Syrian government

JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States is investigating whether chemical weapons have been deployed in Syria, but he’s “deeply skeptical” of claims by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime that rebel forces were behind such an attack.

Both the Assad regime and Syrian rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons in an attack on Tuesday that the government says killed 31 and wounded more than 100. But Obama suggested it’s more likely that if the weapons were used, the Syrian government was behind the attack.

“We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks,” Obama said. “We know that there are those are in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapons stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government capabilities, I think, would question those claims.”

In this Saturday photo, a Syrian elder sits on a hospital trolley suffering partial loss of memory after was shot in the head by a sniper while walking on a street in Bustan Al-Pasha, Aleppo, Syria.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria’s air force fired missiles and dropped barrel bombs on rebel strongholds while opposition fighters attacked regime positions Sunday, flouting a U.N.-backed cease-fire that was supposed to quiet fighting over a long holiday weekend but never took hold.

The failure to push through a truce so limited in its ambitions — just four days — has been a sobering reflection of the international community’s inability to ease 19 months of bloodshed in Syria. It also suggests that the stalemated civil war will drag on, threatening to draw in Syria’s neighbors in this highly combustible region such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

“This conflict has now taken a dynamic of its own which should be worrying to everyone,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center think tank.

The U.N. tried to broker a halt to fighting over the four-day Eid al-Adha Muslim feast that began Friday, one of the holiest times of the Islamic calendar. But the truce was violated almost immediately after it was supposed to take effect, the same fate other cease-fires in Syria have met.

Activists said at least 110 people were killed Sunday, a toll similar to previous daily casualty tolls. They include 16 who died in an airstrike on the village of al-Barra in northern Syria’s mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya region.

The Observatory also reported a car bomb that exploded in a residential area in the Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh and wounded 15 people, but the target was not immediately clear.

Though Syria’s death toll has topped 35,000, the bloodiest and most protracted crisis of the Arab Spring, the West has been wary of intervening. There is concern about sparking a wider conflagration because Syria borders Israel and is allied with Iran and the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

There are already increasing incidents of the civil war spilling across borders.

Many in Lebanon blame Syria and Hezbollah for the Oct. 19 car bomb that killed the country’s intelligence chief. The assassination stirred up sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s two largest political coalitions have lined up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah and its partners who dominate the government have stood by Assad’s regime, while the Sunni-led opposition backs the rebels seeking to topple the Syrian government. Assad and many in his inner circle are Alawites — an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority in Syria — while the rebels come mostly from the country’s Sunni majority.

Iraqi Shiites also increasingly fear a spillover from Syria. Iraqi authorities on Sunday forced an Iranian cargo plane heading to Syria to land for inspection in Baghdad to ensure it was not carrying weapons, the second such forced landing this month. The move appeared aimed at easing U.S. concerns that Iraq has become a route for shipments of Iranian military supplies that could help Assad battle rebels.

In Jordan, concern over stability was underlined last month, when its U.S., British and French allies quickly dispatched their military experts to help Jordanian commandos devise plans to shield the population in case of a chemical attack from neighboring Syria.

Turkey’s support for the Syrian rebel movement is another point of tension, and Turkey has reinforced its border and fired into Syria on several occasions recently in response to shells that have landed from Syria inside Turkish territory.

The U.S. administration says it remains opposed to military action in Syria and politicians have been preoccupied this year with the presidential election, now a few weeks away. On Sunday, Syrian warplanes struck the eastern Damascus suburbs of Arbeen, Harasta and Zamalka to try to drive out rebels, according to activists in those areas and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which compiles information from activists in Syria.

In Douma, another Damascus suburb, rebels wrested three positions from regime forces, including an unfinished high-rise building that had been used by regime snipers, according to the Observatory and Mohammed Saeed, a local activist.

Fighting was also reported near Maaret al-Numan, a strategic town along the Aleppo-Damascus highway that rebels seized earlier this month. Opposition fighters including the al-Qaida-inspired Jabhat al-Nusra, have also besieged a nearby military base and repeatedly attacked government supply convoys heading there. The Observatory said the Syrian air force fired missiles and dropped barrel bombs — makeshift weapons made of explosives stuffed into barrels — on villages near the base.

