02/04/2013 06:14 PM
In the Lion's Den: The Fight for Survival in Damascus
By Susanne Koelbl
Damascus has become one of the most intense battlefields in the fight for Syria, even as those loyal to President Bashar Assad insist that much of the capital remains under their control. Those who haven't left care only about survival.
"We're almost finished with them," says the general. He has a broad jaw, and his gray hair encircles his head like a thick garland.
From the roof of a military building behind Umayyad Square in Damascus, the general would be able to see columns of smoke rising above the suburb of Daraya, where rebels are battling his soldiers. But he is sitting in his office on the third floor, behind a monstrous wooden desk, under portraits of the founder of the Assad dynasty, Hafez Assad, and his son Bashar.
The infantry general, in his early fifties, wears the Syrian army emblem, a hawk above crossed swords, on his shoulder. He is a member of the military elite and has spent his life serving the Assad regime.
There are hardly any "terrorists" left in Daraya, claims the general, although there are still a few "pockets" here and there. The "terrorists," he says, are hiding in basements "like rats," building tunnels or in the canals. "That's the pathetic condition they are in," he says.
The general's name is engraved in large letters on a shiny metal nameplate on the oak door, and yet he insists that his name not be printed. No one here -- members of the military, the intelligence services or the Syrian security apparatus -- says anything on the record.
The rebels have come dangerously close to the Damascus old town, and the general's days could possibly soon be numbered. The Syrian civil war has been raging for 23 months and has claimed more than 60,000 lives. The rebels are fighting their way forward, but at a torturously slow pace and with many setbacks, repeatedly engaging the Syrian army in grueling battles. Assad's military is holding its ground primarily in the cities, but the regime no longer controls vast rural areas in between, which are now often zones of lawlessness. The rebels have cut off many supply routes, and in some outposts the soldiers don't have enough to eat and are forced to use their bullets sparingly.
An Uncanny Feel
The name Assad means "lion," and the capital Damascus has become the lion's den. President Assad has become entrenched in Damascus, where the army has concentrated its forces, defending the city at all costs. But in suburbs like Duma and Daraya, the rebels have been hammering mercilessly away at regime forces for the last six months. Sometimes the battles take place at a linear distance of only 600 meters (about 2,000 feet) from the old city.
Indeed, some streets on the periphery of Damascus have an uncanny feel. Exterior walls of ruined buildings jut into the winter sky, and the air is periodically filled with the thunder of mortars and the rattling of machine guns. And yet, only a few hundred meters away, the shops are open and bazaar vendors are selling DVDs, jewelry, luggage and clothing. Government employees go about their business as if everything were completely normal. This part of Damascus almost seems the way it was in 2000, when Bashar Assad assumed power after the death of his father Hafez. It was a time when Damascus hoped for rapid modernization in the midst of the war-torn Middle East.
Assad seemed fresh at the time. He had lived in England, and he seemed likely to propel the corrupt police state his father left behind into a more promising future. Suddenly there were mobile phones, followed by Internet access and shopping malls, and there was investment in universities and luxury hotels. The president and his attractive, cosmopolitan wife Asma strolled through the old section of Damascus and had lunch with Hollywood star Angelina Jolie. The American political activist stayed in room No. 5 at the Talisman, a boutique hotel, and the New York Times travel magazine dubbed Damascus one of the world's most important destinations.
But the old machinery of his father's regime was still there, behind the young president. It included several million profiteers, many of them Alawites, the sect aligned with the Shiites to which the Assads belong. Why should they have been interested in reform?
Unlike his father Hafez, who ruled the security services with an iron fist, the much softer Bashar never became a true dictator. His father's men still wield considerable power today.
Fear protected the Assad regime, but now fear seems to have switched sides, even in the capital. It now haunts army officers when they take the bus home from work, as it does ministerial employees, businesspeople, the rich and those suspected of being loyal to the regime. They are being kidnapped by armed men and locked into basements, sometimes for weeks. The kidnappers often claim that they are rebels with the Free Syrian Army. Some of the victims are burned with lit cigarettes or are left out in the snow, dressed only in their underwear, after ransom money has been paid. It isn't always clear whether the perpetrators are fighting for a free Syria or are just ordinary criminals.
