DAMASCUS: The Syrian regime said Monday it had taken a key town linking Damascus and Homs, as doubts were cast on any breakthrough at a Geneva peace conference slated for next month.
France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, downplayed the chances of a peace agreement being reached in Geneva, while expressing confidence the Jan. 22 conference would go ahead.
But his British counterpart lamented the fact that after 1,000 days of conflict in Syria, more than 100,000 people have been killed, 2.2 million driven abroad, and 2.5 million cut off by the fighting.
“Today is 1,000 days since Syrians took to the streets calling for freedom. It is time to end the conflict in #Syria,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted.
The conflict flared in March 2011 with peaceful pro-democracy protests inspired by the Arab Spring but escalated into a full-scale civil war after President Bashar Assad’s regime launched a brutal crackdown.
And the violence again showed no signs of abating Monday, with a rare mortar bomb hitting central Damascus, killing two people and injuring 23, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, when it landed in the Salhieh commercial neighborhood.
The Observatory said regime forces had regained control of the strategic Damascus-Homs highway after seizing most of the town of Nabk in the Qalamoun region.
The army has been fighting for weeks to secure the Qalamoun region, north of Damascus, in a bid to sever rebel supply routes across the nearby border with Lebanon.
However, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP that while the army had secured most of Nabk, including all of the western part of the town adjacent to the highway, the highway remained vulnerable to rebel attack.
Pro-government daily Al-Watan said the highway, essential to move troops and weapons and cement regime control from Damascus to the central province of Homs, would reopen soon.
The highway has been closed for about 20 days because of fighting that also prevented the delivery of fuel to the capital, Damascus, where shortages have taken a toll on daily life.
The road also connects Damascus to the coast, and will be crucial for exporting tons of chemicals to be destroyed.
Russia said it could provide transport for the chemicals to get them to the port of Latakia for removal.
Nevertheless, Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the global chemical weapons watchdog, said it would be hard to remove all of Syria’s deadliest chemical arms from the country by a Dec. 31 deadline.
Fighting in Syria poses a major hurdle to efforts by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to eliminate the government’s chemical arsenal.
Syria has agreed under a deal arranged by the United States and Russia to dismantle its chemical arsenal and destroy all its 1,300 tons of sarin, mustard gas and other lethal agents.
The deal averted threatened U.S. missile strikes after a sarin gas attack near Damascus killed hundreds in August.
The size of the stockpile requires it to be transported by land and sea, using roads linking Damascus and other areas to the Mediterranean port of Latakia, a government stronghold.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that Moscow, which has given Assad weapons supplies and diplomatic support, could help with the chemical arms transfer. “Transport, yes ... the issue is being discussed,” Bogdanov told reporters when asked whether Moscow could provide security or transport to help get the weapons to Latakia.
The West has rejected a Syrian request for equipment including armored vehicles for the chemical convoys, citing fears it could be used by government forces against the rebels.
The Hague-based OPCW has been charged with supervising the elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal.
The most dangerous chemical weapons have to be removed by Dec. 31 while weapons in a second category have to be shipped out by Feb. 5.
“In view of the circumstances in this country, it will be quite difficult to meet this timeline,” Uzumcu, who is in Oslo to accept the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for the OPCW Tuesday, told a news conference.
Uzumcu cited difficulties including security, especially on secondary and access roads to various sites, and a strict verification process requiring extensive cooperation with Damascus. But he said a mid-2014 deadline to have all the weapons destroyed remains realistic.
The United States is donating a naval ship and equipment to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal, but there is no agreement yet about where it will anchor while the work is carried out.
On the diplomatic front, Fabius played down expectations that the peace conference dubbed Geneva 2 would yield any breakthrough.
“I believe that it will take place but ... it is very difficult to imagine a quick positive outcome,” Fabius said.
“The Geneva conference – and I must say it’s no surprise – is taking place under very difficult conditions.”