Middle East

Shadow over Geneva talks as Syria labels Brahimi ‘biased’

Syrian air force helicopters at the Taftanaz military base in the northern province of Idlib.

BEIRUT: As international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi readied for Friday’s talks aimed at hammering out a deal to try to end Syria’s civil war, the regime in Damascus complicated his mission further by denouncing him as “flagrantly biased.”

The Syrian Foreign Ministry was responding to remarks by Brahimi Wednesday in which he ruled out a role for President Bashar Assad in a transitional government and effectively called for the Baathist leader to quit.

“In Syria ... what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long,” Brahimi told the BBC, referring to Assad. Bashar inherited his post from his father Hafez Assad, who seized power in 1970 and ruled for 30 years.

“President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it,” the veteran Algerian diplomat said, hinting that the Syrian leader should go.

The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it was very surprised by Brahimi’s comments, which it said showed “he is flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people.”

The ministry later said it was nevertheless still willing to work with him to find a political solution to the crisis.

Brahimi has so far had no more success than his predecessor Kofi Annan in his quest to resolve the 21-month-old conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed.

“We had expected Brahimi to read and analyze the contents of [Assad’s proposed] political initiative which is the only exit to the Syrian crisis,” the statement from the ministry said.

Assad, making his first public speech in six months, outlined Sunday a plan to end the crisis but offered no concessions and said he would never talk to foes he branded terrorists and Western puppets.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that violence in Syria might worsen and said the international community must “step up” its response if it does.

So far regional rivalries and divisions among big powers have stymied any concerted approach to the upheaval. But while the chance of success for a political solution to the conflict appears to be faltering, diplomatic efforts are still pushing ahead.

Although the U.S. and Russia back opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, diplomats from both countries, including Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns, will meet Brahimi in Geneva Friday.

Ahead of the meeting, Russia repeated its insistence that Assad must not be pushed from power by external forces and that his exit should not be a precondition for negotiations.

“Only the Syrians themselves can agree on a model for the further development of their country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

Moscow is lobbying for a new peace initiative by Brahimi based loosely on a pact agreed on June 30 by world powers and calling for a transition government. The plan was never deployed because of the fighting and an inability to agree on Assad’s role – if any – in the new team.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said a heavy load of questions needed to be answered before sides could begin talking of progress toward peace. “Can you actually get the regime to be willing to move forward, to get out of the way, whatever it takes?” Nuland asked Wednesday.

Meeting with Egyptian leaders in Cairo, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged Middle Eastern nations to promote a solution for Syria’s conflict without “foreign intervention.”

“I call with all my heart for the neighboring countries, the countries of the region to come together to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, a solution that must be Syrian only to avoid any foreign intervention,” Salehi told reporters after meeting Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi.

“Egypt is an acceptable partner for all involved,” Salehi said with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammad Amr Kamel at his side. “We hope from our hearts that countries in the region unite to find a Syrian-Syrian solution and prevent any foreign intervention.”

There was no comment as to how Iran and Egypt could reconcile their opposing views on the Syrian conflict to reach such a solution.

Tehran has supplied financial aid and admitted to sending Revolutionary Guard military advisers to Damascus. Mursi, however, has said Assad should step down, siding with those he sees as upholding the revolutionary ideals that brought him and his Muslim Brotherhood to power as part of the Arab Spring.

With peace efforts floundering, neither side has managed to gain a clear military advantage on the ground.

Government shelled rebel-controlled areas and battles raged between government and opposition forces Thursday. Rebels fought for a second day for the strategic Taftanaz air base, which they are trying to capture to extend their grip on the northwestern Idlib province and weaken Assad’s control of the skies.

Insurgents assaulted the airport’s main buildings and armory using heavy guns, tanks and other weapons and appeared to have overrun half the area of the base, said Rami Abdelrahman, director of the opposition activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Insurgents have been trying to take the base for months, but have been bolstered by the recent arrival of Islamist fighters including the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, he added.

There was no immediate government account of the fighting, which could not be confirmed independently.

Opposition forces have seized swathes of territory in northern Syria in recent months, but remain vulnerable to attack by the military’s planes and helicopters – hence their strategy of trying to capture air bases.

There was no word on whether the firing of a short-range ballistic missile inside Syria Wednesday, reported by a NATO official, was linked to the fighting at Taftanaz.

NATO could not confirm the type of missile used, but the description fits that of the Scuds that are in the Syrian military’s armory, the official added, describing the latest launch and similar ones last week as “reckless.”

A NATO official said that since the start of December 2012, the alliance had detected at least 15 launches of unguided, short-range ballistic missiles inside the country.

The Observatory also reported fighting between rebels and troops in the Sayyida Zeinab area of Damascus, while air raids were reported in the capital’s Maleiha area and eastern suburbs.

Despite some support from Sunni regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels remain largely disorganized, fragmented and ill-equipped. Poor discipline, looting and insecurity in some insurgent-held areas have also eroded their support among civilians.

Turf wars between rebel units and with Kurdish groups have also beleaguered the armed opposition. A senior Islamist commander was assassinated Thursday near the border with Turkey, Syrian rebels and political opposition sources said.

Thaer al-Waqqas, northern commander of Farouq Brigades, had been suspected of involvement in the killing four months ago of a member of the Nusra Front.

He was shot dead at a rebel position in the town of Sermin, a few kilometers from Turkey, the sources said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2013, on page 1.




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