BEIRUT/MOSCOW: Syria’s army said Tuesday it pushed rebels out of the mountain town of Qara near Lebanon, strengthening its hold on a highway linking the capital to regime strongholds along the Mediterranean coast.
There was no immediate comment from insurgents on the assault by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad which began Friday. But regional news channel Al-Mayadeen broadcast images of Syrian soldiers walking in Qara’s empty streets.
The town sits on the strategic route 80 kilometers north of Damascus in the Qalamoun mountains.
Securing the highway would help Assad consolidate his power bases, while also clearing a route to transport chemical agents out of the country under a U.S. and Russian-backed program to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.
The Syrian military statement said the army “eliminated a large number of terrorists who were holed up in the town and ... tried to target the Damascus-Homs highway and block traffic on this vital artery.”
It said the army’s gains had reinforced its control over supply lines up to the border with Lebanon, closing off a weapons smuggling route used by opposition rebels.
Pro-opposition media said rebel forces had retreated from the town prior to the arrival of government troops following days of heavy bombardment.
The capture of Qara follows army advances around the northern city of Aleppo and in towns circling Damascus, although activists claimed that regime forces and paramilitaries have suffered heavy losses in the last few days in both areas.
At least 34 people were killed in fighting around the country, according to activists, as regime warplanes pounded rebel-held areas southeast of Aleppo.
For its part, Russia urged the regime to unite with the opposition in the struggle against “terrorists,” as it pressed on with efforts to set up elusive peace talks between the warring sides.
“It will be even better without waiting for convening a peace conference Geneva II to launch the joint struggle together with the moderate secular opposition, the struggle against terrorists, who seek to change the power not only in Syria, but also in the whole region,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Moscow, which is hosting a Syrian government delegation for talks.
“The fact of convening the conference can play a positive role so that reasonable people from the opposition, who are fighting, will stop doing it and will help to kill the terrorists,” Lavrov said.
The Geneva II conference, tentatively scheduled for mid-December and meant to bring government and rebel representatives to the negotiating table for the first time, has been delayed for months because of seemingly irreconcilable differences over the terms of the talks.
The Syrian National Coalition has agreed to attend the conference only if it leads to a transitional period that would see the departure of Assad from power, a demand rejected by Russia and the Syrian regime.
In an opinion article published by the Wall Street Journal, coalition President Ahmad Jarba said his group continued to insist on Assad’s departure, increased access to humanitarian aid for Syrians inside the country, and a unified delegation representing rebels on the ground.
Lavrov addressed the aid issue, urging the Syrian authorities to avoid “provocations” and “build up cooperation with humanitarian agencies to facilitate the fate of people.”Lavrov also praised Syria’s actions over chemical weapons stockpiles: “At the record brief period of time the steps are being taken to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons under the agreements between Damascus, the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Russia is also seeing more “realism” from the Syrian opposition, Lavrov said.
Speaking in an interview to Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, Lavrov praised some steps by the opposition, but reiterated his recent complaints that no “constructive platform” had yet been found to unite all those opposing Assad.
“When all of the demands ... will go on the table from both sides, it will be possible to put together some compromise agreements based on mutual concessions,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.
“However, we are not at that stage yet, since, although there are more and more signs of realism in the ranks of the opposition, no [opposition] delegation has yet been formed ... that would be representative and would represent the entire spectrum of Syrian society.”
“We welcome efforts of the coalition to start dialogue with the internal opposition, including Kurdish organizations,” Lavrov said, although he also criticized its attempts to “monopolize” the process of forming such a delegation.