DAMASCUS — The UN peace envoy to Syria said Monday that an upcoming round of negotiations in Geneva would be "crucially important" in finding a solution to the country’s brutal five-year war.
Staffan de Mistura’s comments in Damascus came as offensives by Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate and allied rebels triggered a spike in violence that could endanger the negotiations due to resume Wednesday.
And the United States raised concern over the partial ceasefire that has largely held since February 27, alarmed by reports that Russian-backed government troops are planning a major offensive to retake the city of Aleppo.
"We are very, very concerned about the recent increase in violence. And that includes actions we believe are in contravention to the cessation of hostilities," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
In Damascus, de Mistura said the next round of talks would be vital because they would focus on a political transition for Syria, where the fate of President Bashar al-Assad remains a major sticking point.
"We hope and plan to make (the talks) constructive and we plan to make them concrete," de Mistura told reporters after meeting Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
The talks are aimed at ending a conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes since March 2011.
But while the opposition insists Assad can play no role in a future transitional government, the regime says voters should decide his fate.
According to state news agency SANA, Muallem confirmed that regime negotiators were ready for the next round of talks, while de Mistura said the pair had also discussed humanitarian aid to besieged areas.
De Mistura said he had also discussed the shaky ceasefire with Muallem.
"We did raise and discuss the importance of protecting and maintaining and supporting the cessation of hostilities which is fragile but is there, and we need to make sure that it continues to be sustained even when there are incidents to be contained," the envoy said.
The truce, which was brokered by the US and Russia, does not include areas where the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Al-Nusra Front are present.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday that the IS strongholds of Raqa and Mosul "must fall" this year, giving the most specific timetable yet for the cities’ recapture from a member of the US-led coalition against the jihadists.
The battles to retake Raqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq are expected to be the most difficult of the war against IS, which holds swathes of territory in both countries.
Regime bid for Aleppo?
On Sunday, Syria’s Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi warned that the regime and its "Russian partners" were readying an offensive to recapture Aleppo, where a variety of rebel factions are fighting forces loyal to Assad.
"Every effort by the Syrian army and Russian planes is directed at stopping Al-Nusra’s plans," General Sergei Rudskoy said Monday.
But Washington is concerned that any Russian-backed assault against Al-Nusra in Aleppo may also spread to target moderate factions – which could cause the ceasefire to collapse and even derail the peace talks.
Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday to express concern over potential breaches of the ceasefire, State Department spokesman Toner said.
Nusra, IS advances
The growing US concern came as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Al-Nusra and allied militia were pressing offensives around northern, central and coastal Syria, with at least 10 regime soldiers killed in clashes with the rebels in Latakia province.
"Al-Nusra and allied rebel groups are waging three synchronised offensives" on frontlines in Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
A military source confirmed that an offensive was under way.
"Armed groups are trying to attack some military positions in Latakia and Hama provinces, but they have not succeeded in making any advances," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Observatory said regime reinforcements were deploying to the south, east and north of Aleppo.
In Damascus province, IS fighters shot down a regime warplane near the Dmeir military airport, the Observatory said, after launching an offensive on the town a week ago.
IS retook control on Monday of the town of Al-Rai near Turkey that had been captured by rebels last week, according to the Observatory.
"The fact that the rebels could not hold on to Al-Rai shows that it is impossible to maintain an advance against IS without adequate air cover," Abdel Rahman said. — AFP