Middle East

Peace remote as Assad, allies up military efforts

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May 30, 2013, shows Syrian army soldiers walking nearby facilities of Dabaa military airfield during an operation that led to the control of the airport, north of the Syrian city of Qusair. The capture of the airfield means that the Syrian army now controls all the roads leading out of Qusair. AFP PHOTO / SANA

BEIRUT: Prospects for peace talks designed to end Syria's civil war diminished Thursday as the opposition announced it would not take part in the planned dialogue next month, and as Damascus said it has received sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

The opposition-in-exile’s announcement came hours after rebels called for urgent military and medical support to defend the strategic border town of Qusair, where Hezbollah have played a significant role, saying hundreds of wounded needed to be evacuated.

The town has been under sustained attack by regime forces, aided by the Lebanese group, for two weeks, as part of a government offensive to hold substantial swaths of territory between Damascus and coastal Alawite enclaves of Tartous and Latakia. Qusair, near the Lebanese border, links the capital with the coast.

Bashar Assad may also be able to translate these military gains into a stronger negotiating position at the peace conference scheduled for next month in Geneva.

"We have 700 people wounded in Qusair and 100 of them are being given oxygen. The town is surrounded and there's no way to bring in medical aid," Malek Ammar, an opposition activist in the besieged town told Reuters.

Rebels in Qusair sent out a plea for support through social media outlets, saying the battle could destroy the town.

"If all rebel fronts do not move to stop this crime being led by Hezbollah and Assad's traitorous army of dogs...we will soon be saying that there was once a city called Qusair," the statement said.

Fighters in Qusair said they could hear at least 50 shells crashing every hour. Hezbollah and Syrian government forces appeared to be advancing more quickly after seizing the Dabaa airbase, seven kilometers to the north, on Wednesday.

Ahmad Bakar, a doctor in a hospital near Qusair, posted on appeal on Facebook for rebels to rush to help.

"We need immediate intervention from outside battalions. I swear to God no supplies have gotten through to us and we need a route to be opened to evacuate the wounded an civilians," he wrote.

The acting head of Syria’s umbrella opposition, George Sabra, called on the international community, especially the Western-backed Friends of Syria group to help halt the regime advance in Qusair.

"We cannot understand or accept that people are being killed in such a savage way while the international community is silent," he said, reiterating the rebels’ call a safe passage for Qusair’s wounded.

In the light of Hezbollah’s continued engagement in Syria, Sabra also announced that the body would not be sending delegates to the Geneva peace talks.

"The National Coalition will not take part in any international conference or any such efforts so long as the militias of Iran and Hezbollah continue their invasion of Syria," he told reporters in Istanbul.

The coalition decision comes after two weeks of intense negotiations among the group’s disparate factions, which exposed wide-ranging disagreements over the predominately Islamist makeup of the body.

Russia’ Foreign Minister accused the opposition of seeking to disrupt plans for Geneva 2 by putting forward unrealistic demands.

The Coalition seemed to be "doing everything they can to prevent a political process from starting ... and achieve military intervention," he said.

Rivalry between Russia and Western powers has deadlocked previous international efforts to end the fighting but fears that the conflict was spreading - notably with Israel bombing Syria, Hezbollah’s involvement and reports of chemical weapons use - prompted Washington and Moscow to launch a joint call for the conference.

However, a blow was dealt to Moscow and Washington’s efforts to present a united front ahead of talks when Assad said Thursday the regime has received the first shipment of sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

"Syria has received the first shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S-300 rockets," Assad was quoted as saying. The Syrian leader added: "All our agreements with Russia will be implemented and parts of them have already been implemented."

Assad's comment on the arrival of the long-range S-300 land-to-air missiles in Syria, which was made in an interview with Hezbollah Al-Manar TV station, ratchets up fears of a wider regional conflagtaion which drags Israel into the war.

Israel sees the S-300 systems as a threat to its own airspace, as well as to its relative free rein to fly over Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent months that are believed to have destroyed weapon shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. – with agencies

 

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