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Syria peace envoy: No talks without opposition

Published: Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 7:28 a.m. CST

DAMASCUS, Syria — The U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria warned on Friday in Damascus that there can be no peace talks without the opposition while making yet another plea for both sides in the civil war to come to the negotiating table in Geneva later this month.

Lakhdar Brahimi, who wrapped up his days-log visit to Damascus as part of a Mideast tour meant to muster regional support for the conference, appeared uncertain about prospects for the meeting.

"We will say it's happened only when it happens," he told reporters at a press conference in Damascus, acknowledging that the Geneva gathering cannot take place if the opposition refuses to take part.

In a possible sign the Damascus meetings had not gone too well, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi slammed Brahimi for equating between the opposition and the government in the press conference.

"Brahimi ... wants to satisfy all parties at the expense of truth and the Syrians alike," al-Zoubi told Al-Mayadeen TV, adding that Brahimi should be a neutral and evenhanded broker.

Brahimi's plea came as Syrian state TV and opposition activists said the army captured a strategic town in the country's north believed to be the home of a chemical weapons production facility and storage sites.

Safira has been the scene of three weeks of intense fighting as the army kept trying to retake the town from rebels who have been in control there for more than a year.

The capture came just hours after officials said Israeli warplanes had attacked a shipment of Russian missiles inside a Syrian government stronghold — a development that threatened to add another volatile layer to regional tensions from the Syrian conflict.

An Obama administration official late on Thursday confirmed the Israeli airstrike, but provided no details. Another security official said the attack occurred late Wednesday in the Syrian port city of Latakia and that the target was Russian-made SA-125 missiles.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the attack. There was no confirmation from Syrian officials, and state media made no mention of the reports.

Since Syria's civil war began in March 2011, Israel has carefully avoided taking sides, but has struck shipments of missiles inside the neighboring country at least twice this year.

The Syrian military, overstretched by the civil war, has not retaliated, and it was not clear whether the embattled Syrian leader would choose to take action this time. President Bashar Assad may decide to again let the Israeli attack slide, particularly when his army has the upper hand on the battlefield inside Syria.

The U.S. and Russia have been pushing for a peace conference that would bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the table in Geneva later this month.

More than 120,000 people have been killed so far in the war, now in its third year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog that closely monitors the violence in Syria through a network of activists across the country. The U.N. said in July that 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and has not updated that figure since. Millions of Syrians have been uprooted from their homes because of the fighting.

Brahimi warned that if the crisis goes on, expectations are that those directly affected by the crisis may reach half of Syria's total pre-war population of 23 million people.

"It is time for Syrians to cooperate and for others in the region and outside to cooperate with them to end this crisis," Brahimi said.

The envoy, who met this week with Assad and Damascus-based opposition groups, said the Syrian government has confirmed it would attend.

The deeply fractured Syrian opposition groups are split on whether to attend the Geneva talks. They also disagree over conditions for taking part — from demands that Assad step down right away to guarantees that he would not be part of a negotiated solution for the country's future

This time, Brahimi appeared to put the onus on the opposition, saying talks in Geneva cannot "go forward without the opposition."

"The participation of the opposition is essential, necessary and important," he said.

The opposition is made up of different factions, many of them politicians based in exile — the majority of whom are part of the main umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition. There are also the Damascus-based opposition groups. But even within the Coalition, there are deep splits about whether the opposition should attend without international guarantees that Assad would step down.

Assad himself has said he will not talk to members of the Coalition whom he considers agents of the West, nor with armed rebels. The rebels themselves are a mix of various groups, from the mainstream Free Syrian Army to the extremist but powerful and effective al-Qaida-linked groups.

Although unconfirmed, Safira is believed to be one of two sites that chemical weapons inspectors were unable to visit because of security concerns.

The town is also strategic as a supply route for Syrian government forces in the contested city of Aleppo.

Syrian activists in Aleppo province confirmed the rebels had withdrawn from Safira overnight under heavy fire, leaving it to government troops.

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