Syrian troops pushed ahead with a new assault on the northern region of Idlib on Saturday,shelling one of the centers of the uprising against President Bashar Assads rule and sending families fleeing for safety,as armed rebels tried to fend off the attack.
The military operation has raised fears that the regime is planning a new all-out offensive in Idlib,like the bloody siege last month that captured a restive part of the city of Homs,further south.
While the fighting raged,UN envoy Kofi Annan met with Assad in Damascus during a high-profile international mission trying to bring a halt to fighting and arrange talks to end the countrys yearlong conflict.
But the mission was already hitting dead ends. Assad told Annan that any political dialogue was doomed to fail as long as there are armed terrorist groups that work to spread anarchy and destabilize the country, according to the state news agency SANA. The regime blames terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy for the uprising,not protesters seeking change. The opposition has also rejected dialogue,saying it is impossible to talk to the regime after a crackdown that the UN estimates has killed more than 7,500 people.
Military reinforcements have been pouring into Idlib this week,activists said,reporting that dozens have been killed in the area in recent days. Their casualty reports could not be independently confirmed. The moves suggested the regime was now turning its focus on Idlib after recapturing the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in the central city of Homs,in a monthlong assault that reportedly killed hundreds and devastated the district.
The Homs bloodshed further fuelled calls among Arab countries and the West for action to stop the crisis,which many fear is moving closer to civil war as the opposition turns more to armed resistance. The UN estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed since Syria launched its crackdown on the uprising,which began a year ago as peaceful protests against Assad. Activists put the toll at more than 8,000.
Annans visit to Damascus marks a new international push for peace nearly a year after protesters took to the streets to demand Assads ouster,inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Since then,the regime has dispatched snipers,tanks and civilian gunmen to crush dissent. As the death toll mounted,protests have spread,and some have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government forces.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that Annans priority is to immediately halt all fighting by government forces and opposition fighters if not simultaneously,then first by government troops,followed by the opposition.
However,there is a widening gap between opposition leaders who say only military aid can stop Assads regime,and Western powers who fear more weapons will exacerbate the conflict. So far,Western powers have declined to intervene. Unlike Libya,Syria has key allies in Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah,and shares a border with an American ally,Israel. Outright war could spark a regional conflagration.