THE subdued, early morning, grey-blue sky is mesmerisingly calm on the live webcam that is trained across the rooftops of the besieged Syrian city of Homs. Occasionally a small bird flies by and, just for a moment, it is easy to forget this is a window into what the United Nations has described as Syria's ''war on its own people, committed in cold blood''.
Then an explosion rocks the neighbourhood, smoke rises, and the rapid-fire response of a Kalashnikov shatters the illusion.
Home to an estimated 800,000 people, the western city of Homs has come under intense bombardment for the past week. Whole families have reportedly perished in their homes that collapsed when hit with tank shells and mortar fire, while others have been killed by snipers as they emerged briefly from hiding in a desperate attempt to get food and water.
While anxious world leaders discussed observer missions and havens for refugees this week, hundreds have died and thousands more have been injured as Syria's 11-month uprising shows no signs of slowing. Local activists put the death toll at more than 7000. The United Nations stopped counting in December when it reached 5400 - it says it can no longer verify the figure.
The failed UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the violence - vetoed by Russia and China a week ago - only appears to have emboldened the regime of Bashar al-Assad and it has left residents of Homs deeply fearful of the violence to come, gripped with anger and disbelief that the world could so easily abandon them.
Activist Omar Shakir, who has been chronicling the revolution in Syria with his live web camera and Twitter feed, wrote this early yesterday: ''Baba Amro [a neighbourhood of Homs] is now under a complete siege, no medical supplies, no food, no sleep for the fifth day in a row as shelling continues non-stop. Very soon it is going to be a humanitarian disaster if [it is] not one already. We call out to the world for urgent humanitarian intervention.''
Many believe the Syrian army is preparing for a full ground assault on the city, some say to punish it for being at the heart of anti-Assad protests.
Videos and photos of the attacks, reviewed by military experts from Human Rights Watch, confirm that government forces escalated their assault this week, launching long-range indirect fire attacks into densely populated areas. Already, the makeshift field hospitals set up in private homes around the city are overwhelmed by the casualties - there are not enough doctors, nurses or medical supplies to treat the wounded and people are terrified of going to government-run hospitals, from where many are being kidnapped and tortured by the regime.
Some of the wounded are evacuated - in secret - across the border into Lebanon, where volunteer doctors and nurses from Syria treat them, quietly, in a hospital on the outskirts of Tripoli in the country's north. The Saturday Age visited the hospital this week. One man was almost flat on his back in bed, an arm fortified by a metal brace and pins, the other resting gently across his face, scarred by at least three bullet wounds.
''How many times were you shot?''
''Twenty-nine times,'' he says, quietly.
Like everyone in this hospital, ''Abu al-Arab'' is scared he will be discovered by the secret police. Lebanese or Syrian, it doesn't matter. His fear is palpable. He will not reveal his real name, his age (in his 40s), how many children he has or where his wife and children are living. We cannot show his face.
The resident of al-Qusayr, a town 25 kilometres south-west of Homs, was driving between the capital Damascus and Homs - delivering much-needed supplies to a city that has been cut off from even the most basic foods such as milk and bread - when his car came under attack from Assad regime loyalists. They shot and killed his driver, then turned their Kalashnikovs on him. Three bullets to his head, nine to his abdomen (there are still five left to remove), a shattered pelvis, a broken arm. Incredibly, he survived. His phone did not. Lapsing in and out of consciousness and bleeding profusely, he had the presence of mind to reach over the body of his driver and grab his mobile phone to call for help. Somehow, help arrived, and they began the 28-kilometre journey to the border, via the icy back roads to avoid the Syrian army.
As they neared the border they had to leave the car and travel on foot. Supported by a man on each side, he was almost hysterical with pain, gasping for breath as he struggled to remain conscious. ''Do not speak or even breathe loudly, be very quiet,'' they begged. ''We are about to cross the border.'' The men all but carried him to the safety of aid workers just inside Lebanon. Nine hours after he was shot, he made it to the hospital in Tripoli. That was two weeks ago. Since then, hundreds have died and thousands more have been injured in his beloved Homs.
''IT IS clear that the battle for Syria is on,'' says Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
Strategically located in one of the most conflict-ridden zones on the planet, Syria is backed by Iran and has close ties to Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Everyone wants a piece of it. The Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, now bolstered by Turkey's decision to drop its support for its neighbour and openly call for Assad to stand down, will face off against Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
''Then there is the US and the West's struggle with Iran - the US in particular realises Syria is up for grabs and they are going to try to grab it,'' Salem says. ''Now that Russia and China have blocked the consensus approach [by using their veto in the UN] I think the Sunni axis and the West are going to say 'well if there is no consensus approach we will Cold War it out … you want to back Assad, we will have to back the other guys'.''
In this process, he warns, Syria will be further isolated from its Sunni neighbours. ''It will consolidate the depths of Syria's degradation into the Iranian axis. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are possibly beginning to form a distinct subregion with its own security arrangements and its own economic arrangements.''
Meanwhile, the international community is struggling with its response to the Assad regime's violence, and in the absence of what many describe as the ''Benghazi moment'', there are limited options to help a population in desperate need, Salem says. The ''Benghazi moment'' refers to the conditions that preceded the UN's decision to support a ''no-fly zone'' in Libya to protect the civilian population. At that time - in March last year - the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi had fallen into the control of pro-democracy rebel soldiers and, in response, the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to slaughter civilians like rats.
''This situation has not yet occurred in Syria,'' Salem says. ''There is no city or region that has broken away and is wholly independent of the Assad regime.''
