The United States government has begun reviewing military options in Syria, as the Syrian army ramps up its military assault on opposition fighters in the city of Homs.

Currently official US policy regarding Syria advocates a non-military position. The options, which CNN stresses are a “preliminary internal review of U.S. military capabilities”, examine other US military commitments in the area and will only be presented to President Barack Obama if he calls for them.

The US is still pushing for non-military options first and “officials pointed out that this type of planning exercise is typical for the Pentagon, which would not want to be in the position of not having options for the President, if and when they are asked for”, reports CNN’s Barbara Starr.

Meanwhile in Homs, the Syrian army is shelling the city in its fight against opposition protesters. “Witnesses said tanks and snipers began firing on residential areas from dawn for a fifth straight day,” writes Al Jazeera. Omar Shakir, a resident of Bab al-Amr in Homs spoke to The Guardian‘s Martin Chulov about the intense shelling in his neighbourhood:

“It was unbelievable in Bab al-Amr today. There was shelling everywhere: machine guns, mortars, everything. I don’t know what to say, they were using everything against us. Trust me there was no resistance.

“All day, we could hear the sounds of the injured. They were screaming ‘God is greatest’ and saying ‘There is no other God but God’. I saw a lot of the injuries. The streets were terrible.

“The United Nations has given Assad the green light to kill his people and that is what he is doing. You cannot imagine how brutal it has been here. The rockets are not stopping. They have a strange sound and there is no way of fighting back, or of escaping.”

At least 50 people have reportedly been killed in Homs in the latest attacks. Photos and videos of bullet-riddled bodies and corpses pulled apart by bombs are appearing on Twitter and YouTube.  This video from Associated Press shows women and children attempting to hide underground to avoid the shellings. A video from The Telegraph shows a field hospital in Homs reportedly attacked by the Syrian military.

As many Western and Arab countries attempt to isolate Syria diplomatically due to its violent response to protesters, a Russian envoy arrived in Damascus yesterday to meet with top leaders.

A veil of uncertainty hangs over Syria, writes Charles Glass at The National:

“In the current uprising, neither side appears capable of a swift military victory. The escalation of violence produces a loss of trust among communities within the Syrian body politic. In Homs, at the moment the heart of the rebellion, kidnapping has become a fact of life. Sunnis and Alawites venturing into each other’s neighbourhoods suffer captivity. “

Led by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the convoy met with President Bashar al-Assad and spoke of an end to current tensions. The meeting came just as Gulf Arab states joined France, Italy, the US, Britain and Belgium in removing their ambassadors from Damascus.

Russia and China vetoed a Arab League-backed UN resolution last week that called on Assad to lessen his powers in hope of calming the violence in Syria, which is nearly at a civil war level. Many Western leaders were furious at Russia and China’s response, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling it a “travesty” that the resolution was not passed.

But Russia claims to have secured a promise from Assad that the violence will end. “We have had a very productive visit with the leadership of Syria,” said Lavrov after his meeting with Assad. “We have confirmed our preparedness to facilitate a rapid end to the crisis based on the positions set out in the Arab League initiative. In particular, the president of Syria gave assurance that he is fully committed to an end to violence, no matter its source.”

Lavrov said the Russian group also hoped to talk to Syria’s opposition leadership, but the Russian influence could be limited, reports Nada Bakri in The New York Times:

“Because of Moscow’s vocal support for Mr. Assad’s government, the Russians have been unable to gain the trust of the Syrian opposition. Neither was it clear whether Russian diplomatic efforts could push Mr. Assad to a compromise, considering his repeated assertions that he is battling terrorism, not a popular uprising.”

The government-run state Syrian Arab News Agency reported on the meeting:

“On behalf of the Syrian people, President al-Assad thanked Russia for its stances at the UN Security Council and its commitment to supporting dialogue and national solutions instead of escalation and dictations practiced by some countries which do not take into consideration the interests of the Syrian people and their vision for achieving the reforms internally and without foreign interference, stressing that Syria is determined to carry out national dialogue with the participation of representatives of the government, the opposition and independent figures.”

But Assad and the Syrian army refuses to admit responsibility for the latest violence. “Syrian state television has accused ‘armed gangs’ of being behind the latest violence in Homs,” reports Al Jazeera.

Peter Fray

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