World and Nation

Heavier weapons push Syrian crisis toward civil war

WASHINGTON — With evidence that powerful new weapons are flowing to both the Syrian government and opposition fighters, the bloody uprising in Syria has thrust the Obama administration into an increasingly difficult position as the conflict shows signs of mutating into a full-fledged civil war.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the United States believed that Russia was shipping attack helicopters to Syria that President Bashar Assad could use to escalate his government’s deadly crackdown on civilians and the militias battling his rule. Her comments reflected rising frustration with Russia, which has continued to supply weapons to its major Middle Eastern ally despite an international outcry over the government’s brutal crackdown.

“We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” Clinton said at an appearance with President Shimon Peres of Israel. “They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry; everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue.”

Russia insists that it provides Damascus only with weapons that can be used in self-defense.

As fighting intensified across Syria, there were reports that government forces were using helicopters to fire on a rebel-held enclave in the northwestern part of the country. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, reported that more than 60 people were killed in the fighting, one-third of them government soldiers, while the United Nations released a report saying that Syrians as young as 8 had been deployed as human shields for soldiers.

The fierce government assaults from the air are partly a response to improved tactics and weaponry among the opposition forces, which have recently received more powerful anti-tank missiles from Turkey, with the financial support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to members of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile, and other activists.

The United States, these activists said, was consulted about these weapons transfers. Officials in Washington said that they continued to oppose funneling arms to the rebels, though they recognized that Syria’s neighbors would do so, and that it was important to ensure that weapons did not end up in the hands of al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

The increased ferocity of the attacks and the more lethal weapons on both sides threatened to overwhelm diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, continued to pressure Damascus to halt the violence and to respect a cease-fire. But Clinton said that if Assad did not stop the violence by mid-July, the United Nations would have little choice but to end its observer mission in the country.