Elizabeth A. Kennedy

BEIRUT: Gunmen attacked a pro-government TV station Wednesday near the Syrian capital, killing seven employees in the latest barrage of violence as world powers prepared for a high-level meeting that the U.S. hopes will be a turning point in the crisis.

Invitations to Saturday’s gathering in Geneva were sent by special envoy Kofi Annan to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — including Syrian allies Russia and China — but not to major regional players Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The absence of those two countries, as well as the lack of any appetite for international military intervention, could make it difficult for the group to find the leverage to end the bloodshed in Syria. An effort by Annan to broker a peace plan failed earlier this year.

Diplomatic hopes have rested on Russia — Syria’s most important ally and protector — agreeing on a transition plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades. But Moscow has rejected efforts by outside forces to end the conflict or any plan to force regime change in Damascus.

The United Nations said Wednesday that the conflict, which began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring that swept aside entrenched leaders across the region, is descending into sectarian warfare.

President Bashar Assad has so far appeared largely impervious to world pressure and he has warned the international community from meddling in the crisis, which has seen a sharp escalation in violence in recent months.

Assad denies there is any popular will behind the uprising, saying terrorists are driving a foreign conspiracy to destroy the country. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed in the violence.

Much of the violence that has gripped Syria in the uprising has been sanctioned by the government to crush dissent. But rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al-Qaida or other extremists are joining the fray.

On Wednesday, the U.N. gave a grim assessment of the crisis, saying the violence has worsened since April, when the cease-fire brokered by Annan was supposed to go into effect. There also were signs the bloodshed is descending into sectarian warfare.

“Where previously victims were targeted on the basis of their being pro- or anti-government, the Commission of Inquiry has recorded a growing number of incidents where victims appear to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation,” a panel of U.N.-appointed human rights experts said in a report released in Geneva.