End of Assad regime matter of time: Turkey Rebels battle in Damascus suburbs

BEIRUT, Dec 19, (Agencies): Syrian government forces are carrying out a broad offensive against rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, the state media said Wednesday, as the United Nations appealed for a billion dollars to support rising numbers of Syrian refugees.
The state-run SANA news agency said that troops have killed “scores of terrorists” — the government term for the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
The suburbs of the Syrian capital have been opposition strongholds since the uprising started in March 2011. The rebels have recently made significant advances in the area, capturing air bases and military installation and clashing with a pro-government Palestinian group for control of the Yarmouk refugee camp, located in the capital’s southern part.
SANA said Wednesday’s fighting was taking place in the capital’s southern outskirts of Daraya, Harasta, Douma and Hajar Aswad, an area neighboring Yarmouk.
On Tuesday, Syrian fighter jets bombed Yarmouk for the second time in a week, sending thousands fleeing from the camp. There were no reports on casualties from those strikes. Similar airstrikes on Sunday killed at least eight people in Yarmouk, activists said.
The rebel offensive in the camp, which began Friday, is aimed at driving out pro-government Palestinian gunmen of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
Most of the fighting on Wednesday was concentrated on surrounding districts outside the camp, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said the rebels took control of large parts of the camp after resistance from the PFLP-GC gunmen ceased that morning. The group relies on reports from activists on the ground.
Since the camp’s creation in 1957, it has evolved into a densely populated residential district just 5 miles (8 kms) away from the center of Damascus. Several generations of refugees live there, some employed as doctors, engineers and civil servants and others as day laborers and street vendors. Many Syrians have also moved into the camp area over the years.
When the revolt against Assad’s rule began 21 months ago, the half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria stayed on the sidelines. But as the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, while some groups — such as the PFLP-GC— have been fighting alongside the troops. The group is led by Ahmed Jibril, Assad’s long time ally.
The fighting in the camp has forced an exodus of Palestinian refugees and Syrians who came to the camp in past weeks to escape violence elsewhere in the city, according to United Nations officials.
More than two-thirds of the roughly 150,000 Palestinian residents of Yarmouk have left the camp since Friday when the fighting flared up, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. They have either sought shelter in the outskirts of the camp, in other parts of Damascus or other Syrian cities, or headed to the Syrian-Lebanon border, said Sami Mshasha, an UNRWA spokesman.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement Wednesday he had asked UN chief Ban Ki-moon to help in bringing the Palestinian refugees in Syrian to the Palestinian territories. This could include the West Bank, where Abbas governs, or the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The statement said there are 450,000 Palestinian refugees living in 10 camps in Syria. Abbas said Yarmouk, which is the biggest camp, “has been through a difficult situation due to the escalating conflict in Syria.”
Any movement of refugees into the West Bank would need the consent of Israel.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry had no comment.
Meanwhile, Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar, who was wounded in suicide bombings last week in Damascus, arrived in Beirut on Wednesday for treatment, a Lebanese cabinet minister said.
“The minister arrived at 7:30 pm (1630 GMT) at Beirut airport, and he was taken to the American University Hospital,” the minister told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Shaar was wounded in a deadly attack on Dec 12 on the Syrian interior ministry. The attack was claimed the next day by the jihadist Al-Nusra Front.
“His condition is stable and he was able to talk to the people who received him at the airport. I don’t know how long he will stay here,” the Lebanese minister said.
According to a security source, Shaar was lightly wounded on the shoulder when his office ceiling collapsed.
Shaar also escaped another deadly attack on July 18, when four top regime officials were killed in Damascus, among them President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law.
Elsewhere, the fall of the Syrian regime is “only a matter of time”, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, calling on other countries to help make the transition period as brief as possible.
“It is clear that if a regime loses legitimacy and fights against its own people, that regime will lose that fight,” Ahmet Davutoglu said at a press conference after meeting with his Finnish counterpart Erkki Tuomioja in Helsinki.
“As to timing: now we can be more sure than before... it is only a matter of time. But it is up to the international community how to make the transition as fast as possible... in order to prevent further disasters,” he added.
The Turkish foreign minister said he was not in favour of international military intervention in the Syrian conflict, echoing the views of Tuomioja, who said he didn’t think such a move was “on the table at all”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the overall death toll from the 21-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime at more than 43,000 people, based on accounts from activists and medics on the ground.
In other news, the United Nations appealed on Wednesday for $1.5 billion to provide life-saving aid to millions of Syrians suffering in a “dramatically deteriorating” humanitarian situation.
The twin appeals, for $519.6 million to help four million people within Syria and $1 billion to meet the needs of up to 1 million Syrian refugees in five countries until July 2013, comprise the “largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever”, the world body said.
“The violence in Syria is raging across the country and there are nearly no more safe areas where people can flee and find safety,” Radhouane Nouicer, UN regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told a news briefing in Geneva.
Noting Syria’s capital Damascus was the scene of “daily shelling and bombing”, he added: “It is a realistic appeal that takes into consideration what we commit ourselves to achieve, it is not a comprehensive response plan, it is limited to what we can do in such a difficult operating environment.”
Inside Syria, UN agencies aim to help 4 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, including an estimated 2 million displaced from their homes by fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels trying to topple him.
The plan provides for food, shelter and bedding, water and sanitation, emergency medical services, clothes, kitchen sets and baby supplies for beleaguered civilians in all 14 provinces.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is reaching 1.5 million Syrians inside the country with food rations each month, but said it faces increasing constraints, including mounting insecurity and fuel shortages.
“Food processing, milling, bakeries rely on fuel electricity to produce a bread product. And of course we are dealing with a largely urbanised population here, so naturally any interruption of that infrastructure is going to be cause for concern,” said David Kaatrud, WFP director of emergencies.
More than 525,000 Syrian refugees have already been registered abroad and the latest estimate is that up to 1 million refugees in five countries, including Egypt for the first time, will need help in the first half of 2013, the UN refugee agency said.
There are already more than 10,400 Syrian refugees registered in Egypt, but the government estimates that there are tens of thousands who have not sought assistance yet, it said.
“The grim situation inside Syria has a direct impact on refugee outflows to the neighbouring countries,” Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR regional refugee coordinator, told the briefing.
“I just came from the borders where I was shocked again one more time to hear the horrific stories that refugees tell us about their experiences, fleeing violence, fleeing insecurity. We’re talking about women and children, entire villages that are uprooted and flee to safety to the neighbouring countries.”
More than half of the Syrians affected by the 20-month conflict, both inside the country and in surrounding countries, are children under the age of 18, according to UNICEF.
“This represents children whose future is in jeopardy, children who are missing out of school, newborns who are threatened because they don’t receive the life-saving vaccines and children who are severely affected because of the violence and trauma they are exposed to,” said Maria Calivis, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
She added: “One of things children that ask for most, whether in camps or in displaced facilities within Syria, is schooling. This has been repeated to us over and over again. What children miss most is opportunity to continue their schooling no matter what their age is.”


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