(Reuters) - The Syrian opposition leader met Russia’s foreign minister on Saturday and a diplomatic source said he would also see Iran’s foreign minister, opening a window to a possible breakthrough in efforts to broker an end to Syria’s civil war.
Russia and Iran have been the staunchest allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout an armed uprising against his rule, and any understandings they might reach with Assad’s foes could help overcome the two sides’ refusal to negotiate.
At an annual international security conference in Munich, Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib had talks with Russia’s Sergei Lavrov that may have been made possible by Alkhatib signaling readiness to talk to Damascus.
He also met separately with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and U.N. special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
“Russia has a certain vision but we welcome negotiations to alleviate the crisis and there are lots of details that need to be discussed,” Alkhatib said after the meeting.
A diplomatic source said the Alkhatib would also meet Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who was attending the Munich security conference on Saturday, but this could not be independently confirmed.
Russia has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing out Assad out or pressuring him to end the civil war, in which more than 60,000 people have died. But Moscow has also tried to distance itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.
For the first two months after fleeing Aleppo, Yaser Mohammad slept outside in an olive grove. When it rained, he crawled under a lorry.
Home is now a leaking plastic tent on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. “We don’t have bread. Fuel is very expensive. There is no electricity, no water,” Mohammad said.
Another 6,500 Syrians are living in similarly dismal conditions, most having fled the war just down the road in Aleppo. Freezing temperatures and relentless rain over the past week have turned the Bab al-Salam refugee camp into a muddy swimming pool. “See for yourself: our tent contains centimetres of water. We can’t sleep at night. We’re exhausted. Everybody is exhausted. Our kids have lice.”
Mohammad, his wife and six children are a tiny part of a much larger catastrophe now enveloping Syria. After 21 months of war, at least two million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes. Hundreds of thousands have fled abroad, where they live in dire conditions. But most are displaced inside Syria - camping in tents, sharing overcrowded rooms with relatives, renting private flats, or squatting in shivering school buildings.
This largely invisible exodus has pushed Syria’s already strained infrastructure close to collapse. The cardinal problem is bread - Syria’s most important food staple. There is not enough to go round; bread is disappearing. In the 21st century, and under the nose of the international community, a nation is sliding into starvation and medieval hunger.
In the northern town of Azaz, queues form outside bakeries in the dull sepia hours of early morning; by mid-afternoon hundreds of men, teenaged boys and women are still waiting in the cold outside. Over the past month the situation has got dramatically worse. “I’ve been waiting here since 4am. I’m still waiting,” said Ahmed Yusuf, a nurse with the relief charity Doctors Without Borders. “I’ve skipped work to find bread. My son queued up yesterday. He spent so long outside he’s now sick.”
Syrian rebels are starting to choke off the government’s access to its own country, bringing hope that the war may be slipping away from Bashar al-Assad. But the gains have also come with disturbing new signs — video decapitations, al Qaeda links, and more — that the rebels may end up nearly as brutal in victory as the regime they’re hoping to replace.
NBC News reports that ever larger patches of the country have fallen under the control of the rebels, with only the military strongholds like bases and presidential compounds in Damascus still belonging to the regime. In the Northern part of the country, near the city of Aleppo, “the rebels control the countryside and open roads, and the Syrian army only controls the bases and the skies.” Of course, controlling the skies is an incredibly powerful advantage in any war, so the government is still able to inflict heavy damage on the rebels, even if moral among the troops is lower than ever.
Meanwhile in Damascus, fighting has come with one mile of Assad’s office. One Mideast professor tells Reuters that Assad “is no longer the president of Syria, he is the governor of Damascus.” No matter strong his ability to fight back remains, there seems to be no question that his influence over the nation is shrinking and there’s no telling how long he can successfully hold out.
Syrian War Reaches Damascus: ‘The reality of war has crept into daily life, and there is a sense of inevitability.’
Rifa was growing frantic. Her husband had called to say that he and her brother were stuck on their way home from work outside the Syrian capital, normally a 25-minute drive. There was fighting in a northern suburb, he said, and traffic was frozen.
Tensions rose as the hours passed. It is never good to be out after dark in Damascus now, especially trapped in a traffic jam, unable to flee. Finally, Rifa’s husband called again. They had escaped and returned to their workplace to pass the night, another concession to their changing world.
War has come to Damascus. Not on the scale of Aleppo or Homs, at least not yet. But the difference from just a few months ago is unmistakable. With sandbagged checkpoints every half-mile and soldiers methodically searching vehicles for weapons, simple movement is becoming impossible.
“Where is Damascus headed? Are we the next Aleppo?” Rifa asked a few days later. “How soon before our city, our markets, are destroyed?”
This is the center of Bashar al-Assad’s power, the stronghold he tried for months to shield from a popular uprising that has inexorably been transformed into a bloody civil war. As his troops battled insurgents all around the country, Mr. Assad was determined that here, at least, he would preserve an air of normalcy, of routine, of certainty that life would go on, as it had before.
Such illusions are no longer possible. The reality of war has crept into daily life, and there is a sense of inevitability. Even supporters of the government talk about what comes next, and rebels speak of tightening the noose around this city, their ultimate goal.
State television in Syria issued a withering attack late Monday on a longtime ally, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Khaled Meshal, addressing him as if he were an ungrateful child, saying he was having a “romantic emotional crisis” over the Syrian uprising and accusing him of selling out “resistance for power.”
