More than 103,000 flee Syria in August in biggest outpouring yet


More than 103,000 refugees fled Syria in August, more than any other month since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began nearly a year and a half ago, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday.

The August outpouring nearly doubled the number of Syrians registered or waiting to be registered as refugees to more than 235,000, the U.N. agency said, a reflection of the grave escalation of violence in the embattled country. Thousands more refugees may still be uncounted.

The exodus has flooded neighboring countries with refugees in need. Turkey, which says it is already hosting more than 80,000 Syrian refugees, has left its borders open but roughly 8,000 people are believed to be waiting to cross because of the backlog in processing.

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Envisioning a post-Assad Syria as civil war grinds on

Assad posters near aleppo
With no end in sight for the bloody fratricide ravaging Syria, and with the world's most powerful nations bitterly divided over what to do next, U.S. and European diplomats have redirected their efforts from trying to halt the civil war to planning for a new Syria once it is over.

GlobalFocusThe blueprints emerging are necessarily vague, given that no one yet knows how or when Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime will fall or what constellation of political opponents will replace it. The proposals also lack any common strategy, reflecting discordant views among advocates of a free Syria on how best to aid the outgunned rebels. Washington is more wary than its allies of sending arms that could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants who have infiltrated the civil war to gain a new foothold in the Middle East.

French President Francois Hollande this week called on rebel factions to cobble together a transitional government that the international community can officially recognize and work with. But U.S. diplomats and political analysts argue that Assad's opponents are too fractious to put forward a united front or cohesive strategy for the war's end game. And with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney equally loath to endorse bolder action on Syria -- fearing another costly, faraway conflict -- responsibility for contingency planning has fallen to academia instead of the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, the United States Institute of Peace issued "The Day After" plan for a post-Assad Syria. The 133-page statement of goals and principles for a new Syria was six months in the making. It was produced by 45 Syrian opposition figures brought together by the State Department-funded institute's Middle East experts and partners from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. It is long on institution-building wonk-speak and short on how the opposition is supposed to get to the post-Assad era. But analysts hailed it as a worthy undertaking even as government and rebel forces are mired in protracted battles to control key areas of Damascus and Aleppo.

No representatives of the Free Syrian Army fighting the regime were party to the post-Assad project, said Steven Heydemann, a senior advisor on Middle East initiatives who coordinated the talks among Syrian exiles, defectors and regime opponents who managed to travel abroad or participate via video linkup.

"The group very sensibly recognized there was no way to anticipate how the transition would happen," instead focusing on identifying the challenges that would confront the next leadership whether Assad flees, negotiates an exit or is deposed in a palace coup, Heydemann said. However the Assad dynasty ends, he noted, Syrians will have to grapple with divisive questions on how to treat those accused of war crimes, deter revenge killings and get the economy and social services back in working order.

While the United States is holding firm to its policy of providing only nonlethal aid to the rebels, Heydemann said, Washington could play a more effective role in coordinating other outside support. He pointed to the mounting incidents of Islamic extremists waging strikes against the Assad regime for their own purposes and weaponry coming in from autocratic supporters like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as giving "a Wild West quality" to help for the underdog rebels.

"The United States is very concerned that support from outside for elements of the Syrian opposition not lead to strengthening of Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalist forces that becomes problematic in the postwar process," said Charles Ries, a career diplomat heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy.  "But our reluctance [to supply arms] has paradoxically caused the division of the Syrian opposition and has encouraged those Islamist elements to find their own sources of support and influence."

The task eluding the United States and its allies is uniting the disparate opposition forces inside and outside Syria into a cohesive leadership that they can support and ratchet up the pressure on Assad, Ries said. 

Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, shares other analysts' concerns that Islamic militants are filling the vacuum left by a hands-off U.S. policy toward the rebels. But it would be "ill-advised," he said, for the United States to recognize a transitional government that isn't broadly inclusive of the myriad ethnic, sectarian, religious and political factions in Syria.

"This administration is nowhere near doing that," Saab said of the prospects for a representative rebel leadership.

That said, initiatives like "The Day After" are laudable for keeping the Syrian opposition forces and their allies focused on the daunting challenges of building a stable nation once the civil war ends, Saab said.

"This is the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. entity to date to think about scenarios for after Assad," Saab said of the peace institute project. "It's not putting the cart before the horse."


