BEIRUT – Syrian forces overran a mountain enclave near the Mediterranean coast Wednesday, seizing the territory back from rebels as a serious escalation in violence signaled both sides are using more powerful weapons.
With the bloodshed ramping up, France joined the U.N. peacekeeping chief in declaring Syria was in a state of civil war.
“When many groups belonging to the same people tear each other apart and kill each other, if you can’t call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a news conference in Paris.
The battle for Haffa, in the mountains of Latakia province, raged for eight days as regime forces shelled the village to drive out rebels. The operation apparently was part of a larger offensive to retake areas that had fallen into rebel hands.
State television said regime forces had “cleansed” Haffa of “armed terrorist groups,” and the Foreign Ministry urged U.N. observers to immediately head there “to check what the terrorist groups have done.”
U.N. observers did not go to Haffa on Wednesday and are assessing the situation to determine when they can successfully reach the town, U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said. On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the U.N. mission’s vehicles, forcing them to turn back. None of the observers was hurt.
Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the observers, said they have been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.
Hundreds of rebel fighters believed to have been holed up in Haffa and nearby villages pulled out overnight, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing a network of activists on the ground.
On another front, fireballs of orange flames exploded over the central city of Homs, where Syrian forces fired a continuous rain of shells that slammed into rebel-held neighborhoods.
Recovering Haffa was particularly significant to the regime because the town is about 20 miles from President Bashar Assad’s hometown. Latakia province is the heartland of the Alawite minority to which Assad and the ruling elite belong.
As violence spiked, both sides in the conflict appeared to be using heavier weapons.
U.N. observers reported Syrian helicopters were firing on Haffa and other restive areas, and amateur videos posted online by activists suggest the opposition is using powerful anti-tank missiles.
“There are arms being delivered, and on both sides,” Fabius said.
Although the Syrian rebels are outgunned by the well-armed Syrian army, weapons have been flowing across the country’s borders from neighboring Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. The rebels also say they buy weapons from Syrian soldiers looking to make a profit.
Tensions over the issue flared Wednesday between the U.S. and Russia as they traded blame for the violence in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held to her explosive accusation that the “latest information” in U.S. hands is that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Assad’s regime. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov fired back by alleging the U.S. has sent military support to the region.
“We have repeatedly urged the Russian government to cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and deliveries,” Clinton told reporters in Washington. “We know, because they confirm, that they continue to deliver and we believe that the situation is spiraling toward civil war. It is now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia … to speak to Assad in unified voice and insist that the violence stop.”
Lavrov rejected the charge, saying his government was completing earlier weapons contracts with Syria for air defense systems to be used exclusively for self-defense against “an armed attack from the outside.”
Russia has emerged as Syria’s most important ally and protector, blocking strong action at the U.N. Security Council and speaking against any foreign military intervention.
Moscow’s pro-Syria stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defense ties to Damascus, including weapons sales.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also said weapons were flowing to both sides and called on Russia to halt supplying arms to the Assad regime.
“We have seen signs – rather anecdotal signs – of an increased availability of arms to the opposition,” he said during a trip to Afghanistan. “And so this is a deteriorated situation where Russia has an important responsibility due to its relationship with Syria and its position on the Security Council.”