Beirut (AFP) – Fierce fighting raged Friday around Syria’s Aleppo as a surge in violence forced tens of thousands more to flee their homes, overshadowing the latest round of peace talks in Geneva.
The clashes on several fronts have put a strain on a fragile ceasefire in place since February 27, and left more than 200 fighters on all sides of the civil war dead in recent days.
The delegation representing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime arrived Friday in Geneva where UN-brokered indirect talks between representatives of the government and opposition were due to be held.
However, the fighting around Syria’s second city Aleppo cast a shadow over international efforts to end the five-year war, which has left more than 270,000 people dead and forced millions to flee their homes.
Troops and militiamen loyal to Assad’s regime have fought Islamic State group fighters to the southeast of Aleppo city this week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They also battled jihadists from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and allied rebels in the flashpoint area of Handarat north of Aleppo city, it said.
Meanwhile IS fought rebels near the Turkish border, the Britain-based group added.
– Civilians ‘trapped’ –
On one Aleppo front alone — pitting rebels against IS — fighting has forced about 30,000 civilians to flee, according to Human Rights Watch.
The watchdog accused Turkish border guards of shooting at some of those displaced as they approached the frontier.
“As civilians flee ISIS fighters, Turkey is responding with live ammunition instead of compassion,” said HRW researcher Gerry Simpson, using another acronym for the jihadists.
“The whole world is talking about fighting ISIS, and yet those most at risk of becoming victims of its horrific abuses are trapped on the wrong side of a concrete wall.”
According to the Britain-based Observatory, fighting between the rebels and the jihadists near the Turkish border was still ongoing Friday.
In total, at least 210 fighters on all sides have been killed in the battles around Aleppo since Sunday.
Among them were 82 army troops and pro-regime militiamen, 94 members of Al-Nusra Front and allied rebel groups, and 34 IS jihadists, the Observatory said.
The heaviest losses came near Al-Eis in the south of Aleppo province where 50 regime troops and loyalist militia fighters were killed along with 61 Al-Nusra and allied fighters, it added.
The latest violence came a day after a senior official in Washington told AFP that the United States was “very concerned” about reports of a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive near Aleppo.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini also expressed concern about the Aleppo offensive and called for the “respect, consolidation, and expansion” of the truce.
– ‘Key to war and peace’ –
Even though IS and Al-Nusra are excluded from the truce, violence around Aleppo has sparked concerns that the ceasefire may collapse, partly because rebels are involved in the battles there too.
“Aleppo is the key to war and peace in Syria,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“Every side in the war has a stake in Aleppo.”
The fighting around Aleppo is the fiercest in Syria since the truce began nearly seven weeks ago, and it is especially significant because all sides in the war are present in the province.
In Geneva, indirect talks were scheduled to resume Friday as the regime delegation landed in the Swiss city two days after opposition representatives arrived.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura was scheduled to hold meetings with both the regime and opposition delegations later Friday.
Syria’s conflict began in 2011 as a peaceful revolt but later morphed into a multi-front civil war.
The role of Assad in a future transitional government, which de Mistura has said would be the focus of the latest round of talks, continues to be the key sticking point in the effort to end the war.
Damascus says that even discussing the issue of his departure is off limits, while the opposition insists he must play no role in a future transition.