The cease-fire was seen as a long shot from the outset. International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi failed to get firm commitments from all combatants, and no mechanism to monitor violations was put in place.
Jabhat al-Nusra rejected the truce outright. In a video posted this week, the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Muslims everywhere to support Syria’s uprising.

“It’s not just about the Syria military and the army defectors that form the backbone of the Free Syrian Army rebel group anymore,” said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a Damascus-based opposition leader. He said there were so many foreign fighters and external actors now involved in the Syrian civil war that only an agreement among the various international and regional powers could put an end to the fighting.

“The truce was merely an attempt by Brahimi to try and temporarily ease the people’s suffering in the lost time until the U.S. elections, in the hope that the international community can then get its act together and agree on a diplomatic solution for Syria,” he told The Associated Press.

But with the unraveling of the cease-fire, it’s unclear what the international community can do next.

Assad allies Russia and China have shielded his regime against harsher U.N. Security Council sanctions, while the rebels’ foreign backers including neighboring Turkey have shied away from military intervention. Iran, which is embroiled in its own diplomatic standoff with the West over its suspect nuclear program, is also a staunch supporter of Assad’s regime.

The U.S., meanwhile, is averse to sending strategic weapons to help the rebels break the battlefield stalemate, fearing they will fall into the hands of militant Islamists, who are increasingly active in rebel ranks.
“There has been a lack of desire to take the tough decisions,” said Shaikh.

“In Washington, they’ve only been focused on the narrow political goal of their own elections, trying to convince a war-wary public inside the U.S. that we are actually disengaging from the conflicts of the Middle East,” he said.

The truce was called as the two sides were battling over strategic targets in a largely deadlocked civil war. They include a military base near a main north-south highway, the main supply route to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where regime forces and rebels have been fighting house-to-house. It appears each side feared the other could exploit a lull to improve its positions.

Brahimi has not said what would follow a cease-fire. Talks between Assad and the Syrian opposition on a peaceful transition are blocked, since the Syrian leader’s opponents say they will not negotiate unless Assad resigns, something he has always refused to do.

In April, Brahimi’s predecessor as Syria mediator, former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, tried to launch a more comprehensive plan — an open-ended cease-fire to be enforced by hundreds of U.N. monitors, followed by talks on a political transition. Annan’s plan failed to gain traction, and after an initial decrease in violence, his proposed cease-fire collapsed.

On Sunday, amateur videos posted online showed warplanes flying over the eastern suburbs of Damascus. One video showed two huge clouds of smoke rising from what was said to be Arbeen, and the sound of an airplane could be heard in the background. It was not clear if the video showed the aftermath of shelling or an airstrike.

Another video showed destruction inside the Sheikh Moussa mosque in Harasta. Windows and doors were blown out, glass and debris scattered across the mosque’s floor. The narrator broke down as he was heard saying: “Where are the Muslims? Our mosques are being bombed and no one cares.”

The videos appeared consistent with Associated Press reporting in the area.

The Syrian government has accused the rebels of violating the cease-fire from the start. The state-run news agency SANA said opposition fighters carried out attacks in a number of areas, including in Aleppo and the eastern town of Deir el-Zour

Youth stand in a building damaged by tank shells in a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria on Thursday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syria launched a blistering assault Thursday on the outskirts of its capital, shelling residential areas and deploying snipers on rooftops as international envoy Kofi Annan demanded every fighter lay down arms in time for a U.N.-brokered cease-fire.

The bloodshed undermined already fading hopes that more than a year of violence will end soon, and France accused President Bashar Assad of trying to fool the world by accepting Annan’s deadline to pull the army back from population centers by April 10.

According to the plan, rebels are supposed to stop fighting 48 hours later, paving the way for talks to end Assad’s violent suppression of the uprising against his rule. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have died.

“Can we be optimistic? I am not. Because I think Bashar Assad is deceiving us,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters in Paris.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the crisis was getting worse, even though the Syrian government accepted Annan’s plan March 27. Activists have accused the regime of stepping up attacks across the country, and they described Thursday’s assault in Douma as among the worst around the capital.

“Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating,” Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. “The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically.”

He said the violence has not stopped and the situation on the ground “continues to deteriorate.”

Black smoke billowed from residential areas of Douma, about 8 miles outside Damascus, amid heavy cracks of gunfire. Douma, which has seen anti-Assad activities since the uprising began, has been subjected to several campaigns by Assad’s regime over the past year.

