UN envoy arrives in Syria to push peace plan, as dozens killed in air strikes
Lebanese airport officials say Lakhdar Brahimi, who also represents the Arab League, has arrived in Beirut and will meet Assad during this trip.
The international envoy tasked with ending Syria's civil war arrived in Damascus on Sunday with hopes of finding a way to end the crisis, officials said, but there appeared little reason for optimism.
Lakhdar Brahimi, who represents the United Nations and the Arab League, has made little apparent progress toward brokering an end to Syria's civil war since he assumed his post in September, mostly because neither side appears interested in talks.
The security situation inside Syria has deteriorated in the meantime, with rebel forces expanding their control in the north and near the capital and storming a number of army bases, making off with valuable weapons.
Brahimi's trip, his third to Damascus since taking his post, appeared troubled from the start.
Instead of flying directly to Syria as he has on previous visits, Brahimi landed in Beirut and traveled to the Syrian capital by land because of fighting near the Damascus airport, Lebanese officials said.
Brahimi did not speak publicly upon his arrival in Damascus.
The Lebanese officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters, said Brahimi was expected to meet Syria's foreign minister later Sunday and President Bashar Assad on Monday.
It is unclear what new ideas Brahimi could present to make progress toward a peace deal.
In a lengthy Sunday news conference, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi repeated the Syrian government's line that it is fighting terrorist groups backed by foreign powers who seek to destroy Syria.
Al-Zoubi said the government was willing to engage in dialogue but said the other side was not. "We speak of dialogue with those who believe in national dialogue," he said. "But those who rejected dialogue in their statements and called for arms and use of weapons, that's a different issue. They don't want dialogue."
"I have general advice to those political powers that reject dialogue: Time is getting short. Hurry and move on to working on a political solution," he said.
"These military efforts to try to topple the government, of getting rid of the president, of occupying the capital... Forget about this. That is my advice."
Rebel groups refuse to talk to Assad, demanding that he step down instead.
Al-Zoubi equated the rebels with al-Qaida and denied that they had taken over any territory.
"They are not able to attack even a military checkpoint and remain in it for 15 minutes," he said. He also said the opposition does not provide citizens with services as the Syrian government does.
In the press conference, Al-Zoubi distanced the government from remarks made by the country's vice president, Farouq al-Sharaa, in a newspaper interview last week that neither the rebels nor Assad's could win the civil war.
Al-Sharaa said during the interview that Syria needed a government of national unity since neither side could win militarily.
"There are 23 million people in Syria with their own personal opinions, this was one of those 23 million," Al-Zoubi said Sunday in reference to these remarks.
Al-Sharaa, a Sunni Muslim in a power structure dominated by Assad's Alawite minority, has rarely been seen since the revolt began in March 2011 and is not part of the president's inner circle.
Al-Zoubi told journalists that the Syrian army was still strong, despite a string of rebel advances and seizures of military sites across the country. He said that many reports of rebel gains were "fantasy, media victories".
The minister also said Syria would never use chemical weapons, if it had them, anywhere inside or outside the country. It was the first time a government minister clearly stated that there were no intentions of using chemical arms in any capacity.
The United States and other Western countries cited intelligence reports earlier this month suggesting that chemical weapons were being prepared or moved, and warned Assad their use was a "red line" that would have international repercussions.
More recently, Washington and NATO have begun to report the use of Scud-type, long-range missiles in Syria. Al-Zoabi did not directly deny the use of such weapons, but said that reports of Scuds and chemical weapons were a propaganda campaign against Assad's government.
When asked about rebel advances in the north, where the opposition holds large swathes of territory, Al-Zoubi mocked the idea of rebel control there.
"They are incapable of staying there and they cannot control the ground," he said. "All this talk is untrue… If they attack a checkpoint they cannot stay longer than 15 minutes."
Although rebels have seized many residential areas and military sites, they have little defense against Assad's air power and long-range missiles. Air strikes regularly hit neighborhoods and military sites seized by the rebels.
While rebel forces do often withdraw from government sites after storming them to avoid being targeted by airstrikes, large areas of north Syria and parts of the Damascus suburbs are effectively held by rebels, and local councils try to run bakeries and provide services like water and electricity.
And although one of the most effective rebel groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and is affiliated with al-Qaida, its fighters are a minority of those fighting to topple Assad.
Violence continues around Syria
Dozens of people were killed and wounded in an air strike on a bakery in Syria's central Hama province on Sunday, activists said, with some reporting up to 200 dead.
"We cannot get an exact figure yet because we are still confused about which are dead and which are wounded," one activist said.
The strike hit Halfaya, a town recently seized by rebels in a new push to take territory in Hama.
Anti-regime activists reported government airstrikes on suburbs east of the capital and the northern province of Aleppo.
Air strikes on the town of al-Safira, south of Aleppo, killed 13 women and children, including a mother and five daughters from one family, a local activist named Hussein said via Skype. He gave only his first name for fear of retribution.
The town lies next to a large military complex with factories and artillery and air defense bases. Hussein guessed the airstrike was payback for recent rebel attacks on the complex.
"The strikes don't hit the fighters at all," he said. "They want to take revenge on the civilians."
Videos posted online showed a swath of simple concrete homes reduced to rubble. In one video, a man pulls a young boy from the rubble, clutches him to his chest and rushes away wailing.
The videos appeared authentic and corresponded to other AP reporting.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12 people died in the strike.
The group, which relies on a network of contacts inside Syria, also said at least 10 rebels and an unknown number of government troops were killed in clashes in Afreen, near Aleppo, Syria's largest city, as rebels sought to storm an army base there.
Anti-regime activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since Syria's crisis began in March 2011.