- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Syria’s civil war has become so dire that some Islamic clerics are telling starving Syrians to eat cats and dogs.

A bad humanitarian situation has turned worse as Syrian President Bashar Assad has escalated a war against rebels, including some with ties to al Qaeda, even as progress has been made on the destruction of the regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons.

The Assad regime has tightened siegelike conditions around rebel-held parts of the country, including Damascus neighborhoods, its suburbs of Ghouta and Muadhamiya, and the Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees.

Deprived of food and medicine, many residents are starving and traumatized. Videos shared by activists show images of emaciated children.

The grim circumstances prompted religious leaders to issue a fatwa, or ruling, allowing starving citizens to eat animals normally forbidden by Islam to consume.

Syrian activists said the fatwa appeared to be an attempt to focus international attention on the humanitarian crisis engendered by the 2½-year-old civil war.

The fatwa coincides with the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha, a festival marked by lavish feasts.

“It is difficult to celebrate when every day children are dying around us,” said Sami Ibrahim, a Damascus-based spokesman for the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Meanwhile, the Western-backed opposition political coalition suffered a potential setback Wednesday as dozens of rebel groups in southern Syria reportedly rejected its authority.

A rebel commander said in a video that the Syrian National Coalition had failed the revolution, the Associated Press reported. He said he was joined by 66 rebel groups in disavowing the coalition. His claims could not be independently verified.

In September, an alliance of 11 rebel groups, including one with ties to al Qaeda, shunned the National Coalition while calling for an Islamic state.

The U.N. estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime in March 2011. As the war has dragged on, groups linked to al Qaeda have joined the fight against the regime, which in turn is being aided by Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

Syrian activists say more than 5,000 people have been killed by conventional weapons since the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta that sparked international outrage and threats of military action from President Obama.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Wednesday that its inspectors had visited 11 sites linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program and destroyed “critical equipment” at six.

The Assad regime appears to have become emboldened by a U.S.-Russian deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons that makes Mr. Assad a key partner in a process that could last well into 2014.

As international attention has shifted to Syria’s chemical weapons, Syrian activists and international organizations worry that atrocities committed using conventional weapons are being overlooked.

“If you are a mother who loses a child to a bullet, not to sarin gas, your grief is as deep and profound as those who have faced the most horrible of weapons. We cannot close our eyes to that,” Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, said at the New America Foundation in Washington last week.

“Yes, chemical weapons are now being tackled, but conventional weapons are used in full speed.”

Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, said he is concerned that “the international focus on the destruction of chemical weapons has resulted in setting aside the investigation of crimes against humanity, which continue unabated to this day.”

Many Syrians feel betrayed.

“People do not give a damn about the diplomacy over chemical weapons,” said Alexia Jade, a spokesperson for the Damascus Media Office, an opposition group that comprises activists and journalists.

“The signs for peace are not bright, especially now that the Assad regime has created the image of the good guy who is abiding by international law,” said Ms. Jade, who uses a pseudonym out of concern for her safety.

The Syrian National Council, the largest group in the opposition coalition, said this week that it will not attend peace talks in Geneva because conditions on the ground are not conducive to such a dialogue.

In Skype interviews with The Washington Times, residents of war-torn Syrian cities recounted the challenges they face living in a war zone.

In Damascus, Mr. Ibrahim frequently changes homes to avoid detection by the regime, but even then he cannot evade the threat of mortar shells. Once settled, wary of the security checkpoints that have sprung up across the city, he prefers to remain indoors. His friends help arrange food and medicine for his family, including a 3-year-old child.

“This has become the ‘normal’ life for Syrians,” said Mr. Ibrahim.

In the southern city of Homs, Fadel Mohamad Ali, an opposition activist, regularly sets out on life-saving missions for his diabetic mother. The Assad regime has prevented medicines from reaching his Sunni neighborhood, so he has to travel by foot to pro-regime Alawite areas to purchase insulin. The journey home is fraught with danger as he runs the risk of being arrested if security personnel discover the insulin concealed in his clothing.

But Mr. Ali isn’t any safer at home. Every other day, Syrian soldiers search homes for suspicious activity and sometimes valuables.

“If they find me talking to you on Skype, they would arrest me,” he said in a recent conversation.

In Homs’ Old City neighborhood, which is controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army, residents have endured a months-long siege by Syrian troops. They grow their own vegetables and eat canned food. Milk and bread are scarce. What little is available is exorbitantly priced. Residents use generators as electricity has been cut off. The sick and wounded rely on expired medicines from hospitals that have been destroyed in the war.

“All the world cares about are chemical weapons,” said Mr. Ali. “They have forgotten that thousands of people are still dying. We don’t want to take just chemical weapons away from this crazy regime, we want it to stop killing us.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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