REPORTING FROM BEIRUT-- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in the Syrian capital of Damascus today and was scheduled to meet with President Bashar Assad in what Moscow called a bid to craft a diplomatic solution to end the continuing bloodshed in the country.
Russia's top diplomat has declined to say what message he is bringing to Assad, but Moscow has said it was pressing Damascus to implement democratic reforms. Most experts had low expectations for any kind of breakthrough from the meeting.
On Monday, Lavrov criticized Western denunciations of a Russian-Chinese veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria, labeling them "almost hysterical."
Russia called the measure an "imbalanced" proposal that was put hastily to a U.N. vote and implicitly endorsed regime change in Syria, where the Assad family has ruled for more than 40 years.
Western and Arab supporters of the U.N. measure, including the United States, called the vetoed proposal the best chance for peace in the violence-ravaged Arab nation. The resolution endorsed an Arab League blueprint that called for Assad to relinquish power to a deputy as part of a transition to a representative government.
Syrian state television broadcast live coverage of Lavrov's arrival in Damascus as Syrians, waving Russian and other flags, greeted his delegation. Assad supporters view Russia as providing an international lifeline for the beleaguered Syrian government, now reviled in much of the Arab world and the West.
Meantime, anti-government activists reported that Syrian authorities resumed mortar attacks against the besieged city of Homs, an opposition bastion that has seen the heaviest of the fighting. The opposition says scores of civilians have been killed in Homs in recent days during a relentless military shelling campaign. Rebel leaders say they fear that the military will soon mount a tank-led ground assault of insurgent-held districts of Homs.
The government denies targeting civilians and says "terrorists" have been firing mortars and booby-trapping buildings in an effort to create the impression of an army assault. The purported deception is meant to create momentum for international intervention in Syria, the government asserts.
On Tuesday, the Syrian Interior Ministry said six security personnel were killed and 11 injured in clashes in Homs. The battles left "scores of terrorists" killed, the Interior Ministry said.
It was impossible to verify conflicting versions of the fighting and death toll in Homs and elsewhere in Syria, where press access is limited.
But the Syrian military does appears to have mounted an offensive to clear rebel enclaves in Homs, the restive suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere where the armed insurgency has taken hold. Both sides say fighting has been intense in recent days, with many casualties in various restive regions of Syria.
Since the conflict erupted almost 11 months ago, the government has sought to deny its opponents "liberated" zones that could be used as bases of rebel operations. Syrian authorities want to avoid what happened last year in the Libyan city of Benghazi, where Western-backed insurgents carved out a capital for a rebel force that eventually ousted the late Moammar Kadafi after he had ruled Libya for more than 40 years.
Meantime, Turkish media reported that 11 Iranian pilgrims held by Syrian rebels had been released with the help of diplomatic efforts from Turkey. Ankara has condemned the Assad government and hosts the leadership of the main rebel armed group, the Free Syrian Army.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell and Rima Marrouch
Photo: An image from the Syrian news agency SANA shows crowds waving Syrian and Russian flags as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives in Damascus. Credit: EPA