As Special Envoy Meets Syria's Assad, Russia Signals New Pessimism

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Lakhdar Brahimi, the special envoy seeking an end to the Syria crisis, held an urgent meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Monday as new signs emerged that Mr. Assad's grip on power was weakening and that Russia, his most important foreign backer, was moving forward with efforts to evacuate Russian diplomats and other expatriates from the country.

Mr. Brahimi, the Algerian statesman who has been the special Syria representative for the United Nations and Arab League for the past three months, did not specify the substance or tone of his discussion with Mr. Assad, describing it only in general terms in brief remarks afterward.

"The president expressed his view regarding the current situation and I briefed him on the meetings I had in several capitals with officials from different countries inside and outside the region," Mr. Brahimi told reporters, according to an account posted on the United Nations's Web site. "I also told him about the steps that in my view need to be taken to help the Syrian people find a way out of this crisis."

But one member of Syria's political opposition who said he had spoken with Mr. Brahimi's aides said the envoy had advocated a plan for a negotiated solution first proposed in June. The opposition member, Mohamed Sarmini, said the proposal would temporarily leave Mr. Assad in power but curb his authority and create a transitional government that would theoretically remove Mr. Assad from power later -- an arrangement that some members of the opposition had previously rejected as inadequate.

Another prominent opposition member, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks, said he understood that Mr. Brahimi had been intending to deliver a "final warning" to Mr. Assad. "This is a final proposal for Bashar to leave with his team, especially his military and intelligence officials," said the opposition member, who was not in Syria.

The official Syrian state news agency, SANA, said nothing about the specifics of what was discussed at the meeting, but that Mr. Assad had "stressed the Syrian government's keenness" to pursue efforts that "preserve the sovereignty and independence of the homeland."

Mr. Brahimi was scheduled to meet with opposition members in Damascus on Tuesday, according to Hassan Abdel Azim, a longtime domestic dissident who  took a favorable view of the envoy's visit, reflecting the splits within the opposition movement and especially between exile and domestic opponents.

"We are going to listen first to his proposals.  We support the Brahimi initiative, and we don't say it has failed at all," he said.  "Our priority for the time being is breaking the circle of violence, and transforming the solution to the crisis from military to political."

Mr. Brahimi arrived in Damascus on Sunday as new mayhem gripped the country. His entourage was forced to drive in from Lebanon instead of flying because of insurgent threats to attack commercial traffic at the Damascus airport.

Some of the worst violence appeared to be in the town of Halfaya, in west-central Syria, where activists reported that dozens of people had been killed when a Syrian warplane dropped bombs on a bakery.

The attack, and the number of casualties, could not be immediately confirmed. A local activist said he ran to the bakery soon after he heard a warplane followed by explosions and the sound of ambulances. "There were bodies everywhere," said the activist, who gave his name as Samer.

Photographs he took after the attack showed bodies in a heap on a bloody sidewalk outside a low-slung, heavily damaged building.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-Assad group with a network of contacts inside Syria, said Monday that it had collected the names of 43 victims, and that 15 more were unidentified.  All but three of the victims were men, the group said.

The reasons for the attack were unclear, but activists speculated that it was a government response to the arrival of rebel fighters in Halfaya. The rebels occupied the town last week after embarking on a broad offensive to seize territory around the city of Hama, where the government has kept tight control after suppressing protests in the city last year. In several days of fighting, civilians have been caught between the warring sides, a volatile development in a part of the country where members of Syria's many sects live among one another in neighboring villages.

Human rights groups have accused the government of indiscriminate attacks on or near bakeries in the past, especially in the northern city of Aleppo. In a three-week period in the summer, Human Rights Watch documented 10 separate bombings on bakeries in the city.

Top Russian diplomats said that Mr. Brahimi, perhaps trying to broker a deal that would help ease Mr. Assad out, may visit Russia as soon as this week. Russian officials have sought to distance themselves from Mr. Assad in recent weeks as the nearly two-year-old conflict in Syria has worsened, although they still strongly oppose military intervention in favor of a negotiated transition. Some Russian expatriates working in Syria were abducted earlier this month.

Russian security officials were quoted in Monday's edition of Kommersant, a Russian daily newspaper, as saying that diplomats in Damascus would be evacuated with the help of special forces, if necessary. Authorities are also prepared to dispatch 100 officers from a special armed unit of Russia's foreign intelligence service, called "Screen," which was last used to evacuate Russian diplomats from Baghdad in 2003. The newspaper quoted an intelligence source saying the officers were "ready for a transfer to Damascus, however the order from above has not been given."

Ruslan R. Aliyev, an analyst with the Center for the Analysis of Strategy and Technologies, a defense research group based in Moscow, said renewed discussion of evacuations by Russia's Foreign Ministry reflected what he described as Moscow's deeply pessimistic prognosis for the region.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Saturday that several countries in the region had offered Mr. Assad asylum, but he added that Moscow would not mediate on their behalf.

It was the third visit to Syria by Mr. Brahimi since he assumed his post in August, and it occurred as fighting grew worse in the eastern and southern suburbs of Damascus, where rebel commanders say they are trying to establish staging grounds for attacks on the capital.

West-central Syria has become the latest front in the war, with the rebels attacking government checkpoints and other positions in an effort to disrupt the military's supply lines and to push south from opposition strongholds in northern Syria. The offensive has led to growing fears for civilians in the area.

On Friday, a group of rebel fighters posted a video in which they threatened to shell Christian villages unless residents forced government loyalists to leave. Local church leaders have pleaded for peace and an end to sectarian strife.

Kareem Fahim reported from Beirut, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Hala Droubi from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Rick Gladstone from New York.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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