Russia urges Syria transition Switzerland to petition ICC for war crimes

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Russia called on Saturday for a political transition in Syria, while Switzerland said it would petition the International Criminal Court (ICC) to probe war crimes in the country.

Regime warplanes carried out air strikes near the capital and a car bomb blew up in Damascus province, while gunmen shot dead an athletics champion, AFP reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying.

A day after U.N.-Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Moscow repeated its long-held position that only Syrians can decide their fate.

“In our opinion, the priority task is to immediately stop any violence and bloodshed as well as provide Syrians including internally displaced persons and refugees with humanitarian aid,” the foreign ministry said.

But it added: “At the same time it is necessary to secure the launch of a political transition process in Syria aimed at enshrining in law guaranteed and equal rights of all ethnic-confessional groups of this country.”

Moscow, a key Damascus ally, also reiterated its support for a transition plan that was agreed in Geneva in June but has since split world powers.

Bogdanov also met a Syrian delegation led by Michel Kilo, a prominent anti-regime activist who opposes foreign intervention, and pledged to continue “active contacts” with both Damascus and the opposition, the ministry said.

Conflict intensifies

Moscow has been reluctant to endorse the “Arab Spring” popular revolts of the last two years, saying they have increased instability in the Middle East and created a risk of radical Islamists seizing power.

Although Russia sells arms to Syria and rents one of its naval bases, the economic benefit of its support for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is minimal. Analysts say President Vladimir Putin wants to prevent the United States from using military force or support from the U.N. Security Council to bring down governments it opposes.

However, as opposition fighters gain ground in the war, Russia has given indications it is preparing for Assad’s possible exit, while continuing to insist he must not be forced out by foreign powers.

Opposition activists say a military escalation and the hardship of winter have accelerated the death toll.

Rebel forces have acquired more powerful anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons during attacks on Assad’s military bases.

Assad’s forces have employed increasing amounts of military hardware including Scud-type ballistic missiles in the past two months. New York-based Human Rights Watch said they had also used incendiary cluster bombs that are banned by most nations.

Stalemate in cities

The weeklong respite from aerial strikes has been marred by snow and thunderstorms that affected millions displaced by the conflict, which has now reached every region of Syria.

On Saturday, the skies were clear and jets and helicopters fired missiles and dropped bombs on a line of towns to the east of Damascus, where rebels have pushed out Assad's ground forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The British-based group, which is linked to the opposition, said it had no immediate information on casualties from the strikes on districts including Maleiha and farmland areas.

Rebels control large swathes of rural land around Syria but are stuck in a stalemate with Assad’s forces in cities, where the army has reinforced positions.

State TV said government forces had repelled an attack by terrorists - a term it uses for the armed opposition - on Aleppo's international airport, now used as a helicopter base.

Reuters cannot independently confirm reports due to severe reporting restrictions imposed by the Syrian authorities and security constraints.
On Friday, rebels seized control of one of Syria's largest helicopter bases, Taftanaz in Idlib province, their first capture of a military airfield.

Eight-six people were killed on Friday, including 30 civilians, the Syrian Observatory said.

Switzerland to petition ICC

Meanwhile, amid unrelenting violence, Switzerland said it will file on Monday a petition signed by 52 countries calling for the ICC to open a case on war crimes in Syria, its foreign minister said.

“Serious war crimes are being committed in Syria. We must make sure they not go unpunished,” Didier Burkhalter told Swiss national television TSR.

“We’re submitting a proposal. Now it is up to the Security Council to decide,” he added, saying the U.N. organ could either block or pursue the request.

Since Syria is not a party to the ICC, the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal, a U.N. Security Council referral is needed for the court to look into crimes committed in the 22-month conflict.

The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have died since the March 2011 outbreak of the revolt, and says more than 600,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in the region.

Escalating violence has led to thousands of low and mid-level defections, when peaceful protests turned violent amid a deadly crackdown on dissent.

In a video posted on the Internet on Friday, a man identifying himself as Jumaa Farraj Jassem, a senior foreign intelligence official, announced his defection. AFP was unable to verify the authenticity of the video.