DAMASCUS — Syrian troops massed around Homs, as Iranian warships docked at the port of Tartus in a show of force, sparking calls Feb. 20 for women and children to flee the besieged flashpoint city.
The reported buildup came as Mediterranean states meeting in Rome agreed to preserve Syria's territorial integrity and avoid an "Iraqi scenario," according to Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem.
U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said any intervention in Syria would be "very difficult" and that it was "premature" to arm the opposition.
China's influential People's Daily warned that any Western support for the rebels would trigger a "large-scale civil war."
But, despite a weekend appeal by a visiting Chinese envoy for all sides to stop the violence, monitors said forces of embattled President Bashar al-Assad targeted the central city of Homs for a 17th straight day.
Attacks on Homs killed nine people Feb. 20, according to reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and official state media.
Shelling of Baba Amr, the main rebel stronghold in Homs, killed five civilians, while another four died when rockets crashed into Al-Malaab district, said the Britain-based Observatory.
The official SANA news agency said a lieutenant colonel and a sergeant were killed in a clash between border guards and an "armed terrorist group" in Athraya, central Hama province.
Elsewhere, two warships from Iran, a key backer of the Syrian regime, docked at the port of Tartus, Tehran's state television reported Feb. 20, adding that their crew would train Syrian sailors.
Iran's navy chief, Admiral Habibollah Sayari, said Feb. 18 that the ships, a destroyer and supply vessel, had passed through the Suez Canal to show the Islamic republic's military "might."
In Damascus, regime forces remained on alert after two days of large and unexpected protests, and after a call for a "day of defiance" was observed in restive neighborhoods, according to activists.
"Following the surprising demonstrations (on Feb. 17 and 18), the regime is reconsidering its security measures," in the capital, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.