BEIRUT - Syrians said on Monday they expected only war after a speech by President Bashar Assad that was billed as a peace plan, and fighting resumed in the capital just a few miles from where he spoke.
Hours after Assad addressed cheering loyalists at the Damascus Opera House on Sunday, clashes raged just a few miles away near the road to the city's international airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The opposition-linked group said artillery hit the district of Arqaba, 3 miles (5 km) from the Opera House. Fighting continued all night and into Monday around the capital, as well as in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, it said.
Damascus residents said the speech was met with celebratory gunfire in pro-Assad neighborhoods. But even there, some saw no sign peace was any closer, although the cabinet was due to begin implementing the plan to "solve the crisis in Syria."
In the wake of Assad's speech and renewed violence in Syria, Pope Benedict on Monday urged the international community to end what he called the endless slaughter before the entire country became a "a field of ruins."
He made the appeal in particularly strong terms during a yearly "state of the world" address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican.
He said Syria, where the United Nations estimates that 60,000 people have been killed, was "torn apart by endless slaughter and [is] the scene of dreadful suffering among its civilian population."
He called for an "end to a conflict which will know no victors but only vanquished if it continues, leaving behind it nothing but a field of ruins."
Cabinet meeting called to implement Assad's "plan"
Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halki called on Monday for a special cabinet meeting to implement the "national program announced by President Bashar al-Assad yesterday to solve the crisis in Syria," the state news agency SANA said.
However, George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National Coalition, said the putative peace plan "did not even deserve to be called an initiative."
"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people," he told Reuters.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the speech "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power."
"His initiative is detached from reality, undermines the efforts of (UN peace envoy) Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, and would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people."
France joined the United States in saying Assad's speech showed he had lost touch with reality.
Assad's main ally Iran defended the speech as offering a "comprehensive political process."
"This plan rejects violence and terrorism and any foreign interference," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a statement.
There was no immediate response from Moscow, which has acted as Assad's main protector on the diplomatic stage. Sunday and Monday were part of the orthodox Christmas holiday when Russian state offices are mainly quiet.
Israel has also been watching warily from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 war and which, prior to the anti-Assad insurgency, had been mostly quiet for decades.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday Israel would erect a fence along the Golan armistice line to keep out jihadist rebels who, he said, had dislodged Assad's troops on the Syrian side. Much of the Golan is already fenced, and Israel has been reinforcing the fence for months after pro-Palestinian demonstrators twice tried to storm across in 2011.
On Monday, Netanyahu reiterated his concern over Syrian chemical weapons, stating they not only pose a threat to the civilians in Syria, and to Israel, but to the entire region.
"Chemical weapons not only endanger civilians in Syria, but also other parties in the Middle East, burdening the entire region as well as the United States and Russia," Netanyahu said.
He added that Israel is closely monitoring the situation, and is in communication with various governments in order to "prevent the chemical weapons reaching terrorist hands."