News / Middle East

    Fears Mount for Fate of Syrian NGO Workers, Political Activists

    FILE - Stalls are seen on a street beside damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 10, 2016.
    FILE - Stalls are seen on a street beside damaged buildings in the rebel held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 10, 2016.

    There is growing concern about the fate of thousands of Syrians working inside the war-shattered country for Western non-profits or on development and governance projects funded by U.S. agencies and European governments.
     
    Western officials fear they will be targeted by the Assad regime as a government offensive continues to grab back more towns and territory from the rebels. And behind-the-scenes, officials are urging Turkey to admit Syrian NGO workers and political activists who want to flee, say several diplomats and aid agencies contacted by VOA.
     
    So far less than two dozen “political exceptions” have been admitted by the Turks through northern Syria’s Bab al-Samah border crossing, just a few kilometers from advancing government-aligned militias and near to a hospital that was hit earlier this week in a government airstrike.

    People look for survivors in the ruins of a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria, February 16, 2016.
    People look for survivors in the ruins of a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria, February 16, 2016.


    6,000 Syrians at immediate risk

    Immediate concerns are focused on about 6,000 Syrians — a number that includes Syrian contract employees for Western NGOs, as well as family members and dependents.
     
    “There are huge worries about their fate,” a British official told VOA. “The danger should not be underestimated.”
     
    Bassam al-Kuwaiti, a Syrian political activist based in Turkey, warned they will be “targeted by the regime and Russian troops.”
     
    NGO workers, political activists face harsh treatment

    Throughout the five-year conflict, and before the uprising, the Assad government has treated NGO workers and political activists harshly.

    A 2014 U.S. State Department Human Rights report noted Syria had “detained tens of thousands of individuals associated with nongovernmental organizations, human rights activists, journalists, humanitarian aid providers, and doctors without access to fair trial,” using “rape and assault as punishment.”
     
    When it comes to NGO workers, the regime has targeted especially those working on civil society and democracy issues.
     
    Last week, a U.N.-backed commission of inquiry reported that thousands of Syrians are disappearing and dying in government detention centers on a scale that amounts to state-sponsored “extermination.” The report gave harrowing details of detainees who have died as a result of torture or inhumane treatment in detention centers run by the Syrian government’s intelligence agencies.

    Network of councils targeted

    Aside from Syrians who are working for Western non-profits, there is also rising alarm about what may befall Western-friendly political activists who have built-up a network of councils in rebel-held districts.
     
    Across parts of rebel-controlled Syria, 416 local councils were functioning before this month’s Russian-backed government offensive unfolded in rural Aleppo.

    Aleppo and nearby Azaz, Tell Rifat, and Tihsrin dam, in Syria
    Aleppo and nearby Azaz, Tell Rifat, and Tihsrin dam, in Syria

    In some towns, council officials were elected in rudimentary-run polls. Many of the councils in Aleppo, rural Idlib, Latakia and in rebel-controlled towns ringing Damascus, originated as local relief efforts. But they developed quickly thanks to grassroots efforts and Western funding.
     
    Last October, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken announced Washington was giving another $100 million to the moderate Syrian opposition, some of which was earmarked for local governments inside rebel-controlled Syria.
     
    Western officials viewed the councils' emergence as a civic breakthrough, hoping it would help nudge the ideological direction of the rebellion, temper sectarianism and curtail radical Islamists. And councils have often had to navigate Islamist disapproval or cope with the threat of violence.
     
    Multiple dangers

    The danger for councilors in the coming weeks may not only come from the government as it grabs back more territory, worry Western officials and the councilors themselves.
     
    In the aftermath of the devastating Assad offensive a realignment of rebel militias is already under way, boosting the power of hardline Islamist militias and al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which has frowned on the council’s activities.

    FILE - Rebels from al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag, as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base, Jan. 11, 2013.
    FILE - Rebels from al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag, as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base, Jan. 11, 2013.


