Syria's government made diplomatic gestures Monday toward seeking an end to the uprising that has convulsed the country, agreeing for the first time to allow visits by the top U.N. relief official and by the newly designated envoy who represents the United Nations and the Arab League.
But activists said that Syrian security forces widened their ferocious campaign to crush opposition in the most restive areas, sending troops into Daraa, the southern town where the protests began a year ago. Troops also bombarded the town of Rastan in central Syria, not far from Homs, an epicenter of the uprising that has been devastated by more than month of shelling and gunfire.
The developments came as the tone turned increasingly hawkish in Washington, where Sen. John McCain, a leader among Republicans on military matters, Monday called on the United States to conduct an extensive air bombardment of Syrian targets, with Arab League permission, to protect antigovernment fighters and civilians there.
McCain, an advocate of armed intervention in Libya, said in a speech on the Senate floor that if Syrian President Bashar Assad managed to retain power in defiance of world pressure to stop the crackdown and leave office, that would be a "strategic and moral defeat for the United States."
The Obama administration has expressed deep frustration at Assad's intransigence and has not ruled anything out.
Valerie Amos, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said in a statement that Assad's government had given her permission to visit Syria for three days starting Wednesday. The Syrian government had refused for a month to allow Amos to visit.
At the same time, Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general who was appointed last week as a special representative to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, announced that he would visit Damascus, starting Saturday.
Thousands of Syrians, mostly civilians, have been killed by security forces since the uprising started last March as a peaceful protest against Assad's autocratic rule, energized by the Arab Spring democracy revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.