Strikes continue to batter Syria’s Ghouta as death toll hits 800

Syrian rescuers work at site of Syrian government bombardments in Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on February 22, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 06 March 2018
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Strikes continue to batter Syria’s Ghouta as death toll hits 800

DOUMA, Syria: Heavy air strikes and clashes shook the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, as France and Britain called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting on the escalating violence.
Eight hundred civilians — including at least 177 children — have been killed since Russia-backed regime forces launched an assault on the besieged enclave outside Damascus on February 18, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in its latest death toll.
Russia suffered its own heavy losses on Tuesday as the defense ministry said a Russian transport plane crashlanded at an air base in western Syria, killing all 32 people on board.
Bombardment and clashes in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus have persisted despite a month-long cease-fire demanded by the Security Council more than a week ago.
At least 19 civilians were killed on Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory, a Britain-based monitor.
The relentless attacks prompted France and Britain to request an emergency meeting of the top UN body, expected to gather on Wednesday, to discuss the cease-fire’s failure to take hold.
Government troops have advanced rapidly across farmland in Eastern Ghouta in the past week and had wrested control of 40 percent of the enclave as of early Tuesday.
In the enclave’s main town of Douma, air strikes have reduced homes to piles of rubble on both sides of the road, an AFP correspondent reported.
Exhausted civil defense workers on Tuesday took advantage of a few hours of calm to dislodge the body of a resident, killed in bombardment several days ago, from a collapsed building.
Other civilians used the lull in air strikes to venture out from cellars to gather a few necessities from what was left of their homes.
Some gathered the pieces of furniture smashed in the raids to use as fuel or sell to their neighbors.
An AFP reporter in Hammuriyeh said air strikes were continuing to pummel the town on Tuesday.
The raids came after around 18 people suffered breathing difficulties in the town following a strike there late Monday, the Observatory reported.
It had no firm word on the cause.
Eastern Ghouta’s around 400,000 residents have lived under government siege since 2013, facing severe shortages of food and medicines even before the latest offensive began.
Forty-six aid trucks entered Eastern Ghouta on Monday for the first time since the offensive started, but had to cut short their deliveries and leave due to heavy bombardment.
“The people we’ve met here have been through unimaginable things. They looked exhausted,” Pawel Krzysiek of the International Committee of the Red Cross said afterwards.
“And the aid we’ve delivered today is by no means enough,” he said on Twitter, ahead of another aid delivery planned for Thursday.
The UN Human Rights Council on Monday ordered investigators to examine the latest violence in the enclave.
It condemned “the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardments against civilians, and the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta.”
Eastern Ghouta is the last opposition bastion on the Syrian capital’s doorsteps, and the regime is keen to retake it to secure Damascus.
Rebels there have fired waves of rockets and mortars onto eastern Damascus neighborhoods.
On Tuesday, three civilians were killed and eight wounded in mortar fire on the neighborhood of Jarmana, according to state news agency SANA.
Regime ally Russia last week announced a five-hour daily “humanitarian pause” in the region, during which it said it would guarantee safe passage to civilians wishing to flee the enclave.
No Syrian civilians are known to have used the “humanitarian corridor.”
On Tuesday, Russia announced that the exit route had been expanded to allow rebels, not just civilians, to leave the enclave.
Russia’s air force intervened in Syria in 2015 on behalf of President Bashar Assad, helping his troops retake key cities across the country.
Moscow’s defense ministry said on Tuesday that a Russian transport plane crashed on landing at the Hmeimim air base, killing its 26 passengers and six crew members.
“The reason for the crash according to preliminary information could have been a technical fault,” the ministry said, adding that the plane had not come under fire according to a report from the ground.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Over the years, numerous rounds of UN-backed Syria peace talks have failed to stem the fighting.
In the latest attempt to end the seven-year war, the foreign ministers of regime allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey are to meet next week in Astana.


Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

Updated 15 December 2018
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Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

  • There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country
ANKARA: While Moscow and Damascus urge the repatriation of Syrian refugees based on improving living conditions in the country, their call seems largely unheard by Syrians who think that the conditions on the ground are not yet encouraging enough for them to return.
Just in November 2018, some 10,232 Syrians have been caught by Turkish border troops crossing illegally into Turkey.
Experts underline that the repatriation process should be carried out voluntarily and with consideration for the socio-economic, political and security risks during the restoration process of the country. Otherwise, it may be premature.
The Syrian regime recently set up a coordination committee for the repatriation of displaced Syrian nationals to their original cities and towns.
Moscow also prepared a plan in July for coordinating the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in their homelands. The plan was based on the establishment of working groups with Amman and Beirut, with the presence of US and Russian officials.
The reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan in mid-October has also encouraged Assad government to issue calls for the Syrian nationals to return home.
Following the seven-year-long civil war, about 5.6 million Syrians are believed to have fled abroad to neighboring countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while some preferred to set off for a new life in Europe.
About 114,000 of them have been repatriated this year, according to data announced by Moscow.
The risk of facing maltreatment when they return to government-held areas also caused concern among Syrian refugee communities.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has announced that since October more than 700 returnees, mostly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, have been arrested and 230 of them were detained in government-controlled parts of Syria.
Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian-origin researcher on refugee integration at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, thinks that conditions for repatriation aren’t ripe yet.
“Many Syrians link the return to political change, but status quo has the upper hand. Plus the risk of being drafted to military, the non-functioning economy, and the lack of safety despite all the recent developments create unappealing conditions for return,” he told Arab News.
To encourage the return of Syrians, Assad regime has recently offered an amnesty for army deserters who will allegedly not be punished but will still have to serve the mandatory two years of military service.
However, those who joined opposition groups against regime forces are exempted from the amnesty, sparking concerns that it aims to attract only Assad supporters home.
According to Kadkoy, who has been living in Ankara for four years, the tempo of life is faster and harder in Turkey, but better compared to where Syrians come from and Syrians are getting used to this complex environment.
“This means they’re settling down after seven years and building their future: Kids in schools and universities, parents filling different layers of the labor market, and flourishing businesses,” he noted.
Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey established 151 new companies in October mainly in the wholesale sector. Concentrating their activities in Istanbul, they invested about 34 million Turkish liras (about $6.3 million) and opened employment opportunities to many.
On the other hand, thousands of Turkish families reportedly began filing requests to adopt orphan Syrian children in Turkey. There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country.
According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, there are three major factors preventing many Syrian refugees from feeling that it is safe for them to return home.
“First, the Assad government is continuing to seize and demolish homes in areas that had been held by anti-government forces, meaning that for many Syrian refugees there is no home to return to,” Roth told Arab News.
Second, Syrian prisons remain full of people vulnerable to torture and execution.
“Few will want to return home if they face a serious risk of detention,” Roth noted, adding that the Assad government has not accounted for the thousands who have “disappeared” in its prisons, many of whom have been killed or died due to horrible treatment.
Roth also said that there has been no accountability whatsoever for the Assad government’s deliberate strategy of bombing or besieging and starving civilian areas.
“Few will have any confidence that such atrocities will not resume if there has been no justice for the senior officials who directed them,” he added.
Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, thinks that although Syria and Russia are trying to send assurances to Syrian refugees to encourage them to return, in fact the policy of the Syrian regime is contrary to official statements.
“The country is still in the grip of security, arrests are present, and reserve recruitment exists. One of my friends is a refugee in Jordan. He visited Syria two weeks ago, and when he decided to return he was surprised that he was wanted for military service,” he told Arab News.