Refugee flow soars as Syrians flee intense fighting between rebels, Assad forces

The UN says that more than 11,000 people fled Syria overnight, and is warning that by early 2013, some 4 million inside Syria could need humanitarian aid.

By , Staff writer

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    Residents flee their homes after a shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at Binsh near Idlib, Syria, Thursday, November 8.
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As the ongoing violence in Syria nears its 21st month, the United Nations warns that by early 2013 some 4 million people in Syria will be in need of humanitarian aid. But as international organizations, world leaders, and Syria’s opposition groups point urgently to the bloodshed and rising death toll in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is ignoring calls for him to step down.

In an interview with Russia’s RT TV, Mr. Assad said Syria isn’t facing a civil war, but “terrorism by proxy.”

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“It is not about reconciling with the people and it is not about reconciliation between the Syrians and the Syrians; we do not have a civil war. It is about terrorism and the support coming from abroad to terrorists to destabilize Syria. This is our war,” Assad said in the interview, which aired in full today.

There have been reports of Al Qaeda affiliates  joining in to fight the regime in Syria, reports The Christian Science Monitor, something that has raised concerns about offering arms to those battling Assad.  

The Syrian conflict has claimed an estimated 36,000 lives, according to activists, and displaced some 1.2 million people, according to the UN. A failure to end the fighting there could mean 700,000 Syrian refugees fleeing into neighboring countries by early 2013, reports the Associated Press. As many as 9,000 Syrians crossed into Turkey overnight to flee the violence in their country, a United Nations official told the AP, citing officials in Turkey where footage showed refugees climbing through the barbed-wire fence separating the two countries. More than 11,000 fled overall, flowing into Jordan and Lebanon as well as Turkey.

International intervention, Assad warned in his RT TV interview, however, would lead to global catastrophe.

“I think the price of this invasion, if it happened, is going to be more than the whole world can afford,” Assad said. The Assad family has ruled in Syria for the past 40 years, and Assad has often cited the fragility of the region and the role of Syria in balancing disparate religious minorities as key factors in maintaining regional stability, reports the Los Angeles Times.     

“[W]e are the last stronghold of secularism and stability in the region and coexistence, let’s say. It will have a domino effect that will affect the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and you know the implication on the rest of the world,” Assad told RT TV.

He said he didn’t believe the West would invade Syria, a sentiment reflected in editorials across the US, such as one entitled “The sensible course on Syria” published in the Los Angeles Times.  

There is no appetite among the American people … for U.S. military intervention in Syria. That reluctance is sensible. Painful as it is to observe the deaths of tens of thousands of Syrians in the war between President Bashar Assad and insurgents inspired by the Arab Spring, the deployment of U.S. troops or a campaign of airstrikes under the rubric of a no-fly zone would enmesh the United States in an unpredictable conflict with a heavily armed ally of Iran on behalf of a fractious and fragmented rebel army. Even providing weapons to the rebels at this point would entail unacceptable risks that they would flow to Islamic extremists.

However, in his interview, Assad noted that if the West did militarily intervene, “nobody can tell what is next.”

Many are looking to Syrian opposition groups to take on a more unified role in the face of Syria’s devastating violence, and help to play an active role in resolving the conflict.

Opposition leaders have been meeting in Qatar this week to bring together Syria’s internal and exiled opposition. The Syrian National Council (SNC) has been the most prominent opposition group, but has come under fire because of both its fractured state and the fact that most of its leaders are located outside of the violence-torn country.

The SNC is expected to elect new leadership today, before taking into consideration a role in the proposed Syrian National Initiative, in which it would have a minority role, reports the BBC.

"We hope we can reach an agreement [on Friday] after the Syrian National Council has succeeded in selecting a new leadership," opposition figure Haytham al-Maleh told Agence France-Presse.

According to participants, all the delegates agreed on a plan for the way forward except the SNC, which insisted on a day's delay in order to complete its leadership changes.

The mooted plan foresees the formation of a unified opposition structure that would allow coordinated military action against the regime, as well as humanitarian aid and the administration of zones under their control, they said.

Ahmed Ben Helli, deputy head of the Arab League which is brokering the meeting with Qatar, told reporters that delegates had been urged to overcome the sharp divides that have dogged their efforts to unseat Assad.

"The opposition is urged to agree on a leading body which would have credibility among the Syrian people and the international community," he said.

Earlier this week the US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington wants "an opposition that represents more of the groups, more of the geographic representation, more of those who have been involved on the ground with local coordinating councils, with revolution councils," reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Despite the fractured opposition, some say it is in fact Washington that is unprepared for what could come from a post-Assad Syria, the Monitor reports.

"Deep inside, I think it's like the US wishes Assad to stay," says Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at the Chatham House think tank in London. "The challenge is not with the opposition unifying. The challenge is that they're knocking at a door that won't open, which is American support."

Today marks the fifth Syria Humanitarian Forum in Geneva, where close to 400 international organizations, governments, and aid organizations will convene to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria.

“People need to be aware of just how desperate the situation is inside Syria for the people there, how unbearable it is, and how they are suffering and falling into ever deeper despair and humanitarian need,” said the operations director for the UN humanitarian office, John Ging, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s just getting a lot worse very rapidly for the ordinary people.”

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced the organization is struggling to cope with the needs in Syria, according to the Times.

"The humanitarian situation is getting worse despite the scope of the operation increasing," Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC told reporters. "We can't cope with the worsening of the situation."

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