BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria entering state of civil war, warns top U.N. human rights official

Makhluf, left, and Maher Assad in Damascus in 2010.

BEIRUT: Syria is entering a state of civil war with more than 4,000 people dead and an increasing number of soldiers defecting from the army, the U.N.’s top human rights official warned Thursday, while the main opposition group and army rebels have agreed to coordinate efforts to fight the regime, stirring fears of an increasingly militarized opposition.Activists reported another 22 people killed Thursday.

“We are placing the [death toll] figure at 4,000 but really the reliable information coming to us is that it’s much more than that,” Pillay said in Geneva.

“As soon as there were more and more defectors threatening to take up arms, I said this in August before the Security Council, that there’s going to be a civil war,” she added.

“And at the moment, that’s how I am characterizing this.”

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to call it a civil war, but said the Syrian “regime’s bloody repression of the protests has not surprisingly led to this kind of reaction that we’ve seen with the Free Syrian Army.”

The Free Syrian Army, a group of mainly defectors from the military, has emerged as the most visible armed challenge to Assad.

EU foreign ministers met with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi in Brussels, hoping he would agree to join forces in order to form a united front against Assad. The ministers warned that the violent repression risked taking Syria down “a very dangerous path of violence, sectarian clashes and militarization.”

The EU slapped a 10th round of sanctions on the regime, adding bans on exporting gas and oil industry equipment to Syria adding 12 more individuals and 11 more entities to a blacklist of people and companies hit by assets freezes and travel bans.

Arabi joined the EU ministers after the Arab League imposed unprecedented sanctions on Damascus this week, listing top officials it wants to prevent from traveling to Arab countries, including the defense and interior ministers, and close members of Assad’s inner circle. Assad’s millionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf, and the president’s younger brother, Maher. Assad himself was not named.

Following a meeting in Istanbul Monday, the Syrian National Council, a civilian opposition group, said it has agreed to coordinate with the FSA in their common struggle against Assad, in an apparent change of tactics from the opposition’s previous reluctance to back an armed struggle.

“The council recognized the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognized the council as the political representative,” the SNC’s Khaled Khoja told AFP.

The meeting, held quietly in the southern Turkish province of Hatay was attended by SNC head Burhan Ghalioun, FSA chief Riyadh Asaad, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ahmad Ramadan, along with other Syrian opposition figures.

SNC spokeswoman Bassma Khodmani confirmed the meeting took place, repeating earlier statements released by the group that the council supports defectors so long as they protect peaceful demonstrations, but that the army should not target civilians in offensive strategies. “We do not see their role beyond protecting peaceful demonstrations,” she told The Daily Star.

Some opposition activists said the move signals a dangerous “militarization” of the opposition movement.

“The Free Syrian Army has a military program, while there is still no political program, which means we are effectively being run by the military,” said one opposition activist who asked not to be identified.

Radwan Ziadeh, who heads the SNC foreign office, told The Daily Star the coordination was “not new.”

“We have already said we will coordinate with the Free Syrian Army and provide them with all the necessary means to protect civilians,” he said from Warsaw where he was preparing to attend a special session of the U.N. Human Rights council on Syria in Geneva Friday.

Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the SNC, last week urged the FSA to refrain from launching attacks against Assad’s forces and save the country from civil conflict. The FSA has stepped up attacks in recent weeks and openly claimed responsibility for deadly operations against the army.

A new opposition coalition, including representatives of the rival Syria-based National Coordination Committee and the SNC will meet under the auspices of the Arab League in Cairo in coming days.

The SNC’s Khodmani told The Daily Star a six-person delegation would travel to Cairo within the next 10 days tasked with forming a “joint vision” for a post-Assad transition period.

She stressed that the coalition would be formed solely for the purpose of drafting a joint document.

“We are not necessarily joining each other,” she said.

In other developments Thursday Washington placed economic sanctions on a top Syrian general and an uncle of Assad who the Treasury Department said was a key financial advisor to the Syrian president.

Russia, meanwhile delivered Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria,” a military source told the Interfax news agency Thursday, without disclosing when the shipment had been made.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 02, 2011, on page 1.

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