AS the number of Syrian refugees crossing into neighbouring countries passed the two million mark, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, Tuesday described the crisis as a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparallelled in recent history.”
Guterres’ comment came as the global body also warned that with the escalation in Syrian violence, the world faces its greatest threat to peace since the Vietnam war.
In a new development, Israeli forces training with the United States (U.S.) navy in the Mediterranean set nerves on edge in Damascus yesterday with a missile test that triggered an alert from the Syrian government’s ally, Russia.
Moreso, President Barack Obama also Tuesday wrestled with doubters in Congress ahead of votes next week on possible U.S. strikes on Syria, arguing that “this is not Iraq, this is not Afghanistan.”
Obama told U.S. congressional leaders that Assad must be held “to account.”
However, U.S. Republican House Speaker John Boehner said he would support Obama’s call for military strikes against Syria.
In a potentially significant political move, Boehner emerged from talks with Obama at the White House saying the United States must respond to the use of chemical weapons, adding: “I am going to support the president’s call for action.”
It also came to light that the U.S. Navy has redeployed warships in the Middle East for any potential strikes against Syria, defence officials said.
The destroyer USS Mahan has left the Mediterranean while a battle group of warships led by the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz is on its way to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, an official said.
The Mahan is “on its way to Norfolk,” the ship’s home port in Virginia, the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Agence France Presse (AFP).
The departure of the Mahan reduced the number of US destroyers in the Mediterranean to four. Each of the warships is equipped to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Syria if ordered to by US President Barack Obama.
The U.S. Navy keeps secret the precise number of Tomahawks on board but most military analysts estimate each ship carries about 45 cruise missiles.
But United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Cameron has unveiled plan to push Russia and others to back a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict at the G20 in Saint Petersburg this week, including a tougher UN response, his spokesman said yesterday.
Cameron last week lost a parliamentary vote on joining U.S.-led military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime over alleged chemical weapons use, and the government said it has no plans to bring the issue back before lawmakers.
His official spokesman said Cameron still wanted a “robust” response to an alleged chemical attack, which killed hundreds of people on August 21, but that he would press Assad’s ally, Russia, to support diplomatic efforts.
Cameron set out his aims for the G20, including on the Syria crisis, during a meeting of the cabinet yesterday, his spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Israel yesterday announced the successful launch of a missile in a joint exercise with the United States, which came as Washington mulls military intervention in Syria.
“The Israeli defence ministry and the American MDA (Missile Defence Agency) yesterday morning at 9:15 (0615 GMT) successfully launched an Ankor-type radar missile,” the defence ministry said in a statement.
“The test was launched from the Mediterranean and directed from an army base in the centre of Israel,” it said.
Earlier, Moscow’s defence ministry, as cited by Russian news agencies, said its early warning system had detected the launch of two ballistic missiles from the central part of the Mediterranean fired towards the Sea’s eastern coastline yesterday morning.
The defence ministry statement mentioned only one missile.
The test involved a new version of the Ankor (Sparrow) missile “and was concluded at ... a test range over the Mediterranean Sea,” a separate Israeli defence ministry statement said.
The missile was to test missile-tracking capabilities, according to local media.
Obama has asked lawmakers to back military action to punish Assad for killing hundreds of people with poison gas last month – a charge Assad denied on Monday as he warned Washington and its French allies of retribution.
With many Americans, including legislators from his own Democratic party, fearful of embroiling the United States in a third major war in a Muslim country this century, Obama has insisted he is not seeking “regime change” in Syria.
But that is precisely what Syrian rebels and their backers among Washington’s Arab allies want as they struggle to hold their ground, let alone advance.
According to one opposition report, government forces took the strategic northwestern town of Ariha yesterday, though others said the battle was not over.
Assad’s enemies point to the toll that two and a half years of war have taken on Syria’s people, of whom 100,000 have been killed and nearly one in three driven from their homes in fear.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a statement yesterday that a near tenfold increase over the past 12 months in the rate of refugees crossing Syria’s borders into Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon – to a daily average of nearly 5,000 men, women and children – had pushed the total living abroad above two million.
That represents some 10 per cent of Syria’s population, the UNHCR said. With a further 4.25 million estimated to have been displaced but still resident inside the country, that leaves close to a third of all Syrians living away from home.
Comparing the figures to the peak of Afghanistan’s refugee crisis two decades ago, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, said: “Syria has become the great tragedy of this century - a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
Speaking of the acceleration in the crisis, he said: “What is appalling is that the first million fled Syria in two years. The second million fled Syria in six months.”
At a news conference in Geneva, Guterres noted that a total of six million were displaced by the war: “At this particular moment, it’s the highest number of displaced people anywhere in the world. And if one looks at the peak of the Afghan crisis we have probably very similar numbers of people displaced.
“The risks for global peace and security that the present Syria crisis represents, I’m sure, are not smaller than what we have witnessed in any other crisis that we have had since the Vietnam war,” said Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister.
However, when Russia raised the alarm yesterday morning that its forces had detected the launch of two ballistic “objects” in the Mediterranean, thoughts of a surprise strike on Syria pushed oil prices higher on world markets and must have put the troops operating Syria’s Russian-equipped air defence system on alert.
A Syrian security official later told a Lebanese television channel that its early warning radar had picked up no threats.
Clarification came only later when the Israeli Defence Ministry said that its troops had - at the time of the Russian alert - fired a missile that is used as a target for an anti-missile defense system during an exercise with U.S. forces.
The jitters reflected a nervousness both within Syria and further afield since Western leaders pledged retribution for the use of chemical weapons.
Obama’s surprise decision on Saturday to refer to Congress for approval next week has, however, delayed any U.S. move.
Britain has dropped out of planning for attacks since its parliament rejected a proposal by Prime Minister David Cameron but France, western Europe’s other main military power, is still coordinating possible action with the Pentagon.
President Francois Hollande has resisted opposition calls to submit any decision to wage war to parliament. His government presented lawmakers on Monday with what it said was evidence of Assad’s responsibility for a “massive and coordinated” chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21.
Assad warned: “Everybody will lose control of the situation when the powder keg blows. There is a risk of a regional war.”