There is a neighborhood in the western part of Damascus called Mezze 86, inhabited almost exclusively by Alawites. Mezze 86 is the home of modest regime profiteers, the home of hangers-on. Residents work for the economics ministry, the police or the army.
As civil servants, they earn between 10,000 and 30,000 Syrian pounds a month, or €100 to €300 ($135 to $400). Most built their small concrete houses 20 years ago, and posters of Bashar Assad hang on every corner. Assad, an ophthalmologist by profession who received only very superficial military training, apparently tried to look frightening when he was photographed for the posters, wearing dark sunglasses and a general's uniform, and with a grim expression on his face.
The first car bomb exploded in Mezze 86 in early October. On Nov. 5, a large explosion ripped away an entire row of shops, killing at least 11 people and wounding dozens more.
Hassan Khudir's little house isn't far from the site of the bombing. A civil servant in the transportation ministry, he is wearing a corduroy jacket and tie, even at home in his small living room. But as an Alawite, he senses that his orderly old life is over. Khudir, his wife and their four children must fear the revenge of the rebels. "We will all die if there is no reconciliation," he says.
But the rebels in Damascus are also in mortal danger, like the three young female students in the back room of a Damascus café. They are wearing white hijabs to cover their hair and neck, and they are unwilling to remove their long coats. They are traditional Muslim women, they say. They arrive with two young men.
'Grapes of My Country'
All five work for Enab Baladi, an underground newspaper and website from the rebel stronghold Daraya, only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Mezze 86. "Enab Baladi" means "grapes of my country," a name that is meant to invoke the sweet grapes that once grew in the gardens of Daraya.
The authors of Enab Baladi have documented the destruction that has been visited on Daraya since the army identified the suburb as a terrorist stronghold in the summer. They write, photograph and shoot videos, documenting fighter jets as their drop their deadly loads over Daraya, tanks rumbling through the district and shooting indiscriminately into buildings, and how the army went from house to house on Aug. 25, 2012, dragging supporters of the rebellion and lining them up against walls. Hundreds were shot to death on that day, say the founders of Enab Baladi.
The women have brought along a shaky video as an example. The footage shows the wreckage of a house, as a voice says anxiously, "Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar." The cameraman pushes in the door of the bombed house and steps over upturned tables and cabinets. The body of a man in his mid-40s is lying on his back on the floor, his legs pulled up at an angle. "Allahu akbar," the cameraman says with a sob. He hurries into the bathroom, where there is another victim on the floor. The camera crew finds a total of three bodies in the house. "Allahu akbar," they all say, sobbing.
Almost 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed is said to have used the phrase "Allahu akbar" -- God is great" -- to boost the morale of his soldiers. Muslim fighters use it to this day, including groups affiliated with Al-Qaida, like the Al-Nusra Front.
Enab Baladi is the voice of the survivors of Daraya. The buildings that once housed their schools, post offices and hospitals are in ruins today. But are the rebels of Daraya in fact extremists, as the general claims?
Who Are the Rebels?
"At first we carried flowers and demonstrated for reforms," one of the women says in response. "The government invited us to round-table talks. After that they knew who our leaders were and arrested them. We are conservative, but we don't want a caliphate. We yearn for democracy and humanity."
Do your allies abduct people? "Yes. We have to exchange them for our relatives and friends who are still in prison."
Do extremists fight on your side? "How can we be choosy here? We are victims and we are dying. We are grasping at every straw."
What should a free Syria look like if it is achieved with the help of Islamists like the Al-Nusra group? "If the regime falls, we will fight against Al-Nusra. This here is only the beginning of a long process."
The articles on Enab Baladi are surprisingly levelheaded, even when, as happened on this day, one of the newspaper's co-founders was killed in his car when he was hit by shrapnel. But 23 months of war have also poisoned members of the opposition. The struggle against an army that is destroying its own country, and the bitterness over the fact that the Western world has not come to their aid, has shifted internal boundaries, even among the best. "Yes, that's what has become of us," one of the two men, a computer science student, says with shame in his voice.
