Mountain pass offers safety as fighting in Syria flares
BEIRUT — The trek across the rugged mountains of western Syria posed no barrier to the 1,000 families who fled to the Lebanese town of Ersal last week.
Their homes are in the strategic region of Yabroud, north of Damascus. Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have stepped up an offensive there, aiming to cut one of the rebels' last major cross-border supply routes. A trickle of refugees became a steady stream.
Fighting, accompanied by a reported increase in the use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters on the northern city of Aleppo, has escalated following the collapse of peace talks in Geneva, a failure that sent both sides seeking a territorial advantage ahead of any future dialogue.
The government and opposition "believe that what happens on the battlefield will ultimately determine their bargaining power," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "The reason we have a political stalemate is because we have an armed stalemate."
The death toll from fighting has climbed to an average of 200 a day, from about 130 before the talks, said Rami Abdurrahman, head of Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies for information on a network of activists within the war zone. On Feb. 1, barrel bombs, makeshift ordnance in which explosive material is often packed inside sections of pipe, killed 85 people, he said, the most in a single day since the weapon was first used last year.
Some have chosen to flee. The men, women and children arriving in Ersal are forced to squat in tents, sleep in fields or build makeshift homes under "any roof they can find," Mohammed Wayi, a spokesman for the Union of Relief and Development Societies, an umbrella group of aid agencies, said from the town. "We're expecting the displaced to reach 40,000 if violence continues."
Syrian forces escalated their attacks even as Assad's representatives sat down for their first face-to-face meetings with the opposition last month. A second round of negotiations ended Feb. 15 without an agreement on more talks.
The United Nations-brokered talks sought to explore ways to end a conflict that has killed at least 140,000 people and driven more than 2 million into neighboring countries.
The discussions never got past setting an agenda. The opposition focused on a transitional government to replace Assad, 48, while the government insisted its priority was tackling terrorism, the term it uses to define Syrian rebel fighters and jihadist groups that have joined the war.
The United States Wednesday cited reports indicating the Assad government has arrested some family members of the opposition delegation that attended Geneva. The U.S. is "outraged" and calls on the government to "immediately and unconditionally release all those unfairly arrested, including Mahmoud Sabra, brother of Geneva delegation member Mohammed Sabra," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
"These arrests and attempts to silence dissent are not new behavior for the Assad regime," Psaki said. "This regime continues to brutalize the Syrian people through aerial bombardment and other indiscriminate attacks that maim and kill civilians by the thousands."
Amid the deadlock, Syria's government orchestrated a series of rallies — complete with flags and posters of the president — designed to underscore their argument that Assad remains popular and is a bulwark against a wider Islamist threat.
The events had the trappings of a presidential campaign, Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Qatar, said by phone from Paris. Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, has indicated he will run for another term in elections due this year.
"The regime is in no mood to compromise," said Shaikh, who was in Geneva during the talks. "It feels it's winning militarily and that it can win this politically. They are convinced that the majority of Syrians support Bashar al- Assad."
Abdurrahman, whose group has documented casualties since the war began three years ago, said deaths spiked during the Geneva meetings. By Feb. 16, his group had recorded about 6,000 fatalities in less than four weeks since negotiators first met.
In the latest violence, Assad's troops killed 175 opposition fighters, most of them Saudis, Qataris and Chechens, in an ambush in the rebel-held eastern Ghouta area around Damascus, the state-run SANA news agency said Wednesday. The Syrian Observatory said 152 Islamist militants were killed in the attack.
The ambush targeted civilians "risking their lives to escape hunger and the random killings perpetrated by the regime against them in East Ghouta," the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition, said in an e-mailed statement.
In a Feb. 19 report, New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said government forces had for the first time in the conflict used banned cluster munitions, in strikes near the town of Hama in Syria's north.
The offensive against Yabroud intensified about a fortnight ago, Abdurrahman said, adding it was backed by fighters from Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group. The town, located in the mountainous Qalamoun region, is the last major settlement held by the rebels near the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah's deputy chief Naim Qasem said on Feb. 7 that Yabroud was the "main source for car bombs" that have been detonated in areas it controls. Several have struck Iranian targets in Lebanon, including its embassy.
Iran, along with Russia, backs Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Sunni rebels are funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and other regional powers that adhere to the faith's majority branch.
Wayi said his network of more than 100 charities could be overwhelmed soon. "We are having a hard time getting aid because people have donor fatigue when it comes to the Syria conflict," he said.
The battle for Yabroud will be followed by more, said Shaikh. "This conflict is going to ebb and flow."