Foreign Secretary William Hague described the regime as “doomed” and “murdering” in a strongly worded statement to the Commons yesterday, but he denied Britain and other nations were planning military intervention.
He also announced to MPs that the British ambassador in Damascus, Simon Collis, had been recalled to the UK for consultations, while US president Barack Obama’s administration had pulled its ambassador out of the country.
Mr Hague said the Syrian ambassador had been called into the Foreign Office to explain the “completely unacceptable situation” in his country.
The statement in the Commons came just days after Russia and China sparked international outrage by vetoing a UN resolution condemning the actions of the Assad regime.
The move was described by the British government as “a betrayal of the Syrian people” and Mr Hague denied claims made by Russia that the resolution was a pretext for military action by Nato, similar to what happened in Libya.
Mr Hague vowed to continue efforts to put pressure on Damascus, including through EU sanctions.
Activists said that at least 23 people were killed when shells struck a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas in the third day of a new offensive on Homs. Another ten people were reported to have been killed elsewhere.
In Cairo, Arab League secretary general Nabil Elaraby, who has led efforts to seek an international solution to the crisis, said he was “extremely alarmed and concerned” at the use of heavy weapons by government forces. But the regime denied shelling the city, blaming “armed terrorist groups” for attacking civilians and police.
The United States yesterday closed down its embassy in Damascus and evacuated all diplomats, amid fears for the safety of its staff. American ambassador Robert Ford has been a critic of the Assad regime, which has encouraged supporters to attack foreign diplomatic offices.
“The Assad regime is feeling the noose tightening around them,” Mr Obama told NBC’s Today show yesterday. “We’re going to just continue to put more and more pressure until hopefully we see a transition.”
While threatening Damascus with further sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Mr Obama made it clear that the US had no appetite for military intervention such as the Nato bombing campaign that helped toppled Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi last year.
“Not every situation is going to allow for the kind of military solution that we saw [in Libya],” he said. “It is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention And I think that’s possible.”
There are fears that international intervention could make the already combustible conflict in Syria even worse. It is a highly unpredictable country, in part because of its web of allegiances to powerful forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and close ally Iran.
The country also has multiple sectarian divisions, which the uprising has laid bare. Most of Syria’s 22 million people are Sunni Muslim, but Mr Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect – something that has bred seething resentments.
Mr Hague left no doubt that he blames the Assad government for the “appalling” bloodshed and repression and said the regime was “doomed” because of its actions. He demanded assurances from Damascus that it would continue to ensure the protection of diplomats and staff at the British embassy, which remains in operation.
Mr Hague told MPs: “The Syrian regime has deployed snipers, tanks, artillery and mortars against civilian protesters and population centres, particularly in the cities of Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa.
“Thousands of Syrians have endured imprisonment, torture and sexual violence – including instances of the alleged rape of children – and the humanitarian position is deteriorating.
“The human suffering in Syria is already unimaginable and is in grave danger of escalating further. The position taken by Russia and China has regrettably made this more likely.
“However this government, this House, our country and our allies will not forget the people of Syria. We will redouble our efforts to put pressure on this appalling regime and to stop this indefensible violence.”
The president of the UN General Assembly last night joined the calls urging the Security Council to try to reach agreement on a Syria resolution, saying its deep division is leading to more Syrian deaths.
In an unusually strong statement, General Assembly president Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser reiterated the urgent calls of the Arab League and international community for Syrian authorities to immediately end the killings and halt violations of human rights.
Mr Nasser, who is from Qatar, warned that “the longer the Security Council remains divided in adopting a consensus position on developments in Syria, the more difficult the situation becomes, with more Syrians being killed daily.”