As the conflict escalates, chances of Western intervention rise substantially.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia on Tuesday of planning to ship attack helicopters to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad -- a move she said "will escalate the conflict quite dramatically." Clinton's remarks came on the same day that the UN peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, told reporters that the Syrian conflict had escalated into a civil war. Lasdous is the first UN official to acknowledge what has been obvious for weeks: that the growing combat capability of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been allowing the rebels to carry out larger and more sophisticated operations against the Syrian military.
As if to underscore Ladsous' claim, violent clashes between the FSA and Syrian armed forces broke out in several cities and towns across the country -- including for the first time in the capital of Damascus. The Syrian military was also changing its tactics as the use of attack helicopters on civilians occurred in Talbiseh and Rastan. Shelling continued in Homs and other flashpoint cities of the rebellion.
The civilian opposition, represented by the Syrian National Council, has taken what many observers believe to be a positive step by electing a Kurd to head the group for the next three months. Tying the nation's one million Kurds closer to the political opposition would strengthen the claim of the anti-Assad forces that they represent a broad, national coalition of a majority of Syrians who want Assad out.
The US State Department said it believes that the Syrian military is planning another massacre of civilians, this time in Haffeh, as the government has been shelling the city with mortars and using helicopters and tanks to battle the opposition forces while deploying the dreaded Shabbiha militia. US officials called on the Syrians to stop using "horrific tactics" in trying to suppress the rebellion in Haffeh.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland pointed out that this Russian shipment of helicopters comes at a time when President Assad is escalating the violence he is using against civilians. "We have been pushing the Russians for months to break their military ties with the Syrian regime and they haven't done it. Instead, they keep reassuring all of us that what they are sending militarily to Syria can't be used against civilians," she said.
The Russian statement is disingenuous at best when one considers that helicopters are already being used against civilians by the Syrian military. "We are seeing the Syrian government using helicopters to fire on their own people from the air," said Nuland. "So our question remains: How can the Russians conscience their continued military sales to Syria?"
The US has been urging Russia for several weeks to not only stop selling arms to Syria, but also to use its influence with President Assad to find a negotiated way out of the violence. Criticism of the Obama administration for basically farming out responsibility to Russia for stopping the violence, instead of America taking a leadership role in the crisis, has been coming from experts as well as Republican politicians. Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research and International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Israel, has been among the most vocal of President Obama's critics on Syria.
It’s Obama, not Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who is pushing this plan to put Russia in control! If your enemy tries to fool or cheat you, that’s a problem. If you beg him to cheat you and hand him the means to do so, that’s a betrayal of U.S. interests.
The Kurdish leader elected to head up the Syrian National Council for the next three months, Abdelbasset Sida, told reporters that the regime was “on its last legs" -- a boast to be sure, but backed up by rebel attacks in the capital of Damascus. This is the first time that Assad's stronghold had come under fire. Two central districts in the city were attacked by the FSA and Syrian tanks shelled several buildings in a futile effort to beat back the rebels. A general strike called to protest the recent massacres was apparently more successful than many believed possible. Reports say up to 90% of shops were closed, with one businessman telling the Telegraph, “During the strike, the military forces tried to burn some stores or force the doors open, but they were powerless,” said Omar Dimashki. This is a potentially damaging turn of events for Assad who has counted on the merchant class to support him during the crackdown.
Elsewhere in Syria, the FSA battled Assad's forces in Homs, Deraa and Idlib, as well as in villages near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. One Latakia village -- Haffeh -- has roused the concern of the UN and State Department as Assad's forces have been pulverizing the town with mortars and helicopter gunships, and UN monitors have been prevented from entering. "People will be held accountable," said spokesperson Nuland, referring to the gathering of forces outside of Haffeh, reported by UN monitors at the scene. As the monitors pulled back, local townspeople threw rocks at the UN vehicles and several shots were fired in their direction. Whatever is going to happen in Haffeh, it is apparent that the Syrian government doesn't want any witnesses.
One expert believes that more massacres of civilians makes the establishment of "humanitarian corridors" more than a possibility. Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a policy group, told Bloomberg News, “The creation of safe havens has become inevitable and is relatively imminent. It’s not a question of if but when.”
These "safe havens" would have to be established and defended by troops on the ground -- something that the UN would never vote for given Russia's adamant opposition to using military force against Assad, and prospects for which no Western nation is eager to explore.
The real danger of a civil war is that it would spill over into neighboring countries with the potential for starting a general Middle East conflict. Syrian forces are massing near the Turkish border outside the country's second largest city, Aleppo. Secretary Clinton says such a deployment could be a "red line" for Turkey, who has harbored the FSA as well as hosting the Syrian civilian opposition. "We are watching this very carefully," she said.
It seems clear that the Syrian rebellion has entered a new phase. President Assad has stepped up the violence and brutality of his attacks while the FSA is fighting back with increasing skill and ferocity. As the war escalates, the chances of Western intervention of some kind rise substantially, despite reluctance in capitals from Bonn to Washington to undertake a humanitarian mission.
And Syrian civilians, caught in the crossfire and murdered indiscriminately by Assad's regular and irregular forces, continue dying in the hundreds and thousands.
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