Syria's civil war is increasingly tearing apart ethnic and religious communities, putting members of the same group on opposite sides of the conflict, said Fawaz A. Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
"The longer the conflict continues, the more fragmented Syrian communities will be," he said. "This does not bode well for the post-Assad Syria."
Since the regime began bombing from the air a few weeks ago, the number of casualties and the scope of destruction have increased sharply. In one such air attack Friday, a warplane bombed the northern town of Azaz near the Turkish border, killing at least four people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Amateur footage posted by opposition activists showed frantic residents clawing with their hands through the rubble of a bomb-flattened home in Azaz. A dust-covered man climbed out of a crater carved by the blast, cradling a dead toddler in his arms. The child's tiny arms and legs flopped as the man carried the limp body to a pickup truck, as shocked bystanders shouted "God is Great."
Syria imposes tight restrictions on foreign journalists, and the authenticity of such videos cannot be verified independently.
In Geneva, the U.N.'s top human rights body stepped up efforts to gather evidence against members of Assad's regime. The Human Rights Council appointed a renowned U.N. war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, to its independent panel probing alleged war crimes in Syria. Such evidence could be used in a future war crimes tribunal hearing — although none is planned so far.
The council also extended the panel's mission, due to expire by the end of September, by another six months. Last week, the investigators submitted a confidential second list of suspected war crimes perpetrators to the U.N. human rights office.
There has also been concern that a desperate Assad could unleash chemical weapons on his opponents. It is widely believed that Syria possesses extensive chemical and biological weapons stockpiles and it has threatened to use them if the country comes under attack.
Panetta, the defense secretary, said Friday that there have been multiple "limited" movements of chemical weapons, but that Syrian officials were relocating the stocks in order to better secure them.
"There has been intelligence that there have been some moves that have taken place. Where exactly that's taken place, we don't know," Panetta told reporters. "I don't have any specific information about the opposition and whether or not they've obtained some of this or how much they've obtained and just exactly what's taken place."
Asked if some of the weapons have fallen into the hands of the rebels or Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Panetta said he has no "firm information to confirm that that's taken place." He said the U.S. has monitored the main sites and determined that they are still secure.
President Barack Obama has said the threat of chemical or biological warfare in Syria is a "red line" for the U.S., and has warned that Washington will not allow the weapons to fall into the wrong hands. He said there would be enormous consequences if the U.S. sees any movement or use of the weapons.
Associated Press writers David Stringer at the United Nations and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed reporting.
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