U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Russia’s move to ship more attack helicopters to the government in Syria will escalate “quite dramatically” a conflict described by a United Nations official as a civil war.
Clinton’s comments yesterday create a new source of tension between the U.S and Russia, even as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan works against a mid-July deadline for his diplomatic effort to rein in the violence and begin a transition to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Annan wants to draw Russia, Syria’s ally, into the effort.
After 15 months of conflict, the level of violence has increased, including massacres of Sunni civilians blamed on government-backed shabiha militiamen. They belong to Assad’s Alawite sect, which is associated with Shiite Islam. The government is also using attack helicopters against the opposition, the UN and U.S. have said.
Asked whether Syria’s conflict has become a civil war, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters: “Yes, I think we can say that.”
His remarks, confirmed by his office, came as UN observers trying to reach the Syrian town of Haffa -- which Western officials said may be the target of a planned massacre -- were chased away by a mob throwing stones and metal rods. Shots were fired at three vehicles as they headed out, the UN said.
The observers have been trying since June 7 to reach the town, which they said was besieged amid heavy fighting.
Violence in Syria is taking a toll on children who have been killed, injured, tortured and used as human shields, according to a UN report. That abuse is being carried out primarily by security forces and pro-government militias while the opposition is recruiting child soldiers, the report found.
Government forces shelled the al-Khaldiyeh neighborhood in Homs today as heavy clashes continued in the city, the U.K.- based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. A video posted on Youtube today showed what purported to be images from Homs, including smoke rising from the city and loud explosions. The authenticity of the videos couldn’t be verified.
Assad’s attacks on what began as a peaceful opposition movement pushed Syria toward sectarian violence pitting the majority Sunnis against the Alawite leadership in a patchwork nation of ethnic and religious groups. That’s left at least 10,000 dead, the UN estimates. Another 36 government soldiers killed in the fighting were buried, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported today, while the Syrian Observatory said 23 soldiers died yesterday.
Insurgents, deploying guerrilla tactics such as ambushes and targeting army generals for assassination, are grabbing control of territory. Pro-government forces are retaliating with increasing brutality, as shown in the massacres of Sunni civilians around Houla and in the farming village of Qubeir.
“The government of Syria lost some large chunks of territories and several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas,” Ladsous said yesterday. “So now we have confirmed reports not only of the use of tanks and artillery but also attack helicopters.”
The opposition, a loosely connected group of defectors and other dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army, is gaining access to better weapons seeping across borders, according to two UN officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Gulf nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are furnishing the supplies, with the U.S. looking the other way, the officials said.
Near the border with Turkey, there are signs that government forces have been massing in the past day or two around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and financial center, Clinton said yesterday at a conference in Washington.
As the situation degenerates, there will be more instances in which the opposition breaks away and the state intervenes in full force to try and snuff them out, according to Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a policy group.
The failure of the Annan-negotiated cease-fire is prompting other nations to consider options, such as UN-backed sanctions and humanitarian corridors for civilian aid and safety that would have to be defended with military force.
“The creation of safe-havens has become inevitable and is relatively imminent,” Tabler said in a telephone interview. “It’s not a question of if but when.”
The establishment of civilian havens, which has been compared to Bosnia in the 1990s, remains a much-disputed idea. It would require a military presence to enforce, and Russia has repeatedly resisted any form of outside intervention.
Assad’s forces have failed to crush the revolt, which began peacefully in March 2011. At least 60 people were killed yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that armed men killed Mohammad Marwan Arafat, the former head of the Syrian football association, and injured his wife, it said.
Russia, a Soviet-era ally of Syria, is seeking to enlist Iran in a bid to engineer a political transition in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on June 9 that there was an “urgent” need for an international conference, which Iran should attend, to pressure both sides. Clinton said involving Iran would be a “grave error” because Iran has trained and supported both Syrian government forces and shabiha militias.
‘Confronted the Russians’
The international community remains reluctant to use force, and Russia and China have blocked harsher measures against Syria sought by Western and Arab powers at the UN Security Council.
Lavrov is scheduled to visit Iran today.
“We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” Clinton said yesterday. “They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry; everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue.”
Clinton said the U.S. has a timeline to see if Annan can be successful in efforts to quell the violence and initiate a shift that removes Assad from power.
The “outer limit” is mid-July, when the UN Security Council is to consider whether to extend the observer force, she said. Without “discernible” progress, she said, “it will be very difficult to extend a mission that is increasingly dangerous for the observers on the ground.”