UN calls for ac­cess to 250,000 Syr­i­ans stranded in desert

The Guardian - - WORLD - Ka­reem Sha­heen

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.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ALAA AL-FAQIR/REUTERS

▲ Refugees from Deraa prov­ince ar­rive near the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied Golan Heights

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