Middle East

Syria: Aid groups mark year of protest with unity call

A coalition of 200 aid and rights groups has called on Russia and China to support United Nations' attempts to end the violence in Syria.

Their appeal marks one year since the first protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrians had survived the crackdown with "outstanding courage", the group said, but more than 8,000 had died.

The UN says it will send a humanitarian mission to Syria this weekend to assess the situation.

Its representatives will be part of a delegation led by the Syrian government. They will also be accompanied by staff from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

They will visit a number of towns including Homs, Hama and Deraa to gather information and see living conditions for themselves.

In a statement, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos stressed the importance of "unhindered access to identify urgent needs and provide emergency care and basic supplies".

"There is no time to waste," she said.

At the political level, Russia and China have both blocked UN Security Council resolutions on Syria.

They have objected to international action which they say would bring about a forced regime change in Syria.

On Wednesday, the Syrian authorities began shelling the southern city of Deraa - the birthplace of the protests - after retaking Idlib, on the Turkish border in the north-west, earlier this week.

Turkey says it has seen a sharp increase in the flow of refugees across its border in recent days.

"The number of Syrian refugees currently staying in Turkey boomed by 1,000 in a single day and climbed to 14,700 total," foreign ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal told reporters in Ankara, adding that he expected the numbers to continue rising.

Among the latest group was a general who had defected from the army, joining the six already in Turkey, said Mr Unal.

Meanwhile, thousands of people have joined a pro-government rally in the Syrian capital, Damascus, to denounce the "year-old conspiracy" against the regime.

Mr Assad has always insisted his troops are fighting "armed gangs" who are seeking to destabilise Syria.

'End this horror'

In a statement, the 200 aid groups from 27 countries - including Human Rights Watch, Christian Aid, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Civicus and International Federation of Human Rights - called on the Security Council to unite in passing a resolution condemning the Syrian government's use of violence, torture and arbitrary detention against civilians.

"For a full year, the death toll in Syria has escalated to the horrifying total of more than 8,000 dead, including hundreds of children," said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights.

"Isn't it time for the world to unite behind effective steps to stop this now?"

Souher Belhassen, president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said Syrians had "survived with outstanding courage one year of systematic and widespread crimes and bloodshed as the world stood by and watched".

"The international community must unite and help Syrians bring an end to the horror."

They said the international community must give its full support to Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general who is acting as the UN and Arab League's envoy to Syria.

Mr Annan visited Syria last week to deliver a proposed peace plan to Mr Assad, and is to brief the UN Security Council on his mission on Friday.

The plan includes demands for an immediate ceasefire by both sides, access for humanitarian aid, and the beginning of political dialogue.

A spokesman said he had received a response from Mr Assad but had questions about it and "and was seeking answers".

Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al-Maqdisi told the BBC that Mr Assad's response had been positive because he wanted Mr Annan's mission to succeed.

Bahrain added further pressure, announcing on Thursday it was closing its embassy in Damascus and withdrawing all staff from Syria because of deteriorating conditions.

A number of countries, including the US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Netherlands and Italy have already closed or suspended their embassies.

Idlib assault

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people, including seven army defectors, were killed on Wednesday as the government began shelling Deraa.

A day before, opposition activists said government forces had taken control of the north-western city of Idlib, after days of clashes with rebel fighters.

Security forces were reportedly carrying out house-to-house searches in the area, which has been a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main armed rebel group.

Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch said there were reports that 114 people had died in the Idlib in the past four days.

Reports are difficult to verify because of tight restrictions on independent media operating in Syria.

The violence comes two weeks after troops backed by tanks entered the shattered Baba Amr district of Homs, which had been under bombardment for almost a month, leaving an estimated 700 people dead.

French foreign minister Alain Juppe insisted that the answer to crisis was not to arm the opposition.

"If we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we will create the conditions for a civil war... and that could become an even bigger catastrophe than we have now," he said.

The first protest in Syria took place on the streets of Damascus, on 15 March 2011, amid the wave of political unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.

A few days later, there were clashes in Deraa, as crowds protested against the arrest and alleged torture of a group of schoolchildren who had written anti-government slogans on a wall.

The army was called into Deraa to restore order by the end of the month, but the unrest had already spread to towns and cities across the country. As the army began firing on civilians, the initial calls for more political freedom escalated into calls for the removal of Mr Assad and his government.

Image caption The Syrian government has been trying to suppress an uprising inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The UN says thousands have been killed in the crackdown, and that many more have been detained and displaced. The Syrian government says hundreds of security forces personnel have also died combating "armed terrorist gangs".
Image caption The family of President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970. The country underwent some liberalisation after Bashar became president in 2000, but the pace of change soon slowed, if not reversed. Critics are imprisoned, domestic media are tightly controlled, and economic policies often benefit the elite. The country's human rights record is among the worst in the world.
Image caption Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites - the Shia heterodox sect to which Mr Assad belongs - and Christians. Mr Assad promotes a secular identity for the country, but he has concentrated power in the hands of family and other Alawites. Protests have generally been biggest in Sunni-dominated areas.
Image caption Under the sanctions imposed by the Arab League, US and EU, Syria's two most vital sectors, tourism and oil, have ground to a halt in recent months. The IMF says Syria's economy contracted by 2% in 2011, while the value of the Syrian pound has crashed. Unemployment is high, electricity cuts trouble Damascus, and critical products like heating oil and staples like milk powder are becoming scarce.
Image caption Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on walls at their school in the southern city of Deraa. Security forces opened fire during a march against the arrests, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims' funerals, killing another person. People began demanding the overthrow of Mr Assad.
Image caption The government has tried to deal with the situation with a combination of minor concessions and force. President Assad ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution offering multi-party elections. But at the same time, the authorities have continued to use violence against unarmed protesters, and some cities, like Homs, have suffered weeks of intense bombardment.
Image caption The opposition is deeply divided. Several groups formed a coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), but it is dominated by the Sunni community and exiled dissidents. The SNC disagrees with the National Co-ordination Committee (NCC) on the questions of talks with the government and foreign intervention, and has found it difficult to work with the Free Syrian Army - army defectors seeking to topple Mr Assad by force.
Image caption International pressure on the Syrian government has been intensifying. It has been suspended from the Arab League, while the EU and the US have imposed sanctions. However, there has been no agreement on a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to violence. Although military intervention has been ruled out by Western nations, there are increasing calls to arm the opposition.
Image caption Correspondents say a peaceful solution seems unlikely. Syria's leadership seems intent on crushing resistance and most of the opposition will only accept an end to the regime. Some believe the expected collapse of Syria's currency and an inability to pay salaries may be the leadership's downfall. There are fears, though, that the resulting chaos would be long-lasting and create a wider conflict.

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