Activists said soldiers occupied Douma’s Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the area.

“No one dares to walk in the streets because of the snipers,” Syrian activist Omar Hamza told The Associated Press by telephone. “They are like stray dogs attacking sheep.”

He said the shelling went on for eight hours, damaging homes and setting shops on fire. Hamza said the government appeared to be trying to put the heavily populated suburb under control before the cease-fire goes into effect for fear that there will be massive anti-government demonstrations near the capital if regime troops withdraw.

Douma-based activist Mohammed Saeed reported that troops shelled residential areas Thursday with tanks in one of the most violent campaigns against the area since the uprising started.

He said troops were using detainees as human shields as they marched into one of the suburb’s main squares.

“Soldiers in the Ghanam Square near the vegetable market were walking behind detainees,” Saeed said via Skype. “They do that so that members of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army do not open fire at the troops.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said troops clashed with army defectors in the northern towns of Hraytan and Anadan near Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.

Observers have expressed deep skepticism that Assad will abide by the peace plan, in part because large swaths of the country could slip out of his control if he pulls back the troops.

Analysts say Syria likely will to try to manipulate the terms of the plan to buy more time, or to argue that the regime cannot lay down its arms when “terrorists” are on the attack.

The regime denies that the uprising is the result of a popular will in Syria, calling it a foreign conspiracy being carried out by terrorists and gangs.

Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha said Syria was ready to cooperate with Annan’s plan “as long as long as it also puts an end to the criminal acts being committed by the armed terrorist groups.” The Syrian Foreign Ministry disputed the U.N. death toll of 9,000, saying 6,143 people — “civilians and military, women and children” — have been killed.

Hilal Khashan, political science professor at American University of Beirut, said the regime is trying to make gains on the ground before the deadline.

“What will happen afterward is something similar to a low-intensity guerrilla warfare, which can go unnoticed by the international community, while the regime tries to give the world the impression that it’s all over and the reform operations are under way,” he said.

Even as the death toll mounts, there is little prospect for international intervention of the type that helped topple Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Western leaders have pinned their hopes on Annan’s diplomacy, with the U.S. and its allies unwilling to get deeply involved in another Arab nation in turmoil. Several rounds of sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union have done little to stop the bloodshed, and Syria’s main allies of Russia and China are blocking strong action at the U.N. Security Council.

Still, the regime is under great pressure to comply with Annan’s plan in some way, because Russia and China have thrown their support behind it.

Annan traveled to Moscow and Beijing to secure that support. On April 11, the former U.N. chief is expected in Iran — Syria’s last significant ally in the Middle East — for another diplomatic push on Assad’s supporters.

“Clearly, the violence is still continuing,” Annan said from Geneva, speaking to the General Assembly in a videoconference. “Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily. Military operations in civilian population centers have not stopped.”

Syria has said it is withdrawing from certain areas, and Annan said Syria has informed him of a partial withdrawal from three locations in Daraa, Idlib and Zabadani.

But witnesses and activists deny that.

Mohammed Fares, an activist in Zabadani, denied claims that troops withdrew and said the army is still in the town with checkpoints backed by tanks.

“Troops and tanks are in Zabadani and around it,” he said by telephone.

Other activists reported attacks on both Daraa and Idlib on Wednesday. Activist groups reported about two dozen dead nationwide Thursday.

In planning for a possible cease-fire, a team led by Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood arrived in Damascus to begin discussing with Syrian authorities “the eventual deployment of this U.N. supervision and monitoring mission,” Annan’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

He said the U.N. is looking for a team of 200-250 soldiers to monitor a cease-fire.

The deployment of U.N. monitors would first have to be authorized by the 15-nation Security Council.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the government has not yet agreed on a timetable for peacekeepers. “But we will discuss these issues in a democratic way,” he said, “because we do want to listen to them.”As the fighting raged in the north, more Syrians fled to
neighboring Turkey, where the Foreign ministry said some 2,350 people arrived Thursday. Some 1,600 refugees arrived Wednesday and earlier Thursday, according to its disaster management agency. That pushes the number of displaced Syrians in Turkey to 22,000. 

