ANTAKYA, Turkey – An international envoy held talks Monday with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, but apparently failed to achieve a breakthrough on ending the country’s escalating civil war.
Lakhdar Brahimi, tasked by the United Nations and the Arab League with negotiating an end to the nearly two-year-old war, reportedly carried a proposal to create a new government, though not immediately.
“The situation in Syria still is a reason for worry,” Brahimi told reporters after the meeting in Damascus. “We hope that all the sides work toward the solution, as the Syrian people want.”
Assad pledged to support “any effort in the interest of the Syrian people which preserves the homeland’s sovereignty and independence,” according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
The opposition insists that no end to the fighting is possible as long as Assad stays in power. Assad calls the rebels terrorists and has vowed not to leave the country for exile abroad.
As negotiations falter, the war is growing more brutal, with almost 200 people killed every day in fighting, airstrikes and shelling.
On Sunday, a Syrian airstrike in Halfaya in Hama province hit the town’s only working bakery. Estimates of casualties ranged from 40 to nearly 100. In any case, the strike ranked as one of the deadliest single incidents during the 21 months of conflict.
Although it was unclear how many of the casualties at the bakery were civilians and how many were fighters, seething opposition leaders called the airstrike a massacre.
Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the exiled Syrian Opposition Coalition, which the United States recognizes as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, wrote on his Facebook page: “The Halfaya massacre is not just a massacre but a message from both those who are part of the regime and those who support it, and in short it is: Either you die or you accept the enslavement that we will force upon you.”
Opposition activists charged Monday that government forces used some sort of toxic gas against rebel fighters in a brutal battle the day before in the city of Homs. Six rebels were reported killed, and scores injured.
Several videos posted on YouTube showed men in oxygen masks gasping for breath in what appeared to be a clinic or hospital. In one video, a man is seen crying out that he had lost his sight.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who uses the pseudonym Rami Abdulrahman, said by telephone that the casualties took ill after they inhaled the gas.
“We don’t know exactly what it is,” Abdulrahman said, adding that he doubts it was a chemical weapon. “You have six people killed, no more. If chemical weapons were used, it would be many more.”
The Arabic satellite television network al-Jazeera reported that the toxic fumes may have come from a concentrated form of tear gas.
Abdulrahman said he has asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate the incident and determine what felled the fighters.