Syrian peace talks halted as regime cuts key Aleppo conduit, Russian airstrikes rage on

AFP-JIJI

Syria’s army secured a major battlefield victory Wednesday as Russia vowed no let-up in its aerial bombardment in support of the regime, helping force the temporary suspension of fragile peace talks in Switzerland.

In a major blow to the rebels, a military source said that President BasharAssad’s army cut the last supply route linking opposition forces in the northern city of Aleppo to the Turkish border.

The source said the army had broken a three-year rebel siege of two government-held Shiite villages, Nubol and Zahraa, and taken control of parts of the supply route.

The advance was helped by intense bombing by Russian aircraft in recent days throughout the area north of Aleppo city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

The offensive is one of several the government has launched since Moscow threw its military might behind Assad, adding to support from Iran, on Sept. 30.

The new advance helped undermine efforts in Geneva over recent days by the U.N. special envoy to coax the warring sides into indirect peace talks to end a war that has killed more than 260,000 people.

On Wednesday the envoy, Staffan de Mistura, duly announced a temporary suspension of the talks until Feb. 25.

“I have concluded frankly that after the first week of preparatory talks there is more work to be done, not only by us but the stakeholders,” de Mistura told reporters.

“I have indicated from the first day I won’t talk for the sake of talking. I therefore have taken the decision to bring a temporary pause. It is not the end or the failure of the talks,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday he saw no reason for the airstrikes to stop, while slamming “capricious” elements in the HNC and the smuggling of arms into Syria from Turkey.

“Russian airstrikes will not cease until we truly defeat the terrorist organizations ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra,” Russian agencies quoted Lavrov as saying in Oman.

He was referring to the Islamic State group, the extremist group that has overrun swaths of Syria and Iraq and has claimed bombings and shootings worldwide, and to al-Qaida’s Syrian branch.

The opposition says the Russian strikes have almost entirely targeted other rebel groups, many backed by the West, Gulf states and Turkey, which shot down a Russian jet on its Syrian border in November.

Since the conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad’s iron-fisted rule, more than half of Syria’s population have fled their homes — many heading to Europe.

The tangled conflict has dragged in a range of international players, from Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states to Western nations and Russia. There has been a brutal crackdown on dissent and the economy is in ruins.

World leaders will gather in London on Thursday for a donor conference to try to raise $9 billion (€8.3 billion) to help Syrians hit by the war and neighboring countries affected by the crisis.

The hoped-for six months of indirect “proximity talks” are part of an ambitious road map agreed by outside powers embroiled in the conflict in November in Vienna.

This plan foresees a nationwide cease-fire, an inclusive and nonsectarian government within six months, a new constitution, and free and fair elections within 18 months.

But problems beset the process from the outset.

The opposition umbrella group High Negotiations Committee (HNC) only reluctantly arrived in Geneva on Saturday, a day after representatives from Assad’s government

The HNC was insisting on immediate steps including humanitarian aid getting through to besieged cities, a halt to the bombardment of civilians and the release of prisoners.

It was also outraged that while trying to get peace talks off the ground in Geneva, a major offensive was happening on the ground.

The government delegation meanwhile complained that the HNC was disorganized, had not named its negotiators and that the body contained individuals it considered “terrorists.

One such figure is Mohammed Alloush, a leading member of Islamist rebel group the Army of Islam and nominally the HNC’s chief negotiator, who said in Geneva Wednesday he was “not optimistic.

“The problem is not with de Mistura. The problem is with the criminal regime that decimates children and with Russia, which always tries to stand alongside criminals,” he said, clutching a photo of a young boy he said was severely wounded by Russian airstrikes.

De Mistura said he was asking for the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of outside countries to convene “as soon as possible.”