Assad forces advance; West, Russia exchange barbs ahead of talks

Fri May 31, 2013 3:03pm EDT
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By Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad tightened their siege of rebels in a strategic town on Friday, in a counter-offensive that is shifting the balance of the Syrian war ahead of a peace conference next month.

Rebels said they had managed to infiltrate new fighters into the town of Qusair on the Lebanese frontier, where they are encircled by Assad's army and his allies in Lebanon's Hezbollah militia who have openly joined the war on his behalf.

The battle comes amid a blizzard of diplomacy ahead of the conference called by the United States and Russia, the first time in a year that the global powers ranged on opposing sides in Syria's civil war have agreed to talk about a way to end it.

If the summons to peace talks in Geneva was intended to calm rhetoric it has had the opposite effect, with Russia and the West issuing tit-for-tat threats to escalate the conflict by sending arms to the warring sides.

The two-year war has killed at least 80,000 people and has divided the world and split the Middle East on its dangerous sectarian faultline between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. Millions of Syrians have fled their homes and sectarian violence is surging in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, with recent histories of Sunni-Shi'ite civil wars of their own.

Russia and Iran back Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Western countries, most Arab states and Turkey all back the rebels, mainly drawn from members of the majority Sunni sect.

Moscow suggested on Friday it could speed up the delivery of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Assad's government to prevent Western intervention, although it also floated the idea that it could suspend the shipment, turning the missiles into an apparent bargaining chip ahead of the peace talks in Geneva.

French President Francois Hollande said it was unacceptable for Moscow to discuss arming the Syrian government ahead of the peace conference, even as he emphasized the importance of his own and his allies' threat to arm the rebels.   Continued...

A damaged bicycle is pictured as a Free Syrian Army walks past children playing along a street in the besieged area of Homs May 30, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy