DAMASCUS  - Syria’s regime on Sunday slammed as “hostile” a French decision to host an opposition ambassador, as its forces bombarded southern districts of the capital and clashes raged nationwide.
France on Saturday invited the National Coalition, the newly formed Syrian opposition bloc, to send an envoy to Paris, after President Francois Hollande met its leader, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.
“France is acting like a hostile nation,” National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told AFP in Tehran. “It’s as if it wants to go back to the time of the occupation,” he added, of the French mandate in Syria after World War I.
Haidar spoke as Iran prepared to host talks between Syrian officials and opposition groups tolerated by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The National Coalition was not invited. “Invitations were extended to all those who accept dialogue, not to those who refuse to talk as a matter of principle,” Haidar said.
Opening the talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned against sending weapons to the rebels, saying this would threaten regional stability and increase the “risk of terrorism”. Russia reiterated its alignment with Iran on the issue of providing the coalition with weapons.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned, in a message to the Tehran meeting, against the risk of weapons ending up in the hands of “Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups” seeking to seize Syria, Iran’s official IRNA news agency said. The opposition coalition, formed in Doha on November 11, says it is committed to building a provisional government composed of representatives of all ethnic and religious groups in Syria. But it refuses to engage with the Damascus regime before Assad’s departure.
Despite the French offer to host an envoy, Paris remained cautious on the issue of supplying weapons to rebels amid fears of the conflict spreading.
In Damascus, government artillery bombarded several southern districts including Al-Hajar al-Aswad, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Britain-based watchdog, which relies on a network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals for its tolls, said one civilian was killed and others wounded.
Mortar rounds also hit the mainly Alawite regime heartland of Mazzeh in west Damascus, which state television blamed on “terrorist groups”.
Aleppo and its environs in the north saw heavy combat, the Observatory said, reporting rebels had seized control of a “large part” of regime Base 46 they have been besieging for weeks.
Artillery fire hit the provinces of Daraa in the south and Deir Ezzor in the east, where rebels on Saturday said they seized Hamdan airport, a helicopter gunship base.
Sunday’s fighting killed 32 people nationwide, including 10 civilians, according to a preliminary count by the Observatory which says the death toll in more than 20 months of conflict is upwards of 39,000.
Academic Monzer Makhous is to become National Coalition envoy to France, although it was unclear if this would happen before a planned provisional government is formed.
Coalition chief Khatib in Paris on Saturday repeated the group’s promise to build a government of technocrats. But he appeared to make little progress on his call for the West to arm the insurgency.
“The (rebel) Syrians need military means but the international community also has to exercise control,” Hollande said, acknowledging that France could not act without EU agreement because of the strict embargo on arms deliveries to Syria.
EU foreign ministers are due to discuss the embargo in Brussels on Monday.
France on Tuesday became the first Western power to recognise the opposition coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people. Turkey and the Gulf Arab states have also officially recognised it, and Britain’s foreign minister William Hague said on Friday London was considering following suit.