UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Damascus Monday to seek support for a Syria peace conference, as Russia slammed rebels for threatening those planning to attend the so-called Geneva II talks.
Brahimi, who travelled overland to the Syrian capital after flying in to Beirut airport from Tehran, arrived at the Sheraton hotel accompanied by Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Moqdad.
The envoy has been on a regional tour, taking in Turkey but not Saudi Arabia which opposes the peace initiative and takes a hard line against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The Syria leg of his mission to drum up support for Geneva II is the most sensitive as he needs to persuade a wary regime and its hostile opponents to attend the talks.
It is his first visit to Syria since last December.
In Tehran, Brahimi said it was "necessary" for Iran, a key ally of the Damascus regime, to take part in the Geneva conference slated for next month and aimed at ending Syria's two-and-a-half-year conflict.
The initiative's backers, Washington and Moscow, have struggled to win the support of the warring parties in Syria, where more than 115,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the 31-month conflict.
In the latest blow, 19 Islamist groups fighting to topple Assad issued a statement Sunday saying the Geneva conference "is not, nor will it ever be our people's choice or our revolution's demand."
"We consider it just another part of the conspiracy to throw our revolution off track and to abort it," said the statement read out by Suqur al-Sham brigade chief Ahmad Eissa al-Sheikh in a video posted online.
The statement went on to say that anyone who attends such talks would be committing "treason" and "would have to answer for it before our courts," implying they could face execution.
Russian FM: outrageous threats
Russia on Monday issued a stinging rebuke to the rebels.
"It is outrageous that some of these extremist, terrorist organisations fighting government forces in Syria are starting to make threats," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised comments.
"The threats are directed at those who have the courage to attend the proposed Geneva conference being offered by Russia and the United States with the entire world's support."
For Thierry Pierret, an expert on Islam in Syria, the rebel statement covers a wide range of opposition groups from radical Salafists to moderates who form the backbone of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army.
"So you can say that Geneva II is almost totally rejected within rebel ranks," said the expert at Scotland's Edinburgh University. "If some of the opposition does take part and reaches an accord, it will be worthless."
Al-Watan newspaper in Damascus linked the rebels' rejection to the cooling in ties between Washington and Riyadh over both the Syrian conflict and ties with its regional rival, Iran.
"In the context of the 'conflict' between Washington and Riyadh, the Saud (ruling) family has instructed the terrorist groups fighting on the ground to announce that participation in Geneva II is treason," it said.
Under pressure from its Western backers to attend, the National Coalition opposition group is to meet on November 9 to decide whether to take part.
But it has insisted it will only do so if there are guarantees Assad will step down, and its leader Ahmad Jarba has also said no talks can take place unless the regime frees women and children from its jails.
Assad has said "the factors are not yet in place" for such talks, and has repeatedly rejected negotiations with any group tied to the rebels or to foreign states.
On the battlefront, Syria's army regained control of the Christian town of Sadad in the central province of Homs after days of fighting against rebels and jihadists, Syria's state news agency SANA reported Monday.
"Our valiant forces have re-established security and stability in Sadad," SANA said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the report, adding that anti-government forces had withdrawn to Mahin, scene of fierce fighting for the past week for control of a large, highly strategic arsenal.
The Observatory had at the weekend reported "at least 100 killed from among the ranks of the army and dozens more among the rebels and jihadists" in the fighting at Mahin.