JEFFREY BROWN: Washington and Moscow waged a war of words today over Syria. The sharp exchanges came against the backdrop of an increasingly brutal fight that claimed more lives.
The roar of government guns resounded across the Syrian landscape today, in President Bashar al-Assad’s escalating campaign to pound rebel cities into submission.
Amateur video showed explosions from a rain of shells fired into Homs in central Syria. And in the east, the wounded filled hospitals in Deir el-Zour. The battles on the ground also fueled a new diplomatic confrontation between the U.S. and Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow is supplying Damascus with helicopter gunships, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged on Tuesday.
Lavrov spoke in Iran.
SERGEI LAVROV, Russian foreign Minister (through translator): All the contracts we have with Syria are about anti-aircraft air defense, and we are violating none of the international laws and providing no illegal weapons to Syria.
JEFFREY BROWN: Hours later, in Washington, Clinton fired back, after meeting with the foreign minister of India.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Russia says it wants peace and stability restored. It says it has no particular love lost for Assad, and it also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep. They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now.
JEFFREY BROWN: U.S. concerns were underscored by recent massacres in Syria and warnings of a potential new atrocity in Haffa near Assad’s hometown of Kardaha. State TV reported government troops captured Haffa today.
And new video showed U.N. observers being attacked yesterday as they tried in vain to reach the town. And as the fighting grew, so did the suffering. Turkey announced that 2,000 Syrian refugees crossed into Turkey in the past two days. Nearly 30,000 are now sheltering there.
Rabab Al-Rifai of the International Red Cross highlighted the humanitarian crisis speaking by phone today from Damascus.
RABAB AL-RIFAI, International Red Cross: Now, one of our priorities is to be able to reach as many people as possible in as many violence-stricken areas and in the shortest delay possible. However, due to the increasing situation in several parts of the country, we are unable to answer to all the needs at the same time.
JEFFREY BROWN: It all led the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief to say Syria has, in fact, entered into civil war. Syria’s foreign minister denied that claim, insisting, “Syria has not descended into civil war, but is witnessing a struggle to eradicate the scourge of terrorism.”
But France, in turn, rejected the Syrian statement. The new foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, spoke in Paris.
LAURENT FABIUS, French foreign minister (through translator): There is no need to play with words. When groups belonging to the same people massively tear one another apart and kill one another, if you can’t call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it.
JEFFREY BROWN: The French also talked of the U.N. enforcing a peace plan by military means, if need be. But there was no sign that Russia would agree.