BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s military pounded rebel bastions in Damascus on Tuesday and Saudi Arabia demanded an arms embargo on what it called President Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal and illegitimate regime.
Attacking Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah for supporting Assad, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom could not be silent and called for arms to be supplied to Syrian rebels, now militarily on the back foot.
“Syria is facing a double-edged attack, it is facing genocide by the government and an invasion from outside the government, and ... a massive flow of weapons to aid and abet that invasion and that genocide. This must end,” he told a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jeddah.
“The kingdom calls for issuing an unequivocal international resolution to halt the provision of arms to the Syrian regime and states the illegitimacy of the regime,” Prince Saud said.
In Damascus, Assad’s gunners fired mortars and artillery at Zamalka and Irbin, just east of the government-held city centre, in an assault backed by air strikes, opposition activists said.
Mostly Sunni Muslim rebels who grabbed footholds in Damascus nearly a year ago now say they face a grinding advance by the Syrian military, buoyed by support from Assad’s regional Shi‘ite allies, notably Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters on the ground.
If the insurgents are driven from the capital’s eastern suburbs, they would lose arms supply routes and suffer a severe blow in their drive to end four decades of Assad family rule.
The Saudi minister’s strongly worded remarks reinforced signs that the Syrian war is entangling much of the Middle East.
Security in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon, where the conflict has aggravated Sunni-Shi‘ite tensions, has crumbled.
Suicide bombers killed eight people north of Baghdad on Tuesday, a day after 39 people died when 10 car bombs exploded in the capital. Violence has spiralled in Iraq since April.
“GETTING OUT OF HAND”
In Lebanon, clashes between the Lebanese army and gunmen led by a fiercely anti-Hezbollah Sunni cleric engulfed the southern port of Sidon on Sunday. At least 40 people were killed, including 18 soldiers, security sources said.
Sectarian hatred has even flared in Sunni-majority Egypt, where a crowd attacked and killed five Shi‘ites on Sunday.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League mediator, urged the United States and Russia to help “contain this situation that is getting out of hand, not only in Syria but also in the region”.
Speaking in Geneva before preparatory talks with U.S. and Russian officials, he said he doubted that a Syria peace conference proposed by Moscow and Washington could take place next month, citing disarray among Assad’s political opponents.
More than 93,000 people have been killed in Syria since peaceful protests erupted in March 2011. Assad’s violent response helped generate what is now a civil war that has driven nearly 1.7 million refugees into neighbouring countries.
Outgunned rebels are looking to Western and Arab nations to help them to reverse Assad’s battlefield gains of the last few weeks. But although the United States announced unspecified military aid this month, it is unclear whether this can shift the balance against the Syrian leader and his allies.
Kerry wants to ensure that aid to the rebels is properly coordinated, in part out of concern that weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist militants who are prominent in their ranks.
“Our goal is very clear, we cannot let this be a wider war, we cannot let this contribute to more bloodshed and prolongation of the agony of the people of Syria,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state which views Shi‘ite Iran as its arch-rival, has increased aid to Syrian rebels in recent months, supplying anti-aircraft missiles among other weapons.
Prince Saud denounced foreign involvement in Syria “by Hezbollah and other militias supported by the forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard”, and also took a swipe at Moscow.
“There is no logic that allows Russia to publicly arm the Syrian regime and the foreign forces that support it.”
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai and Lesley Wroughton in Jeddah; Writing by Alistair Lyon, editing by Peter Millership