- Syrian opposition says major fighting under way south of city
- Geneva peace talks overshadowed by resumption in violence
The U.S. is urging Russia to help halt an offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on rebel-held Aleppo, once the most populous city in Syria, warning that it’s putting an almost seven-week cease-fire under increasing strain.
The Obama administration expressed its strong concerns to Russia, which committed to not participate in any attacks on groups which are adhering to the truce, according to a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations. Russia had also agreed to use its influence to stop Assad forces from such actions, the official said.
As the United Nations resumed what it called “crucially urgent” Syrian peace talks this week in Geneva, its efforts were overshadowed by a renewed upsurge in violence. The five-year conflict, which has killed 250,000 people and forced millions from their homes, has sparked Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since World War II and allowed Islamic State to plot the deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Russia said earlier this week it was observing the truce and any military actions were in response to terrorist groups, including in Aleppo.
Assad’s forces have started a major offensive south of Aleppo in violation of the cease-fire, rebel Army of Islam commander Major Abu Osama al-Jolani told reporters in Geneva on Friday. Opposition leader Asaad Al-Zoabi said Aleppo residents have begun fleeing, and that 30,000 of them have headed toward the Turkish border.
The actions by Assad’s government, whose delegation on Friday held its first talks in the latest negotiation round with UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, indicate it believes only in a “military solution,” al-Zoabi told reporters in Geneva.
“Very strong” battles are taking place, and a large number of Iranian troops allied to Assad have been killed, said al-Jolani, adding that his group remains committed to the peace talks. “We are keen on this political solution, it is the regime which is trying to destroy the truce,” he said.
The rebels are facing a three-pronged attack from Assad’s Russian-backed forces, Kurdish militias and Islamic State, said another Army of Islam commander, Iyad Shamsi. Army of Islam is one of the major opposition armed groups which agreed to the cease-fire brokered by Russia and the U.S. in February. Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nursa Front were excluded from that truce.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday about “the urgent need for the Assad regime to stop its violation of the cessation,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
Disagreement over Assad’s future has stymied a broader settlement. The U.S. is pushing for the eventual departure of the Syrian leader. Russia though is continuing to back him after reversing the tide of the war by starting an air campaign in September that averted the threat of Assad’s defeat and put his forces on the offensive.