U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Saturday that Syria had to choose between a political solution to the present conflict and a descent into "hell" that could spread to other countries, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that Moscow's recent push for a political solution seemed to be going nowhere, the Washington Post reported. -- "We are sure that this is a deadlock position, which will continue to degrade,” Lavrov said. -- Levels of violence continue to escalate in Syria. -- "Developments on the battlefield have accelerated the pace of diplomacy," the New York Times noted. -- Syrian government forces recaptured Deir Balbah, near Homs, and executed 220 residents there, Bloomberg News said. -- The Associated Press reported that according to analyst Georgy Mirsky "President Vladimir Putin's stand on Syria is rooted in fear that joining international calls for Assad's resignation would make him look weak at home." -- Saturday "may be the bloodiest day since the unrest's start 21 months ago: At least 399 people were killed Saturday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said, the highest daily death toll the group has ever reported," according to CNN. ...
RUSSIA BLAMES SYRIAN OPPOSITION FOR FAILURE TO HALT CONFLICT
By Kathy Lally and Will Englund
December 29, 2012
MOSCOW -- Russia’s foreign minister declared a deadlock Saturday in the latest efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, blaming the Syrian opposition for refusing to negotiate with the government and reiterating that Moscow will not force President Bashar al-Assad to leave.
Sergei Lavrov met here earlier with Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, and though both men warned that the conflict poses an increasing danger to the entire Middle East, they offered no hope of a breakthrough.
“As concerns Bashar Assad, he repeatedly said, publicly and privately -- including during a recent meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus -- that he is not going to go anywhere, that he will stay until the end and, as he put it, defend the Syrian people, Syria’s sovereignty, and so on,” Lavrov said at a news conference with Brahimi.
Lavrov added that Russia could not persuade Assad to leave even if it wanted to.
Brahimi said Syria faces a choice between a political solution and a descent into “hell.” He also warned that the sectarian conflict that has engulfed the country has the potential to spread to its neighbors.
“If you have 1 million people leaving Damascus in a panic, they can go to only two places -- Lebanon and Jordan,” he said, noting that such an influx would create an unsupportable burden for those countries.
The only alternative, he said, was a political agreement within Syria. “All of us have got to work ceaselessly for a political process,” he said.
Brahimi has proposed the creation of a national unity government, but the opposition has insisted that Assad himself cannot take part in it. That means, Lavrov said, that the opposition is to blame for the continuing violence.
He repeated Russia’s insistence that a political solution had to be achieved by the Syrians themselves, without outside participation. He also faulted the opposition, which on Friday turned down an invitation to visit Moscow, for thwarting an end to the conflict.
“We are sure that this is a deadlock position, which will continue to degrade,” he said.
Lavrov rebuked Mouaz al-Khatib, leader of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, for rejecting the invitation and demanding that Russia apologize for supporting Assad.
“It was quite a surprise to me to read his statement that he was willing to meet with me only if we change our position and if we apologize for our position publicly,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov also emphasized Russia’s opposition to armed intervention in Syria, and insisted once again that Moscow has not been shipping arms to Assad. Russia, he said, favors the revival of an agreement struck in Geneva in June supporting a transitional government that would rule until elections could be held.
The comments by Brahimi and Lavrov came on a particularly bloody day in Syria, with at least 364 people killed, according to the Local Coordination Committees network.
The Syrian military “field-executed” up to 220 people in the Deir Baalba neighborhood of the central city of Homs, the group said in a statement. At least 35 people were also reported killed in Aleppo province amid shelling and airstrikes.
A video posted online Saturday shows the body of a child being dug out of rubble in Azaz, near the Turkish border. A second video shows a man carrying the child’s body as a group of men gather and shout, “God is great!”
The official Syrian Arab News Agency also reported the military attacks across the country, noting that a number of “terrorists” had been killed and that heavy weapons had been confiscated. Government-run media in Syria often refer to rebel forces as terrorists.
--Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut contributed to this report.
INSISTING ON ASSAD'S EXIT WILL COST MORE LIVES, RUSSIAN SAYS
By Ellen Barry
New York Times
December 29, 2012
MOSCOW -- Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Saturday that there was “no possibility” of persuading President Bashar al-Assad to leave Syria, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in the standoff. He also said that the opposition leaders’ insistence on Mr. Assad’s departure as a precondition for peace talks would come at the cost of “more and more lives of Syrian citizens” in a conflict that has already killed tens of thousands.
Moscow has made a muscular push for a political solution in recent days, sending signals that the Kremlin, one of Mr. Assad’s most important allies, sees a pressing need for political change. As an international consensus forms around the notion of a transitional government, it has been snagged on the thorny question of what role, if any, Mr. Assad would occupy in it.
