Syria’s army pounded the rebel city of Homs on Wednesday as Turkey sought international action to protect civilians from former ally President Bashar al-Assad, a move that risks the wrath of Russia and China.
Dozens more were killed during the day, according to the opposition, drawing comparison with the plight of Benghazi which triggered Western attacks on Libya last year and accelerating a global diplomatic showdown whose outcome is far from clear.
“I’ve seen whole families killed this week,” an activist called Ahmed told Reuters from Homs, the scene of one of the bloodiest government onslaughts in the 11-month-old revolt against Assad. “Now I feel like I’m just waiting to be the next to die,” added the accountant aged 28.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Reuters before flying to Washington for talks on Syria that Turkey, which once saw Assad as a valuable ally but now wants him out, could no longer stand and watch and wanted to host an international meeting to agree ways to end the killing and provide aid.
“It is not enough being an observer,” he said. “It is time now to send a strong message to the Syrian people that we are with them,” he added, while refusing to be drawn on what kind of action Turkey or its allies would be prepared to consider.
Syrian army tanks and artillery pounded areas of Homs where revolt had flourished, demolishing buildings where people were living, short of water, food and medical supplies and pinned down by sharpshooters on rooftops.
Syrian state media blamed foreign-backed “terrorists” for killing 30 security personnel on Tuesday and causing an explosion that set a refinery ablaze.
“All the international community should work together to help,” Davutoglu said. “Especially those who cannot even go from one street to another in Homs. You have pictures of children running from one house to another house while under artillery attack … They cannot continue these methods of oppression.”
Syria’s position at the heart of the Middle East, allied to Iran and home to a powder-keg religious and ethnic mix, means Assad’s opponents have strenuously ruled out the kind of military action they took against the isolated Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Some form of corridors for aid and evacuation, or ceasefire accords inside Syria, may be the most achievable demands.
Russia and China, which let the United Nations support the air campaign in Libya, provoked strong condemnation from the United States, European powers and other Arab governments when they vetoed a much less interventionist resolution in the Security Council last week that called on Assad to step down.
While Moscow sees him as a buyer of arms and host to a Soviet-era naval base, for both Russia and China Syria is also a test case for efforts to resist U.N. encroachment on sovereign governments’ freedom to deal with rebels as they see fit.
Campaigning for next month’s presidential election that he is certain to win, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who first won the presidency after storming the rebel Russian city of Grozny, said: “A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs … This cannot fail to cause concern.
“We of course condemn all violence regardless of its source, but one cannot act like an elephant in a china shop.
“Help them, advise them, limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons but not interfere under any circumstances.”
It is unclear what Turkey, a NATO member and rising Muslim, democratic force in the Middle East, could do to bring Moscow into any international initiative alongside those regional and world powers which have sided with the rebels against Assad.
“Now it is still time for diplomatic efforts, and we are using all diplomatic means,” Davutoglu told Reuters when asked when Turkey, which has taken in refugees and rebel commanders, might envisage sending its own forces across the border.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who had described the Russian and Chinese veto at the U.N. as a “fiasco”, telephoned outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday and afterward issued a statement repeating that Assad had lost “legitimacy”.
The Kremlin said Medvedev told Erdogan that the search for a solution should continue, including in the Security Council, but that foreign interference was not an option. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who visited Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, said the president’s opponents should sit down and talk with him.
Medvedev also spoke with French President Nicolas Sarkozy asking him and other Western countries to avoid “hasty, unilateral moves” towards Syria and said that the position of the international community should be “balanced and objective”, the Kremlin said.
As the diplomatic gears turned, the military offensive in Homs and elsewhere showed no sign of let up. Activists in the city also accused militiamen of slaughtering three families in their homes – the sort of incident that is fuelling fears of a descent into more widespread, Iraq-style sectarian killing.
The day’s death toll stood at over 100, activists said, offering figures that could not be independently verified.
The United Nations’ top human rights official called on Wednesday for urgent international action. Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “I am appalled by the Syrian government’s willful assault on the city of Homs, and its use of artillery and other heavy weaponry in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the city.”
Speaking by satellite phone from the beleaguered Bab Amro neighbourhood, activist Hussein Nader said that the bombardment has lessened on the district by dusk but that tanks had moved closer to the besieged district, where 30,000 inhabitants have been without water, electric or telephone lines days.
He said bombardments has killed 42 civilians on Wednesday with many others wounded: “There are neighbourhoods on the eastern side of Bab Amro that are disaster zones from heavy shelling apparently designed to open the way for tanks.
“Dozens of people are under the rubble with no way to get to them because they are firing at anyone who moves in the street.”
He said activists were trying to distribute water in bottles but that bandages and antiseptics had run out.
Asked about resistance in the district, Nader said the Free Syrian Army was outgunned and that fighters were laying low, awaiting an impending tank infantry onslaught on the district.
The onslaught on Homs has not relented despite a promise to end the bloodshed that the Syrian leader gave to Russia.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe dismissed Syrian pledges of peace as deceit, “and we’re not going to fall for it”.
A group known as the Syrian Revolution General Commission called in a statement in the afternoon for outside humanitarian protection and that the day’s death toll stood at 100 – similar to the figure distributed by activists for Tuesday.
Syrian opposition figures, who said Lavrov had brought no new initiative, spurn Assad’s promises of reform as meaningless while his troops are killing civilians and say he must go.
Walid al-Bunni, a senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), dismissed Lavrov’s dialogue proposal.
“The Arab initiative is clear. Assad must step down and Syrians will then be ready to sit together at a table with whoever succeeds him to discuss a democratic transition,” the head of the SNC’s foreign policy committee told Reuters.
Among other points of pressure, a senior EU diplomat said European Union governments had reached an agreement in principle to impose sanctions on the Syrian central bank this month as part of new measures intended to force Assad out.
In Cairo, a representative of a Gulf Arab state to the Arab League told Reuters that military intervention, such as that backed by Qatar and other Arab states in Libya, should be an option: “There are many alternatives and among them is sending peacekeeping troops whether Arab or international.
“The mission of such forces in case they were sent would be to create safe zones to protect civilians and prevent the Syrian army from entering them,” the Arab diplomat said, adding that an arms embargo should also be considered.
“We should think about a clear mechanism to restrain the Syrian army,” he said. “The Syrians have taken the Russian and Chinese veto as a licence to kill.”
Separately, eleven kidnapped Iranians in Syria have been released but 18 others are still being held hostage, Iran’s deputy foreign minister said.
Hossein Amir Abdollahian said the kidnappers wanted to pressure Tehran to abandon its support of the Syrian government, but Iran would not change its position.