The head of the Arab League warned Friday that Syria may be sliding toward civil war, as security forces fired on thousands of people who poured into the streets in support of army defectors who switched sides to try to topple President Bashar Assad, as U.S. expressed concerns amid reports that a Russian-operated ship with a “dangerous cargo” has reached conflict-torn Syria.
As many as 25 people have been killed by the fire of security forces across the country, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.
Over the course of the 10-month-old uprising, much of the violence has been from security forces firing on unarmed protesters. But in recent months breakaway soldiers have been attacking the Syrian military, and some opposition members have taken up arms against the regime, adding to the violence.
Despite that, Assad appears to maintain a firm grip on power in the face of growing international pressure to halt his crackdown and step down.
The Arab League chief, Nabil al-Araby, told The Associated Press that Assad’s regime was either not complying or only partially complying with an Arab League plan that Syria signed last month to end its crackdown.
“We are very concerned because there were certain commitments that were not complied with,” he said in Cairo, where the League is based. “If this continues, it may turn into civil war.”
The U.N. estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed one protester in the central city of Hama and another in the town of Ariha in the northwestern province of Idlib, where more than 20,000 people were demonstrating Friday.
The Observatory reported violence in the southern province of Deraa, the eastern region of Deir al-Zour and the central province of Homs, all centers of frequent protests.
A video posted online by activists showed dozens of people marching in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan, chanting “Freedom forever, despite you Assad!” Midan, where there have been frequent anti-regime protests, was hit by a suicide attack last Friday that killed 26 people.
It wasn’t clear who was behind that attack; the government blamed “terrorists” while the opposition suggested the regime orchestrated the blast to tarnish the uprising.
Another video posted Friday showed what appeared to be an armored personnel carrier on fire. The narrator said army defectors attacked the vehicle with a rocket-propelled-grenade.
The Arab League plan calls for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country.
An Arab League team of observers began work in Syria on Dec. 27 to offer an outside view of whether the government is abiding by its agreement to end the military crackdown on dissent.
The mission has been plagued by problems, including accusations that the Syrian government is interfering with the team’s work. This week, one of the observers was reported to have resigned and told a pan-Arab TV channel that the monitor mission was a “farce” because of Syrian government control.
From the beginning, eyebrows were raised at the appointment of Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi as chief of the observer force. He served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
That raised questions about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, were fit for the mission to monitor Syria's compliance with a peace plan.
Meanwhile, a Russian-operated ship with “a dangerous cargo” has reached conflict-torn Syria, a source at the vessel’s St Petersburg-based firm said on Friday, after being temporarily halted during a refueling stop in Cyprus, according to Reuters.
The source declined to comment on Russian and Cypriot media reports that the ship Chariot, which set sail from St. Petersburg on Dec. 9, was carrying cargo from Russia’s weapons exporter Rosoboronexport. The Cyprus newspaper Politis reported the ship was carrying 60 tons of ammunition.
The United States said on Friday it had raised concerns with Moscow over a Russian-operated ship that has arrived in Syria and which sources said contained a cargo of bullets.
“With regard to the ship we have raised our concerns about this both with Russia and with Cyprus, which was the last port of call for the ship, and we are continuing to seek clarification as to what went down here,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The United States had not independently verified the contents of the ship’s cargo, she said.
Russia has long been a major arms supplier to Syria, where President Assad is trying to crush a 10-month-old wave of unrest by military force, prompting Western and Arab sanctions against Damascus that Moscow has not joined.
“The ship was carrying a dangerous cargo,” the source at St. Petersburg-based Westberg Ltd. said by telephone on condition of anonymity. “It reached Syria on Jan. 11th,” he said.
Rosoboronexport spokesman Vyacheslav Davidenko said on Friday that the arms exporter would neither confirm nor deny the report.
Cypriot media had said on Wednesday that the Mediterranean island state’s authorities had intercepted a cargo of ammunition bound for Syria for checks after the ship carrying it put into the port of Limassol for refueling.
Cypriot officials had no comment but state radio reported then that the vessel would be allowed to sail onwards.