updated 12/1/2011 5:02:35 PM ET 2011-12-01T22:02:35

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.

"The sanctions against the regime are harming them," he told The Associated Press by telephone, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. "Merchants only care about their interests. Many merchants are complaining that their business is dropping."

Activists also are trying to peel the business elite away from their allegiance to Assad. On Thursday, opposition groups called for a general strike, but it was difficult to gauge how widely Syrians were abiding by the strike. The regime has sealed the country off from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.

Residents in Syria's two economic powerhouses — the capital of Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo — reported business as usual Thursday.

But a video posted online by activists showed mostly closed shops in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, which also has seen large anti-government protests. And a resident in Homs said most of the shops were closed, except for those selling food. Homs has been one of Syria's most volatile cities, with increasing clashes between troops and army defectors.

Syria has been the site of the deadliest crackdown against the Arab Spring's protests.

Deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds. Libya's toll is unknown and likely higher than Syria's, but the conflict there differed because it descended early on into an outright civil war between two armed sides.

Since the revolt began in Syria, the regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine the country. It has laid bare Syria's simmering sectarian tensions, with disturbing reports of killings like those seen in Iraq.

Syria is an overwhelmingly Sunni country of 22 million, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect. Assad, and his father before him, stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fate of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling troops to fight to the death to protect the Assad family dynasty.

The leader of the Free Syrian Army, breakaway air force Col. Riad al-Asaad, acknowledges nearly all the defectors under his command — some 15,000 — are low-level Sunni conscripts. The men are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and guns they took with them when they deserted, as well as light weapons they acquired on the black market, he says.

Until recently, most of the bloodshed was caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protesters. There have been growing reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad's forces — a development that some say plays into the regime's hands by giving government troops a pretext to crack down with overwhelming force.

As the violence continues, the 22-member Arab League in Cairo unveiled this week a list of top officials it wants to prevent from traveling to Arab countries — a humiliating affront to a country that prides itself on Arab nationalism.

The 17 officials who face the ban include the defense and interior ministers, and close members of Assad's inner circle. Assad's millionaire cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who has controlled the mobile phone network and other lucrative enterprises in Syria, and the president's younger brother, Maher, are on the list.

Assad himself was not named.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Start of a civil war in Syria?

  1. Closed captioning of: Start of a civil war in Syria?

    >>> amateur video out of syria shows what may be the start of a civil war . a growing number of defectors taking up arms against government troops and tanks. we should note msnbc has not been able to independently verify this video. richard engel is the chief foreign correspondent and is live in istanbul. we know part of this started with the arab league meeting in moroc morocco, but what dynamic are you hearing from your sources now?

    >> reporter: we're seeing two very different dynamics, but both of them have the same objectives to pressure syria and pressure the regime of bashar al assad , much more pressure coming from the arab league , tluding the three-day deadline to allow international observers including journalists in that they don't allow the observers to go in, they will face more sanctions. syria would have to stop the violence , no indication that syria has any intention in either allowing the observers or stopping the violence. that's diplomatically. on the ground we're watching the rea emergence of the free syrian army . it is a group of defectors, how big it is is unclear. according to members of the free army we've spoken to, they say they have a source of 15,000, who let the formal security forces of syrian government and join this rebel army, now the regime itself dismisses that number, the 15 to 20,000 as wildly inflated. what cannot be denied, however, is that this rebel group is starting to take military action . it has some relatively sophisticated weapon and been able to destroy several tanks, how many we don't know. but at least four according to multiple sources inside syria . it is a different dynamic and it's unclear and if this is really a tipping point people are now starting to take wagers on how long the government in syria will last. according to who we've been speaking to they think weeks to month but it's hard to know.

    >> the arab league had second thoughts and offered to send military and diplomatic observers to syria to give them a second chance to comply. i don't know where that stands right now and whether there's any indication that the asatd re rejet stream r rejet strer rejet strer regeem is going to work with --

    >> in you remember libya, gadhafi said, of course libya is abiding by the cease fire and we accept the terms of the cease fire and on the ground people were being shot and the libyan army was attacking. syria is taking a similar position, maintaining that it wants the arab league peace initiative and that it is abiding about the peace initiative. state television is broadcasting to the syrian people that the troops are being pulled back from syrian cities but that's not the case. the syrian military is still continuing to carry out offensive operations and now sometimes defensive operations as this free syrian army is going on the offensive.

    >> it just seems as though -- tofr the arab league suspending syria , which has been such a major player in the arab league all of these years and to have them having second thoughts about taking that tough stance and assad, you don't know whether he's cornered or this thing will end up being civil war . richard engel , extraordinary story.

    >> go ahead.

    >> reporter: there are deep concerns about the civil -- possibility of a real civil other sectarian war in this area. maybe even exacerbating them, but you have to look at the dynamic in syria . you have a shiite government, only maybe 10 to 15% of the population being members of the shiite community and almost all of the opposition forces are members of the sunni majority. it's the exact flip side of what we saw in iraq, where you had a sunni government and shiite society. there are deep concerns. if the regime goes and it goes suddenly, what will replace it.

    >> richard engel , thank you very much. thanks for the report

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