BEIRUT — Syria's allies in Russia called for urgent talks Thursday between Damascus and the opposition, saying an attack by Syrian renegade troops on a government building looks like the start of a civil war.
President Bashar Assad is facing severe international isolation stemming from his crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising, which the U.N. estimates has killed 3,500 people. The Arab League suspended Damascus on Wednesday and threatened economic sanctions if the violence continues.
"This is all looking very much like a civil war," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, referring to attacks claimed by the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors opposing the regime.
The army defectors reportedly fired machine guns and rockets at an Air Force Intelligence base just outside Damascus, a brazen attack that sent a strong signal the popular uprising could descend into an armed conflict.
Lavrov urged Syrian and opposition forces alike to cease violence and negotiate.
"Violence is not only coming from the authorities," he said. "More and more weapons are smuggled in from foreign states."
Even as Assad was losing allies in quick succession, Russia and China kept up their long-standing ties with Damascus. In October they vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria.
But Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin appeared to suggest Beijing might support a resolution in the future.
"It depends on whether these actions will help to resolve the tensions in Syria and facilitate the resolution of disputes through political dialogue," he said.
He called on both sides in the conflict to work together.
The crisis appears to be spiraling out Assad's control, however, as attacks by army defectors increase and world leaders look at possibilities for a Syrian regime without him.