But after talks in Moscow on Saturday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria, Mr. Lavrov said that Russia could not press Mr. Assad to give up power. Mr. Lavrov has said that Russia “isn’t in the business of regime change,” but his characterization of Mr. Assad’s stance on Saturday sounded more definitive.
“He has repeatedly said, both publicly and privately, including during his meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi not long ago, that he has no plans to go anywhere, that he will stay in his post until the end, that he will, as he says, protect the Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty, and so forth,” Mr. Lavrov said. “There is no possibility of changing this position.”
There have been evident changes in the standoff over Syria in recent weeks, as Russia acknowledged that government forces were losing territory and distanced itself from Mr. Assad. In televised remarks, President Vladimir V. Putin said that Russian leaders “are not preoccupied by the fate of Assad’s regime” and that after 40 years of rule by one family, “undoubtedly there is a call for change.”
But Moscow has watched the recent Arab uprisings with mounting worry, arguing that the West was unleashing dangerous turbulence by supporting popular rebellions, and it has vehemently opposed any international intervention in Syria as a matter of principle.
Developments on the battlefield have accelerated the pace of diplomacy.
Anti-Assad activists on Saturday reported fierce fighting and large numbers of casualties in the central city of Homs, where they said government troops were completely surrounding the Deir Ba’alba neighborhood after storming the area on Friday. An activist reached by telephone, who said he was less than a mile from the neighborhood on Saturday night, said he heard gunfire and saw houses in flames. Communications to the area had been cut, and civilians and rebel fighters who had managed to flee were “traumatized,” he said.
Mr. Brahimi, an Algerian statesman who is viewed sympathetically in Moscow, recommended last week that a transitional government be established, perhaps within months, and that it should rule Syria until elections could be held.
Like Russia, Mr. Brahimi hopes to arrange a political settlement on the basis of an international agreement reached this summer in Geneva, which envisages a transitional government and a peacekeeping force. But the Geneva document does not address Mr. Assad’s fate, nor does it invoke tough sanctions against the Syrian government under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes economic measures and, if necessary, military action.
On Saturday, Mr. Brahimi said that it might be necessary to “make some small changes to the Geneva agreement.”
“Nonetheless,” he added, “I consider that it is a wonderful basis for the continuation of the political process.” He warned that if a political solution was not possible, Syria would be overrun by violence, like Somalia. He also said his recent visit to Damascus had convinced him that continued fighting in the country could turn into “something horrible,” and he envisioned the flight of a million people across Syria’s borders into Jordan and Lebanon.
“The problem could grow to such proportions that it could have a substantial effect on our future, and we cannot ignore this,” Mr. Brahimi said.
Russia has set the stage for forward momentum, announcing a gathering in mid-January between the United States, Russia and Mr. Brahimi to discuss Syria.
Moscow may see these talks as a chance to rebuild its prestige in the Arab world, where Russia’s historically strong alliances have been badly damaged by the standoff over Syria. Mr. Lavrov bridled on Saturday when a reporter from an Arabic news channel asked him to comment on criticism that Russia was “a participant in the Syrian conflict” because it continued to fulfill weapons contracts with Damascus after the outbreak of violence.
The accusation, Mr. Lavrov said, “is so far from the truth that there’s no way to comment on it.” He said that Russia did not supply the government with offensive weapons, and that much of Syria’s arsenal dated to the Soviet era. He also said the opposition was receiving a far more deadly flow of weapons and aid.
The leader of the main opposition coalition, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, responded coolly to an overture on Friday from Russia, saying Moscow should publicly apologize for its pro-government position. He also refused to meet with Russian leaders in Moscow, saying a meeting was possible only in an Arab country.
Mr. Lavrov said Saturday that he would agree to such a meeting, but he responded to Mr. Khatib’s remarks with an equally chilly response.
“I know that Mr. Khatib is probably not very experienced in politics,” he said. “If he aspires to the role of a serious politician, he will nonetheless understand that it is in his own interests to hear our analysis directly from us.”
--Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.
SYRIAN FORCES RETAKE TOWN AS ASSAD VOWS TO FINISH TERM
By Henry Meyer and Scott Rose
December 29, 2012
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.
“It’s impossible to change his position,” Lavrov said at a joint press conference after talks in Moscow yesterday with the U.N. 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.
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.
“It is indispensable that this conflict is ended in 2013 and hopefully at the beginning of 2013,” the U.N. 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.
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.
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 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.
RUSSIAN F.M. SAYS ASSAD WON'T GO
By Vladimir Isachenkov
December 29, 2012
MOSCOW -- Russia's foreign minister said Saturday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has no intention of stepping down and it would be impossible to try to persuade him otherwise.
