BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Syrians waving Russian flags cheered Russia's foreign minister as he arrived in Damascus Tuesday for talks with embattled President Bashar Assad on 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.
Regime forces, meanwhile, stepped up an assault on the flashpoint city of Homs, using tanks and machine guns in a push to recover rebel-held districts.
Live footage from the capital showed Lavrov's convoy snaking 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.
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.
On Monday, troops shelled a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas, killing nearly 70 people, activists said. More than a dozen others were reported killed elsewhere.
The escalating violence prompted the United States to close its embassy in Syria while Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a clear message that Western powers see no point in engaging with Assad and now will seek to bolster Syria's opposition.
"This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told lawmakers Monday. "There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally."
President Barack Obama said the Syrian leader's departure is only a matter of time.
"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."
Even as the U.S. steps up pressure on Assad to halt the violence and relinquish power, Obama said a negotiated solution was possible, without recourse to outside military intervention.
Later, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was taking "no options off the table."
U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and 17 other U.S. officials left Syria on Monday, arriving in Amman, Jordan, several hours later. Ford was to travel on to Paris to spend time with his wife, the State Department said.