At least 100 civilians were killed in attacks by Syrian government forces on restive areas across the country on Tuesday, activists said, as the Red Cross called for daily ceasefires to allow aid into the besieged city of Homs.
The attacks, focused on Homs and the town of Idlib close to the Turkish border, came as the Obama administration hinted for the first time on Tuesday that it could give direct assistance to Syrian rebels, and Russia rebuffed a high-profile international meeting on the Syria crisis.
With President Bashar al-Assad’s forces sustaining their assault on opponents in an anti-regime uprising that has crept closer to the heart of Damascus, the US State Department appeared to open the door to potential help for the opposition in the future.
Responding to a question about arming the rebels, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the search for a political solution was the correct approach at the moment and that “we don’t believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarisation of Syria”.
However, she added that “if we can’t get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures”.
With several leading senators calling for the administration to give direct help to the rebels, there has been a growing debate in Washington about some form of intervention in Syria, either through arming the opposition, or providing direct humanitarian assistance or communications equipment.
However, the US military appears reluctant to get involved in the country. “I think it’s premature to take a decision to arm the opposition movement in Syria, because I would challenge anyone to clearly identify for me the opposition movement in Syria at this point,” General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN last weekend.
The international community remains divided on how to respond to the crisis in Syria, with allies of the Assad regime, including Iran, stepping up their warnings against outside intervention aimed at regime change.
Moscow on Tuesday rejected an invitation to a meeting this week in Tunis of so-called “friends of Syria”, as activists reported at least 100 more deaths nationwide and the wounding of at least four people in the capital.
Russia said it declined the offer to join the “friends of Syria” because the Syrian government had not been invited. Moscow – which, along with Beijing, vetoed UN Security Council action against Mr Assad this month – instead suggested the Council should send a special humanitarian envoy to Syria.
China said it was still considering the invitation to join the group in Tunis, while Iran’s foreign ministry warned instability in Syria would jeopardise regional peace and called for “dialogue” between the government and people so “effective reforms” could be carried out.
As the diplomatic tit-for-tat intensified, the assault launched by Syrian government forces that began more than two weeks ago continued without let up, with further heavy shelling of the third city of Homs. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that on Tuesday 31 people had been killed in Homs and 36 elsewhere in the country.
The fortnight since the failure of the UN Security Council to agree on Syria has seen both international frustration over the continued killing there and political gestures from Mr Assad’s enemies and friends, the latest the dispatch by Iran of two naval ships to the Syrian port of Tartus.
Mr Assad’s regime – run by an elite drawn from the minority Alawite branch of Shia Islam – is a vital ally of Shia-ruled Tehran against both Israel and the Sunni Muslim monarchy states of the Gulf region.
Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defence minister, said that sending the two warships to Syria for the second time showed Iran would “continue development of its naval might”.
However, analysts and diplomats played down the significance of the ships, with one western official saying that the main vessel was carrying naval cadets and may have been on a pre-planned visit after a similar exercise a year ago.
Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, said the visit was “a symbolic show of solidarity with an ally rather than any kind of strategic move by the Iranians”.
“If Iran wanted to send soldiers to Syria it would do it by air,” he said.
Reporting by Michael Peel in Abu Dhabi, Geoff Dyer in Washington, Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut and James Blitz in London