At first, the brutality largely originated with the army and Assad's thugs, especially the Shabiha ("ghosts"). The Shabiha militias consist of criminals and radicals, incited and paid by the security apparatus. They are originally from the Alawite hinterland along the coast between Latakia and Tartus, the home of the Assads. The Shabiha do the dirty work in Assad's security apparatus.
The group of killers got its name since the 1970s, when criminal members of the Assad clan would steal Mercedes Benz 600s, a popular vehicle at the time, the minute the cars' owners dared to enter their territory. Because of its opulent headlights, the thugs called the model the "ghost," or Shabah. The "ghosts" of the current conflict move through opposition villages, sometimes together with the army, murdering and looting as they go.
'Paid For from the Outside'
Both sides, the rebels and the regime, have been instruments of a larger showdown, with Russia, China and Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States and Europe on the other.
The Saudi Arabians and their allies would like to pull Syria out of the Shiite axis, which also includes Iran and Hezbollah. Although most Syrians are Sunnis, they have long been ruled by the Alawite Assad clan. Saudi Arabians and Turks want to expand Sunni influence in the region, the US wants to protect Israel.
The other side, especially the Russians, want to curb the West's dominance in the Middle East and secure their old advantages in the region, such as Tartus, the Russians' only naval base in the Mediterranean.
"This uprising is organized and paid for from the outside, for the most part," claims Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad. He has traveled a lot in recent weeks, making visits to Russia, Iran and China. He is an inconspicuous man wearing a blue suit and plain tie, but he is in charge of the regime's foreign policy, and he is thankful that Syria's few remaining friends still back the regime.
The rebels are receiving "billions of US dollars from the Gulf countries," Mikdad claims, sitting in his enormous office at the Foreign Ministry in Damascus. "It's a worldwide mercenary business." According to Mikdad, the Saudi Arabians and Syria's Turkish neighbors are especially involved. With the help of religious groups, he says, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to "establish a new Ottoman Empire." The Assad regime is getting in Erdogan's way, says Mikdad, which is why Turkey supports the rebels.
Although so-called local coordination committees in Idlib, Aleppo, Homs and Hama collect information about the rebels' struggle, not all revolutionaries are under joint command. There are various splinter groups seemingly fighting for their own causes in various places. The rebel groups include dilettantes alongside professionals, deserted soldiers, jihadists from Libya, Tunisia and even Australia, and the Al-Nusra extremists. At the moment, they all have the same goal: to topple the regime. But when Assad does fall, their commonalities will likely disappear quickly.
Unable to Bake Bread
The ones suffering are the civilians, even in Damascus, where survival has become more difficult as everyday life has become harsher. The electricity is only on for a few hours at a time. Gasoline and diesel are being rationed and heating fuel on the black market costs five times as much as it did before the crisis. The situation is such that bakeries are sometimes unable to bake bread. An employee at the Talisman, the luxury hotel where Angelina Jolie once stayed, is now sitting in front of a wood stove with a coworker in the only warm room in the building. There is no electricity and, of course, there are no guests.
A little later, a young woman is hurrying through the narrow streets of the Christian neighborhood, not far from the hotel. She has dyed her hair light blonde to avoid being recognized, and the hood of her coat is pulled down over her face. She is looking for a place where the walls don't have ears. Speaking in a whisper, she describes what her life has become in this war: "I lie in bed, the house is cold and dark, the telephone is dead, and I weep."
She belongs to a small group of opposition members who are trying to track down those who have disappeared, or at least to count them. Even though the government has been undermined, it still has the capacity to intercept and torture people like her, using the usual approach: windowless group cells, hanging up prisoners by their hands, beating their calves until they turn dark blue and beating them on the back until their skin bursts open.
Not true, say government officials in Damascus. The speaker of the parliament, Mohammad Jihad al-Laham, is an unhappy looking man dressed in a black suit with a black tie. He has a narrow mouth and a blonde moustache. In November, a rebel detachment shot and killed his brother on his way to work.
Laham is sitting in the heavily guarded parliament building, on a chair adorned with mother-of-pearl inlays. Behind him are a lavish, decorative gold-colored wall and a portrait of President Assad.
'We Don't Use It in Court'
"What exactly does this opposition want?" Laham asks, raising his hands theatrically: "To destroy!"