After a meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.'s envoy for the Syrian crisis, Sergey Lavrov also said that the Syrian opposition risks sacrificing many more lives if it continues to insist on Assad leaving office as a precondition for holding talks on Syria's future.
Assad "has repeatedly said publicly and privately, including in his meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus not long ago, that he does not intend to leave for anywhere, that he will stay to the end in his post, that he will, as he expressed it, defend the Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty and so forth," Lavrov said. "There's no possibility to change this position."
Brahimi warned that the country's civil war could plunge the entire region into chaos by sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring nations, but his talks in Moscow produced no sign of progress toward settling the crisis.
Brahimi and Lavrov both said after their meeting that the 21-month-old Syrian conflict can only be settled through talks, while admitting that the parties in the conflict have shown no desire for compromise. Neither official hinted at a possible solution that would persuade the Syrian government and the opposition to agree to a ceasefire and sit down for talks about a political transition.
Brahimi, who arrived in Moscow on a one-day trip following his talks in Damascus with Assad this week, voiced concern about the escalation of the conflict, which he said is becoming "more and more sectarian."
The envoy warned that "if you have a panic in Damascus and if you have 1 million people leaving Damascus in a panic, they can go to only two places -- Lebanon and Jordan," and those countries may not be able to endure half a million refugees each.
Brahimi said that "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."
Russia has been the main supporter of Assad's regime since the uprising began in March 2011, using its veto at the U.N. Security Council along with China to shield its last Mideast ally from international sanctions.
Lavrov said Russia would continue to oppose any U.N. resolution that would call for international sanctions against Assad and open the way for a foreign intervention in Syria. And while he again emphasized that Russia "isn't holding onto Bashar Assad," he added that Moscow continues to believe the opposition demand for his resignation as a precondition for peace talks is "counterproductive."
"The price for that precondition will be the loss of more Syrian lives," Lavrov said.
Both Brahimi and Lavrov insisted that efforts to end the civil war must be based on a peace plan that was approved at an international conference in Geneva in June.
The Geneva plan calls for an open-ended cease-fire, a transitional government to run the country until elections, and the drafting of a new constitution. But it was a non-starter with the opposition because of Russia's insistence that the plan leave the door open for Assad being part of the transition process and the fact that it didn't mention possible U.N. sanctions.
Brahimi said that while some "little adjustments" could be made to the original plan, "it's a valued basis for reasonable political process."
With the opposition offensive gaining momentum in Syria, there is little hope that the initiative would have any more chance of success than it had when it was approved.
Lavrov has said that Moscow is ready to talk to the main Syrian opposition group, even though it had earlier criticized the United States and other Western nations for recognizing the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
On Friday, coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib rejected the Russian invitation for talks and urged Moscow to support the opposition's call for Assad's ouster. Lavrov said Saturday that al-Khatib's statement was surprising after his earlier contacts with Russian diplomats in Egypt during which the opposition tentatively agreed on a meeting in a third country.
Lavrov said the coalition leader should "realize it would be in his own interests to hear our analysis directly from us."
Lavrov rejected the opposition claim that Russia's continuing weapons supplies to Assad's regime make it responsible for mass killings in Syria, saying that Moscow bears no responsibility for the Soviet-era weapons in Syrian arsenals. He said that defensive weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has continued to supply to Damascus couldn't be used in the civil war.
"We aren't providing the Syrian regime with any offensive weapons or weapons that could be used in a civil war," Lavrov said. "And we have no leverage over what the regime has got since the Soviet times."
Georgy Mirsky, a leading Mideast expert with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a top foreign policy think tank, said President Vladimir Putin's stand on Syria is rooted in fear that joining international calls for Assad's resignation would make him look weak at home.
"It would look like an inadmissible concession to America, a virtual surrender. The Kremlin would lose its face, look like a loser," said Mirsky.
He wrote in his blog that Putin is resigned to Assad's eventual collapse and the loss of any Russian influence in a future Syria, but firmly opposes international sanctions. That stand allows Putin to tell his domestic audience that Russia has defended its ally until the end against overwhelming odds, said Mirsky.
--Jim Heintz contributed to this report.
DEADLY DAY IN SYRIA AS DIPLOMATS TALK
By Amir Ahmed and Hamdi Alkhshali
December 29, 2012
Russia's top diplomat and an international envoy to Syria warned Saturday that the Middle East nation's conflict is becoming more militarized and sectarian, further endangering the region.
The statements came on what may be the bloodiest day since the unrest's start 21 months ago: At least 399 people were killed Saturday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said, the highest daily death toll the group has ever reported. The figure includes 201 people who a captured Syrian soldier said had been executed in Deir Balbah, outside of Homs, after Syrian forces won a battle there, an LCC spokesman said.
