BEIRUT – Government forces and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad clashed in cities and countryside across Syria yesterday and Arab officials confirmed that regional governments would be ready to arm the resistance if the bloodshed did not cease.
The western city of Homs, heart of the uprising against Assad’s 11-year-rule, suffered a bombardment of pro-opposition neighbourhoods for the 11th day running.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 20 people killed across Syria yesterday, including opposition supporters, civilians, and five government soldiers shot in clashes with rebel fighters in Qalaat Al Madyaq town in restive Hama area.
With Assad seemingly oblivious to international condemnation of his campaign to crush the revolt, Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia prepared for a new resolution at the UN in the next few days which would support a peace plan forged at a meeting in Cairo on Sunday.
But Arab League diplomats said that arming the opposition forces was now officially an option.
A resolution passed at the meeting urged Arabs to “provide all kinds of political and material support” to the opposition.
This would allow arms transfers, they confirmed to Reuters.
“We will back the opposition financially and diplomatically in the beginning but if the killing by the regime continues, civilians must be helped to protect themselves. The resolution gives Arab states all options to protect the Syrian people,” an Arab ambassador said in Cairo.
The threat of military support was meant to add pressure on the Syrian leader and his Russian and Chinese allies but it also risks leading to a Libya-style conflict or sectarian civil war.
“I suspect we will see a further militarisation of this conflict, with potentially quite widespread and dangerous consequences,” said analyst Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre.
Smuggled guns are already filtering into Syria but it is not clear if Arab or other governments are behind the deliveries. Weapons and Sunni Muslim insurgents are also crossing from Iraq into Syria, Iraqi officials and arms dealers said.
While the uprising initially involved rallies by civilians, armed insurrection by the Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, is increasingly coming into play.
The government says at least 2,000 members of its military and security forces have died and the UN says its forces have killed several thousand people.
In Homs, a strategic city on the highway between Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo, the pro-opposition neighbourhood of Baba Amro was struck at dawn by the heaviest shelling in five days, the Syria Observatory for Human Rights said.
Six people were killed, it said, adding to an estimated toll of more than 400 since the assault began on February 3.
“They are hitting the same spots several consecutive times, making venturing out there impossible. The shelling was heavy in the morning and now it is one rocket every 15 minutes or so,” activist Hussein Nader said by satellite phone.
Another opposition activist, Mohamed al-Homsi, said the humanitarian situation was getting worse, with food and fuel short and prices soaring.