* U.S., Russia at odds over political transition
* Base fall helps rebels but won't change strategic balance
* Riyadh offers $10 mln to refugees hit by freezing weather
By Erika Solomon and Stephanie Nebehay
BEIRUT/GENEVA, Jan 11 Rebels seized control of
one of Syria's largest helicopter bases on Friday, opposition
sources said, in their first capture of a military airfield used
by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
Fighting raged across the country as international mediator
Lakhdar Brahimi sought a political solution to Syria's civil
war, meeting senior U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva.
But the two world powers are still deadlocked over Assad's
fate in any transition.
The United States, which backs the 21-month-old revolt, says
Assad can play no future role, while Syria's main arms supplier
Russia said before the talks that his exit should not be a
precondition for negotiations.
Syria is mired in bloodshed that has cost more than 60,000
lives and displaced millions of people. Severe winter weather is
compounding their misery. The U.N. children's agency UNICEF says
more than 2 million children are struggling to stay warm.
The capture of Taftanaz air base, after months of sporadic
fighting, could help rebels solidify their hold on northern
Syria, according to Rami Abdelrahman, head of the pro-opposition
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
TACTICAL, NOT STRATEGIC GAIN
But Yezid Sayigh, at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in
Beirut, said it was not a game-changer, noting that it had taken
months for the rebels to overrun a base whose usefulness to the
military was already compromised by the clashes around it.
"This is a tactical rather than a strategic gain," he said.
In Geneva, U.N.-Arab League envoy Brahimi's closed-door
talks began with individual meetings with U.S. Deputy Secretary
of State William Burns and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister
Mikhail Bogdanov. He later held talks with both sides together.
A U.S. official said negotiations would focus on "creating
the conditions to advance a political solution - specifically a
transitional governing body".
Six months ago, world powers meeting in Geneva proposed a
transitional government but left open Assad's role. Brahimi told
Reuters on Wednesday that the Syrian leader could play no part
in such a transition and suggested it was time he quit.
Responding a day later, Syria's foreign ministry berated the
veteran Algerian diplomat as "flagrantly biased toward those who
are conspiring against Syria and its people".
Russia has argued that outside powers should not decide who
should take part in any transitional government.
"Only the Syrians themselves can agree on a model or the
further development of their country," Foreign Ministry
spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.
But Syrians seem too divided for any such agreement.
The umbrella opposition group abroad, the Syrian National
Coalition, said on Friday it had proposed a transition plan that
would kept government institutions intact at a meeting with
diplomats in London this week. But the plan has received no
public endorsement from the opposition's foreign backers.
With no end to fighting in sight, the misery of Syrian
civilians has rapidly increased, especially with the advent of
some of the worst winter conditions in years.
Saudi Arabia said it would send $10 million worth of aid to
help Syrian refugees in Jordan, where torrential rain has
flooded hundreds of tents in the Zaatari refugee camp.
A fierce storm that swept the region has raised concerns for
600,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries,
as well as more than 2.5 million displaced inside Syria, many of
whom live in flimsy tents at unofficial border camps.
Opposition activists report dozens of weather-related deaths
in Syria in the last four days. UNICEF said refugee children are
at risk because conditions have hampered access to services.
Earlier this week, another United Nations agency said around
one million Syrians were going hungry. The World Food Programme
cited difficulties entering conflict zones and said that the few
government-approved aid agencies allowed to distribute aid were
stretched to the limit.
The WFP said it supplying rations to about 1.5 million
people in Syria each month, far short of the 2.5 million deemed
to be in need.