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Syrian ceasefire 'about to collapse' amid heavy fighting near Aleppo

Syrian opposition negotiator says use of barrel bombs by government forces has resumed, as 35 fighters reported dead in Aleppo clashes
A Syrian man stands in the courtyard of his farm following reported air strikes near the rebel-held village of al-Chifouniya, on the outskirts of Damascus, on 4 March, 2016 (AFP)

The ceasefire in Syria is close to collapsing amid renewed use of barrel bombs by pro-government forces, a senior opposition official told a French newspaper on Sunday just days before peace talks are due to resume in Geneva.

"Over the last 10 days we have seen a very serious deterioration and the ceasefire is about to collapse," Bassma Kodmani, a member of the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian opposition, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

“The use of barrel bombs has resumed," she said. "The US-Russian mission monitoring the ceasefire is powerless."

Her interview came as a monitoring group said that heavy clashes were taking place around Aleppo, Syria's second city, with at least 16 pro-government fighters and 19 members of al-Qaeda's Nusra Front affiliate and allied rebel groups killed within a 24-hour period.

"Fierce fighting raged past midnight [Saturday] on several fronts in the south of Aleppo province," said the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Nusra Front is excluded from the ceasefire in force since 27 February because it is recognised by the United Nations as a terrorist group, meaning fighting in areas where the group is present has continued.

Lebanese Shia Hezbollah fighters were fighting alongside Syrian army soldiers and other pro-government armed groups, the monitoring group said.

"Shelling and fighting in the past 24 hours has left 19 Syrian and non-Syrian members of Nusra dead ... while 16 pro-regime fighters were also killed," the Observatory said, adding that one of those killed on the Nusra side had blown himself up.

A further 24 Islamic State (IS) fighters and eight civilians were reportedly killed in air raids on Raqa on Sunday.

The cessation of hostilities elsewhere has meant rivals within Syria are rushing to take back territory previously held by IS, which was also excluded from the ceasefire.

The scramble by pro-government forces, opposition rebels and Kurdish militia fighters to recapture areas from IS has been given added urgency by the prospect of a possible federal system, AFP reported.

"The three sides are racing to grab as much of the pie as possible, not just at the expense of the Islamic State group but also ... from other key players," said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh.

Despite this apparent loss of ground by IS, the Turkish Anadolu Agency on Sunday reported the group had captured six villages near the city of Azaz in Syria’s northwestern Aleppo province from the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

"Daesh carried out an offensive with heavy weapons aimed at taking several villages near Azaz," Zakaria Karesli, a field commander in the Shamiyya Front, an amalgamation of Syrian armed opposition groups, told the agency, using an alternative name for IS.

He added that FSA forces had since launched a "fierce counter-offensive" with a view to retaking the villages.

Clashes between government soldiers and IS have also been reported in Homs and Der-Ezzor in recent days, the Observatory reported.

Russian involvement

While Kodmani criticised the US-Russian ceasefire monitoring mission amid the continued fighting, she also questioned the future value of the Kremlin in affecting the outcome of the forthcoming peace talks.

She conceded that "a blow was dealt to the opposition, for sure," by Russia’s six-month campaign in Syria and said Russia had "attacked the supply lines of the brigades of the moderate opposition on the ground until the cessation of hostilities intervened in February".

However, the withdrawal of Russian forces announced in mid-March "indicates to those who support [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] that this assistance will not be unlimited and unconditional".

"The challenge is whether Russia will be able to dictate the terms of negotiations with Damascus," she said.

The Geneva talks aimed at ending the Syrian war are scheduled to resume on 13 April.

The fate of Assad is a major sticking point in the talks.

"We maintain that we must decide on a transitional authority with full powers, including those of President Assad, while the regime mentions a government of national unity with a few opponents and independents," Kodmani said.

"Nobody sees how to reconcile these two visions."

She said US President Barack Obama had "let the Russians take all the cards in the game, he has no political will, so the United States could afford to be more involved."