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Syria's War

Breaking news coverage of developments in Syria's War and the broader regional conflict, including allegations of the deadly use of chemical weapons and the international community's response

  • Assad meets with a parliamentary delegation from Armenia as rebels take Kassab, home of local Armenian community.

  • Al-Qaeda military are looking for a base in Syria, The New York Times reports.

    From the Times:

    Dozens of seasoned militant fighters, including some midlevel planners, have traveled to Syria from Pakistan in recent months in what American intelligence and counterterrorism officials fear is an effort to lay the foundation for future strikes against Europe and the United States.

    “We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director, told a House panel recently.

    The extremists who concern Mr. Brennan are part of a group of Qaeda operatives in Pakistan that has been severely depleted in recent years by a decade of American drone strikes. But the fighters still bring a wide range of skills to the battlefield, such as bomb-building, small-arms tactics, logistics, religious indoctrination and planning, though they are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West.

    Syria is an appealing base for these operatives because it offers them the relative sanctuary of extremist-held havens — away from drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan — as well as ready access to about 1,200 American and European Muslims who have gone there to fight and could be potential recruits to carry out attacks when they return home. Senior counterterrorism officials have voiced fears in recent months that these Western fighters could be radicalized by the country’s civil war.

  • Following the joint summit between the United States and the European Union, the two released a joint statement that, in addition to the many crises plaguing the western world, mentions the ongoing civil war in Syria:

    22.  The Geneva negotiation process is crucial for achieving a genuine political transition in Syria. The onus is on the Syrian regime to engage constructively with the process and take part in meaningful negotiations towards political transition as set out in the Geneva Communique. Any elections in Syria should only take place within this framework. We will continue promoting efforts to alleviate the suffering of civilians; including the 6.5 million people displaced, more than half of them children, at risk of becoming a lost generation. We commend Syria's neighbours for hosting 2.5 million refugees and recall the need to maintain sufficient assistance. We demand all parties, in particular the Syrian regime, allow unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid and medical care country-wide and across borders and including areas under siege, in full compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2139. We are concerned that there are delays in the transfer process of chemical weapons out of Syria, and we urge Syria to comply with its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 2118 and the decisions of the OPCW Executive Council to verifiably eliminate its chemical weapons program in the shortest time possible. We will also continue, through the UN human rights bodies, to press for an end to and accountability for the grave human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law in Syria.

  • Men search under the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Karam homad district in Aleppo (Hosam Katan/Reuters)

  • #ArabLeague calls for political solution to end #Syria crisis; #SNC chief had asked Arab states to provide rebels with weapons
  • According to the Kuwait Declaration, Arab leaders strongly condemn the Syrian government 'massacres' and demand a political solution to the crisis, Reuters reports.
  • Islamist rebels captured a village on Syria's Mediterranean coast for the first time and battled to hold territory abutting the nearby Turkish border taken from President Bashar al-Assad's forces, activists said on Tuesday.

    Video footage showed six fighters holding the black banner of the Ansar al-Sham brigade on a rocky beach, a symbolic rebel victory in the coastal province of Latakia that has been an Assad stronghold throughout three years of conflict.

    "This is the first area of coast in Syria to be liberated," said an activist who used the name Abu Bakr, referring to the beach and nearby village of Samra.

    Latakia and neighbouring Tartous provinces together form the Mediterranean heartland of Assad's minority Alawite faith and have remained loyal to him as he battles mainly Sunni Muslim rebels in a civil war which has killed more than 140,000 people.

    After months of setbacks in central Syria, Islamist rebels launched an offensive on Friday into the Latakia region, taking the border crossing and the Armenian Christian village of Kasab.

    Since then, Assad has sent army and militia reinforcements, backed by air power, to repulse the rebels, leading to heavy fighting across the strip of territory along the Turkish border.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 pro-Assad fighters and six rebels - mostly foreign jihadis - were killed on Tuesday fighting for a strategic hilltop close to Kasab. Seventy-five wounded rebels were taken for treatment in Turkey.

