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.
Days later, at least 78 people were slaughtered in the village of Mazraat al Qubeir. As U.N. observers tried to verify claims that forces loyal to the Assad regime had been involved in the killings, they were shot at with small arms.
Still, the Syrian Foreign Ministry has called claims of civil war “far from reality.”
Opposition activists agree, if for very different reasons.
“What we have in Syria is war, but it is a war that is waged by the state against the civilian population,” said British-based Syrian opposition activist Abdulwahab Sayed Omar. “That, in my eyes, is not the definition of a civil war.
“It’s not sects or ethnic groups fighting against one another. It is not civilians against civilians. It is actually a very well-equipped military regime, using all of its might to unleash its wrath on the population.”
In Washington, Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. has provided $52 million in medical and humanitarian support, and nonlethal aid, including communications gear, to Syria’s opposition.
She also expressed concern about the continuing military relationship between Moscow and the Assad regime and called on Russia to “cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and deliveries.”
“We believe that the situation is spiraling toward civil war, and it is now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia and all [U.N.] Security Council members to speak to Assad with a unified voice and insist that the violence stop,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton described the U.S.-Russia relationship as “very comprehensive” but said the two nations disagree on Syria.
“It is not the only issue we disagree on, but it is one where people are being killed every single day, where violence is escalating, where the government has engaged in these brutal assaults against unarmed civilians, including children; we disagree,” she said.
Russia has resisted Western efforts to pressure Mr. Assad to stop killing rebels and step down from power, joining China in vetoing a Security Council resolution calling for the Syrian president to step down earlier this year.
Moscow and Beijing have said they will never permit U.N. authorization of military force against Syria.
On a visit Wednesday to Tehran, Mr. Lavrov denied Mrs. Clinton’s Tuesday comments that his country is sending attack helicopters to the Syrian military.
Russia is only providing Syria with air-defense systems, he said.
“We don’t supply Syria or anyone else with things that are used to fight against peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies that region with such equipment,” Mr. Lavrov said, according to the Russian-owned RT network.
Peace plan ignored
Despite its vetoes at the United Nations, Moscow generally has supported the peace plan crafted by international envoy Kofi Annan.
But that cease-fire plan has failed to prevent a series of deadly attacks by government forces on Syrian rebels and violent retaliations by opposition fighters.
Analysts say the first signs that the conflict is turning sectarian are emerging.
“The bulk of the opposition continues to focus on the political struggle as opposed to looking at the struggle through the lens of sectarianism,” said Mr. Gerges.
“But the reality is that the Syrian conflict is turning more and more sectarian, we have plenty evidence of neighbors turning against neighbors and this does not bode well for the crisis in Syria.”
The U.N. estimates that more than 10,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Mr. Assad’s regime began, although other estimates place the figure at almost 15,000.
Analysts say that the language of U.N. officials is designed to mobilize the international community to step in before it is too late.
While the U.N. has continued to condemn violence in Syria and has sent 300 observers to monitor the situation on the ground, many believe this is not enough.
“What we want from the U.N. is direct intervention to prevent a civil war from happening,” said Sami Ibrahim of the Syrian Network for Human Rights in the Syrian city of Homs.
“This is a criminal, bloodthirsty regime, and it will kill thousands [more]. The international community is seeing our children, our brothers being killed daily. Where is the U.N. against that? We need immediate action.”
• Louise Osborne and Janelle Dumalaon, both in Berlin, contributed to this report. Ashish Kumar Sen and Susan Crabtree reported from Washington.