BEIRUT — Syria has entered a state of civil war with more than 4,000 people dead and an increasing number of soldiers defecting from the army to fight President Bashar Assad's regime, the U.N.'s top human rights official said Thursday.
Civil war has been the worst-case scenario in Syria since the revolt against Assad began eight months ago. Damascus has a web of allegiances that extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy, raising fears of a regional conflagration.
The assessment that the bloodshed in Syria has crossed into civil war came from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.
The conflict has shown little sign of letting up. Activists reported up to 22 people killed Thursday, adding to what has become a daily grind of violence.
"We are placing the (death toll) figure at 4,000 but really the reliable information coming to us is that it's much more than that," Pillay said in Geneva.
"As soon as there were more and more defectors threatening to take up arms, I said this in August before the Security Council, that there's going to be a civil war," she added. "And at the moment, that's how I am characterizing this."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined to call it a civil war.
"The overwhelming use of force has been taken by Assad and his regime," Toner told reporters. "So there's no kind of equanimity here."
Toner said Assad's government has taken Syria down a dangerous path, and that "the regime's bloody repression of the protests has not surprisingly led to this kind of reaction that we've seen with the Free Syrian Army."
The Free Syrian Army, a group of defectors from the military, has emerged as the most visible armed challenge to Assad. The group holds no territory, appears largely disorganized and is up against a fiercely loyal and cohesive military.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria. But there is real concern that the conflict in Syria could spread chaos across the Middle East.
Syria borders five countries with whom it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel's case, a fragile truce.
Recent economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey were aimed at persuading Assad to end his crackdown. On Thursday, the EU announced a new round of sanctions against Syrian individuals and businesses linked to the unrest.
The new sanctions target 12 people and 11 companies, and add to a long list of those previously sanctioned by the EU. The full list of names of those targeted will not be known until they are published Friday in the EU's official journal.
The 27-member bloc also imposed some sanctions on Syria's ally Iran in the wake of an attack this week by a mob on the British Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Iran of supporting Assad's crackdown, saying "there is a link between what is happening in Iran and what is happening in Syria."
The sanctions are punishing Syria's ailing economy — a dangerous development for Damascus because the prosperous merchant classes are key to propping up the regime.
Syrian business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges. The sanctions, along with increasing calls by the opposition for general nationwide strikes, could sap their resolve.
A resident of the flashpoint city of Homs said businessmen are growing impatient.
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