Printed on Friday, April 6, 2012 as: Syrian regime troops keep fighting despite UN

MOSCOW — Russia said Monday that Syria’s government and rebels should halt their fighting once a day to give the Red Cross access to the wounded and that jailed protesters should be allowed to have visitors.

The call from Russia, an important ally of Syria’s, came after its officials met with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had urged Moscow to take such a stand.

Russia had previously backed the ICRC’s call for a cease-fire, but Monday’s statement from the Foreign Ministry was worded more strongly than the previous ones, in an apparent signal that Moscow is raising the pressure on Syria.

The statement followed Moscow’s talks between ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov focusing on the humanitarian situation in Syria.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it agrees with the ICRC about what is needed during Syria’s uprising. ICRC spokeswoman Carla Haddad Mardini welcomed Moscow’s response, saying his organization “received positive indications of support on its operational priorities and on its call for a two-hour cessation in fighting on a daily basis.”

The Red Cross has not received permission from Syria to access all parts of the country affected by the fighting. Damascus also has not agreed to daily cease-fires.

Mardini said the meeting with Lavrov was part of contacts “with all those who could have a positive influence on its action in Syria,” adding that the Red Cross hopes to “see concrete results of such meetings on the ground in the coming days or weeks.”

“Our main interlocutors remain the Syrian authorities and the Syrian opposition,” she added.

Russia and China have protected Syria from United Nations sanctions over its crackdown on the uprising, in which more than 8,000 people have been killed. But Moscow recently has shown some signs that it was losing patience with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s harsh stance.

Lavrov told lawmakers last week that the Syrian leader has been slow to implement long-needed reforms, warning that the conflict in the Arab state could spiral out of control.

He also complained in a weekend interview with state television about the “unproportional” use of force by the government troops and said that Moscow disagrees with many of the decisions made by the Syrian leadership.

“We are supporting the need to start a political process, and to do that it’s necessary to have a cease-fire first,” Lavrov said. “Russia will do everything for that, irrespective of the decisions made by the Syrian government. We disagree with many of those, by the way.”

Printed on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 as: Russia presses Syrian daily truces to grant Red Cross access to aid

This satellite image, taken last Wednesday, shows a pipeline fire in Homs, Syria. The pipeline, which runs through a rebel-held neighborhood, had been shelled by regime troops for the previous 12 days, according to two activist groups. The state news agency, SANA, blamed “armed terrorists” for the attack.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Medics stitch wounds with thread used for clothing. Hungry residents risk Syrian government sniper fire or shelling to hunt for dwindling supplies of bread and canned food on the streets of the besieged city of Homs.

The opposition stronghold was being destroyed “inch by inch,” by government forces, with collapsed walls and scorched buildings, according to accounts Thursday, while Western and Arab leaders hoped to silence the guns long enough to rush in relief aid.

The pressure for “humanitarian corridors” into the central Syrian city of Homs and other places caught in President Bashar Assad’s crushing attacks appeared to be part of shifts toward more aggressive steps against his regime after nearly a year of bloodshed and thousands of deaths in an anti-government uprising.

In back-to-back announcements, U.N.-appointed investigators in Geneva said a list for possible crimes against humanity prosecution reaches as high as Assad, and international envoys in London made final touches to an expected demand for Assad to call a cease-fire within days to permit emergency shipments of food
and medicine.

Washington and European allies remain publicly opposed to direct military intervention. But there have been growing signs that Western leaders could back efforts to open channels for supplies and weapons to the Syrian opposition, which includes breakaway soldiers.

In a sign of the international divide, however, key Assad ally Russia said Moscow and Beijing remain opposed to any foreign interference in Syria. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke by telephone with the president of the United Arab Emirates and emphasized that “foreign interference, attempts to assess the legitimacy of the leadership of a state from the outside, run counter to the norms of international law and are fraught with the threat of regional and global destabilization,” the Kremlin said.

“It is a deeply frustrating situation,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio ahead of the London talks. He said that the Assad regime “has continued to act seemingly with impunity.”

At least 16 people were killed across Syria, activists said. One group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the number at 40 with attacks ranging from mountain villages to areas near the capital of Damascus. The reason for the differing tolls was not immediately clear.

The most intense offensive, however, remained on beleaguered Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. Its defiance — amid hundreds of civilian casualties in the past weeks — has eroded Assad’s narrative that the uprising is the work of “armed thugs” and foreign plots.

