Syria fighting rages as US weighs next steps

WASHINGTON, Feb 8, 2013 (AFP) -The United States said Friday it is weighing its next steps to try to end the conflict in Syria, as Islamist rebels there struck back at government troops after having suffered heavy losses.
President Bashar al-Assad's government meanwhile said it was ready for talks with opposition leaders provided there were no preconditions, an indication there may still be a slight chance for a political solution to the conflict.
"There's too much killing and there's too much violence and we obviously want to try to find a way forward," Secretary of State John Kerry said in his first press conference since taking over as the top US diplomat.
"It is a very complicated and very dangerous situation."
"We are evaluating now, we are taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to reduce that violence and deal with that situation."
But he stopped short of saying whether the administration would review its long-held position of not providing arms to the Syrian opposition.
Kerry's comments came as the White House was forced to defend its decision to reject a plan to arm the Syrian opposition put forward last year by top members of President Barack Obama's cabinet.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a congressional hearing on Thursday he had backed plans to arm and train vetted rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad's forces -- as had former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and ex-CIA chief David Petraeus.
Panetta's admission angered some lawmakers keen to provide more US support to Syrian rebels, including Republican hawk Senator John McCain. It also sparked speculation of a split in Obama's cabinet.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday the US priority was to ensure that weapons provided by Americans did not end up in the wrong hands and create more danger for "the US, the Syrian people or for Israel."
So far the Obama administration has provided only humanitarian and non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels, including communications equipment.
In Syria, Islamist Al-Nusra Front rebels killed seven Syrian soldiers at a checkpoint in the northern city of Safireh on Friday, after losing more than 100 men in the area over the previous 72 hours, a watchdog said.
The checkpoint was guarding a heavily fortified military factory in the south of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that a convoy of reinforcements had arrived after the attack.
"At least 112 rebels have been killed since Wednesday in fighting with troops between Safireh and the town of Khanasir" about 40 kilometres (25 miles) farther south, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.
While regime forces were stationed at defense establishments in Safireh and had set up checkpoints on the route to Khanasir, Al-Nusra and several other rebel battalions control the streets of Safireh, he added.
The watchdog said the city had become a "ghost town" after residents fled army bombardments.
The Observatory, which gathers its information from a network of activists and medics in civilian and military hospitals on the ground, gave a toll of at least 99 people killed nationwide on Friday, including 41 civilians.
Damascus meanwhile said it was prepared to have talks with political opponents so long as they set no preconditions.
"The door is open, the negotiating table is there, welcome to any Syrian who wants to have dialogue with us," Information Minister Omrane al-Zohbi said on state television.
"When you speak of dialogue, it means dialogue without conditions, which excludes no one. But if someone comes to me and says 'I want to talk about this issue or I'll kill you', that's not a dialogue," he said.
"There must be no preconditions."
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said on February 1, the day after an offer of dialogue by its leader Moaz al-Khatib, that any talks on the country's political future must be about the departure of the Assad regime.
Khatib had also called for the release of 160,000 detainees. He said he wanted dialogue with members of the regime who did not have "blood on their hands," suggesting that he was ready to meet Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa.
The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed since the revolt against Assad's regime began in March 2011.
The uprising began as a series of peaceful demonstrations inspired by the so-called Arab Spring, but grew increasingly militarized after government forces opened fire on demonstrators and soon escalated into a civil war.

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