Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 10 July 2014

No talks for now, say Syria rebels

Ahmad al-Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, said rebels were regrouping after a series of setbacks

The main Western-backed Syrian opposition will not take part in any peace negotiations with the government until rebels gain the upper hand on the battlefield again, the group's chief has said.

The statement reflected the new reality on the ground, where the forces of President Bashar Assad have been making significant gains against the rebels on several key fronts.

Ahmad al-Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, said rebels were regrouping after a series of setbacks and predicted they would regain ground in the coming "few weeks."

"We will not go to any negotiations until the Free Army and revolutionary forces are strong on the ground and cohesive as they were eight months ago," he told the Qatari news agency while on a visit to Doha.

His comments coincided with a new assault by Syrian government forces to regain control of a northern village that was the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack earlier this year, activists said.

The push on Khan al-Assal, a village on the southwestern outskirts of the embattled city of Aleppo, comes more than a week after it was captured by the rebels.

That was a rare battlefield success for the rebels after they suffered two major setbacks during a wide-ranging government offensive in central Syria. In June, Mr Assad's army recaptured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, and this week, government troops took control of a district in the city of Homs that had long been an opposition stronghold.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 150 government soldiers were killed as Khan al-Assal fell to the rebels. The Observatory said the army attacked rebel positions today outside the village after bringing in reinforcements. Mr Al-Jarba said Free Syrian Army rebels have started to "regroup and redeploy."

"The FSA will succeed within the coming few weeks in gaining control of Horan (southern Syria), the Damascus suburbs, Aleppo and Idlib in the north and east," al-Jarba said.

The United States, which supports the opposition, and Russia, which backs the Assad government, are trying to convene a conference in Geneva to get both sides to implement a plan adopted in the Swiss city a year ago. It calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers.

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