Syrian crisis escalates as more deaths and destruction are on the rise

Syrian army attacks neighborhoods in Damascus, Hama and Homs

Western countries escalate sanctions while U.S. believes no solution to crisis except Assad’s departure

Assad sets February 26 as date for referendum over new constitution

Syrian government forces attacked the opposition strongholds of Homs and Hama on Wednesday and also raided a district of Damascus in the closest military operation to the capital’s centre since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke out 11 months ago.

Elite forces backed by armored personnel carriers erected roadblocks in main streets of Damascus’ residential Barzeh neighborhood, searched houses and made arrests, witnesses said.

Residents said they were looking for opposition activists and members of the rebel Free Syrian Army, which has provided armed protection for protests against Assad in the district.

Government forces also mounted an offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to the 42-year Assad dynasty, firing on residential neighborhoods from armored vehicles and anti-aircraft guns, opposition activists said.

Artillery also shelled Sunni Muslim neighborhoods in Homs, the 13th day of their bombardment of a city that has been at the forefront of the uprising.

The attacks indicated Assad’s determination to crush the revolt despite international efforts, spearheaded by Arab nations, to make him cease the bloodshed.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said France had started negotiating a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria with Russia and wanted to discuss creating humanitarian corridors to ease the plight of civilians caught up in the violence.

“The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously proposed to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres should be discussed at the Security Council,” Juppé told France Info radio.

The U.N. General Assembly would vote on a “symbolic” resolution on Thursday that would add to pressure on the Assad government, he said.

Russia, Syria’s longtime ally and main arms supplier, and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on February4 that would have called on Assad to step down.

Since then Arab nations led by Gulf state rivals to Assad have been working to put a new resolution before the General Assembly. Unlike a Security Council resolution, it cannot be vetoed but would not be binding.

The Arab League has also called for a joint U.N.-Arab peacekeeping force to be deployed in Syria and indicated members would be willing to arm the opposition — moves that have caused concern among Western powers eager to see the end of Assad’s 11-year-rule but wary of a foreign military intervention which could spark a wider regional war.

Adding to the regional pressure on Assad, the head of Egypt’s influential seat of Sunni Islamic learning, al-Azhar, called for bold Arab action against the Syrian government.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama told Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping at a meeting at the White House on Tuesday that the United States was disappointed with China’s veto of the Security Council resolution, a U.S. official said.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said after the talks that China still supported the role of the Arab League and wanted a dialogue to end the violence. But the Security Council needed to take a “very careful and very responsible attitude” to Syria, he said.

“If the U.N. Security Council takes the wrong steps, that could lead to even worse bloodshed,” Cui said.

Assad dismisses his opponents as terrorists backed by enemy nations in a regional power-play and says he will introduce political reforms on his own terms.

Syrian state television reported on Wednesday he had ordered a referendum on a new constitution on February 26.

That move is unlikely to appease the movement against him, which began with street demonstrations by civilians but now includes armed insurrection by the Free Syrian Army made up mainly of army defectors.

The government says at least 2,000 members of its military and security forces have died and the United Nations says government forces have killed several thousand civilians.

On the conflict front, tanks deployed near the citadel of Hama were shelling the neighborhoods of Faraya, Olailat, Bashoura and al-Hamidiya, and troops were advancing from the airport, opposition sources said.

An activist called Amer, speaking briefly by satellite phone, said landlines and mobile phone networks have been cut in all of Hama, a Sunni city notorious for the massacre of about 10,000 people when the present president’s father Hafez sent in troops to crush an uprising there in 1982.

Activists said no casualty reports were available from Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city, because of communications problems.

Foreign media must rely largely on often-unverified activist accounts because the Syrian government restricts access. In the Damascus operation, witnesses said at least 1,000 soldiers had swamped Barzeh district after sealing off roads.

“They have destroyed the facades of shops and turned back students heading to school,” Mazen, a university student, said by telephone from Barzeh.

