Syria scorns UN-brokered talks with rebels

There will be no dialogue with the opposition before the army crushes the rebels, the Syrian regime said Monday.

New UN envoy admits his job might be 'Mission Impossible'

A Syrian woman stands amid the rubble of a house destroyed by Syrian artillery early Monday in Azaz, on the outskirts of Aleppo. Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press (Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press)

There will be no dialogue with the opposition before the army crushes the rebels, the Syrian regime said Monday, the latest sign that President Bashar Assad is determined to solve the crisis on the battlefield even if many more of his people have to pay with their lives.

"There will be no dialogue with the opposition prior to the Syrian army's imposition of security and stability in all parts of the country," Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi told reporters at a news conference in Damascus.

The statement comes a day after activists reported that August was the bloodiest month since the uprising began in March 2011:  An estimated 5,000 people were killed in August, the highest toll in the 17-month-old uprising and more than three times the monthly average. At the same time, the UN children's fund, UNICEF, said 1,600 were killed last week alone, also the highest figure for the entire revolt.

The two major activists groups raised their total death toll for the entire revolt to at least 23,000 and as high as 26,000.

Chemical threat

Western powers are preparing a tough response if Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime deploys chemical or biological weapons in its civil war, key European officials warned Monday.

Syria's leadership has said the country, which is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas and Scud missiles capable of delivering them, could use chemical or biological weapons if it were attacked from outside.

"Our response … would be massive and blistering," if Assad's forces used such weapons, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told RMC radio.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons he had asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to begin preparations so the UN could quickly deploy experts to make checks if "we have any reports of such chemical weapons being used or moved."

Muhieddine Lathkani, an opposition figure based in Britain, responded to the minister's comments by saying "the key to any dialogue will be the departure of Assad and dismantling of the regime's security agencies that committed all these crimes."

After that happens, Lathkani told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, there could be a dialogue.

Earlier in the day, the new UN envoy to Syria acknowledged that brokering an end to the civil war will be a "very, very difficult" task.

The civil war witnessed a major turning point in August when Assad's forces began using air power to try to put down the revolt. The fighting also reached Syria's largest city, Aleppo, which had been relatively quiet for most of the uprising.

Last week, Assad said in an interview that his armed forces will need time to defeat the rebels, an acknowledgement that his regime is struggling to defeat the tenacious rebels and another indication that the civil war will be even more drawn out and bloody.

In the latest violence on Monday, activists said more than 100 people were killed — many of them in two air raids that knocked out large parts of buildings in the northern province of Aleppo. Government warplanes bombed the town of Al-Bab killing at least 19 people and the Aleppo neighbourhood of Myasar where 10 people, including four children, were killed.

The two main activist groups, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordination Committees, said the airstrikes targeted a residential area in the northern town of al-Bab, about 30 kilometres from the Turkish border. The Observatory said 19 people were killed in the air raid; the LCC put the death toll at 25.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the new international envoy to Syria, told the BBC he couldn't think of anything he would have done differently from his predecessor, Kofi Annan. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)
An amateur video posted online showed men frantically searching for bodies in the rubble of a white building smashed into a pile of debris. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.

Activists reported scattered violence in regions across the country, including the Damascus suburbs, the region of Deir el-Zour in the east, Daraa in the south and Idlib and Aleppo in the north. The Observatory said 100 people were killed Monday while the LCC put the number at 205, many of them in Aleppo province.

Diplomatic efforts to solve the seemingly intractable conflict have failed so far. A peace plan by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan never got off the ground and Annan quit his post as special UN envoy. He was replaced Saturday by Lakhdar Brahimi, 78, a former Algerian foreign minister.

Brahimi, who also served as a UN envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq, commended Annan on his work, saying he did "everything possible."

"We discussed this several times and I can't think of anything that I would have done differently from him," Brahimi told the BBC in an interview. "It is definitely a very, very difficult mission.

"I am coming into it with my eyes open with no illusions that it is going to be easy but then have you heard of a mission that the United Nations have undertaken that was easy," he said. "It's a duty to try and that is what we are going to do."

'I can't think of anything that I would have done differently from [Kofi Annan].'— New UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi

Asked whether his task is "Mission Impossible," Brahimi said: "I suppose it is."

In Damascus, al-Zoebi pledged that Syria will co-operate with the new UN envoy. "We will give him maximum assistance the way we did with Kofi Annan," the information minister said.

The Assad regime made similar public statements when it signed on to Annan's peace plan, only to frequently ignore or outright violate its commitments by refusing to pull its troops out of cities and cease its shelling of opposition areas.

Al-Zoebi sought to shift some of the responsibility for the future success or failure of Brahimi's mission on to the shoulders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — three of the harshest critics of the Syrian regime and strong supporters of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad.

The three countries, al-Zoebi said, must "stop sending weapons [to rebels] and close training bases," they are hosting.

The Syrian minister did not confirm or deny whether Syrian authorities are holding foreign journalists who entered the country illegally, but said that any person who does so, whether a Syrian or a foreigner, will be referred to judicial authorities. At least three journalists are missing in Syria and are believed to be held by the regime.

Also Monday, Bahrain said it plans to fund a "mobile school" for up to 4,000 Syrian refugee children at a camp in Jordan. The school will be run by the UN's Children's Fund, the announcement said.