Syria’s regime has drawn a line against any political talks that include discussion of President Assad stepping aside.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad told The Wall Street Journal, “The issue of [Assad] relinquishing power is now behind us and this is a flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs. This is completely finished and we are not ready to discuss it at all, at all.”
Discussions in Geneva in January and February between the regime and opposition could not even agree on an agenda. The Assad delegation rejected any item about a transitional governing authority, saying the focus must be on confronting “terrorism” — its term for the Syrian insurgency.
The regime is planning a Presidential election in the spring to confirm Assad’s stay in power.
Mikdad also insisted that the regime’s failure to meet deadlines on the handover of chemical weapons stocks must not be manipulated:
We hope this issue won’t be politicized. It’s purely technical.
I affirm that the Syrian chemicals weapons program is finished, it’s behind us, this program no longer exists because we have destroyed all manufacturing capabilities and many production sites and all that’s left are some facilities that we will agree upon.
Sigrid Kaag, head of the mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said on Thursday that 54% of the toxins had been removed or eliminated.
The regime, blaming issues of security, has missed a series of deadlines for the handover, including the destruction of 90% of the chemical weapons by the end of January.
All stocks are supposed to be out of Syria by the end of June.
Regime Forces Take 12th-Century Castle Near Homs
Troops raised the regime flag on the battlements of the 12th-century Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers on Thursday after a three-month siege.
Soldiers moved in after insurgents withdrew, following the regime takeover of the town of al-Hosn, the town below the castle.
At least 45 wounded insurgents were brought by Red Cross ambulances to hospitals in northern Lebanon hospitals, amid reports of 11 to 40 opposition fighters killed in the battle.
Syrian forces chased the fleeing insurgents across Rajm Hussein, a small hamlet on the outskirts of the border town of Wadi Khaled. The regime troops also closed the Bqaiaa border crossing with Lebanon in both directions.
Only 28 of the wounded were still hospitalized by early afternoon, and none had died. Sources said that many were from Jabhat al-Nusra.
Internet Restored Across Syria After 7-Hour Blackout
Internet service was restored across Syria on Thursday night after a 7-hour blackout.
A group called the European Cyber Army claimed that it had taken down Syrian services, retalitating against the hackers of the pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army.
We warned you @official_Sea16 that we would wipe Syria off the face of the Internet! We do not make idle threats! Syria Internet Terminated
— European Cyber Army (@ECA_Legion) March 20, 2014
Insurgents Claims Capture of Post of Regime’s 559th Brigade in Qalamoun
Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) has claimed a victory against the regime’s offensive in the Qalamoun region, asserting that it took the post of the regime’s 559th brigade and seized a number of armored vehicles and heavy weaponry.
The insurgent victory blocks the main highway between Damascus and Palmyra in central Syria.
One of the “liberated” tanks:
Kurdish Militia Fighting ISIS and Chechen Jihadists Near Kobanê
Joanna Paraszczuk reports on fighting between the Kurdish militia YPG and the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, including Chechen jihadists, near Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab) in northeastern Syria.
Deaths on both sides are reported in the battle around a grain elevator in the village of Sirin.
Video of casualties (Warning: Graphic Images):
1st UN Aid Convoy to Cross From Turkey Into Syria
The United Nations said its first aid convoy from Turkey to Syria is imminent.
About 80 trucks are ready to cross the border, aid officials said Wednesday.
Last week, Syria granted its approval for the opening of the only crossing that it controls on the Turkish frontier. Sources said Turkey has now also agreed.
NGOs have used Turkey’s Nusaybin border post, close to the Kurdish city of Qamishli, to bring in smaller consignments of aid.