- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2012

BEIRUIT — Syria’s military sent tanks and other reinforcements toward the resistance stronghold of Homs on Monday for a possible offensive to break the opposition’s grip even as Red Cross negotiators tried to broker a cease-fire for emergency aid to areas wracked by fighting.

The mobilization around Homs in central Syria was an ominous sign that President Bashar Assad’s regime was preparing a ground assault after weeks of shelling the district of Baba Amr, which the opposition has dubbed “Syria’s Misrata” after the Libyan city where rebels fought off a brutal government siege.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso told the Associated Press that Assad’s military should be ready to face stiff battles as residents plan to fight until “the last person.” He added that Homs is facing “savage shelling that does not differentiate between military or civilians targets.”

“The human loss is going to be huge if they retake Baba Amr,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said at eight people were killed by shelling in parts of Homs on Monday.

Amateur videos posted online showed what activists said were shells falling into Baba Amr. Black smoke billowed from residential areas. Phone lines and Internet connections have been cut with the city, making it difficult to get firsthand accounts from Homs residents.

In Geneva, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the group has been in talks with Syrian authorities and opposition groups to negotiate a cease-fire in some of the most violence-torn areas.

“We are currently discussing several possibilities with all those concerned, and it includes a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas,” the spokeswoman, Carla Haddad, told the AP.

She said the talks weren’t aimed at resolving any political differences after more than 11 months of bloodshed and unrest.

“The idea is to be able to facilitate swift access to people in need,” Haddad said.

Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent and the defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north as well as parts of Homs province, which is Syria’s largest stretching from the border with Lebanon in the west to Iraq and Jordan in the east. Increasingly, Syria appears to be careening toward an all-out civil war.

Activists believe Assad may be trying to subdue Homs — an important stronghold for anti-Assad groups — before a planned referendum Sunday on a new constitution. The charter would allow a bigger role for political opposition to challenge Assad’s Baath Party, which has controlled Syria since a 1963 coup.

But the leaders of the 11-month-old uprising against Assad have dismissed the referendum as an attempt at superficial reforms that do nothing to crack the regime’s hold on power.

“We have called for a boycott of the referendum which cannot be held while parts of Syria are a war zone,” said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council.

Assad still counts on support from Iran and allies such as Russia, which fears losing its main Arab partner. But his government is facing escalating pressure and isolation from Western and Arab states.

In Kabul, two senior members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee urged international cooperation to help supply the anti-Assad rebels with weapons and other aid. Both Arizona Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, however, stopped short of endorsing direct U.S. military involvement.

“The United States doesn’t have to directly ship weapons to the opposition, but there are a whole lot of things that can be done” through groups such as the Arab League, McCain told reporters on Sunday.

Graham said it was “shameful” for the U.S. not to have a prominent role to help the rebel forces, saying that breaking Syria’s ties to Iran “could be as beneficial to our efforts to contain a nuclear armed Iran as sanctions.”

“If the Syrian regime is replaced with another form of government that doesn’t tie its future to the Iranians, the world is a better place,” he said.

The U.N. last gave a death toll for the conflict in January, saying 5,400 had been killed in 2011 alone. But hundreds more have been killed since, according to activist groups. The group Local Coordination Committees says more than 7,300 have been killed since March of last year. There is no way to independently verify the numbers, however, as Syria bans almost all foreign journalists and human rights organizations.

The Observatory said that troops conducted raids Monday in the southern village of Harrah where at least nine people were detained.

In the western Hama province, troops backed by armored personnel carriers and military buses stormed several villages, conducting raids and arrests. A 32-year-old man was killed by gunfire from a security checkpoint in the area, activists said.

On Sunday, activists said at least 18 people were killed in Syria, including a senior state prosecutor and a judge who were shot dead by gunmen in the restive northwestern province of Idlib.