BEIRUT (AP) — The main Western-backed Syrian opposition will not take part in any peace negotiations with the government until rebels gain the upper hand on the battlefield again, the group’s chief said Wednesday.
The statement reflected the new reality on the ground, where the forces of President Bashar Assad have been making significant gains against the rebels on several key fronts.
Ahmad al-Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, said rebels were regrouping after a series of setbacks and predicted they would regain ground in the coming “few weeks.”
“We will not go to any negotiations until the Free Army and revolutionary forces are strong on the ground and cohesive as they were eight months ago,” he said in comments made to the Qatari news agency while on a visit to Doha.
His comments coincided with a new assault by Syrian government forces to regain control of a northern village that was the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack earlier this year, activists said.
The push on Khan al-Assal, a village on the southwestern outskirts of the embattled city of Aleppo, comes more than a week after it was captured by the rebels.
That was a rare battlefield success for the rebels after they suffered two major setbacks during a wide-ranging government offensive in central Syria. In June, Assad’s army recaptured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, and this week, government troops took control of a district in the city of Homs that had long been an opposition stronghold.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 150 government soldiers were killed as Khan al-Assal fell to the rebels. The Observatory said the army attacked rebel positions Wednesday outside the village after bringing in reinforcements.
Al-Jarba said Free Syrian Army rebels have started to “regroup and redeploy.”
“The FSA will succeed within the coming few weeks in gaining control of Horan (southern Syria), the Damascus suburbs, Aleppo and Idlib in the north and east,” al-Jarba said.
The basis of his prediction was not clear.
The United States, which supports the opposition, and Russia, which backs the Assad government, are trying to convene a conference in Geneva to get both sides to implement a plan adopted in the Swiss city a year ago. It calls for the establishment of a transitional governing body vested with full executive powers.
Last week, al-Jarba told the U.N. Security Council that his group is ready to attend a peace conference if the Syrian government makes a commitment to implement a plan that requires it to hand over power to a transitional government.
But in his comments Wednesday, he reversed that position, saying the Coalition would not take part before the situation on the ground changes in favor of the rebels.
Khan al-Assal, where Assad’s troops were on the offensive Wednesday, was the scene of a purported chemical attack on March 19 that killed at least 30 people. Assad’s regime and the rebels have blamed each other for that attack.
Last week, the government indicated it agreed with a U.N. team on terms of an investigation into chemical attacks. It was the first time U.N. weapons experts had visited Damascus since allegations emerged about use of chemical agents.
Khan al-Assal was under government control in March, but was captured by the rebels on July 22. Even if the U.N. team is granted access to the village, it may be difficult to find evidence from the March attack because so much time has passed.
Earlier this month, the U.N. said it has received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis prayed Wednesday for a priest missing in Syria during a Mass with fellow Jesuits in Rome’s Church of Jesus. Activists say Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest, went missing two days ago while on a trip to the rebel-held northeastern city of Raqqa. Dall’Oglio is an Assad opponent who was expelled last year from Syria, where he had lived for 30 years.
He reportedly went to Raqqa to meet with al-Qaida-linked militants there.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that the Holy See is closely monitoring for any information about the whereabouts of Dall’Oglio.
“If Father Dall’Oglio is working on initiatives for the good, let’s hope he completes them. We are close to him spiritually,” Lombardi told journalists at the Vatican.
Also Wednesday, an international media watchdog condemned the abduction of three employees of Orient TV, a Syrian opposition-linked satellite channel, calling on their captors to immediately release them.
Reporter Obeida Batal, soundman Hosam Nizam al-Dine and technician Aboud al-Atik were kidnapped July 25 after an attack on the Orient TV office in Tel Rifaat, a town 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Aleppo, the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
Their abduction came a day after a Polish journalist, Marcin Suder, was taken hostage in Saraqeb, in the northwestern province of Idlib.
In another development, Iran announced it will provide Damascus with a $3.6 billion credit line for buying oil, according to a report late Tuesday by state news service SANA. Iran is a close ally of Assad.
Associated Press writers Coleen Barry in Milan and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.