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Photo: A rebel supporter treads on posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad lining the floor of a Free Syrian Army office in the town of Tal Rifaat, near Aleppo. Fighting has ground into a bloody impasse as international mediators differ on how to end the 17-month-old conflict. In Washington, the U.S. presidential election has relegated the Syrian civil war  to the diplomatic sidelines. Credit: Phil Moore / AFP/Getty Images

Syrian refugees number more than 210,000; seven die at sea

Syrian refugees are becoming an increasingly dire problem, U.N. officials say

Seven Syrians fleeing their country on a fishing boat have died off the north coast of Cyprus, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday, in what appears to be a new hazard as refugees pour out of the bloodied nation.

Four men, one woman and two children died as the vessel sank late last week, the U.N. agency said. The deaths at sea are the first such fatalities among Syrian refugees that the agency is aware of, spokesman Adrian Edwards said, though they were not the first Syrians to attempt the trip. Scores of Syrian refugees were reportedly aboard a boat intercepted off Italy earlier this month.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries by land rather than taking to the seas, Edwards said. About 15,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Europe since the uprising began, he said, a fraction of the more than 210,000 Syrians now registered as refugees or waiting to register.

The flow of refugees has turned into a deluge in recent weeks as violence has intensified, the U.N. says. Last week, more than twice as many Syrians surged into the Jordanian refugee camp of Zaatri than the week before, officials said. Growing numbers of unaccompanied children are among them.

The outpouring is even more dramatic at the Turkish border, where up to 5,000 people are arriving every day, a tenfold increase over previous weeks, officials said.

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Syria conflict expected to fester as world's attention strays

Shaken by defections and rebel encroachment on its strongholds, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is thought by some in the international community to be headed for collapse after a nearly 17-month uprising.

GlobalFocusBut independent political analysts unencumbered by wishful thinking tend to see the latest developments in the conflict as evidence of its descent into a long, bloody fight to the death as the world's attention drifts from the savagery that diplomacy has failed to stop.

Two weeks of intense fighting around Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the center of its battered economy, have inflicted untold new casualties, sent thousands more into foreign refuge and laid bare the goal of each side to annihilate the other.

The United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union and the United States failed to force out Assad and steer the combatants toward agreement on  transitional leadership. That has sent the war spiraling out of the control of outside forces. And it looks likely to rage on with mounting civilian casualties and sectarian atrocities, according to the latest accounts by international security experts.

"Increasingly entrenched and fearing neither threats nor sanctions, the regime has burned all its domestic bridges, and hard-liners with little capacity for compromise are firmly in control," the International Crisis Group says of the Assad government in "Syria's Mutating Conflict," a dire report forecasting unbridled bloodshed.

The fractured opposition fighting to oust Assad has also become radicalized and unmanageable, "threatened from within, despite its efforts, by sectarianism, retaliatory violence and fundamentalism," the just-released ICG report says.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday while traveling in Africa that the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab demonstrated the urgency of devising a coordinated plan for a post-Assad Syria. On Monday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the defection, coupled with others by high-level military and government officials, "indicated that the Syria regime is crumbling and losing its grip on power."

On the periphery of Syria's civil war, there is less confidence that an end is nigh.

Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been traveling in the Lebanese border regions where refugees huddle and fighters regroup. He sees the defections as having had little influence on the determination of Assad to press on with the effort to eradicate opponents he labels "terrorists."

"These defections are not from the inner circle. The government in Syria doesn't run the country, the regime does," Tabler said in a telephone interview from northern Lebanon. "The prime minister was not the person who called the shots."

The resignation last week of the special envoy on Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was seen as Annan's recognition that political divisions within the U.N. Security Council were undermining any chance of getting either Assad or the rebels to comply with the world body's peace plan.

With nothing left to negotiate, a mood of quiet desperation has set in among those monitoring the conflict, now estimated to have taken 20,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million. 

"What we have witnessed in the past 16 months of revolt might just be the harbinger of a far greater human disaster to come," Martin S. Indyk, a former diplomat now directing the foreign policy program  at the Brookings Institution, testified last week at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Indyk sees the Assad regime, made up of fellow members of the minority Shiite Alawite sect, as motivated to destroy the rebels out of fear that they would be slaughtered by the Sunni majority if Assad is driven out.

Alawites and other minority sects that make up more than a quarter of Syria's population see their choice in the conflict as "kill or be killed," said Indyk, noting that the regime, despite a few high-profile defections, has a well-armed fighting force of 300,000, thousands more shabiha paramilitary fighters  and the backing of Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.