    The ferocity of the fighting highlights the significance which Assad - one of whose cousins, Hilal, a militia commander, was killed near Kasab on Sunday - attaches to repelling the rebel thrust.


    Assad has lost control of much of the east and north of the country but his army, backed by Shi'ite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah, has cleared rebels out of large areas around Damascus and near the Lebanese border.

    As a result the president has secured greater control over the center of Syria and choked off rebel supply routes from Lebanon, whose Sunni population supports Assad's foes.

    In the rebel-held north and east, rival Islamist groups have been fighting each other for months, dimming any hopes of toppling Assad, and the uncompromisingly hardline rule of the Islamists has alienated many inhabitants.

    The Islamist fighters who took over the Christian town of Kasab have tried to show themselves in a different light, releasing videos of fighters protecting a church and reassuring the few elderly residents who had not fled the fighting.

    The border crossing at Kasab they seized had been the last point of entry from Turkey into territory fully under control of Assad's forces, since most of the northern border region is already under rebel control.

    About 300 miles to the east at the Qamishli border crossing, the United Nations said on Tuesday it had completed a five-day mission to move humanitarian aid into Syria.

    Qamishli is in the furthest northeast region of Syria, where Assad's security forces still have a presence but local Kurds have been exercising greater autonomy since the start of the uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.

    Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the last dozen trucks of a 78-truck convoy crossed at Qamishli, bringing food, blankets, mattresses and medical supplies.

    The United Nations says it is trying to assist nine million people inside Syria who need aid as well as 2.6 million refugees who need help in neighbouring countries, but not everyone is getting the help required.

    In Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, a 45-year-old Syrian woman set herself on fire outside a U.N. office in protest that she was not receiving support, according to medical sources at the hospital where she was taken for treatment.

  • The Syrian civil war is not solved, yet Syria has never been more isolated, President Obama said during the closing press conference at the Nuclear Security Summit.
  • UN chief blames Syrian government, rebels for humanitarian disaster

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed the Syrian government and opposition Monday for escalating violence and blocking aid to millions of Syrians in desperate need of help, despite pledges from both sides to comply with a Security Council resolution demanding immediate access anywhere in the country that aid is needed.

    As a result of the intensifying "indiscriminate and disproportionate violence and brutality," 3.5 million people are estimated to be in need of aid in hard-to-reach areas, an increase of 1 million since the beginning of the year, Ban said.

    Overall, more than 9.3 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian aid, including 6.5 million internally displaced, Ban said. The U.N. chief is required to report to the Security Council every 30 days on the implementation of the resolution, which was adopted a month ago.

    Despite the worsening security environment, the U.N. World Food Program and its partners provided food to 3.7 million people in February, Ban said. But he added that "the assistance reaching people continues to fall far short of what is required to cover even their basic needs.”

    The resolution demands that all parties, especially the Syrian government, promptly allow safe access for humanitarian aid across conflict lines and borders, and it calls on both sides to immediately lift sieges of populated areas. It also demands that all parties stop depriving civilians of food, halt attacks against civilians and foreign fighters withdraw from Syria.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Saudi Crown Prince Salman called on Tuesday for "changing the balance of forces" on the ground in Syria's civil war, saying the crisis there had reached catastrophic proportions.

    "Exiting from the Syrian crisis requires changing the balance of forces on the ground," Prince Salman told the opening session of an annual Arab summit in Kuwait, stressing the need for more support for rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

  • #Syria SNC :Iraq ,Algeria and Lebanon threatened to withdrew from the Arab Summit if Syria's seat in the Arab League was given to opposition
  • UN has access to Old Homs evacuees. Some say: we're civilians, why stuck here 6wks later? Others stay bc nowhere 2 go

  • School building where Homs evacuees are held. About 100 still awaiting results of security checks, some w/families.

  • Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba urged Arab leaders at a summit in Kuwait on Tuesday to grant Syria's vacant Arab League seat to his National Coalition and let it take over Syria's embassies abroad.

    "Leaving Syria's seat empty sends a message to (President Bashar) al-Assad...'Kill, kill the seat is waiting for you once the battle is settled'," Jarba told the opening session of the Arab League summit.

    "Reality requires that the Syrian embassies are also handed over to the National Coalition," he said.

  • Saudi crown prince calls for 'changing the balance of forces' on the ground in Syria's civil war, Reuters reported around 5 a.m. Tuesday.
  • Syrian Opposition Coalition leader Jarba calls on Arabs to give Assad's opponents Syria's Arab League seat and transfer Syrian embassies to the coalition, Reuters reports.
  • The State Department has released Secretary Kerry's remarks before meeting with OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu. When speaking before the meeting, Kerry told Uzumcu the U.S. and Russia 'relied heavily' on the OPCW as they negotiated the Syrian chemical weapons deal.

    From the State Department:

    DIRECTOR GENERAL UZUMCU: Mr. Secretary, we are very pleased to receive you here at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This is the first visit by a Secretary of State from the United States to our organization. We are, of course, very grateful for the continued support by the United States to the OPCW, and the latest one is the fact that in Syria we think that the success of this operation mission in Syria will further strengthen the norm against chemical weapons throughout the world. And we’ll look forward to our exchange of views today. Thank you very much.

    SECRETARY KERRY: Well, thank you very much, Director General. I’m very happy to be here at the OPCW. Obviously, Foreign Minister Lavrov and I relied very heavily on the capacity of the OPCW as we negotiated a removal of the weapons from Syria, and we’re very grateful for OPCW’s expertise, for their commitment, for their courage, their willingness to help get the job done.

    We are just about at the 50 percent removal mark. That’s significant, but the real significance will only be when we get all of the weapons out. Regrettably, the Syrians missed a March 15th date for destruction of facilities. We have some real challenges ahead of us now in these next weeks. We in the United States are convinced that if Syria wanted to, they could move faster. And we believe it is imperative to achieve this goal and to move as rapidly as possible because of the challenges on the ground.

    So I really look forward to exchanging views. We have great admiration for the work done here quietly over a long period of time in a steady basis. And I think everybody who works here should be very, very proud of the fact that a weapon of mass destruction will be taken out of a country for the first time in its entirety in this kind of an arrangement, and we all look forward to achieving that important goal.

    Thank you.

    QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, do you see the Crimea situation having an impact on the cooperation with Russia when it comes to the Syria chemical weapons?

    SECRETARY KERRY: I hope not. All I can say is I hope the same motivations that drove Russia to be a partner in this effort will still exist. This is bigger than either of our countries. This is a global challenge, and I hope Russia will stay hard to the task. Thank you.

  • The United Nations peace mediator for Syria has said it is unlikely talks in Switzerland between the Syrian government and opposition will resume soon, Lebanon's state news agency reported on Monday.

    Lakhdar Brahimi mediated two rounds of talks in Geneva this year but failed to bring the two sides closer to agreeing on a transitional government as called for at an international conference in the Swiss city in 2012.

    Speaking in Kuwait ahead of an Arab League summit, Brahimi said the conditions were not currently there for a return to the talks, according to the Lebanese National News Agency.

    "It is unlikely at the current time that dialogue will resume between the Syrian regime and the opposition in Geneva," the agency quoted him as saying.

    Syria's conflict, which entered its fourth year this month, has killed over 140,000 people and forced millions to flee.

    International and regional powers have backed opposing sides in the civil war, with Russia and Iran supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Western powers and Gulf Arab countries largely backing the rebels.

    Fighting has meanwhile continued, with the government flushing out rebels from towns and villages near the Lebanese border this month and insurgents launching counter-attacks near Assad's strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.

