Syria on brink of sectarian civil war, West says

UN monitors visiting Hass in Idlib province. Kofi Annan has urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to act now to end bloodshed.

BEIRUT - Syria is nearing full-blown sectarian civil war that would be catastrophic for the entire Middle East, Western nations said on Thursday, urging Russia to end its support for President Bashar al-Assad and put pressure on him to stop the bloodshed.

With anti-Assad rebels urging international envoy Kofi Annan to declare his peace plan dead, freeing them from any commitment to the tattered truce, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the prospect of spiraling violence presented "terrible" danger.

"A civil war in a country that would be driven by sectarian divides ... could then morph into a proxy war in the region because, remember, you have Iran deeply embedded in Syria," Clinton said during a trip to Copenhagen where she urged Moscow to increase pressure on Assad.

Russia, like China, has vetoed two Security Council resolutions calling for tougher action against Damascus, while stressing hopes that Annan's plan can spur a political solution. Washington called a reported shipment of Russian arms to Syria "reprehensible" although not illegal.

"The Russians keep telling us they want to do everything they can to avoid a civil war because they believe that the violence would be catastrophic," Clinton said.

"I think they are in effect propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Syria was moving towards "all-out civil war or a state of collapse". The European Union was drafting new sanctions against Syria, he added, calling on other nations to pressure Assad.

A bloody crackdown on what began 14 months ago as a peaceful mass uprising has increasingly turned it into an armed conflict between heavily armed forces representing an establishment dominated by Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, and rebel forces drawn largely from the Sunni majority.

Damascus says the rebels are backed by Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states fearful of the growing influence of Syria's main ally in the region, Shi'ite Iran.

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