Images posted online and accounts from activists and correspondents smuggled in — including two Western journalists killed Wednesday — also have stirred comparisons to sieges such as Misrata during last year’s Arab Spring revolt in Libya.

The epicenter — the Baba Amr neighborhood on the city’s southeast corner — is a collection of slum-like apartment blocks with peeling paint and neglected older homes. They draw in workers and fortune-seekers from across Syria to a place known as the “mother of the poor” because of its cheaper cost of living, compared with Damascus or Aleppo.

“They are blanketing Baba Amr with shells and snipers. They are destroying it street by street, inch by inch,” said activist Omar Shaker.

Residents say 70 percent of the area is now inhabitable in harsh winter weather with temperatures dipping close to freezing some nights. Walls have collapsed; windows are shattered from shells that fall as much as two-a-minute during some of the heaviest barrages.

Another Homs activist, Mulham al-Jundi, called the conditions “catastrophic” in parts of the city, spreading over a valley in central Syria just 18 miles from the Lebanese border. Long lines form at even rumors of bread, cans of food or fuel for heaters, he said.

“There simply isn’t enough to go around anymore,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria’s state-run media pushed back with its own version: Running photos on the official news agency SANA that claim to show markets full of food in Homs. It called the claims about food shortages “fabricating lies.”

Activists give a very different view. Bodies are buried wherever people can find space, they say. The wounded are too scared to try to reach government-controlled hospitals in other parts of the city. Instead, they stagger into makeshift clinics in kitchens and offices, al-Jundi said.

He said clothing thread is now used after surgical sutures ran out. In some places, medics conduct operations by only the light of an office lamp. In the Bab Drieb neighborhood, volunteers get a crash course in basic first aid before being put to work.

“I saw a nurse teaching a couple of people what to do. They had no idea,” said al-Jundi. “It’s unbelievable and tragic.”

Homs — which is mostly Sunni — was an early flashpoint of dissent against Assad’s regime, which is led by the minority Alawite community, which has Shiite power Iran as its main patron.

In April, protesters gathered at the central Clock Square in Homs, bringing mattresses, food and water in hopes of emulating Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. Homs had a reputation for tolerance between Syria’s religions and Muslim sects, said Mohammad Saleh, an opposition figure who fled the city, but Sunnis have increasingly felt pushed into an underclass status by Assad.

A Western intelligence official said the Syrian military has the ability to “level Homs if it wanted to.” But the risks of backlash from Syria’s majority Sunnis — including many military officers — is far too great , said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under briefing rules. On Wednesday, shelling of Baba Amr killed American-born veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.

They were among a group of journalists who had crossed into Syria illegally and were sharing accommodations with activists, raising speculation that government forces targeted the makeshift media center where they were staying. But opposition groups had previously described the shelling as indiscriminate. At least two other Western journalists were wounded on Wednesday.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman offered condolences to the families of Colvin and Ochlik, but rejected any responsibility for their deaths. The spokesman urged foreign journalists to respect Syrian laws and not to sneak into the country.

Some Syrians held protests and vigils Wednesday night to honor Colvin and Ochlik.

“Remi Ochlik, Marie Colvin, we will not forget you,” read one banner held by protesters in the town of Qsour in Homs province.

Two other journalists were wounded. In a video posted on YouTube, one of those injured, Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro, said her leg is broken in two places and that she has received some medical treatment but now needs an operation. Bouvier said she was speaking Thursday and is calm throughout the more than six-minute video.

The U.N. estimates that 5,400 people have been killed in repression by the Assad regime against a popular uprising that began 11 months ago. That figure was given in January and has not been updated. Syrian activists put the death toll at more than 7,300. Overall figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria keeps tight control on the media.

“Every minute counts,” Shaker said. “People will soon start to collapse from lack of sleep and shortages in food.”

The international struggle over how to end Syria’s crisis moves Friday to Tunisia. The meeting is expected to bring together more than 70 nations to look at ways to assist Assad’s opponents.

On the eve of the Tunisia meeting, the U.N. announced that former secretary-general Kofi Annan would be the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. His mandate will be to try to end the violence and arrange a political transition.

The United States, Europe and Arab nations worked in London to draft a demand for Assad to impose a cease-fire with 72 hours to allow humanitarian convoys or face new punitive measures, likely to include toughened sanctions.