    This month Brahimi said that if Syria went ahead with an election that would probably secure a new term for Assad, the opposition would probably not be interested in pursuing further peace talks with the government.

  • Hard-line Islamic rebels captured a small town in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border as part of their offensive in the rugged coastal region that is a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, activists said Monday.

    Fighters from an array of armed opposition groups seized the predominantly Armenian Christian town of Kassab on Sunday. The rebels, including militant from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, have also wrested control of a nearby border crossing to Turkey.

    The advances, while minor in terms of territory, provided a welcome boost to a beleaguered rebellion that has suffered a string of battlefield losses in recent weeks. Forces loyal to Assad have captured several towns near Syria's border with Lebanon as part of a government offensive aimed severing rebel supply lines across the porous frontier and securing the border.

    Rebels launched their offensive on Friday in Latakia province, which is the ancestral home of the Assad family and a stronghold of his Alawite sect. Since then, the fighting has focused around Kassab and the nearby border crossing.

    Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said rebels were in control of the center of Kassab on Monday but that clashes were raging in the hills outside of town.

    Government warplanes were conducting airstrikes on several positions in the area, including Nabeh al-Murr and the scattering of homes and fields surrounding Kassab, the Observatory said. There was no immediate word on casualties.

    In an amateur video posted online, two opposition fighters stand on a rooftop in Kassab and raise their arms in celebration. A checkpoint near the post office, replete with sandbags and oil drums painted like the Syrian flag, sits abandoned. The streets are deserted. The camera pans past the base of a smashed statue that the narrator says was of Assad's late father and Syria's former leader, Hafez.

    The video appears genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting.

    This is not the first significant rebel offensive in Latakia.

    Last August, a mix of moderate and extremist rebel brigades captured around a dozen villages in the Latakia mountains, before a government counteroffensive expelled them.

    Afterward, Human Rights Watch said nearly 200 civilians, including children, the elderly and the handicapped, were killed in the attack. It said rebel abuses during the operation amounted to war crimes.

    Now in its fourth year, Syria's conflict has killed more than 140,000 people, forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge abroad, and triggered a massive humanitarian crisis across the region.

    The U.N. Security Council last month demanded immediate access everywhere in Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in need. It also called for an end to sieges of populated areas, and a halt to all attacks against civilians, including indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks using barrel bombs in populated areas.

    In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch said the Assad government has continued its sweeping aerial campaign against opposition-held areas of the divided city of Aleppo in defiance of the U.N. resolution.

    "New satellite photos and witness accounts show the brutality unleashed on parts of Aleppo," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based group.

    "Use of barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods has done the expected: killed hundreds of civilians and driven thousands from their homes," she added.

    Barrel bombs are makeshift devices packed with hundreds of kilograms (pounds) of explosives as well as scraps of metal. Pushed out of the back of helicopters, the crude weapons cause massive damage on impact.

    The HRW report said it used satellite imagery to identify at least 340 places in rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo that were damaged between early November and Feb. 20. The majority of the sites bore signatures of damage consistent with barrel bombs, the group said.

    The New York-based rights group also called on the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria, including on the purchase or servicing of helicopters. It said such a measure would limit the government's ability to carry out airstrikes.

    [The Associated Press]
  • Secretary of State Kerry says the United States is 'convinced' that if Syria wanted to, they could faster on chemical weapons, Reuters reports.
  • A cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was killed on Sunday in battles with Islamist rebels near the border with Turkey, activists and state media said.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Hilal al-Assad, local head of the National Defence Force militia, and seven of his fighters were killed in clashes with the Nusra Front and other Islamist brigades.

    State television confirmed Assad's death, describing him as the head of the National Defence Force in the coastal province of Latakia, where the Assad family originates.

    The National Defence Force is a militia set up to support the army in its three-year battle with rebels seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.

