AMMAN (Reuters) - At least 20 people died in clashes and strikes paralyzed parts of Syria on Wednesday as President Bashar al-Assad held an inconclusive meeting with Arab ministers seeking to end months of violence.
Nine soldiers were killed by armed rebels and 11 civilians were killed by army gunfire, residents and anti-Assad activists said, as little emerged from a closely watched meeting between Assad and members of an Arab League committee on Syria.
The delegation leader, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said the talks had been “cordial and frank” and that the ministers would meet Syrian officials again on October 30 in either Doha or Damascus.
Down the hill from where the envoys met Assad at the “Palace of the People,” the authorities organized a rally to show support for the president, who inherited power from his late father 11 years ago.
But with armored assaults on cities and towns failing to end seven months of protests against 41 years of Assad family rule, international pressure on the president continued to grow.
The United Nations says his crackdown has killed 3,000 people, although Syria says hundreds of security personnel have been killed by armed groups trying to foment sectarian conflict.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who met Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani on Wednesday, said his country was consulting with Arab League members to push Syria to “pull troops from cities and end its cruel treatment of its people.”
“There are measures that have been taken and activated in this regard so that the Syrian government ends its aggression against its people, but these do not include any sanctions that could hurt the Syrian people,” Davutoglu said after talks in Amman with King Abdullah and senior Jordanian officials.
Turkish officials who spoke on condition of anonymity say the sanctions, which were announced last month without details, will affect military, banking and energy ties, among others.
The United States and the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Syria’s small, but key, oil sector, which is linked to the Assad family and their friends.
In the million-strong city of Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Assad, residents and activists said a general strike kept most workers at home and shops shut.
One resident said armed opponents of Assad had enforced the strike. Firing by soldiers, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people indoors.
In the town of Hamrat, north of Homs, suspected army deserters killed nine soldiers in an attack on a bus with a rocket-propelled grenade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It was the latest incident in an armed insurgency emerging alongside the campaign of street protests.
“This will end with the fall of the regime. It is nearly unavoidable,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
“But unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene,” he told French radio.
In Umayyad Square in central Damascus, tens of thousands of people gathered for what has become a weekly show of support for Assad organized by authorities.
State television showed them waving Syrian flags and portraits of the president, saying they were rallying under the slogan “Long live the homeland and its leader.”
The rally took place before the envoys from six Arab nations arrived in Damascus for talks with Assad following a call on October 16 for the opposition and government to hold a dialogue within 15 days at the League headquarters in Cairo.
“What is hoped is that the violence will end, a dialogue will start and reforms will be achieved,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said. The delegation was led by Qatar and included Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Sudan and Yemen.
Assad’s government says it is serious about political reform, and that militants are trying to wreck it.
The opposition says Assad has no intention of relaxing his grip on power, pointing to an increase in killings, torture, arrests and assassinations.
Human Rights Watch said the Arab mission should demand that Syria allow in independent civilian monitors.
“The only way to make sure civilians are protected is to have on-the-ground monitors whose presence would inhibit abuse by the security services,” HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.
Assad is from the minority Alawite sect in a mostly Sunni Muslim country. Sensitive to the reverberations if he were to fall, leaders of mostly Sunni nations across the Middle East have been cautious about criticizing him or taking action, as many struggle to deal with their own unrest.
In Homs, residents said public employees took part in the strike for the first time, and only a few food shops were open. Video posted on the Internet showed shuttered shops on both sides of a main street in the nearby region of Houla.
In Deraa the impact was reportedly even greater. “There is total closure. The streets of Deraa are empty, even the few butcher’s shops and pharmacies that were open are now closed,” said Jasem Masalmeh, a resident of the provincial capital.
Syria has excluded most foreign media, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Roche