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U.S. raises specter of 'additional measures' in Syria

From the CNN Wire Staff
February 22, 2012 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: White House spokesman says, "We don't rule out additional measures"
  • NEW: State Department spokeswoman says: "We may have to consider additional measures"
  • U.S., other nations are set to meet in Tunisia this week to attempt to tackle the Syrian crisis
  • U.N. human rights experts cite concern over recent arrests

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Washington (CNN) -- U.S. officials called Tuesday for international action to stop the violence orchestrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and left open the possibility of "additional measures" if the bloodshed continues.

"We believe that we are in a situation where we -- the international community needs to act in order to allow for the transition from Assad to a more democratic future for Syria to take place before the situation becomes too chaotic," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

Asked about calls in recent days by Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, for the United States to consider arming the opposition, Carney said, "We don't want to take actions that would contribute to the further militarization of Syria, because that could take the country down a dangerous path. But we don't rule out additional measures that, working with our international partners, that the international community might take if the international community should wait too long and not take the kind of action that needs to taken to ensure that Assad steps aside, to ensure that a peaceful, democratic transition can take place in Syria."

A spokeswoman for the State Department held out hope for a political solution, but she too cited the possibility of "additional measures" being taken in the absence of change. "

In response to a question about whether the United States might arm the Syrian opposition, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "From our perspective, we don't believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarization of Syria. What we don't want to see is the spiral of violence increase. That said, if we can't get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures."

Their comments came as the International Committee of the Red Cross implored the Syrian regime and others involved in fighting to periodically suspend the violence so it can distribute help to hungry, frightened and wounded civilians.

"Implement a daily cessation of fighting for at least two hours, in all areas affected, to allow the prompt delivery of humanitarian assistance," the ICRC exhorted.

"The current situation requires an immediate decision to implement a humanitarian pause in the fighting," said ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger. "In Homs and in other affected areas, entire families have been stuck for days in their homes, unable to step outside to get bread, other food or water, or to obtain medical care."

Carney said the U.S. government backs the proposal. "Basic humanitarian supplies are very scarce, and therefore action needs to be taken, and we would certainly support the calls for those kinds of cease-fires."

The ICRC plea came as government security forces pounded restive areas such as Homs and that city's defiant Baba Amr neighborhood and staged raids elsewhere.

At least 106 people died Tuesday in the conflict, which has left nearly 9,000 people dead since last March, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

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Among the dead were 55 people in Idlib, 45 in Homs, three in the Damascus suburbs, two in Deir Ezzor and one in Aleppo, said the organization, which organizes and documents anti-government protests.

The government's siege against Homs has lasted 18 consecutive days.

Security forces shelled Baba Amr and two other Homs neighborhoods, Khalidiya and Karam al-Zaytoon, according to the committees.

"The situation in Baba Amr is a lot worse today, if that can be even imaginable," said Dima Moussa, a Chicago lawyer and a Syrian opposition activist. She deplored what she called al-Assad's "barbaric campaign" to crush the city, calling "our beloved Homs" a "bleeding wound."

"The shelling started early in the morning as usual. However, today, activists are reporting that it was more intense and violent than the previous days, and the frequency of the bombs was a lot greater than before," said Moussa, a spokeswoman for the opposition Revolutionary Council of Homs and a member of the Syrian National Council, another opposition group.

The Revolutionary Council said shelling was targeting homes in Baba Amr in which casualties were being treated. "The number of those injured could not be estimated because of the nonstop bombing," it said.

"This attack carried out by the Assad forces can be considered a real genocide, and all this is happening amid an electricity, water, and communication services outage, accompanied by the unavailability of food, baby formula and medicine. In this manner, even those who may survive the bombing, end up dying due to hunger or lack of medical care."

But the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported Tuesday that "food and services are available in Homs," and said "provocative channels are fabricating lies" to the contrary.

CNN cannot independently verify opposition or government reports of casualties because the government has severely limited access to the country by foreign journalists.

Dozens of military vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, have been seen on the road from Damascus to Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Moussa said she had heard similar reports. "The possibility of a very violent ground attack is becoming more real, with the expectation of a complete annihilation of the city or at least the Baba Amr neighborhood," she said.

Many world powers have condemned the nearly year-long crackdown by forces loyal to al-Assad. The international community has had little impact on halting the violence. Aid groups and activists have been calling for humanitarian help.

Moussa underscored the concerns of the ICRC.

Baba Amr has been "completely cut off and services are pretty much nonexistent," Moussa said.

"Communicating with the activists in the area is becoming harder, so getting complete information about casualties is becoming difficult, and we think that the numbers far exceed those that we have been reporting, since we're only reporting those that we can confirm," she said.

Umm Khidir, one of several mothers holed up in a makeshift shelter after a weeks-long bombing campaign on the neighborhood, said her son had a fever and needed medicine, but none was available.

"He keeps crying and saying, 'I want Daddy, I want Daddy.'" But the boy's father was killed several days ago, when the bombing started, she said. "They didn't let me see his body; it was shredded to pieces. His blood is still in the streets," she said.

She added, "What is the world waiting for? For us to die of hunger and fear?"

Activists reported government assaults in Idlib province, where the LCC said 55 people died Tuesday in the city alone.

Forces wielding machine guns there killed a bus driver and five passengers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Security forces are stepping up raids, shelling and shooting in the Idlib towns of Ebdeta and Ebleen, the LCC said. Homes have been destroyed, and intense shooting delayed the retrieval of bodies from the streets.

Seven men were detained in a cave beneath their house, tortured and then buried alive when the cave was bombed, the LCC said.

Local journalists have also been affected by the crackdown.

Last week, Mazan Darwish, director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and at least 15 others were arrested in a raid in Damascus.

Frank La Rue, a U.N. special rapporteur, said the group's "role is essential in protecting and promoting human rights in the country.

"I am concerned that these arrests and detention are related to the SCM's work on human rights. If so, these persons should be released immediately and unconditionally."

Thousands of people have been detained in Syria during the government crackdown.

El Hadji Malick Sow, chair rapporteur of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, said the arrests reflect "an alarming and recurrent pattern of arbitrary detention in Syria since March 2011."

The United States, the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey have initiated a range of sanctions against Syria over the crackdown.

But international action against the Syrian regime has been blunted by Russia and China, both of them major trade partners with Syria. They have vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime.

The Obama administration has said al-Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule. The administration is working to bolster the opposition through the "Friends of Syria," a coalition of states slated to meet Friday in Tunisia.

The gathering is backing the Arab League initiative for political transition in Syria that was vetoed at the Security Council, Nuland said. Seventy countries have been invited to the meeting, where participants are expected to discuss tightening sanctions, providing humanitarian aid and finding ways to support the opposition, she said.

Russia will not participate in the "Friends of Syria" conference, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported Tuesday. The value of Syrian contracts with the Russian defense industry likely exceeds $4 billion, according to Jeffrey Mankoff of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Russia also leases a naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus, giving the Russian navy its only direct access to the Mediterranean, Mankoff said.

"Moscow fears that (al-Assad's fall) would jeopardize both its lucrative arms contracts and its access to Tartus," Mankoff said in an essay on CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" blog.

CNN's Arwa Damon, Joe Sterling, Hamdi Alkhshali, Yousuf Basil, Tom Cohen and Holly Yan contributed to this report.

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