With the death toll in Syria soaring on Wednesday, the world began returning its attention to the devastating civil war there after a week in which the controversy over a US-made film denigrating the prophet Muhammad dominated headlines around the Middle East.

In Damascus on a rare visit, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Wednesday that the solution to the Syrian war lies “only in Syria and within the Syrian family,” according to SANA, Syria’s state news agency.

The words were clearly the sort of message that Syrian President Bashar Assad wants broadcast to the world, as he has insisted that international attempts to broker a solution to the conflict amount to foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.

But it is not the message that most of the international community is open to receiving, as the civilian death toll mounts, rebels make gains and even the Syrian president’s sister is reported to have fled the country.

Amnesty International said on Wednesday that civilians, many of them children, are the main victims of a campaign of relentless and indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian army. The group released a briefing paper, based on firsthand field investigations carried out in the first half of September, charging in a press release that there was “fresh evidence of a pattern which has emerged in recent weeks in areas where government forces, pushed into retreat by opposition forces, are now indiscriminately bombing and shelling lost territory – with disastrous consequences for the civilian population.”

Some 20,000 Syrians have died in the conflict so far, the UN estimates.

“Government forces now routinely bomb and shell towns and villages using battlefield weapons which cannot be aimed at specific targets, knowing that the victims of such indiscriminate attacks are almost always civilians. Such weapons should never be used in residential areas,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International senior crisis response adviser, who recently returned from northern Syria. “The plight of the civilian population in this region of Syria has been under-reported as world attention has largely focused on the fighting in Aleppo and Damascus.”

Amnesty recommended that the UN Security Council refer the Syrian crisis to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, in order to try Syrian officials for war crimes.

In the latest indication that Assad’s inner circle is crumbling, his own sister, Bushra Assad, fled Syria with her children.

The opposition website All4Syria and the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Ad-Diyar both reported that Bushra had fled from Syria to Dubai. Her husband, Assef Shawkat, who was deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Armed Forces, was killed by opposition forces on July 18, the Al Bawaba website reported.

That attack also killed two other members of the government’s six-member crisis council, and the president’s brother, Maher Assad, was reported to have lost a leg in the bombing.

Iran has been Syria’s main regional ally as the uprising, which began in March 2011 as an offshoot of the Arab Spring, has intensified.

Tehran has been trying to find a solution to the conflict that would minimize – if not eliminate – the role of Western powers, and would help Iran win points across the Middle East.

On Sunday, for the first time, Iran acknowledged that it has a military presence in Syria in the form of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Their commander, Muhammad Ali Jafari, was quoted in the Iranian media as saying that a number of the Guard’s Quds Force members are present in Syria and that they provide “intellectual and advisory help,” according to Voice of America news.

Many across the Middle East, however, are critical of Iran’s attempt at mediation.

Said an Egyptian commentator on BBC, whose words were picked up and recirculated on Twitter: “The Syrian solution Iran is asking for is for the people to protest, and the regime to kill.”

Syrian rebels continued their advances on Wednesday when they seized their third border crossing with Turkey, Reuters reported, following heavy battles overnight with government troops.

Reuters television footage showed a rebel tearing down the Syrian flag on top of what appeared to be a customs building at the Tel Abyad frontier gate. “I can confirm that the gate has fallen. It is under the complete control of the rebels,” a Turkish official told Reuters. Rebels could be seen celebrating on top of the customs building, and there was no sign of any government troops at the crossing.

The rebels’ move is considered significant in that it represents the first time insurgents tried to wrest control of a border zone in Syria’s al- Raqqa province, most of which has remained pro- Assad. Rebels now control two other crossings on the northern border with Turkey.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is nearby.

In another major development, the former head of Syria’s chemical arsenal said in an interview in Turkey with The Times that the Syrian regime has plans to deploy chemical weapons against its own people “as a last resort.”

Maj.-Gen. Adnan Sillu, who defected from the Syrian army about three months ago after participating in top-level talks about the use of chemical weapons on both rebel fighters and civilians, said in the interview that chemical weapons were discussed as an option.

“We were in a serious discussion about the use of chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas,” he told The Times, referring to a meeting held at Syria’s chemical weapons center south of Damascus. “We discussed this as a last resort – such as if the regime lost control of an important area such as Aleppo.”

On Monday, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the Syrian army had tested a chemical weapons delivery system, firing shells at the Safira research center in Syria’s northwestern desert region.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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