REPORTING FROM BEIRUT-- As violence in Syria reportedly raged anew on Thursday, the United Nations and the Arab League were considering sending a joint observer mission to the war-ravaged Middle Eastern nation.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon assailed the "appalling brutality" unfolding in the Syrian city of Homs -- "with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods" -- and warned that the carnage was "a grim harbinger of worse to come."
The potential U.N. participation in an observer mission was illustrative of the intense diplomatic activity designed to find a solution to the escalating crisis in Syria, where a protest movement has evolved into an armed rebellion against President Bashar Assad and brought the nation to the brink of civil war.
Diplomats have been seeking alternatives after Russia and China on Saturday blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria that included a call for Assad to relinquish power.
So far, Washington and other foreign capitals have ruled out armed intervention in the country, though several U.S. lawmakers said this week that the Obama administration should consider arming Syria's rebels.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has proposed the creation of a group of "friends" that would support Syrians seeking a democratic transition in the country, which has been ruled by the Assad family for more than 40 years.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu was reported to be headed for Washington for talks on Syria.
Turkey, which shares a more than 500-mile-long border with Syria and was once an ally of Assad, has joined Arab nations, the United States and many European countries in condemning the Syrian government's crackdown on dissent. Ankara, a resurgent regional power, is likely to be key player in any new international plan for Syria.
Ban said he had spoken with Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League, who suggested "a joint observer mission in Syria."
The United Nations will consider the proposal in coming days, he added.
It was unclear if Russia or Syria would agree to a U.N. observer component in Syria. The prospective deployment of U.N. observers in the country would likely up the diplomatic ante and raise new questions -- such as how U.N. personnel would be protected amid the spiraling violence.
However, pressure is clearly mounting for some kind of international response. The failure of the U.N. to act "is disastrous for the people of Syria," Ban said. "It has encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people."
Syrian authorities deny targeting civilians and say their forces are battling foreign-backed "terrorists," including Islamic extremists, in Homs and elsewhere, including the restive suburbs of Damascus and conflict zones near the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders.
Late last month, the Arab League suspended its own observer mission in Syria, saying increasing violence had made it difficult for the team to do its work. The Assad administration supported the Arab observer delegation and agreed to a one-month extension. But Persian Gulf states pulled out their observers, complaining that Damascus was not doing enough to end the bloodshed.
The observers were tasked with determining whether Syria was complying with an Arab League peace plan from November that called on the Assad government to withdraw military forces from residential areas, release political prisoners and begin a dialogue with the opposition.
The potential U.N. action comes after the Russian-Chinese veto Saturday killed the Security Council resolution supporting an Arab League plan calling for Assad to cede power. The Syrian government, backed by Russia and China, labeled the measure an infringement on Syrian sovereignty and a blueprint for regime change, not peace.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Assad in Damascus this week and called for a resumption of the Arab League observer mission.
Opposition activists said shelling continued Thursday in Homs, with new civilian casualties. The Syrian government accused "armed terrorists" of targeting civilians and law enforcement personnel.
The opposition says hundreds have been killed in Homs in the past week during a government offensive against rebel strongholds. Either side's accounts could not be independently verified, as media access to the area is limited.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivers a speech during the annual international conference on security and policy in Herzliya, Israel. Credit: Jack Guez / Getty Images