GCC countries expel Syrian envoys, withdraw ambassadors from Damascus

U.S., Europe pull ambassadors out of Syria, likely to adopt measures to face government

Washington warns of brutal civil war in Syria, says to work on drying up regime’s financial resources

Russia, China under blistering criticism for blocking Syria resolution at UN Security Council

Gulf Arab countries announced on Tuesday they were recalling their ambassadors from Damascus and expelling Syrian envoys in response to worsening violence in Syria.

Syria's rulers had rejected Arab attempts to "solve this crisis and prevent the bloodshed of the Syrian people," a statement from the Gulf Cooperation Council said.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, current head of the council, announces that the GCC states have decided to withdraw all their ambassadors from Syria and also demand that all ambassadors of the Syrian regime in its lands leave immediately," said the six-member council, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"The council considers that it is necessary for the Arab states... to take every decisive measure faced with this dangerous escalation against the Syrian people. Nearly a year into the crisis, there is no glint of hope in a solution."

The group's foreign ministers are meeting in Riyadh on Saturday to discuss the situation in Syria.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah called on the international community this week to take steps to "protect innocent lives and end the bloodshed" and warned that the violence threatened regional stability.

The world's top oil exporter, one of the leading Arab powers, has long viewed President Bashar al-Assad's government with distrust due to Assad's alliance with Saudi Arabia's regional arch-rival Iran.

Saudi Arabia was the first country to withdraw its monitors from an Arab League observer mission to the country last month, followed by the other GCC members.

Syrian forces renewed their assault on the flashpoint city of Homs Tuesday as Russia's foreign minister stressed the need for reform and dialogue during talks in Damascus with President Bashar Assad about the country's escalating violence.

Sergey Lavrov's visit comes days after Syrian allies Russia and China vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the United Nations that would have condemned the Assad regime's crackdown on dissent and calling on him to transfer some of his powers to his deputy. The Syrian government had rejected the Arab plan as intervention in Syria's internal affairs.

Thousands of Syrians cheered Russia's foreign minister Tuesday as he arrived in Damascus.

"Necessary reforms must be implemented in order to address legitimate demands of the people striving for a better life," Lavrov later told Assad, according to Russian state-run news agency ITAR-Tass."

Lavrov also said Assad is ready for dialogue with the opposition.

"It's clear that efforts to stop the violence should be accompanied by the beginning of dialogue among the political forces," he said. "We received confirmation of the readiness of the president of Syria for this work."

Repeated efforts by the Arab League and Russia to broker talks have been rejected by the Syrian opposition, which refuses to hold talks amid the crackdown and says it will accept nothing less than the regime's downfall.

The violence, meanwhile, continued with regime forces keeping up an assault on Homs, Syria's third largest city. Activists reported that at least 15 people, including a 15-year-old boy, were killed in violence across the country.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March, the U.N. said early last month.

Hundreds more are believe to have been killed since then, but the U.N. says the chaos in the country has made it impossible to cross-check the figures.

Syria has blocked access to trouble spots and prevented independent reporting, making it nearly impossible to verify accounts from either side.

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.

Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed suffered a setback over the weekend when efforts by the U.S. and its allies in the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence in Syria were blocked by Russia and China.

A series of European countries, including France and Italy, announced they had recalled their ambassadors to Syria, a day after the U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus. The diplomatic moves were a clear message that Western powers see no point in engaging with Assad and now will seek to bolster Syria's opposition.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also called the Security Council veto a "fiasco" and said his country cannot remain silent about the massacres in Syria and will continue to support the Arab League efforts.

"We will launch a new initiative with countries that stand by the Syrian people instead of the regime," Erdogan said without elaborating.

It was not clear what kind of steps Turkey might be planning.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite and rally against Assad's regime, previewing the possible formation of a group of like-minded nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition from outside the U.N.

The central city of Homs was the site of the deadliest assault of the uprising on Saturday, when more than 200 people were killed in an overnight bombardment hours before the U.N. vote.

An activist said tanks were closing in on the rebel-held Baba Amr district in Homs, tightening a months-long siege of the area.

"The shelling has been going on for days and the siege is getting worse. We are short of everything including food and medical supplies," said an activist who identified himself only by his first name, Omar. "People here have not slept for days."

The British-based Observatory for Human Rights said troops were attempting to storm the Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Bayada districts and said at least nine civilians were killed in the shelling. It also reported that a 15-year-old boy was shot to death by security forces who stormed the town of Houleh, in Homs province.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees activist network also reported heavy machine gun fire in the rebel-controlled Damascus suburb of Zabadani, saying five people were killed.

Syrian Arab News Agency SANA said three mortar shells struck the Homs refinery, one of the country's two oil refineries, blaming "armed terrorist groups" for the shelling.

It did not elaborate or whether the shelling resulted in any damage. It also said armed groups attacked several security checkpoints in Homs Tuesday.

Lavrov's convoy snaked its way along the Mazzeh boulevard among a sea of Assad supporters who turned up to express gratitude for Moscow's supportive stance. The foreign minister and Russia's foreign intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov were headed to the presidential palace to meet with Assad.

"Thank you Russia and China" read one banner that had the photos of both Assad and the Russian president. Many stood under rain carrying Syrian flags as well as the red, blue and white Russian banner and balloons.

"I am here to thank Russia for its stand in the face of the world conspiracy against Syria," said Manya Abbad, 45, as she waited for Lavrov's convoy Tuesday. "I wish the Arabs adopted similar stances."

Lavrov said it was important that Arab nations "live in peace and harmony."

"Each leader in each country ought to be aware of their share of responsibility. You are aware of yours," Russian news agencies Novosti and ITAR-Tass quoted him as telling Assad.