He insists that President Assad heard the demands of the demonstrators. He concedes that some were legitimate and that Assad made all the changes they had demanded. The emergency laws were lifted, there is no longer only one political party, parliamentary elections were held and establishing parties is now allowed. "What else?" Laham says, raising his voice. "We want negotiations with all sides. We don't exclude anyone, and we give security guarantees."
What about the accounts of torture?
Laham, a lawyer, doesn't deny anything. He is also the president of the Syrian lawyers' union, and he is familiar with abuse. Torture, he says, is what was done here in the past, but now a prisoner awaiting trial can only be held in prison for 60 days. And if a prisoner is tortured, he adds, he now has the right to see a doctor. "And if a confession was obtained through torture, we don't use it in court."
Outside, the human rights activist has found a quiet café. She says that she can sense the unfortunate people being held in the intelligence agencies' cells, such as in the notorious Khatib Prison. Sometimes she gets help from personal contacts, and sometimes men within the security apparatus secretly given her information. She says that at least 60,000 people have been arrested nationwide. A fellow activist, an attorney, had just been taken into custody. The activist is afraid, but she is determined to persevere in Damascus. "Not everyone can leave," she says.
But Damascus, the biblical city with its magnificent gardens, a city where different religions coexisted peacefully, hasn't existed for a long time. No one sits in the bars and restaurants in the old city at night anymore. Now Damascus is filled with refugees from Aleppo, Idlib, Duma and Daraya, and the poor are begging in the streets, sleeping at relatives' houses.
The ropes hang down loosely from the flagpole in front of the abandoned German Embassy in the Malki district. The shutters are locked at the Dutch Embassy, and the US Embassy, surrounded with barbed wire, is also closed. The Saudi Arabians have left their lights on.
Wealthy Syrians have gone to the United States or Paris, where many have houses. Those who are able make their way to Lebanon or Jordan, while the Alawites go to Tartuz or Latakia. But for anyone who hasn't left the embattled Damascus suburb Daraya yet, it is likely because they can't.
The army claims that it has surrounded Daraya, and that the tunnels that connected the suburb to the outside world were discovered and sealed up. "We have destroyed 90 percent of the terrorists," an army spokesman said on television last week.
Marjam, 26, is one of the Enab Baladi authors from Daraya. She opens her laptop in the café to show yet another video. It depicts a bomb striking the house of a fellow activist at the newspaper, followed by the recovery of 15 bodies from the rubble, the activist's family. "What do we have left?" the young woman asks, with a bitter laugh.
How much longer can this continue? Some in Damascus say that Assad could persevere until 2014, and that he wants to legitimize his position through an election to the presidency. A Saudi Arabia intelligence agent is certain that Assad will be gone in no more than six months. Perhaps someone from his own ranks will murder him, the agent says, pointing out that many in his inner circle are corruptible, and that it's only a question of price. If that happens, the parties could soon negotiate peace.
"Chocolates?" the general asks from behind his large wooden desk. He attempts a smile. "How could we make such delicious chocolate if we were in fact finished?"
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Syrian rebel raids expose secrets of once-feared military
Former regime strongholds are now being picked clean – and some are underwhelmed by what lies behind the perimeter walls
Martin Chulov in Aleppo
The Guardian, Monday 4 February 2013 17.30 GMT
The red phone had been silent for more than 20 years, encased in reinforced glass in the corner of the major's office. When it rang just after midnight on 6 September 2007, the startled Syrian officers nearby had to remind themselves what to do.
"I told my colleagues that we had to break the case with a hammer, then answer it," said Abu Mohammed, a former air force major then based at an air defence station near the north-eastern city of Deir Azzor. "It had not even rung during a training exercise."
Abu Mohammed, now a senior member of the rebel movement in the north of the country, broke the glass. What followed, he said, were the most puzzling 10 minutes of his military career.
"I shattered the glass and answered the phone," he said. "There was a brigadier on the other end from the strategic air command in Damascus. He said: 'There are enemy planes approaching, you are not to do anything.'
"I was confused. Do nothing? This is what we were waiting for. We couldn't see them on our radars. And then our radars were jammed. The missile base nearby could not have fired even if it was allowed."
Until last week, the Israeli raid in 2007 that destroyed what the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded was a nuclear reactor at al-Kibbar, north of Deir Azzor, was the last time Syria's much-vaunted air defence system was tested.
