Inevitable civil war?
Last week's massacre in the Syrian town of Hawla, in which at least 50 children were killed, has brought the country closer to the brink of civil war, writes Bassel Ouda t in Damascus
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A UN observer on a monitoring mission in Syria takes pictures of bodies of people whom anti-government protesters say were killed by government security forces, at Ali Bin Al-Hussein Mosque in Hawla
As the violence continues to spread in Syria, further incidents in which the Syrian army has bombarded Syrian towns and cities have been reported despite the presence of international observers, bringing the country closer to the brink of civil war.
One massacre, which took place in the town of Hawla near Homs last week, saw the deaths of at least 50 children, according to eyewitnesses, all aged under the age of 10. Syrian opposition activists blamed the carnage on the Syrian army and its client militia, with entire families being killed either by bombardment or with knives, the activists said.
Robert Mood, head of the UN observers, said that 109 people had been killed in Hawla, including dozens of children. There has also been further violence in eastern Deir Ezzor leaving another 13 dead. The UN has released a statement explaining that 13 bodies were discovered on Tuesday night in the area of Assukar, 50km east of Deir Ezzor. "All the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs and some appeared to have been shot in the head from a short distance." Mood commented that he was "deeply disturbed" by the events, calling them an "appalling and inexcusable act".
Meanwhile, the Syrian government's claim that the carnage was the handiwork of terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda was dismissed by those with knowledge of the events, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called on the Syrian government to desist from using heavy-calibre weapons in residential areas.
Alarmed by the continuing bloodshed in Syria, European countries have been seeking ways to respond, with Britain calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. France also denounced the violence, saying that it would arrange a meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria group, a group of Western and Arab countries that wish to see the end of the Syrian regime.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi called for justice to prevail in Syria and denounced crimes that can no longer be tolerated. He called on the UN Security Council to take immediate measures to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
On Wednesday, Turkey -- once a strong ally of Syria, ordered Syrian diplomats to leave the country following the massacre in Hawla.
A day earlier, Western powers including the United States, Britain, France and Australia all kicked out the highest ranking Syrian diplomats in their countries in a bid to increase pressure on President Bashar Al-Assad's regime.
Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also called on the international community to take action, and the UAE called for an urgent meeting of the Arab league.
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) called on the UN to hold an urgent meeting with a view to stopping the killings.
Meanwhile, the General Agency for the Syrian Revolution, an opposition group, called on the UN to call off the Anan mission, which has seen monitors being deployed in Syria, and to explore other ways of halting the crimes carried out by the Syrian regime.
According to the group, the regime is bent on creating chaos not only in Syria, but also in the entire region. It called on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an opposition force made up of defectors from the regular Syrian army, to resume its protection of civilians and to end the ceasefire.
For its part, the FSA said that the Hawla massacres were a clear sign that the Anan plan was "dead".
Even before any meeting takes place in Paris, the Friends of Syria group has called for the creation of a military coalition outside the UN Security Council to wage attacks against Syrian government forces. It called on Syrian opposition fighters to launch "organised strikes" against the Syrian regime and its key figures.
In a related development, the mufti of Saudi Arabia said that giving money to the Free Syrian Army was now "a religious duty".
Anwar Al-Benni, head of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies, said that the recent massacres may not be the regime's last crime against humanity. The massacres in Hawla were not an aberration, he said, but were part of a pattern documented by Syrian activists for more than a year.
The first such massacres were committed in the town of Deraa, where 160 civilians were killed one year ago while attempting to bring food to help the besieged population of the town. Other massacres followed in Karm Al-Zeitoun near Homs, Al-Latamna near Hama, Tel Refaat near Halab, and Basr Al-Harir near Deraa.
Over recent months, the Syrian regime has had trouble maintaining its control over much of the country, and as a result of a surge in the number of defectors to the Free Syrian Army, parts of some Syrian cities are now outside the government's control.
Army and police forces are unable to enter many villages and towns, especially at night, and it is for this reason that the Syrian army and police units have been firing from afar at residential areas using heavy artillery, with the death toll rising because of their change in tactics.
Some observers now say that civil war cannot be far off in Syria, as over the last few months massacres have been reported in anti-regime Sunni villages that are located close to pro-regime Alawite villages or army and police barracks, bringing sectarian tensions in the country to unprecedented levels.
Since former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan launched his plan to bring peace to Syria earlier this year, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, including dozens of women and children. Though 276 international observers are now deployed in the country, the violence is far from over.
Anan is said to be planning a trip to Syria in a last- minute effort to dissuade the government from using heavy weaponry against civilians, also asking it to release the thousands of detainees who are now being held without trial.
He is also said to be planning to urge the authorities to legalise demonstrations and to open a dialogue with the opposition.
UN officials, however, are not optimistic about this new approach, and the Syrian opposition has told the UN observers that the regime will not desist from its practices without the clear threat of force.
Hazem Nahar, a member of the opposition Democratic Forum, said that the regime was aware that any genuine implementation of the Anan plan would bring its rule to an end.
"If the international observers wish to persuade the regime to implement the Anan plan in full, they must persuade it that it would be safe if it gives up power, which neither the observers nor anyone else can do," Nahar said.
The opposition believes that the survival of the Syrian regime poses a grave threat to the country, since the longer the present situation continues, the closer the country will be to civil war.
Some Syrian opposition groups that formerly opposed foreign military intervention are now sending out hints that this may now be the only option.