President Barack Obama and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron plan a new and “robust” effort to deliver humanitarian aid to Syrians affected by civil strife in the Middle Eastern country.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Washington today, the two leaders also pledged measures to help unify the fragmented Syrian opposition.
“There may be some immediate steps that we’ve discussed just to make sure that humanitarian aid is being provided in a robust way,” Obama said. The two countries also sought to ensure “that an opposition unifies along principles that ultimately would provide a clear platform for the Syrian people.”
The U.S. and British leaders spoke on a day that Syrian troops seized the northern Syrian town of Idlib, one of the last remaining urban rebel strongholds. A day earlier, Syrian opposition leaders including Kamal al-Labwani, said they were leaving the Syrian National Council.
More than 7,500 Syrians have died and 32,000 have fled the country during the yearlong uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. At least 40 people were killed across the country today, the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said in an e-mailed statement.
The U.S. leader said military intervention in Syria could make the situation worse.
“Assad will leave power,” the president said. “It’s not a question of if but when. And to prepare for that day, we’ll continue to support plans for a transition to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
Syria’s army faced little resistance as it combed the northern and central parts of Idlib, a city of about 100,000 people, the pro-government Syrian Al-Watan newspaper said today. Many residents fled in fear of a crackdown, according to the opposition.
“Fighters retreated from the main streets of Idlib because they are no match for the security forces,” al-Labwani, the opposition leader, said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan today. He said Free Syrian Army fighters still hold more than 40 villages surrounding the northern city, which is close to the Turkish border.
Syria’s opposition and human rights groups say that arbitrary arrests and executions followed the entry of Syrian forces into rebel areas, like the central city of Homs this month. The Baba Amr district of Homs fell to the Syrian government less than three weeks ago.
Some rebels have refused to withdraw from Idlib’s side streets and are continuing to fight, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said by telephone today.
‘Very Significant Area’
Idlib was one of the main rebel strongholds and a “very significant area, especially because of its proximity to the Turkish border,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said in a telephone interview. “These are local fighters who know where to go and hide to regroup and organize themselves,” which is probably their next step, he said.
The joint United Nations-Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan, who met Assad in Damascus on March 10 and March 11, has received a response from the Syrian government to a proposal to end the violence and has asked further questions.
“But given the grave and tragic situation on the ground, everyone must realize that time is of the essence,” his spokesman said in an e-mailed statement today. “This crisis cannot be allowed to drag on.”
Amnesty International issued a report today accusing Syrian government forces of abuses including the torture of detainees, shelling civilian areas, firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters, carrying out extrajudicial executions and arbitrary arrests, burning and looting homes, targeting medical professionals and denying treatment to injured protesters.
It said Syria is using 31 methods of torture and ill-treatment to create a “nightmarish world” for the detainees.
Heavy clashes were reported today in the southern city of Daraa between Syrian security forces and rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said. Daraa is the largest city still in rebel hands.
Syria’s divided opposition has been divided over how to proceed in its fight against the Assad regime, with some groups advocating the arming of rebel groups inside the country while others oppose it. Those divisions were exacerbated yesterday when three leading opposition figures, including al-Labwani, quit the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition group.
Al-Labwani said the council was too disorganized to lead the opposition, especially the armed groups inside Syria. He said he hoped a new council will be formed at an opposition conference that will be held in Turkey in the next few weeks.
Italy’s Foreign Ministry said today it has suspended activities at its embassy in Damascus and was withdrawing its staff. Syria’s civil unrest has raised “serious concern” about food security in the country, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said in an e-mailed statement today.