ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, The Associated Press
BEIRUT — Days after blocking a U.S.-backed peace plan at the U.N., senior Russian officials pushed for reforms Tuesday during an emergency meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, promoting a settlement to end the uprising without removing him from power.
Thousands of flag-waving government supporters cheered the Russians in the Syrian capital of Damascus, while to the north, Assad’s forces pounded the opposition city of Homs — underscoring the sharp divisions propelling the country toward civil war.
The violence has led to the most severe international isolation in more than four decades of Assad family rule, with country after country calling home their envoys.
France, Italy, Spain and Belgium pulled their ambassadors from Damascus, as did six Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia. Germany, whose envoy left the country this month, said he would not be replaced. The moves came a day after the U.S. closed its embassy in Syria and Britain recalled its ambassador.
Turkey, once a strong Assad supporter and now one of his most vocal critics, added its voice to the international condemnation, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying his country cannot remain silent about massacres in Syria. He said Turkey would “launch a new initiative with countries that stand by the Syrian people instead of the regime.”
His comments reflect a growing movement by the U.S., Europe and countries in the region to organize a coalition of nations to back Syria’s opposition, though what kind of support remains unclear. Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for “friends of democratic Syria” to unite and rally against Assad’s regime.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration suggested it might provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, but did not specify how or to whom.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew into Damascus on Tuesday, accompanied by his foreign security chief, to try to boost a plan that would keep Assad in power, even though many prominent members of the opposition reject that entirely.
“It’s clear that efforts to stop the violence should be accompanied by the beginning of dialogue among the political forces,” Lavrov said, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass. “Today we received confirmation of the readiness of the president of Syria for this work.”
The visit was also a sign that Moscow wanted to get a firsthand assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria — and the raucous welcome the diplomats received from thousands of regime supporters appeared aimed at showing that Assad’s grip is firm, at least in Damascus.
Syria has been a key Russian ally since Soviet times, and Moscow remains a major arms supplier to Damascus even as Assad unleashes his forces to crush not only peaceful protesters, but army defectors who are fighting the regime.
The U.N. estimates the government crackdown has killed more than 5,400 people since March, making Syria’s conflict one of the deadliest of the Arab Spring. Hundreds more are believed to have died since the U.N. released that figure in January, but the chaos in the country has made it impossible for the world body to update its figures.
Tuesday’s visit by Lavrov and intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov was evidence that Russia does not want to be seen as giving Assad a free hand to crush his opponents in the wake of Saturday’s veto at the U.N. Security Council.
Both Russia and China blocked a Western- and Arab-backed resolution supporting calls for Assad to hand over some powers as a way to defuse the 11-month-old crisis.
Russia has opposed any U.N. call that could be interpreted as advocating military intervention or regime change. Russia and China also used their veto powers in October to block an attempt to condemn the violence in Syria.
On Tuesday, Moscow delivered its own message to Syria, calling on all sides to hold a meaningful dialogue.
“Necessary reforms must be implemented in order to address legitimate demands of the people striving for a better life,” Lavrov told Assad, according to ITAR-Tass.”
Assad replied that Syria is determined to hold a national dialogue with the opposition and independent figures, saying his government was “ready to cooperate with any effort that boosts stability in Syria,” according to the Syrian state news agency SANA.
Repeated efforts by the Arab League and Russia to broker talks have been rejected by the Syrian opposition, which refuses any negotiations while the crackdown continues. The opposition has also said Assad’s proposed reforms, including a new constitution and eventual multiparty elections, are aimed at keeping his hold on power.
In Tuesday’s talks, Assad told Lavrov that Russia’s position has played “a key role in saving our motherland,” according to ITAR-Tass.
As Lavrov’s convoy snaked its way along Damascus’ Mazzeh Boulevard, it was greeted by a sea of Assad supporters cheering the vetoes at the U.N.
“Thank you Russia and China,” read one banner that had photos of Assad and the Russian president. Many stood in the rain carrying Syrian flags as well as the red, blue and white Russian banner.
“I am here to thank Russia for its stand in the face of the world conspiracy against Syria,” said Manya Abbad, 45. “I wish the Arabs adopted similar stances.”
The Assad regime says terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country are behind the uprising, not people seeking to transform the authoritarian regime.
But in the flashpoints of the conflict, witnesses, residents and human rights workers say Assad’s forces are shelling and firing indiscriminately. On Tuesday, the troops renewed their assault on one of the main centers of the opposition, the city of Homs, with activists saying tanks were closing in on a restive neighborhood.
Despite the assault, members of the rebel Free Syrian Army pledged to protect the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood.
“We are just here to respond and defend the local residents from Assad’s army snipers,” said one fighter, according to Associated Press television footage.
Shielded in the corridors of a deserted building once occupied by Assad’s forces, the rebels moved carefully from one position to another overlooking suspected sniper hide outs.
At a makeshift medical clinic, the dead were wrapped in white sheets and piled on a pickup truck outside. Doctors appeared overwhelmed by the number of wounded and the severity of their injuries.
“Can someone help, please!” wailed a man kneeling by a wounded relative on the floor, “Someone come and see him!”
Activists said at least 15 people were killed in violence around the country Tuesday.
Homs was the site of the deadliest assault of the uprising on Saturday, when activists reported more than 200 people were killed in an overnight bombardment hours before the U.N. vote. The government denied the deaths.
Syria has blocked access to trouble spots and prevented most independent reporting, making it nearly impossible to verify accounts from either side.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. was not considering arming opposition groups in Syria, despite calls from some U.S. lawmakers to consider such an option.
Carney said current deliberations inside the administration were focused on how the U.S. could provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and ratchet up pressure on the Syrian government.
U.S. senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman urged the U.S. to explore the prospect of arming opposition forces. “It’s an option that now should be on the table,” McCain said.
McCain conceded the situation in Syria was more complicated than in Libya, where opponents of Moammar Gadhafi quickly gained control of an eastern city, but he insisted it was necessary.
“I feel very strongly that what’s happening in Syria is exactly what we got into Libya to stop Gadhafi from doing,” said Lieberman. “The question is what do you do. One of the things is giving support to the Syrian Free Army.”
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Zeina Karam in Beirut, Jim Heintz in Moscow, Donna Cassata in Washington and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.