    The Observatory also reported that rebels fired two rockets into the port city of Latakia, which is the main hub for operations to ship out Syria's chemical weapons for destruction under a deal reached with the United States and Russia.

    It said there were no immediate reports of casualties.

  • Turkey shoots down Syrian warplane

    A Syrian military spokesman says Turkey's armed forces have shot down a Syrian warplane near the border between the two countries, calling the act a "blatant aggression."

    The unnamed spokesman was quoted by Syrian state TV saying the plane was downed Sunday in Syrian airspace as it was attacking rebels who have been on the offensive in the coastal province of Latakia. The spokesman said the pilot ejected from the aircraft.

    Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman reported Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Syrian aircraft that reportedly violated Turkish airspace at the two nation's border on Turkey's Hatay province.

    Turkey is among the main backers of Syrian opposition fighters trying to remove embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

    The downing of the plane came as Syrian government troops were trying try regain a border crossing point with Turkey near the town of Kassab that rebels captured Friday.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • A Syrian military spokesman says Turkey's armed forces have shot down a Syrian warplane near the countries' border, and called the act a "blatant aggression."

    The unnamed spokesman was quoted by Syrian state TV as saying the plane was downed Sunday in Syrian airspace as it was attacking rebels who have been on the offensive in the coastal province of Latakia. The spokesman said the pilot ejected from the aircraft.

    Turkey is among the main backers of Syrian opposition fighters trying to remove President Bashar Assad from power.

    The downing of the plane came as Syrian government troops were trying try regain a border crossing point with Turkey near the town of Kassab that rebels captured Friday.

    [The Associated Press]
  • Syrian state TV quotes a military source as saying the Syrian plane was shot down by Turkey as it pursued rebels within Syrian territory, Reuters reports.
  • Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has confirmed Turkish armed forces shot down a Syrian jet after it violated Turkish air space, Reuters reports.
  • Turkey's NTV quotes officials saying Turkish armed forces shot down a Syrian jet after it violated Turkish air space, Reuters reports.
  • #Turkey anti-aircraft fire shot down a
    #Syria warplane as it bombed rebels fighting to seize control of a
    border post in northwest: NGO
  • A mother's journey to find her missing son in Syria

    Fatima Khan wants to know why.

    “Why would they kill my son?” she asks out loud to people, some of whom she has already asked many times before. She asks in WhatsApp missives and text messages, in confrontations with Syrian officials, in conversations with the opposition, and when she’s not asking someone else, she is visibly wondering to herself.

    She replays each moment from when her son Abbas Khan, a volunteer British doctor on the Turkish-Syrian border, was detained by the regime at a checkpoint inside Syria to when he died in the regime’s custody 13 months later, on the eve of his promised release. He was 32 years old. Abbas' imminent freedom had been won by Fatima herself, a housewife who had never negotiated with hostile governments but who had relocated to Damascus on her own for five months to campaign tirelessly for her son.

    She is looking for the key that will make sense of what is surreal. After all, what took her son wasn’t an act of God or chance but rather a deliberate one of the state — organized and institutionalized.

    So for her “why,” there must be a readily articulable “because.”

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Standing at the gate of a Crusader castle captured from insurgents less than 24 hours before, a Syrian army officer declared on Friday that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were now in control of the western half of Homs province.

    The securing of the area follows three months of gains by government forces against opposition groups and serves two aims - cutting rebel supply routes from Lebanon, which borders Homs, and securing a highway that connects the capital to the coast.

    Controlling this road is especially important for Assad as it is used to transport chemical weapon agents to be shipped out and destroyed under an international agreement.

    Syrian authorities, battling a three-year-long insurgency against Assad, blame security problems for being months behind schedule, citing attempted attacks on convoys carrying chemical agents last month.

    Multiple army checkpoints punctuate the 160 km (100 mile) drive from Damascus to the Crac des Chevaliers fortress - a UNESCO World Heritage site - but no sign of opposition forces.

