- Associated Press - Sunday, February 5, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — The commander of rebel Syrian soldiers said Sunday there is no choice but to use military force to drive President Bashar Assad’s regime from power as fears mounted that government troops will escalate their deadly crackdown on dissent after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution aimed at resolving the crisis.

With Western nations searching for an alternative strategy after the failed U.N. Security Council resolution, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “friends of democratic Syria” to unite and rally against Mr. Assad’s regime. The remark suggested the possible formation of a formal group of nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian opposition has called for such a coalition to provide it direct political and economic support after the double veto at the Security Council on Saturday killed a U.N. effort to promote an Arab plan to end violence in Syria.

Mrs. Clinton called the vetoes “a travesty.”

“Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations,” she told reporters in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

But the threat of both sides turning to greater force raises the potential for Syria to enter a dangerous new phase that threatens to degenerate into outright civil war.

The uprising began in March with peaceful protests against Mr. Assad’s regime, sparking a fierce crackdown by government forces. Army defectors who joined the uprising later began to protect protesters from attacks. In recent months the rebel soldiers, known as the Free Syrian Army have grown bolder, attacking regime troops and trying establish control in pro-opposition areas, bringing heavier government response.

Now regime opponents fear Mr. Assad will unleash even greater violence to crush protesters, feeling that he has protection by his top ally Moscow. If the opposition turns overtly to armed resistance, the result could be a dramatic increase in the bloodshed.

“There is no other road” except military action to topple Mr. Assad after the vetoes at the U.N., the commander of the Free Syrian Army told the Associated Press by telephone from Turkey.

“We consider that Syria is occupied by a criminal gang, and we must liberate the country from this gang,” Col. Riad al-Asaad said. “This regime does not understand the language of politics; it only understands the language of force.”

He called Russia’s and China’s vetoes a “strike against the Syrian people,” not just the opposition.

A Syrian state-run newspaper, Tishreen, vowed Sunday that Damascus will press its crackdown aiming to restore “stability and security and confront all forms of terrorism.” Early Saturday, regime forces bombarded the restive central city of Homs in what activists said was the deadliest incident of the uprising. They reported more than 200 killed, but the regime denied any bombardment, and there was no way to independently confirm the toll.

On Sunday, gunfire continued to ring out in several neighborhoods of Homs, and at least one person was shot dead by a sniper, the Britian-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Outside the city, troops bombarded the rebel-held town of Rastan, killing at least three people, it said.

Government forces also shelled the mountain town of Zabadani, north of Damascus, a significant opposition stronghold that fell under rebels’ control late last month. Bombardment the past two days has wounded dozens and forced scores of families to flee, said an activist in the town.

“The situation is terrifying, makeshift hospitals are full,” said the activist, who only gave his first name, Fares, for fear of government reprisals. He said the town has been under siege for the past five days and there is lack of food and heating fuel during the cold winter.

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