U.S. Blasts Russia Over Syria / Clinton Says Moscow Is Sending Attack Helicopters, as Syrians Paint Clash as Sectarian Civil War (WSJ) WALL STREET JOURNAL) By SAM DAGHER And NOUR MALAS 06/13/12)
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The Obama administration accused Russia of sending attack helicopters
to Damascus, linking Moscow to Syria´s deadly unrest on a day the
United Nations´ top peacekeeper said the conflict now bears the
hallmarks of a civil war.
A shipment of attack helicopters is "on the way from Russia to Syria,
which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically," Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday, heightening pressure on Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad´s staunchest international backer.
The accusation came as the U.N. said Syrian government forces had
used helicopters in recent attacks on Syrians, corroborating for the
first time similar activist reports.
The government shelled in several locations Tuesday, including
districts of Homs and the town of Deir el-Zour in the east, activists
said. In what appeared to be the most blistering attack, helicopter
gunships and tanks bombarded the mostly Sunni town of Haffa for the
eighth day, trapping residents inside as others scrambled to flee,
fighters and activists said. The U.N. said its observers came under
fire when attempting to visit Haffa and had to turn back.
Moscow has long resisted U.S.-led international attempts to force Mr.
Assad to step aside. It has defended its weapons sales to Syria,
saying Damascus is buying its weapons for defense only.
"We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms
shipments to Syria," Mrs. Clinton said. "They have from time to time
said that we shouldn´t worry, everything they´re shipping is
unrelated to their actions internally. That´s patently untrue."
A Kremlin spokesman couldn´t be reached to comment.
The U.S. comments came after a spokesman for Kofi Annan, the special
envoy on Syria, said "diplomacy has intensified" on an international
contact group meeting in which Russia and other influential states
would be involved. "It´s coming together," Ahmad Fawzi told a press
briefing in Geneva. Washington and Moscow have been in talks on a
Syrian political transition.
But Syrian opposition members and residents alike have begun to
describe the conflict in the language of civil war, with
international observers comparing Syria to Lebanon in the 1970s,
Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s.
On Monday, U.S. and U.K. diplomats separately compared Syria with the
Balkan conflict. Asked Tuesday by reporters from Reuters and Agence
France-Presse whether he believed Syria´s conflict had become a civil
war, U.N. chief peacekeeper Herve Ladsous responded: "Yes, I think we
can say that."
Syrians who live in the country´s majority-Sunni heartland,
meanwhile, say the conflict has taken on the dimensions of a
sectarian conflict. On a recent day, Syrian refugees crowded a
hospital in Tripoli, a northern Lebanese city less than 30 miles from
Syria´s border. Overwhelmingly Sunni villagers and rebels from Syria,
they said they recently fled killings, rapes and kidnappings. These
people say they have been attacked by pro-regime forces at the urging
of neighboring villagers from the same Alawite sect as President
Assad, a narrative that melds with accounts of other massacres on
majority Sunni villages in recent weeks.
"They want to wipe us off the map," said one man in the hospital, who
identified himself as Ahmed, a 30-year-old Sunni Muslim farmer who
runs a generator-repair shop in the village of Abu Houri, just a few
miles over the border from Lebanon.
When Syrian government forces shelled his hamlet earlier this month,
Ahmed said he ran outside in a vain attempt to save his cow. He lost
an eye and sustained shrapnel wounds in his stomach and legs. He and
several other wounded people from the area, including women and rebel
fighters, were smuggled into Lebanon, several people in the hospital
It wasn´t possible to confirm the specifics of Ahmed´s account, but
his analysis is now common in Syria´s Sunni heartland: He says that
while the government mounted the attack on his village, he blames
residents of a neighboring Alawite-dominated village for telling the
military that his hamlet was harboring rebels.
"They think we´re going to attack them," he said.
Such village-against-village tensions in Syria´s countryside mark a
shift in the 15-month-old uprising that began with peaceful protests,
largely in cities, against President Assad´s regime. In a country at
the crossroads of the Middle East´s major conflicts—with a
complicated mix of Sunni majority along with Shiites, Christians,
Alawites and other religious and ethnic minorities—Mr. Assad´s
opponents took pains to avoid characterizing their struggle as
But now, some antiregime activists openly charge the regime and its
allies of "sectarian cleansing" of Sunnis. Some analysts now describe
a pattern in which government attacks appear to be singling out Sunni
strongholds among Alawite-populated villages or towns, particularly
in the country´s northwest.
