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Snow Chills Syrian Refugees As U.S. Suspends Aid To Rebels


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. And we're going to begin this hour in Syria. Earlier this week, the U.S. and Britain suspended all non-lethal aid to the Western-backed rebels. And that means they are no longer supplying food, medical kits, trucks and communications equipment to rebels. This decision came after Islamist rebels seized control of warehouses where supplies are stored. At the same time, a severe winter storm has swept across the Middle East. And in Syria, the freezing temperatures have compounded the misery for millions of Syrian refugees. NPR'S Deborah Amos is monitoring Syria from Beirut and joins us from there this morning. Deb, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: We have begun to see pictures of refugee camps blanketed with snow and children wearing painfully thin sweaters. Can you tell us what living conditions are like for Syrian refugees at the moment?

AMOS: Well, here in Lebanon, it is dire. In fact, UNICEF officials say that 10,000 children are at risk because of this freezing cold. Inside Syria, an activist group posted videos of eight children - mostly infants - who froze to death. This is the worst winter storm in decades. Even here in Beirut last night, we walked home in a freezing hailstorm. Now, we're on the coast. Syrian refugees living in higher altitudes, they're trudging through the snow looking for anything to burn to keep warm.

SIMON: Aid agencies have been preparing for the winter for the past few weeks. Why have they not been able to get warm clothing, if not at least heat, to a lot of the refugees?

AMOS: Part of the problem is a shortage of funds. The other problem is here in Lebanon, the government has a very strict rule on refugee settlements - nothing permanent. So, the only thing that you can have is plastic and wood, and that means that families live on dirt floors. Now, aid workers have been working around the clock to deliver thermal blankets and extra food. But the snow closed off some of these mountain roads over the past few days, so many refugees are out of reach until this storm passes.

SIMON: Let's go back to that seizure of a warehouse of supplies by Islamist rebels, 'cause that certainly seemed to change U.S. policy. How did that wind up changing Western policy?

AMOS: Well, the seizure happened last Friday - details are a little hazy. But fighters from some of Syria's most powerful Islamist brigades took over this warehouse. There was more than a million dollars of U.S.-supplied equipment there. According to a U.S. State Department official, it included nine pickup trucks, four buses, office and communication equipment and 50,000 meals ready to eat - army rations. All of this was intended for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army under the command of General Salim Idris.

SIMON: Does the fact that the rebels were able to take control of a supply storehouse suggest that this was a huge loss for the Free Syrian Army, which is even further set them back on their heels.

AMOS: It's important to note that the French didn't suspend support. So, there is some disagreement over the way forward, even among allies. There are indications that the moderates backed by the U.S. and the Islamists are negotiating over a merger. Both these groups oppose the Assad regime. They both oppose the hard-core al-Qaida group; in fact, they fought against them. There are reports that U.S. policymakers are rethinking the approach to the Islamic front. U.S. officials have reportedly met with some of the leaders of this group last month in Turkey. And this all comes in the context of the Geneva talks which are scheduled for January. That's when the Syrian regime and the political opposition are going to sit down face to face for the first time.

The only group, Scott, that can deliver any change on the ground is the Islamic Front. They're the most powerful rebel formation across northern Syria. They hold great swaths of territory. They are the important players, much more important than the moderate Free Syrian Army, who showed on Friday they can't even protect their warehouses. They are the weakest group on the battlefield, even though they're supported by the U.S. So, that's why there is a crisis in U.S. policy and there appears to be some rethinking of that policy.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos speaking with us from Beirut. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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