BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 14 (UPI) -- The embattled Syrian regime's use of helicopter gunships to strafe rebel strongholds and slaughter civilians marks a deadly new phase in the 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.
It suggests that the regime, which mightily outguns the disparate rebel forces, has been unable to prevent its opponents from seizing and holding territory, as they now seem to be doing as their military forces become more organized.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia, a key supporter of Assad's minority regime, of shipping attack helicopters to Syria as Assad and his generals step up their offensive against the lightly armed rebels.
Clinton warned that would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically" -- a development that in fact has been under way for the last few weeks.
The Syrian air force has 30 French-built SA-342 Gazelle helicopters and 33 Russian Mi-25 Hind D attack helicopters, the gunships that the Soviets used to pulverize the Islamic Mujahedin in Afghanistan during the 1979-89 war.
But the Soviets' mastery of the skies was shattered when the Americans started delivering Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Muslim fighters, marking the beginning of the end of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.
The Hind is one of the most formidable attack helicopters made and Assad's air force has been using these airborne battlewagons against rebel bastions for several days.
Gunships, backed by artillery, pounded the beleaguered city of Homs, the third largest in Syria, on Tuesday, along with the mountain town of Haffah on the Mediterranean coast in Latakia province.
Homs has been one the epicenters of the uprising that began March 15, 2011, with street protests against the regime and, as Assad's forces gunned down unarmed protesters, swelled into what has become a civil war in all but name.
Various reports out of Syria claim there are signs the regime has been massing forces, including gunships, around the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's financial center north of Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has offices in the United Kingdom, says the aerial assault has extended to the strategic river crossing of Rastan on the main highway linking Damascus to northern Syria.
Rebels reportedly regrouped in Rastan following the heavy bombardment of Homs and have resisted heavy government attacks for months.
Rami Abdul-Rahman of the observatory said the regime called in the gunships because the Free Syrian Army, the rebels' main military force made up largely of defectors from Assad's army, has been mounting increasingly effective attacks on government troops.
It seems more than coincidence that the worst atrocities carried out by the regime, including the slaughter of more than 100 people May 24-25 in the town of Houla, have happened since Damascus unleashed the killer gunships.
The 300-person team of U.N. observers in Syria to monitor a cease-fire negotiated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in May has documented the use of gunships, along with artillery and tanks, against rebel strong points in recent days.
"There's a massive increase in the level of violence, so massive indeed that in a way it indicates some change of nature," said French diplomat Herve Ladsous, head of the United Nations' peacekeeping operations.
"This is becoming large scale because the opposition is resisting."
Asked whether Syria was now locked in a full-blown civil war, between the regime dominated by the minority Alawite Muslim sect and the opposition made up largely of the majority Sunnis, Ladsous said: "Yes, I think we can say that.
"Clearly what's happening is that the government of Syria has lost some large chunks of territory, several cities, to the opposition and wants to retake control."
The rebels have apparently acquired quantities of anti-tank missiles in recent weeks, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and smuggled in through Lebanon and Turkey.
It would seem likely they may soon obtain surface to-air missiles. Ironically, these are most likely to be of Russian origin. Thousands of Russian SA-17 and SA-24 SAMs are missing from Libyan armories plundered during the 2011 civil war there and are presumably available on the black market.
If the Syrian rebels acquire SAMs, the regime, armed by Iran and Russia, would have to escalate again.
"The next step is the air force," German newsmagazine Der Spiegel observed in an analysis.