Peace envoy visits Syria as Russia slams rebel threats
UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Syria Monday to seek support for a peace conference, as Russia slammed rebels for threatening anyone who attends the proposed Geneva talks.
Brahimi's return to Damascus for the first time since December came as international experts said they had been prevented by war from reaching two inspection sites, the first setback in their mission to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
Brahimi, who travelled overland to the Syrian capital after flying in to Beirut from Tehran, arrived at the Sheraton hotel accompanied by Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Moqdad.
The envoy has been on a regional tour, to also include Turkey but not Saudi Arabia, which opposes the peace initiative and takes a hard line against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The Syria leg of his mission to drum up support for the so-called Geneva II talks is the most sensitive as he needs to persuade a wary regime and an increasingly divided opposition to attend.
In Tehran, Brahimi said it was "necessary" for Iran, a key ally of the Damascus regime, to take part in the Geneva conference slated for next month and aimed at ending Syria's two-and-a-half-year conflict.
The initiative's backers, Washington and Moscow, have struggled to win the support of the warring parties in Syria, where more than 115,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict.
In the latest blow to peace efforts, 19 Islamist groups fighting to topple Assad issued a statement Sunday saying the Geneva conference "is not, nor will it ever be our people's choice or our revolution's demand."
A statement read out by Suqur al-Sham brigade chief Ahmad Eissa al-Sheikh in a video posted online said anyone who attends the talks would be committing "treason" and "would have to answer for it before our courts," implying they could face execution.
Russia denounces 'outrageous' threats
Russia on Monday issued a stinging rebuke to the rebels.
"It is outrageous that some of these extremist, terrorist organisations fighting government forces in Syria are starting to make threats," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised comments.
"The threats are directed at those who have the courage to attend the proposed Geneva conference being offered by Russia and the United States with the entire world's support."
Thierry Pierret, an expert on Islam in Syria, said the rebel statement came from a wide range of opposition groups from radical Salafists to moderates who form the backbone of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army.
"So you can say that Geneva II is almost totally rejected within rebel ranks," said the expert at Scotland's Edinburgh University.
"If some of the opposition does take part and reaches an accord, it will be worthless."
Under pressure from its Western backers to attend, the National Coalition opposition group is to meet on November 9 to decide whether to take part.
But it has insisted it will only do so if there are guarantees Assad will step down, and its leader Ahmad Jarba has also said no talks can take place unless the regime frees women and children from its jails.
Assad has said "the factors are not yet in place" for such talks, and has repeatedly rejected negotiations with any group tied to the rebels or to foreign states.
The intensity of the fighting on the ground in Syria has meanwhile slowed the unprecedented international mission to dispose of a vast chemical arsenal in a country torn apart by civil war.
The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Monday its inspectors had been unable to reach two remaining chemical weapons sites due to the war.
Inspectors were supposed to have visited all sites declared by Syria by Sunday.
But the OPCW said that while 21 of 23 sites had been inspected, "the two remaining sites have not been visited due to security reasons."
The disarmament mission is part of a US-Russian deal agreed last month that headed off US military strikes on Syria.
On the battlefront, Syria's army regained control of the Christian town of Sadad in the central province of Homs after days of fighting against rebels and jihadists, Syria's state news agency SANA reported Monday.
"Our valiant forces have re-established security and stability in Sadad," SANA said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the report, adding that anti-government forces had withdrawn to Mahin, the scene of fierce fighting over the past week for control of a large arms depot.