Officials at the London meeting said some nations have proposed creating protected corridors for humanitarian relief. It was unclear, however, whether it would receive full backing because it would almost certainly require military protection. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions before the so-called “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis.

Some Arab nations, such as Qatar, have urged consideration of direct military intervention similar to the NATO-led air campaign that helped end Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya. Western powers have so far opposed trying to mobilize another military coalition for Syria.

More workable, officials said, would be a cease-fire such as the one proposed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is calling for a daily two-hour break in fighting to provide aid.

“The efforts that we are undertaking with the international community ... are intended to demonstrate the Assad regime’s deepening isolation,” Clinton told reporters. “Our immediate focus is on increasing the pressure. We have got to find ways of getting food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance. Into affected areas. This takes time and it takes a lot of diplomacy.”

If Assad doesn’t comply, “we think that the pressure will continue to build. ... I think that the strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can’t stand the test of legitimacy ... for any length of time,” she said. “There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration still opposes military intervention but “obviously we’ll have to evaluate this as time goes on.”
In Geneva, a panel of U.N. human rights experts said the United Nations has a secret list of top Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity. The U.N. experts indicated that the list goes as high as Assad.

Experts said the list appears mostly part of international pressures on Syria rather than a direct threat. Syria isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court so is outside its jurisdiction. Russia also would likely block any moves in the U.N. Security Council to refer the country to the Hague-based tribunal.

The European Union is expected next week to add seven Syrian government ministers to those already under sanctions that free assets and ban visas, said an EU official in Brussels. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of EU rules, said additional restrictions may be imposed on Syria’s central bank, on imports of precious metals from the country, and on cargo flights.

The EU had already sanctioned more than 70 Syrians and 19 organizations, and has banned imports of Syrian oil.

In Amman, Jordan, several dozen Syrians, mainly from Homs, protested at the U.S. Embassy and asked for Western military intervention. “Almighty God, destroy Bashar,” they chanted.

Printed on Friday, February 24, 2012 as: Syrian city destroyed 'inch by inch' by troops

A Syrian rebel peers through a window in Idlib, Syria on Thursday. Syrian forces fired mortars and rockets that killed scores of people Thursday in the rebellious city of Homs, activists said, the latest strike in a weeklong assault as President Bashar Assad’s regime tries to crush increasingly militarized pockets of dissent.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Between blasts of rockets and mortar fire, Syrians used loudspeakers to call for blood donations and medical supplies Thursday in the stricken city of Homs, where a weeklong government offensive has created a deepening humanitarian crisis.

Government forces are trying to crush pockets of violent resistance in Homs, the epicenter of an 11-month-old uprising that has brought the country ever closer to civil war. The intense shelling in restive neighborhoods such as Baba Amr has made it difficult to get medicine and care to the wounded, and some areas have been without electricity for days, activists say.

“Snipers are on all the roofs in Baba Amr, shooting at people,” Abu Muhammad Ibrahim, an activist in Homs, told The Associated Press by phone.

“Anything that moves, even a bird, is targeted. Life is completely cut off. It’s a city of ghosts,” he added.

As he spoke, explosions could be heard in the background.

“The bombardment has not eased, day or night,” he said, asking to be identified by his nickname for fear of reprisals. “Do you hear the sound of the rockets? Children have been wounded, elderly with extreme injuries.”

Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed since early Saturday in the heaviest attack the city has endured since the uprising began in March, activists said.

“This brutal assault on residential neighborhoods shows the Syrian authorities’ contempt for the lives of their citizens in Homs,” said Anna Neistat, associate emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Those responsible for such horrific attacks will have to answer for them.”

Human Rights Watch also said eyewitness accounts, as well as video reviewed by the group’s arms experts, suggest Syrian government forces are using long-range, indirect fire weapons such as mortars.

Such weapons “are inherently indiscriminate when fired into densely populated areas,” the New York-based group said.

The wounded have overwhelmed makeshift hospitals and clinics, and there were growing concerns that the locked-down city could soon run out of supplies.

“There is medicine in the pharmacies, but getting it to the field clinics is very difficult. They can’t get the medicine to the wounded,” Mohammed Saleh, a Syria-based activist, told the AP by telephone.

Baba Amr, he said, has been without electricity since Saturday.

