Death Toll Mounts in Syria as Global Community Weighs Options

Sunday, 19 February 2012 07:10 PM

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.

The international community is divided on 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 aimed at toppling Assad’s regime. Syrian government forces killed 27 people across the country yesterday, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists.

“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.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the 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.

“I think 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.”

Chinese Visit

China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Zhai Jun visited Damascus Feb. 18, where he 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, 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.”

Recalled Envoy

Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Syria, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported yesterday, citing Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr. It 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,”

Contact Group

The most likely scenario for the U.S., DePetris said, is forming a “Friends of Syria” group, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be discussing with representatives of more than 85 other nations later this week in Tunis.

“The creation of a contact group would bring dozens of countries together under the same umbrella, for the same purpose -- pushing Assad out of power and assisting Syrians who are being cornered by the regime’s security forces,” DePetris wrote.

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.

Syrian Partition

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., European Union and Arab League, which backed the resolution vetoed by China and Russia, will attend the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia this week aimed at coordinating support for the opposition to Assad.

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,” 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 Feb. 8 on condition of anonymity. The Arab League has already suspended Syria and imposed economic sanctions on it.

Safe Haven

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 primetime.”

He added that the “real dark scenario” is continuing with the status quo.

“What we’re seeing now bleeding into Syria, particularly from Iraq, is al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism,” he 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 and Zaid Sabah in Washington. Editors: Ann Hughey, Don Frederick.

To contact the reporters on this story: Glen Carey in Riyadh at gcarey8@bloomberg.net Danielle Ivory in Washington at divory@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

© Copyright 2018 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

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