DAMASCUS // The six Gulf states expelled Syria's ambassadors yesterday in protest at the continued brutal repression of protests aimed at toppling Bashar Al Assad.
The expulsions, and the withdrawal from Damascus of any remaining GCC envoys, came as the Syrian president and the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met for their first talks since the crisis began in March.
Pro-regime crowds gathered on the main road from Damascus airport, giving a rapturous welcome to the Russian delegation's motorcade.
Mr Lavrov described the talks as useful and said Mr Al Assad had repeated assurances that all violence would be stopped, that political reforms were under way and that he would talk with opposition groups.
"We have every reason to believe that the signal we've brought here to move along in a more active manner along all directions has been heard," Mr Lavrov said.
"In particular, President Assad assured us that he is fully committed to the task of a cessation of violence, from whatever source it comes."
Opposition activists said at least 14 people were killed yesterday, including six in Homs and five in Zabadany. The figures could not be verified.
Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, said the death toll since the protests began included more than 400 children, and a similar number had been jailed by security forces.
It said the sustained artillery bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods in the key city of Homs, where more than 200 civilians have been killed in the past four days, was causing further suffering.
"This must stop," said Unicef executive director Anthony Lake. "Even one child killed in the violence is one child too many."
The UAE announced last night that it was rushing emergency humanitarian assistance to Syrians who "took refuge in neighbouring countries as a result of the tragic events in their homeland", the state news agency Wam reported.
Rashid Al Shariqi, head of the foreign affairs committee of the FNC, said last that the GCC's expulsion of Syrian ambassadors would add to the pressure on Damascus, but the organisation had no choice after the Russian and Chinese veto on Saturday of an Arab League-backed United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Mr Al Assad to make way for a unity government.
"The GCC worked hard for a long time, looking at all aspects of the situation, looking into how to solve it, and how to protect the citizens of the country," he said.
Several European nations including the UK, France and Italy, recalled their ambassadors from Damascus after the veto, and the United States closed its embassy.
Speaking after his meeting with Mr Al Assad, Russia's foreign minister said Moscow favoured an expansion of the Arab League's observer mission to Syria and would continue to work for rapid solution to the crisis based on a plan put forward by the league.
The mission has been widely criticised as inept and ineffective.
The Arab League's most recent plan, presented last month, called for the Syrian president to end his 11-year rule and hand power to his deputy. Moscow's objection to this proposal was a major reason for its Security Council veto.
It also said the Security Council resolution could open the door for international military intervention.
An earlier plan put forward by the League, and agreed by Syria, required a halt to all violence, political prisoners to be freed and for Mr Lavrov's remarks indicate Moscow still sees this as the basic framework for solving the crisis, despite the Arab League's saying Mr Al Assad had failed to implement any of its conditions since approving the deal in early November.
But the call for bolstered Arab League monitoring teams - which Mr Lavrov said Mr Al Assad endorsed - comes with the observer mission in tatters.
The Gulf states - the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - together with Jordan, have already pulled out their members and more than 20 other monitors have unilaterally quit, some saying the mission was turning a blind eye to regime atrocities.
Opposition groups have accused the monitors of failing to stop the bloodshed and of being manipulated by the Syrian regime.
Mr Lavrov also appeared to endorse Mr Al Assad's reform agenda, despite its being dismissed as a fiction by opposition groups and independent Syrian political figures.
"President Assad informed us that in the nearest future he's meeting a commission which has been preparing the draft of a new constitution," Mr Lavrov said.
"The work has been completed, now the schedule of a referendum on this very important document for Syria will be announced."
Sana, Syria's state-run news agency, confirmed yesterday that months of deliberations by the constitutional committee had ended just as the Russian delegation arrived.
The proposed constitution, which will have to be approved by Mr Al Assad, is widely thought to include provisions that would allow him to continue ruling Syria until 2028.
Opposition activists criticised Russia, saying it had given the regime a free hand to smash an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising demanding basic civil rights. The Syrian authorities say they are facing a foreign backed terrorist insurgency.
"Since the Russian Security Council veto on Saturday we have seen the security services acting with even greater violence and arrogance," said a leading anti-regime activist yesterday.
"The fact that attacks on Homs and other places are continuing even with Lavrov here shows the Russians are not mediators who will reign Assad in, they fully support everything this regime is doing."
Russia is a major arms supplier for Syria and its warships use Syria's port of Tartus.
Negotiations with the regime were impossible, the activist said, indicating any plans Moscow harbours for plotting a course out of the crisis will be stillborn.
"There is no way the opposition will sit with Assad and talk about political reforms," he said. "If this regime was genuine about dialogue and democracy, it wouldn't keep killing, arresting and torturing for having different political views."
Some Syrian analysts said Moscow may have taken a tougher line in private, and pointed to the presence of Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov, who accompanied Mr Lavrov.
"The Russians either came here to tell Assad, 'We'll give you no more vetoes and you're finished unless you change your ways', or they came to say 'Well done, keep going, do you need any more bullets?', said a Syrian analyst.
"We don't know which it is yet."
* Additional reporting by Ola Salem in Abu Dhabi