Syrian demonstrators raise posters showing Syria's President Bashar Assad as they perform an oath to defend their country at Sabe Bahrat square in downtown Damascus, Syria, on Friday, Dec. 16, 2011, during a rally to support President Bashar Assad. Syrian security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters after Friday prayers at several locations around the country, while the army sent reinforcements into a southern area where military defectors recently launched deadly attacks on regime troops. ( AP Photo/ Bassem Tellawi)
BEIRUT (CBS/AP) -- Syria's main opposition group formed a military council Thursday to organize and unify all armed resistance to President Bashar Assad's regime as the conflict veered ever closer to civil war.
The Paris-based leadership of the Syrian National Council said its plan was coordinated with the most potent armed opposition force — the Free Syrian Army — made up mainly of army defectors.
"The revolution started peacefully and kept up its peaceful nature for months, but the reality today is different and the SNC must shoulder its responsibilities in the face of this new reality," SNC president Burhan Ghalioun told reporters in Paris, saying any weapons flowing into the country should go through the council.
Still he tried to play down the risks of all-out warfare.
"We want to control the use of weapons so that there won't be a civil war," he said. "Our aim is to help avoid civil war."
The SNC has called for arming rebels in the past, but this was the first time it sought to organize the fighters under one umbrella. The plan coincides with a ferocious government offensive on the opposition stronghold of Homs in central Syria that has been going on for nearly a month.
In a sign the rebels in Homs may be accepting defeat - at least for now - in one particularly hard-hit neighborhood, the Free Syrian Army announced a "tactical retreat" of most fighters from Baba Amr after almost four weeks of intense battery.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, declared Homs a "safe area" on Thursday, saying it had managed to cleanse the rebel-held district of Baba Amr of "gunmen".
International pressure on the regime has been growing more intense by the day. The U.N.'s top human rights body voted Thursday to condemn Syria for its "widespread and systematic violations" against civilians, and the U.K. and Switzerland closed their embassies in Damascus over worsening security. The U.S. closed its embassy in February.
The new U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, meanwhile, said Assad must stop the killing and violence immediately and allow humanitarian agencies into the country.
Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan met with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday and told reporters that he will go to the Mideast very soon to help find a peaceful solution to the 11-month conflict.
He called it a "very difficult assignment." The U.N. estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in March 2011.
The U.S. has not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged conflict because of Syria's complex web of allegiances in the region that extend to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
On Wednesday, the Syrian regime showed a new determination to crush its opponents, vowing to "cleanse" the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs from "gunmen," as activists reported troops massing outside.
Syrian activists said government forces have cut off communications to Bab Amr, jamming satellite phone signals as they mass for an apparent ground assault. The neighborhood has been under siege for about four weeks and hundreds have died in shelling.
Authorities had previously blocked land and mobile phone lines, but activists were able to communicate with the outside world with satellite phones.
The activist Revolutionary Council of Homs said it could no longer reach anyone inside Baba Amr. All satellite signals were jammed, it said.
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