* Commitment to political solution may be at risk
* Lavrov denies he's discussing Assad's fate
* Assad forces pound rebels around Damascus
* Radical Islamist group helps capture new army site
By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Dec 9 U.S. and Russian officials have
given their commitment to a political solution for the deepening
Syrian conflict, a United Nations envoy said on Sunday, but
Moscow dismissed speculation it was preparing for President
Bashar al-Assad's exit.
With rebels now fighting on the doorsteps of Damascus,
Assad's forces kept up their now daily artillery strikes and air
raids on eastern suburbs as well as some rebel-held districts on
the capital's outskirts.
U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met the U.S. and Russian
deputy foreign ministers in Geneva for the second session of
tripartite talks in less than a week, apparently in response to
rising violence that now threatens to engulf Damascus.
"All three parties reaffirmed their common assessment that
the situation in Syria was bad and getting worse," a statement
from Brahimi said. "They stressed that a political process to
end the crisis in Syria was necessary and still possible."
Notwithstanding his comments, commitment to a political
process could be at risk. Western officials were among those who
helped rebels to create a unified chain of command at the
weekend, and Washington is expected to recognise the opposition
as the sole representative of the Syrian people next week.
Russia, Syria's main arms supplier, insisted its position on
Assad had not softened and it was not negotiating on the future
of the president, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years.
"We are not holding any talks on the fate of Assad,"
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass
news agency in Moscow. "All attempts to present the situation
rather differently are shady."
Several countries are believed to be supplying both sides in
the conflict, with Iran bankrolling Assad's war efforts while
its regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the rebels.
Brahimi said the talks aimed to find a solution based on
last June's Geneva Declaration, which called for a transitional
government. This proposal originally foundered over different
interpretations of that transition; Washington said Assad could
not play a role but Russia insisted that his fate should not be
decided outside Syria.
Syria's 20-month-old uprising, which began as peaceful
protests but has descended into civil war, has become
increasingly bloody with over 40,000 people killed.
RADICALS ON THE RISE
The rebels have gained momentum in recent weeks, capturing a
series of military sites across the country often with the help
of radical Islamists. However, some activists believe the
opposition is still far from toppling Assad, whose army has
largely held together and who has many heavy weapons.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported army
shelling and clashes across the country on Sunday, with 60
counted dead before evening. Death tolls have averaged at around
100 per day in recent weeks.
In the north, the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra,
linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq, led other rebels in seizing on
Sunday a regimental command centre in Aleppo province, which
The British-based Observatory, which has a network of
activists across the country, said the centre's commander fled
along with 140 soldiers. Five troops soldiers were captured.
Western powers have become increasingly alarmed by the role
of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which Washington is
considering putting on its terrorist list.
Radical groups have gained increasing popularity and
influence despite their small numbers. The seasoned fighters
they attract from Syria and abroad have increased the
effectiveness of their attacks.
Some rebels and residents feel the militants are more
disciplined than other rebels, drawing fewer charges of looting
ROAD TO DAMASCUS?
Damascus has become a focal point of battles over the past
week, as rebels effectively shut the international airport by
clashing with Assad's forces near there. Foreign flights have
been suspended and residents say the airport road is closed.
Rebels who have called their campaign "Operation Opening the
Road to Damascus", uploaded video on Sunday that showed heavy
gunbattles and explosions rocking several rural towns around the
capital. The video also showed rebels firing a fully functioning
tank which they had captured from the army.
But there is no clear winner yet in a battle where neither
side seems to have advanced. The Syrian army has claimed many
successes around the capital, airing footage on state television
of soldiers raiding parts of the rebel stronghold of Deraya.
"Our noble forces in Deraya have destroyed some of the
terrorist dens used by al Qaeda terrorists to store weapons and
other criminal tools," said a report on Syria TV, which usually
refers to rebels as terrorists. "Many terrorists were killed."
Still, rebel gains have helped drive a surge of diplomatic
efforts among Gulf Arab states and the West to support the
opposition and its newly-formed umbrella group, the Syrian
The move may be encouraging defections. Nine judges defected
in a YouTube video published on Sunday. Such videos, however,
are difficult to verify as the Syrian government has restricted
media access in the country.