Bashar Assad 311 .
(photo credit: Oded ben Josef)
Syria marks the first anniversary on Thursday of an increasingly bloody uprising against President Bashar Assad, with recent army gains unlikely to quell the revolt and no diplomatic solution in sight.
Troops loyal to Assad have pummeled rebel strongholds across Syria this week, deploying tanks and heavy artillery to crush opponents in a string of cities and villages, including Deraa in the far south where the rebellion took hold last March.
Amid dire warnings that Syria is set to sink into a protracted civil war, the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has demanded further clarifications from Damascus over its response to proposals aimed at ending the violence.
He is due to report back to a divided UN Security Council on Friday, with Russia and China still standing behind a defiant Assad while exasperated Western powers push for regime change.
The United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting, while some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a refugee crisis.
newspaper on Wednesday published what it said it thought were genuine emails sent and received by Assad and his wife between June and February that lifted the lid on aspects of their personal life.
The emails also appeared to show that Assad had taken advice from Iran on countering the uprising, that he had joked about his promises of reform, and that his wife had placed orders for expensive overseas goods as the violence escalated.
One of the emails stated that the media and political adviser for the Iranian ambassador had advised Assad to focus on "hostility to Israel, the first enemy of the Muslims," and "protection of Palestinian people's rights" in a speech meant to quiet opposition.
Assad's supporters have blamed foreign powers and terrorists for the chaos and say 2,000 soldiers have died in the conflict.
Opposition activists said up to 130 tanks and armored vehicles converged on Deraa on Wednesday, raking buildings with machine gun fire and carrying out house-to-house raids.
"They are hitting the birthplace of our revolution," said a resident from the city, who only identified himself as Mohammed for fear of reprisals.
Reports of army assaults also emerged from the northern province of Idlib and in the coastal region near al-Haffa.
Official Syrian media accused "armed terrorists" of massacring 15 civilians, including young children, in a pro-government district of the central city of Homs, which has been the focal point of much fighting in recent weeks.
Activists in Damascus reported hearing several explosions followed by gunfire early on Thursday. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a car exploded in the central district of Barzeh, adding that emergency services put out the fire and there was no word of any casualties.
A number of armored vehicles also deployed in the Jobar neighbourhood, where heavy gunfire was heard, while explosions and gunfire also shook Qfar Batna on the outskirts of the capital.