|Photo by: Mike Theiler/Reuters|
US, Russia at odds in Syria talks over Assad's fate
Syrian rebels take helicopter base in first seizure of a regime military air base.
Russia and the United States remained deadlocked Friday on the fate of Syrian
President Bashar Assad, as international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met senior
officials from both countries in Geneva in a bid to find a political solution to
Syria's civil war.
Meanwhile rebels seized control of one of Syria's
largest helicopter bases on Friday, opposition sources said, in their first
capture of a military airfield used by Assad's forces.
The United States,
which backs the 21-month-old revolt, says Assad can play no future role, while
Syria's main arms supplier Russia said before the talks that his exit should not
be a precondition for negotiations.
Syria is mired in bloodshed that has
cost more than 60,000 lives and displaced millions of people. Severe winter
weather is compounding their misery. The UN children's agency UNICEF says more
than 2 million children are struggling to stay warm.
The capture of
Taftanaz air base, after months of sporadic fighting, could help rebels solidify
their hold on northern Syria, according to Rami Abdelrahman, head of the
pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But Yezid Sayigh, at
the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said it was not a game-changer,
noting that it had taken months for the rebels to overrun a base whose
usefulness to the military was already compromised by the clashes around
"This is a tactical rather than a strategic gain," he said.
Geneva, UN-Arab League envoy Brahimi's closed-door talks began with individual
meetings with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Russian Deputy
Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. He later held talks with both sides
A US official said negotiations would focus on "creating the
conditions to advance a political solution - specifically a transitional
Six months ago, world powers meeting in Geneva proposed
a transitional government but left open Assad's role. Brahimi told Reuters on
Wednesday that the Syrian leader could play no part in such a transition and
suggested it was time he quit.
Responding a day later, Syria's foreign
ministry berated the veteran Algerian diplomat as "flagrantly biased toward
those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".
Russia has argued
that outside powers should not decide who should take part in any transitional
"Only the Syrians themselves can agree on a model or the
further development of their country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander
But Syrians seem too divided for any such
The umbrella opposition group abroad, the Syrian National
Coalition, said on Friday it had proposed a transition plan that would kept
government institutions intact at a meeting with diplomats in London this week.
But the plan has received no public endorsement from the opposition's foreign
With no end to fighting in sight, the misery of Syrian civilians
has rapidly increased, especially with the advent of some of the worst winter
conditions in years.
Saudi Arabia said it would send $10 million worth of
aid to help Syrian refugees in Jordan, where torrential rain has flooded
hundreds of tents in the Zaatari refugee camp.
A fierce storm that swept
the region has raised concerns for 600,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to
neighboring countries, as well as more than 2.5 million displaced inside Syria,
many of whom live in flimsy tents at unofficial border camps.
activists report dozens of weather-related deaths in Syria in the last four
days. UNICEF said refugee children are at risk because conditions have hampered
access to services.
Earlier this week, another United Nations agency said
around one million Syrians were going hungry. The World Food Program cited
difficulties entering conflict zones and said that the few government-approved
aid agencies allowed to distribute aid were stretched to the limit.
WFP said it supplying rations to about 1.5 million people in Syria each month,
far short of the 2.5 million deemed to be in need.