The Syrian government has not commented on the alleged mass execution in Deir Balbah. But Syrian state TV did show images of dead bodies and seized weapons in tunnels in that city it claims were being used by "terrorists," the term it routinely uses to describe opposition fighters.
A corresponding report on state TV's website, citing a source, said "explosive devices weighing between 15 (and) 50 kilograms" were seized, and Syrian troops "killed and injured several terrorists in the area, while the rest fled."
CNN cannot independently confirm casualty and other reports as Syria's government has severely restricted access to the country.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, held a meeting aimed at halting any such violence by bringing both sides to the negotiating table.
Brahimi warned the civil war was devolving into fighting between factions jostling for power, rather than an effort centered on bettering the lives of all Syrians.
"I think Sergey Lavrov is absolutely right that the conflict is not only more and more militarized, it is more and more sectarian," Brahimi told reporters after the talks in Moscow.
Their meeting appeared to signal a shift by Russia, which has staunchly opposed efforts by the U.N. Security Council to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally.
Moscow remains opposed to any foreign intervention. But as the conflict rages and the casualty count climbs to an estimated 40,000, Russia appears willing to look at options for a political transition in Syria.
"Russia is in contact with all sides in Syria. Our priority is to stop violence," Lavrov said, adding only Syrians ultimately should decide their fate.
"A lot of things now depend on external players. It's very important to stop actions that lead to militarization."
Days before the meeting, Brahimi called for the formation of a transitional government in Damascus that would hold power until an election -- a key element of a proposed peace plan drawn up in June.
Lavrov also called for reviving the plan, which was crafted during a Geneva, Switzerland, conference that included representatives from world powers that had been at odds over the Syrian conflict. It called for a cease-fire, a transitional government and a new constitution, though it did not specify whether al-Assad would have to step down.
Russia and China joined France, Britain, the United States and Turkey in agreeing on the plan, as well as Arab League nations.
But neither the opposition nor al-Assad's government has signaled a willingness to sign on to it. In fact, fighting escalated since then and rebels now control a number of locales they'd seized from al-Assad's forces.
Ending the violence by having all sides agree on a political solution won't be easy, Brahimi and Lavrov agreed.
"The Syrians disagree violently. On one side, the government says we are doing our duty to protect our people from . . . terrorists. On the other side, they say the government is illegitimate," Brahimi said. "They are not talking about the same problem. They are talking about two different problems."
Still, they said those disagreements -- and the earlier failure to get both sides to agree on the Geneva plan -- shouldn't prevent them from trying again to reach a political solution.
Such a plan could include U.N. peacekeeping forces, assuming the U.N. Security Council agrees to such a move, Brahimi said.
"But it must be part of a complete package that begins with peacekeeping and ends with an election," he said.
Syria's opposition leader, meanwhile, was lukewarm about Russia's offer to hold peace talks in Moscow or another location, such as Geneva or Cairo.
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib -- head of the Syrian National Coalition, which the United States and other nations have called the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, a move panned by Russia -- said his group is open to talks, but not in Russia. He said Russia has overlooked atrocities in Syria and must condemn such crimes before his group engages in talks involving them.
Lavrov said he was "very surprised" al-Khatib put conditions on the talks.
"We sent signals to the coalition to change their position and support the Geneva agreement. We had a contact with Khatib. We offered to meet in Moscow. He suggested to meet in any other country. We agreed on that," the foreign minister said.
The diplomatic maneuvering comes as Syria has been wracked by violence that began when demonstrators inspired by Arab Spring popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya took to the streets to demand reforms.
A brutal crackdown on the protests by government forces quickly spiraled into an armed conflict, with the rebel Free Syrian Army now serving as a fighting force countering al-Assad's military.
Despite enormous international pressure, al-Assad has defied calls to step down. He has blamed violence on "terrorists" bent on destabilizing his government.
On Saturday, the government said its forces had attacked a number of rebel operations in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
The news agency reported that during the operations, government forces killed Ismail Mohammad al-Alloush, the leader of the rebel al-Furqan Brigade, and rebel commander Mohammad Sabbar Khalifa.
The opposition, meanwhile, accused government forces of shelling the southern town of Busr al-Harir in an effort to retake it from rebels.
The Free Syrian Army took the town, which lies along the Daraa-Damascus highway, on Friday, according to the LCC. Al-Assad's forces surrounded the town Saturday and fired rockets and mortar rounds, the opposition group said.
--CNN's Chelsea J. Carter and journalist Racha Yousef contributed to this report.