• Syrian government said to cut off Aleppo rebel supply lines
  • Russia vows more airstrikes as U.S. cites civilian casualties

The United Nations suspended Syria peace talks until later this month, just days after they officially began, as a government offensive made major progress, reportedly cutting off rebel supply lines between the northern city of Aleppo and Turkey.

The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, on Wednesday announced what he called a “temporary pause” until Feb. 25 to the talks in Geneva. A civil war that has killed 250,000 people over five years and forced millions of others to flee their homes has confronted Europe with the rising threat of terrorism and a growing migrant crisis.

Smoke rises following air strikes on the village of Marasat al-Khan in Syria
Smoke rises following air strikes on the village of Marasat al-Khan in Syria
Photographer: George Ourfalian/AFP via Getty Images

Syrian forces ended a three-year siege of two Shiite Muslim villages, Nubul and al-Zahraa in northern Aleppo region, Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said. Control of the towns will cut opposition supply lines from Turkey to Aleppo city, the head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said by phone.

Backed by Hezbollah fighters and Russian airstrikes, Syrian government forces launched an offensive to regain control of towns this week. The intensified fighting overshadowed the peace talks in Geneva, with the opposition demanding an end to the Russian airstrikes against rebel-held areas and other humanitarian measures.

Air Campaign

Russia, a major ally of Syria along with Iran, started an air campaign in September that has targeted Islamic State and other rebel forces -- including some backed by the U.S. The airstrikes have strengthened President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and enabled its military to make significant territorial advances.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday rejected rebel demands for an end to the air campaign. “Russia won’t stop its airstrikes until we really defeat terrorist organizations such as Islamic State, Nusra Front and other such groups,” he told reporters during a visit to Oman.

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Russian strikes in and around Aleppo have been aimed “almost exclusively” at opposition groups other than Islamic State and “have led to reports of civilian casualties, increased displacement of Syrian citizens and the possible obstruction of humanitarian assistance routes.”

“It is difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored,” Kirby said.

Rebel Foes

Russia considers two major rebel factions, the Army of Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham, as terrorist organizations, along with Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Staffan de Mistura
Staffan de Mistura
Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

De Mistura insisted that the talks would resume, and the suspension of the negotiations didn’t signify their failure. He has called on major powers including the U.S., Russia and Saudi Arabia, which back opposing sides in the conflict, to take the lead in achieving a cessation of violence. An international meeting on Syria will take place Feb. 11 in Munich.

The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition group present at the talks, on Tuesday demanded a halt to what it described as a“massive acceleration” of bombings by Russia and Assad’s military on civilian areas.

Mediators are aiming for a nationwide truce, except for offensives targeting Islamic State and Nusra Front, and the creation by midyear of a transitional government that includes the opposition. A year after that, elections should follow under a new constitution.

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