BEIRUT — Syria’s civil war spilled over into neighboring Lebanon once again on Sunday, with gun battles in the northern city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime that left four dead.
Nine Syrian judges and prosecutors also defected to the opposition. It was the latest setback for the regime, which appears increasingly embattled with rebels making gains in northern Syria and near Damascus, the capital.
The defecting judges posted a joint statement online urging others to join them and break ranks with Assad’s regime. There have been several high-level defections over the past year, including Assad’s former prime minister.
In Geneva, the United Nation’s Special Representative for Syria and the Arab League, Lakdhar Brahimi, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to discuss the crisis in Syria. They said in a joint statement that the situation in Syria was “bad and getting worse,” adding that a political process to end the conflict was “still necessary and still possible.”
Russia and the United States have argued bitterly over how to address the conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war that has killed an estimated 40,000 people. Activists said another 45 were killed Sunday.
The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding the Assad regime, while Moscow has accused Washington of encouraging the rebels and being intent on regime change.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia agreed to take part in the Geneva talks on condition there would be no demand for Assad to step down. Washington and its allies, including Turkey and Qatar, have repeatedly called on the Syrian president to step down to help stop the bloodshed.
“We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad,” Lavrov said, adding that the Americans were wrong to see Moscow as softening its position on Syria. “All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor.”
Addressing fears that Assad could use chemical weapons in a last-ditch effort to save his regime, Lavrov once again said the Syrian government has given assurances that it has no intention of ever using the weapons of mass destruction. He said the greatest threat is that they would fall into the hands of militants.