China's Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun met with Syrian President President Bashar al-Assad Saturday, as the latest government offensive against opposition towns and cities entered a second week. Meanwhile, anti-government protesters stepped up their demonstrations against the regime, with large crowds turning out in both Damascus and Aleppo.
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun expressed support for a Syrian referendum on a new constitution next week, as government TV read aloud its various clauses.
Zhai Jun told reporters that he hoped the referendum, scheduled for February 26, would go smoothly, despite ongoing violence in the country:
Zhai said that he hopes the referendum on the new constitution, as well as parliamentary elections (later in the year), will take place without interference or disruption.
He added that he hoped the political reforms announced by the government would help pave the way to a peaceful resolution of Syria's 11-month-old political crisis:
Zhai also emphasized that China is calling for an end to the violence and urging all parties in Syria to come together for dialogue and reach a comprehensive political plan.
Syrian opposition leaders, however, are refusing to talk to the government, insisting that President Assad step down. An Arab League peace plan calls on Assad to hand power to his vice president, form a unity government and hold presidential elections. The Syrian government has rejected the plan.
Meanwhile, witnesses say government snipers fired on a crowd of hundreds of mourners gathered in Damascus' central district of Mazzeh Saturday to bury victims of violence Friday. Al Arabiya TV says that the demonstration took place less than one kilometer from the presidential palace.
Witnesses also indicate that a widespread government offensive against opposition-held strongholds continued for a fourteenth consecutive day. Government forces shelled Homs, and scattered violence was reported in Hama, Daraa, Deir ez Zor and Idlib.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, says the Syrian conflict is intensifying, but discounts claims that it is becoming a civil war:
"The conflict in Syria is becoming bloodier by the day, but I don't think the country will witness full-fledged civil war," said Khashan. "I think this situation will find its way to resolution by the end of the year, but that doesn't mean that Syria would become a stable country. But the crisis in its current format cannot last for a very long time."
Syrian government media, meanwhile, claimed that an oil refinery in Homs was attacked by what it called “terrorists.” A pipeline leading to the refinery has been attacked repeatedly in recent weeks. Government TV also claimed that a bus carrying workers was attacked near Idlib and that a cache of rifles was uncovered near Raqqa.
Egyptian authorities also announced that two Iranian naval vessels, one a destroyer and the other a supply ship, had transited the Suez Canal and were now in the Mediterranean Sea. Arab satellite channels reported that the ship's destination is Syria.