Skip to main content

Regime insiders among Syrian refugees, says U.S. ambassador

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
January 25, 2013 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Regime's inner circle is fleeing "little by little," U.S. ambassador says
  • More than 678,000 Syrians have been displaced in the civil war, the U.N. says
  • U.S. government says it has spent $210 million on the humanitarian crisis so far
  • Syria asks "citizens who crossed the border illegally or legally to come back to the country"

(CNN) -- When you think of refugees, you may think of huddled masses, tired and poor. But those aren't the only types of people fleeing Syria.

"Members of the regime, little by little, are flaking off," U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN Thursday, giving some prominent examples.

Read more: The Syrian crisis: Where's U.S. aid going?

Ford said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has moved to the United Arab Emirates, while al-Assad's sister Buhra, has been living in Dubai.

In addition, Ford said Syria's former foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, has fled to the United States as a refugee. However, later Thursday, senior Obama administration officials told CNN that Ford had misspoken on that count, and Makdissi is not in the United States.

Syrian refugees could face catastrophe
Challenges feeding 1.5M Syrian refugees
Inside a Syrian refugee camp
Syrian civil war stuck in stalemate

The regime's core is weakening gradually, Ford said.

Read more: How Syria's bloodshed drove a peaceful protester into the battlelines

"They themselves know they are losing. When [U.N. and Arab League envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi met Bashar al-Assad the last time in December in his office, he told us that you could hear artillery outside the president's office. I mean, the fighting is getting that close now to the inner circle itself. And so you can imagine what that does to their own spirits, their own morale," he said.

Syrians have fled their homeland in droves since its civil war began nearly two years ago. As of January 22, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said the total number of refugees exceeded 678,000, with three countries bearing the brunt of the exodus: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, each of which UNHCR says now houses more than 150,000 displaced Syrians.

Read more: Al-Assad touts plan for resolution, says enemies of Syria 'will go to hell'

Anmar Hmoud, Jordan's government spokesman for Syrian refugee affairs, said 3,581 Syrians crossed into Jordan from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday morning, breaking the record for one night that was just set Sunday.

"We do not know when it will stop," Andrew Harper, the UNHCR chief in Jordan said Thursday. "We are seeing quadruple the numbers we were seeing two weeks ago."

While severe weather conditions two weeks ago could be a cause for the sharp increase, Harper said he believes "this is something much bigger than that: It is an exodus from southern Syria."

Read more: Syria's grim toll continues into 2013

A U.S. delegation arrived at Islahiye Refugee Camp in Turkey on Thursday to inspect the temporary town, population 8,825.

"Our expectation from the United States, from the U.S. delegation, is to enable these people to go home as soon as possible," said Islahiye District Governor Osman Beyazyildiz.

So far, the camp established in March 2012 has cost more than $17.8 million, Beyazyildiz said.

Many Turks are being gracious hosts.

The Anadolu news agency said Turkey delivered new toys Thursday to 4,500 children living in a tent city in Nizip. And the state-run news agency TRT reported that, in addition to public and private groups sending food to displaced Syrians, some secondary school students have been donating "part of their allowances."

U.S. delegation member Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, migration and refugees, thanked the Turks for providing refuge.

Read more: Envoy: 2013 could bring 100,000 deaths in Syria

"We are very, very grateful to the governor and the people of Turkey for their incredible generosity to their neighbors who are fleeing Syria," Richard said, pointing out the United States "has been" and "will continue" providing assistance.

Overall, the United States has contributed $210 million of "humanitarian assistance" to the "heartbreaking" cause, delegation member Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said.

Syrian state television said Thursday the Assad regime was trying to help the refugees as well. The TV station flashed an "urgent" banner, which translates as, "Based on the political program to resolve the crisis in Syria, the Interior Ministry is calling on the Syrian citizens who crossed the border illegally or legally to come back to the country, and all the necessary measures to resolve their situation will be available to them."

Al-Assad and other top officials, including Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi, celebrated the birth of the Prophet Mohammed on Thursday inside a Damascus mosque, as shown live on state television.

Read more: Syrians find calm after carnage

But things were not quite so peaceful across Damascus and the rest of Syria. According to the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of opposition activists, at least 116 people were killed across the country on Thursday, including 42 in Damascus and its suburbs. The Syria Observatory for Human Rights said that a retired general was targeted with a car bomb, and seriously wounded.

The LCC says 20 more people died in Aleppo, where the opposition reported intense fighting between rebel forces and government troops at the Air Force intelligence offices.

CNN cannot independently verify many claims from Syria, as the government has severely restricted access by international journalists.

The United Nations estimates more than 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war.

CNN's Ivan Watson, Samira Said and Yousuf Basil contributed to this report

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2158 GMT (0558 HKT)
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT