Arab officials held a "frank and friendly" meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad Wednesday, the head of the delegation said at the beginning of a regional effort to resolve a bloody 7-month revolt, the most serious challenge yet to the four decade Assad dynasty.
The Arab committee is trying to start talks between Assad's government and its opponents, but protest leaders reject any dialogue with the regime while it continues its brutal crackdown, which the U.N. says has killed more than 3,000 people since March.
Activists said at least 15 civilians were killed Wednesday in military operations across the country, 12 of them in the flashpoint central city of Homs.
The meeting in Damascus between the Arab ministerial committee and Assad came hours after tens of thousands of Syrians packed a main square in the Syrian capital, chanting, "the people want Bashar Assad." Assad succeeded his father, and together the family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani was quoted as saying that the Arab delegation felt that the Syrian government is eager to work with the Arab committee "in order to reach a solution."
Sheik Hamad told reporters that the Arab committee and the Syrian government will hold another meeting on Sunday either in Syria or in Qatar.
"What is important for us is that there are no victims from any side in Syria," Sheik Hamad told reporters. "The fighting should stop and the dialogue should begin between the Syrian brothers so that, God willing, they agree on points that fulfill people demands."
Syria has rejected previous Arab initiatives, and it was not clear if this would be different, or if the regime was trying to gain time to try to crush the uprising.
The Arab officials' visit follows a meeting in Cairo last week by the 22-nation Arab League, which gave Syria until the end of the month to end military operations, release detainees arrested in the crackdown, and start a dialogue with the opposition.
Human Rights Watch quoted Syrian activists as saying at least 186 protesters and residents have been killed in Syria since the Cairo meeting.
The activists said towns and villages in southern and central Syria, as well as some areas in the north and east, closed their businesses in compliance with an opposition call for a general strike.
Amateur videos showed shops closed in different parts of the country as well as counter-demonstrations to the one held in Damascus. One of the largest took place in the village of Halfaya in the central province of Hama.
A giant banner raised on an electricity pole there read: "To the Arab League. How do you want us to have a dialogue with the killer of children and women when all laws say that the killer should not be negotiated with, but put on trial?"
The Syrian government has staunchly defended its crackdown on protesters, saying it is the target of a foreign conspiracy.
Bassma Kodmani, spokeswoman for the broad-based opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it is "impossible" to talk about a dialogue within the current security crackdown.
"And even if the right conditions for dialogue prevail, the only thing to discuss would be a roadmap for the peaceful transfer of power," she told The Associated Press.
"Russia gives Bashar international protection, Iran gives him weapons, and Arabs give him time," read a banner carried by protesters in northern Syria Tuesday evening. "No dialogue with the killer of children," read another.
Human Rights Watch called on the Arab ministers to demand that the government allow independent, civilian monitors into Syria to observe the behavior of security forces.
In a pro-government rally timed to coincide with the Arab ministers' visit, tens of thousands of Syrians carrying white, red and black flags and posters of Assad gathered at Damascus' Omayyad square .
The opposition says authorities regularly stage such rallies in support of the embattled leader.
Assad still has significant support among Syrians, including those who benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who fear they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to the president. He also still has the loyalty of the bulk of the armed forces, key to his remaining in power.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other rights groups said 15 civilians were killed Wednesday in shootings by security forces nationwide, including 12 in the rebellious city of Homs. The Observatory also reported 11 soldiers were killed in Hama province when the bus they were traveling in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also said 15 people were killed Wednesday nationwide, most of them in Homs.
In Washington. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed hope that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford would return to Damascus in a month. He was withdrawn this week after the U.S. said "credible threats" were made against him. Ford often defied Syrian demands that he refrain from visiting areas where protests are strong.
She said the U.S. will expect Syria's government to stop its attacks on Ford through state-sponsored media.
"He's bought his Thanksgiving turkey for his embassy staff," Nuland told reporters. "So that's our expectation. It'll be, you know, sometime before Thanksgiving," which is in late November.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram