Truce or not truce? Brahimi begins ceasefire talks in Syria
DAMASCUS - Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will on Saturday press Damascus for a truce to break the cycle of bloodshed, as Lebanon's opposition blamed President Bashar al-Assad for a deadly Beirut bombing.
But even as Brahimi prepared to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus, fighting raged on northern battlefields, where regime jets have been hammering the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan daily since rebels captured it on October 9.
UN-Arab League envoy Brahimi is hoping to secure a ceasefire during the four-day Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday starting October 26, which he believes could pave the way for other, more permanent peace initiatives.
"We will have discussions here with the government, the political parties and civil society about the situation in Syria," Brahimi said when he arrived in Damascus on Friday.
"We will talk about the need to reduce the current violence and about whether it is possible to stop for the occasion of Eid al-Adha."
He is also expected to hold talks with Assad at a later date.
Brahimi is backed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and League head Nabil al-Arabi who believe that if a truce is agreed during Eid, it could be extended to bring some respite in the 19-month conflict that has already killed more than 34,000 people.
Washington too has backed the truce call.
"We urge the Syrian government to stop all military operations and call on opposition forces to follow suit," said a State Department statement.
Damascus has said it is ready to discuss the truce plan with Brahimi, while the opposition says the regime must take the first step and halt its daily bombardments.
Fears that the civil war in Syria is spilling over into neighbouring countries were compounded when a massive car bomb exploded in Lebanon's capital Beirut on Friday, killing eight people, including a senior intelligence official linked to the anti-Damascus camp in Lebanon, General Wissam al-Hassan.
Lebanon's anti-Syria opposition accused Assad of being behind the attack which has heightened tensions in the region.
Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah is a strong ally of Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam whose forces are battling a Sunni-led uprising that erupted in March 2011.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned what he called a "terrorist, cowardly" attack. Such incidents were "unjustifiable wherever they occur," he said.
On the ground, rebels and regime forces remained locked in battle for the northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan on the Damascus-Aleppo highway linking Syria's two biggest cities.
Syrian forces battered the town Friday a day after strikes on a residential area killed dozens of people, nearly half of them children, rescuers said at the scene.
The military wants to regain control of the highway to resupply units under fire in Aleppo for the past three months and assist 250 troops besieged in their Wadi Deif base.
Rebels showed debris from cluster bombs they accused the air force of dropping on residential areas, as well as dozens of others that failed to explode on impact.
Human Rights Watch has accused Syria of using cluster bombs, a charge denied by the military.
The Syrian Observatory said at least 133 people were killed in nationwide violence Friday: 55 civilians, 45 soldiers and 33 rebels.
With the fallout from the Syrian conflict reverberating across the region, Washington has reportedly stepped up intelligence cooperation with Turkey, whose ties with Assad's regime have rapidly deteriorated.
The Washington Post reported that military officials from the United States and Turkey have drawn up contingency plans for no-fly zones over Syrian territory and discussed seizing Syria's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
The paper reported that a tip from US intelligence agencies had led the Turkish military to intercept a Syrian passenger plane en route from Moscow to Damascus last week.
The Syrian plane was carrying "radar and electrical parts for Syria's Russian-made anti-aircraft systems," The Post quoted an unnamed official as saying. That incident sparked a diplomatic row between Turkey, Russia and Syria.
Tension between Damascus and Ankara has spiked since Syrian shells thundered across the border and killed five Turkish civilians on October 3.
In the latest tit-for-tat shelling, Turkish artillery on Friday struck back at Syria after two Syrian shells landed on the country's territory, Turkey's state-run television TRT reported.