    The Syrian army convoy and journalists passed by several towns in the Qalamoun mountain range that were also recently captured by the army.

    Syrian soldiers raised the national flag on the battlements of Crac des Chevaliers on Thursday after a three-month seige. Its fall followed the army's retaking on Sunday of Yabroud - one of the last rebel-held towns along the Damascus-Homs highway.

    "We are in complete control of the western Homs countryside," the officer told Reuters, without giving his name.

    His soldiers walked around the 900-year-old castle that T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer who fought with Arab warriors against Ottoman rule in World War One, called the "best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world".

    The hilltop fortress suffered mortar hits last year as rebels sheltered behind its thick stone walls, built for battles hundreds of years ago. The outer walls appeared intact and only minor damage inside, with some chipped stones and bullet holes.

    Insurgents had left beds, plates and books inside the medieval arched rooms of the castle.

    The officer said the rebels there were foreign extremists from "Saudi, Palestine and Lebanon." The insurgents fled on Thursday morning but were ambushed by the army. Some made it to Lebanon.

    More than 140,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which has become increasingly sectarian as rival regional powers have backed either Assad, a member of the Shi'ite offshoot Alawite sect, or the majority Sunni rebels.

    With western Homs in government hands, nearly all Syrian areas bordering Lebanon are unsafe for rebels. Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah, which says Syrian rebels endanger Lebanon, have helped Assad in his fight to preserve four decades of dynastic rule.

    But Hezbollah's intervention has been followed by car bombs in Shi'ite residential areas of Lebanon, rocket attacks on Shi'ite towns and a flood of refugees and Sunni rebels into the country, causing outrage from Hezbollah's critics who say it has no mandate to enter a foreign war.

  • The first U.N. convoy carrying aid from Turkey into Syria was halted on Friday, less than 24 hours after the long-awaited humanitarian mission began, with one aid official blaming "administrative hurdles" thrown up by the Syrian government.

    The convoy only became possible last month after the U.N. Security Council reached a rare moment of unity on Syria, calling on all sides to provide humanitarian access.

    Eight out of a total of 79 trucks carrying medicine, food and bedding to civilians in the Kurdish city of Qamishli were able to cross before the delay, as co-ordinators sought permission from the Syrian government to clear customs during the Syrian weekend, the United Nations said.

    "We have overall agreement from the Syrian government but today it's the weekend and the Syrian part of the border is closed," U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher said.

    "Thursday was Mother's Day - a public holiday in Syria so the government sent a special letter to customs to open the border and we are working to see if the same would be possible on Saturday but movement on Friday is very unlikely," he said.

    Aid organizations have until now resorted to expensive and limited air drops to deliver aid, but agencies including WFP, UNHCR, and WHO are hoping the convoy can bring vital supplies to more than 50,000 people.

    The blockage is a reminder of the difficulties reaching the estimated 9.3 million people in Syria in need of help.

    One western aid official accused the Syrian government of hampering efforts to deliver aid.

    "The regime will use all sorts of hurdles to delay things. The Security Council resolution calls for free and unhindered access. With these administrative hurdles it is not free and unhindered," he said, asking not to be identified.

    He also questioned the U.N.'s strategy of seeking daily permission to get the aid moving.

    "It may have been better to apply for blanket access ... What we need are continuous pipelines and this does not address that."

    Western officials and Syrian residents have also expressed concern that those in rebel-held areas won't benefit from the supplies, due to be distributed by partners of the Syrian government.

    Syrian authorities were not immediately available for comment.

    U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is expected to report to the Security Council within 30 days of aid starting to flow, and "further steps in the case of non-compliance," could be considered, according to last month's resolution.

    However diplomats say it is unlikely that Russia or China would support sanctions against Damascus.

  • Reports of more rockets hitting #Latakia city today after militants incl. Nusra Front announce new offensive on this #Syria regime bastion
  • Bloody day in #Aleppo city yesterday @syriahr reporting at least 29 civilians killed in clashes and bombardment #Syria
  • Three people were killed in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday in fighting between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, security and medical sources said.

