BEIRUT — Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi ended a two-day visit to Syria on Monday after meeting with President Bashar Assad, but reported no progress on halting the conflict.
“The situation in Syria is still worrying and we hope that all parties would adopt a solution that would meet the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Brahimi said.
The former Algerian foreign minister is considered a diplomatic troubleshooter, famed for his work in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he has made little headway in Damascus. His predecessor, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, resigned in August over his lack of success in brokering a cease-fire.
Brahimi denied rumors that Assad was forced by his Russian allies to meet with him after the envoy threatened to resign. “I would like to say that not one word of this is true,” he told reporters.
Syria’s official news agency said Assad was pleased with the visit and wished “to ensure the success of any effort in the interest of the Syrian people which saves the country’s sovereignty and independence.”
In an indication of the tenuous security situation, Brahimi drove into the country rather than flying because of fighting in the Damascus airport area.
The meeting with Assad took place as the Syrian government and rebels blamed each other for an attack on a bakery in the Hama region in which dozens of people were reported killed.
Rebel activists said a Syrian government MIG jet dropped a bomb on the town of Halfaya, killing as many as 90 people. They released a video showing bodies on the street.
The government called the incident an attack by armed terrorists on civilians. It was impossible to confirm either side’s account.
“Many women and children were killed, and they filmed it to blame it on the Syrian Arab Army during the time of the visit of the U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to Syria,” state television news said in a report blaming the rebels for the deaths.
Rebels criticized Brahimi for not mentioning the Halfaya deaths in his comments to reporters.
“It’s clear that he’s trying to protect Assad,” a Damascus opposition activist who goes by the name of Susan Ahmed said via Skype.
In other developments, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that six rebel fighters in the city of Homs were killed by what it called “a poisonous gas.” The organization described the gas as an odorless, white substance that dissipated quickly. It demanded that the International Committee of the Red Cross treat the injured and investigate the event.
It was impossible to verify the report. One rebel video showed a doctor in Homs, who said the symptoms included shortness of breath and narrowing of the irises. A colleague accused security forces of “experimenting” on them.
The government has never publicly acknowledged possessing chemical weapons, and has repeatedly said it would not use them, “if they exist,” against its own people.
But U.S. officials said this month that they had received intelligence indicating the Syrian military was making preparations for possible use of chemical weapons. President Obama warned Syria that using such weapons was “totally unacceptable.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that Islamist fighters had overrun large parts of Maan, a town in Hama province that is mainly populated by members of Assad’s Alawite sect. The fighters included members of Al Nusra Front, a group that the United States has listed as a terrorist organization because of links to Al Qaeda.
A U.N. panel said last week that the uprising had deteriorated into a sectarian conflict pitting Assad’s regime, dominated by Alawites, against the country’s Sunni Muslim majority.
Brahimi is pushing for the creation of a transitional government, but he has closely guarded the details of his plan, including Assad’s role.
Selo is a special correspondent.