Clinton hints at possible ‘civil war’ in Syria; UK steps up contact with opposition


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Friday of the possibility of a civil war in Syria that either is directed or influenced by Syrian army defectors as British Foreign Secretary said he will meet with Syrian opposition representatives in London next week.

“I think there could be a civil war with a very determined and well-armed and eventually well-financed opposition that is, if not directed by, certainly influenced by defectors from the army,” Clinton told the U.S. network NBC.

“We’re already seeing that, something that we hate to see because we are in favor of a peaceful... protest and non-violent opposition,” the chief U.S. diplomat said.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday that an attack like the one on a Syrian intelligence base by army defectors -- who have formed the Free Syria Army -- could lead the country into a civil war.

But Clinton’s deputy spokesman Mark Toner had disagreed, saying Thursday: “We think that’s an incorrect assessment.”

He added: “If it (Russia) characterizes it as a civil war, we view that it is very much the Assad regime carrying out a campaign of violence, intimidation and repression against innocent protesters.”

Toner has said that violent acts by the opposition play into the hands of the Syrian regime which claims a largely peaceful movement is led by thugs and “terrorists,” according to AFP.

Clinton also squarely put the blame for the violence on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “The way the Assad regime has responded has provoked people into taking up arms against them,” she said.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague will meet with Syrian opposition representatives in London next week in an intensification of contact with opponents of President Assad, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

The Syrian opposition members would also meet senior officials of Prime Minister David Cameron at his Downing Street office, according to Reuters.

Britain has been a strong critic of Assad, calling for him to step aside and end a crackdown on anti-government protests that according to the United Nations has killed at least 3,500 people since March, but has ruled out military intervention.

“We have been having regular contacts with a variety of figures in the Syrian opposition for several months. We are now intensifying these,” the Foreign Office said.

It added that Britain’s former ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy, had been appointed to coordinate relations with the Syrian opposition.

The delegation would include members of the opposition Syrian National Council and the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, in meetings expected to take place on Monday, a Foreign Office source said.

Hague called this week for the European Union to consider further sanctions against Syria to increase pressure on Assad to end the violence in the country.