The assault on Homs began after reports that army defectors and other armed opponents of President Bashar Assad were setting up their own checkpoints and taking control of some areas. The reports could not be confirmed.

But the city is the capital of Syria’s largest province, stretching from the Lebanese border to the Iraqi frontier. If rebel forces keep gaining ground there, some believe they could ultimately carve out a zone akin to Benghazi in eastern Libya, where rebels launched their successful uprising against Moammar Gadhafi last year.

Saleh said most of the government attacks have been “bombardment from a distance,” with regime forces keeping armored vehicles out of the neighborhoods.

Fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army have been firing back with rocket-propelled grenades and rockets, according to activists’ accounts.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees were trying to compile numbers and names of those killed Thursday. The LCC, an activist group, said up to 100 people were killed in Homs, but the toll was impossible to independently verify. The Observatory reported 63 deaths in Homs.

Activists also reported violence in the towns of Zabadani and Daraa.

As the bloodshed persists, the international community is searching for new diplomatic approaches to stop the protracted conflict.The Syrian government blames the unrest on a foreign conspiracy by Israel and the West. It says armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking democratic change.

The uprising began with mostly peaceful protests but has transformed into an armed insurgency against Assad in many areas, raising fears the country is spiraling toward civil war. In January, the U.N. estimated an overall death toll of more than 5,400 since March.

The number of children killed has climbed into the hundreds, said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. representative for children in armed conflict, adding that the situation was particularly harrowing in Homs.

The Syrian regime’s crackdown on dissent has left it almost completely isolated internationally as nations have imposed sanctions and withdrawn diplomats. In the latest action, Libya on Thursday gave Syria’s top envoy to the country and embassy staff 72 hours to leave, according to Libyan Foreign Ministry press officer Saad Elshlmani.

Assad has political backing from Russia and China, which delivered a double veto over the weekend in the U.N. Security Council that blocked a resolution calling on him to leave power.

On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the lack of unity on the council “has encouraged the Syrian government” to step up its attacks on civilians.

“Thousands have been killed in cold blood, shredding President Assad’s claims to speak for the Syrian people,” Ban said. “I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods, is a grim harbinger of worse to come.”

The sanctions are crippling Syria’s economy, but they have failed to stop the military offensives.

There also are fears that the conflict is taking on dangerous sectarian overtones in some areas, including Homs.

Syria’s 22 million people are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the Alawite sect, which comprises about 10 percent of the population.

The political domination by Alawites has bred seething resentment, which Assad tried to tamp down by enforcing the strictly secular ideology of his Baath Party.

But as the uprising surged, with Sunnis making up the backbone of the revolt, Assad called heavily upon his Alawite power base to crush the resistance, feeding sectarian tensions like those that fueled civil wars in Iraq and Lebanon.

A senior Arab League official said the Cairo-based organization will discuss Sunday whether to recognize the opposition Syrian National Council as the legitimate representative of Syria and whether to allow it to open offices in Arab capitals. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made on the issue.

The U.N. chief said the head of the Arab League plans to send observers back into Syria and has raised the possibility of a joint mission with the United Nations. Ban provided no specifics, but the idea appears aimed at giving the league a boost after its earlier mission was pulled out of Syria because of security concerns.

Also Thursday, Germany expelled four Syrian diplomats following the arrest this week of two men accused of spying on Syrian opposition groups in the country.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he ordered the expulsions of the four Syrian Embassy employees.

German federal prosecutors said Tuesday they had arrested a Syrian and a German-Lebanese dual national on suspicion that they spied on Syrian opposition supporters in Germany for several years.

Moroccans and Syrian expatriates gesture as they hold a Syrian during a protest in solidarity with the Syrian people, in Rabat Morocco, outside the Moroccan foreign ministry as the Arab League foreign ministers meet in Rabat, Morocco on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

RABAT, Morocco — The Arab League confirmed the suspension of Syria from the organization on Wednesday and gave its government three days to halt the violence and accept an observer mission or face economic sanctions.

The suspension — first announced by the Arab League on Saturday and confirmed during the meeting — is a surprisingly harsh and highly unusual move for a member of Syria’s standing.

Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim told reporters following the daylong meeting in Rabat, Morocco, that Syria is being offered the chance to end the violence against civilians and implement a peace plan that the Arab League outlined on Nov. 2. The U.N. estimates that more than 3,500 people have been killed in Syria’s 8-month-old uprising.

