TARTUS, Syria, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- The Assad regime's strong-arm effort to quash Syria's political reform movement left at least 68 people dead Tuesday, human rights advocates said.
The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said 31 civilians were killed in violence in Homs, 33 in Abdita and four in other parts of the Middle Eastern country, the Italian news agency Agenzia Giornalistica Italia reported. Casualty reports can't be verified because independent journalists are banned from the region.
Adding to the volatile situation, two Iranian warships were docked in the Syrian Mediterranean port city of Tartus Tuesday in a show of support for the Assad regime as the Red Cross tried to broker a humanitarian cease-fire. The Iranian vessels arrived Monday after Russian ships were also dispatched to the same port, activists said.
The ships are "a serious warning" to Washington, Iran's Fars News Agency reported.
The semiofficial news agency quoted a senior Iranian lawmaker as denouncing U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, for calling on the United States to arm the Syrian opposition.
McCain told CBS News Monday arming the opposition would not necessarily be done "directly."
"But I think that there are ways to get arms to the resistance, and the Turks in the Arab League can play a great, a very significant role," he said.
"I'm not calling for an invasion of Syria," he said, "but I am calling for practical measures which can be of assistance to them, which would break this stalemate, which would allow the Syrian people to achieve the aspiration that we hold for all people."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday the Obama administration is holding to its carrot-before-the-stick position that "a political solution is what's needed in Syria" rather than a military one.
"We don't want to take actions that would contribute to the further militarization of Syria, because that could take the country down a dangerous path," Carney said.
"But we don't rule out additional measures that, working with our international partners ... if the international community should wait too long and not take the kind of action that needs to taken to ensure that Assad steps aside, to ensure that a peaceful, democratic transition can take place in Syria.
"We support calls for cease-fires to allow for the provision of humanitarian supplies to Syrians who desperately need it.
"The fact is the reprehensible actions taken by the Assad regime, the brutal violence perpetrated by the Syrian leader against his own people has led us to this situation where basic supplies, humanitarian supplies, are in -- are very scarce and therefore action needs to be taken."
Carney said he wouldn't characterize the situation in Syria as a civil war at this point.
"But there's no question that the situation continues to get worse and as long as Assad shows no regard for the very people he purports to govern -- yeah, the situation will continue to get more dire," he said.
Western and Arab leaders plan a Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Arab League said.
"The [Tunisia meeting] will include a large number of countries, and the goal of this meeting is to put extra pressure on Syria," Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby said. "Also, there are indicators coming from China in particular, and to a certain extent from Russia, that there may be a change in [their] position."
Syrian tanks and troops were poised outside Homs, a resistance stronghold activists say the regime of President Bashar Assad has been bombarding for more than two weeks.
The positioning of government forces comes nine days after the Syrian army began distributing gas masks to its soldiers, while opposition activists said Assad forces transferred grenades and mortars containing chemical agents to a Homs school building, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
Opposition figures expressed concern the moves could signal the regime's intention to unleash a fierce street attack on Homs residents and use chemical weapons against its citizens.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday it was trying to negotiate at least a brief pause in the violence to deliver aid to the most devastated areas.
In Homs, for instance, supplies of food, baby formula, medicine and potable water are all running out, an opposition group said.
Red Cross spokeswoman Carla Haddad said the agency, based in Geneva, was negotiating with Syrian authorities and rebels about stopping hostilities so urgent humanitarian aid could be delivered to devastated areas.
The ICRC, the only international agency with aid workers in Syria, has been cooperating with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.