The largely Sunni Muslim district has been among the most active in the capital in the protest movement against Assad, whose family are from the minority Alawite sect.

In Homs, an explosion hit an oil pipeline feeding a refinery, sending a large plume of smoke rising into the sky, witnesses said. The blast hit the pipeline near a district being shelled by government troops, witnesses said.

Government forces have bombarded pro-opposition areas of Homs for 13 days, killing hundreds and drawing international condemnation.

Activists and aid groups report a growing humanitarian crisis there, with food running short and wounded people unable to receive proper treatment.

France said it had created a one million euro emergency fund for aid agencies looking to help the Syrian people and would propose a similar one at an international level next week at a meeting in Tunisia to discuss the crisis.

It also renewed the idea of creating humanitarian corridors, first suggested in November, with Syrian approval or with an international mandate for shipping food and medicine to alleviate civilian suffering.

Under that plan, the corridors would link Syrian population centers to the frontiers of Turkey and Lebanon, to the Mediterranean coast or to an airport.

EU governments could supply Syrian rebels with communications equipment to help them organize against government troops, and are likely to continue building up sanctions against Damascus, according to a top Danish diplomat.

Denmark's foreign minister Villy Sovndal, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, told Reuters EU states would not provide arms to the Syrian opposition battling against a violent government assault -- echoing concerns in Washington about an arms race in Syria -- but could offer other help.

"The only thing I can exclude right now are any ideas about military intervention in Syria," he said, when asked if EU governments were prepared to offer Syrian rebels material help such as communications equipment.

"That might be a possibility," he added in the interview late on Wednesday. "It's not very clear to me exactly what that should be but I would not exclude anything but weapons."

Western governments are grappling for diplomatic means to end the nearly one-year old conflict in Syria -- the bloodiest so far in the "Arab Spring" -- and for ways to support opposition forces. However some analysts think the rebels are too fragmented to pose a significant challenge to government troops.

On Thursday, Syrian troops attacked rebel strongholds in the southwestern city of Deraa, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad first erupted, and the government crackdown against protesters and insurgents has intensified in recent days.

The United States and Europe have ruled out military intervention of the kind that helped Libyan anti-government rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi last year, saying Syria's complex ethnic and sectarian mix, urbanized population, divided opposition and powerful military all argue against it.

Telecommunications equipment was part of the assistance offered by Western governments to Libyan rebels, and Syrian opposition leaders have said they need equipment to keep in contact and organize a command structure.

Communications in Syria are becoming increasingly difficult as telephone, Internet and mobile phone links are usually cut off.

Sovndal said European governments would continue seeking to take their lead from the United Nations and other partners in the Arab world on any action against Syria.

But he added the bloc would likely to continue ratcheting up sanctions against Damascus, in an effort to cut off Assad's sources of finance and force him to cede power.

EU foreign ministers are expected to sanction the country's central bank and ban it from trading in diamonds, gold and other precious metals, when they meet in Brussels on February 27.

"We have been strengthening sanctions and we will continue doing that ... Another thing we can do is to go further against the finance sector and industry. You still have a lot of possibilities to enlarge sanctions," he said.

Sovndal declined to offer details but made it clear more ideas were in the pipeline beyond what is set to be agreed this month.

Europe has already stopped importing Syrian crude oil. Talks have also been held over whether to cut off trade in phosphates -- an important source of government revenue from Europe -- and to ban commercial flights in and out of Syria. But these ideas have been shelved for now, according to EU diplomats.

Syrian opposition leaders and the West have scorned a new offer by President Bashar al-Assad to hold multi-party elections, as his troops mounted more attacks on rebel-held areas.

Assad promised a referendum in two weeks' time on a new constitution leading to elections within 90 days, but made clear he still planned to crush the uprising against him by force.

The military unleashed a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad's late father Hafez al-Assad, firing at residential neighborhoods with anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, opposition activists said.

Artillery shelled parts of Homs for the 13th day in a row. In Damascus, troops swept into the Barzeh district, searching houses and making arrests, witnesses said.