The extraordinary reproof, a departure from the blander tone of most Syrian official statements, was the government’s first broadside against Hamas since the organization distanced itself from the embattled President Bashar al-Assad earlier this year, when most Hamas leaders left their refuge in Damascus and shuttered their office there.
The attack was a television editorial delivered by a newscaster in alternately stern and mocking tones, who reminded Mr. Meshal that he was “orphaned” by Arab countries who would not take him in when he fled Jordan in 1999. She implied that he must have sold out to Israel, saying that was the only explanation for the willingness of Qatar, his new host, to accept him.
Damascus seemed to be striking back after Mr. Meshal appeared at a congress of the party of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and after Mr. Erdogan and Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, pointedly declared their shared priorities of opposing Mr. Assad and supporting the Palestinians — a blow to Mr. Assad’s longstanding and domestically compelling persona as the champion of Palestinian resistance against Israel.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad pounded southern suburbs of the Syrian capital to flush out rebels on Sunday, residents said, as the government restarted the school year to give a semblance of normality to the war-torn country.
Since a pro-democracy movement started in March 2011, Assad’s administration has played it down to give an impression of order, even after the killing of thousands of peaceful protesters turned the uprising into an armed revolt.
Even now that there is heavy fighting in every province, Assad appears determined to continue ruling as in peacetime.
The state news agency said more than 5 million students would return to the country’s 22,000 schools, excluding an unspecified number damaged by war or housing refugees.
President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces are continuing to kill Syrians in huge numbers, but the opposition’s chances of prevailing look better than they did six months ago. The challenge for the United States and its partners is not just to step up the pressure, but also to prepare the ground for a constructive future for Syria.
The opposition scored a psychological victory on Monday when Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab defected to Jordan. Opposition leaders said that he brought along at least two ministers and three military officers. Mr. Hijab, a Sunni Muslim, wasn’t part of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, but he was the most senior civilian official and his defection is another sign of stress on the regime.
The rebels are challenging the Syrian Army in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, but the fighting is likely to get worse. The conflict has already intensified splits among the Sunni, Alawite and Christian communities; displaced thousands within Syria; sent thousands of refugees into neighboring countries and threatened to destabilize the region. And there is increasing evidence that Al Qaeda and other jihadists have joined the fight.
The most viable diplomatic solution was a plan by the United Nations and the Arab League that would have eased Mr. Assad out of power and begun a democratic transition. But Russia — with Iran, Mr. Assad’s main protector — ensured it would fail by arming the regime and refusing to impose sanctions.
The Obama administration and NATO have wisely resisted direct military involvement. That may change if, for example, Mr. Assad tries to use chemical weapons against his people.
It’s another mass murderer in a spider hole somewhere.
Syrian President Bashar Assad urged his military Wednesday to boost its fight against rebels, but his written call to arms only deepened a mystery over his whereabouts two weeks after a bomb penetrated his inner circle.
Assad has not spoken publicly since the July 18 bombing killed four of his top security officials — including his brother-in-law — during a rebel assault on the capital, Damascus. The president’s low profile has raised questions about whether he fears for his personal safety as the civil war escalates dramatically.
The United States called the Syrian president a coward for marshaling his forces from the pages of the army’s official magazine.
“We think it’s cowardly, quite frankly, to have a man hiding out of sight, exhorting his armed forces to continue to slaughter the civilians of his own country,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
Even with rebel armies closing in, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is showing no hint of a willingness to cede power, raising the prospect of a long, bloody and potentially calamitous final chapter to the country’s civil war, U.S. officials and Middle East experts say.
As his troops battle rebels in Aleppo and other key cities, Assad has rejected new entreaties to accept exile for himself and his family and has repeatedly expressed confidence that loyalist forces will prevail, the officials and analysts said.
His public and private comments suggest that Assad is preparing to follow the example of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, staking his life on his regime’s survival. A growing consensus in Washington and in Middle East capitals now holds that Assad — a man once viewed as a moderate capable of reform — will be forced from power only by death or capture.
“There will not be any negotiations,” said Jeffrey White, a former senior Middle East analyst for the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. “He will go down fighting, and he will probably do it in Damascus.”
Senior U.S. analysts who have studied Assad’s recent public appearances described him as increasingly divorced from reality. While they said Assad is neither stupid nor cowardly, he appears to have bought into his own rhetoric, perceiving himself to be the savior of his ethnic clan, the Alawites, as well as the embodiment of the Syrian state. He also appears unfazed by his pariah status, they say.
“Assad is a self-righteous, conspiracy-minded dictator who’s given no indication so far he’s prepared to go quietly into the night,” said a U.S. official with access to intelligence from inside Syria who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the assessment. “As with many strongmen before him, Assad’s hubris is leading him into some bad decision making.”
Alawistan: Assad may be gearing up to create an Alawite state along Syria’s coastal mountains. And he has the means to do it
How long will President Bashar al-Assad remain in Damascus? His regime appears to be reeling: A bombing last week claimed the lives of his brother-in-law and three other senior figures of his regime, military defections continue, and rebel forces have arrived in the country’s largest cities. The prevalent view in Washington and many other foreign capitals is that the question is not if Assad will lose the capital, but when.
Assad has no intention of abandoning Damascus without a fight. Since last week’s bombing, the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division — led by Assad’s brother Maher — has launched an intense campaign to retake control of the capital’s neighborhoods from the rebels. To secure Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the embodiment of the state.
The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad’s grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.
But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria’s coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads’ Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.