Ramos-Horta warns of ‘Somalization’ of Syria as airstrikes leave more deaths


Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta warned Monday that Syria risked becoming a new Somalia as he voiced pessimism at any quick solution to the bloodshed that has left tens of thousands dead.

He made the comments as Syrian fighter jets pounded rebel areas across the country and as at least 117 people were reported to have been killed across the country, according to Syrian activists.

Ramos-Horta who helped bring independence to East Timor saw a dangerous mix in Syria, saying the rebels lacked democratic credentials and President Bashar al-Assad was determined to fight for the survival of himself and his community.

“It is becoming a vicious civil war involving many -- too many -- outside interests, governments and non-state interests,” Ramos-Horta told AFP on a visit to the United States.

“We are going to see a prolonged civil war, almost a Somalization of Syria, but in a much more dangerous region of the world. Unfortunately I cannot see a better scenario,” he said.

Somalia has been bereft of a central government and torn by fighting for two decades. Ramos-Horta said another parallel to Syria was the Iran-Iraq War, with the 1980-88 war leaving more than one million dead and ending “only when both sides were exhausted.”

“No incentive for the regime to back down”

Ramos-Horta, who has been active on international peace initiatives, said the United States and European nations were right to treat Syria’s opposition cautiously. But he said it was “too simplistic” to pin blame on Russia and China, which have blocked Western-led U.N. bids to pressure Assad.

Assad has ample firepower and there is “no incentive for the regime to back down” after witnessing the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the prosecution of Egypt’s deposed president Hosni Mubarak, he said.

Ramos-Horta said that the only chance for change in Syria would come from the military, calling it instrumental in pushing out strongmen such as Mubarak and Suharto in Indonesia as well as allowing recent reforms in Myanmar.

President Barack Obama’s administration has urged Assad to step down but said that it is only offering non-lethal assistance to the rebels, despite calls by some members of the rival Republican Party to arm the opposition.

Ramos-Horta voiced concern over revenge attacks on Alawites, saying that centrists in the opposition “will be cast aside, eaten up, swallowed by the revolution, even considered to be traitors for trying to pursue a prudent and moderate path.”

“Unfortunately, not everybody thinks like the Indonesians or like us... that we have the ability of letting bygones be bygones,” he said.

Ramos-Horta, an exiled voice for East Timor during two decades of often brutal Indonesian occupation, advocated clemency for Indonesians accused of atrocities as well as renegade troops who tried to assassinate him in 2008.

Ramos-Horta shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with East Timorese Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. Ramos-Horta was elected president of the young nation but earlier this year stepped down peacefully after losing a re-election bid.

He spoke to AFP by telephone from New York, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Asia Society that was canceled due to mega-storm Sandy.

We are going to see a prolonged civil war, almost a Somalization of Syria, but in a much more dangerous region of the world. Unfortunately I cannot see a better scenario

Jose Ramos-Horta

Nationwide airstrikes

Meanwhile, Syrian fighter jets pounded rebel areas across the country on Monday with scores of airstrikes that anti-regime activists called the most widespread bombing in a single day since Syria’s troubles started 19 months ago.

The death toll for what was supposed to be a four-day cease-fire between the regime of President Bashar Assad and rebels seeking his overthrow exceeded 500, and activists guessed the government’s heavy reliance on air power reflected its inability to roll back rebel gains.

“The army is no longer able to make any progress on the ground so it is resorting to this style,” said activist Hisham Nijim via Skype from the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Videos posted by activists online showed fighter jets screaming over Syrian towns, mushroom clouds rising from neighborhoods and residents searching the remains of damaged and collapsed buildings for bodies. One video from Maaret al-Numan in the north showed residents trying to save a boy who was buried up to his shoulders in rubble. Another showed the dead bodies of a young boy and girl laid out on a tile floor, according to The Associated Press.

The airstrikes focused on rebel areas in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, as well as on restive areas in and around the capital Damascus. The regime has been bombing rebel areas in the north for months, but had sparingly used its air force near the capital, presumably to avoid isolating its supporters there.

But analysts say that rampant defections and rising rebel capabilities have lessened the regime's ability to take back and hold rebel areas, making air strikes its most effective way to fight back.

Monday was supposed to be the fourth and final day of an internationally sanctioned cease-fire to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest periods of the Muslim calendar. But violence marred the truce almost immediately after it was to go into effect on Friday and continued apace through the weekend.

No respect for Syria ceasefire

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he was “deeply disappointed” that the warring parties didn’t respect the ceasefire and called on the divided international community to unite to stop the bloodshed.

“As long as the international community remains at odds, the needs, attacks and suffering will only grow,” he told reporters in South Korea.

Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who represents the U.N. and the Arab League and presented the plan, told reporters in Moscow that he’d keep trying to lessen the violence and “put an end to it.”

World powers remain divided on how to stop Syria’s crisis, with the U.S. and many Arab and European nations calling for Assad to step down while Russia, China and Iran continue to back the regime. But with the sides largely stalemated on the battlefield and little international appetite for military intervention, few expect the war to end soon.

Anti-regime activist say more than 35,000 people have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising started in March 2011.

The holiday cease-fire was the first international effort in months to try to stop the violence, and it accomplished little.

Muhieddine Lathkani, a London-based member of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said the air attacks were a result of the regime’s “total despair” and reflected the military’s inability to recapture rebel areas.

Among the hardest hit areas was the northern town of Maaret al-Numan, which rebels seized earlier this month only to face heavy retaliation from the military. Amateur videos posted online Monday showed dozens of men combing through huge swaths of rubble, occasionally finding wounded people covered in cement dust and carrying them off for treatment.

Other videos showed fighter jets screaming through the sky and dropping bombs over Damascus suburbs including Yabroud, Hazza and Harasta.

Videos from the poor neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad in south Damascus showed what activists said were people killed by regime shelling. One video showed a dead family of five, all wrapped in blankets. Others showed three dead bodies in a small bus and the bodies of two young children laid out on a floor.

Activist videos could not be independently verified due to reporting restrictions in Syria, but they appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

Also Monday, a car bomb exploded in the Damascus suburb of Jarmana, knocking balconies off of residential buildings and sending firemen rushing to fight the blaze, according to TV footage. The state news agency SANA said 11 people were killed and 67 wounded. The Observatory said five people were killed.

SANA also reported a second car bomb in the area later Monday but did not give a number of the dead and wounded.