With virtually no hope of foreign military intervention in a U.S. election year, the analysts say, it falls to the underdog rebels to offer assurances to Syrian minority communities that their rights would be respected and their interests represented in a post-Assad leadership.

“For those Syrians who have endured 17 months of repression, for whom the instinct of revenge must be hard to suppress, this might seem an inappropriate, unrealistic mission,” said Robert Malley, the crisis group's Middle East program director. "But it is a necessary and inescapable one if the transition is to be worth the enormous price that is being paid."

Tabler, of the Near East Policy institute, doubts that the scattered rebel units could provide such assurances.

"After 17 months of slaughter, I wouldn't rely on the better angels of anyone's nature," he said, predicting the war will be "a grinder."


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Photo: A Syrian boy peers out Tuesday from a schoolhouse in the town of Kafr Hamra, north of Aleppo, where his family has taken refuge from intensifying fighting between rebels and government forces. Credit: Khalil Hamra / Associated Press


Greece rounds up thousands of immigrants in weekend sweep


Greek police arrested more than 1,000 immigrants and detained thousands more in a massive weekend sweep that comes as the strapped nation has increasingly soured on hosting foreigners.

The vast roundup in Athens was jarringly named Xenios Zeus -- after the Greek god known as the patron of hospitality. Police stopped and detained 6,000 immigrants, out of whom 1,600 were arrested for illegally entering Greece and sent to holding centers, according to the Associated Press. Greek media reported that similar sweeps are in the works for other cities.

Leftist political parties slammed the crackdown as an assault on human rights that had fostered fear and racism, while the extreme right Golden Dawn party accused the government of not actually sending anyone back to a home country, merely holding a “badly organized PR stunt,” Athens News reported.

Public Order and Citizens' Protection Minister Nikos Dendias defended the roundups as necessary to keep Greece from unraveling, arguing that the country faced the biggest “invasion” since the influx of the ancient Dorians thousands of years ago. Dendias had earlier claimed that "unbelievably high" numbers of immigrants were involved in crime, according to Greek news reports.

As for naming a roundup after the god of hospitality, Dendias reportedly told Greek media that the name was fitting because immigrants were living in miserable conditions, crammed into decrepit apartments after being conned by smugglers into thinking that they would be able to get jobs.

“Now they will return to their home countries. ... It's the best thing that could happen to them,” Dendias was quoted by the Kathimerini newspaper.

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In Syria, 20 killed in Palestinian district of Damascus

Yarmouk video
BEIRUT -- The Syrian government and opposition activists exchanged accusations Friday after a mortar attack killed at least 20 people in Damascus’  sprawling Yarmouk district, home to tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Graphic video said to be from the scene showed the bloody and smoky aftermath: charred bodies, dazed victims, battered  building  -- scenes that have been repeated with a numbing regularity in strife-ravaged Syria.

The United Nations said 20 people were killed and 10 were injured in the attack.

The barrage late Thursday on the southern outskirts of the capital appear to have struck when many people were in the streets after dusk, when Muslims break their Ramadan fast. Yarmouk is home to more than 100,000 people, including one of Syria’s largest concentrations of Palestinian refugees.

Opposition activists blamed government forces that have been battling rebels based in nearby Tadamon and other districts. Much of the Tadamon area fell under rebel control  last month, along with other capital neighborhoods. A determined military counterattack seemed to bring most of the capital back under government control, though there has been sporadic fighting in recent days.

The government has for months adopted a strategy of shelling civilian districts suspected of housing opposition fighters. Human rights advocates have condemned the practice that, the opposition says, has caused the deaths of many civilians.

The official Syrian news agency  said an “armed terrorist group” had fired mortar rounds into Yarmouk, using the official term for  rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Mortars  are a weapon usually associated with the government, but armed rebels have captured some government armories and have som home-made mortars.

The rebellion in Syria has left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in Syria in a precarious position. Many have tried to remain neutral. Some have joined the rebellion. Others have voiced support for the Assad government.

Many of the Palestinians have fled to Jordan, joining an exodus of Syrian refugees there. Palestinians  have reported that Syrian troops seeking rebels have besieged some Palestinian camps and neighborhoods in Syria.

Palestinian Authority  President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday strongly condemned what he termed the “heinous” attack on Yarmouk.


