Syrian security forces kept up a deadly crackdown on dissent Thursday as the embattled regime faced surprising calls to end the violence from its closest ally, Iran, in a sign of growing alarm over the 6-month-old uprising.
In a live interview in Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Syrian President Bashar Assad should back away from his violent crackdown and talk to the opposition.
"There should be talks" between the Syrian government and its opponents, Ahmadinejad told Portuguese broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa late Wednesday, according to a simultaneous Portuguese translation of his comments.
"A military solution is never the right solution," Ahmadinejad said.
The comments came the same day that Syrian security forces unleashed one of the deadliest military assaults on the rebellious city of Homs, killing at least 20 people, activists said.
On Thursday, activists said there were reports of machine-gun fire and explosions as military vehicles stormed an area near the Turkish border.
The Syrian opposition _ which is disparate and largely disorganized _ has generally ruled out dialogue while Assad's forces continue the crackdown, which the U.N. estimates has killed some 2,200 people since March.
The crackdown has led to broad international isolation for Damascus, but Assad's allies in Iran have generally followed the Syrian regime in focusing on a "foreign conspiracy" driving the unrest in Syria.
Ahmadinejad's comments are a clear departure from that line and appear to reflect growing impatience with Assad in Iran.
Late last month, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged Assad to listen to some of his people's "legitimate demands."
The relationship with Iran is key to Assad's regime, which is facing the most severe international isolation in more than 40 years of rule by the Assad family.
The U.S. and other nations have accused Iran of aiding Assad's crackdown. Last month, the European Union imposed sanctions against the elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, saying the Quds Force is providing equipment and other support to help the crackdown in Syria.
There also has been speculation that Tehran is providing funds to cushion Assad's government as it burns through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government had at the start of the uprising.
But Iran cannot prop up the regime indefinitely, and Ahmadinejad's comments on Wednesday were sure to contribute to the growing unease in Damascus.
Another Syrian ally, Russia, was deploying its Mideast envoy to meet with both sides in the Syrian conflict to try to broker a political settlement that would keep Assad in power.
Mikhael Margelov made clear Moscow's support for Assad, and said said the West should be wary that the ouster of another secular leader in the Middle East could open the way to radical Islamic forces.
Assad "is young, he is well educated, he is broad minded and we think that he has a chance for modernization in his country if the ruling class of Syria becomes more open minded, more receptive to new ideas," Margelov told journalists Thursday on the sidelines of an international policy forum in Yaroslavl, Russia.
"We should not forget that moving from medieval style societies like many Arab states are today to democracy of the Western type, you have to be very careful," Margelov said.
Russia opposes a draft U.N. Security Council resolution backed by European nations and the U.S. that would impose an arms embargo and other sanctions on Syria. Russia has introduced a rival resolution calling for Assad's government to halt its violence against protesters and expedite reforms.
Margelov acknowledged that Syria is an important customer for Russia's defense industry, but said Russia was motivated by broader political interests.
Protesters in Syria take to the streets every week, despite the near-certainty that they will face a barrage of bullets and sniper fire by security forces. But the regime is in no imminent danger of collapse, leading to concerns that the violence will escalate in coming weeks and months.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and restricted local media, making it difficult to independently confirm reports. Amateur video and other witness accounts have become vital lines of information out of Syria as the media blackout continues.