    “If Jabhat al-Nusra and allied Islamists start to grow in power there will be real risks for the councilors,” said Mazen Gharibah of the Local Administration Councils Unit, which advises the local councils. “They are already trying to take over the councils with their Higher Islamic Committees,” he added. There are some councilors in Aleppo trying to get out now, he said.
     
    Getting out

    Some councilors are among the tens of thousands of displaced civilians sheltering by the border near the crossing at Bab al- Samah. Satellite imagery released Thursday by Human Rights Watch demonstrates the massive influx of civilians by the border.

    Estimates vary on how many displaced civilians there are — some have taken refuge in the nearby town of Azaz or are spread out in nearby fields and small settlements close to the border, which makes an accurate head-count difficult.

    Azaz, Syria
    Azaz, Syria

    Some civilians are heading for the neighboring province of Idlib, hoping they will have a better chance to cross the border near the crossing at Bab al-Hawa.

    FILE - Syrians wait at a checkpoint at the Syrian border crossing of Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib Governorate, Jan. 21, 2015.
    FILE - Syrians wait at a checkpoint at the Syrian border crossing of Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib Governorate, Jan. 21, 2015.


    The United Nations estimates there are 70,000 refugees around Bab al-Samah and Azaz, but relief workers said the number may be closer to 100,000.

    But being huddled by the border isn’t relieving the anxiety of displaced civilians. Relief workers describe a sense of panic — one that has spread also to rebel fighters, who want to get their families out of Syria and to safety in Turkey.

    In this photo provided by Turkey's Islamic aid group of IHH, Syrians fleeing conflict in their country's Azaz region, are seen at a temporary accommodation center set up by the group near the Bab al-Salam border crossing, Syria, Feb. 5, 2016.
    In this photo provided by Turkey's Islamic aid group of IHH, Syrians fleeing conflict in their country's Azaz region, are seen at a temporary accommodation center set up by the group near the Bab al-Salam border crossing, Syria, Feb. 5, 2016.

     

    “Syrians fleeing bombing in the Azaz enclave aren’t even safe in the places they’ve sought shelter, but there are so few places for them to go,” warned Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch.

     

    While Turkish authorities are not allowing civilians to pass through the border with Syria, they permitted midweek several hundred mainly Islamist rebel fighters to enter Turkey from Syria’s Idlib province, pass through Turkish territory and re-enter the northern Aleppo countryside via Bab al-Samah, say rebel commanders.

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring network of activists, says one group transferred over on February 15. Rebel commanders say another group on Wednesday. Most fighters headed for Azaz.

    You May Like

    South Sudan Sends First Ever Official Olympic Team to Rio

    VOA caught up with Santino Kenyi, 16, one of three athletes who will compete in this year's summer games in Brazil

    Arrest of Malawi's 'Hyena' Man Highlights Clash of Ritual, Health and Women's Rights

    Ritual practice of deflowering young girls is blamed for spreading deadly AIDS virus

    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    VOA finds things Americans take for granted are special to foreigners

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: meanbill from: USA
    February 18, 2016 4:54 PM
    A Wise Man believes that the Russians have the only logical plan to bring peace and end the war in Syria? .. Listen to their plan? .. The (Syrian) terrorist/rebels will negotiate with the Assad Syrian government for an agreed on constitution and an agreed on election process [while joining] with the Russians and Syrian army to defeat and drive out all the foreign non-Syrian Sunni Muslim terrorist/rebels out of Syria, no matter who's side they're on? .. Only after these foreign non-Syrian terrorist/rebels are driven out of Syria and defeated will peace be ever achieved, no matter what the US and NATO says or does?

    PS; Think about it? .. The US and NATO are the biggest roadblocks to peace in Syria, (even though they are not Syrians), with their demands and by arming and equipping the foreign Sunni Muslim terrorists/rebels? .. Let the Syrian people themselves decide the fate of Syria and Assad? .. [and not], the foreign countries of the US and NATO and their supported terrorist/rebel allies? .. Has anybody ever seen a (peace settlement) that's ever brought peace since WW2 in conflicts and wars, [with the US participating in any of the peace talks? .. They're doomed to fail?

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora