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An al Qaeda splinter group in Syria pulled out of two provinces in the country's northwest on Friday and headed to its eastern strongholds after months of clashes with rival rebels, activists said.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a former al Qaeda affiliate, and competing insurgents have been fighting since the start of the year, killing over 3,000 people and undermining the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
On Friday, ISIL - which alienated many rebels by seizing territory and killing rival commanders - finished withdrawing from the Idlib and Latakia provinces and moved its forces toward the eastern Raqqa province and the eastern outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the withdrawal was overseen by the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's acknowledged branch in Syria, making the two provinces "completely free" of ISIL forces.
ISIL, which draws strength from a core of experienced foreign fighters, was initially welcomed in many rebel-controlled areas because of its fighting prowess and reputation for being relatively free of corruption.
The group later alienated many residents with a drive to implement a strict interpretation of Islamic law, but has also maintained sympathy in some areas because of its reputation for keeping looting and thievery in check.
The United Nations mediator who has sought to coax the warring parties in Syria to negotiate an end to the three-year-old conflict said on Thursday that holding elections would doom prospects for any future talks, even as lawmakers in Damascus appeared to inch closer to scheduling national polls.
The Syria conflict, which has threatened to destabilize the Middle East, has also created what the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
In a report released early Friday, the United Nations refugee agency said four out of 10 Syrians had been uprooted from their homes, making Syria “the world’s leading country of forced displacement.” More than 2.5 million are registered as refugees outside the country, mostly in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while 6.5 million are internally displaced. Half of them are children.
“We would very much like to continue the Geneva process,” the United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters after a closed session of the Security Council, referring to two rounds of negotiations that have been held in the Swiss city. The last one ended without agreement even on an agenda for talks. Elections would defy one of the central premises for the negotiations: to discuss how to form an interim transitional government.
Three years after the onset of the conflict there, Syria has become the world's leading country of forced displacement, with more than 9 million of its people uprooted from their homes.
As of today, 2,563,434 Syrians have registered as refugees in neighbouring countries or are awaiting registration. With displacement inside Syria having reached more than 6.5 million, the number of people in flight internally and externally exceeds 40 per cent of Syria's pre-conflict population. At least half of the displaced are children.
"It is unconscionable that a humanitarian catastrophe of this scale is unfolding before our eyes with no meaningful progress to stop the bloodshed," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "No effort should be spared to forge peace. And no effort spared to ease the suffering of the innocent people caught up in the conflict and forced from their homes, communities, jobs and schools."
In the absence of visible progress towards a political solution, UNHCR predicts the refugee population in the surrounding region will grow to become the largest refugee population in the world.
For a child, three years can seem like a lifetime. Three years can transform a baby into a preschooler learning to read. Three years can see a young schoolchild grow into a teenager entering the exciting world of secondary school. Three years can turn anuncertain fifteen year-old into a proud young student on the first day of university.But not for Syria’s children. These past three years have been the longest of their lives so far. And for most, they have brought only loss and despair.Today, they are living through the most damaging conflict for children in the region’s recent history. More than 5.5 million Syrian children now see their future besieged by war. It is estimated there are up to one million children who live under siege and in hard-to-reach areas that UNICEF and other humanitarian partners cannot access on a regular basis.
The head of the United Nation's refugee agency said on Tuesday it must be ready in case Ukraine's crisis causes refugees to flee Crimea, but his biggest worry is that "a total disaster" could occur if the international community diverts its attention away from Syria's conflict.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N.'s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said in an interview that little progress was being made in efforts by the United States and Russia, now at loggerheads over Ukraine, to bring Syria's warring sides together after the collapse of talks in Geneva last month.
"In the moment in which we need the most relevant countries in the world to be able to come together to narrow their differences and to try to find a way to move into peace forSyria, this tension around Ukraine will obviously not help," Guterres told Reuters while visiting Washington to discuss Syria's refugee crisis.
"I hope that those that have the most important responsibility in world affairs will be able to understand that forgetting Syria will be a total disaster," he said.
Q: Crimea is an important topic, and is getting wide coverage. As a reporter do you know of another current event that isn't getting the coverage it deserves.
A: I always think Syria needs more coverage than it gets. It does receive a lot of attention. But the scale of the suffering and destruction is impossible to overstate.
For Syrians who three years ago rose up against 43 years of Assad family rule, living under the hard-line Sunni jihadists who said they had come to save them from the president's atrocities was even worse than Assad himself.
While neither Assad nor the rebels have the upper hand, there is a growing sense among his foreign opponents that the battle for Syria has become a twin-track operation, with defeating the jihadists as important as ousting Assad.
In interviews with Reuters, Syrians who have escaped areas that have fallen under the control of al Qaeda-linked groups have spoken of the way the jihadists have imposed their harsh and often violent version of Islam on their fellow Muslims.
When the uprising started in March 2011 - part of the wave of Arab Spring revolts - many Syrians had hoped either for reform or a quick end for Assad.
Three years on, Assad is still in power, while his subjects have been gassed, starved, exiled and bombed with impunity.
Many of those who initially succeeded in liberating large parts of northern Syria from government control soon found themselves under the yoke of foreign jihadists.
Syria's conflict has drawn in foreign fighters who, while ostensibly rallying to the cause of their Muslim brothers against Assad, have turned their guns on rival rebel groups.
The Syrian civil war’s impact on the health of Syria’s children is far more insidious than has been widely understood, a leading children’s advocacy group reported Sunday, with large numbers dying or at risk from chronic and preventable diseases that have flourished because the country’s public health system has basically collapsed.
In a report timed to coincide with the start of the fourth year of the conflict, the group, Save the Children, said the effects of untreated illnesses on Syrian children were only partly reflected in the documented statistics. They show that at least 1.2 million children have fled to neighboring countries, that 4.3 million in Syria need humanitarian assistance and that more than 10,000 have died in the violence.
“It is not just the bullets and the shells that are killing and maiming children,” said the report, “A Devastating Toll.” The conflict, which began in March 2011, has left a “shattered health system resulting in brutal medical practices that have left millions of children suffering,” the report said.