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July 31, 2012

UN General Assembly to Meet on Syria

by Margaret Besheer, Lisa Schlein

BEIRUT/GENEVA — The United Nations General Assembly is to meet Thursday to discuss a Saudi resolution expressing grave concern with the violence in Syria and condemning the Security Council's lack of action.
 
The draft resolution also raises alarms about the Syrian government's threat to use chemical weapons against what the Syrians call foreign invaders. It calls on President Bashar al-Assad to step down in favor of a peaceful transition to a democratic government.
 
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army remained locked in battles with rebels over the country's largest city of Aleppo on Tuesday.

There were widespread clashes reported across Syria Tuesday, but the fiercest battle remained in the country's commercial heart of Aleppo.

Syria's official news agency reported that the army ambushed between 400-500 terrorists - the word the government uses to refer to the rebels - in 30 pick-up trucks in the suburbs of Aleppo. The report said many were killed and wounded and several of their trucks destroyed.

Meanwhile, Rami Abd al-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in an interview that the Free Syrian Army had successfully attacked a police station in the city.

“The rebels, they attacked some police station in two areas in Aleppo, and they killed at least around 40 people from the police," he said. "And also there are clashes in many areas in Aleppo and shelling from the Syrian regular army, and they are using the helicopter and they are using the mortar.”

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The fighting comes as the Syrian opposition movement further splintered when some exiled Syrian activists announced in Cairo that they had formed a new political alliance, one that will challenge the rival Syrian National Council in moves to head a transitional government.

Calling itself the "Council for the Syrian Revolution," the group is led mainly by dissidents who left the National Council which, they said, "had failed to help the Syrian revolution." Activist Haitham al-Maleh said the new alliance would offer more support to rebel fighters.

Refugees Increasing

​​​​​​​​The United Nations estimates some 200,000 civilians have fled Aleppo and surrounding areas in recent days. The U.N. refugee agency said thousands more remain displaced in Aleppo without the means to leave or are prevented from doing so by armed gangs.

Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said thousands of frightened residents are seeking shelter in schools, mosques and public buildings. She said the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other groups are registering about 300 displaced families a day in need of help.

"For example, there are 32 schools in Aleppo that we have identified and in each of those schools we have heard or witnessed that 250 to 350 people are packed inside," Fleming told reporters in Geneva.

"Many of these families [have] kids," she said. "And then in university dormitories there are a total of some 7,000 people staying in the dormitory rooms, hoping to seek safety from the continuing shelling and the continuing violence in the streets of Aleppo."  

Despite the difficulties of moving around in the city, Fleming said U.N. staff members are working with other aid organizations to assess needs. She said the agency's office in Damascus is sending household items including mattresses, blankets and kitchenware to Aleppo.

Iraqis Seek Help

U.N. staff members in Damascus are receiving phone calls from refugees, many of them Iraqis, who fear for their safety in Syria. Callers say they lack access to food, water and sanitation. They are asking the agency to help them move to safer areas and away from the fighting.

At the peak of the Iraq war, Syria hosted about one million refugees from Iraq. An estimated 80,000 remain in Damascus and many of those are seeking to return home.

In addition to the Iraqis, the U.N. said about 8,000 Somali and Afghan refugees are living in Damascus, many without documents. Fleming said they are afraid of being physically harmed and targeted.  

Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, Fleming said the Somalis and Afghans are becoming less accepted in Syria than refugees from Iraq.  

"Somalis and the Afghans lived quite peacefully and were able to work and feel that they could raise their families in Syria," she said. "However, now that things have turned violent, this is the group that feels like they stick out, particularly. And, thus, feel more at risk and many feel directly targeted."  

Fleming said up to 25,000 Syrians reportedly fled to Algeria. And she predicts that as Syrians in Algeria become increasingly financially-strapped, they will turn to the U.N. refugee agency for assistance.

Besheer reported from Beiruit and Schlein reported from Geneva.