Civil defence members carry a wounded man at a site hit by
what activists said were explosive barrels thrown by forces
loyal to Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. REUTERS/Saad Abobrahim
Syrians have been dying in greater numbers than ever
since peace talks began three weeks ago, activists say, as
troops pounded rebel towns on the Lebanese border and
negotiations faltered in Geneva.
More than 230 people have been killed every day in Syria
since Jan. 22, when international mediators brought President
Bashar al-Assad's government and its opponents together, the
British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. That
is more than in any other three weeks since the war began in
It is unclear how far the bloodshed is a consequence of the
talks, as both sides seek to improve their bargaining
positions by gaining territory. On Wednesday, Assad's army
and fighters from Lebanese ally Hezbollah pounded the
strategic border town of Yabroud where rebels prepared to
resist a ground offensive.
The United Nations says more than 130,000 Syrians have been
killed in nearly three years of fighting. Totalling at least
4,959, the three-week death toll compiled by the Observatory
included 515 women and children. The group estimated about a
third of all the dead were civilians.
"This is the highest average we have had," said Rami
Abdelrahman of the Observatory as the group urged a
suspension of negotiations at Geneva if there was no
There was little sign of an early breakthrough on the third
day of a second round of talks in the Swiss city.
The opposition, which has little sway over rebels fighting on
the ground, called for a transitional governing body to
oversee a U.N.-monitored ceasefire and expel foreign fighters
in a paper that avoided any mention of Assad - whose
departure the government delegation has refused to discuss.
The confidential paper, seen by Reuters, did not draw an
immediate official response from the government, although the
foreign minister said driving out foreign fighters could be
worth discussing in time - rare common ground.
Foreign, anti-Western Islamists are a major force among the
otherwise Western- and Arab-backed rebels. The opposition
wants rid of Assad's Hezbollah and Iranian auxiliaries.
The fighting around Yabroud is part of a broader "Battle for
Qalamoun", the mountainous border area near Damascus that
offers control over routes to Lebanon and between the capital
and the coastal stronghold of Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Government forces seem to have had the better of recent
fighting, but outright victory seems out of reach. As U.S.
intelligence chief James Clapper put it on Tuesday, a
"prolonged stalemate" seems likely, extending what he
described as "an apocalyptic disaster" in Syria.
A spokesman for the rebel unit Liwa al-Ghuraba at Yabroud,
said Hezbollah fighters and Assad forces were trying to
position themselves on nearby hilltops to attack the town.
"They are gathering their forces with the hope of taking the
border road," said spokesman Abu Anas. "Right now no one is
moving in Yabroud. The rebels are blocking the offensive.
"The hospital is filling up with wounded."
Assad's forces had, he said, sent envoys in the days leading
up to the attack to try to convince leading citizens in
nearby towns to accept a truce. Some villages accepted, but
most towns, like Yabroud, refused, Abu Anas said.
"The battle for Qalamoun was supposed to just be a propaganda
campaign," he said.
"But the regime got itself in a mess: The army sent people to
convince us there could be a peaceful solution if we raised
the government flag and took photos. Instead, we refused."
Concern about talks running into the sand prompted the
mediator in Geneva, Lakhdar Brahimi, to bring forward by a
day to Thursday a meeting with Russian and U.S. officials in
an effort to get Washington, which backs the rebels, and
Assad's ally Russia, to press their proteges.
Continued strains between Russia and other world powers that
have so far blocked U.N. action against the Syrian government
showed little sign of easing. Russia said it would veto a
U.N. resolution on aid, saying its wording seemed meant to
open the way for foreign military action.
And a foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow said Barack Obama
had "intentionally distorted" the Russian position in remarks
the U.S. president had made on Syrian aid on Tuesday.
The struggle on the Syrian border risks fuelling sectarian
tensions in Lebanon, where Sunni-Shi'ite divisions deepened
by the conflict in Syria have already triggered instability.
The violence in Syria has set off a wave of tit-for-tat car
bombings in Lebanon, as well as street clashes. On Wednesday,
the Lebanese army arrested an al Qaeda militant whom security
sources called a "mastermind of car bombs".
In Geneva, opposition and diplomatic sources said the
transition proposal from the opposition avoided reference to
Assad, in line with a text agreed by world powers in June
2012 which calls for a body with full executive authority but
leaves the president's fate open - something Russia has
Asked why the document did not go into the fate of Assad, the
opposition's chief negotiator, Hadi al-Bahra, told Reuters:
"We can no longer talk about one person as the sole
embodiment of Syria. We deliberately presented a legal
The memorandum was presented to mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and
the government delegation. The transitional authority will be
"the only legitimate body that represents the sovereignty and
independence of the Syrian state and is the only one that
represents the Syrian state internationally", the paper said.
The Syrian government delegation said that negotiations must
focus first on combating terrorism - its term for all
fighters - and called parallel talks on the opposition's
priority of a transitional government as a "fruitless" idea.
The opposition document says the transitional body would
"prepare and oversee a total ceasefire by taking immediate
measures to stop military violence, protect civilians and
stabilise the country in the presence of U.N. observers."