Syrian Forces Retake Town as Assad Vows to Finish Term

UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations Special Envoy on Syria, center, arrives at his hotel in Damascus on Dec. 23, 2012. Source: AFP/Getty Images

Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad recaptured a town in western Syria after days of heavy fighting, Al Jazeera television reported.

Government troops yesterday took control of Deir Balbah near Homs, the news channel reported. The forces executed some 220 residents, who were among at least 392 people killed across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition coalition. The figures are unconfirmed.

The fighting came the same day that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Assad had told a top United Nations envoy that he won’t quit before his term ends in 2014. Syrian forces today attacked the Hom’s area of Khalidiya with mortars while air force planes bombed towns outside of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement.

“It’s impossible to change his position,” Lavrov said at a joint press conference after talks in Moscow yesterday with the UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who met Assad in Damascus on Dec. 24.

Russia, Syria’s main international backer, on Dec. 28 called on Assad to make efforts toward a political settlement by holding talks with the opposition on all options. The U.S. and Russia, which have clashed over efforts by President Barack Obama’s administration to oust Assad, are working together in a bid to negotiate a peaceful outcome to the uprising that started in March 2011.

“When the opposition says that only Assad’s departure would allow for the start of talks on the fate of the country -- we think that’s incorrect,” Lavrov said. Maintaining that position is fueling the Syrian death toll, he said.

44,000 Dead

In the 21 months of violence that has pitted the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the Alawite-dominated security forces loyal to Assad, more than 44,000 people have been killed, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The conflict is becoming increasingly sectarian, Lavrov and Brahimi said yesterday.

“If Russia has a proposal to stop the bleeding in Syria, it should submit it and we will respond,” Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the main bloc of Syrian opposition groups, told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “We can’t meet with the Russians without a clear agenda.”

Russia has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of fueling the conflict by arming the Syrian opposition.

Syrian forces in Deir Balbah found tunnels that rebels were using to smuggle weapons, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. They seized machine guns and rifles, dismantled explosives, and killed and injured “several” rebels, SANA reported.

Brahimi, who met Assad and opposition representatives in the Syrian capital last week, is proposing an interim government with full executive powers to prepare for elections in Syria.

Only Alternative

“It is indispensable that this conflict is ended in 2013 and hopefully at the beginning of 2013,” the UN diplomat said yesterday. “If the only alternative is really hell or a political process, then we have got all of us to work ceaselessly for a political process. It is difficult, it is very complicated but there is no other choice.”

Russia on Dec. 28 said it has invited al-Khatib for talks to discuss a solution to the fighting in Syria. Al-Khatib, head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, said that while he won’t travel to Moscow, he is open to talks, Al Jazeera reported.

He also demanded from Russia a “clear condemnation of the crimes committed by the Syrian regime,” according to Al Jazeera.

‘Neutral Venue’

Russia is prepared to meet the opposition in a “neutral venue,” Lavrov said yesterday, adding that it was in the Syrian opposition’s interests to hear the Russian position. The talks could be held in Moscow, Geneva or Cairo, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Dec. 28, state news service RIA Novosti reported.

“If they feel Russia has a useful role to play in this drama, they should be ready to meet Russian representatives without any preconditions,” Lavrov said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, denied media reports that Brahimi had said that Assad could stay in power until 2014 under the peace plan.

The U.S. and Russia will hold a joint meeting next month with Brahimi to discuss the efforts to reach an agreement on Syria, Bogdanov said, according to RIA Novosti.

Russia, which has blocked UN sanctions against Syria during the conflict, has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and billions of dollars of arms contracts with the Middle Eastern state. After the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi last year, Syria is the last major customer for Russian weapons in the region.

The Syrian president inherited power in 2000 from his father, Hafez al-Assad, a Soviet ally who ruled for three decades and received weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff against Israel.

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