UN refugee chief opposes 'safe zones' in Syria

By the Associated Press | February 3, 2017 | 3:30 PM EST

Filippo Grandi, the head of U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, gestures as he speaks during a press conference, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Feb. 3, 2017. Grandi pushed back against the increasingly favored initiative to create safe zones in Syria for refugees, saying the country was "not the right place" to guarantee refugee safety. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N.'s top official on refugees pushed back against a proposed initiative that has gained recent traction to create "safe zones" in Syria for refugees, saying the country was "not the right place" for the initiative.

"Let's not waste time planning safe zones that will not be set up because they will not be safe for people to go back," said Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees.

"Let us concentrate on making peace so that everywhere becomes safe. That should be the investment," he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has floated safe zones as a substitute for resettling refugees in the United States and elsewhere around the globe.

The president explored schemes with Jordanian King Abdullah II in a face-to-face meeting in Washington, D.C. on Thursday. Jordan is host to some 650,000 Syrian refugees.

Turkey and Lebanon, which both border Syria, are also pushing for safe zones across their borders. The two countries host 3.75 million refugees between them.

Grandi cited terrorism and the fragmentation of Syria and its warring parties as obstacles to creating working safe zones in the country.

Damascus has expressed its deep concern over the various proposals, saying they would have to be set up in coordination with the Syrian government.

Trump plunged the international refugee system into crisis last week when he issued an executive order forbidding refugees to enter the U.S. for 120 days.

Grandi called the executive order a "dangerous weakening" of the established international norms to protect refugees.

He spoke in Beirut a day after returning from a field mission to Syria. He said the war-torn country was "devastated" and likened many urban zones to "ghost cities."

"These are people that flee from danger, they are not dangerous themselves," he said of refugees. The six-year-long war has displaced half the country's population.

Grandi criticized the U.S. and Western nations for "not doing enough" to share the burden of resettling Syrian refugees.

"(Lebanon) hosted more than 1 million people in the last three years, why can't rich countries host even a much smaller number?" he said.

Meanwhile, Turkey hosted talks with Syrian opposition members on Friday ahead of U.N.-backed negotiations with the Damascus government in Geneva later this month.

Participants included political and military representatives of the Syrian opposition such as Riad Hijab of the High Negotiations Committee, and Syrian National Coalition President Anas al-Abdah, according to Turkish Foreign Ministry officials.

Those attending denounced "federalism" as a solution for war-torn Syria and spoke out against a "new constitution, autonomy and federalism." They also affirmed that those opposing Syria's unity have no place in Geneva, according to Turkish officials who requested anonymity in line with government regulations.

A Syrian Kurdish group recently in Moscow had proposed creating federal units in Syria to resolve the war. Ankara regards the Syrian Kurds as an extension of its own Kurdish insurgency.

Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement that the Russian embassy in the Syrian capital Damascus had come under shelling from a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus both Thursday and Friday, but no one has been hurt. It said one mortar round fell inside the compound and another exploded near the embassy's main entrance, inflicting unspecified damage.

The ministry described the "treacherous" shelling as an attempt to derail a truce brokered by Russia and Turkey and hurt peace efforts.

Furthermore, The Russian military said its long-range bombers had raided positions of the Islamic State group in eastern Syria, the latest in a series of such strikes over the past two weeks.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Tu-22M3 bombers flew from their base in Russia to strike IS weapons depots near al-Mayadin in the province of Deir el-Zour Friday. It was the sixth such raid in the area since Jan. 21.

Syrian troops have been struggling to repel an IS offensive in Deir el-Zour since last month. The extremists control the entire province except for a small pocket of the provincial capital and a nearby air base.

Elsewhere in Syria, opposition activists and IS said Friday that U.S.-led coalition aircraft were behind airstrikes that destroyed the main pipeline supplying water to the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group, as well as two bridges linking it with the southern countryside.

The coalition has been targeting IS in the area for more than two years and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters have been on the offensive in nearby areas, mostly north of Raqqa. The city is the de facto capital of IS's self-declared caliphate and has been held by the extremist group since January 2014.

The attacks on Raqqa are similar to those conducted in Iraq late last year when Iraqi forces began their offensive to capture the city of Mosul from the extremists. Destroying bridges makes it difficult for IS to move fighters but many complain that the adverse effects are worse for civilians.

In a statement Friday, the U.S.-led coalition said it carried out 21 strikes near Raqqa, destroying 53 oil barrels, 39 oil storage tanks, four oil wellheads, four tunnel entrances, two tunnels, as well as damaging eight supply routes. It didn't provide further details. There was no immediate word about targeting the water pipeline.

Syrian state news agency SANA and an IS-affiliated website said early Friday that the city's main water pipeline was damaged in an airstrike. It added that two other bridges outside of the city were also hit.

The IS-affiliated website also reported that the only two bridges on the Euphrates river on the southern edge of the city have been hit.

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a local media collective, criticized the destruction of the two bridges and the severing of the city's water supply, saying that such acts are "absolutely unacceptable." One of the bridges carried the water pipeline. The activist-operated group later said the city's water flow had been partially restored after militants fixed the pipeline.

The anti-IS group blasted the U.S.-led coalition, saying it is trying to "besiege the civilians of Raqqa by demolishing bridges and destroying the infrastructure." The bridges had been hit before but the damage this time is more severe, according to the group.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of on-the-ground activists to track Syria's war, reported clashes between IS fighters and the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces north of the city. It said the U.S.-led coalition has been providing air cover to SDF fighters during Friday's fighting.

The attack comes at a time when Iraqi forces are on the offensive against IS in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul where the U.S.-led coalition has destroyed much of the bridges on the Tigris river.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Dominique Soguel in Basel, Switzerland and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.