UN envoy Kofi Annan was meeting Syria’s president Bashar Assad today to press for an end to the country’s year-long conflict.
Mr Annan has said the trip will focus on trying to secure a peaceful end to the crisis.
But the high-profile international mission to end the violence stumbled even before it began as the opposition rejected Mr Annan’s calls for dialogue with the regime as “pointless and out of touch” after a year of bloodshed.
The dispute exposes the widening gap between opposition leaders who say only military aid can stop Mr Assad’s regime, and Western powers who fear more weapons will exacerbate the conflict.
The UN estimates some 7,500 people have been killed in the conflict.
Western and Arab powers are backing Mr Annan’s two-day trip to Syria.
The former UN secretary-general – now a special UN-Arab League envoy for Syria - has said he wants to start a “political process” to end the crisis and warned against further militarisation of a conflict that appears headed toward civil war.
“I hope that no one is thinking very seriously of using force in this situation,” Mr Annan said in Cairo before he left for Syria.
“I believe any further militarisation would make the situation worse.”
He said he would present “realistic” solutions, but did not elaborate.
Opposition leaders and activists rejected Mr Annan’s plans, saying they ignore the nature of Mr Assad’s authoritarian regime as well as the thousands killed by security forces, many while peacefully calling for political reform.
Mr Annan’s visit today comes as senior US intelligence officials say Mr Assad commands a formidable army that is unlikely to turn on him and an inner circle that is staying loyal.
The assessment suggests continuing bloodshed lasting several months, if not longer.
New satellite imagery shows the Syrian army even shelled mosques and schools in its crackdown on protesters.
As the prospects for diplomacy faltered, Turkey reported the defections of three high-ranking military officers – two generals and a colonel – as well as two sergeants, a significant development because until now most army defectors have been low-level conscripts.
A deputy oil minister also deserted Mr Assad’s regime this week, making him the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition.
The White House welcomed the reported defections as a sign the regime is cracking from within and that Mr Assad will eventually fall.
The talks between Mr Annan and Mr Assad came as activists reported fresh shelling by regime forces that sent families fleeing for safety in the northern province of Idlib. Thick black smoke billowed over the area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the government was shelling the Idlib region after tanks moved toward the area in recent days.
Some families were seen fleeing the violence, clutching their belongings, or taking shelter.
Military reinforcements have been pouring into Idlib for days, including dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, activists said. There have been concerns Idlib would be the focus of an offensive following the government recapture of the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs after a bloody, month-long siege.