Violence flared afresh on Monday in Homs, lending greater credence to the opposition's claim that emboldened by Russia and China's backing at the Security Council, the Syrian regime has stepped up armed attacks against protesters in the embattled city.

The opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission claimed on Monday that the security forces had killed 15 people in Homs. Significantly, it added that three people were killed in Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, where the relatively affluent merchant class has so far backed the government.

A Damascus-based opposition activist who called himself Ahmed said “pro-government vigilante groups are out in full force in Aleppo to keep a lid on possible disturbances”.

Analysts point out that Syrian regime, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, is unlikely to find itself threatened, so long as it is strongly supported by residents of Aleppo and capital Damascus, and the armed forces remain united.

SNA gains

Nevertheless, the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) appears to have made inroads on the northern fringes of Damascus, though it is yet to establish a firm base in these areas. The SNA, comprising mainly of a relatively modest number of army defectors had till recently provided a protective cover to demonstrations by opposition groups. However, it now appears to be mutating into an incipient guerilla force, as the room for peaceful protests begins to dissipate in Syria in the face of State violence, and the spectre of a civil war looms over the horizon.

The government, however, has denied allegations that its armed forces are shelling civilian areas in Homs. The state-run SANA news agency said “armed terrorist groups” were targeting civilians and police in several places. They were also indulging in sabotage, it claimed, as was evident from a gas pipeline blast in the Homs region.

Nonetheless, countering this view, witnesses said the use of heavy firepower by the armed forces had seriously disrupted power and water supply in Homs, causing considerable hardship to the people who were confronting a cold spell that prevailed in that area.

Sectarian tensions were running high in a city which has a majority Sunni population that cohabits with the Allawite community that also dominates the regime.

After the U.N. vote on Saturday, the opposition's Western backers appear to be gearing up for a full blown backing of armed groups, fuelling prospects of a high intensity civil war in the country. France, which along with Britain had played a leading role in supporting rebel groups in Libya that toppled the regime of the former leader, Muammar Qadhafi, has so far been loudest in espousing fresh support for the opposition. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France, after the U.N. vote, would “help the Syrian opposition to structure and organise itself”. In an interview with BFMTV television, he added that President Nicolas Sarkozy “will take steps in the coming days to try to bring together all those who consider the current situation absolutely intolerable”. Mr. Juppe deplored the stand taken by Moscow and Beijing, calling it a “moral stain” on the United Nations.

Despite facing a deluge of recriminations, mainly from the West, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stoutly defended his country's stance, saying attempts “to incite inter-ethnic or inter-religious contradictions or to start a civil war are totally unacceptable”.

Mr. Lavrov, accompanied by Russia's intelligence chief, is heading for Damascus on Tuesday to begin a new round of diplomacy to help defuse the crisis. “We've repeatedly urged Damascus to speed up reforms and we are continuing to do so. But we also see that there are those who have other goals. [They] are trying to use this movement in order to change the regime,” the Russian Foreign Minister said on Monday during a news conference in Moscow.

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