- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2012

BERLIN — Syrian troops stormed a rebel-held area on the Mediterranean coast Wednesday, driving out opposition fighters and retaking the Haffa region as world leaders debated the mounting violence there and mulled how to quell it.

France’s foreign minister said Syria has descended into “civil war,” a day after the United Nations‘ peacekeeping chief employed the same term to describe the ongoing strife there. But both Syria’s regime and the rebels rejected the notion that a civil war is occurring.

“If you can’t call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, addressing journalists in Paris.

Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign minister accused the U.S. of arming Syria’s rebels, a charge Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton denied while expressing concern over Moscow’s military ties to the regime in Damascus.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov acknowledged in Moscow that Russia is supplying “anti-air-defense systems” to Damascus, a deal he said “in no way violates international law.”

“[This] contrasts with what the United States is doing … which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition that are being used against the Syrian government.”

The response from Washington was swift. “The United States has provided no military support to the Syrian opposition. None,” Mrs. Clinton said at the State Department.

“We do not and have not supplied weapons to the Syrian opposition,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “You know our position on that, and we’ve made it very clear. That position has not changed.”

The 15-month-old conflict in Syria, sparked during the Arab Spring protests of last year, is pushing the Middle Eastern nation to the brink of total warfare, analysts said.

Syria is nearing the point of no return,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East center at the London School of Economics. “What we are witnessing here is a steady march toward all-out sectarian strife.”

War or civil war

In retaking the mountainous Haffa region along the Mediterranean, Syrian forces helped create a buffer for President Bashar Assad’s hometown of Kardaha in Latakia province, which lies about 20 miles from the region.

Latakia is the heartland of the Alawite minority to which Mr. Assad and the ruling elite belong, although there is a mix of religious groups there, the Associated Press reported.

Syria’s army and the opposition’s Free Syrian Army are clashing in towns and villages throughout the country.

Last month in the town of Houla, 108 people were massacred, including women and children, in one of the bloodiest incidents since the uprising began. The Assad regime denied its troops were behind the killings and blamed foreign terrorists.

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