Syrian Fighting Gathers Pace
International observers are moving closer and closer to a consensus that a state of outright civil war exists in Syria, though both the government and the opposition dispute this.
The UN’s head of peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, told reporters on Tuesday that Syria was now in a state of outright civil war, the first admission of its kind by an official of the organization. He went on to add: “Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas.”
The Syrian foreign ministry denied the claim, and issued a statement saying “Syria has not descended into civil war, but is witnessing a struggle to eradicate the scourge of terrorism and revenge killing, kidnappings and ransom, bombings and attacks on state institutions and the destruction of public and private property and other brutal crimes”.
Rebel groups, on the other hand, said Mr Ladsous’s statement was inaccurate because it failed to make a moral distinction between the two sides.
Perhaps even more worryingly both for the West and opponents of international intervention, evidence is growing that Al Qaeda-linked militants are increasingly active in Syria, and seeking to play a role in the conflict.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced in the British parliament on Monday: “We … have reason to believe that terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda have committed attacks designed to exacerbate the violence, with serious implications for international security.”
Before he was killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan last week, Al-Qaeda’s deputy chief Abu Yaya Al-Libi called on Syrians to take up arms against the government in a pre-recorded message.
The Syrian government routinely claim that ‘terrorist gangs’ are at the forefront of the conflict, something denied by the opposition. Spokesmen for the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) also deny any links to radical groups like Al Qaeda. With some areas of Syria outside of government control and the opposition fractured, it is unlikely that either side can exert enough control to exclude determined militants from involving themselves in the conflict wracking Syria.
The Syrian government came in for criticism from the UN for its treatment of children during the uprising on Monday. The annual report from the Secretary-General on children in conflict accuses forces loyal to the Syrian government of killed and torturing children and teenagers in the course of fighting against the uprising, including using them as human shields, and sexually assaulting others.
The UN’s special representative for children and conflict also criticized the opposition, specifically the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for allowing children to take part in its struggle against the government in non-combat roles, placing them in harms way.
Within Syria itself, an angry mob of supporters of President Assad’s government blocked attempts by UN monitors to reach the town of Haffeh on Tuesday, and the monitors were fired upon as they left the scene, damaging some vehicles but causing no injuries. They returned on Friday, and reported finding the town deserted, with evidence on heavy fighting everywhere.
Meanwhile, a diplomatic row broke out between the US and Russia, after American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton accused the Russia government with supplying the Syrian military with new attack helicopters. Russian government spokesmen denied the American claim, and countered with claims of their own that the US and some Gulf states were supplying weapons to the rebels.
The US later conceded that it had been mistaken about the transfer of helicopters to Syria, though Russia admitted that it had reconditioned the aircraft and returned them to Syria. The use of attack helicopters is reportedly a new development, and represents an escalation of the intensity of the fighting.
The head of the UN monitoring mission on Syria, General Robert Moody, said on Friday that the levels of violence used by both sides was increasing. He said in a prepared statement: “Violence, over the past 10 days, has been intensifying, again willingly by the both parties, with losses on both sides”.
“There appears to be a lack of willingness to seek a peaceful transition. Instead there is a push towards advancing military positions”, he added.
Among the Syrian opposition abroad, the Syrian National Council (SNC) selected a new leader on Monday. Abdulbaset Sayda, a Syrian Kurd who has spent several years in exile in Sweden.