Syrian troops press offensive in strategic valley as rebels suspend talks
Syrian government forces are pressing an offensive in a valley north west of Damascus as 10 rebel groups suspended talks on planned peace negotiations because of what they described as government violations of a ceasefire deal.
The truce, brokered by Russia and Turkey, is meant to be followed by talks later this month in the Kazakh capital Astana between mainstream rebel factions and government representatives.
The UN Security Council on Saturday unanimously adopted a resolution supporting efforts by Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in Syria's civil war, to end the near six-year conflict and jump-start peace negotiations.
But the nationwide four-day-old ceasefire is looking increasingly shaky, with opposition factions angered in particular about the military offensive in the strategically important Barada Valley, which is rich in water.
The government and the opposition disagree about whether the region is part of the ceasefire agreement, which excludes extremist factions such as Islamic State and al Qaida's affiliate, known as the Fatah al-Sham Front.
The Syrian government says the mountainous region is not part of the ceasefire because of the presence of the Fatah al-Sham Front. Local activists deny any militant presence in the area.
Opposition activists, including the Barada Valley Media Centre, reported heavy bombardment of villages there. The opposition's Civil Defence first responders reported at least nine government air strikes since Sunday, as well as acute shortages of medical supplies. Six people have been killed and 73 wounded, it said.
In a statement posted late on Monday, 10 rebel factions said they were "freezing all discussions regarding the Astana negotiations or any other consultations regarding the ceasefire agreement until it is fully implemented". They include the powerful Army of Islam group, which operates mainly outside the Syrian capital.
It said violations in the Barada Valley are continuing and "threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people". The statement also said the opposition will consider any military changes on the ground to be a serious violation of the ceasefire agreement "that renders it null".
The Barada Valley, which is controlled by rebels but is surrounded by pro-government forces, including the Lebanese Iran-backed Hezbollah group, is the primary source of water for Damascus and surrounding areas. The fighting has cut off the capital's main sources of water, resulting in severe shortages since December 22.
Images from the valley's Media Centre indicate its Ain al-Fijeh spring and water processing facility have been destroyed, apparently by air strikes. The government says rebels spoiled the water source with diesel, forcing it to cut supplies to the capital.
The ceasefire agreement, which came into effect on Friday, is supposed to pave the way for the government and the opposition to meet for talks for the first time in nearly a year in the second half of January. Those talks will be mediated by Russia, Turkey and Iran, although Russian officials have said other key players, including the US, are welcome to participate.
In the northern province of Idlib, the Fatah al-Sham Front said more than 20 people were killed as a result of US-led coalition air strikes that targeted one of its command centres.
The statement released on the group's Telegram channel did not give further details, but opposition activists said dozens of people were killed and wounded in air strikes that struck the group's position near the village of Sarmada in the Idlib countryside.
The attack follows an air raid late on Sunday that struck several cars travelling on a road leading from Sarmada to the Bab al-Hawa area near the border with Turkey, killing at least eight people, including al Qaida-linked fighters and a senior commander with the Chinese Islamic militant faction, according to opposition groups and a local jihadi commander.
The US has killed some of al Qaida's most senior commanders in Syria over the past two years in air strikes. Those targeted include members of the so-called Khorasan group, which Washington describes as an internal branch of al Qaida that plans attacks against Western interests.