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Assad officials head to Moscow to discuss end to Syrian civil war

BEIRUT -- Syrian President Bashar Assad dispatched senior diplomats to Moscow on Wednesday to discuss proposals made by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to end the 21-month-old conflict gripping Syria, Syrian and Lebanese sources said. 

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and Assistant Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnous flew early Wednesday to Moscow, airport officials in Beirut told The Associated Press. The men hope to sound out Russian officials on details discussed with Brahimi earlier this week in Damascus.

Brahimi is trying to arrange a peaceful transfer of power, but has disclosed little about how this might be achieved. Opposition sources have staunchly rejected any solution that would leave President Bashar Assad and his government in power.

"We have told every official we have met: the government and its president cannot stay on in power, with or without their powers. This is unacceptable to Syrians," wrote Moaz Alkhatib, the head of the opposition's National Coalition, on his Facebook page on Monday.

"The coalition leadership has told Lakhdar Brahimi directly that this type of solution is rejected."

On Monday, Brahimi said that the situation was "worrying" and gave no indication of progress toward a negotiated solution for the civil war.

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Brahimi is scheduled to go to Moscow before the end of the month.

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Brahimi's previous proposal centered on a transitional government that left open Assad's future role, something which became a sticking point between the government, the opposition and foreign powers backing different sides.

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However, a Lebanese official close to Assad's government said Syrian officials were upbeat after talks with the envoy, who met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem on Tuesday.

"There is a new mood now and something good is happening," the official said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. "Of course now they (Syrian officials) want to meet with their allies to discuss these new developments."

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More than 44,000 Syrians have died in the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule, a conflict that began with peaceful protests but which has descended into civil war.

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The last several days have seen some of the heaviest fighting for three months. On Wednesday, rebels re-launched their assault on the Wadi Deif military base in the northwestern province of Idlib, in a critical battle for a major army base and fuel storage and distribution point.

Activist Ahmed Kaddour said rebels were firing mortars and had attacked the base with an explosives-rigged vehicle.

As violence has intensified in recent weeks, with Assad using his air power and artillery to contain rebel advances, daily death tolls have climbed. At least 190 were killed across the country on Tuesday alone, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

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Also Wednesday, the head of Syria's military police changed sides and declared allegiance to the anti-Assad revolt.

"I am General Abdelaziz Jassim al-Shalal, head of the military police. I have defected because of the deviation of the army from its primary duty of protecting the country and its transformation into gangs of killing and destruction," the officer said in a video published on YouTube.

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A Syrian security source confirmed the defection, but said Shalal was near retirement and had only defected to "play hero."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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