Despite denials by the Syrian foreign ministry, the United Nations now believes that Syria is descending into a full-scale sectarian civil war. When asked about the increasing violence on the ground, which has resulted in the gruesome murders of hundreds of children and over 100,000 civilians, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous pointed to the massive escalation in violence as the Assad regime seeks to regain territory lost to opposition movements; the Syrian Foreign Ministry denies such a situation is occurring, claiming the government is fighting back against “armed groups that choose terrorism.” His comments marked the first time a UN official has spoken openly about the situation in Syria in terms of civil war. According to Reuters, such use of the term could have “legal implications for Assad and rebel fighters in terms war crimes and compliance with the Geneva Conventions.”
The International Rescue Committee and news organizations reported increasing stories of airborne attacks against civilians, including helicopters opening fire on civilians in the city of Homs, a rebel stronghold. “U.N. observers reported heavy fighting in Rastan and Talbiseh, north of [Homs], with artillery and mortar shelling, as well as firing from helicopters, machine guns, and smaller arms,” U.N. spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said in a statement. She continued that the observers “also received reports of a large number of civilians, including women and children trapped inside [Homs] and are trying to mediate their evacuation.”
U.N. monitors have been in the country documenting the mass killings, bombings, and clashes, ever since former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan entered Syria to attempt to broker a peace agreement. Monday was the first time they had verified repeated accusations by activists that Syrian forces have fired from helicopters against rebels.
A UN report released Monday put Syria on the “list of shame” for subjecting children as young as nine years old to “killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and sexual violence,” as well as using them as human shields. Almost all the cases of abuse against the children were by Assad’s military forces and their allies. Amnesty International has accused the Assad regime of crimes against humanity, and asked the United Nations to refer Syria and Syrian troops to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and impose an arms embargo.
Meanwhile, the international community is divided on the best course of action. NATO has been reluctant to intervene, saying that a mission such as the one last summer that resulted in the fall of Gaddafi’s reign in Libya is “not the right path,” citing concerns over costs and Assad’s more advanced military forces. Russia and China oppose UN resolutions to allow kinetic action in Syria. Russia wants Iran to be allowed to have more involvement in solving the crisis, something the United States has been opposed to, saying that Iran has been involved in helping to prop up the Assad regime the whole time.
The American diplomatic community appears to be losing patience with Russia over the topic, especially as concerns that Russian military technology is making its way into the Syrian Army. “We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a think-tank discussion in Washington, DC. “They have from time to time said that we shouldn’t worry, that everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue.”
Ambassador Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, wrote a scathing critique of both Russia’s and the United States’ decisions on Syria in the Huffington Post yesterday, saying, “How clever by half is this Kremlin! As it runs a veritable conveyor belt of helicopter gunships, artillery, tanks, and anything else one can find in the Russian arms bazaar into Assad’s hands, the Russian leadership feigns support for a UN diplomatic effort to negotiate some sort of ceasefire in Syria. Based on global reaction and inaction, we are all the suckers for it.”
He then continues: “So what can be done by the Obama administration to turn the Russian arms faucet off to salvage any hope to prevent Syria from becoming the 21st century Middle East version of a 1936 Spanish civil war? Unfortunately, short of a naval and air quarantine around Syria, very little. [...] [T]he Obama administration is engaged in a Syrian policy best designated [...] as a ‘limited modified hangout’ where the Chicago campaign headquarters, rather than the National Security Council, seem to be in control for what passes as U.S. Syrian policy.”
Other commentators have been more cautious and less willing to approve of a rush into war. Patrick Seale writes in the Gulf News, “The regime’s strategy is to prevent armed rebels seizing and holding territory, even if this means shelling residential quarters when rebels hole up in them. The rebels’ strategy is to trigger a Western military intervention to stop the killing on humanitarian grounds [...] The rebels know they cannot defeat the Syrian army without outside help.
“But who was really responsible for the reported smashing of skulls and slitting of children’s throats at these two villages? The opposition puts the blame squarely on the regime’s shabbiha, a notorious armed militia made up largely of Alawis — a view adopted uncritically by Western leaders and much of the Western press. [...] Meanwhile, a very serious newspaper, the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Germany’s leading daily, has reported that the massacre was not carried out by the regime’s shabbiha after all but by anti-Assad Sunni militants. According to sources FAZ interviewed, the victims were almost exclusively from the Alawi and Shia communities.”
The fog of war has been heavy since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011. Now, the situation seems to be reaching a breaking point, and it is not clear how much longer diplomacy will be effective.