BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Bashar al-Assad’s forces recaptured a town in western Syria in clashes that brought urgency to a warning by U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that the war is spiraling into “hell” and giving rise to warlords.
The Syrian army killed 52 people Sunday, including 17 in Damascus and its suburbs, the Local Coordination Committees said in an email, a day after Al Jazeera reported government troops had seized Deir Balbah near Homs, the latest front in a battle that’s seen entire towns cross from government to rebel control. More than 44,000 people have been killed in 22 months of violence that’s pitted the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against Assad’s Alawite-dominated security forces.
“The situation is bad and it’s getting worse,” Brahimi said in Cairo Sunday. “I can’t see anything other than these two paths: either there will be a political solution that will meet the ambitions and legitimate rights of the Syrian people, or Syria will turn into hell.”
The fighting came as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Assad had told Brahimi that he won’t quit before his term ends in 2014.
Syrian forces Sunday attacked the Hom’s area of Khalidiya with mortars, while jets bombed towns outside of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement. Rebel forces shot down a helicopter in Idlib province, while in Aleppo the army battled Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a terrorist group by the U.S., outside an arms factory, the group said.
“It’s impossible” to change Assad’s position, Lavrov said Saturday at a joint press conference after talks in Moscow with Brahimi, who met Assad in Damascus on Dec. 24.
Syrian forces killed 220 residents Saturday, who were among at least 392 people killed across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition coalition. The death toll couldn’t be independently verified.
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 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.
The conflict is becoming increasingly sectarian, Lavrov and Brahimi said Saturday.
“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 is proposing an interim government with full executive powers to prepare for elections in Syria, which faces a choice between “a political solution or the complete collapse of the Syrian state,” he said.
Russia on Dec. 28 said it has invited al-Khatib, head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, for talks to discuss a solution to the fighting in Syria. While he says 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,” the news agency reported.
Russia is prepared to meet the opposition in a “neutral venue,” Lavrov said Saturday, 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 was cited Dec. 28 as saying by the RIA Novosti state-news service.
“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.
U.N. 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 U.N. 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 Moammar Gadhafi last year, Syria is the last major customer for Russian weapons in the region.
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