Last updated: 30 August, 2017

Western powers warn Syria on chemical weapons threat

Syria said it is ready to work with new UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and hopes he can pave the way for “national dialogue,” even as fighting raged in both the capital and second city Aleppo.

State media hailed the recapture by the army of three Christian neighbourhoods in the heart of Aleppo, but clashes between troops and rebel fighters raged in other parts of the city and in the southern belt of Damascus.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad accused neighbouring Turkey of providing the rebels with arms and rear bases, as Turkish and US officials held talks on hastening President Bashar al-Assad’s fall.

Muqdad said Damascus would cooperate with Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat named as UN-Arab League envoy to replace former UN chief Kofi Annan after his announcement on August 2 that he was stepping down following the failure to implement his six-point peace plan.

“We have informed the United Nations that we accept the appointment of Mr Brahimi,” Muqdad told a Damascus news conference.

“We are looking forward to seeing… what ideas he is giving for potential solutions for the problem here,” he added.

Muqdad’s comments came after Damascus on Monday sharply criticised comments by the new envoy that a civil war was already underway in Syria and that his mission was to end it.

Muqdad said he hoped Brahimi would help kick-start a process of national dialogue.

“There will be no winners in Syria, as the West is betting there will be. Syria will win, thanks to its people, its leader and its government, which will make the right choices in the midst of these difficult circumstances,” he said.

Muqdad said “foreign interference” was the leading cause of the 17-month-conflict, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday has now killed nearly 25,000 people since March last year.

“The (factors) that have fuelled this crisis are well-known — armed groups, terrorist groups supported by regional circles, including the dangerous support by Turkey of terrorist gangs, providing these with sophisticated weapons,” he said.

Turkey has repeatedly denied giving arms to the rebels but it has given sanctuary to the defecting soldiers who formed the original kernel of the Free Syrian Army as well as to tens of thousands of civilian refugees.

Turkish and US officials held their first “operational planning” meeting aimed at hastening the end of Assad’s regime.

Turkish foreign ministry deputy under-secretary Halit Cevik and US ambassador Elisabeth Jones led the delegations made up of intelligence agents, military officials and diplomats at the Ankara talks, a foreign ministry source told AFP.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans for the forum following talks in Istanbul on August 11 as Washington signalled it was looking for new ways to put pressure on Assad after his traditional allies Beijing and Moscow blocked action at the UN Security Council.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande pushed Thursday for a Security Council decision regarding the humanitarian situation in Syria.

“We are going to insist that the Security Council takes the necessary decisions and that the international dialogue advances, especially concerning the humanitarian situation,” Merkel said at a press conference during a Berlin summit with the French leader.

“We are acting together with the Europeans, with all those who consider that Bashar al-Assad cannot stay at the head of his country because he is endangering the lives of his people,” Hollande added.

France meanwhile indicated that it would consider supporting a partial no-fly zone over Syria. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian however warned that shutting all of Syria’s air space would mean “going to war” and would require a willing international coalition that has not yet materialized.

Aleppo residents reported heavy exchanges in the heart of the city during the army’s recapture of three Christian neighbourhoods seized by the rebels at the weekend.

“We have had the worst two days of our lives,” Sonia, the wife of a wealthy businessman in the northern city which is also Syria’s commercial capital, told AFP by telephone.

“If our house weren’t built like a fortress, we’d all be dead,” said the resident of Telal, which the army seized on Wednesday along with Jdeide and Sulamaniyeh.

Jdeide and Telal were once frequented by tourists for their restaurants and handicraft shops but the heavy fighting between troops and fighters has left streets deserted apart from local youths on patrol, residents said.

After more than a month of fighting, the battle for Aleppo continued with fierce clashes and bombardment in other neighbourhoods of the city on Thursday, militants and residents said.

Nationwide, at least 111 people were killed in violence on Thursday, 71 of them civilians, the Observatory said, adding that more than 24,000 had now been killed since the uprising erupted.

In the capital, fighting focused on a belt of southern neighbourhoods and suburbs where opposition to the government runs strong, anti-regime activists said.

Activists and monitors reported clashes and shelling from Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in the southwest to the town of Daraya on the western outskirts of Damascus, in areas where the army battled to oust rebels last month.