Russia Defends Aleppo Assault as Syria Peace Talks in Crisis

  • Rebels must cut off ties with al-Qaeda wing, Russia envoy says
  • Opposition warns Assad's forces planning to recapture Aleppo

Russia defended an offensive near Syria’s Aleppo as a response to “provocations” by an al-Qaeda wing, while the opposition blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for the near-collapse of an almost two-month truce and warned they are seeking to seize control of the city.

Armed opposition groups that have signed on to the cease-fire must end their ties with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front to avoid getting attacked, said Alexei Borodavkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, who represents his country at Syria peace talks.

“If they broke off decisively from Nusra and indicated where their positions are, we could ensure the cease-fire would apply strictly to them,” Borodavkin said in an interview on Wednesday, referring to the Army of Islam and Ahrar as-Sham, two main rebel factions.

A recent upsurge of fighting around Aleppo and in the north, northwest and center of Syria is threatening to torpedo the truce and peace talks in Geneva. The main opposition group on Monday quit the negotiations and says it won’t return unless the government halts its attacks and allows access for aid. The U.S. urged Russia, which has waged an air campaign in Syria for six months, to press Assad to stop targeting the rebels.

‘Full Control’

The five-year civil war has killed 250,000 people, forced millions from their homes, sparked Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since World War II and enabled Islamic State to gain control of territory from which it plotted terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin must intervene to stop the truce from disintegrating completely. The two powers are the main co-sponsors of the peace process and brokered the cease-fire, which excludes Islamic State and Nusra.

Some 600,000 people are trapped in besieged Aleppo, once the most populous city in Syria and its commercial capital, said Asaad al-Zoabi, a former Syrian general who leads the main opposition High Negotiations Committee’s delegation at the peace talks. Al-Zoabi denied any links between the rebel factions and Nusra.

“They’re trying to destroy what’s left of Aleppo and take full control of the city,” al-Zoabi said in a Thursday interview in Geneva. “The aim is to sabotage the talks and a political settlement and rely on a military solution. They’re trying to send a message that they have the upper hand on the ground.”

Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN and its lead negotiator in Geneva, said on Wednesday the government has the “legitimate right to continue fighting terrorist groups.”

A top Russian commander, Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi, said last week that Syrian government forces backed by Russian air cover were responding to an assault by Nusra involving 10,000 fighters aimed at cutting off the main road between the capital and Aleppo. “No storming of Aleppo is planned,” he said.

The continuing attacks carried out by government forces “are in response to Nusra starting the offensive,” said Borodavkin. “We anticipated that opponents of the political settlement would carry out provocations to sabotage the cease-fire and the political process in Geneva.”

The spark for the escalating violence came earlier this month when the rebels decided to hit back against foreign allies of Assad, attacking south of Aleppo and catching Iranian forces there by surprise, according to Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at Birmingham University in the U.K.

Assad’s Future

“With no political or military concessions from Assad, it was a matter of time before the rebels walked out,” Lucas said. “For now, it’s going back to the battlefields.”

A government offensive to recapture Aleppo, which is partly controlled by the rebels, would probably involve weeks or months of indiscriminate shelling of besieged areas, said Columb Strack, a senior Middle East analyst at IHS in London.

“A siege of Aleppo would end what remains of the ceasefire, risking re-unification of the Syrian opposition around jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra,” Strack said by e-mail.

Assad’s future remains the toughest issue to overcome in the peace talks, which are meant to lead to an interim power-sharing administration and culminate in elections in 2017 under a new constitution.

Syria has said opposition calls for Assad, 50, to leave the office he’s held since 2000, are a “red line.” The regime’s offering opposition figures it considers acceptable a limited role in a national unity government. Opposition leaders say that neither the embattled leader nor close associates who have been involved in killing Syrian citizens can remain in power during a transitional phase.

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