Assad and Wife Asma
Assad and Wife Asma Reuters

Syria's embattled president Bashar al-Assad on Monday approved new 'counter-terrorism' laws as opposition leaders sought in Cairo to develop a vision for a future without him.

The official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported that Assad's government ratified three laws that impose heavy penalties to those who commit "terrorist" acts in order to change the nature of the regime.

"Those who are direct members of a terrorist group may be sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison with hard labor, but the punishment will be harder if the goal is to change the regime or the nature of the state," according to the text of the law approved by Parliament last Thursday.

"If these acts result in death or disability for victims, death sentences can be imposed," it added.

Moreover, "the financing of terrorism, that is to say, any action to collect, directly or indirectly, providing money, weapons, ammunition, explosives, communication means and information which can be used in terrorist acts are punishable with 15 to 20 years in prison. "

The lowest penalty – five years in prison – is for those involved in acts that do not result in property damage.

Another law states that an employee may be dismissed if he or she found guilty by a court for "direct or indirect involvement in a terrorist act, or if he/she provides a material or moral support to a terrorist group".

The third law stipulates "10 or 20 years in prison with hard labor" and "fines for the perpetrators of kidnappings for ransom."

The laws appeared to be a direct warning to Syrian opposition groups participating in Arab League sponsored talks aimed at producing a common path towards a post-Assad Syria.

The goal is to "achieve a unified vision for the transition period and the future of Syria", George Sabra, spokesman for the Syrian National Council (CNS), told AFP.

Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arab told those in attendance that the meeting was "an opportunity that we should not lose under any circumstances,"

"Time is not on our side," al-Arab added, stressing the need for a "pluralistic democratic system that does not discriminate" between Syrians.

The opposition meeting in Cairo comes as members of the Syrian National Council denounced a watered down version of a plan by UN special envoy Kofi Annan aimed at solving Syria's crisis.

The international plan fell short of demanding Assad stepped down due to pressure from Moscow, which remains a staunch ally of the current Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, Syrian attack helicopters bombarded a suburb of Damascus on Monday, and Turkey said it had scrambled warplanes near the border between the two nations.

The use of attack helicopters in the Syrian capital – until a few weeks ago Assad's impregnable citadel – came as fighting intense fighting continues to rage on the outskirts of Damascus.

Military analysts say the escalation on Assad's part demonstrates the increasingly dire circumstances his embattled regime faces now that the 16-month popular uprising against his regime has turned into all-out civil war.

The United Nations says the unrest rocking Syria has killed more than 13,000 people – mostly civilians – and is testing the patience of countries in the region, especially Turkey.

Tensions between Ankara and Damascus have increasingly soured during the Syrian revolt, but reached a nadir 10 days ago when Syria shot down a Turkish warplane..

Turkey said on Monday it had scrambled six F-16 fighters in response to three separate incidents of Syrian helicopters approaching the border. Turkey also scrambled fighters on Saturday and has moved guns and soldiers toward the frontier.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told those gathered in Cairo that their struggle to unseat Assad would end in victory.

"The Assad regime's guns, tanks, weapons have no meaning in the face of the will of the Syrian people. Sooner or later the will of the Syrian people shall reign supreme. And you will lead this process," he said.

Elsewhere, there were reports of heavy clashes in Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border where villages were under army fire. Rebels destroyed two tanks there, they said.

In rural areas near Aleppo south of the Turkish border there were clashes following explosions inside the city overnight, activists said. Forested areas near the border were also reportedly on fire.

Syrian artillery pounded the village of Talbiseh near Homs on Monday. Security forces were also said to be shelling towns in the province of Deraa, near the Jordanian border.