BEIRUT — Syria has entered a state of civil war with more than 4,000 people dead and an increasing number of soldiers defecting from the army to fight President Bashar Assad’s regime, the U.N.’s top human rights official said Thursday.
Civil war has been the worst-case scenario in Syria since the revolt against Assad began eight months ago. Damascus has a web of allegiances that extends to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran’s Shiite theocracy, raising fears of a regional conflagration.
The assessment that the bloodshed in Syria has crossed into civil war came from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.
The conflict has shown little sign of letting up. Activists reported up to 22 people killed Thursday, adding to what has become a daily grind of violence.
“We are placing the (death toll) figure at 4,000 but really the reliable information coming to us is that it’s much more than that,” Pillay said in Geneva.
“As soon as there were more and more defectors threatening to take up arms, I said this in August before the Security Council, that there’s going to be a civil war,” she added. “And at the moment, that’s how I am characterizing this.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to call it a civil war.
“The overwhelming use of force has been taken by Assad and his regime,” Toner told reporters. “So there’s no kind of equanimity here.”
Toner said Assad’s government has taken Syria down a dangerous path, and that “the regime’s bloody repression of the protests has not surprisingly led to this kind of reaction that we’ve seen with the Free Syrian Army.”
The Free Syrian Army, a group of defectors from the military, has emerged as the most visible armed challenge to Assad. The group holds no territory, appears largely disorganized and is up against a fiercely loyal and cohesive military.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria. But there is real concern that the conflict in Syria could spread chaos across the Middle East.
Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel’s case, a fragile truce.
Recent economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey were aimed at persuading Assad to end his crackdown. On Thursday, the EU announced a new round of sanctions against Syrian individuals and businesses linked to the unrest.
The new sanctions target 12 people and 11 companies, and add to a long list of those previously sanctioned by the EU. The full list of names of those targeted will not be known until they are published Friday in the EU’s official journal.
The 27-member bloc also imposed some sanctions on Syria’s ally Iran in the wake of an attack this week by a mob on the British Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Iran of supporting Assad’s crackdown, saying “there is a link between what is happening in Iran and what is happening in Syria.”
The sanctions are punishing Syria’s ailing economy — a dangerous development for Damascus because the prosperous merchant classes are key to propping up the regime.
Syrian business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges. The sanctions, along with increasing calls by the opposition for general nationwide strikes, could sap their resolve.
A resident of the flashpoint city of Homs said businessmen are growing impatient.
“The sanctions against the regime are harming them,” he told The Associated Press by telephone, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. “Merchants only care about their interests. Many merchants are complaining that their business is dropping.”
Activists also are trying to peel the business elite away from their allegiance to Assad. On Thursday, opposition groups called for a general strike, but it was difficult to gauge how widely Syrians were abiding by the strike. The regime has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.
Residents in Syria’s two economic powerhouses — the capital of Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo — reported business as usual Thursday.
But a video posted online by activists showed mostly closed shops in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, which also has seen large anti-government protests. And a resident in Homs said most of the shops were closed, except for those selling food. Homs has been one of Syria’s most volatile cities, with increasing clashes between troops and army defectors.
Syria has been the site of the deadliest crackdown against the Arab Spring’s protests.
Deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds. Libya’s toll is unknown and likely higher than Syria’s, but the conflict there differed because it descended early on into an outright civil war between two armed sides.
Since the revolt began in Syria, the regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine the country. It has laid bare Syria’s simmering sectarian tensions, with disturbing reports of killings like those seen in Iraq.
Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fate of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling troops to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.
The leader of the Free Syrian Army, breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, acknowledges nearly all the defectors under his command — some 15,000 — are low-level Sunni conscripts. The men are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and guns they took with them when they deserted, as well as light weapons they acquired on the black market, he says.
Until recently, most of the bloodshed was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protesters. There have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad’s forces — a development that some say plays into the regime’s hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.
As the violence continues, the 22-member Arab League in Cairo unveiled this week a list of top officials it wants to prevent from travelling to Arab countries — a humiliating affront to a country that prides itself on Arab nationalism.
The 17 officials who face the ban include the defence and interior ministers, and close members of Assad’s inner circle. Assad’s millionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who has controlled the mobile phone network and other lucrative enterprises in Syria, and the president’s younger brother, Maher, are on the list.
Assad himself was not named.