The UN has launched a record aid appeal for Syria, warning of a regional “explosion” if the fighting does not stop, as regime forces sought to capitalize on recent victories over the rebels.
The UN was also scrambling to find replacement troops for its peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights after heavy fighting between Syrian forces and rebels on Thursday prompted Austria to announce it was pulling out.
The world body said Friday that a total of US$3.8 billion is needed to help Syrian refugees who have spilled across the country’s borders to escape fighting at home.
The figure for operations inside Syria was put at another US$1.4 billion.
“If the fighting doesn’t stop, we risk an explosion in the Middle East for which the international community is not prepared,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters. “It is not only a matter of generosity, but also of enlightened self-interest.”
More than 94,000 people have been killed and about 1.6 million Syrians fled the country since the civil war began in March 2011 after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on protests against his regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The number of refugees is expected to reach at least 3.45 million by the end of this year, according to the UN appeal.
Within the country, 6.8 million people are forecast to need aid this year, the majority of them having been forced to flee their homes because of the fighting.
Government forces were trying on Friday to mop up final pockets of rebel resistance north of al-Qusayr, the central town near the border with Lebanon that they retook on Wednesday bolstered by fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah.
At the UN, Russia agreed to a UN Security Council statement demanding that its ally Syria allow humanitarian access to al-Qusayr.
The Observatory said the army was bombarding another rebel bastion to the north of al-Qusayr to which hundreds of wounded and civilians had fled.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the army was “leaving no way out for rebels, civilians or the wounded” in its campaign to control the whole al-Qusayr region.
The Observatory also reported that al-Assad’s forces were sending reinforcements to Aleppo Province in northern Syria, where large swathes of territory have been in rebel hands for months.
The army’s preparations for a new offensive in the north came a day after a brief rebel seizure of the Quneitra crossing on the armistice line separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan.
That violence prompted Austria to announce to it was withdrawing its 377 troops from the 1,000-strong UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).
UNDOF peacekeepers from the Philippines and India were wounded by mortar shrapnel in fighting for the strategic crossing, UN diplomats said.
Manila said it too was considering pulling out its 341-strong contingent.
Israel voiced concern about security along its ceasefire line with Syria.
The Austrian troops make up more than a third of UNDOF, which has monitored a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed that Russian peacekeepers replace the departing Austrian troops ahead of a meeting of the UN Security Council on the UNDOF crisis on Friday.
However, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said this was not possible because Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
“We appreciate the consideration that Russia has given to provide troops on the Golan. However, the disengagement agreement and its protocol between Syria and Israel does not allow for the participation of permanent members of the security council in UNDOF,” Nesirky told reporters.
Russia, insisting that the UN peacekeeping force is now in “dire straits,” called on the UN to reconsider.
“Times have changed” since the Cold War-era agreement, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin told reporters as he entered emergency UN Security Council talks on the UN force.
Any deployment of Russian troops would be deeply unpopular with the Syrian rebels, who have been angered by Moscow’s steadfast support for its ally Damascus.
The Security Council is due to renew the UNDOF mission for another year this month and British Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant said its mandate could be strengthened to help the very lightly armed troops defend themselves.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Lebanon, the army warned that a plot was being hatched to embroil Lebanon in the Syrian conflict, as fresh clashes linked to Syria in the northern port of Tripoli killed one person.
Two journalists working for a French radio channel have gone missing in Syria, their employer Europe 1 said.
However, an Austrian man with dual Syrian citizenship arrested by Syrian intelligence in December last year while distributing aid has been freed and is on his way back to Austria, his family said.