The Syrian regime insists it is battling foreign-backed terrorists
and armed gangs.
Increasingly, Sunnis have described themselves as targets because
their villages separate two Alawite communities or are situated on
roads deemed as strategic by the Alawite population in the area and
The predominant theme is that Alawites, an esoteric Muslim sect
associated with Shiism, are trying to gain ground. Extreme versions
of the narrative offered by several activists and analysts hold that
Alawites are attempting to clear neighboring areas of Sunnis, to
consolidate a largely Alawite enclave near Syria´s coast with secure
supply lines to Damascus.
Such a zone would reflect the separate coastal Alawite state created
on and off between 1920 and 1936 when France was the colonial power
in Syria, according to Osama Klaib, a Sunni lawyer from the Homs area
and now a Tripoli-based member of the opposition Syrian National
Council. The regime´s "last defense is to move to a coastal state,"
The alleged clearing of Sunni villages may also reflect that
President Assad´s regime is losing control over the use of force in
the conflict, said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre
at the London School of Economics. The so-called shabiha—pro-
government militias that the regime is said to have funded and armed
over decades—appear to be acting ever more independently, he said.
Their actions "might be the ultimate weapon that devours the regime
itself and plunges Syria into all out sectarian strife," he said.
A Lebanese citizen by origin, Mr. Gerges said the violence in Syria
now echoes the very beginnings of Lebanon´s 15-year civil war, which
he witnessed. "You have massacres, assassinations, people beginning
to flee the country, and the beginning of serious sectarian tensions.
What the massacres really do is really intensify and escalate
tensions, forcing neighbor to turn against neighbor," he said.
So far, there are no documented instances of large-scale reprisals
against Alawites. However, opposition soldiers have recently spoken
about responding in kind to kidnappings and killings conducted by
what they say are soldiers and pro-regime thugs who are often from
the Alawite minority.
One of Syria´s latest flash points is Haffa, a mountaintop village
overlooking the coastal western city of Latakia. Haffa was never a
focal point in the uprising, though it has been active in protests
among other towns in a province seen as strictly loyal to the regime.
A Sunni town ringed by Alawite villages, Haffa is just a few miles
from President Assad´s family hometown, Qurdaha. It lies on the edge
of the sweeping Alawite stronghold known as al-Sahel, Arabic for
Syrian troops have been using the Alawite villages to launch
artillery attacks on Haffa, according to the Syrian Observatory for
Human Rights, a U.K.-based opposition watchdog. The group and other
activists said more than 100 people were killed in major battles in
Haffa, most of them government soldiers.
Similarly, residents of the countryside near Homs who spoke to a
reporter in Tripoli recently said the villages of Al-Houz and Modan
until recently were home to a mix of Alawites and Sunnis. But earlier
this year, they said, Alawite residents moved out to an all-Alawite
neighboring village called Qurniyah. Government forces then launched
an offensive against the Sunnis that stayed behind, they said, saying
that several people were killed.
This was done, they said, to assure that only Alawite loyalists
remained along a road leading to the highway that connects Homs to
the port city of Tartus to the west.
Among many Syrian Sunnis, the shift in mind-set over recent months
has been dramatic.
In February, Ghassoub Halloum said sectarian killings and kidnappings
in Tal Kalakh, a town outside of Homs, drove him, his wife and five
young daughters out of Syria. At the time, he said he hoped that the
scenario wouldn´t replicate itself across the country.
"We will not accept sectarianism, after all this," he warned at the
time, echoing a broad sentiment among the opposition that being
dragged into a sectarian war would feed into the Assad regime´s
hands. "If civil war sparks, it will spread like wildfire,"
President Assad, and his father before him in their four-decade rule
of Syria, have argued that their secular regime is a counterweight to
the country´s fragile demographic makeup and a guarantor of stability.
Four months later, speaking from Tripoli where his family has sought
refuge, Mr. Halloum said he now has a new and uncompromising view.
"I will be the first to strap on some explosives if it means I can
kill even just three Alawites," he said. "They do not deserve to
live." (Copyright © Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) 06/13/12)
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