BEIRUT/GENEVA: Syria will fall apart if its government and rebels keep fighting instead of seeking a negotiated peace, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.
He said the situation in Syria was deteriorating by the day after almost two years of conflict in which 70,000 people have died, and there was now a slim chance for peace talks.
“This is a very small window of opportunity which we strongly support and encourage them to use that. The opportunity may soon close,” Ban said at a news conference in Geneva.
Syria’s government has shown increased willingness to hold talks with the opposition to end a war that has driven nearly 1 million Syrians to flee their country.
Delivering an annual lecture in Geneva later Friday, the U.N. chief said: “I continue to urge the Syrian parties to find their way to the negotiating table. The horrors of the last months and years prove beyond doubt: The military solution in Syria is leading to the dissolution of Syria.”
“The Security Council must no longer stand as a silent witness to the slaughter. At long last, it must come together and establish the parameters for the democratic transition that might be the last best hope for saving Syria,” he said.
Russia has blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at forcing an end to the conflict and insists the exit of President Bashar Assad from power must not be a precondition for a negotiated solution.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed Syria and other urgent issues by telephone Friday, the Kremlin said, noting that the call was initiated by Washington.
“The presidents have instructed [Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry] to continue active contacts focused on working out possible new initiatives aimed at a political settlement of the crisis,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The Obama administration Thursday announced it was giving an additional $60 million in assistance to the country’s political opposition and said that it would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to rebels battling to oust Assad.
Fighters on the ground, however, expressed disappointment with the limited assistance.
The chief of Syrian rebel forces said Friday that his fighters are in “desperate” need of weapons and ammunition rather than the food supplies and bandages that the U.S. now plans to provide.
Gen. Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the Syrian opposition’s Supreme Military Council, said the modest package of aid to rebels – consisting of an undetermined amount of food rations and medical supplies – would not help them win against Assad’s forces who have superior air power.
“We don’t want food and drink and we don’t want bandages. When we’re wounded, we want to die. The only thing we want is weapons,” he told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.
“We need anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to stop Bashar Assad’s criminal, murderous regime from annihilating the Syrian people,” he said.
Syria and Russia denounced the U.S. aid pledge Friday, saying it will fuel more violence.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the decision would backfire and encourage “extremists to take power by force.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the U.S. decision was “unfortunate” and that it was time instead for the opposition to come up with a “well-articulated political program to be able to enter into talks with the Syrian government.”
A Syrian government newspaper said U.S. and European decisions to back Syria’s rebels with direct aid would only lead to more bloodshed and encourage “terrorism.”
“The West ... continued to exploit the crisis in Syria and the blood of Syrians ... by encouraging more terrorism,” Tishrin wrote.
On the ground, government forces fought fierce clashes with rebels attacking a police academy near the northern city of Aleppo, while the bodies of 10 men – most of them shot in the head – were found dumped along the side of a road outside Damascus, activists said.
Rebels backed by captured tanks have been trying to storm the police academy outside Aleppo since launching a new offensive on the facility last week. Activists say the school has been turned into a military base used to shell rebel-held neighborhoods in the city and the surrounding countryside, and it has become a key front in the wider fight for Aleppo.
The Syrian state news agency said Friday that government troops defending the school had killed dozens of opposition fighters and destroyed five rebel vehicles.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said clashes were still raging around Aleppo’s landmark 12th century Umayyad Mosque in the walled Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There were conflicting reports about whether the rebels had managed to sweep regime troops out of the mosque and take full control of the holy site.
Mohammad al-Khatib of the Aleppo Media Center activist group said the Great Mosque was indeed in rebel hands, although clashes were still raging in the area.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said rebels have been in control of at least half of the mosque for days, but he could not confirm that they now had captured the entire grounds.
The Observatory also said that at least eight people were killed in a government airstrike on the rebel-held Hanano neighborhood of the city. It said three children were among the dead. The 10 bodies were discovered on a roadside between the Damascus suburbs of Adra and Dumair, Abdul-Rahman said.
All of the bodies were of men who appeared to be between the ages of 30 and 45, he added. One of the men had been decapitated. Their identities were not immediately known.
Syrian troops retook a checkpoint on the northeastern border with Iraq, captured a day earlier by jihadi Nusra Front fighters, the Observatory said Friday.
The rebels had overrun the post at Yaarubiyeh in oil-rich Hassakeh governorate Thursday after fierce clashes.
They also “captured half of the city of Yaarubiyeh,” the Observatory added.
Nusra Front, increasingly influential in the conflict, also took control of the nearby town of Shaddadeh and surrounding villages in mid-February.