News / Middle East

Syrian Crisis Escalates, Refugee Exodus Swells

Free Syrian Army fighters run to take cover away from the exchange fire while fighting with regime forces in the Seif El Dawla neighbourhood of Syria's south west city of Aleppo, August 24, 2012.
Free Syrian Army fighters run to take cover away from the exchange fire while fighting with regime forces in the Seif El Dawla neighbourhood of Syria's south west city of Aleppo, August 24, 2012.
Mark SnowissLisa Schlein
Syrian army bombardments killed at least 21 people in a Damascus suburb Friday and anti-government protests broke out in several other cities. The U.N. says the number of refugees fleeing the conflict is escalating.

Opposition activists said the three-day death toll in the suburb Daraya had reached at least 70, mostly civilians. They said Syrian forces continued to shell the area from positions on Mount Qasioun, on the northern edge of the capital.

Heavy fighting was also reported in other Sunni Muslim suburbs where rebel fighters are active. And fierce clashes between the rebel Free Syrian Army and government troops were reported in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, said 220 people were killed in violence across Syria Thursday - many of them in or around Damascus.

The Syrian government says it views the rebels as terrorists who, with foreign help, are seeking to destabilize Syria and topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad.  

Accelerating exodus

The United Nations refugee agency says relief operations for Syrian refugees in Lebanon are being hampered by worsening security.

The agency says clashes between rival neighborhoods in the Lebanese city of Tripoli are affecting the pace of refugee registrations.

“Fewer Syrians are turning up to register and appointments for those staying in affected areas have been rescheduled," said agency spokesman Adrian Edwards.

A Sunni gunman fires his AK-47 machine gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 24, 2012.A Sunni gunman fires his AK-47 machine gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 24, 2012.
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A Sunni gunman fires his AK-47 machine gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 24, 2012.
A Sunni gunman fires his AK-47 machine gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, August 24, 2012.
Sniper fire killed a prominent Sunni sheikh in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli Friday. This sparked renewed clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian factions that killed two people and wounded 17 others, dashing a tenuous truce.

Sunni Muslims have led the revolt against Assad, whose minority Alawite sect has mostly stood with him. Sunni-Alawite tensions have been growing in parts of Lebanon as well, such as Tripoli, where the two groups live in neighboring districts.

The UNHCR recently scaled up its registration process in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq to keep up with the escalating refugee numbers.

The agency is urging Syrians to register as refugees so they can receive basic help and services. U.N. workers say more refugees are coming forward now than before, but many are still reluctant to register, for fear of being identified if they return home.  
 
In all, UNHCR says more than 200,000 Syrian refugees are registered or awaiting registration. Previous U.N. projections had estimated 185,000 Syrian refugees would need aid this year.
 
The tide of refugees fleeing to Jordan in particular has jumped significantly. Spokesman Edwards said, "We saw a record number of people crossing the border overnight, being received at the Za’atri camp in the north of Jordan," he said.

Turkey has received the largest number of refugees. UNHCR says Turkish authorities have officially registered more than 74,000 displaced Syrians.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative Sybella Wilkes said 2,200 Syrians crossed into Jordan overnight, swelling the population of UNHCR's Za'atri camp to 15,000 refugees.

  • Free Syrian Army fighters run to take cover from fire from regime forces in the Seif El Dawla neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, August 24, 2012.
  • Buildings that were damaged after an exchange of fire between Free Syrian Army fighters with regime forces in the Seif El Dawla neighborhood Aleppo.
  • A Free Syrian Army fighter runs to take cover from fire from regime forces in Seif El Dawla, August 24, 2012.
  • A Syrian man takes refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing in Azaz, August 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes continue.
  • A Syrian girl who fled her home with her family due to fighting in Syria sleeps by her family's belongings at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing in Azaz, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, August 23, 2012.
  • Members of the Free Syrian Army clash with Syrian army soldiers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, August 22, 2012.
  • Sunni gunmen sit on a street where clashes erupted between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime in Tripoli, Lebanon, Aug. 22, 2012.
  • Members of the Free Syrian Army take cover inside a house during clashes with Syrian army soldiers in Aleppo's Saif al-Dawla district, August 22, 2012.
  • Children play on a swing in the center of Aleppo city, August 22, 2012.
  • A Syrian rebel fighter stands guard in Saif al-Dawla district of Aleppo city, August 22, 2012.

Protests erupt

Meanwhile, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group with members throughout Syria, said anti-Assad demonstrations broke out after Friday prayers in several Syrian cities.

"A massive demonstration started in [Aleppo's] Horria square," said LCC spokeswoman Rafif Jouejati, with protesters "chanting for Daraa and other disaster-stricken cities and demanding the trial of the regime and all its symbols."

She said a similar protest took place in the Damascus suburb of Hajar al-Aswad, despite the shelling there.
 

Lisa Schlein reported for VOA from Geneva and Mark Snowiss from Washington. Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

Mark Snowiss

Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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