Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, April 21st, 2013
Mile-long line of Syrians fleeing into Turkey
If you haven’t yet watched it, allow me to strongly encourage you to view the Frontline documentary Syria Behind the Lines. Superior even to this documentary, however, is a segment of extra footage from the journalist who filmed the documentary (Olly Lambert). A single, unbroken walk-through of just one day in just one village in the Syria conflict, narrated by Lambert himself, the work is simultaneously enlightening as to the journalist’s own experience and to that of the people in the community featured, beyond what the primary documentary (or most documentaries for that matter) can offer. A masterful piece of footage and commentary, please view (full screen recommended): The Bombing of al-Bara. Witnessing a single afternoon in al-Bara is a sobering experience when considering that it is just one example of a reality being experienced in countless locations in Syria every day.
One such recent location was the locale of Ghabagheb and nearby al-Sanamayn, attacked on the 10th of April. The day of the attack, a friend from Ghabagheb wrote saying: “The regime attacked my town today, they used tanks, cannons, missiles, nine people were killed one of them is a friend of mine (Ebraheem Alhorany) I have never seen him without a smile on his face… a house about 150m from ours was completely destroyed.” In his conversation with me, he said that the regime attacked the town “for no reason.” I’m certain it felt that way for everyone in the town, but emerging reports claimed that the army’s motivation was to go after defectors who had taken refuge in the area. Of course, the communities were collectively punished with the usual brutality leaving women and children dead, houses destroyed, and numbers of men rounded up and executed. Ghabagheb and al-Sanamayn are located in the Dera’a muhafiza on the main highway, but are so far north within it that they are actually closer to Damascus than to the city of Dera’a. Areas within the muhafiza that previously avoided direct conflict (including parts of the north) are seeing intensified action after earlier rebel gains in the southern part of the muhafiza.
Al-Sanamayn (C on the map) suffered even more than Ghabagheb (D on the map). On April 10, videos emerged indicating that a massacre occurred there. Syria Video contains examples showing mass graves, large numbers of bodies, and the bodies of women and children. This Sham News Network report documents the names of 49 deceased victims. This all4Syria report explains that the attack happened after a meeting between the village elders of Sanamayn and the commanders of the 9th Division, in which the commander threatened the elders, saying that he would “burn the village” if they would not hand over soldiers who had defected and were hiding in the village.
Many other towns have been attacked by the regime in the period since these events, but we mention these incidents to highlight the situation facing the Dera’a muhafiza, contributing to the mounting problem of refugees fleeing southern Syria for Jordan. Fighting is continuing in locations around the Dera’a muhafiza, with daily skirmishes in Kherbet Ghazalah, a strategically-important site that the army wants to win back from the rebels. Videos emerging from the village (B on the map) indicate an ongoing battle for the control of the Damascus-Dera’a City highway passing near the town. Commentators in videos recorded and uploaded daily keep count of the number of days they’ve been successful in repelling government attempts to secure the highway and keep ammunition flowing to the governorate capital, Dera’a city. They named the confrontations The Horan Bridge Battle (معركة جسر حوران) ,and yesterday was the 44th day. Another video shows a checkpoint near the village, heavy explosions and gunfire in the background.
The conflict in Dera’a has also seen the recent destruction of the historical Omari Mosque in the city of Dera’a, an icon of the beginning of the uprising. (Several previous reports of the mosque’s destruction during the development of the conflict had turned out to be fabricated, but it seems that now it is finally the case.) The mosque had been a field hospital in the early days of the uprising. Newer videos show the aftermath of the recent destruction.
The past week has produced a number of stories of regime successes in Idlib and other provinces, but there have also been sporadic reports of successful rebel counter-offensives retaking important sites. In Dera’a it’s difficult to say which way the pendulum is swinging, but amidst growing talk of an overall “stalemate,” it’s clear that it is not a static stand-off; both sides are exhibiting a tough determination responsible for the back-and-forth pattern of gains and losses.
As the conflict lengthens, the number of villages that have evaded direct military assault grows less and less as fighting constantly moves into new locations, as Ghabagheb has experienced. A recent video revealed that a military base in Busr al-Harir (eastern Dera’a, right on the Sweida border), responsible for transportation and ammunition, was surrounded by rebels. The regime campaign to regain control in Dera’a is directly influencing growing levels of refugees entering Jordan (a 331% increase within just four months), something that is stretching the Jordanian state’s coping capacity to the maximum.
The violence of these ongoing contests has made life impossible in many towns, fueling more surges of refugees from Dera’a into Jordan. Refugees are exiting Syria through every border, but Jordan has seen the highest influx of people on the run. We’ve created the following graphs based on the most recent UN data. Lebanon was previous host to the largest number of refugees until Jordan moved into first place. The first two charts are derived from the UN count of “total persons of concern” which include both those already registered and those awaiting registration.
The governments of the states hosting the refugees offer their own estimates with numbers exceeding those accounted for by the UN so far:
UN numbers place Jordan in the lead as host, but as governments report, Lebanon is hosting the highest number of refugees. It is possible that Lebanon maintains a high estimate because it wants to include a large number of Syrians who already had extended family systems or secondary housing in Lebanon and who have now relocated there permanently but who do not refer to themselves as refugees. Many Syrians already have long-term connections to Lebanon. (Other reasons could be responsible as well.)
The following two charts show change in the number of refugees over the last 4 months and are based only on registered persons (they do not include those waiting to be registered).
Actual numbers of UN registered refugees between December 24 and April 17:
Based on these changes, the percentage of increase for each country over the last four months is as follows:
Of the bordering countries, Iraq has received the least number of refugees. The biggest percentage of recent increase has occurred in Egypt, but the number of refugees it has received is far less than that of any of the bordering countries. Based on these percentages, the average of increase for bordering countries for the last four months would be 237.75, and Jordan is 1.58 standard deviations above average, which suggests an abnormal level of increase. Though all countries have witnessed significant increases, the likelihood is very strong that something is different about Jordan. The heightened war activity occurring in Dera’a is certainly part of it, but refugees also come to Jordan from other parts of Syria.
The UN’s current total of Syrian refugees (total persons of concern) for today, April 21, is 1,369,206. Government estimates put the number at 1,970,000, which do not include Iraq; adding Iraq’s UN count (133,840) breaks 2 million (bringing the total to 2,103,840). Other reports put 4 million more Syrians displaced inside Syria. This means that close to 1/4 of the Syrian population (or even more) are currently displaced.
The particularly severe burden that this is placing on these states has prompted tension and outbursts recently in the Jordanian parliament. In a recent chaotic session, a shouting match ensues following MP Mohammed al-Dawayima’s demand that those with Palestinian documents and children of Jordanian women married to non-Jordanian men be given the same rights as Syrian refugees:
In the same session, MP Maysar al-Sardia delivered some alarming statements. She asked the Jordanian government to begin searching for an alternative homeland for the Jordanian people, who she said have been taking in refugees from 1948 to the present, stating that they can’t cope with it any longer. She questioned why Syrians from northern and western Syria flee to Jordan instead of to Turkey and Lebanon, and suggested that the Jordanian government discuss this with those countries, also asserting that though Obama gives aid to the Syrian refugees, Americans will make back all of those donations through reconstruction projects that they’ll have when the war is finished. She deplored the phenomenon of Gulf Arab males visiting the refugee camps to exploit the vulnerable through “pleasure marriages.” (The temporary “mut’a marriage” is a Shi’i institution, but a Sunni practice called “misyar” can fulfill the same function.) In her attack on this trend, she referred to Arab Countries (her comments seem directed primarily at Saudi Arabia and Qatar) as “the Jews of Khaybar” (a reference to a community of Arabian Jews near Medina who underwent a war with the Prophet Mohammed; in other words, she is calling those she castigates enemies of Islam). These and similar statements have led to Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh apologizing to the Qatari and Saudi ambassadors.
Some Syrians choose to brave the situation back in Syria rather than remain in the Jordanian camps: Syrian Refugees Return from Jordan
Jordan has allowed 3,900 Syrian refugees to return to their home country over the last three years following protests against the poor living conditions in the Zaatari refugee camp. A total of 32,409 Syrian refugees have returned from Jordan since the outbreak of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
The refugees requested to return to Syria and received the approval of the Jordanian authorities after a series of protests at the Zaatari refugee camp, located 58 km northeast of Amman, during which dozens of people were arrested and interrogated, according to the camp’s head.
The return of refugees to Syria is miniscule in contrast with the flow of people in the opposite direction. Approximately 2,000 Syrians cross the border into Jordan every day to escape the violence, according to UN figures.
It has been reported that some Syrians are taking advantage of their refugee status to gather supplies Jordan, which they then bring back to Syria before returning to Jordan with other groups of refugees.
… The constant flow of Syrian refugees has aggravated the economic crisis in Jordan, contributing to a split in the country’s political class between those who are for or against the regime in Damascus.
Refugees don’t take kindly to Jordanian authorities telling them when they can or can not leave. As the above article mentioned, some come to the Jordan camps just to collect goods to take back into Syria. Safety is also a concern motivating the authorities restrictions: A riot broke out among Syrian refugees after Jordanian authorities prevented Syria-bound buses from transporting them back to their country, due to the increased level of warfare in Dera’a. Riots in the camps are not isolated events, but continue:
A Jordanian official says 10 Jordanian policemen have been injured in a riot that erupted at a Syrian refugee camp near the Jordan-Syria border. Anmar Hmoud says the Friday afternoon riot in Zaatari camp occurred after handful of refugees tried to sneak out of the camp.
Hmoud, a government spokesman for the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, says that when police stopped them, 100 other refugees turned up, showering the policemen with stones. Police say tear gas was used to disperse the crowd.
Videos of the riots and Jordanian riot police can be seen on Syria Video here, here and here. According to video information, the incident started after a family tried to leave to the camp but was pushed back by the police.
Water is a significant issue for the country: Will Syria’s Refugee Crisis Drain Jordan of its Water? – Time
Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, subject to an ongoing drought that has devastated agricultural prospects in the country’s northern areas for nearly a decade. The large and rapid influx of Syrian refugees into the border cities of Ramtha and Mafraq, home to the Za’atari refugee camp, has strained water supplies to the breaking point — for two weeks in February, parts of Mafraq town had no water whatsoever. Summer’s soaring temperatures will put additional demands on a poor region that can hardly support its own population, let alone the surge of new refugees that are expected as the war in Syria grinds on. When the peaceful Syrian uprising evolved into a bloody conflict nearly two years ago, residents of Mafraq welcomed refugees fleeing the violence. That hospitality is starting to wane. Competition between Syrian refugees and local residents over limited resources, from water to electricity, food, schooling, housing and health care could boil over, potentially causing unrest in one of the few stable countries left in the Middle East. “As temperatures rise, so too will tensions,” says Nigel Pont, Middle East Regional Director for Mercy Corps, an international development agency actively involved with the Syrian crisis. Resentment among the Jordanians is palpable, he adds, and could easily escalate into violence if the underlying issues are not addressed.
Aid is not enough for the 2,000 to 3,000 (the latter figure from the Time article above) entering Jordan every day: Jordan Needs Support
“Jordan urgently needs the support of the international community in order to cope with the immense necessities of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees whom it harbours on its territory. Merely fulfilling the basic needs of the 140,000 Syrian refugees placed in the Za’atri camp, which our delegation visited, costs a million dollars a day. And over 2 000 new refugees are arriving at Za’atri every day,” Josette Durrieu (France, SOC), Chair of the Assembly Sub-Committee on the Middle East, declared today after their visit to Jordan on 6 and 7 April.
“U.S. feeds Syrians, but secretly” – Washington Post
In the heart of rebel-held territory in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo, a small group of intrepid Westerners is undertaking a mission of great stealth. Living anonymously in a small rural community, they travel daily in unmarked cars, braving airstrikes, shelling and the threat of kidnapping to deliver food and other aid to needy Syrians — all of it paid for by the U.S. government.
So secretive is the operation, however, that almost none of the Syrians who receive the help are aware of its American origins. Out of concern for the safety of the recipients and the delivery staff, who could be targeted by the government if their affiliation to the United States were known, the Obama administration and the aid workers have chosen not to advertise the assistance.
… “America has done nothing for us. Nothing at all,” said Mohammed Fouad Waisi, 50, spitting out the words for emphasis in his small Aleppo grocery store, which adjoins a bakery where he buys bread every day. The bakery is fully supplied with flour paid for by the United States. But Waisi credited Jabhat al-Nusra — a rebel group the United States has designated a terrorist organization because of its ties to al-Qaeda — with providing flour to the region. “If America considers itself a friend of Syria, it should start to do something,” he said.
The UN has announced it will have to cancel food aid to 400,000 refugees in Lebanon if it doesn’t receive more funding (Reuters):
The cash shortage is part of a wider financial shortfall that the organization says is threatening its efforts to help nearly 1.3 million Syrian refugees and almost 4 million more people displaced inside Syria by the two-year conflict. “The speed with which the crisis is deteriorating is much faster than the ability of the
international community to finance the Syrian humanitarian needs,” Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. refugee agency’s regional coordinator for Syrian refugees said.
…All refugees currently receive food when they register and then get monthly food coupons worth $27 a month, Labande said…
The United Nations says that so far only $400 million out of more than $1.5 billion pledged by international donors in late January to cover Syrian refugee needs for the first six months of this year has actually been committed.
New camp opened, Jordanians frustrated – France Press
Jordan, already straining from hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, is increasingly feeling the heat from its own citizens who are fed up with the growing influx.
Jordan says it is hosting more than 500,000 Syrian refugees and the authorities last week opened a new refugee camp in the Mrigeb al-Fuhud area east of the capital Amman as thousands continue to flee the war across the border. The 13,000-acre (5,200-hectare) camp, built and run by the United Arab Emirates northeast of Amman, has 750 caravans, a hospital and a school and can accommodate 5,500 people. The seven-million-dinar ($9.8-million, 7.5-million euro) facility was opened nine months after Jordan set up the sprawling Zaatari camp that houses 150,000 Syrian refugees outside the northeastern city of Mafraq.
Now Jordanians, who are already suffering from high unemployment, prices and inflation as well as poverty, accuse the refugees of taking their jobs and prompting greedy landlords to raise rents. “More than 160,000 Syrians hold various jobs in Jordan, though most do not have work permits,” Hamda Abu Nejmeh, secretary general at the labour ministry, told AFP. “It is a huge number that has a very negative impact.” He said Syrians “are depriving Jordanians from having jobs. If this continues, unemployment will rise and our plans to help citizens work will be affected negatively.”
Abu Nejmeh said Syrians accept less than the monthly minimum wage of 190 dinars ($268, 203 euros) and work longer hours. Unemployment is officially around 14 percent in the country of 6.8 million people, 70 percent of them under 30, but other estimates put the figure at 30 percent.
“Rents have doubled in the (northern) cities of Ramtha and Irbid. An apartment that is usually rented for 125 dinars a month now costs 250 dinars,” said Fathi Bashabsheh, who owns a housing complex in Ramtha where 35 Syrian families live.
“Around 130,000 people live in Ramtha now, including 40,000 Syrians. This is a problem for Ramtha residents who face many problems in finding jobs and renting houses and shops.” …
“We cannot keep paying for refugees while the international community is showing little support. We need more help or pressure will mount to close the borders,” a senior Jordanian government official told The Media Line.
… “I do not advise any refugees to return to Syria, they will face certain death. People in Dael are waiting for the bombing to stop and then plan to leave for Jordan,” he added. The rebels say they are powerless to stop people from returning, which is a personal choice, but had issued warnings about doing so which were not always heeded.
… Abu Hamza, leader of the rebels’ Houran Brigades, meanwhile said the rebels would not wait for an international resolution to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. “We have enough anti-aircraft missiles to create a no-fly zone,” he told The Media Line, adding, “We only need to advance near the border and push government forces out.”
The discussion of buffer zones grew as the reality of Syrian territory controlled by hardline Islamists became clearer. First there was the plan to bolster the nationalist opposition:
Jordan to spearhead Saudi Arabian arms drive – Guardian – Fears over rising power of al-Qaida-linked groups drives move to channel weapons to moderate rebel fighters through Jordan
Jordan has agreed to spearhead a Saudi-led push to arm rebel groups through its borders into southern Syria, in a move that coincides with the transfer from Riyadh to Amman of more than $1bn (£650m).
It marks a significant change for Jordan, from a policy of trying to contain the spillover threat posed by the civil war across its border to one of actively aiming to end it before it engulfs the cash-strapped kingdom.
Jordan’s role as a conduit for arms has emerged in the past two months as Saudi Arabia, some Gulf states, Britain and the US have sharply increased their backing of some rebels to try to stop the advances of al-Qaida-linked groups among them.
A push to defeat al-Qaida, rather than an outright bid to oust Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, is Jordan’s driving force. Officials in Amman concede it heightens a risk of retaliation from its increasingly cornered neighbour.
But beyond the problem of al-Qaida’s influence on the ground, the destabilization of Dera’a through the intensified battle between the regime and the rebels is pointing toward a destabilization of the border. This weekend alone, almost 8,000 new refugees have entered Jordan. The possibility of creating a buffer zone is gaining currency in Jordan, who on Thursday revealed that they would be hosting US troops. Al-Monitor:
Jordan acknowledged for the first time yesterday [April 18] that it would be hosting American troops. At the same time, it emphasized its rejection of any military intervention in Syria, and called for a comprehensive political solution that halts the cycle of violence there. This comes amid reports that Amman is considering the creation of a buffer zone in Daraa, Syria, to stop the flow of Syrian refugees into its territory.
Government spokesman Mohammed Mumuni said, “The US Department of Defense suggested deploying 200 troops on our territory, in light of the security repercussions that may result from the Syrian crisis.”
He added: “The kingdom’s position regarding what is going on in Syria has not changed. Jordan is against any military intervention, and calls for a comprehensive political solution that halts the cycle of violence and bloodshed there.” He stressed that “sending members from the US army to Jordan is part of the standard joint cooperation between the Jordanian armed forces and the US Army.”
A Jordanian army official, however, said: “Sending 200 US troops has nothing to do with the situation in Syria.” Speaking to the official Jordanian news agency [Petra], he said, “These soldiers represent the first unit among others that will take part in the Eager Lion exercise, which is held annually in Jordan.”
… The Jordanian government is considering using the city of Daraa, which is the largest in southern Syria, to test the possibility of creating a buffer zone there and its ability to contain the conflict and its repercussions.