The United States proposed an international coalition to support Syria's opposition Sunday after Russia and China blocked a U.N. attempt to end nearly 11 months of bloodshed, raising fears that violence will escalate. Rebel soldiers said force was now the only way to oust President Bashar Assad, while the regime vowed to press its military crackdown.
The threat of both sides turning to greater force after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution raises the potential for Syria's turmoil to move into even a more dangerous new phase that could degenerate into outright civil war.
The uprising inspired by other Arab Spring revolts began in March with peaceful protests against Assad's regime, sparking a fierce crackdown by government forces. Soldiers who defected to join the uprising later began to protect protesters from attacks. In recent months, the rebel soldiers, known as the Free Syrian Army, have grown bolder, attacking regime troops and trying to establish control in pro-opposition areas. That has brought a heavier government response.
More than 5,400 people have been killed since March, according to the U.N., and now regime opponents fear that Assad will be emboldened by the feeling he is protected by his top ally Moscow and unleash even greater violence to crush protesters. If the opposition turns overtly to armed resistance, the result could be a dramatic increase in bloodshed.
At least 30 civilians were killed Sunday, including five children and a woman who was hit by a bullet while standing on her balcony as troops fired on protesters in a Damascus suburb, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group.
Government forces firing mortars and heavy machine guns also battered the mountain town of Zabadani, north of Damascus, a significant opposition stronghold that fell under rebel control late last month. Bombardment the past two days has wounded dozens and forced scores of families to flee, an activist in the town said.
"The situation is terrifying. Makeshift hospitals are full," said the activist, who only gave his first name, Fares, for fear of government reprisal. He said the town has been under siege for the past five days and there is a shortage of food and heating fuel during the cold winter.
The commander of the Free Syrian Army told The Associated Press that, after the vetoes at the U.N., "there is no other road" except military action to topple Assad.
"We consider that Syria is occupied by a criminal gang and we must liberate the country from this gang," Col. Riad al-Asaad said, speaking by telephone from Turkey. "This regime does not understand the language of politics. It only understands the language of force."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that chances for "a brutal civil war" would increase as Syrians under attack from their government move to defend themselves, unless international steps provide another way.
Speaking to reporters in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, she called the double veto at the U.N. Security Council on Saturday "a travesty."
"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations," she said, calling for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite "support the Syrian people's right to have a better future."
The call points to the formation of a formal group of like-minded nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition, similar but not identical to the Contact Group on Libya, which oversaw international help for opponents of the late deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In the case of Libya, the group also coordinated NATO military operations to protect Libyan civilians, something that is not envisioned in Syria.
U.S. officials said an alliance would work to further squeeze the Assad regime by stepping up sanctions against it, bringing disparate Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country together, providing humanitarian relief for embattled Syrian communities and working to prevent an escalation of violence by monitoring arms sales.
The main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, backed the idea.
Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent figure in the SNC, wrote on his Facebook page that friendly countries should form an "international coalition ... whose aim will be to lead international moves to support the revolution through political and economic aid."
A deeply sensitive question is whether such a coalition would back the Free Syrian Army. There appears to be deep hesitation among Western countries, fearing further militarization of the conflict.
Omar Idlibi, an activist with the Syrian National Council, said action by a "friends coalition" to increase sanctions and other steps would boost peaceful opposition through protests.
But, he said, it should also include support to the FSA, which he said would prevent civilians from taking up arms, worsening the conflict.
The FSA, he said, "is a national Syrian army and as the regime has the right to get help from its Russian and Iranian allies, it is the right of the opposition to ask for help from its friends in enabling the Syrian people to achieve change."
The FSA, based in neighboring Turkey, is believed to number several thousand soldiers and it almost daily announces claims of groups of soldiers joining its ranks that cannot be confirmed. It is heavily outgunned by the powerful regime military, which still has the power to conduct focused operations that can drive the rebels out of any areas they gain control of.
But the military cannot cover everywhere at once, and FSA troops appear to be proving effective at hit-and-run attacks and have put up staunch resistance in assaults on opposition-dominated urban areas.
On Sunday, rebel soldiers attacked a military convoy in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing 14 government troops, the Observatory said, reporting that 14 other regime soldiers were killed in fighting elsewhere.
Early Saturday, regime forces bombarded the restive central city of Homs, apparently in response to FSA attacks. Activists said the bombardment was the deadliest incident of the uprising, killing more than 200 people in a single day. The regime denied any bombardment, and there was no way to independently confirm the toll.
Gunfire continued to ring out Sunday in several neighborhoods of Homs, and at least 23 people were killed in the city and nearby towns, including three children, the Observatory said. Grisly video posted by activists online showed a young boy said to have been wounded in the shooting, his jaw torn away. The video and the Observatory's casualty reports could not be independently confirmed.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes effectively killed an Arab League plan that called for Assad to hand over power to his vice president and allow the creation of a unity government. The resolution would have expressed support for the Arab League plan, which Assad rejected.
The Syrian government touted the U.N. result as a victory.
The state-run newspaper, Tishreen, vowed that Damascus will press its crackdown aiming to restore "stability and security and confront all forms of terrorism." The regime has portrayed the uprising as the work of terrorists and armed gangs as part of a foreign conspiracy.
Hundreds of regime supporters rallied in a Damascus square, waving Russian and Chinese flags in gratitude for blocking the resolution.
"Thanks Russia, thanks China for undermining the Western conspiracy against our country," said Nibal Hmeid, a 24-year-old teacher at the rally. She said Assad should now settle the situation "decisively and militarily against those armed criminals."
AP correspondent Matthew Lee reported from Sofia, Bulgaria. AP correspondent Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.