Syrian security forces killed four leading pro-democracy activists in an ambush in northwestern Idlib province on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The activists, who had gone into hiding with armed opponents of the Damascus government, were shot dead in the Zawiya hills close to the border with Turkey, the Britain-based watchdog said, without immediately releasing their names.
On Thursday, a Syrian security officer was killed after the bombing of his car in al-Tadhamun neighborhood in Damascus, Al Arabiya correspondent reported.
Elsewhere, one civilian was killed and seven others wounded during shelling of Bab Hud, a neighborhood of the flashpoint central city of Homs, said the Observatory. Later on, the death rose to 18 people killed across Syria, the group reported.
In the eastern protest hub of Deir Ezzor, the body of a young man arrested after being shot during an anti-regime protest was found.
Government troops shot and wounded a soldier who tried to defect at a security checkpoint in Dael, in the restive southern province of Daraa, said the watchdog.
The Observatory said security forces killed 13 civilians on Wednesday, adding to a U.N. estimate of more than 5,400 people who have died since March.
President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has waged a fierce crackdown on dissent since protests erupted in mid-March, dispatching troops and militias to protest hotbeds in a bid to silence the opposition.
Syria’s powerful allies in Russia are vowing to block any Western attempts to intervene militarily in Syria as Damascus fights off an increasingly chaotic 10-month-old revolt against Assad.
The support came as Assad was showing fresh confidence that he can ride out the uprising with the help of a small - but influential - set of friends in Russia, China and Iran.
Iran also gave Syria another boost Wednesday. According to Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency, when the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Brig. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, said Assad’s government enjoys public support and won't collapse.
Assad, a 46-year-old authoritarian leader who inherited power from his father in 2000, has made two public appearances last week, where he vowed to strike back with an “iron hand” against the “conspiracy” behind the uprising. Assad has rarely turned up in public during the uprising and his appearances showed he was still firmly in charge.
But protesters show no sign of retreat despite the brutal military crackdown that the U.N. says has killed more than 5,400 people since March. And the uprising is turning increasingly militarized as more frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against the regime.
The Wednesday comments by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were one of Moscow’s strongest statements of support yet for Assad. As one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia can veto any Council resolution that would authorize military intervention in Syria.
“If some intend to use force at all cost ... we can hardly prevent that from happening,” Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow. “But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience. They won’t get any authorization from the U.N. Security Council.”
Lavrov said his country’s draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, which was circulated at the U.N. on Monday, aimed to make it explicitly clear that nothing could justify foreign military interference. However, Western diplomats said the draft fell short of their demand for strong condemnation of Assad’s crackdown on civilians.
Strong ally ever since father’s rule
Russia has been a strong ally of Syria since Soviet times when the country was led by the president’s father Hafez Assad. Nevertheless, Russian officials last fall hosted prominent Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow in a bid to sponsor talks.
Lavrov’s comments made clear that Russia’s position on intervention in Syria has not changed.
“Russia has a number of interests which would be protected by ensuring that there is no external interference in domestic developments in the country,” said Anthony Skinner, associate director at Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company. Russia sells weapons to Syria and the country's Tartous port gives the Russians a foothold in the Levant region.
But Skinner said the Russian support is not grounds for Assad to feel more secure in his position.
“If you look at the overall longer-term dynamic, it’s not something that he should draw any confidence from,” he said. “As we have seen with autocrats throughout the region, they at times live in an alternative reality and they have to project an image of strength, confidence and power,” he said.
Syria’s regime has grown increasingly isolated over the past 10 months as it waged a brutal military crackdown on an anti-government uprising inspired by the Arab Spring revolts across the region.
The Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution since the violence began because of strong opposition from Russia and China, another permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council. In October, both countries vetoed a West European draft resolution backed by the U.S. that condemned Assad's attacks and threatened sanctions.
Russia has sold Syria weapons systems in the past, including the advanced surface-to-air Strelets system, and its warships already had been calling on Syria's northern port of Tartous.
The Syrian opposition and Western countries have also accused Iran, Syria's closest ally in the Middle East, of assisting the regime in its crackdown.
A senior Obama administration official said Tuesday that a recent visit by the commander of Iran’s powerful Quds Force to Damascus is the strongest sign yet that Washington’s arch foe Tehran is supplying weapons to aid Assad's crackdown.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron also said Iran and Iranian-backed Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon are supporting Syria's violent crackdown on the uprising - accusations that both have denied.
Zabadani as ‘war zone’
As diplomats debated, opposition activists said Syrian troops shelled the mountain resort town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon, which has come under the control of army defectors. They said living conditions were deteriorating there after six days of a military siege.
There have been several other instances when the opposition or defectors have gained control of a town or city, but ultimately the Syrian military recaptured them.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Zabadani was hit with heavy machine gun fire early Wednesday.
A resident and activist in Zabadani described the town as a “war zone.” He said dozens of anti-government army defectors are deployed at the entrances to prevent any attempt by forces loyal to Assad to storm the area.
The man, who identified himself only as Fares for fear of government reprisal, told The Associated Press by phone that the town was shelled with mortars shortly before noon Wednesday. He added that two security buildings inside Zabadani are still under government control but there have not been any clashes with the forces there.
Fares said food is running out and fuel for heating is very scarce in Zabadani, where it snowed earlier this week.
The anti-Assad revolt, which began as a peaceful uprising by mostly civilian, unarmed protesters has turned increasingly militarized in recent months with growing numbers of army defectors who clash with troops.
The Observatory said there were also clashes between defectors and regular troops in the northwestern province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey. It added that security forces shot dead a civilian in the province. At least 10 civilians and several defectors were killed in fighting in Idlib and shooting in the central city of Homs Wednesday, according to activists.
The Russian foreign minister also addressed reports that a Russian ship had recently delivered munitions to Syria in violation of a European Union arms embargo. He said Russia doesn't feel a need to explain or offer excuses.
Lavrov said Russia was acting in full respect of international law and wouldn’t be guided by unilateral sanctions imposed by other nations.
“We haven’t violated any international agreements or the U.N. Security Council resolutions,” he said. “We are only trading with Syria in items which aren't banned by international law.”
Lavrov accused the West of turning a blind eye to attacks by opposition militants and supplies of weapons to the Syrian opposition from abroad.
“They are dodging the main question: Why we should keep silent about the extremist opposition’s actions against administrative buildings, hospitals, schools?” He urged the West to use its contacts with the opposition to pressure activists to refrain from violence.
He said that arms supplies to the Syrian opposition are “unacceptable and absolutely counterproductive because it only fuels more violence.”
Assad’s government blames the violence in Syria on terrorists and armed gangs that it claims are part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.