As a recent flurry of reports from Syria – shipments of Russian helicopter gunships, assaults on children, UN observers under fire – suggest a desperate regime, the UN is confirming that Damascus is losing its grip on its own land.
“The government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control,” said Herve Ladsous, the UN’s peacekeeping chief, confirming that full-blown civil war now engulfs the nation.
Unarmed UN military observers have discovered that the rebel enclaves have expanded beyond the few urban neighbourhoods and remote rural districts in the north where the rebellion started last year. Government supporters have tried several times to thwart the UN mission; gunshots were fired at observers' vehicles for at least the third time on Tuesday, and crowds pelted them with stones and metal rods.
At the same time, the UN has started to report the disturbing results of its human rights monitoring. Schools have been raided, and children as young as 9 years old have been maimed, arrested, tortured, sexually abused, and used as human shields.
NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen warned this week that the same sort of international failure that allowed Bosnia to spiral into bloody, sectarian, civil war in the 1990s was being repeated in the Middle East. “That’s exactly what we’re witnessing in Syria.”
While senior UN diplomats have been routinely voicing fears that Syria could slide in civil war unless a peace plan takes effect, Mr. Ladsous admitted that grim stage already has been reached. “Yes, I think we can say that,” he replied when asked if Syria was in a civil war.
At the same time, the chances of outside intervention remains remote.
Mr. Rasmussen himself has repeatedly ruled out NATO's intervention, and Russia and China are implacably opposed, fearing another Libyan-style operation that morphed from a no-fly zone operation into a NATO operation in which warplanes gave air power for rebels intent on Moammar Gadhafi's outster.
On a commercial mission to Russia last week, Canadian International Trade Minister Ed Fast raised Syria last week with Andrey Denisov, the country’s first deputy minister of foreign affairs, but the overture was met with resistance, officials said.
“We’ve been engaging Russia at every opportunity, and I think it’s safe to say we believe that Russia needs to be a part of the solution,” said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton frequently complains that Russian arms shipments help the Syrian regime cling to power, but on Tuesday she expressed alarm that the military aid was starting to include aircraft. “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.”
At least some shipments of sophisticated arms are now reaching rebel forces seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, as evidenced by videos of Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles burning after being hit by rocket-propelled grenades and other antitank weapons.
For months, the Syrian military and security forces have used heavy artillery, mortars, and tanks to crush resistance.
One rebel commander from the Free Syrian Army told Reuters: “The situation is dire. Forget the weapons, people need medicine and food. As you know, we’re in a state of war in Syria.”
The growing recognition of full-scale war in Syria also reflects an understanding that Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan had faltered, little more than two months after the deal was negotiated by the UN envoy and former secretary-general. Tentative efforts at a ceasefire have failed, and Mr. Annan now says he wants a so-called “contact group” of countries that could broker a new deal.
Mr. Annan also called for UN military observers to be allowed into the northwestern town Al-Haffe, the scene of heavy fighting in recent days.
“The United States joins joint special envoy Kofi Annan in expressing deep alarm by reports from inside Syria that the regime may be organizing another massacre,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The French foreign ministry spokesman echoed the U.S. warnings. “We share concerns about the preparation of new massacres,” Bernard Valero said, adding that “we more than ever support the Annan plan.”
In a statement, the Syrian foreign ministry struck back by saying: “The U.S. administration is pushing forth with its flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs and its backing of armed terrorist groups.”