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Photo: In an image taken from an amateur video, a man walks past a fire after a mortar attack on the Yarmouk district of Damascus. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the image. Credit: Shaam News Network



Temporary refuge for migrants in Mexico also under threat

MEXICO CITY -- For years, conflict has simmered and spiked between residents of a town outside Mexico City and the Central American migrants who have taken refuge there, a stop along their route northward.

Tultitlan has seen thousands of often bedraggled migrants arrive, hoping to hop aboard the freight trains that pass through toward the United States. Many end up staying for days or weeks or longer, and residents often blame them for crimes and vagrancy.

Initially, some residents gave out food and water. But as jobs dried up in the U.S., and the trip north became more precarious, and some travelers simply ran out of money, more and more migrants stayed, and that steadily inflamed local resentment.

The church stepped in, and Roman Catholic priest Christian Rojas opened a shelter for the migrants. But neighbors protested, and this month Rojas was forced to shut it down.

He then set up tents under an overpass near where the migrants hop the train, and there volunteers fed the men, as well as some women and children, who had fled Honduras, El Salvador and other parts of Central America. But now even that reduced operation has been threatened: Residents have vowed to dismantle it if it doesn't disappear by the end of the month.

Rojas doesn't blame the residents, some of whom have plastered anti-migrant banners on their fences, but rather holds the local government responsible for failing to help find a suitable location for a shelter.

"The authorities have to give us an answer," Rojas said by telephone Monday. "We've been waiting, and nothing. I am worried, but what can you do?"

There was no comment Monday from Tultitlan authorities, but officials there in the past have been hostile toward the migrants.

A nearby soup kitchen came under gunfire one recent night, and there have been reports of scuffles between migrants and purported locals. Migrant shelters across Mexico are reported to be full; they offer the only refuge for thousands who endure violent gangs, shakedowns by police and other perils.


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Photo: Central American migrants wait for a northbound freight train north of Mexico City on July 15. Credit: Marco Ugarte / Associated Press


Well-off and middle-class Syrians join exodus

MASNAA, Lebanon — The latest wave of Syrians fleeing to neighboring Lebanon doesn’t always fit the image of bedraggled refugees escaping with only the clothes on their backs.

Some arrive in style to this Lebanese border post, barely an hour’s drive from Damascus, pulling up in air-conditioned SUVs, accompanied by entourages of domestic workers. Others, less well-to-do, cross by foot in the sweltering daytime heat, lugging blankets and belongings in their hands.

The numbers surged last week following intense clashes in the capital and the brazen bombing that killed four top security lieutenants of President Bashar Assad.

The flow has caused some stirrings of resentment on exile social media pages. “The sons of the rich to Beirut and the sons of the poor to the coffin,” one Syrian posted on Facebook.

Many Syrians fleeing were hesitant to speak close to the border gate, fearing the presence of Syrian secret police. Some declared they were simply on vacation.

At a nearby village, however, some newcomers opened up, though they declined to provide complete names.

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New stream of refugees escapes strife in Syria

BEIRUT -- Escalating violence in Syria has prompted a new surge of refugees fleeing the strife-torn nation, with as many as 30,000 people escaping to neighboring Lebanon in the last 48 hours, the United Nations said Friday.

“With the spread of deadly violence, I am gravely concerned for the thousands of Syrian civilians and refugees who have been forced to flee their homes,” Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva.

Calculations of the numbers of people entering Lebanon from Syria remained imprecise. Between 8,500 and 30,000 arrived in the last 48 hours, the U.N. said.

The refugee agency said it was verifying the numbers and assessing the need of newly arrived Syrians, some of whom crossed “with only the clothes on their backs,” Guterres said.

The new wave of refugees appears to have begun after Wednesday’s reported bombing of a security compound in the Syrian capital. The brazen attack caused the deaths of four top government security officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad, the official Syrian state media said.

On Thursday, Syrian rebels seized several border crossings along the Turkish and Iraqi frontiers.

Reports Friday from the major commercial border crossing at Bab al-Hawa along the Turkish-Syrian frontier indicated that the Syrian frontier post remained in opposition hands. Rebels defaced official photos of Assad and burned Syrian flags, according to amateur video purporting to show the site.

Bab al-Hawa is situated along the main international highway from Turkey to Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub. Traffic at the once-bustling crossing had been reduced to a trickle because of the violence.

But Syrian crossings into Lebanon and Jordan appeared to remain in government hands.

