(CNSNews.com) – Recent gains by Syria’s Assad regime and its allies prompted a warning from France Wednesday that the key rebel-held city of Aleppo could be next to fall, but at a meeting in Washington with his British counterpart Secretary of State John Kerry said he had “nothing to announce” on their discussions about arming the opposition.
Meanwhile reports of the killing of dozens of Shi’ite villagers by Sunni fighters added to concerns about the nature of some of the rebel groups and their sectarian agenda, while a Syrian helicopter strike inside Lebanon added to fears about a widening conflict.
On Sunday, unnamed administration officials were quoted as saying a decision on whether to arm Syrian rebels could take place as early as this week, and Kerry postponed a scheduled foreign trip to take part in White House talks on the matter.
After meeting with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Wednesday, Kerry acknowledged that “further options” were being considered, “as everybody knows – it’s been written about this week.”
“But we don’t have anything to announce at this moment,” he added.
Both Kerry and Hague stressed that a political solution is the goal in Syria, and they mentioned their hopes to convene a conference in Geneva to push forward a political transition involving Syrian regime and rebel representatives.
But Hague also said recent developments – alluding to the retaking of the strategic town of Qusayr by Syrian forces bolstered by fighters from Hezbollah and Iran – were making a political solution more difficult.
“The United Kingdom believes the situation demands a strong, coordinated, and determined approach by the U.K., the U.S., and our allies in Europe and in the region,” he said.
For months calls have been growing for the U.S. to move beyond its policy of providing only non-lethal aid to the mainstream opposition, even as other voices warn that weapons sent to the rebels could end up in the hands of extremist jihadists among them.
In Washington, some members of Congress are pushing for the arming of “vetted” rebel groups, while in Europe Britain and France have been leading the drive, together prodding the European Union last month not to extend a Syrian arms embargo.
The French foreign ministry on Tuesday warned of a “turning point” in Syria, and on Wednesday Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the advance of regime and allied forces must be stopped before the northern city of Aleppo falls.
Located near the border with Turkey, Aleppo is Syria’s largest city. The Hezbollah television station, Al-Manar, early this week announced the launch of a major offensive, dubbed Operation Storm of the North, to recapture the city.
Fabius said on France 2 television that Aleppo “is the next target of Hezbollah and of the Iranians.”
“We need to rebalance things because over the past few weeks the troops of Bashar al-Assad and especially Hezbollah and the Iranians, along with Russian arms, have gained considerable ground,” he said.
“We must stop this progression before Aleppo,” Fabius said, although he did not elaborate on how he was proposing stopping the regime’s advance.
Western nations’ debate over a response to the complex crisis is being further complicated by the deepening sectarian nature of the conflict.
Inflaming sectarian tensions
On Wednesday, news emerged of the killing of Shi’ites in a village in eastern Syria. The regime described it as a “massacre” of 30 civilian residents of the village of Hatla, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based pro-opposition monitoring group, put the number of dead at 60, and said most were pro-government fighters.
In video clips posted online by the Syrian Observatory, Sunni fighters are seen in the village, and heard calling Shi’ites “infidels” and “dogs.”
A corpse is displayed, and some rebels are seen waving black flags associated with jihadist groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front.
Syrian and Iranian state media blamed the al-Nusra Front for the Hatla killings, saying the jihadist group had been angered by the regime’s recent success in Qusayr.
An article on the Hezbollah website said the killings had come “after both Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi and the Saudi Mufti Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh poured their sectarian stances that call for fighting Shias in Syria.”
As reported earlier Qaradawi – an influential Sunni scholar linked to the Muslim Brotherhood – and the top Saudi cleric have both stepped up anti-Shi’ite rhetoric, in response to developments in Syria. President Bashar Assad is a member of the Shi’ite Alawite sect, and his key backers and Shi’ite Hezbollah and Iran.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a press briefing the U.S. was “appalled by reports that rebels have killed 60 Shia in Hatla village. The motivations and circumstances surrounding this massacre remain unclear, but the United States strongly condemns any and all attacks against civilians.”
Psaki also condemned the regime for a helicopter attack Wednesday in a town across the Lebanese border, calling it “an unacceptable provocation” that “risks dragging Lebanon into the Syrian conflict.”
In its account of the incident, the Syrian army said one of its helicopters had “targeted a terrorist group trying to escape to the Lebanese territories.”
“The helicopter targeted the terrorist group and injured some of its members while the rest managed to flee into Arsal district [in Lebanon] where they were targeted with gunfire from the helicopter,” it said in a statement carried by the official SANA news agency.
The Lebanese Army said the helicopter had fired two rockets at a town square in Arsal, injuring a resident and causing damage to property. The town has become a haven for thousands of Syrians who have fled the fighting at home, many of them from Qusayr.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman in a brief statement condemned the violation and said Lebanon had the right to take measures to defend its sovereignty and protect its people. The only possible measure he cited, however, was the “submission of a complaint to the Arab League and the United Nations.”