Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan on Saturday that no political solution was possible in Syria while "terrorist" groups were destabilising the country.
"Syria is ready to make a success of any honest effort to find a solution for the events it is witnessing," state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling his guest. "No political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability," the Syrian leader said after about two hours of talks with the former UN secretary eneral.
There was no immediate comment from Annan after the meeting, aimed at halting bloodshed that has cost thousands of lives since a popular uprising erupted a year ago. While they discussed the crisis, Syrian troops were assaulting the northwestern city of Idlib, a rebel bastion.
"Regime forces have just stormed into Idlib with tanks and heavy shelling is now taking place," said an activist contacted by telephone, the sound of explosions punctuating the call.
Sixteen rebel fighters, seven soldiers and four civilians were killed in the Idlib fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 15 other people, including three soldiers, had been killed in violence elsewhere.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who met Annan in Cairo earlier in the day, told the Arab League his country was "not protecting any regime", but did not believe the Syrian crisis could be blamed on one side alone.
He called for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia sharply criticised Moscow's stance.
"TRUCE NOT ENOUGH"
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who has led calls for Assad to be isolated and for Syrian rebels to be armed, said a ceasefire was not enough. Syrian leaders must be held to account and political prisoners freed, he declared.
"We must send a message to the Syrian regime that the world's patience and our patience has run out, as has the time for silence about its practices," Sheikh Hamad said.
Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said shortcomings in the UN security council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions on Syria, had allowed the killing to go on.
Their position, he said, "gave the Syrian regime a licence to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people".
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are both ruled by autocrats and espouse a strict version of Sunni Islam, are improbable champions of democracy in Syria. Riyadh has an interest in seeing Assad fall because this could weaken its Shi'ite regional rival Iran, which has been allied with Syria since 1980. International rifts have paralysed action on Syria, with Russia and China opposing Western and Arab calls for Assad, who inherited power from his father nearly 12 years ago, to quit.
Lavrov told Arab ministers a new UN security council resolution had a chance of being approved if it was not driven by a desire to let armed rebels take control of Syria's streets.
The United States has drafted a fresh resolution, but the State Department said on Friday it was not optimistic that its text would be accepted by the Council. France says it will oppose any measure that holds the Syrian government and its foes equally responsible for the bloodshed.
Despite their differences, Lavrov and Arab ministers said they had agreed on the need for an end to violence in Syria.
They also called for unbiased monitoring of events there, opposition to foreign intervention, delivery of humanitarian aid and support for Annan's peace efforts.
Annan also planned to meet Syrian dissidents before leaving Damascus on Sunday. He has called for a political solution, but the opposition says the time for dialogue is long gone.
"We support any initiative that aims to stop the killings, but we reject it if it is going to give Bashar more time to break the revolution and keep him in power," Melham al-Droubi, a Saudi-based member of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the exiled Syrian National Council, told Reuters by telephone.
Annan's trip to Damascus followed a violent day in which activists said Assad's forces killed at least 72 people as they bombarded parts of the rebellious city of Homs and sought to deter demonstrators and crush insurgents elsewhere.
Decisive victory has eluded both sides in an increasingly deadly struggle that began as a mainly peaceful protest movement a year ago and now appears to be sliding into civil war.
The United Nations estimates that Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people. Syria said in December that "terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.
Russia, one of Syria's few foreign friends and its main arms supplier, could play a pivotal role in any negotiated solution.
Chinese and Russian reluctance to approve any UN resolution on Syria stems partly from their fear that it could be used to justify a Libya-style military intervention, although Western powers deny any intention to go to war again in Syria.
A Russian diplomat said this week Assad was battling al Qaeda-backed militants, including 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if Syrian troops withdrew. The Syrian opposition denies any al Qaeda role in the uprising, but Islamists are among rebels who have taken up arms against Assad under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Qatar's Sheikh Hamad chided Russia for accepting the Syrian government's portrayal of insurgents as armed gangs.
"There are no armed gangs, the systematic killing came from the Syrian government side for many months. After that the people were forced to defend themselves so the regime labelled them armed gangs," he told the Arab League meeting.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton will meet Lavrov in New York on Monday when the Security Council holds a special meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be in focus.