Syria opposition partners with armed rebels

(CBS/AP) BEIRUT - Syria's main opposition group formed a military council Thursday to organize and unify all armed resistance to President Bashar Assad's regime as the conflict veered ever closer to civil war.

The Paris-based leadership of the Syrian National Council said its plan was coordinated with the most potent armed opposition force — the Free Syrian Army — made up mainly of army defectors.

Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun
Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun attends a news conference, Paris, March 1, 2012.
AP

"The revolution started peacefully and kept up its peaceful nature for months, but the reality today is different and the SNC must shoulder its responsibilities in the face of this new reality," SNC president Burhan Ghalioun told reporters in Paris, saying any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council.

Still he tried to play down the risks of all-out warfare.

"We want to control the use of weapons so that there won't be a civil war," he said. "Our aim is to help avoid civil war."

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The SNC has called for arming rebels in the past, but this was the first time it sought to organize the fighters under one umbrella. The plan coincides with a ferocious government offensive on the opposition stronghold of Homs in central Syria that has been going on for nearly a month.

In a sign the rebels in Homs may be accepting defeat - at least for now - in one particularly hard-hit neighborhood, the Free Syrian Army announced a "tactical retreat" of most fighters from Baba Amr after almost four weeks of intense battery.

The Syrian government, meanwhile, declared Homs a "safe area" on Thursday, saying it had managed to cleanse the rebel-held district of Baba Amr of "gunmen".

International pressure on the regime has been growing more intense by the day. The U.N.'s top human rights body voted Thursday to condemn Syria for its "widespread and systematic violations" against civilians, and the U.K. and Switzerland closed their embassies in Damascus over worsening security. The U.S. closed its embassy in February.

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The new U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, meanwhile, said Assad must stop the killing and violence immediately and allow humanitarian agencies into the country.

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan met with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday and told reporters that he will go to the Mideast very soon to help find a peaceful solution to the 11-month conflict.

He called it a "very difficult assignment." The U.N. estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011.

The U.S. has not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged conflict because of Syria's complex web of allegiances in the region that extend to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

On Wednesday, the Syrian regime showed a new determination to crush its opponents, vowing to "cleanse" the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs from "gunmen," as activists reported troops massing outside.

Syrian activists said government forces have cut off communications to Bab Amr, jamming satellite phone signals as they mass for an apparent ground assault. The neighborhood has been under siege for about four weeks and hundreds have died in shelling.

Authorities had previously blocked land and mobile phone lines, but activists were able to communicate with the outside world with satellite phones.

The activist Revolutionary Council of Homs said it could no longer reach anyone inside Baba Amr. All satellite signals were jammed, it said.

The Syrian conflict began as mostly peaceful protests, which drew an iron-fisted military crackdown. But the revolt has turned increasingly militarized. There are near daily clashes between armed military defectors and government forces and the rebels have managed to capture and hold small pieces of territory, notably in and around Homs and along the northern border with Turkey.

The opposition's main problem over the past year has been its inability to coalesce behind a single leader or ideology beyond toppling the regime. Western powers trying to help the anti-government forces oust Assad have repeatedly stressed the importance of the fragmented opposition pulling together. The SNC announcement seemed to respond to those calls.

"The Military Bureau will track the armed opposition groups, organize and unify their ranks under one central command, defining their defense missions while placing them under the political supervision of the SNC, and coordinating their activities in accordance with the overall strategy of the revolution," the SNC said in a statement.

Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday voted 37 in favor and three against a resolution proposed by Turkey that calls on Syria to immediately stop all attacks on civilians and grant unhindered access to aid groups.

Three members of the 47-nation body abstained and four didn't vote.

Russia, China and Cuba objected to the resolution.

The Geneva-based council's vote carries no legal weight but diplomats consider it a strong moral signal that may encourage a similar resolution in the powerful U.N. Security Council.

The U.N. estimated that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011, when protesters inspired by successful Arab Spring uprisings against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms against the regime.

Activists put the total death toll at more than 8,000, most of them civilians.

In Kuwait, the parliament Thursday passed a non-binding resolution calling on the government to help arm the Syrian opposition and to break diplomatic ties with Assad's regime. A day earlier, parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging the government to recognize the SNC as the country's sole representatives.

There was no immediate reaction from the rulers in the oil-rich Gulf state. Some lawmakers also have proposed severing diplomatic ties with Assad's regime, but the issue has not come up for full debate.

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