The number of dead in Syria’s civil war has passed 100,000, the U.N. chief said Thursday, calling for urgent talks on ending two and a half years of violence even as President Bashar Assad’s government blasted the United States as an unsuitable peace broker.
In the latest example of the relentless carnage, a car bomb killed at least 10 people and wounded 66 in a pro-regime residential area near the capital.
All international attempts to broker a political solution to the Syrian civil war have failed. Despite a stalemate that has settled in for months, both sides still believe they can win the war and have set impossible conditions for negotiations.
The international community has been unable — and some say unwilling — to intervene sufficiently to tip the balance in favor of either the Assad regime or the rebels.
“There is no military solution to Syria,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at the United Nations. “There is only a political solution, and that will require leadership in order to bring people to the table,” he said.
He spoke ahead of talks with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said the death toll had risen from nearly 93,000 just over a month ago to more than 100,000. Syrian opposition groups had made that same estimate a month ago.
The uprising against Assad’s rule began in March 2011 and deteriorated into an insurgency with growing sectarian overtones.
Ban called on the Syrian government and opposition to halt the violence, saying it is “imperative to have a peace conference in Geneva as soon as possible.”
The U.S. and Russia are working to convene a conference, along with the United Nations, to try to agree on a transitional government based on a plan adopted in Geneva a year ago.
No official date has been set because the opposition refuses to attend any talks that are not about Assad’s departure. Syrian government officials say participation in the conference should be without preconditions, but add that Assad’s departure before his term expires in 2014 is not negotiable. Assad has also said he has the right to run for elections again.
Kerry said he talked to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday and that both countries remained committed to bringing the warring parties together to further peace efforts.
The comments at the U.N. appeared at odds with what was happening inside Syria. A U.S. decision to start sending arms to the rebels has further dimmed peace prospects.
The Syrian government criticized the U.S. actions, saying Washington is unsuitable to act as a broker at peace negotiations.
“Washington’s decision to send arms to terrorists in Syria confirms that the American administration is not objective in efforts to find a political solution,” Syrian state media said, citing an unidentified Foreign Ministry official. Assad’s government routinely refers to opposition fighters as “terrorists.”
“The American intentions seek to continue the cycle of violence and terrorism in Syria in order to destabilize … the region,” the statement said.
The U.S. government opposed providing any lethal assistance to Syria’s rebels until last month but is now sending weapons to vetted rebels after securing the approval of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
President Barack Obama and his national security team have yet to say publicly what weapons they’ll provide and when they’ll deliver them. There has also been concern in the West that U.S. weapons could end up in the hands of al-Qaida-linked groups.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, said that it was committed to ensuring the arms reach only those loyal to the coalition and its affiliated military councils.
The Syrian government has gone on the offensive and has succeeded, with the help of Lebanese Hizbullah fighters, in pushing back rebels near Damascus and in central Homs province.
The White House acknowledged that momentum has shifted as Hizbullah and Iran have helped Assad’s forces.
The rebels are lashing out with stepped-up mortar attacks on Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power, and car bombs that target regime strongholds and security installations.
Thursday’s car bomb exploded in Jaramana, a suburb just a few miles southeast of Damascus that is overwhelmingly pro-regime. The state news agency SANA reported that the blast caused heavy damage to nearby buildings and destroyed many cars.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights initially put the death toll at 10 but later raised it to 17.