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Syria Islamists spurn U.S. offer for talks
A man gestures as he calls for help at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Tareek Al-Bab area of Aleppo, December 18, 2013. (REUTERS/Saad Abobrahim)
A man gestures as he calls for help at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Tareek Al-Bab area of Aleppo, December 18, 2013. (REUTERS/Saad Abobrahim)
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BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS: Islamist rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria have rejected overtures from Washington to sit down and talk, a senior U.S. diplomat said Wednesday.

“The Islamic Front has refused to sit down with us, without giving any reason,” U.S. Syria envoy Robert Ford told Al-Arabiya television, speaking in Arabic, one day after Secretary of State John Kerry said such talks might take place.

“We are ready to sit with them because we talk to all parties and political groups in Syria,” Ford said.

The Islamic Front has overshadowed the more moderate Free Syrian Army, which is formally led by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and backed by Western and Arab powers.

The Front has rejected the authority of the SMC, the military arm of the main political opposition in exile, and last week seized control of SMC weapons depots in northern Syria.

Ford’s comments came hours before Al-Jazeera television broadcast excerpts of an interview with the leader of the Nusra Front, a hard-line jihadist group that is not part of the Islamic Front.

Abu Mohammad Golani, speaking with his back to the camera, voiced criticism of some of the most extreme acts of takfir, or persecution of Muslims not seen as sufficiently religious, carried out by jihadist groups.

He added that his group did not seek to monopolize power after the fall of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but that it insisted on establishing an Islamic state.

“The Nusra Front does not seek to rule society on its own when we reach the stage of the liberation of Al-Sham [Syria],” Golani said. “At that point a legal council of academics and thinkers will meet ... and put in place an appropriate plan for running the country, which of course will be based on Islamic law.”

Ford, who made his comments in a video statement, played down reports that next month’s planned Geneva II peace conference would not lead to Syrian President Bashar Assad stepping down.

“Our stance has been firm since the beginning of the revolution; Bashar Assad has completely lost legitimacy,” he said, stressing that Assad had no further role in the transitional period.

A Syrian opposition spokesman also said Western nations had offered reassurances that Assad would play no role in a negotiated political transition.

Munzer Aqbiq, an adviser to National Coalition President Ahmad Jarba, insisted that the remarks made behind closed doors at a meeting last week in London among countries backing the opposition matched a statement issued after the meeting.

“The 11 countries [including the United States, France and Britain], and behind them the 100 members of the ‘Friends of Syria,’ agree that there should be no role for Assad,” Aqbiq told AFP.

As for the reports of dialogue between Washington and the Islamic Front, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said such a policy contradicted U.S. and international commitments to combat terrorism, as well as “international pledges that terrorist organizations would not be given the chance to participate in the Geneva conference.”

The ministry claimed that the Islamic Front was linked to the Nusra Front and thus part of Al-Qaeda.

“We don’t understand how the administration can justify to the public it’s holding dialogue with Al-Qaeda, which blew up the World Trade Center in New York,” it said.

The ministry’s comments came one day after Riyadh signaled that it was prepared to act on its own to safeguard security in the region because of the West’s policies on Iran and Syria.

“We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East,” the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, wrote in a commentary in the New York Times.

“This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by,” he wrote.

Washington is also urging the U.N. Security Council to condemn violence by all parties and express outrage at Syrian government airstrikes, especially this week’s indiscriminate use of heavy weapons in Aleppo.

A proposed council statement would express deep concern at the escalating level of violence in the conflict, including the use of Scud missiles and “barrel bombs” in Aleppo.

In Aleppo, government aircraft dumped barrels packed with explosives on at least four opposition-held neighborhoods, in the fourth day of stepped-up airstrikes on the contested northern city, activists said.

They say the air campaign has killed nearly 200 people.

The airstrikes hit at least four neighborhoods, said Aleppo-based activist Abu al-Hassan Marea. One of them exploded near the Ahmad al-Qassar school, while another landed by a student dormitory, he said via Skype.At least two people were killed in the air raids, although the casualty figures were expected to rise.

The Syrian government frequently uses barrel bombs, which contain hundreds of kilograms of explosives and cause massive damage on impact. Activists describe the bombs as “barrels of blood” because of their devastating effect.

Hospitals are struggling to cope with the influx of casualties, and the facilities are running out of drugs and medical supplies.

In a reflection of Aleppo’s grim reality, Marea said some of the residents have gotten used to the bombing. On Tuesday, some 100 meters from a bombing site, “people were buying and selling like nothing had happened,” he said.

Another Aleppo-based activist, Mohammad Hussein, said residents used to flee from where they thought the bombs would land. “Now they just watch. If it seems to be heading in their direction, they hide – if they have time,” Hussein told the AP.

Separately, the U.N. Security Council has strongly condemned all military activity on the Golan Heights by the Syrian army and opposition fighters, warning that it could “jeopardize the cease-fire” between Syria and Israel.

The council approved a resolution Wednesday extending the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force until the end of June. The force, known as UNDOF, was established after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

The Security Council condemns recent incidents in which shots were fired at peacekeepers by both the Syrian army and the opposition, and it notes with concern the increasing use of improvised explosive devices by “elements of the Syrian opposition and other groups.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 19, 2013, on page 1.
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