Syria has entered a state of civil war with more than 4,000 people dead and an increasing number of soldiers defecting from the army to fight Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, the UN’s top human rights official has said.
Civil war has been the worst-case scenario in Syria since the revolt against Assad began eight months ago. Damascus has a web of allegiances that extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy, raising fears of a regional conflagration.
The assessment on Thursday that the bloodshed in Syria has crossed into civil war came from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The conflict has shown little sign of letting up. Activists reported up to 22 people killed on Thursday, adding to what has become a daily grind of violence.
“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.”
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to call it a civil war.
“The overwhelming use of force has been taken by Assad and his regime,” Toner said. “So there’s no kind of equanimity here.”
Toner said Assad’s government has taken Syria down a dangerous path and that “the 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 defectors from the military, has emerged as the most visible armed challenge to Assad. The group holds no territory, appears largely disorganized and is up against a fiercely loyal and cohesive military.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi, is all but out of the question in Syria. However, there is real concern that the conflict in Syria could spread chaos across the Middle East.
Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce.
Recent economic sanctions imposed by the EU, the Arab League and Turkey were aimed at persuading Assad to end his crackdown. On Thursday, the EU announced a new round of sanctions against Syrian individuals and businesses linked to the unrest.
The 27-member bloc also imposed some sanctions on Syria’s ally, Iran, in the wake of an attack this week by a mob on the British Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Iran of supporting Assad’s crackdown, saying: “There is a link between what is happening in Iran and what is happening in Syria.”
On Thursday, opposition groups called for a general strike, but it was difficult to gauge how widely Syrians were abiding by the strike. The regime has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.
Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fate of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling troops to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.