joint Mission looks forward to the Syrian Arab Republic continuing its efforts to complete the removal of the remaining chemical materials in a safe, secure and timely manner, through systematic, predictable and high0volume movements.The Joint Mission encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to maintain momentum in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2118 (2013) , and the relevant Decisions of the OPCW Executive Council.
“I am deeply disturbed and shaken by what I observed today," UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi stated. "The Palestine refugees with whom I spoke were traumatized by what they have lived through, and many were in evident need of immediate support, particularly food and medical treatment. What I have seen and heard today underlines the timeliness of the UN Security Council resolution 2139 on Humanitarian Access and the need for all sides to implement the resolution without fail. ”
The camp has been sealed since July 2013, UNRWA said on its website.