But last Wednesday just before dawn, the Israeli planes returned. The attack formations were obvious on the radar systems used by Nato tracking stations and by Lebanese civil aviation: about 10 jets, all of which approached from the Mediterranean over southern Lebanon.
Some of the planes remained circling in Lebanese airspace. Others crossed into Syria, firing eight missiles near a building 11 miles north of Damascus and then flying west. Just like at Deir Azzour six years ago, the Syrian air defences stayed silent.
"They did the same as what they did to us," Abu Mohammed said on Monday from the Aleppo countryside. "The reality is that we are blind in the face of the enemy."
Syrian defence officials have claimed that the invading planes escaped by staying below the radar. Opposition figures, meanwhile, have largely either ignored the attack or pretended it didn't happen. Better that than to acknowledge a sworn enemy of both sides was making things easier for them.
Nearly two withering years of war have clearly taken a toll on the Syrian military, which before the insurrection was reputed to be one of the region's most powerful. Army bases were considered impregnable, air defences the most formidable in the region, and soldiers resolutely loyal.
"The only thing we really still fear is the Migs," said Maalik Sayedi, a carpenter turned guerrilla fighter, as he picked through the remains of an overrun infantry school on the northern outskirts of Aleppo. "When we raided this place, the fight was over in less than two hours."
The infantry school is one of four nearby regime bases overrun between mid-December and late January. Units stationed in this bleak, sprawling complex, which was the main training site in northern Syria for officers and soldiers alike, put up less of a fight than those defending airbases. Signs of the rout are everywhere.
In the middle of a field, surrounded by pine and fir trees, five delapidated Soviet tanks, the defensive core of the inner base, stand in ruin. The maker's plate inside each says 1959. Four armoured personnel carriers are in crumbling disarray, their cables and rusting armour discarded across fields churned muddy brown by tank tracks.
Until December this base was one of the last regime strongholds in northern Syria. But now those who once would not dare approach the giant concrete walls and watch towers that surround it are picking the base clean like a carcass. Anything is fair game, especially wood, which is being harvested from wherever it can be found to heat family homes.
Hundreds of old trees just inside the wall have been sawn down, their stumps exposing buildings that long stood as tribute to the military's position at the heart of Syrian society. The denuding of the perimeter is exposing the base's secrets. And those drifting inside to see them are underwhelmed.
"It was exciting at first," said 17-year-old Hussein Mohammed, carrying a hacksaw in one hand and a plastic bucket full of kindling branches in the other. "But this is it," he said with a wave of the saw. "This is where you learned to be a soldier in the Syrian army."
Vivid murals of the late dictator Hafez al-Assad are painted on walls on the parade grounds and at the base's main entrance, now manned by dozing rebel fighters. Though Bashar al-Assad has run Syria for almost 13 years, he is afforded only one portrait. His late older brother Basil, killed in a car crash in 1994, still takes pride of place next to his father here.
All around are obstacle courses. Hundreds of rusting black and white hoops and bars, and truck tyres half buried in the soil. Whatever their shortcomings, graduates from this school must have been fit.
Later, in the biting cold of a mid-winter night in Aleppo, Firas Tmeimi, who took part in the infantry school raid and has since joined attempts to storm other bases, said each operation was a revelation.
"We thought they were strong. But the veil has been lifted. Fear was the regime's greatest weapon. Without that, we can match them," he said, before stopping in mid sentence as a distant roar drew nearer.
"Except for the planes," he added, ducking as a low-flying jet streaked overhead. "Two of them are worth more than all the airbases we've seized."
• This article was amended on 5 February 2013 to correct the spelling of fir trees, from fur trees.
February 4, 2013
Assad Can Avoid Trial by Leaving, Coalition Says
By HANIA MOURTADA and RICK GLADSTONE
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s opposition coalition gave qualified backing on Monday to its leader’s surprise offer last week for a dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war, pressing him to respond definitively and even offering the added inducement that he could avoid trial if he resigned and left the country.
