Russia and US to set stage for new Syria effort


United Nations diplomats speculate that a new attempt to secure a political solution to the Syrian conflict could be launched after a meeting next week between United States and Russian representatives and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

This will be the third encounter between Mr Brahimi, US assistant secretary of state William Burns and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Bogdanov, who have been asked to forge a deal based on a deal reached in Geneva last June.

In New York, Pakistan’s ambassador and current UN Security Council president Masood Khan said “important consultations” were taking place outside the council. Mr Brahimi has called upon the council to act, warning that if the bloodshed is not halted 100,000 Syrians could be added to the 60,000 believed killed, and neighbouring countries could be drawn into the conflict.

Readiness to make a deal

In Beirut, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah urged the Lebanese government to “exert pressure for a political solution and a political dialogue”. He said if military operations continued in Syria, the battle would be long and bloody and Syria could be partitioned.

In Damascus, deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil, a leftist who enjoys close ties with Russia, appeared to indicate the government’s readiness to make a deal.

“The objective climate to reach a political solution . . . has matured and all sides should discuss means of reaching compromises and solutions that serve the higher national interests,” he said.

Although Mr Brahimi has apparently told opposition leaders they need to “come to terms” with the fact that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could stay in power until 2014, they say he must leave before there can be talks with remnants of his regime.

Yesterday, state agency Sana claimed a car bomb at a petrol station in Damascus, which killed 11 people and wounded 40, was the work of rebels. The station was packed with Syrians queuing for fuel, which has become scarce in the 21-month insurgency.

Meanwhile, fighting between troops and rebels continued at the strategic Taftanaz airbase. The base, which has been contested for months, is under attack by fighters from three radical Sunni groups: Jabhat al-Nusra, dubbed a “terrorist” organisation by the US; Ahrar al-Sham; and Talia al-Islamiya.

Airspace control

Aircraft bombed the town of Douma, a long-standing rebel stronghold 10km north of Damascus while government forces reportedly are moving into the town of Daraya, southwest of the capital. Daraya, adjacent to the Kafr Sousse district, which houses government ministries, has served as a launching pad for rebel mortars and shells fired at the nearby Mezze airbase.

Mezze and Taftanaz give the government control of Syrian airspace from which military aircraft bomb and strafe rebel positions and stem the rebel advance from the countryside into cities and towns. Consequently, aggressive jihadi groups have recently focused on airbases to deny the overstretched Syrian military air power, its key asset.

While rebel ranks have swelled with local recruits and foreign jihadis, they still do not have the firepower needed to break the army’s hold on Damascus, the south, the coast and the centre of the country.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided weapons but rebel commanders are calling for heavy arms which the US is reluctant to see in jihadi hands.

Like Mr Brahimi, US Syria expert Joshua Landis predicted in his blog Syria Comment that Mr Assad, who has Russia’s backing, could “last until 2014”, when his present term ends. Dr Landis argued that the opposition and rebels remain fragmented and offer no alternative to the regime. Regional powers supporting the opposition – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – do not co-operate fully and have competing agendas, while the big powers refuse to intervene militarily.