December 10, 2012 10:06 am

Political solution to Syria backed

The US and Russia have said they still back a political solution to Syria’s war, even as the deepening crisis underscores the gulf between them as rebels press further into the regime’s heartland.

After talks in Geneva on Sunday, Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, and William Burns, his US counterpart, said the situation in Syria was “bad and getting worse”, but insisted a political process was “still necessary and still possible”.

The joint statement – co-authored with Lakhdar Brahimi, UN peace envoy, who was also in the meeting – came as rebel forces over-ran a military base near Syria’s biggest city of Aleppo and nine judges and prosecutors apparently defected from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The conciliatory words after the Geneva talks failed to mask the continuing bitter international divisions over Syria, as rebel and regime forces wage a fierce battle for the Damascus suburbs that many observers expect to spread towards the city centre. While the US and other international powers are due to meet Syrian opposition officials in Morocco this week to step up efforts to oust Mr Assad.

Russia – the Syrian leader’s strongest international ally – has rejected putting any pressure on him to stand aside.

Earlier on Sunday, Sergei Lavrov, Russian’s foreign minister, dismissed suggestions that Moscow now acknowledged that a rebel victory was inevitable and was in talks with the US over a managed exit for the Syrian president.

“We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad,’’ Mr Lavrov said. “All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favour.’’

Mr Lavrov had met unexpectedly last week with Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, and Mr Brahimi, triggering speculation of a shift in Moscow’s position amid the slow but inexorable rebel creep into government territory.

But Mr Lavrov said Russia – which, along with China, has three times vetoed UN Security Council resolutions threatening action against Mr Assad – was sticking by its longstanding demands for a ceasefire, the return of UN peace observers to Syria and a political dialogue to allow Syrians to choose their leader.

On the ground in Syria, a statement purportedly from the nine judges and prosecutors announcing their defection appeared on the internet, although the posting could not be independently verified.

While Syria’s 21-month-old uprising-turned-civil war has seen a steady trickle of defections from the Assad regime, analysts say the core of the most powerful officials appears still to be intact.

More than 150 people died as a result of the conflict over the weekend in Syria, including at least 85 civilians, 41 rebel fighters and 22 regime soldiers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based pro-opposition monitoring group. The jihadist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra – whose growing strength is causing alarm in western capitals – stormed a military command centre in Aleppo province, which borders Turkey.

Spillover fighting from Syria’s civil war raged over the weekend in the Lebanese port town of Tripoli, as it received the first three bodies from a group of 14 Sunni Muslim gunmen killed across the border while apparently fighting the Assad regime.

The Syrian conflict has spread into Lebanon and other neighbouring countries, such as Turkey and Jordan, raising pressure on deadlocked world powers to help end the fighting.

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