x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Moscow’s call for opposition to talk with Assad rejected

Two Syrian air force generals defect to Turkey. The defections come as rebels besiege the military air base of Mannagh near the Turkish border.

ALEPPO, SYRIA // Russia invited the leader of Syria’s opposition yesterday to visit for the first time, but the opposition swiftly dismissed a renewed call by Moscow for talks with President Bashar Al Assad’s government to end the civil war.

With the rebels advancing over the second half of this year, diplomats have been searching for months for signs that Mr Al Assad's main international backer, Moscow, will withdraw its protection.

So far Russia has stuck to its position that rebels must negotiate with the regime, which has ruled since Mr Al Assad's father seized power in a coup 42 years ago.

"I think a realistic and detailed assessment of the situation inside Syria will prompt reasonable opposition members to seek ways to start a political dialogue," Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said yesterday.

That was immediately dismissed by the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

"The coalition is ready for political talks with anyone ... but it will not negotiate with the Assad regime," said spokesman Walid Al Bunni.

"Everything can happen after the Assad regime and all its foundations have gone. After that we can sit down with all Syrians to set out the future."

Moscow's Middle East envoy, the deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov, also invited the opposition coalition leader, Moaz Alkhatib, to visit, its first overture to the head of the body formed last month and since recognised by most western and Arab states as Syria's legitimate representative. That invitation was also rejected.

The UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, fresh from a five-day trip to Damascus where he met Mr Al Assad, was due in Moscow for talks today. Mr Brahimi has been touting a months-old peace plan which calls for a transitional government.

That UN plan has long been widely seen as a dead letter, foundering at the outset over the question of whether the transitional body would include Mr Al Assad or his allies.

With rebels having seized control of large sections of the country in recent months, Russia and the United States have been working with Mr Brahimi to resurrect the peace plan as the only internationally recognised diplomatic negotiating track.

Mr Bogdanov said further talks were scheduled between the "three Bs", himself, Mr Brahimi and William Burns, the US undersecretary of state.

Speaking in Damascus on Thursday, Mr Brahimi called for a transitional government with "all the powers of the state", a phrase interpreted by the opposition as potentially signalling tolerance of Mr Al Assad remaining in a ceremonial role.

"We do not agree at all with Brahimi's initiative. We do not agree with anything Brahimi says," Colonel Abdel Jabbar Oqaidi, who heads the rebels' military council in Aleppo province, said from his headquarters there.

"We will not allow anyone to trade in the blood of the martyrs of Syria and the sacrifices that Syrians have made by having someone propose any proposal that keeps Bashar Al Assad" in office.

Col Oqaidi said the rebels want Mr Al Assad and his allies tried in Syria for crimes. Mr Al Assad has said he will stay on and fight to the death if necessary.

Two Syrian air force generals defected to Turkey yesterday, Turkey's foreign ministry said. The defections came as rebels besieged the military air base of Mannagh near the Turkish border.

Fighting in Syria has killed about 44,000 people and continues unabated. According to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, 150 people were killed on Thursday, a typical toll as fighting has escalated in recent months.

Government jets bombarded the town of Assal Al Ward in the Qalamoun district of Damascus province for the first time, killing one person and wounding dozens, the observatory said.

The bombardment may have included areas in Qalamoun from which the army withdrew on Thursday, the observatory said. Its accounts could not be verified.

In Aleppo, Syria's northern commercial hub, clashes took place between rebel fighters and army forces around an air force intelligence building in the Zahira quarter, a neighbourhood that has been surrounded by rebels for weeks.

Most of the dead have been civilians. Both sides have committed atrocities, although the United Nations says government forces and their allies have been more culpable.

Footage uploaded to the internet yesterday showed young men beating the bloody corpse of another man with a stick. One reaches down with a knife and gleefully slices off an ear.

Opposition activists said the footage showed government-allied militia members desecrating bodies, but its provenance could not be confirmed.