It quoted Assad, in turn, as saying Russia's position has played "a key role in saving our motherland."

The United States proposed an international coalition to support Syria's opposition after Russia and China blocked a UN attempt to end nearly 11 months of bloodshed, raising fears that violence will escalate.

Rebel soldiers said force was now the only way to oust President Bashar Assad, while the regime vowed to press its military crackdown.

The threat of both sides turning to greater force after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution raises the potential for Syria's turmoil to move into even a more dangerous new phase that could degenerate into outright civil war.

The uprising inspired by other Arab Spring revolts began in March with peaceful protests against Assad's regime, sparking a fierce crackdown by government forces.

Soldiers who defected to join the uprising later began to protect protesters from attacks.

In recent months, the rebel soldiers, known as the Free Syrian Army, have grown bolder, attacking regime troops and trying to establish control in pro-opposition areas.

That has brought a heavier government response.

More than 5,400 people have been killed since March, according to the UN, and now regime opponents fear that Assad will be emboldened by the feeling he is protected by his top ally Moscow and unleash even greater violence to crush protesters.

If the opposition turns overtly to armed resistance, the result could be a dramatic increase in bloodshed.

At least 30 civilians were killed this week, including five children and a woman who was hit by a bullet while standing on her balcony as troops fired on protesters in a Damascus suburb, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group.

Government forces firing mortars and heavy machine guns also battered the mountain town of Zabadani, north of Damascus, a significant opposition stronghold that fell under rebel control late last month. Bombardment the past two days has wounded dozens and forced scores of families to flee, an activist in the town said.

"The situation is terrifying. Makeshift hospitals are full," said the activist, who only gave his first name, Fares, for fear of government reprisal. He said the town has been under siege for the past five days and there is a shortage of food and heating fuel during the cold winter.

The commander of the Free Syrian Army told The Associated Press that, after the vetoes at the UN, "there is no other road" except military action to topple Assad.

"We consider that Syria is occupied by a criminal gang and we must liberate the country from this gang," Col. Riad al-Asaad said, speaking by telephone from Turkey. "This regime does not understand the language of politics. It only understands the language of force."

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that chances for "a brutal civil war" would increase as Syrians under attack from their government move to defend themselves, unless international steps provide another way.

Speaking to reporters in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, she called the double veto at the UN Security Council on Saturday "a travesty."

"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations," she said, calling for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite "support the Syrian people's right to have a better future."

The call points to the formation of a formal group of like-minded nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition, similar but not identical to the Contact Group on Libya, which oversaw international help for opponents of the late deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

In the case of Libya, the group also coordinated NATO military operations to protect Libyan civilians, something that is not envisioned in Syria.

US officials said an alliance would work to further squeeze the Assad regime by stepping up sanctions against it, bringing disparate Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country together, providing humanitarian relief for embattled Syrian communities and working to prevent an escalation of violence by monitoring arms sales.

The main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, backed the idea.

Radwan Ziadeh, a prominent figure in the SNC, wrote on his Facebook page that friendly countries should form an "international coalition ... whose aim will be to lead international moves to support the revolution through political and economic aid."

A deeply sensitive question is whether such a coalition would back the Free Syrian Army. There appears to be deep hesitation among Western countries, fearing further militarization of the conflict.

Omar Idlibi, an activist with the Syrian National Council, said action by a "friends coalition" to increase sanctions and other steps would boost peaceful opposition through protests.

But, he said, it should also include support to the FSA, which he said would prevent civilians from taking up arms, worsening the conflict.

The FSA, he said, "is a national Syrian army and as the regime has the right to get help from its Russian and Iranian allies, it is the right of the opposition to ask for help from its friends in enabling the Syrian people to achieve change."

The FSA, based in neighboring Turkey, is believed to number several thousand soldiers and it almost daily announces claims of groups of soldiers joining its ranks that cannot be confirmed. It is heavily outgunned by the powerful regime military, which still has the power to conduct focused operations that can drive the rebels out of any areas they gain control of.

But the military cannot cover everywhere at once, and FSA troops appear to be proving effective at hit-and-run attacks and have put up staunch resistance in assaults on opposition-dominated urban areas.

On Sunday, rebel soldiers attacked a military convoy in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing 14 government troops, the Observatory said, reporting that 14 other regime soldiers were killed in fighting elsewhere.

Early Saturday, regime forces bombarded the restive central city of Homs, apparently in response to FSA attacks. Activists said the bombardment was the deadliest incident of the uprising, killing more than 200 people in a single day.

The regime denied any bombardment, and there was no way to independently confirm the toll.

Gunfire continued to ring out Sunday in several neighborhoods of Homs, and at least 23 people were killed in the city and nearby towns, including three children, the Observatory said.

Grisly video posted by activists online showed a young boy said to have been wounded in the shooting, his jaw torn away.

The video and the Observatory's casualty reports could not be independently confirmed.

The Russian and Chinese vetoes effectively killed an Arab League plan that called for Assad to hand over power to his vice president and allow the creation of a unity government.

The resolution would have expressed support for the Arab League plan, which Assad rejected.

The Syrian government touted the UN result as a victory.

The state-run newspaper, Tishreen, vowed that Damascus will press its crackdown aiming to restore "stability and security and confront all forms of terrorism." The regime has portrayed the uprising as the work of terrorists and armed gangs as part of a foreign conspiracy.

Hundreds of regime supporters rallied in a Damascus square, waving Russian and Chinese flags in gratitude for blocking the resolution.

"Thanks Russia, thanks China for undermining the Western conspiracy against our country," said Nibal Hmeid, a 24-year-old teacher at the rally.

She said Assad should now settle the situation "decisively and militarily against those armed criminals."