BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria marks the first anniversary on Thursday of an increasingly bloody uprising against President Bashar al-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 U.N.-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 U.N. 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.
Britain’s Guardian 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.
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 machinegun 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.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.
The Syrian president confidently predicted at the start of 2011 that his country was immune from the so-called “Arab Spring”, which has seen the old, autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen swept from power.
But on March 15, a few dozen protesters braved the streets of Damascus to call for more freedom. Days later riots broke out in Deraa, on the border with Jordan, to protest against the torture of local boys caught writing anti-government graffiti.
Over the past 12 months the unrest has morphed from a largely peaceful pro-democracy movement into a full-scale rebellion, led by a disparate collection of lightly armed militants and army deserters grouped in the Free Syrian Army.
They have briefly succeeded in wresting control of various towns and villages from the authorities but invariably ceded their gains in the face of a much stronger government force.
Despite a crashing economy, tightening sanctions and growing international isolation, Assad still seems to have significant support within Syria, notably in its two top cities -- Damascus and Aleppo. Its main ally Iran also remains fiercely supportive.
There is no sign of the Assad family and their allies losing control, or of significant defections from the army.
While Western powers and much of the Arab world have slammed the bloody crackdown, Syria has been able to count on the support of both Russia and China, which have vetoed two U.N. resolutions that were critical of Damascus.
However, diplomats say the conflict is developing along sectarian divisions, with the Sunni Muslim majority, who make up some 75 percent of the population of 23 million, at odds with Assad’s Alawite sect, which represents just 10 percent but controls many of the levers of power.
Other minorities, such as the Christians, are sticking with Assad for fear of reprisals should he be ousted, analysts say.
“The strategy of the regime is civil war, after it failed to silence the people. So it’s trying to protect its future by moving toward dividing the country,” said Najati Tayyara, a veteran dissident and Sunni liberal who has fled to Jordan.
Damascus says it as responded to calls for change and points o a new constitution approved in a referendum last month which removed a clause granting Assad’s ruling Baath Party a monopoly of power. A parliamentary election is set for May 7.
Former U.N. chief Annan presented Assad with a five-point plan to end the fighting at weekend talks.
Syria has said it has given a “positive” response to the approach. However, a senior Western diplomat in the region told Reuters that Damascus had effectively rejected Annan’s ideas.
Beleaguered residents in areas facing army crackdowns have accused the outside world of abandoning them to their fate.
“We think that foreign powers are giving another period of grace to Assad that is allowing him to exterminate his people and their revolt,” said Mohammed, speaking from in Deraa.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon and Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Editing by Mark Heinrich