News Column

6 Million Syrians Displaced as U.S. Builds Strike Case

September 3, 2013
syrian civl war
Bombed-out house in Syria

Syria's civil war has displaced 6.25 million people - the largest refugee group of any country in the world - the UN said Tuesday.

This means that nearly a third of the pre-war population of some 20 million Syrians has been displaced inside the country or has fled across borders.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the number of refugees abroad has passed 2 million, an increase of 1.8 million over the last year. More than half are children.

As of late August, 4.25 million Syrians had fled to safer areas within the country.

"Syria has become the great tragedy of this century - a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history," said UN High Commissioner Antonio Guterres.

The latest figures come as tensions remain high in the region and a debate on the authorization of military strikes in response to an apparent chemical weapons attack near Damascus was to begin later Tuesday in the United States.

Key Syrian ally Russia said that two ballistic missiles were fired towards the eastern Mediterranean in the central part of the sea.

A radar station in Armavir, close to the Russian Black Sea coast, received an alert about the start of two "ballistic objects" at 10:16 am (06:16 GMT), an unnamed Defence Ministry spokesman in Moscow was quoted as saying by news agencies.

The Israeli Defence Ministry subsequently said that Israel had fired a target rocket over the Mediterranean in a test carried out with US cooperation.

As US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry were to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the French government hinted that it could bow to domestic pressure to hold a vote on any military action.

French Minister for Relations with Parliament Alain Vidalies told RTL radio that holding a vote was "not a taboo subject for Francois Hollande," despite the government's insistence that the president has no constitutional obligation to do so.

France has been ramping up efforts to build support for military action, on Monday releasing an intelligence report that said the attack near Damascus "could only have been ordered and carried out by the regime."

A strike seemed imminent at the weekend, but tensions eased when US President Barack Obama said he wanted Congress - in recess until September 9 - to vote to authorize any intervention.

A US intelligence assessment claims the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in the attack, killing 1,429 people, including 426 children.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad hit back at critics, telling French daily Le Figaro that his government had nothing to gain from using chemical weapons "when our situation on the ground is much better today than it was last year."

In the interview, published Tuesday, al-Assad appeared to rule out the hypothesis that the order to use chemical weapons could have been given by a subordinate, without his knowledge.

"We have never said we possess chemical weapons ... but normally, in countries that have such weapons, the decision is centralized."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to brief the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council later Tuesday on the latest developments in the chemical weapons investigation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told legislators that she was still hoping the security council could come up with a unified response, and criticized Russia and China's "overall very uncompromising line."

In Brussels, Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said: "We of course condemn in the strongest terms the attack and we call for the international community to take strong action ... But let's wait until definitive information has been drawn together before we do that, particularly by the UN inspectors."

On Wednesday, ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are scheduled to meet in Geneva to seek support for their efforts to provide for Syrian refugees, nearly all of whom are being hosted by countries in the region.

Lebanon had taken in 716,000 Syrians as of the end of August, followed by 515,000 in Jordan, 460,000 in Turkey, 168,000 in Iraq and 110,000 in Egypt.

So far, the international community has funded less than half of the 2.98 million dollars needed by UN and other aid organizations this year to help Syrian refugees.

On Saturday, Kerry is expected to discuss Syria with the EU's foreign ministers at informal talks in Lithuania, an EU diplomat said.

The UN says more than 100,000 people have been killed since March 2011 when an uprising against al-Assad started, and quickly descended into civil war.

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Source: Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur ??? Engl 2013

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