Syria Pounds Rebel-Held Areas as U.S. Warns of ‘Massacre’

Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad clashed with rebels in Aleppo as the Arab League called on Assad to secure his chemical weapons.

Opposition groups also reported fighting in the northern province of Idlib, Daraa to the south and the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, where the government used helicopter gunships to blast rebel hideouts, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Protests against Assad erupted in Homs, Hama and other provinces after Friday prayers, Al Arabiya television reported.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay “expressed particular concern about the likelihood of an imminent major confrontation” in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, according to a statement posted on the UN website today.

Also at the UN, the Arab League circulated a draft resolution for the 193-member General Assembly calling on Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to arrange for “prompt investigations” of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. The League also demanded Assad secure the arsenal amid reports of movement of such weapons.

The largely symbolic resolution is meant to show the scale of international opinion since such assembly measures are only binding if approved by the Security Council, where Russia and China have protected Syria with their veto power. A vote is expected Aug. 1.

Death Toll

International and regional efforts have failed to end the violence in Syria, which began in March 2011 and has left at least 19,000 people dead, including about 5,000 government troops, according to the Observatory. At least 40 people were killed today, including 10 in Daraa, nine in Damascus and its suburbs and six in Aleppo, the opposition Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail.

Syrian state media said the army killed four “terrorists” after prayers in Daraa, and authorities dismantled eight bombs near a mosque in the Damascus suburb of Hajar al-Aswad.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is moving some of its foreign staff out of Damascus to Beirut in neighboring Lebanon due to “security conditions,” spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini said today by phone from Geneva. A 50-member team, including 11 expatriates, will remain in the city, she said.

“The situation in Aleppo is extremely volatile and in Damascus, too, thousands of people have fled their homes in search of safety,” the Red Cross said in a statement.

Aleppo is Syria’s commercial capital with a population the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates at 3 million.

“Vicious Assault”

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague demanded that Assad’s government call off the assault and urged all countries to join in condemnation, including Russia and China. Russia and China used their vetoes in the UN Security Council on July 19 to block for the third time a Western-drafted resolution that called for an arms embargo and other sanctions on the Middle Eastern nation.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that the Syrian government is amassing its troops and tanks around Aleppo and has already begun a vicious assault on the city and its civilian population,” Hague said in an e-mailed statement. “This utterly unacceptable escalation of the conflict could lead to a devastating loss of civilian life and a humanitarian disaster.”

The U.S. has “grave concerns” about Assad’s military actions, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday in Washington. The U.S. is alarmed that “we will see a massacre in Aleppo, and that’s what the regime appears to be lining up for,” she said.

Placing Blame

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford stressed in a statement to the Syrian people today the need for individual accountability for crimes being committed in the country and the importance of justice rather than retribution in a post-Assad era.

“Neither a community nor an ethnicity must be blamed for the actions of individuals in the regime,” he wrote. “It must be clear that only individuals who committed crimes against humanity will be identified and held accountable for their abhorrent actions.”

Internationally backed initiatives, such as the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center, will “coordinate efforts to research and collect evidence of human-rights violations for use in future Syria-led transitional justice processes,” according to Ford.

Turkey warned it may take action against Kurdish groups with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that have taken control of several towns in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

“We won’t allow such a structure on our borders,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in a television interview today, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency. He accused Assad’s government of permitting the Kurdish groups to seize border areas in order to stir up ethnic conflict and threaten Turkey.

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