UN calls for access to 250,000 Syrians stranded in desert
The United Nations has called for unimpeded access to almost a quarter of a million Syrians stranded in the desert near Jordan and Israel who fled as forces loyal to the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, entered rebel-controlled parts of Deraa – the birthplace of protests that led to the country’s civil and proxy war.
The UN high commissioner for refugees said 235,000 people had fled the country’s south since mid-June. Its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said their situation was “dire”, that they were without shelter or protection from desert heat and winds, and that food supplies were dwindling. It urged all warring sides to allow the passage of aid deliveries.
The UN’s call came hours after a symbolic victory for Assad’s forces that illustrated the turning tides of the conflict. Syrian state news agency Sana said the army hoisted its flag for the first time in years in the rebel-controlled parts of Deraa city after local rebels agreed a surrender deal, including a planned handover of weapons and the exile of rebel fighters and activists. “Units of the Syrian Arab army entered the district of Deraa al-Balad and raised the national flag in the main square … a declaration that Deraa is now clear of terrorism,” said Sana.
The brutal suppression in March 2011 of protests in Deraa against the incarceration and torture of teenagers who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall sparked a nationwide outcry against Assad. A crackdown on protesters led to an armed uprising.
The victory over rebels in Deraa and the reclaiming of the city for the first time in seven years heralds the military defeat of a rebellion that was stymied by violent government repression, the rise of Islamist militias and nihilistic extremists, unwavering support from the regime’s allies – Russia and Iran – and dithering western powers.
“People have accepted the reality that the entire world is fighting against the revolution, and therefore it cannot continue,” said an aid worker from Deraa, who requested anonymity to avoid retribution from government forces now controlling the province.
The surrounding province also has great strategic significance thanks to its proximity to Israel’s border and because it straddles Jordan’s border. Israel will not tolerate Iranian-backed militias near the Golan Heights.
Syria’s government announced an offensive last month to reclaim all of Deraa province, where westernbacked rebels controlled swathes of territory in what was ostensibly a “de-escalation” zone. But the offensive, backed by Russia, months after a brutal assault on the region around Damascus known as eastern Ghouta – which killed 2,000 people and involved the use of chemical weapons – prompted the flight of a quarter of a million civilians in one of the largest single displacements in the conflict.
Rebels sought to negotiate with Assad’s Russian sponsors after the US – which for years had backed the southern rebels – said it would not intervene to protect them. One western diplomat said the “moral hazard” of intervening in the crisis had increased with time.
The surrender deal mirrors that in other parts of Syria: the handover of heavy weapons and forced displacement of those who oppose the agreement to the country’s northern territories, which are controlled either by rebel groups or proxies of Turkey.
Government forces are now expected to turn to Idlib in the north, where Islamist militias and al-Qaidalinked militants control territory hosting two million internal refugees.
Meanwhile, calls are mounting for aid to reach those already stranded near Deraa. “The displacement created by the violence in the last few weeks is the highest we’ve seen in a short space of time since the war started more than seven years ago,” said Caroline Anning of Save the Children.
▲ Refugees from Deraa province arrive near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights