As U.S. Deliberates, Syria Human Rights Abuses Mounting

Syrian cities have been razed to the ground. Doctors operate without anesthesia. Children are raped and murdered. Houses are burned with families inside.

“This is the reality of Syria today,” Valerie Amos, the top United Nations humanitarian aid official, told the UN Security Council yesterday in the first of three testimonies.

Civilians are bombed while waiting in line for bread, she said. Waste is piling up, there is often no running water and, with summer nearing, there is a high risk of a cholera outbreak. Amos described a lawless country plunged into chaos more than two years into a bloody civil war pitting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against rebel forces seeking his ouster.

Even so, descriptions of hardships confronting the Syrian people “cannot even begin to give you the real picture of the horrors being meted out every day,” Amos said.

The international community has been powerless to stop the bloodshed as a team of UN experts is stranded in Cyprus waiting to be allowed into Syria to investigate frequent allegations of the use of chemical weapons against the population. U.S. President Barack Obama has said proven use of such devices would cross a “red line,” ushering in a possible foreign intervention.

“We receive many claims of chemical warfare use in Syria each day and we take them all seriously, and we do all we can to investigate them,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.

Growing Pressure

The first hard evidence that Assad’s regime has used nerve gas or other chemical weapons -- as opposed to crowd control agents -- would add pressure on the Obama administration to step up aid to anti-government groups.

In congressional testimony this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, set to begin a visit to the Middle East tomorrow, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who’ll travel today to Istanbul for meetings with the Syrian opposition and European and Arab nations, indicated that the Obama administration remains opposed to intervening militarily.

“Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian operations,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee April 17. “It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy and uncertain military commitment,” strain international alliances and “have the unintended consequences of bringing the United States into a broader regional conflict or proxy war.”

Nonlethal Aid

At stake is whether the U.S. will join the U.K. and France in supplying rebels with military equipment, such as antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The U.S. so far has provided more than $115 million in nonlethal assistance.

“We are being careful, which is why the president has not yet decided whether or not -- which is why the president has not given lethal aid,” Kerry told the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday.

Assad has defied predictions of his imminent demise. His grip is “tenuous” after two years of armed strife as opposition forces have grown more effective, according to the Pentagon’s top military intelligence official.

Assad’s government “maintains the military advantage -- particularly in firepower and air superiority,” and his inner circle “appears to be largely cohesive,” the Defense Intelligence Agency director, Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday.

Humanitarian Crisis

While U.S. officials continue to deliberate, Amos gave an inkling of the dimensions of the humanitarian crisis in a country of more than 20 million people. There are 4.25 million displaced persons -- about the size of Croatia’s population. More than 1.3 million refugees have flooded into neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, she said at the UN.

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Syria who’s largely been sidelined, will update the Security Council today on the lack of progress in reaching a political solution to the crisis.

Amos criticized the UN’s decision-making body for failing to unite behind a common approach to ending the crisis. Amos has visited Syria four times. Her last trip was in January, and an increase in bureaucratic obstacles placed by the Syrian government have impeded access.

As an example, Amos said there are 50 checkpoints between Damascus and Aleppo, a journey of 193 miles (310 kilometers). Twenty visas are pending for aid workers. Aid convoys require 72 hours’ notice. The approved list of nongovernment agencies was reduced to 29 from 110.

No Answer

“We cannot do business this way,” Amos told the 15-nation UN body. “I do not have an answer for the Syrians who ask why have we abandoned them.”

Following her testimony, the panel condemned abuses and violations of human rights in Syria. “Members of the Security Council expressed the view that the escalating violence is completely unacceptable and must end immediately,” according to a statement distributed by the UN body.

Amos dwelt on the fate of children in the conflict.

“I was horrified to hear accounts during my recent visit to Turkey of children dying of hunger” in opposition-held areas near the borders.

“Children are among the ones suffering most,” she said. “They have been murdered, tortured and raped.”

Zainab Bangura, the former foreign minister of Sierra Leone who is UN special representative on sexual violence in conflicts, followed Amos’s accounts by relating the story of a 14-year-old girl who was raped by four men in military uniforms.

The girl was beaten with electrical wire, given injections and had cigarettes extinguished on her chest. She was released and fled the country, yet has attempted suicide three times, Bangura told the Security Council.

Civil War

“Girls are being raped in front of their fathers; wives in front of their husbands,” she said.

The conflict in Syria, which began in 2011 with peaceful protests, escalated into a civil war that has taken at least 70,000 lives and forced hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring countries. The U.S. and regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have backed the rebels fighting to oust Assad while sometimes disagreeing about how to help them.

The UN has struggled to raise funds to help relief efforts to Syria. The UN had set a target of $1.5 billion and so far only half that amount has been raised, Amos said.

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