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Officials: US drones monitoring clashes in Syria

The Syrian army has continued to bombard at least half a dozen cities, despite the United Nations calling for an end to the violence. ITN's Bill Neely reports.

 

"A good number" of unmanned U.S. military and intelligence drones are operating in the skies over Syria, monitoring the Syrian military's attacks against opposition forces and innocent civilians alike, U.S. defense officials tell NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski.

The officials said this surveillance is not in preparation for U.S. military intervention. Rather, the Obama administration hopes to use the overhead visual evidence and intercepts of Syrian government and military communications in an effort to "make the case for a widespread international response," the officials told Miklaszewski.

Unlike in Libya, there has been no widespread international support for military intervention in the country. And while there has been some discussion among White House, State Dept. and Pentagon officials about possible humanitarian missions, U.S. officials fear that those missions could not be carried out without endangering those involved and would almost certainly draw the United States into a military role in Syria.


On Friday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces renewed bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs and attacked rebels in Deraa, in blatant disregard of a U.N. resolution.

Demonstrations against Assad were reported by activists in several cities across Syria, including the capital Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, after Friday Muslim prayers, despite the threat of violence from security forces.

In a show of support for Assad, China's vice foreign minister, Zhai Jun, arrived in Damascus after the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution telling the increasingly isolated president to halt the crackdown and surrender power.

China, along with Russia, had voted against the motion and says Syria must be allowed to resolve its problems without being dictated terms by foreign powers.

Related: Russia, China oppose UN General Assembly resolution on Syria

Its stance on Syria will "withstand the test of history," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in Beijing.

Zhai said before leaving for Damascus: "China does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that the UN General Assembly resolution showed an overwhelming consensus that Syria's bloody crackdown must end.

"So we will keep working to pressure and isolate the regime, to support the opposition and to provide relief to the people of Syria," Clinton said at a press conference.

Even as Zhai landed in Damascus, government forces pummeled opposition-held areas of the strategic western city of Homs, now under fire for two weeks.

In Deraa, a city on the Jordanian border where the revolt erupted nearly a year ago, explosions and machine gun fire echoed through districts under attack by troops, residents said.

Army tanks rolled through the streets of the conflict-torn city, even as regime forces categorically denied using them.

"We will not use them and we will win," a Syrian general in Deraa told ITN's Bill Neely. 

The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad's late father.

A doctor told Neely that a growing number of revolutionary troops are suffering head and neck wounds, proof that they are facing a well-trained enemy -- in many cases, defectors from their own ranks.

Protests continued in spite of the attacks, and one activist told Neely that Assad was doomed.

"One hundred percent he will go," the activist said.

The U.N. assembly vote in New York on Thursday showed Assad had few foreign sympathizers left. The vote went 137-12 in favour with 17 abstentions on a resolution endorsing an Arab League plan that calls for him to step down.

The assembly vote, unlike Security Council resolutions, has no legal force but it reflected global revulsion at the ferocity of the crackdown in which security forces have killed several thousand civilians since last March.

Assad portrays the opposition as foreign-backed terrorists and has promised reforms while rejecting the idea of surrendering power.

On Wednesday he announced a referendum on a draft constitution on Feb. 26 followed by a multi-party parliamentary election, a move swiftly dismissed the opposition and the West.

Assad told a visiting Mauritanian official on Friday that political reforms "have to march parallel with returning security and stability and protecting citizens," the state news agency said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders have decried the violence and are considering steps to get humanitarian aid to civilians suffering in embattled areas.

But the West has ruled out military intervention of the type that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year and must pin its hopes on a bringing together a fragmented opposition movement which includes activists inside Syria, armed rebels and politicians in exile. 

The military intervention in Libya was possible due to widespread support within NATO and among the Arab Gulf States and also because of the lack of support for Gadhafi, which is not the case for Syria.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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