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Syrian rebels launch new assaults as opposition seeks peace talks 'pause'

Ahrar al-Sham and other groups set up new joint operations room and announce fresh offensives targeting Latakia and Hama provinces
Syrian Chairman of the National Coordination Committee for the Forces of Democratic Change Hassan Abdel Azim talks with member of the Syrian National Coalition (AFP)

Rebel groups in Syria on Monday announced the launch of new assaults in Latakia and Hama provinces, as a Syrian opposition negotiator called for a "pause" in UN-mediated peace talks.

The attack on the coastal province of Latakia, an Alawite stronghold and the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, came in response to what rebels said were repeated attacks on opposition-held areas in Aleppo by government forces and their allies.

Among the groups involved in the Latakia offensive are Kataib Ansar al-Sham, the al-Qaeda-linked Turkistan Islamic Party, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and the First Coastal Division.

A video released on YouTube appeared to show a fighter from Jaish al-Nasr - a rebel coalition vetted by the CIA - using US-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles against targets near Jabal al-Akrad:

The mountains of Jabal al-Akrad lie to the West of Latakia and were reportedly the scene of fierce fighting between rebel forces and the Syrian army on Monday.

There were also reports of a new opposition offensive against government targets in Hama.

According to the pro-Assad al-Masdar news site, fighters from the al-Qaeda splinter group Jund al-Aqsa launched a major assault on the al-Ghaab Plains near the Hama-Latakia axis, in an attempt to capture the village of Khirbat al-Naqous.

Video released by the group showed them using suicide attacks to clear the way for the armed assault:

A number of groups, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group, also announced on Monday the "formation of a joint operations room to begin the response to violations by the army of Assad".

On Sunday, government jets carried out air strikes in Aleppo province that killed at least 11 civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

Peace talks 'pause'

The renewal of violence in the country has threatened the 27 February truce brokered by the US and Russia, which had seen violence drop across parts of Syria.

The truce never extended to either the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front or the splinter group Jund al-Aqsa, both of whom have fought alongside other rebel groups in a variety of coalitions and operation rooms.

On Monday, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) announced that they would be seeking a "pause" in peace talks between the Assad government and the opposition, according to the AFP news agency.

Perhaps signally the fraught state of affairs, reportedly only three representatives from the HNC attended a scheduled 3pm meeting with UN Syria envoy Steffan De Mistura in Geneva on Monday.

Negotiations between the opposition and the government have stalled over the government's refusal to discuss the opposition's call for Assad to step aside as part of any peace deal and some have suggested that rebels on the ground have pushed for the opposition negotiators to withdraw from talks altogether.

Opposition negotiators have spoken of their willingness to work with government politicians provided that Assad is not involved.

"There are many people on the other side who we can really deal with," Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, said last Thursday on the second day of a round of UN peace talks.

"We will have no veto, as long as they don't send us criminals, as long as they don't send us people involved in the killing of Syrians.”

Despite this, other negotiators have appeared to give up on achieving further progress in the discussions.

On Sunday, Mohammed Alloush, senior negotiator for the HNC, called in a tweet for the resumption of attacks on Syrian government targets.

"Don't trust the regime and don't wait for their pity," Alloush wrote on Twitter.

"Strike them at their necks [kill them]. Strike them everywhere," he said, reciting a passage from the Quran dealing with war.

Yahya al-Aridi, a member of the broader consultative delegation in Geneva described Alloush’s comments as “personal” and not supported by the wider HNC.

Alloush’s brother Zahran was previously the leader of the powerful Jaish al-Islam group in Syria before being killed by a suspected air strike in later December.

At least 270,000 people have been killed since 2011 in Syria, after peaceful pro-democracy protests spiralled into a civil war following the army's killing of demonstrators.

About nine million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the violence, displaced both within the country and across the region.

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