By Karin Laub
The Associated Press
BEIRUT — Syrian troops pushed into a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border on Sunday, fighting house-to-house and bombing from the air as President Bashar Assad tried to strengthen his grip on a strategic strip of land running from the capital to the Mediterranean coast.
With the regime scoring gains on the battlefield, the U.S. and Russia could face an even tougher task persuading Assad and his opponents to attend talks on ending Syria’s 26-month-old conflict. Washington and Moscow hope to start talks with an international conference as early as next month, though no date has been set.
Government forces launched the offensive on the town of Qusair just hours after Assad said in a newspaper interview that he’ll stay in his job until elections — effectively rejecting an opposition demand that any talks on a political transition lead to his ouster.
Even though the regime and the main opposition group have not yet committed to attending the conference, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that he is hopeful it can take place possibly in early June. In addition to the U.S. and Russia, he said he has spoken with Britain, France, China and other key parties.
Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed, in part because of divisions within the international community and because the regime and the armed opposition believed they could achieve more on the battlefield than in talks. Russia and the U.S. have backed opposite sides in Syria.
Still, neither regime forces nor rebel fighters have been able to create significant momentum since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and last year escalated into a full-fledged civil war.
The rebels control large rural areas in the north and east of the country, while Assad has successfully defended his hold on Damascus, the coastal area and parts of Aleppo.
Before Sunday’s offensive, Qusair had been ringed by regime troops and fighters from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah for several weeks.