    Tripoli, like much of Lebanon, is divided along sectarian lines and is only 30 miles from the Syrian border. Its majority Sunni Muslims, who back the Syrian rebels, often clash with the minority from Assad's Alawite sect.

    Two gunmen were wounded in overnight clashes between fighters from the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite neighborhood of Jebel Mohsen and died of their wounds, the sources said. An elderly civilian man was shot dead by a sniper on Friday, they added. Eleven others were wounded.

    Lebanon's population is deeply divided over the Syrian war. Shi'ite militant and political movement Hezbollah and its allies support Assad while many of the country's Sunnis back the revolt.

    Tripoli's Sunnis and Alawites have clashed on-and-off for decades but the Syrian conflict has worsened tensions, with each side accusing the other of using the city as a base for sending fighters and weapons in and out of Syria.

    Lebanon's parliament gave a newly-formed cabinet a vote of confidence on Thursday, ending almost a year of political deadlock.

    But the small Mediterranean country sees regular car bombs and rocket attacks, as well as incursions by the Syrian army in pursuit of rebels who move across the border.

  • Syrians, Russians, Afghans top UN asylum list

    Syria, Russia and Afghanistan have the largest numbers of people fleeing their homelands to seek asylum, and most are turning to Europe, the United Nations refugee agency said in a report Friday that analyzes trends in 44 industrialized countries.

    Syria's 3-year-old civil war generated 56,351 asylum seekers in 2013, more than double the previous year's total of 25,232, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Syria became the world's biggest source for asylum seekers, surpassing Afghanistan, which fell to third.

    Russia, meanwhile, become the second-biggest source of asylum seekers with 39,779, up from 22,650 in 2012.

    Volker Turk, the agency's director of international protection, attributed Russia's surge to "a strong migration element" that is traditionally related to the Russian region of Chechnya, where there have been many conflicts between separatist movements and Moscow.

    He also said that he is expecting the number of Syrian asylum seekers to increase this year unless there is a political settlement to the crisis.

    The U.N. report found that 38,653 Afghans sought asylum last year, versus 47,519 in 2012. It said 38,171 Iraqis and 34,660 Serbians sought asylum in 2013 for fourth and fifth place, respectively.

    The 38 nations of Europe experienced the biggest 2013 increase in asylum applications, with Germany, France and Sweden the most popular destinations, particularly for Syrians.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • RIA news agency is quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying Syria has de facto reduced its 'chemical weapons potential' to zero, Reuters reports.
  • State Dept: #Syria envoy Rubinstein travels March 20-30 to Turkey, France, Jordan, to meet w/opposition/officials/activists
  • In a press released the United Nations confirmed a convoy carrying carrying aid supplies for people in need in the north of Syria is leaking the Turkish border crossing at Nusaybin today. The convoy is bound for the city of Qamishli and contains food supplies, blankets and mattresses, among other aid supplies.
  • Opinion: Syrian homesick blues

    More than 1 million Syrian refugees — over half of them children under the age of 18 — are scattered around Lebanon, absorbed into local communities or living in informal settlements of five to 500 tents closely packed together. Like far too many other refugees, they struggle with shortages of food, clothing and health care, but their particular circumstances create another problem: social isolation. Living in local communities or informal settlements would not, at first glance, seem isolating. For displaced Syrians, however, isolation has been a challenge unlike any I’ve encountered in refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa, where I have worked in the past.

    Isolation is essentially a social challenge, but it is no less significant than other shortages or crises that tend to affect displaced persons. It is a multifaceted affliction. The first layer is isolation from one’s homeland. Surrounded by torture, mass killings, detentions and summary executions, and lacking sufficient food and medical services, Syrian families have no choice but to flee their homes. In doing so, they leave behind everything that was familiar and all that they loved: family and friends; neighborhoods and communities; customs and routines; favorite places and cherished personal belongings.

