The number of refugees fleeing Syria’s violence has surpassed the 2 million mark, the UN refugee agency said yesterday, as top US officials prepared to argue before a key US Senate committee for a punitive strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Earlier, the US administration won backing from French intelligence and reportedly also from Germany’s spy agency for its claim that al-Assad’s forces were responsible for suspected chemical weapons attacks on rebel-held areas near Damascus that are believed to have killed hundreds of Syrian civilians.
A nine-page intelligence synopsis published by the French government on Monday concluded that the regime launched the Aug. 21 attacks involving a “massive use of chemical agents” and could carry out similar strikes in the future.
In Germany, the news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) also believes al-Assad’s regime was behind the attacks. On its Web site, the magazine reported that BND Director Gerhard Schindler recently told top government officials in a secret briefing that while the evidence is not absolutely conclusive, an “analysis of plausibility” supports the idea of the Syrian government as the perpetrator.
The al-Assad regime has denied using chemical weapons, blaming rebels instead. Neither the US nor Syria and its allies have presented conclusive proof in public.
US President Barack Obama’s administration insists it has a strong case against the al-Assad regime and that chemical weapons use must not go unpunished. Last week, Obama appeared poised to authorize military strikes, but unexpectedly stepped back to first seek approval from Congress, which returns from summer recess next week.
Since then, the administration has relentlessly lobbied Congress for support in the most important foreign policy vote since the Iraq war a decade ago. Members of Obama’s national security and intelligence teams have been holding classified, closed-door briefings for members of Congress. More sessions were scheduled for yesterday, tomorrow and Friday.
Also yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey are to testify publicly before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Meanwhile, Obama is to meet with leaders of the US House of Representatives and US Senate armed services committees, foreign relations committees and intelligence committees.
The Syria conflict erupted in March 2011 with a popular uprising against al-Assad that quickly escalated into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The UN refugee agency yesterday announced that the number of Syrians who have fled the country has surpassed the 2 million mark. Along with more than 4 million people displaced inside Syria, this means more than 6 million Syrians have been uprooted, out of an estimated population of 23 million.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Syria is hemorrhaging an average of almost 5,000 citizens a day across its borders, many of them with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Nearly 1.8 million refugees have fled in the past 12 months alone, he said.
The agency’s special envoy, US actress Angelina Jolie, said “some neighboring countries could be brought to the point of collapse” if the situation keeps deteriorating at its current pace.
Most Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Despite the grim toll, al-Assad has not shown any signs of backing down.
Al-Assad and some in his inner circle are from Syria’s minority Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, who believe they would not have a place in Syria if the rebels win. Most of those trying to topple al-Assad are Sunni Muslims, with Islamic militants, including those linked to al-Qaeda, increasingly dominant among the rebels.
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro on Monday, al-Assad challenged the West to present proof of his regime’s alleged involvement in the purported chemical weapons attacks.
“If the Americans, the French or the British had a shred of proof, they would have shown it beginning on the first day,” he said, deriding Obama as “weak” and having buckled to US domestic political pressure.