France said it was negotiating a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria with Russia, Assad's ally and main arms supplier, and wanted to create humanitarian corridors to ease the plight of civilians caught up in the violence.

"The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously proposed to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres should be discussed at the Security Council," Juppé said on French radio.

He said a U.N. General Assembly vote on Thursday on a non-binding resolution on Syria would be "symbolic." It follows a February 4 veto by Russia and China of a draft Security Council resolution that backed an Arab League call for Assad to quit.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would listen to Juppé, but added: "If the plan is to use the Security Council and United Nations to adopt some language to help legitimize regime change, then I'm afraid international law does not allow this and we cannot support such an approach."

Lavrov said later on Wednesday: "If leading members of the international community demand regime change as a condition for everything else, then we are convinced ... this is the way to a full civil war with unforeseeable consequences."

Diplomats said Arab delegations had rejected proposed Russian amendments which would weaken the Assembly resolution.

The Arab League wants a joint U.N.-Arab peacekeeping force to be deployed in Syria and has adopted a resolution that would allow its members to arm Syrian rebels.

Libya's interim leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said "our brothers" in the exiled opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) would be allowed to open an office in Tripoli. "We support the Syrian people and their aspirations," he said.

Council members re-elected Burhan Ghalioun as its head at a meeting in the Qatari capital Doha on Wednesday.

The Council is hoping to gain international standing through a "Friends of Syria" meeting on February 24 in Tunisia, which like Libya has seen the overthrow of an authoritarian leader in the last 12 months. Council Secretary General Wael Merza said 74 countries and organizations would be at the meeting.

Western powers are keen to see Assad go but are wary of intervening in a country at the heart of a volatile region.

The United States, its European allies, Turkey and the Arab League demand that Assad step down.

Syrian state media said on Wednesday a draft constitution to be put to a vote on February 26 would establish a multi-party system in Syria, under Baath Party rule since 1963.

Parliamentary elections would follow within 90 days of its approval.

It would allow the president to be elected for two terms of seven years. Assad's late father Hafez al-Assad was president for 29 years and was succeeded by his son when he died in 2000.

But new parties could not be based on a religion or regional interests, which appeared to exclude the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or autonomy-seeking Kurdish parties.

Melhem al-Droubi, a member of the SNC and the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters that Assad must resign now. "The truth is that Bashar al-Assad has increased the killing and slaughter in Syria. He has lost his legitimacy and we aren't interested in his rotten constitutions, old or new," he said.

The United States also dismissed the referendum plan.

"Promises of reforms have been usually followed by increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of peaceful demonstrations in Syria," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "The Assad regime's days are numbered."

Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said the United States was "deeply concerned" about arms transfers from Iran to Syria.

He said Iran was supplying weapons that could be used against protesters, as was Russia. He added the United States was concerned about the fate of "tens of thousands" of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles Syria is believed to possess.

The Syrian leader dismisses the revolt as the work of terrorists backed by a conspiracy of enemy nations.

Thousands of civilians have been killed since the uprising began in March, inspired by other Arab revolts. The government says it has lost more than 2,000 soldiers and police dead.

Syrian forces battered rebel-held areas on Wednesday, although official media restrictions made it impossible to verify the accounts provided by activists.

In Homs, an explosion hit an oil pipeline feeding a refinery, witnesses said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported two people killed in Homs' Baba Amr district in a new wave of shelling in the evening.

Hundreds of people have been killed in the military's nearly two-week-old bombardment of rebel-held areas of Homs.

Activists and aid groups report a growing humanitarian crisis there, with food running short and wounded people unable to get proper care.

The British-based Observatory also said five soldiers were killed in Idlib, near the Turkish border, when a homemade bomb planted by rebels hit an armored vehicle.

Also in Idlib province, two people, one of them a 12-year-old boy, were killed by gunfire from security forces in Sarmin and at least 15 wounded, it said.