“We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” she said.
Russia’s shipments, while legal, set the stage for a new diplomatic confrontation with the Obama administration at a time when Washington and its European and Arab allies have been struggling to persuade Moscow to step up diplomatic pressure on Assad to bring an end to nearly 15 months of bloodshed. The shipments — which U.S. officials said were thought to be en route to Damascus — would arrive as the Syrian government escalates its use of force against opposition strongholds, including the deployment of Russian-built attack helicopters from its existing reserves.
Underlining the growing concerns, the United Nations’ top peacekeeping official on Tuesday acknowledged for the first time that Syria is in the midst of a civil war.
“Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory, several cities, to the opposition and wants to retake control,” the official, Herve Ladsous, told the Reuters and Agence France-Presse news agencies in an interview.
Asked whether the conflict could be characterized as a “full-scale civil war,” he answered: “Yes, I think we can say that.”
U.S. and U.N. officials have said that the violence in Syria is increasingly taking on the dimensions of a sectarian conflict, with government-backed Shiite militiamen from the minority Alawite sect battling anti-Assad forces drawn from the Sunni majority.
The violence is also increasingly threatening the 300 or so U.N. monitors in the country. On Tuesday, a team of observers trying to reach a northern town engulfed by fighting for the past week were turned back by angry crowds throwing stones and metal rods. Three of the team’s vehicles were fired upon, but the United Nations later said in a statement that the source of the gunfire was unclear.
The observers had been trying to reach the town, Haffah, since Thursday, three days after government troops launched a major offensive aimed at driving out fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army. The town lies on the edge of the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and is surrounded by Alawite villages, raising fears that Haffah’s residents could be massacred if government troops succeed in crushing the rebel fighters.
Dozens are dying daily in attacks on protesters and in the shelling of towns and cities across Syria as the government battles to assert control over the many areas that have fallen under the sway of the rebels.