“The Syrian government has to sign the protocol sent by the Arab League and end all violence against demonstrators,” he said, adding that it has three days. “Economic sanctions are certainly possible, if the Syrian government does not respond. But we are conscious that such sanctions would touch the Syrian people.”

The protocol calls for an observer mission of 30-50 members under the auspices of the Arab League to ensure that Syria is following the Arab plan, calling for the regime to halt its attacks on protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners, and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.

The protocol did not specifically say if Syria’s suspension from the organization has remained in force, but an official from the Moroccan Foreign Ministry confirmed that is the case. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media.

The Arab League also demanded the withdrawal of Syria’s representative to the organization.

“In the light of insulting and undiplomatic words of the permanent Syrian representative, the Arab League is asking the Syrian government to withdraw its representative,” said the League statement, without identifying the behavior in question.

The Arab League has rarely taken decisive actions to deal with crises in the Arab world out of reluctance to criticize fellow governments. But in this case, several members have described their forceful engagement in the Syrian situation as a way of staving off the kind of foreign intervention that took place in Libya earlier this year. NATO’s bombing campaign against Libya took place less than a month after it was suspended by the Arab League on Feb. 22.

“Arab leaders don’t have a legacy of commenting and interfering in domestic events in Arab countries, so now this is a turning point for the Arab League,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a Cairo-based commentator on Arab affairs.

“Arab governments are being exposed to pressure from their public, from the Syrian people and on the international level, so the Arab League has to do something — they can’t keep staying on the sidelines,” he added.

Even Turkey, which once had close ties with Syria, has expressed increasing concern over the situation across the border.

“We denounce the mass murder of the Syrian people,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was in Morocco for a meeting on Arab-Turkish ties. “It is all of our responsibility to end the bloodshed in Syria.”

Bin Jassim of Qatar declined to give any details about possible economic sanctions against Syria, if it refuses the observer mission. But the Arab news channel al-Arabiya suggested they would likely take place in coordination with Turkey and include the energy sector.

Its suspension from the Arab League has enraged Syria, which considers itself a bastion of Arab nationalism. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem boycotted Wednesday’s meeting.

The threat of Arab sanctions comes on top of rising threats of sanctions from European countries and the United States as well leaving Syria even more isolated.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby confirmed that the organization has been in touch with the Syrian opposition and said it has identified 16 regions in particular that needed to be monitored.

“We have spoken with the Syrian opposition on all topics, but they never requested weapons,” he added.

Printed on Thursday, November 17, 2011 as: Arab League acknowledges Syria's suspension

Activists carry candles during a vigil in support of the Syrian people in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday. Security forces in Syria killed more than 70 people Sunday to crush dissent ahead of Ramadan.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Syrian security forces backed by tanks and snipers launched a ferocious assault Sunday on defiant cities and towns, killing at least 70 people and possibly many more as the regime raced to crush dissent ahead of Ramadan. Corpses littered the streets after a surge in violence that drew widespread international condemnation.

Estimates of the death toll ranged from around 75 people to nearly 140 on a day when the attacks began before dawn and witnesses said they were too frightened to collect corpses from the streets.

The worst carnage was in Hama, a city with a history of defiance against 40 years of Assad family rule. Hospitals there were overwhelmed with bloodied casualties, suggesting the death toll could rise sharply, witnesses said.

Ramadan, which begins Monday, will present a critical test for the government, which has unleashed deadly firepower since March but still has not been able to put down the revolt. Daily demonstrations are expected to surge during the holy month, when crowds gather in mosques each evening after the dawn-to-dusk fast.

Though the violence has so far failed to blunt the protests, the Syrian government appears to be hoping it can frighten people from taking to the streets during Ramadan.

By mid-morning, the city looked like a war zone, residents said. The crackle of gunfire and thud of tank shells echoed across the city, and clouds of black smoke drifted over rooftops.

An escalation in violence during Ramadan, a time of heightened religious fervor for devout Muslims, would bring a new dimension to the unrest in Syria, which has reached a stalemate in recent weeks. Assad’s elite forces have waged nearly nonstop crackdowns around the country, but new protest hotbeds have emerged — taxing the already exhausted and overextended military.