Add to that, Syria's sectarian and ethnic divisions are ''way more dangerous and complicated'' than the situation in Libya.
And then there is its location.
''Libya is between Tunisia and Egypt. Syria is between Israel and Iran. It's a tough neighbourhood.''
It is clear, Salem says, that Turkey, Qatar and other Arab countries, as well as those in the West, believe something must be done to stop the violence.
''Yet nobody is clear what can be done and how - obviously a no-fly zone is not on the cards, but then what is? One of the options is how to support the opposition, how to support the Free Syrian Army, and there the question arises: should that be overt, should it be covert, where should it be based, does it need an Arab League vote?''
There were unconfirmed rumours this week that Saudi Arabia was funding the purchase of weapons for the Free Syrian Army, which is significantly outgunned by the might of the Syrian forces. Salem casts doubt on this theory.
''There might be private sources of funding,'' he says.
''There is enough money in the Gulf in private hands to channel tens of millions easily, even without governments getting involved, and I imagine a lot of that is already happening with the networks of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni networks in general.
''Whatever happens, something must be done - these civilians cannot be left to their fate.''
ENGINEER ''Abu Thaer'' is sitting in a wheelchair on a hospital balcony, taking in the thin rays of sunlight on this bleak winter's day in Lebanon. It is his first day out of bed since he was seriously wounded in an attack in al-Qusayr in December.
Pro-Assad gunmen were waiting outside the mosque when the worshippers began to leave after prayers, he says.
They sprayed the crowd with round after round of bullets. One hit Abu Thaer in the leg, shattering his femur, exiting one leg and piercing the other. Doctors who had also been worshipping at his mosque administered first aid, and he was quickly taken to a makeshift field hospital that had been set up in a private house where health workers stopped him from bleeding to death.
He was driven in a private car to the border, where volunteers carried him into Lebanon using a blanket as a stretcher. His road to recovery has been painful. His family are still trapped in Homs.
A week ago his wife called to say she was moving with their children to his parents' house in a nearby area as the shelling was getting closer to their home. He has not heard from them since.
''Yes, I am worried,'' he says, sinking back into the pillows of his hospital bed, exhausted from his time in the wheelchair. ''Now we cannot do more than think of each other and pray that God keeps them safe.''
He is visibly angry that Russia and China chose to veto the resolution in the UN Security Council that may have helped the Syrian people avoid further bloodshed. ''Have they looked at what is happening to us? And for what, what have we done? Just ask for our freedom.''
As Syrians watched the revolutions gain force in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, they knew a fate much worse awaited them, he says. ''We knew that what they went through was nothing compared to what would happen in Syria - we knew this regime and the bloody scenarios we would face.''
He described his home town as one filled with friends of different religions and sects - Sunni, Shiite, Christians, Alawite.
''When the tank is positioned three kilometres from the town and starts shelling, it is not differentiating between these people - they are killing everyone they can.''
Fawwaz Traboulsi, a professor of history and politics at the American University in Beirut, says whatever happens in Syria, one thing is certain - the fragile peace that has held in Lebanon for the past few years will be tested.
"You have two camps in Lebanon - one is the March 14 opposition, who believes that if the Assad regime falls they will be lifted to power and their adversaries will be defeated. For the ruling March 8 coalition and Hezbollah, they believe if the Assad regime holds on they will be safe,'' he says. ''In a sense both are being overly optimistic.''
Traboulsi says one of the reasons the US has been so slow to take a clear position on the Assad regime's crimes against its people is the key role Syria plays in the region. ''The Syrian regime is not only an internal power, it is a regime that has stabilised the northern borders of Israel - so its main function is still there and … in the event of the collapse of this regime, we must ask the question: who will play this role?''
That doesn't mean, says Traboulsi, that Assad will stay in power because of this, but it has been ''an important card in his hands and one of the reasons Syria is treated differently from other regimes''.
As Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran step up their direct involvement in diplomatic efforts with Syria, there has been what academic and commentator Rami Khouri describes as ''fresh activism'' from new players. The fledgling Libyan and Tunisian governments - still dealing with the aftermath of their own revolutions - formally recognised the opposition-in-exile Syrian National Council as the representative of the Syrian people, wrote Khouri, the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
He predicts Egypt will soon stabilise and play a larger role in the region, while the ''energised'' activities of the Arab League, which announced on Thursday it was considering sending its observers back into Syria as part of joint UN monitoring team, is another sign that regional players will move in to fill the power vacuum.
''These and other signs suggest that diplomatic configurations will continue to evolve for many years ahead, as the Arab people seek to end their nightmare of perpetual police states, colonisation, and mass humiliation at the hands of Arab, Israeli and Western powers, respectively.''
Salem believes the past week has been a significant turning point in the Syrian conflict. He describes the pro-democracy movement in the region, and within Syria, as ''unprecedented''.
''The regime is tough and cohesive and has a lot of fight in it. They may be winning a lot of battles but they are going to lose the war. There is too much stacked against them - including the very basic logic of such a regime. These regimes were typical of the previous era. It is a holdout from French colonial times, which empowered a minority Alawite government and the army.''
Since then so much has changed, he says. And at its heart, the Assad regime is poorly managed - its politics, its foreign policy, its economy, he says.
''The only thing they are doing well, as it were, is being tough and fighting but that is not enough. This Assad has inherited from the father, this is how he operated - when challenged you deal with it with an iron fist.
''I think it is going to be a long process but I find it very difficult to see how they can come out of it unless they do a complete political transformation. The regime can save parts of itself but it cannot survive as it is.''
Ruth Pollard is Middle East correspondent.