BEIRUT (AP) — The commander of rebel Syrian soldiers said Sunday there is no choice but to use military force to drive President Bashar Assad's regime from power as fears mounted that government troops will escalate their deadly crackdown on dissent after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution aimed at resolving the crisis.
With Western nations searching for an alternative strategy after the failed U.N. Security Council resolution, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite and rally against Assad's regime. The remark suggested the possible formation of a formal group of nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian opposition has called for such a coalition to provide it direct political and economic support after the double veto at the Security Council on Saturday killed a U.N. effort to promote an Arab plan to end violence in Syria.
Clinton called the vetoes "a travesty."
"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations," she told reporters in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
But the threat of both sides turning to greater force raises the potential for Syria to enter a dangerous new phase that threatens to degenerate into outright civil war.
The uprising began in March with peaceful protests against Assad's regime, sparking a fierce crackdown by government forces. Army defectors who joined the uprising later began to protect protesters from attacks. In recent months the rebel soldiers, known as the Free Syrian Army have grown bolder, attacking regime troops and trying establish control in pro-opposition areas, bringing heavier government response.
Now regime opponents fear Assad will unleash even greater violence to crush protesters, feeling that he has protection by his top ally Moscow. If the opposition turns overtly to armed resistance, the result could be a dramatic increase in the bloodshed.
"There is no other road" except military action to topple Assad after the vetoes at the U.N., the commander of the Free Syrian Army told The Associated Press by telephone from Turkey.
"We consider that Syria is occupied by a criminal gang and we must liberate the country from this gang," Col. Riad al-Asaad said. "This regime does not understand the language of politics, it only understands the language of force."
He called Russia and China's veto a "strike against the Syrian people," not just the opposition.
A Syrian state-run newspaper, Tishreen, vowed Sunday that Damascus will press its crackdown aiming to restore "stability and security and confront all forms of terrorism." Early Saturday, regime forces bombarded the restive central city of Homs in what activists said was the deadliest incident of the uprising. They reported more than 200 killed, but the regime denied any bombardment and there was no way to independently confirm the toll.
On Sunday, gunfire continued to ring out in several neighborhoods of Homs, and at least one person was shot dead by a sniper, the Britian-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Outside the city, troops bombarded the rebel-held town of Rastan, killing at least three people, it said.
Government forces also shelled the mountain town of Zabadani, north of Damascus, a significant opposition stronghold that fell under rebels' control late last month. Bombardment the past two days has wounded dozens and forced scores of families to flee, said an activist in the town.
"The situation is terrifying, makeshift hospitals are full," said the activist, who only gave his first name, Fares, for fear of government reprisals. He said the town has been under siege for the past five days and there is lack of food and heating fuel during the cold winter.
Troops and army defectors clashed in the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern province of Daraa, the Observatory said, reporting two civilians and nine soldiers killed in Idlib. It said a 14-year-old boy was killed when troops fired on a protest in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees said 22 people were killed Sunday in different parts of the country. The groups' reports could not be independently confirmed.
More than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria's crackdown, according to a U.N. count from January that has not been updated, and activists have reported dozens killed daily since.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes effectively killed an Arab League plan that called for Assad to hand over his powers to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government. The resolution would have expressed support for that Arab League plan, which Assad rejected.
As an alternative, the U.S. proposal for a formal grouping of nations backing the opposition could be similar to the Contact Group on Libya, which oversaw international help for opponents of the late deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In the case of Libya, the group also coordinated NATO military operations, something that is not envisioned in Syria.
U.S. officials said a friends group would work to enhance sanctions against Assad, bring Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country together, provide humanitarian relief for embattled Syrian communities and monitor arms sales.
The main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, backed the idea.
Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent figure in the SNC, wrote on his Facebook page that friendly countries should form an "international coalition ... whose aim will be to lead international moves to support the revolution through political and economic aid."
A deeply sensitive question is whether such a coalition would back the Free Syrian Army. There appears to be deep hesitation among Western countries, fearing a further militarization of the conflict.
In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV on Saturday after the U.N., the head of the Syrian National Council Burhan Ghalioun said a coalition might give the FSA support "if necessary" to "protect the Syrian people."
Arab nations and other backers of the Security Council resolution expressed their anger and frustration at the double veto during an international security conference in the German city of Munich.
Qatar's minister for international cooperation, Khaled al-Attiyah, said the vetoes sent "a very bad signal to Assad that there (is a) license to kill."
Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali urged other Arab nations to follow the step his country took Saturday and expel Syrian ambassadors and end recognition of Assad.
"The very least that we can do is to cut our relations to the Syrian regime," Jebali said.
The Syrian government Sunday touted the U.N. results as a victory.
Hundreds of regime supporters held a rally in a Damascus square, waving Russian and Chinese flags in gratitude for their blocking the resolution.
"Thanks Russia, thanks China for undermining the Western conspiracy against our country," said Nibal Hmeid, a 24-year-old teacher at the rally. She said Assad should now settle the situation in Syria "decisively and militarily against those armed criminals."
The regime has painted the uprising as the work of terrorists and armed gangs as part of a foreign conspiracy.
The state-run Syrian Tishreen daily, one of several mouthpieces for the regime, said Damascus would no push ahead with announced reforms, which include a new constitution, allowing the formation of new political parties and parliamentary elections.
It said the international community should now back moves for a dialogue between the government and opposition.
The opposition has dismissed Assad's reform plans as attempts to play for time, saying they will accept nothing less than his departure. It has rejected any dialogue with the regime.
AP correspondent Geir Moulson in Munich contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on twitter at http://twitter.com/bmroue