Syrian government forces retook a Christian town north of Damascus on Monday, expelling al-Qaeda-linked rebels after a week of heavy fighting, state media and opposition activists said.
The recapture of Sadad coincided with the first visit to Syria by the U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in almost a year. The trip is part of Brahimi's efforts to convene a long-delayed peace conference on Syria next month, although fundamental disagreements over the agenda and participants remain, making it unclear whether the gathering will indeed take place.
The United States and Russia have been trying for months to bring the Syrian government and its opponents to the negotiating table to find a political solution to Syria's civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed and some two million have fled the country since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
After his last trip to Syria in December 2012, Brahimi angered Syrian authorities when he said that 40 years of rule by the family of President Bashar al-Assad was "too long." Syrian officials then accused him of being biased.
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In the run-up to this visit, Brahimi travelled to several countries in the region, including Iran — a key Assad ally. He said Saturday that Tehran participation in a peace conference is "necessary." On Monday, Brahimi travelled from Tehran by private jet to Beirut, before continuing by road to Damascus, where he was received by Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. During his visit, Brahimi is expected to meet Syrian officials as well as members of local opposition groups. It is not clear whether he will meet Assad.
The Syrian president told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV last week that Brahimi "should abide by his mission and not go out of this framework." Assad added that Brahimi "is a mediator and the mediator should be neutral and stand in the middle."
The president added that during one of Brahimi's previous visits to Syria, the envoy "tried to convince me about the necessity of not running in the coming presidential elections in 2014. This was at the end of 2012. My answer was clear, that this is an internal Syrian affair and is not negotiable with any person who is not Syrian."
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby recently said the Geneva conference would be held on Nov. 23. Brahimi, however, has stressed that no date has been set but that the United Nations hopes to hold the talks in late November.
A UN diplomat, speaking only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said Monday Syrian deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, met with U.S. officials in Geneva over the weekend to discuss the possibility of holding a second Geneva peace conference, but no breakthroughs were reported to have come out of the talks.
Assad's forces have been bolstered by fighters from the Lebanese Shia militant Hezbollah group, which has been an ally of the Damascus government for decades.
On Monday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah echoed Assad's position on the Syrian conflict, saying there is no military solution to the conflict, only a political one.
"The accepted solution in Syria is the political solution and the road to this is a political dialogue without preconditions," Nasrallah said during a speech marking the 25th anniversary of the group's Greatest Prophet hospital. "The political dialogue and solution are based on international and internal support."
He also accused Saudi Arabia, one of the primary patrons of Syria's rebels, as blocking peace talks, saying "it is the only country that is very angry with the current situation."
Fighting continued unabated
The fighting in Syria, meanwhile, has continued unabated. The state-run SANA news agency said the army "restored security and stability" to the town of Sadad, 120 kilometres north of Damascus, early on Monday.
It said "a large number of terrorists" were killed and their weapons seized, adding that the army dismantled scores of roadside bombs planted by gunmen around the Christian town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government had retaken the town but that rebels had successfully withdrawn.
Sadad had been in opposition hands since last week, when al-Qaeda-linked groups captured a checkpoint that gave them control of the western part of the town.
The rebels appear to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria's Christian minority, which fears the radicals and tends to favour Assad. Other al-Qaeda-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
SANA said the army was still pursuing opposition fighters who fled Sadad for surrounding farms. It also reported that the rebels had vandalized the town's Saint Theodor Church and much of its infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that jihadis in Syria torched an Armenian church in the northern town of Tel Abyad along the border with Turkey late on Sunday.