Many people from Syria headed for the Lebanese border post of Masnaa, on the highway that links Damascus, the Syrian capital, with Beirut. Many were fleeing Damascus and environs.

Heavy fighting was reported Friday for the sixth consecutive day in the Syrian capital, where rebels have been battling government troops in fierce urban combat. Opposition activists reported renewed street protests across the nation Friday after traditional Muslim prayers.

More than 200,000 people are believed to have fled Syria to neighboring nations since the rebellion broke out more than 16 months ago. Within Syria, the violence had displaced some 1 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Ironically, before the current civil strife, Syria had provided a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people escaping violence in  neighboring Iraq. Thousands of Iraqi refugees remain inside Syria, some now facing new threats in a country that had served as a safe haven.

In recent days, the U.N. said, many Iraqis fled their homes in the Damascus suburb of Seida Zeinab “due to violence and targeted threats.” Some have taken shelter in schools and parks in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, the U.N. said.

Last week, the U.N. said, an entire Iraqi family of seven was found dead in their apartment in Damascus.  Three other refugees living in Syria were killed by gunfire. There was no word on who was behind the attacks on Iraqis living in Syria or whether they were targeted  for sectarian, political or other reasons.

The Iraqi government has urged its citizens to leave Syria and has organized an airlift to evacuate Iraqi citizens stranded in Syria.


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Photo: Syrians carry their belongings Friday as they cross into Lebanon at the border crossing point in Masnaa, eastern Lebanon, about 25 miles from Damascus, Syria. Credit: Associated Press.

Somali refugees increasingly endangered in Kenya camp, agencies say


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya is the biggest in the world, a sprawl of nearly half a million people, some of whom have lived there for about two decades.

Residents who fled famine and warfare in Somalia have now seen grandchildren born and raised in what was supposed to have been a temporary home. They have also seen predators and criminal groups flourish; and watched as recruiters lure bored and frustrated boys back to Somalia to serve in armed militias or pirate gangs.

Last year’s famine in southern Somalia saw Dadaab’s population swell by 160,000 to its present 465,000. As a result, Dadaab is running desperately short of funds for food and vital services, according to an appeal by eight aid agencies, including Oxfam and Save the Children.

The organizations warned that they face a $25-million shortfall for their humanitarian operations in the coming three months, putting 200,000 refugees at risk. From September, 50,000 refugees will have no water and sanitation facilities, according to the agencies, unless fresh funding arrives.

They also warned that 130,000 people could soon be without adequate shelter, living in flimsy plastic structures that deteriorate quickly in the harsh weather.

At the same time, they say, continuing to operate Dadaab as it has the past two decades is untenable. The camp was initially built as temporary housing for 90,000 people. Its massive population, almost all of whom are Somalis, survives on subsistence-level rations, with little hope of returning to Somalia or getting work in Kenya, and with few medical or educational services.

“Refugee camps are only temporary solutions and the situation is increasingly untenable. Funds are needed now to save lives, but we can’t keep pumping money in year after year while the camp keeps getting bigger. A change in approach is urgently needed. However, right now, the world has an obligation not to turn its back on Dadaab and the needs of the people there,” Nigel Tricks, head of Oxfam in Kenya, said in a statement.

A briefing paper on Dadaab released by the agencies Thursday reported there are two health units for 78,000 people and 70% of the camp’s 164,000 children do not go to school, making them vulnerable to militia recruiters.

Violence and insecurity is rife. Rapes of women and girls are common, and reports of sexual violences increased by 36% between February and May, but funding for protection of children and women has declined, according to the aid agencies.

A lack of security at the camp has also affected operations of the agencies, with several aid workers kidnapped from Dadaab.

Local attitudes toward the camp’s population range from indifference to hostility. Refugees compete with the local population for firewood, water and land.

Moreover, some Kenyans see the camp as a potential source of terrorists after a series of recent attacks in the capital, Nairobi, and the seaside town of Mombasa. Kenya is currently fighting a war against the Somali Islamist militia Al Shabaab.

Reluctant to attract more refugees from Somalia, the Kenyan government has resisted providing updated sewer systems, water, schools and clinics, according to Refugees International, an advocacy organization, in a report in December. 


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Photo: Saad Siyat, 2, struggles to take his last breath inside the Dadaab refugee camp, where he was brought malnourished and unconscious in this February 2009 photo.'Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times 


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