    This form of isolation is to be expected — I had seen it many times before in my work. But what caught me by surprise in my interviews with Syrian refugees late last year was a second layer of isolation, from the Lebanese community. The absence of formal settlements means that Syrian refugees are scattered throughout Lebanon and remain segregated even as they live among their hosts. Many Syrian families told us that they don’t socialize with their Lebanese neighbors. Lebanese citizens similarly reported that they do not allow their children to play with Syrian refugee children. The Lebanese education system is under enormous strain as it struggles to accommodate Syrian students. Even though most Syrian children are still not attending school, others are being accommodated in shifts — with Lebanese students attending half the day and Syrian students attending the other half. While this is beneficial educationally, it continues to create a divide between the two communities.

    Read more at Al Jazeera America
  • Lebanese media say Syrian troops have closed a border crossing into Lebanon amid heavy clashes with rebels in the area.

    The state-run National News Agency says the fighting across the frontier in Syria on Thursday was so intense that stray bullets and rockets landed on the Lebanese side, in the region of Wadi Khaled.

    NNA had no word on whether anyone was killed in the fighting but at least five wounded were brought across the border into Lebanon for treatment.

    The report also says Syrian troops closed the Bqaiaa crossing because of the fighting.

    Syrian troops have been on the offensive over the past months in areas close to the Lebanese border, aiming to cut rebel supply lines across the porous boundary.

    [The Associated Press]
  • State Dept: There are still cases where we're working w/Russians, inc CW removal process in #Syria . Doesn't mean we agree on every piece.
  • State Dept: There's a hiatus, as you know, right now, but we're in talks w/partners on next steps. #GenevaProcess #Syria
  • State Dept on Russian claims that closing Syria embassy means US abdicates negotiator role: Disagree & completely refute all of those claims
  • The State Department has released a little bit more information on what will happen now that Syrian embassy personnel have been instructed to leave the United States.

    From the State Department:

    Question: Now that Syrian Embassy personnel have been instructed to leave the United States, what happens to their buildings/facilities? Who is responsible for securing them? When did the Syrian Ambassador depart and can you provide information about how many Syrian diplomats this will impact? Were there American citizens employed by the Syrian Embassy?

    Answer: The State Department is prepared to consider, on the basis of reciprocity, the appointment of a third State to which the Syrian government may entrust the custody of the premises of its mission, together with its property and archives, and the protection of its interests. Alternatively, the Syrian government may seek the Department’s approval of its assignment of these responsibilities to a member of its locally employed staff, who is either a citizen or legal permanent resident of the United States.

    If such arrangements have not been finalized or approved by the Department before March 31, 2014, in accordance with Article 43 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Department will assume responsibility for ensuring the protection and preservation of the premises of the Syrian Mission, together with its property and archives.

    The Syrian Ambassador departed Washington in December 2011. Yesterday’s action will impact foreign mission personnel at the Syrian Embassy. Other than the Honorary Consuls, located in Michigan and Texas, the Department is unaware of any U.S. citizens working at the Syrian Embassy.

  • According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a little more than 45 percent of Syria's chemical stockpile has been removed from the country. 

    From the OPCW:

    The OPCW-UN Joint Mission confirmed today that two additional consignments including both Priority 1 and Priority 2 chemicals were delivered to the port of Latakia and loaded onto cargo vessels during the past week. The latest movements increased the portion of chemicals that have now been removed from Syria for destruction outside the country to more than 45%. The updated figures are as follow:

    Priority 1 chemicals removed:    29.5 %* 

    Priority 2 chemicals removed:      82.6 %    

    Total chemicals removed:        45.6 %

    Most recent consignments:

    Consignment #10:            17 March 2014 
    Consignment #  9:            14 March 2014

    * Includes all sulfur mustard, the only unitary chemical warfare agent in Syria’s arsenal

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