(Updates with Clinton remarks starting under Contact Group sub-headline.)
Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule stepped up their deadly attacks against government officials as the violence of the past 11 months pushes the country toward civil war.
Gunmen killed Syrian Public Prosecutor Nidal Ghazal, Judge Mohammed Ziyadeh and their driver in Idlib, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said. Assad’s security forces killed 12 people today, Al Arabiya television reported.
The international community is divided over how to resolve the conflict as the daily death toll mounts. Forces loyal to the president are using tanks and artillery to try to crush a rebellion seeking to topple Assad. Syrian government forces killed 27 people across the country yesterday, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website.
“I’m worried that Syria is going to slide into a civil war,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday.
A group of 2,500 soldiers deserted Assad’s forces and said they joined the opposition Free Syrian Army, Istanbul-based Star newspaper reported today, citing videos posted on the Web. About 40,000 people have deserted the regime’s 270,000-person security forces, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official, who confirmed the intelligence reports on customary condition of anonymity.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday on CNN that it’s too early to arm the Syrian opposition, because it’s difficult to identify.
“Intervening in Syria would be very difficult,” he said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” Syria is “an arena right now for all of the various interests to play out. And what I mean by that is you’ve got great power involvement: Turkey clearly has an interest, a very important interest, Russia has a very important interest, Iran has an interest.”
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun visited Damascus on Feb. 18 and urged Syria to halt the fighting and restore stability. Zhai, speaking in the capital after a meeting with Assad, backed the Syrian leader’s proposed referendum on a new constitution, set for Feb. 26, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Syrian forces intensified efforts to stem the rebellion after China and Russia vetoed a resolution at the United Nations Security Council earlier this month calling on Assad to step down in favor of an interim government that would hold elections. The UN estimates more than 5,400 Syrians died last year as Assad cracked down on protests that began in March, and Saudi Arabia says the current death toll is at least 7,000.
“Bashar al-Assad is a relatively weak guy” with “a lot of very strong people around him,” Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “Those people realize that if they give up, they are dead.”
Syrian activists said there are “disaster areas” near Damascus, with towns including Zabadani in Madaya having no water or electricity, Al Jazeera television reported today, citing Syria’s Revolution Command Council.
The International Committee of the Red Cross recently took steps to begin talks on a cease-fire, Geneva-based spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini told the Associated Press. The effort seeks to stop fighting “in the most affected areas” in Syria and deliver emergency aid, she told AP. She didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
Egypt Cuts Ties
Egypt’s parliament approved a request by its Arab Affairs Committee to cut ties with Syria, Al Jazeera TV reported today, without saying how it got the information. The country recalled its ambassador to Syria, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported yesterday, citing Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr.
Egypt has joined the Gulf Arab countries in seeking to isolate the Assad government. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s six members announced on Feb. 7 that they were expelling Syrian ambassadors from their capitals and withdrawing their envoys.
The list of options the international community has is short, “with some, like a new UN General Assembly condemnation, symbolically powerful, but practically insignificant,” Daniel R. DePetris, the senior editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, wrote yesterday in the Small Wars Journal. “Others, like a Libya-style intervention or air strikes on Syria’s defenses, are either impractical or politically explosive.”
The most likely scenario for the U.S., DePetris said, is forming a “Friends of Syria” group, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will discuss with representatives of more than 85 other nations later this week in Tunis.
The “upcoming meeting will demonstrate that the Assad regime is increasingly isolated and that the brave Syrian people need our support and solidarity,” Clinton told reporters as foreign ministers gathered today in Los Cabos, Mexico. “Their suffering has to be addressed, so we have to focus on humanitarian issues and think about ways to deliver humanitarian aid.”
“We have to prepare for the likelihood that the Syrian regime is going to be under increasing pressure, which will create perhaps more space for all of us to perhaps push hard on a transition,” she said, adding that the U.S. will intensify its outreach to countries that still support the Assad regime.
The Friends of Syria meeting “will send a clear message to Russia, China and others who are still unclear about how to handle the increasing violence” and who aren’t supporting UN resolutions intended to halt it, Clinton said.
The Syrian army resumed shelling residential districts of Homs yesterday, Al Jazeera reported, citing opposition groups. A fuel storage depot at the refinery in the besieged city was bombed overnight by “an armed terrorist group,” SANA said. Syrian forces stormed the city of al-Sokhna in the center of the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
Security forces and armed men have been looting and destroying shops in the Al-Atarib town in the countryside of Aleppo, according to the Local Coordination Committee in Syria, a network of activists.
The unrest aims at “partitioning” the country and hurting its position in the Middle East, Assad was cited by SANA as saying during the meeting with Zhai. The government has blamed the violence on “terrorists” and foreign provocateurs.
The U.S., the European Union and the Arab League, which backed the resolution vetoed by China and Russia, will attend the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia this week.
The meeting will discuss tightening the economic stranglehold around Syria as part of efforts “to increase the pressure on the Assad regime, to increase the isolation of the Assad regime,” the U.K.’s Hague said.
EU governments are moving toward stiffer sanctions on Syria. The 27-nation bloc is considering a freeze on central bank assets and a ban on imports of phosphates and precious metals, an EU official told reporters in Brussels on Feb. 8 on condition of anonymity. The Arab League has already suspended Syria and imposed economic sanctions on it.
Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director in Republican President George W. Bush’s administration, suggested on CNN’s “State of the Union” that a safe haven be created in northern Syria to protect the civilian population and provide an area for the opposition to coalesce. He said the haven could possibly be created “under the Turks, but with broad international sanction,” and that the idea was “probably not quite ready for prime time.”
The “real dark scenario” is continuing with the status quo, he said.
“What we’re seeing now bleeding into Syria, particularly from Iraq, is al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism,” Hayden said. “As long as this stays frozen, you’ll see the opposition, I fear, take on more of this characteristic, and that can’t be good.”
--With assistance from Craig Stirling in London, David Lerman in Washington, Emre Peker in Ankara, Mourad Haroutunian in Riyadh and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Los Cabos, Mexico. Editors: John Walcott, Robin Meszoly
To contact the reporters on this story: Glen Carey in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org; Danielle Ivory in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at firstname.lastname@example.org