Syria assault on Homs escalates. Does Assad think he has carte blanche now?

Residents of Homs say Syrian forces have stepped up their assault after Russia and China blocked UN Security Council action against the Assad regime this weekend.

Local Coordination Committees in Syria/AP
In this citizen journalism image provide by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and released on Feb. 2, a Syrian rebel stands next to a destroyed government forces tank in Homs, central Syria.

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues. Updated 11:01 a.m. Eastern time.

Shelling in the Syrian city of Homs killed at least another 17 people today, signaling that President Bashar al-Assad's regime saw Russia and China's vetoes of a UN Security Council resolution this weekend as a green light to crush the opposition. In response to the escalating violence in recent weeks, the US closed its embassy in Damascus today.

According to activists in the city, the Syrian military is firing shells and rockets at residential areas and a field hospital in Homs. A man named Omar in the Baba Amr neighborhood told BBC Radio in a telephone interview that the shelling began yesterday morning, but it is "more horrible now." A series of explosions can be heard in the background during the interview. 

Another resident of Homs, activist Majd Amer, made similar statements in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, saying that the shelling began in his neighborhood of Khaldiyeh at 3 a.m. "We did not sleep all night," he said, as explosions could be heard in the background. "The regime is committing organized crimes."

The Associated Press reports that the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) activist group and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say that at least 17 people have died in the shelling. The Syrian National Council put the tally higher, with at least 50 dead, according to the Italian news wire AKI. Weekend reports citing the LCC originally claimed more than 200 dead from shelling in Homs on Friday, but the group later revised its estimates down to 55, the BBC reported.

The Syrian government has denied that it is shelling the city, and claims instead that "armed terrorist groups" are attacking residents.

Syrian allies Russia and China on Saturday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to end the violence in Syria. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the vetoes a "travesty" and pushed for an international coalition to oust Assad through sanctions, arms embargoes, and humanitarian aid for Syrian citizens, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future," Mrs. Clinton said during a visit to Sofia, Bulgaria on Sunday.

The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that analysts believe the vetoes would embolden the Assad regime to crack down and the opposition to move towards armed resistance. 

“The situation in Syria is going to escalate with greater bloodshed in the streets as a consequences of the vetoes which ended up giving the regime greater support,” Imad Salamey, associate professor of politics at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, told the Monitor.

The New York Times writes that the government indeed appeared to view the vetoes as supportive, as it hailed Russia and China's decision as a rejection of foreign intervention in Syria. A state newspaper also indicated that the government would step up its crackdown, as it promised to “restore what Syrians had enjoyed for decades.”

China denies that it was protecting the Syrian regime with its vote, reports Agence France-Presse. Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters that "China does not have its own selfish interest on the issue of Syria. We don't shelter anyone. We uphold justice on the Syrian issue."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also angrily rebuked critics of Moscow's decision to veto the UN measure, saying “There are some in the West who have given evaluations of the vote on Syria in the United Nations Security Council that sound, I would say, indecent and perhaps on the verge of hysterical. Those who get angry are rarely right.”

With Russia and China preventing any action through the UN Security Council, the US is looking for alternatives to protect the Syrian opposition, reports The New York Times. But experts warn that to do so, the US may be forced to give consent to arm them, increasing the risk of Syrian civil war and setting up a proxy war there, with US and Europe on the opposition's side and Iran and Russia backing Mr. Assad's regime.

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