No breakthrough in US, Russia talks on Syria

 12 Jan 2013 - 1:16


Demonstrators hold banners during a protest against President Bashar Al Assad, after Friday prayers in Kafranbel, near Idlib.

GENEVA: International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and envoys from Russia and the United States — backers of opposing sides in Syria’s civil war — failed to make a breakthrough in talks yesterday, even as the opposition Syrian National Coalition has urged the international community to help it take over Syria’s seats at the UN and Arab League as part of efforts to set up a transitional government.

The group, which has been widely recognised by Arab and Western nations as the sole representative of the Syrian people, also asked to be given regime assets frozen as part of international sanctions on the Damascus government.

The coalition, set up in Qatar in November and grouping the majority of opposition forces, including a unified military command, said it was striving to set up a transitional government.

Syria still maintains its seat at the United Nations while the Arab League voted to suspend its membership in the 22-seat Cairo-based organisation in November 2011 in protest at the bloody crackdown against protesters.

In Geneva, Brahimi said in a joint statement read out after his closed-door talks with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov: “We stressed again that in our view there was no military solution to this conflict.” 

They agreed on the need to reach a political solution based on an agreement reached by foreign powers in Geneva last June, which called for a transitional period in Syria. That left open the question of what role, if any, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad would have. That appeared to be sticking on point at yesterday’s meeting.

“The devil is in the details,” Brahimi said. “We said that this transitional government that will be in charge during the transitional period only, it is not a government that will stay for a long time, it will direct the transitional period that will end with the holding of the elections that will be agreed upon,” he said in Arabic, adding that it would have “all powers of the state”.

But asked by a reporter if there are had been any concrete progress, he said: “If you are asking whether there is a solution around the corner, I’m not sure that is the case.”

The United States, European powers and Gulf-led Arab states insist Assad must step down to end a war that has killed 60,000 people in neraly two years. Russia says this must not be a precondition to a settlement.

Syria denounced Brahimi as “flagrantly biased” on Thursday, casting doubt on how long the UN-Arab League mediator can pursue his peace mission.

Brahimi, speaking to Reuters in Cairo a day earlier, said  Assad could have no place in a transitional government to end the civil war, the closest he has come to calling directly for the embattled president to quit. 

Asked yesterday whether the Russians shared his views, he replied: “I am absolutely certain that the Russians are as preoccupied as I am, as preoccupied as the Americans are, by the bad situation that exists in Syria and its continuing deterioration. “I am absolutely certain they would like to contribute to its solution.”


Air base seized

Meanwhile, rebels seized a strategic air base in northern Syria after months of fighting, activists and insurgents said. Rebels had fought for the Taftanaz base used by military helicopters in Idlib province for months, but it only fell after Islamist units reinforced them earlier this month.

The Syrian military struck back hours after fighters captured the base, launching air strikes on the area.  Rebels from the Islamic Front, an alliance of several Islamist units, said Taftanaz is the largest helicopter base in northern Syria and the second largest in the country.