Syria is now in a state of civil war with more than 4,000 dead and increasing numbers of defecting soldiers taking up arms against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the top United Nations human rights official said on Thursday as U.S. placed economic sanctions on a senior Syrian general and a financier uncle of Assad.
“We are placing the figure at 4,000, but really the reliable information coming to us is that it is much more than that,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told a news conference.
“I have said that as soon as there were more and more defectors threatening to take up arms, I said this in August before the Security Council, there was going to be a civil war. At the moment that's how I am characterizing this,” she said, according to Reuters.
Syrian activists told Al Arabiya that as many as 27 people have been killed on Thursday by the gunfire of security forces, mostly in Hama.
U.S. sanctions Mohammed Makhluf
Washington, meanwhile, placed economic sanctions on Mohammed Makhluf, a senior Syrian general and a financier uncle of Assad, adding new pressure on the regime over its bloody political crackdown.
The Treasury Department added Makhluf, Assad’s maternal uncle and the father of already-sanctioned telecoms magnate Rami Makhluf, and 4th armored division General Aus Aslan, to its growing list of Syrian figures and organizations that Americans are banned from doing business with.
The Treasury called Makhluf, 79, someone “whom Assad used to make and move money” and an important Assad economic advisor.
“Makhluf ensured that assets in nearly all sectors were controlled by businessmen who were willing to act as proxies for the Assad regime in return for profits,” it said.
“In addition, he served as President Assad’s primary economic advisor and final decision maker on capital allocation decisions for Syrian regime investments in private banks in Syria.”
Also listed in the new sanctions were a defense ministry business -- the Military Housing Establishment, and the government-controlled Real Estate Bank, the country’s second largest bank.
The Military Housing Establishment “provides funding to the regime,” the Treasury said, while the bank is “responsible for administering the Government of Syria’s borrowings.”
The move came as both the European Union and Arab League nations also stepped up sanctions pressure on the Assad regime for its brutal eight-month crackdown on political protestors.
“It has never been more critical to escalate pressure on the Syrian government to immediately cease all violence against its own people and isolate the regime from the international financial system,” said Treasury undersecretary David Cohen in a statement.
Syria suspends role in Mediterranean Union
Syria has suspended its participation in the Mediterranean Union in retaliation for punitive measures against its regime by European states, state media said Thursday.
“Syria is suspending its membership in the Mediterranean Union in response to European measures taken against it,” said a statement carried on the official SANA news agency.
The Mediterranean Union, an initiative of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was inaugurated in 2008 to bolster cooperation between Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.
Coordination between opposition and army rebels
Meanwhile, Syria’s civilian opposition and army rebels have agreed to coordinate their struggle against President Assad’s regime, an official said Thursday.
The first meeting between the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army earlier this week in Turkey appeared to mark a change of tack from the SNC’s previous reluctance to back the armed struggle.
“It is agreed that it would be a coordinated movement, there would be coordination,” the SNC’s Khaled Khoja told AFP.
He said the meeting in the southern Turkish province of Hatay on Nov. 28 was attended by SNC head Burhan Ghaliun and FSA chief Riyadh al-Asaad, whose forces comprise deserters from the Syrian military.
“The council recognized the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognized the council as the political representative” of the opposition, Khoja said.
He did not specify how organic the links between the two movements would be but the meeting marked a new step in efforts to unite opposition to Assad, who is under growing pressure to step down.
A Turkish foreign ministry official said Ankara was aware of the meeting between the two groups but had no information about its content.
Joint action plan
Four high-ranking army defectors and four high-ranking SNC members agreed to form an eight-member commission to create a “joint action plan,” Ahmed Ramadan, one of the SNC members, told Hurriyet Daily News.
Ramadan was one of the participants in the meeting, held in one of the tent cities in Hatay, in which thousands of Syrian refugees have taken shelter, the daily reported.
President Assad’s repression of pro-democracy protests in recent months has earned Damascus a barrage of international condemnation and intensifying economic sanctions that are slowly crippling the country's economy.
“We agreed that the duty of the Free Syrian Army is to protect people, but not to attack,” said Khoja, a member of the SNC’s foreign relations committee.
“Protecting minorities, preventing possible conflicts among the factions by sending its troops to conflict areas,” Khoja added, enumerating some of the FSA’s duties.
He quoted rebel leader Asaad as vowing to follow the political line set by the SNC, which has been touring Western and other capitals to muster support for its bid to unseat Assad.
The meeting between the council and the rebel army came after the head of the SNC last week urged the FSA to refrain from launching attacks against Assad’s forces and save the country from civil conflict.
“We would like this army to carry out defensive actions to protect those who have left the (regime’s) army and peaceful demonstrations, but not take on offensive actions against the army,” Ghaliun of the council had said.
Colonel Asaad on the other hand in a telephone interview with AFP had called for foreign air strikes on “strategic targets” in Syria to speed up the fall of the regime.
He said the Free Syrian Army, which now claims 20,000 men in its ranks, wanted the international community to provide it with logistical support.
Limited foreign intervention would allow the FSA “to triumph in a relatively short time” Asaad had said.
The FSA has stepped up attacks in recent weeks and openly claimed responsibility for deadly operations against the army and pro-regime militiamen.
Last week the FSA claimed an attack on a bus in the center of Syria that killed seven senior military pilots.