Syria formally expelled Britain's ambassador to Damascus and 16 other foreign envoys on Tuesday in a gesture of defiance designed to demonstrate President Bashar al-Assad's insouciance in the face of mounting international isolation.
Simon Collis, in the post since 2007, was declared persona non grata along with a dozen other Western ambassadors, including the American envoy Robert Ford. Turkey, one of Mr Assad's most prominent regional critics, was told that none of its diplomats would be welcome in the country.
The gesture, a response to the co-ordinated expulsion of Syrian ambassadors by Britain and 10 other states last week, was largely a hollow one. Most of the envoys had already been withdrawn. Mr Collis was recalled earlier this year and the last British diplomat in Syria left in March.
Though symbolic, Syria's actions nonetheless served to underscore Mr Assad's determination to press on with the ruthless suppression of the 15-month uprising against his rule, regardless of the international outcry over his methods.
The tit-for-tat expulsions will also complicate efforts to retain diplomatic channels between Damascus and Western capitals that could be used to press Mr Assad to resign voluntarily and escape the fate of other regional leaders who have been killed, imprisoned or forced into exile as a result of the Arab Spring.
Yet the possibility of Mr Assad's departure was unexpectedly renewed on Tuesday when Russia sent its strongest signal to date that its support for the Syrian leader was waning.
"We have never said or insisted that Assad necessarily had to remain in power at the end of the political process," said Gennady Gatilov, Russia's deputy foreign minister -- despite the fact that the Kremlin has previously blocked UN Security Council resolutions calling for the Syrian president to step aside.
Despite casting itself as Mr Assad's chief international backer, Russia has begun to distance itself from the Syrian leader in recent months and has made greater efforts to open up communication channels with the opposition.
How far Russia is prepared to go in using its influence to persuade Mr Assad to step down remains far from clear, however. Russia and China both declared that they remained firmly opposed to forced regime change through foreign intervention yesterday as Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, arrived in Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao.
For his part, Mr Assad remains resolute that he will not resign, a message reinforced by the diplomatic expulsions.
His foreign ministry declared that it had been left with no choice but to respond in kind after 11 Western powers last week expelled Syrian envoys to demonstrate their outrage over the massacre of 108 people, mostly women and children, in Houla on May 25th. Its tough response, which was tempered by an agreement to allow international aid agencies to expand their presence in Syria.
But even as the Houla killings continue to reverberate, opposition activists gave warning that pro-government forces were planning a new massacre in a town in the province of Latakia that has been surrounded by the army and loyalist paramilitary groups.
They called for urgent intervention by UN observers after residents reported that the Shabiha militia blamed for the killings in Houla were advancing on the opposition stronghold of Haffeh. Rebel forces, who formally repudiated a UN-backed ceasefire on Monday, early mounted an offensive against government security forces in the area.
"Shabiha are coming down from nearby villages," said Leila, an opposition activist, speaking from a village close to the fighting.
"This morning, I heard a Shabiha on the phone. He was saying bad words full of hate and trying to arrange for him and his friends to go to Haffeh."
Although it was one of the first regions outside the south to rise up against Mr Assad last year, Latakia has remained relatively sheltered from the conflict in recent months.
In part that may be because it is where the Shabiha, first incarnated as an extortion gang controlled by members of the Assad family, originated.
Although Latakia is now mainly Sunni, it is where members of Mr Assad's minority Alawite sect hail from and is consequently seen as government stronghold. Activists fear that the Shabiha's appetite for vengeance will be heightened as a result.
In a further sign that the ceasefire plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the international envoy to Syria, was disintegrating, rebel commanders said they were intensifying their attacks on the Syrian military after claiming to have killed more than 100 soldiers since Saturday.
"We are attacking what we can and taking as many weapons from the army as we can," a unit leader in the northern province of Idlib calling himself Abu Jameel said. "Many more soldiers are coming to our side since the Houla massacre. In the five months that I have been in this unit we had 70 defectors join. In the past week we have had 50".