Beirut (AFP) – Fighting escalated on several fronts Thursday around Syria’s second city Aleppo, as a Russian-backed government offensive strained a landmark ceasefire and a nascent round of peace talks in Geneva.
In the Swiss city on Thursday, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura criticised President Bashar al-Assad’s government for hindering efforts to deliver life-saving assistance to Syrians in need.
On the ground, government fighters, rebels and jihadists battled for control of swathes of Aleppo province, threatening a nearly seven-week ceasefire that had seen violence drop.
Regime loyalists backed by Russia’s air power pressed a fierce offensive just north of the provincial capital of Aleppo city, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Fighting was heaviest around Handarat, a hilly area that lies along a route leading north out of opposition-held parts of the city.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said regime forces were seeking to cut off that road and “completely besiege” eastern neighbourhoods.
Both Russian and Syrian planes were carrying out air strikes on and near Handarat, he said.
An AFP correspondent in opposition-held eastern Aleppo city said the booming crashes of air strikes could be heard throughout the day, but no raids hit the city itself.
Fears are rising among residents that Aleppo’s opposition-held areas may become besieged by regime troops, the correspondent added.
The Russian-backed assault has sparked concern about the ceasefire, which has brought a significant drop in violence for the first time in the five-year conflict since it took effect on February 27.
President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s main backer, said during an annual call-in show on Thursday that he was “closely following” the latest spike in violence.
Putin last month announced a partial pull-out from Syria, but warned Russia could return in full force should the situation require it.
He said opposition groups in Aleppo province were fighting along jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate.
“To distinguish them is very difficult.”
– ‘Disappointing’ aid situation –
After reporting significant progress through the first two weeks of March, the UN now fears the humanitarian situation may deteriorate once again.
“We are extremely concerned about the situation in northern Syria, including Aleppo governorate, where there has been a significant increase in incidents of violence that continue to aggravate the humanitarian situation,” a UN humanitarian official told AFP on Thursday.
The official said the UN was planning several aid deliveries to Afrin and Azaz — two flashpoint areas in the province — in the coming days.
But on Thursday, UN envoy de Mistura said restrictions by Damascus have frustrated efforts to deliver much-needed assistance to besieged Syrians.
Despite several UN Security Council resolutions that call for unobstructed aid access to besieged areas, the regime continues to frequently deny passage to convoys carrying assistance.
“Everyone in the meeting was disappointed,” De Mistura told reporters after a weekly meeting of the so-called humanitarian taskforce.
“Many of (the countries) are actually frustrated by the lack of new convoys,” he added.
He listed Duma, Daraya and East Harasta, all besieged by the regime, as being among the areas in urgent need of supplies.
De Mistura said he made some progress in Damascus by securing tentative permission for the distribution of medical supplies.
But the government had specifically excluded surgical equipment, anti-anxiety pills and atropine, which can be used to guard against poison, including sarin gas, he told the gathered press.
– ‘Lost cause’ –
Syria’s conflict began in 2011 as a peaceful revolt seeking democratic change, with protests across the country.
In 2012, it spread to Aleppo province, which borders Turkey and is strategically vital to practically all of Syria’s warring sides.
Rebel groups, some of them allied with Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, are fighting the government, rival extremists and Kurdish militia there.
The alliance between opposition fighters and Al-Nusra has complicated the implementation of Syria’s truce, which excludes Al-Nusra and the Islamic State group.
Meanwhile IS fighters seized a string of opposition-held villages near Syria’s border with Turkey, the Observatory said.
The most important among them was Hiwar Kallis, about one kilometre (less than one mile) south of the Turkish frontier.
Rebels had secured significant gains against IS in the area before the jihadists pushed them back this week.
US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that IS is on the defensive and “their cause is lost”.