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Syrian peace talks teeter on brink as Assad forces advance in Aleppo

Opposition team in Geneva snubs meeting with UN envoy as it protests against ongoing violence in Syria
Forces aligned with the Syrian government in the Aleppo countryside last week (AFP)

Syrian peace talks appeared to be falling apart on Tuesday with Syrian forces backed by Russian air power launching a renewed push against rebels in Aleppo, and opposition negotiators calling off a meeting with the UN envoy to Syria.

Government forces took several key villages north of Aleppo city on Tuesday in an advance that could break a long-running rebel siege of Shia villages Zahraa and Noble, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, a UK-based watchdog, said. 

The UN special envoy for Syria warned on Tuesday that if troubled peace talks in Switzerland failed, then "all hope would be lost".

"A failure is always possible, particularly after five years of horrible war," Staffan de Mistura said on Swiss television channel Radio Television Suisse.

"But if there is a failure this time, after two previous meetings in Geneva on Syria, then all hope will be lost," de Mistura said.

In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, Syria’s leading opposition coalition, the HNC, appeared to react with frustration to the government advances, with a UN spokesman confirming the team would not attend a planned afternoon meeting with the UN special envoy.

"The Russian Sukhoi is the one negotiating right now," HNC spokesperson and former Minister of Culture under Bashar al-Assad, Nasan Agha, said, referring to a Russian-built fighter jet.

"Russia has chosen military escalation against the Syrian people. If the international community is serious about sponsoring negotiations it must stop the Russian aggression," Agha said in comments quoted by Al-Jazeera Arabic on Tuesday night.

"We will not withdraw [from the talks] but we may suspend negotiations if we find the path before us blocked off."

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said more than 15 government fighters and 20 rebels had been killed in the fighting since Monday. Middle East Eye cannot independently confirm the toll.

US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Syrian opposition negotiators to remain in peace talks despite Russian bombardment and government advances, saying that a ceasefire would be rapidly implemented if the two sides started to negotiate.

"To the question of Russia bombing while they are sitting at the table: We are all extraordinarily sympathetic to the limits of propriety and common sense in the opposition sitting at a table while somebody continues to bomb you," Kerry told reporters in Rome where he is meeting US allies fighting the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq. 

"But the agreement at the United Nations and the agreement in Vienna [talks that set the agenda for the Geneva conference] is that when the political dialogue begins there will be a ceasefire. So the hope, the expectation is that it shouldn't take long and we're not requiring people to sit at the table for months. That would be crazy."

Kerry noted that Russia had supported a United Nations Security Council resolution that insists upon a ceasefire as soon as talks on a Syrian political transition begin.

"A ceasefire should be doable. The Russians can control the Russian planes. The Russians together with the Iranians, because they are supporting [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad, can control his planes," he said.

"And the Iranians can control the IRGC and Hezbollah," he added, referring to Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corp and the Lebanese militia, which have sent troops to back Bashar al-Assad's regime. And it's up to those of us who support the opposition to get the opposition to live by a ceasefire."

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday as he previewed the Pentagon's enormous budget that the US would spend $1.8bn to prop up its aerial campaign against IS. 

"We've recently been hitting ISIL with so many GPS-guided smart bombs and laser-guided rockets that we're starting to run low on the ones we use against terrorists the most," Carter said, using an acronym for the IS group.

"So we're investing $1.8 billion dollars in 2017 to buy over 45,000 more of them."

Russia vs the opposition 

Earlier on Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister said his country would accept the presence in Geneva of groups it has labelled "terrorist" but would not recognise them as "legitimate partners".

During a visit to the UAE on Tuesday, Sergey Lavrov said the inclusion of Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham in the opposition negotiating team was "realistic" given the dynamics in Syria, but said their participation did not mean Russian recognised the groups.

"We agreed - and the government delegation agreed - that if they take part in negotiations, they will do so in a personal capacity," Lavrov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Last week, Russia pushed for the exclusion of Jaish al-Islam at the talks that started last Friday in Switzerland, and instead pushed for the inclusion of Syria's Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish group fighting in northeast Syria, and its own list of political opponents of the Syrian government.

Russia's push drew criticism from the HNC, the leading Syrian opposition coalition formed after talks in Riyadh in December, which said it wouldn't let outsiders decide its line up, and had named Mohamed Alloush, a member of Jaish al-Islam, as one of its negotiators.

The head of the Syrian government delegation told reporters in Geneva that the UN envoy had not yet provided an agenda for the talks or a list of the opposition participants.

Bashar al-Jaafari also said that the HNC was "not genuine or serious enough," and questioned why the opposition had yet to condemn Sunday's Islamic State bombing which killed more than 60 people in Damascus.

Members of the HNC, which met for several days last week to decide whether to attend, arrived in Geneva on Saturday with the talks oficially staring late on Monday. The group has repeatedly demanded that the international community give assurances that it would implement UN resolutions that would see air strikes on civilians and sieges end before participating.

Russia, a key backer of the Assad government, has been a game-changer for the Syrian government's campaign against rebel groups since it started its air campaign on 30 September.

Last week, Russian bombs played a critical part as the Syrian army captured the strategically important town of Sheikh Miskeen in the southern Daraa province, local rebel commanders told Middle East Eye.

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