The United Nations earlier this week announced the formal start of indirect Syria peace talks aimed at ending the nearly five-year-old conflict and urged world powers to push for ceasefire, as Bashar al Assad forces, backed by Russian airstrikes and Iranian militias, launched one of their biggest offensives.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a group that monitors the Syrian conflict using a network of sources on the ground, Assad regime forces and their allies seized hilly countryside territory near Aleppo on Monday.
As a result, a key route used by opposition troops is now within firing range.
“Rebels said the offensive was being conducted with massive Russian air support, despite a promise of goodwill steps by the Syrian government to spur peace negotiations,” notes Reuters.
The opposition insists that the Syrian government and its allies must stop the bombing, lift sieges on towns, and release prisoners before it participates in the UN-mediated talks in Geneva.
“We are here for a few days. Just to be clear, only a few days. If there (is) no progress on the ground, we are leaving… We are not here for negotiations, we are here to test the regime’s intentions,” Monzer Makhous, an official from the Saudi Arabia-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups, known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), told Reuters.
Nevertheless, delegates from the opposition met for two hours in Geneva on Monday, prompting UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to say the session marked the official beginning of the indirect peace negotiations.
Syrians deserve to see improvements on the ground and the opposition had a “strong point” in demanding goodwill measures, he reportedly said.
De Mistura urged world powers to immediately begin talks on how to enforce a ceasefire.
“There was a message… that when the Geneva talks actually start, in parallel there should be the beginning of a serious discussion about ceasefires,” he said.
Russia’s “unprecedented” bombing near Aleppo – 270 raids since Monday morning, according to monitors – threatened to derail efforts to end the civil war, warned the HNC, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“Since last night a big massacre is taking place in Syria and nobody is doing anything. Nobody is saying anything, the international community is completely blind,” said Salem al-Meslet, from the coalition of opposition groups.
The first peace talks in two years to end the Syrian war had been rescheduled to Friday, in part due to a dispute over who should represent the Assad opposition.
At least 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict and an additional 10 million have been forced out of their homes.
“Opposition delegates agreed late on Friday to travel to Geneva after saying they had received guarantees to improve the situation on the ground,” notes Reuters. “But the opposition says there has been no easing of the conflict, with government and allied forces including Iranian militias pressing offensives across important areas of western Syria, most recently north of Aleppo.”
“The (latest) attack started at 2 a.m., with air strikes and missiles,” said rebel commander Ahmed al-Seoud, describing the situation near Aleppo.
According to the UK-based Observatory and Syrian state television, Assad troops and their allies have been gaining territory in the area.
The opposition coalition has reportedly threatened to leave Geneva unless peace measures were implemented.
“Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the government delegation, said on Sunday Damascus was considering options such as ceasefires, humanitarian corridors and prisoner releases,” reports Reuters. “But he suggested they might come about as a result of the talks, not as a condition to begin them.”