Fate of Syria's Assad complicates international peace efforts

UN envoy Brahimi implied President Assad might not have a role in a future government, while Russia says only Syrians can make that call. Meanwhile, rebels said they took control of a key military base.

Jean-Marc Ferre/United Nations/AP
In this photo, United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (c.), with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov (r.), and Deputy Secretary of State of the United States William Burns, pose during the meeting at furthering their discussions to arrive at a political solution to the crisis in Syria, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 11.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's fate has stalled the international community's attempts to agree on a peace plan to end nearly two years of violence in Syria.

United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi met today in Geneva with US and Russian representatives to discuss political transition in Syria. But with the United States and the Syrian opposition insisting that Mr. Assad not be a part of the next government, and Russia insisting that only the Syrian people can make that call, today's talks seem likely – like those before them – to hit an impasse.

The Syrian government compounded Mr. Brahimi's difficulties yesterday, saying that he was "flagrantly biased" after he implied in public comments that Assad would have to step down and not be a part of any future government, Reuters reports. 

"In Syria...what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long," Brahimi told the BBC, referring to Assad, who inherited his post from his father Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970 and ruled for 30 years.

"President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it," the veteran Algerian diplomat said, hinting the Syrian leader should go.

The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it was very surprised at Brahimi's comments, which showed "he is flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".

Syria's al-Watan newspaper said Brahimi had removed his "mask of impartiality" to reveal his true face as a "a tool for the implementation of the policy of some Western countries".

Brahimi's comments were a response to a defiant speech by Assad earlier this week that made clear he had no intention of making any concessions to the Syrian opposition or engaging in meaningful dialogue, as the Monitor's Dan Murphy noted.

According to The New York Times, the government's dismissal of Brahimi increases the chances that he could share the same fate as previous envoy Kofi Annan by becoming "sidelined into irrelevance" – although it did not explicitly say it would no longer work with him. Mr. Annan failed to make any substantive progress toward resolving the conflict during his time as mediator.

As Brahimi met with US and Russian representatives in Geneva, the Syrian rebels announced that they had taken over Taftanaz military base in Idlib Province – a major victory if true. The base has been the site of fierce fighting for days.

According to rebels, Taftanaz has been a launchpad for bombing opposition positions throughout northern Syria, CNN reports. The rebels say they now control the buildings, ammunition, and military equipment located there, although one fighter told The New York Times that the government had destroyed their own planes to prevent them from falling into rebel hands.

The US is meanwhile taking steps to ensure that Syria's chemical weapons are secure when Assad leaves, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday, according to CNN.  He would not rule out the possibility of US troops on the ground.

"We're not talking about ground troops, but it depends on what ... happens in a transition," he said. "You always have to keep the possibility that, if there is a peaceful transition and international organizations get involved, that they might ask for assistance in that situation. But in a hostile situation, we're not planning to ask for that."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey warned that it "would be almost unachievable" to stop the Syrian government from using its chemical weapons if it chose to do so.

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