The United States is trying to identify and extract Syrian medical professionals with evidence of chemical weapons use by the regime in the country. The State Department wants to move them out of Syria to meet with United Nations investigators in Turkey, officials told the Daily Beast on Thursday. Russian journalists, meanwhile, have provided the U.N. with evidence that Syrian rebels have been using chemical weapons, according to Israel Radio.
In Lebanon, supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired heavy machine guns and lobbed mortar shells at each other Thursday in some of the worst fighting in the port city of Tripoli in years.
The battles raised the five-day death toll to 16 and fed fears of the Syrian civil war spreading to Lebanon and other neighboring countries.
The violence also added to the urgency of U.S.-Russian efforts, even amid the countries' tit-for-tat attempts to provide incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use in the country, to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to a peace conference in Geneva. Members of the Syrian opposition began three-day meetings in Istanbul to hash out a unified position on whether to attend, while maintaining that Assad's departure from power should be the goals of the negotiations.
Lebanon has been on edge since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011. The country, which is still struggling to recover from its own 15-year civil war, is sharply divided along sectarian lines and into pro and anti-Assad camps. The overt involvement by Iranian-backed, Shiite Hezbollah alongside Assad's regime has sparked outrage among many Sunnis in Lebanon who identify with the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Deadly sectarian street fighting has erupted on several occasions, mostly in Tripoli, Lebanon's largest city and a hotbed for Sunni Islamists. This week's fighting in the city has been linked to a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel-held city of Qusair in western Syria that has included Hezbollah fighters supporting Syrian troops against the rebels.
Tripoli is overwhelmingly Sunni but has a tiny community of Alawis, members of Assad's minority sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Residents reported more than six hours of fighting that began late Wednesday and continued through Thursday morning. Mortar shells were used for the first time. Ambulances rushed back and forth, transporting casualties to hospitals as officials used mosque loudspeakers to urge citizens to take shelter in basements. Schools and many businesses were shuttered Thursday as sporadic fighting continued.
Five people were killed, pushing the overall death toll to 16 since fighting began Sunday, with 200 people wounded, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
Cabinet minister Faisal Karami said the fighting was among the worst in the city since Lebanon's civil war that ended in 1990, according to comments reported by Lebanon's state-run National News Agency.
Ashraf Rifi, a former police chief who has a large Sunni following in Tripoli, said the flare-up in Tripoli was a direct result of Hezbollah's involvement in Syria and accused the group of "trying to deflect attention" from its participation in the fighting in Syria.
Hezbollah's growing involvement has prompted international condemnation. France has joined the push for the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, switching tack amid frustration with Hezbollah's support for Syria's military.
France's move could prove pivotal, after Germany joined a British effort to name Hezbollah terrorists this week. The U.S. has long pressured Europe to add Hezbollah to its terrorist list, which would hamper the group's operations in Europe.
A diplomat in Paris, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said Thursday Hezbollah's increased activity in Syria was key to France's change of heart.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Wednesday night in Jordan, after talks about Syria, "We have decided to ask that the military branch of Hezbollah be considered as a terrorist organization."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that Hezbollah's overt engagement across the border puts Lebanon at risk.
"You have this major force in Lebanon, Hezbollah ... which has chosen, on behalf of all of the Lebanese people, to drag them into this," he said at a press conference in Amman, Jordan. "That's exactly the kind of danger that we are trying to avoid."
Overall, at least 104 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria in recent months, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria.
In Amman, Kerry and U.S. allies from Europe and the Arab world sought to convince Syria's rebels of the need to participate in any peace effort.
However, Louay Safi, a senior member of the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main opposition bloc, said Thursday that only written guarantees that Assad's departure is one of the goals of the negotiations can bring the opposition to the table.
"If the transition and if the removal of Assad is not on the table, this is a non-starter for all the opposition," Safi said by phone from Istanbul.
Kerry on Thursday acknowledged the difficulties of launching peace talks. "Nobody has any illusions about how difficult, complicated, what a steep climb that is," he said during a visit to Israel.
"But we also understand that the killing that is taking place, the massacres that are taking place, the incredible destabilization of Syria, is spilling over into Lebanon, into Jordan, and has an impact, obviously, on Israel," he said.