Syrian troops recapture rebel-held town, cutting off refugees

In a blow to rebels, Syrian troops recaptured a border town used by refugees to cross into Jordan, according to activists.

By , Staff writer

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    Newly arrived Syrian refugee children are helped by Jordanian military soldiers after they crossed the border from Tal Shehab city in Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley, into Thnebeh town, in Ramtha, Jordan, Wednesday, Sept. 5.
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Syrian troops recaptured a rebel-held town along the Jordanian border today, cutting off a major crossing for Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan and putting further stress on the humanitarian crisis resulting from the protracted civil war.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization, and local activist Mohammad Abu Houran, 20 Syrian tanks and scores of soldiers attacked Tel Chehab this morning.

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Nearly 2,000 refugees were in Tel Chehab when the Syrian Army attacked, Mr. Houran told The Associated Press. The territorial loss is a setback for Syrian rebels who, according to AP, claim to control more than half of the country but are facing increasing challenges, such as weapon shortages.

“Right now we have more people who want to fight than we have weapons,” Ahmad Ibrahim, a senior member of the Free Syrian Army in the town of Akhtrin, told The Christian Science Monitor's reporter Tom A. Peter this week. (See his coverage on the rebels' surplus of volunteers but shortage of weapons here.)

But the rebels aren’t the only ones losing ground: The Army’s recapturing of a refugee thoroughfare exacerbates an already difficult reality for Syrian refugees as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, has supplied food and water for an estimated 180,000 internally displaced people in Syria since mid-July. Aid agencies have been trying to boost their relief operations, Reuters reports.

Aid agencies are trying to beef up relief operations across Syria, where the ICRC says that needs have grown "exponentially" in the past few weeks due to the escalation of violence in the 17-month-old rebellion against Assad.

Clashes and continuous bombardment have cut off many civilians from basic services and life-saving supplies.

On Tuesday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Peter Maurer, the head of the ICRC, that he welcomes humanitarian operations carried out by the organization in Syria – as long as it works “independently and neutrally,” reports Syrian newspaper Day Press News.

Syrian official Ali Haidar said caution was called for in allowing in aid workers, as such organizations could be making an  "impermissible request to open doors that violate Syrian sovereignty," reports Reuters. A diplomatic source also said that "Syria has been very unwilling to grant access and independence to the ICRC once they get in."

For those displaced by the conflict, finding safety, food, and water is increasingly precarious, according to a report by the BBC.

Every family has a story to tell – stories of fear and horror, of blood and loss.

One of the men, Abu Salem, says he fled the central town of Rastan with his wife and four children four months ago after a rocket hit their house.

They travelled to Damascus and ended up renting a 50 sq m (538 sq ft) flat in one of the capital's suburbs. Then early last month, the area came under heavy bombardment from government forces.

Abu Salem says they yet again had to flee, but this time there was no place to go except a nearby public park. They spent 12 days there with many other families until some aid workers found them a place at the old house.

"The neighbours provided us with some food, but we spent 12 days without a shower," he recalls.

Abu Salem used to work in construction but – like hundreds of thousands of other Syrian men – he has not earned anything since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. Like hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, he and his family have also been displaced from their homes by the ensuing conflict.

The humanitarian crisis is not contained within Syria. Refugees, like those in the town of Tel Chehab, are fleeing into neighboring countries like Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan in the thousands. More than 25,000 Syrian refugees crossed into Jordan and registered with the United Nations humanitarian agency last month alone, and there are close to 100,000 Syrians in Turkish camps today. The total number of refugees is estimated at 235,000, according to an editorial in the Los Angeles TImes.

The war has an estimated death toll of more than 23,000 people, activists say, with nearly 5,000 people killed in August, the highest monthly total since the crisis began in March last year, according to AP.

Despite these numbers, few are arguing for international military intervention in Syria. According to an editorial by the Los Angeles Times, military intervention is too risky, and the international community’s focus should remain on helping refugees and the displaced:

Dismay over the continued violence in Syria is understandable and should impel the United States, other "friends of Syria" and the United Nations to support relief measures including, if necessary, the creation of safe havens for refugees. But the Obama administration is right to stop short of either arming Syrian rebels – who, according to U.S. intelligence officials, have been infiltrated by Islamic extremists from outside the country – or engaging in direct military intervention. Advocates of military involvement exaggerate the ease with which the U.S. could shape events in Syria and underestimate the dangers.

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