BEIRUT - Syria denounced international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi
as "flagrantly biased" on Thursday, casting doubt on how long the UN-Arab
League mediator can pursue his peace mission.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry
was responding to remarks by Brahimi a day earlier in which he ruled out a role
for President Bashar Assad in a transitional government and effectively
called for the Baathist leader to quit.
"In Syria...what people are
saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long," Brahimi
told the BBC, referring to Assad, who inherited his post from his father Hafez
al-Assad, who seized power in 1970 and ruled for 30 years.
Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather
than resisting it," the veteran Algerian diplomat said, hinting the Syrian
leader should go.
The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it was very
surprised at Brahimi's comments, which showed "he is flagrantly biased for those
who are conspiring against Syria and its people".
The ministry later said
it was nevertheless still willing to work with the envoy to find a political
solution to the crisis.
Brahimi has had no more success than his
predecessor Kofi Annan in his quest to resolve the 21-month-old conflict in
which more than 60,000 people have been killed.
British Foreign Secretary
William Hague warned that violence in Syria might worsen and said the
international community must "step up" its response if it does.
regional rivalries and divisions among big powers have stymied any concerted
approach to the upheaval, one of the bloodiest to emerge from a series of
revolts in the Arab world.
Russian and U.S. diplomats, who back opposing
sides of the war, will meet Brahimi in Geneva on Friday.
Ahead of the
meeting, Russia repeated its insistence that Assad must not be pushed from power
by external forces and that his exit must not be a precondition for
"Only the Syrians themselves can agree on a model or the
further development of their country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander
Lukashevich said.'Mask of impartiality'
Syria's al-Watan newspaper said
Brahimi had removed his "mask of impartiality" to reveal his true face as a "a
tool for the implementation of the policy of some Western countries".
Sunday Assad, making his first public speech in six months, offered no
concessions and said he would never talk to foes he branded terrorists and
As peace efforts floundered, rebels battled for a
strategic air base for a second day, pursuing a civil war that had briefly
receded for some Damascus residents who set aside their differences to play in a
rare snowfall that blanketed the city.
For a few hours, people in the
capital dropped their weapons for snowballs and traded hatred for
"Last night, for the first time in months, I heard laughter
instead of shelling. Even the security forces put down their guns and helped us
make a snowman," Iman, a resident of the central Shaalan neighborhood, said by
There was no respite on other battlefronts, with heavy fighting
around the Taftanaz base in northwestern Syria, which insurgents are trying to
capture to extend their grip on Idlib province and weaken Assad's control of the
Rebels assaulted the airport's main buildings and armory using
heavy guns, tanks and other weapons and appeared to have overrun half the area
of the base, said Rami Abdelrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights, a pro-opposition group that monitors the conflict from
"Now, it's serious," he said.
The air base has been used
to launch helicopter attacks in the region, and its loss would be a blow to the
government's ability to defend its positions there, Abdelrahman
Insurgents have tried to take the base for months,
but have been bolstered by the recent arrival of Islamist fighters including the
al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, he added.
There was no immediate
government account of the fighting, which could not be confirmed
Opposition forces have seized swathes of territory in
northern Syria in recent months, but remain vulnerable to attack by the
military's planes and helicopters - hence their strategy of trying to capture
air bases such as the one at Taftanaz.
There was no word on whether the
firing of a short-range ballistic missile inside Syria on Wednesday, reported by
a NATO official, was linked to the fighting at Taftanaz.
NATO could not
confirm the type of missile used, but the description fit the Scuds that are in
the Syrian military's armoury, the official added, describing the latest launch
and similar ones last week as "reckless".
A NATO official said that since
the start of December 2012, the alliance had detected at least 15 launches of
unguided, short-range ballistic missile inside Syria.
Neither side has
gained a clear military advantage in the war pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels
against security forces dominated by Assad's minority, Shi'ite-linked Alawite
The Observatory also reported fighting between rebels and troops in
the Sayyida Zeinab area of Damascus, and air raids were reported in the
capital's Maleiha area and eastern suburbs.
Despite some support from
Sunni regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels
remain largely disorganized, fragmented and ill-equipped. Poor discipline,
looting and insecurity in some insurgent-held areas have also eroded their
support from civilians.
Turf wars between rebel units and with Kurdish
groups have also beleaguered the armed opposition. On Thursday, a senior
Islamist commander was assassinated near the border with Turkey, Syrian rebels
and political opposition sources said.
Thaer al-Waqqas, northern
commander of al-Farouq Brigades, had been suspected of involvement in the
killing four months ago of a member of al-Nusra Front.
He was shot dead
at a rebel position in the town of Sermin, a few kilometers from Turkey, the