Although the offer made by the opposition leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, was by his own admission a personal gambit and was initially greeted with a torrent of criticism inside the Syrian opposition movement, his colleagues in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces basically endorsed it over the weekend. While some complained that Sheik Khatib had not consulted them before making the offer and a few even called for his resignation, others went along in part to counter the appearance of fractiousness that has long been a weakness in the opposition.
Sheik Khatib, a respected Sunni cleric in exile who once was the head imam at the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, said he would engage in dialogue with Mr. Assad’s government only if it released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed all expired passports held by members of the Syrian diaspora, which includes large numbers of dissidents.
On Sunday, an aide to Mr. Assad gave a vague response. The aide, Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister of national reconciliation, said in an interview with Russia Today, a Kremlin-financed news organization sympathetic to Syria’s government, that the government was open to talks with any opposition members who reject violence. He also said it was willing to address the passport issue, but not necessarily the release of prisoners. Mr. Haidar said the 160,000 figure was exaggerated and asked Sheik Khatib to send a list of prisoner names.
The Syrian opposition, which considers Mr. Assad a brutal dictator responsible for the estimated 60,000 or more deaths in the nearly two-year conflict, had long contended that there could be no talks with his government until he resigned. While the opposition is still saying Mr. Assad’s departure must be part of any political settlement to end the conflict, it is no longer a precondition for talks.
Apparently emboldened by the belated support from other members of the opposition coalition, as well as endorsements of his initiative from the United Nations secretary general and special Syria envoy, Sheik Khatib demanded during an interview with Al Jazeera on Monday that Mr. Assad give him a “a clear stand” on the proposal.
“We say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” Sheik Khatib said in the interview. “It is now in the hands of the regime.”
Directly addressing President Assad, who has not only refused to resign but has said he might run for re-election next year, Sheik Khatib said: “Before you go to sleep, look into your children’s eyes and part of your humanity will return and we will find a solution. Look at your children’s eyes and try to find a solution and you will find that we can help each other for the interest of this country.”
In a separate interview later with the Al Arabiya news network, Sheik Khatib also suggested that Mr. Assad could appoint as an emissary his vice president, Farouk al-Shara, a longtime member of Mr. Assad’s hierarchy who has been mentioned before by Arab diplomats as a possible political transition leader. The sheik said Mr. Shara’s hands were not “stained with blood.”
A spokesman for the opposition said in a telephone interview that members of the coalition’s board had also decided that they would offer Mr. Assad the opportunity to escape prosecution, provided he left the country.
“This is the best thing we are willing to offer if we were to have a dialogue with the regime,” said the spokesman, Walid al-Bunni. “This is a concession we might bring up if we have a dialogue, but the basis for the dialogue should be the regime stepping down.”
Mr. Bunni noted that the coalition had issued a statement on Thursday, a day after Sheik Khatib made the offer, that emphasized “that any dialogue should be based on the idea of transition and that the coalition welcomes any international effort if that’s the vision they have in mind.”
Mr. Bunni also said, “If this goal, Assad stepping down, can be achieved through a political solution, then we are going to receive it in a positive way.”
Sheik Khatib sought to strengthen his political credentials at a regional security conference held in Munich over the weekend. He met separately with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, the Assad government’s strongest foreign supporters.
In what appeared to be a gesture of good will timed to coincide with those meetings, Syrian rebels released two abducted Russian workers and an Italian citizen in exchange for captured rebel fighters. The news of the exchange, reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday, did not specify how many rebels had been part of the deal.
Fighters captured the three on Dec. 12 as they traveled from Homs, a major city devastated by heavy fighting, to the tiny Russian military refueling base at the port of Tartus.
In a new indication of the deprivations faced by Syrian civilians, Unicef said Monday that a large-scale operation was under way to provide safe water to more than 10 million people in the country, nearly half the population. Unicef said trucks loaded with chlorination supplies were heading for Homs, Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, with further plans for distribution of 1,000 tons of chlorination supplies throughout Syria.
“This shipment is very timely as supplies of chlorine in Syria have fallen dangerously low, making access to safe water challenging for many families,” Youssouf Abdel-Jelil, the Unicef representative in Syria, said in a statement. “This puts the population — and children especially — at high risk of contracting diarrhea and other waterborne diseases.”
Hania Mourtada reported from Beirut, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Andrew Roth contributed reporting from Moscow.