Fierce clashes between government troops and opposition forces in Syria's western Latakia province are further dimming hopes that diplomats can salvage a cease-fire and end the bloodshed.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the latest battles broke out Tuesday in the city of Haffeh and surrounding villages, where rebel forces had taken over several police stations.
The Observatory's Rami Abdurrahman said at least 15 government soldiers and at least three rebel fighters have been killed in what he described as the heaviest clashes in the Latakia region since the start of the 15-month-long conflict.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said prospects for ending the violence looked bleak. Prince Saud al-Faisal said Gulf Arab states have "begun to lose hope" that a cease-fire proposed by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan could help.
Syria expels envoys
Syria announced Tuesday it is expelling diplomats of several nations in response to the recent expulsions of Syrian diplomats.
The Syrian government said its expulsion order includes the ambassadors and other staff of the United States, Britain, France and Turkey. Some of those diplomats already had been withdrawn from Syria in protest at the government's crackdown on the uprising.
The rebel Free Syrian Army said Monday it is no longer bound by an April cease-fire agreement, and some military analysts warn the conflict has already passed the so-called "point of no return."
As the conflict widens, the Syria government agreed to allow the United Nations and international agencies to expand humanitarian operations in battered areas of the country, a senior U.N. aid official said on Tuesday.
China on Tuesday said it remains united with Russia in opposing foreign intervention in Syria's conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin talked with Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao in Beijing on Tuesday.
China and Russia have repeatedly blocked efforts by Western and Arab nations who are pushing for regime change in Syria and have put sanctions on the Syrian government and its leaders.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with allies in Turkey Wednesday to discuss how best to pursue a political transition to end the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Clinton said Tuesday that it is "pretty clear" that the main focus of international diplomacy must be on intensifying efforts to change Syria's leadership.
"We believe there is a way forward and we are going to continue to pursue that and we invite the Russians and the Chinese to be part of the solution of what is happening in Syria," she said. "Peace and human dignity will not be possible in Syria without political change."
Dan Goure, vice president with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia, tells VOA that Syrian government forces and the opposition are locked in protracted fight. "We are seeing the beginnings, maybe even the second phase, of a full-blown rebellion or even civil war in Syria."
The Syrian state news agency SANA confirmed on Tuesday the killings in recent days of more than 80 security personnel including a brigadier general in attacks by rebels. The Syrian Observatory has reported intensified rebel attacks on government checkpoints in recent days.
Goure says the most recent fighting shows the situation on the ground has changed, with far-reaching implications.
"Clearly the rebels are getting more capable and they're receiving support, weapons, possibly even training, from outside sources," he said. "And most importantly, after a year of efforts, the Syrian military is, has been unable to suppress this. So this doesn't look good for Assad's government. All the trend lines are in the wrong direction."
Speaking in Istanbul Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his country has no intention to intervene inside Syria's borders but also warned "the fire raging within Syria will engulf the whole region."
Despite concerns, the chairman of the U.N. Syria Humanitarian Forum sees the deal Tuesday to allow more aid into Syria as a sign of hope.
John Ging told reporters in Geneva the deal represents a "step of progress." But he, too, is cautious.
"Whether this is a breakthrough or not, will be evident in the coming days and weeks, and it will be measured not in rhetoric, not in agreements, but in action on the ground," Ging said.
International mediator Kofi Annan is due to brief the U.N. Security Council on the Syrian conflict on Thursday and will discuss the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton in Washington on Friday.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.