Syria’s landmark ceasefire was threatening to fall apart after a surge of fresh fighting, especially in northern Aleppo province, just as peace talks were set to resume in Geneva on Wednesday. The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who has said the negotiations will be “crucially important,” was in Iran for talks with a key backer of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
This week’s round of talks will be the second since the Assad government and rebel forces agreed to a partial truce brokered by Moscow and Washington, which has largely held since February 27. It has raised hopes that steps may finally be taken towards ending a five-year-old conflict that has left more than 270,000 dead and forced nearly half of the country’s population to flee from their homes.
De Mistura, who will host the talks, said the negotiations would focus on aspects of a peace roadmap that calls for a transitional government, a new constitution and, eventually, elections. But the fate of Assad is still a major stumbling block. “We will be focusing in particular on the political transition, on governance and constitutional principles,” he told reporters in Damascus on Monday.
But concern has been mounting that a spike in violence focused mainly in Aleppo province, which borders Turkey, is putting intense strain on the ceasefire. Pro-government forces were on Tuesday pressing an advance against the town of Al-Eis, held by fighters from al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, and allied rebels, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.