Syria welcomed Wednesday the resignation of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, as hopes for a resumption of peace talks dimmed ahead of a controversial election expected to return President Bashar al-Assad to office.
Damascus accused Brahimi, who announced on Tuesday that he will step down on May 31, of bias and interference in its internal affairs after he criticised the planned election as a blow to peace efforts.
The opposition however thanked Brahimi for his efforts, which yielded two rounds of peace talks but no concrete results, and said they shared his "frustration" over the stalemate in the conflict.
Brahimi's departure comes as Assad campaigns for a new seven-year term in the June 3 election which the opposition and much of the international community have dismissed as a "farce."
The veteran diplomat coaxed the government and the opposition to attend peace talks in Geneva this year, but they broke down after two rounds, and the war has slipped into a fourth year.
Brahimi said Tuesday he was "very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state."
To Syrians, he offered "apologies, once more, that we have not been able to help them as much as they deserve; and, tell them the tragedy in their country shall be solved."
UN chief Ban Ki-moon blamed the failure to find peace on "a Syrian nation, Middle Eastern region and wider international community that have been hopelessly divided in their approaches to ending the conflict."
- Accusations of bias -
But Al-Watan, a newspaper close to the Assad regime, put the blame on Brahimi Wednesday.
"Brahimi is Saudi Arabia's man," it said, in reference to the Sunni kingdom's backing for the Sunni-dominated uprising against Assad.
"He demonstrated his partiality for the opposition, particularly during the Geneva meeting, by expressing his support for the National Coalition and its chief, Ahmad Jarba."
State news agency SANA said there were numerous reasons for Brahimi's failure, highlighting what it said was his interference in Syria's internal affairs.
"A mediator cannot interfere in the sovereign affairs of states," it said.
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US Secretary of State John Kerry, who headed to London on Wednesday to attend a Thursday meeting of the pro-opposition Friends of Syria group, insisted that Brahimi "did not fail."
Kerry blamed Assad for the stalemate, calling him a man "who will not negotiate" and was "clinging to power."
The Syrian opposition too blamed Assad, saying they shared Brahimi's "frustration with the Assad regime for not engaging constructively in the political process."
The Friends of Syria meeting is expected to discuss the humanitarian situation in the country, as well as ways to "raise the prospects that the regime will participate in meaningful political dialogue," a UN official said.
- Focus fixed on battlefield -
But with the Assad regime insisting on going ahead with the June 3 election, prospects for a resumption of peace talks seem dim.
Torbjorn Soltvedt, analyst at British risk analyst Maplecroft, said Assad's bid for another term "has removed any pretence that the Syrian regime is engaging in meaningful talks with opposition over a potential transitional government.
"Assad's focus remains firmly fixed on the battlefield, and on forcing a situation in which the Syrian government can dictate the terms of any settlement."
Assad faces two challengers in the country's first multi-candidate presidential election but is expected to win comfortably.
His rivals are little known, and have so far toed the government line, deeming the conflict a war against "terrorism".
Speaking to Al-Manar, the television station of Assad ally Hezbollah, candidate Hassan al-Nuri praised the army and Assad's father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad.
"I've always admired his personality," he said of the former president.
The other challenger, Maher al-Hajjar, told state television he was standing "because of the terrorism that is targeting Syria," saying "external Arab, regional and international forces were targeting the Syrian people."
More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict erupted in March 2011, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday that nearly 850 people had died in government jails this year alone.
The conflict has also displaced nearly half the population, with one family fleeing every minute, according to a study by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.