UN envoy says Syrian collapse threatens region

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warns Syria's civil war could create chaos for the entire region by sending a huge influx of refugees into neighbouring countries, but his talks in Moscow with Russia's foreign minister brought no sign of an end to the crisis.

Lakhdar Brahimi talks in Moscow with foreign minister show no progress in settling crisis

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and UN envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said in their meeting in Moscow on Saturday that the Syrian crisis can only be settled through talks, but the parties to the conflict have shown no desire for compromise. (Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

The UN envoy for Syria warned today that the country's civil war could plunge the entire region into chaos by sending an unbearable stream of refugees into neighbouring countries, but his talks in Moscow brought no sign of progress toward settling the crisis.

Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both said after their meeting that the 21-month Syrian crisis can only be settled through talks, while admitting that the parties to the conflict have shown no desire for compromise. Neither hinted at a possible solution that would persuade the government and the opposition to agree to a ceasefire and sit down for talks on political transition.

Brahimi, who arrived in Moscow on a one-day trip following his talks in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this week, voiced concern about the escalation of the conflict, which he said is becoming "more and more sectarian."

Brahimi warned that "if you have a panic in Damascus and if you have one million people leaving Damascus in a panic, they can go to only two places — Lebanon and Jordan," and that those countries could break if faced with half a million refugees.

Brahimi said that "if the only alternative is really hell or a political process, then we have got all of us to work ceaselessly for a political process."

Russia opposes sanctions against Assad

Russia has been the main supporter of Assad's regime since the uprising began in March 2011, using its veto right at the UN Security Council along with China to shield its last Mideast ally from international sanctions.

Lavrov reaffirmed that Russia would continue to oppose any UN resolution that would call for international sanctions against Assad and open the way for a foreign intervention in Syria. And while he again emphasized that Russia "isn't holding on to Bashar Assad," he added that Moscow continues to believe that the opposition demand for his resignation as a precondition for peace talks is "counterproductive."
Smoke rises from buildings from heavy shelling in Homs, Syria, on Thursday, in image taken from video. (Shaam News Network via AP video/Associated Press)

"The price for that precondition will be the loss of more Syrian lives," Lavrov said.

Both Brahimi and Lavrov insisted that peace efforts must be based on a peace plan approved at an international conference in Geneva in June.

The Geneva plan called for an open-ended ceasefire, a transitional government to run the country until elections, and the drafting of a new constitution, but it was a non-starter with the opposition because on Russian insistence it left the door open for Assad being part of the transition process and didn't contain any mention of possible UN sanctions.

Brahimi said that while some "little adjustments" could be made to the original plan, "it's a valued basis for reasonable political process."

Lavrov denies giving Syrian weapons

With the opposition offensive gaining momentum, there was little hope that the initiative would have more chance for success than it had when it was approved.

Lavrov has said that Moscow is ready to talk to the main Syrian opposition group, even though it has earlier criticized the United States and other Western nations for recognizing the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

On Friday, coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib rejected the Russian invitation for talks and urged Moscow to support the opposition call for Assad's ouster. Lavrov said Saturday that al-Khatib's statement was surprising after his earlier contacts with Russian diplomats in Egypt in which they tentatively agreed on a meeting in a third country.

Lavrov argued that the coalition leader should "realize it would be in his own interests to hear our analysis directly from us."

Lavrov rejected the opposition claim that Russia's continuing weapons supplies to Assad's regime made it responsible for the massacre, saying that Moscow bears no responsibility for the Soviet-era weapons in Syrian arsenals. He said that defensive weapons like anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has continued to supply to Damascus couldn't be used in the civil war.

"We aren't providing the Syrian regime with any offensive weapons or weapons that could be used in a civil war," Lavrov said. "And we have no leverage over what the regime has got since the Soviet times."

Anti-regime activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the start of Syria's crisis in March 2011.

Flight to Aleppo cancelled due to fighting

In other news Saturday, Egyptian airport officials say Syria's national airline has cancelled a flight to Aleppo because of fighting near the city's airport.

The officials said the flight was supposed to stop in Aleppo before continuing to Damascus, but flew straight to Damascus "because of the deteriorated security situation" near the Aleppo airport.

It was the first time a flight to Aleppo had been cancelled, they said.

The Syrian government and its airline did not comment.

Rebels seeking to topple Assad have launched a campaign to seize government airports as a way to cut the regime's supply lines and strike a blow against its airpower, the biggest threat faced by rebel forces. While the rebels have yet to seize a major airport, they have disrupted traffic at some with heavy machine-gun fire, and flights to Damascus have been cancelled due to fighting near its airport.

Syrian airlines is the only carrier still flying to Damascus, running one flight per day, though some officials still consider the trip too risky.