BEIRUT - Syria's powerful ally Russia said Wednesday it would block any attempt by the West to secure U.N. support for the use of force against the regime in Damascus, which is under intense international pressure to end its deadly crackdown on dissent.
It was one of Moscow's strongest statements of support yet for authoritarian Syrian President Bashar Assad. And as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Russia can veto any council resolution that would authorize military intervention in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country's draft of a U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, which was circulated at the U.N. on Monday, aimed to make it explicitly clear that nothing could justify foreign military interference. However, Western diplomats said the draft fell short of their demand for strong condemnation of Assad's crackdown on civilians.
"If some intend to use force at all cost ... we can hardly prevent that from happening," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow. "But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience. They won't get any authorization from the U.N. Security Council."
Russia has been a strong ally of Syria since Soviet times, when the country was led by the president's father Hafez Assad. Nevertheless, Russian officials last fall hosted prominent Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow in a bid to sponsor talks.
Syria's regime has grown increasingly isolated over the past 10 months as it waged a brutal military crackdown on an anti-government uprising inspired by the Arab Spring revolts across the region. The U.N. says the violence has killed more than 5,400 people since March.
The Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution since the violence began because of strong opposition from Russia and China, another permanent, veto-wielding member of the Security Council. In October, both countries vetoed a West European draft resolution backed by the U.S. that condemned Assad's attacks and threatened sanctions.
As diplomats debated, opposition activists said Syrian troops shelled the mountain resort town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon, which has come under the control of army defectors. They said living conditions were deteriorating there after six days of a military siege.
There have been several other instances when the opposition or defectors have gained control of a town or city, but ultimately the Syrian military recaptured them.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Zabadani was hit with heavy machine gun fire early Wednesday.
A resident and activist in Zabadani described the town as a "war zone." He said dozens of anti-government army defectors are deployed at the entrances to prevent any attempt by forces loyal to Assad to storm the area.
The man, who identified himself only as Fares for fear of government reprisal, told The Associated Press by phone that the town was shelled with mortars shortly before noon Wednesday. He added that two security buildings inside Zabadani are still under government control but there have not been any clashes with the forces there.
Fares said food is running out and fuel for heating is very scarce in Zabadani, where it snowed earlier this week.
The anti-Assad revolt, which began as a peaceful uprising by mostly civilian, unarmed protesters has turned increasingly militarized in recent months with growing numbers of army defectors who clash with troops.
The Observatory said there were also clashes between defectors and regular troops in the northwestern province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey. It added that security forces shot dead a civilian in the province.
The Russian foreign minister also addressed reports that a Russian ship had recently delivered munitions to Syria in violation of a European Union arms embargo. He said Russia doesn't feel a need to explain or offer excuses.
Lavrov said Russia was acting in full respect of international law and wouldn't be guided by unilateral sanctions imposed by other nations.
"We haven't violated any international agreements or the U.N. Security Council resolutions," he said. "We are only trading with Syria in items which aren't banned by international law."
Lavrov accused the West of turning a blind eye to attacks by opposition militants and supplies of weapons to the Syrian opposition from abroad.
"They are dodging the main question: Why we should keep silent about the extremist opposition's actions against administrative buildings, hospitals, schools?" He urged the West to use its contacts with the opposition to pressure activists to refrain from violence.
He said that arms supplies to the Syrian opposition are "unacceptable and absolutely counterproductive because it only fuels more violence."
Assad's government blames the violence in Syria on terrorists and armed gangs that it claims are part of a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.
Also Wednesday, the deputy leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, Mohammed Farouk Tayfour, was quoted as saying Iran tried to mediate a deal between the opposition and the regime late last year. Tayfour told the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper that the Brotherhood rejected the deal, in which they were offered to run the whole Cabinet as long as Assad remained in power.
"We told them we cannot accept that he stays" in power, said Tayfour, whose group was crushed in 1982 by Assad's father when he ordered the military to quell a rebellion by the conservative movement in the Syrian city of Hama.
Iran is Syria's closest ally in the Middle East.
A senior Obama administration official said Tuesday that a recent visit by the commander of Iran's powerful Quds Force to Damascus is the strongest sign yet that Washington's arch foe Tehran is supplying weapons to aid Assad's crackdown.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron also said Iran and Iranian-backed Islamist group Hezbollah in Lebanon are supporting Syria's violent crackdown on the uprising.
Cameron told lawmakers that both were offering backing to Assad. He described Assad as a "wretched tyrant who is killing so many of his own people."