The United Nations has announced peace talks for Syria have begun and called on world powers to push for a ceasefire, even as government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, launched their biggest offensive near Aleppo in a year.
Government troops and allied fighters captured hilly countryside near Aleppo on Monday, putting a key supply route used by opposition forces into firing range, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Rebels said the offensive was being conducted with massive Russian air support, despite a promise of goodwill steps by the Syrian government to spur peace negotiations.
The opposition has said that without a halt to bombing, the lifting of sieges on towns and freeing of prisoners, it will not participate in talks in Geneva called by the United Nations.
Nevertheless, opposition delegates met in Geneva for two hours with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who said this session marked the official beginning of peace talks. He also said that the Syrian people deserved to see improvements on the ground and the opposition had a ‘strong point’ in demanding goodwill steps.
International powers should immediately begin talks on how to enforce a ceasefire, he said.
The government’s military assault has overshadowed de Mistura’s attempts to convene the first peace negotiations in two years, intended to start as ‘proximity talks,’ with government and opposition delegations in separate rooms.
A senior US official returned from a visit to northern Syrian territory held by Kurdish fighters, who have advanced against Islamic State militants with the help of US air support.
The Geneva peace talks mark the first attempt in two years to hold negotiations to end a war that has drawn in regional and international powers, killed at least 250,000 people and forced 10 million from their homes.