U.S., Russia Talks on Syria End Without Breakthrough as Rebels Seize Strategic Air Base

International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi meets with Russian and U.S. envoys in Geneva to discuss political solution to civil war; Assad regime calls mediator 'flagrantly biased.'

International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and senior envoys from Russia and the United States called for a political solution to end the Syria conflict on Friday but reached no breakthrough.

Brahimi urged world powers to "create an opening" diplomatically to help stem the bloodshed and alleviate the Syrian people's suffering. He said that he would brief the UN Security Council later this month on his latest consultations.

"We stressed again that in our view there was no military solution to this conflict. We underscored the necessity to reach a political solution based on the Geneva communique of 30 June 2012," Brahimi said in a joint statement read out after his closed-door talks with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov.

Brahimi, in answer to a question on any concrete progress, told reporters: "If you are asking whether there is a solution around the corner, I'm not sure that is the case."

Russia and the United States back opposing sides in Syria's 21-month-old conflict between President Bashar Assad's government forces and rebels fighting to topple him.

Syria denounced Brahimi as "flagrantly biased" on Thursday, casting doubt on how long the UN-Arab League mediator can pursue his peace mission.

Brahimi, speaking to Reuters in Cairo a day earlier, said that Assad could have no place in a transitional government to end the civil war, the closest he has come to calling directly for the embattled president to quit.

Asked on Friday whether the Russians shared his views on Assad, he replied: "I am absolutely certain that the Russians are as preoccupied as I am, as preoccupied as the Americans are, by the bad situation that exists in Syria and its continuing deterioration.

"I am absolutely certain they would like to contribute to its solution," he added.

But pressed on whether Bogdanov had come with new proposals to pave the way for a political transition, he said: "We discussed a lot of things. They had ideas, others also had ideas.

Earlier, a U.S. official said the talks would focus on creating the conditions for a political solution, specifically a transitional governing body agreed at Geneva talks in June. That ministerial accord left open the fate of Assad.

"The U.S. position is clear: Assad has lost all legitimacy and must step aside to enable a political solution and a democratic transition that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people," the U.S. official said, asking not to be named.

Before the meeting, Bogdanov gave no indication Russia would abandon its insistence that Assad must not be forced out by external powers and that his exit cannot be a precondition for a Syrian political dialogue. Russia is "eagerly awaiting bringing the agreements reached in Geneva to life without damaging the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and without violating the right of the Syrian people to choose their own leaders," Bogdanov was quoted as telling Russia Today television.

Before the talks, a Geneva-based Arab diplomat said he expected Moscow to bring some new ideas to the negotiating table.

"The Russians asked for this meeting, so they must be coming with something," he said. "At the same time, they don't want to let Bashar go."

Earlier on Friday, rebels seized a strategic air base in northern Syria after months of fighting, activists and insurgents said. The Syrian military struck back hours after fighters captured the base, launching air strikes on the area, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Taftanaz base is being bombarded by Syrian war planes, which are trying to destroy the airport after it was seized by fighters," it said. These came from several Islamist battalions strong in northern Syria such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Islamic Vanguard and al-Nusra Front, which has links to al-Qaida.

For months, rebels had fought for the base used by military helicopters in Idlib province. But it only fell after Islamist units reinforced them earlier in January.
The United States has branded Nusra a terrorist organization although it enjoys wide support in Syria for its combat skills.

Rebels from the Islamic Front, an alliance of several Islamist units, said Taftanaz is the largest helicopter base in northern Syria and the second largest in the country.