Syria army ramps up shelling near capital ahead of talks
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Syria army ramps up shelling near capital ahead of talks

Opposition accuses regime of again increasing its attacks to cement gains ahead of planned peace conference

Illustrative: smoke billows following a reported car bomb explosion at a Syrian pro-government position during clashes between rebel fighters and regime forces to take control of an area in the southern city of Daraa on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohamad Abazeed)
Illustrative: smoke billows following a reported car bomb explosion at a Syrian pro-government position during clashes between rebel fighters and regime forces to take control of an area in the southern city of Daraa on February 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohamad Abazeed)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) — Syrian government forces escalated their bombing campaign around Damascus on Monday, raining shells down on rebel territory and sending out a “bloody message” just days before renewed peace talks in Geneva.

Representatives from the opposition and of President Bashar Assad’s regime are to head to Switzerland on Thursday for another attempt to end their country’s brutal six-year war.

But regime forces Monday escalated their bombing of the edges of Syria’s capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activists on the ground.

“The toll in regime airstrikes on (the northern rebel district of Damascus) Barzeh has increased to seven people, including a woman and child,” the Observatory said, adding that 12 more had been wounded.

Syrian civil defense volunteers run amid the smoke as they search for survivors following a reported government airstrike on the rebel-held town of Douma, outside Damascus, on February 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Sameer Al-Doumy)
Syrian civil defense volunteers run amid the smoke as they search for survivors following a reported government airstrike on the rebel-held town of Douma, outside Damascus, on February 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Sameer Al-Doumy)

The Britain-based monitor said rockets also hit the northeastern opposition-controlled neighborhood of Qabun overnight and into Monday morning.

Rebels and regime forces reached a local ceasefire deal in Qabun in 2014, but violence has built up in the neighborhood since last week.

At least 16 people were killed on Saturday in government rocket fire on a funeral in Qabun, according to the Observatory.

“This is the third day of bombardment — rockets, artillery, mortars, and air strikes,” said media activist Hamza Abbas, speaking to AFP via internet from Qabun, where he said he could hear non-stop shelling.

“The bombardment is targeting three neighborhoods — Qabun, Barzeh, and Tishreen,” Abbas said.

A Syrian military source contacted by AFP declined to comment on the operations.

‘Dagger’ pointed at regime

Syria’s opposition on Sunday lambasted the government’s renewed bombing campaign around the capital, calling it a “bloody message” aimed at sabotaging the peace talks.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said the attacks near Damascus and elsewhere across the country were “obstructing the efforts aimed at a political transition in Syria.”

“It is a bloody message from a criminal regime just a few days ahead of political negotiations in Geneva that demonstrates its rejection of any political solution,” the HNC said in an online statement.

The HNC — which was formed in December 2015 and has emerged as the leading umbrella group for Syria’s opposition factions — has a new chief opposition negotiator for the Geneva talks, lawyer Mohammed Sabra.

Then chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush (C) of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group attends the first session of Syria peace talks at Astana's Rixos President Hotel on January 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev)
Then chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush (C) of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group attends the first session of Syria peace talks at Astana’s Rixos President Hotel on January 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev)

He replaces Mohamed Alloush of the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), a powerful rebel faction headquartered in the opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta.

The district, which has faced a blistering army offensive in recent months, lies near opposition-controlled areas of Damascus that are being increasingly targeted by the government.

Assad’s regime is “bitterly determined to rid itself of the insurgent enclave, one way or another,” analyst Aron Lund wrote in a post for the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center.

“However weakened and contained, Eastern Ghouta remains a dagger pointed at the heart of Assad’s regime and it ties down many thousands of soldiers,” Lund said.

Overrunning the area could have a significant impact on peace talks “since no opposition delegation would be of much value” without the Army of Islam, Lund added.

‘Ink on paper’

Thursday’s talks in Switzerland will be the fourth round of UN-hosted peace negotiations, and Syrians caught in the six-year conflict did not have much hope for a political solution.

Radwan al-Homsi, a media activist in northwest Syria, told AFP that violence always increased after previous talks in Geneva in 2012, 2014, and 2016.

“This time around, just like any other conference, it will be just ink on paper,” Homsi told AFP in the town of Binnish.

“It’s actually the opposite — we’re now very scared of anything called a conference, because after every conference, there’s a military campaign,” the 27-year-old said.

Syrian army tanks are positioned on the eastern outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 17, 2017. (AFP Photo/George Ourfalian)
Syrian army tanks are positioned on the eastern outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 17, 2017. (AFP Photo/George Ourfalian)

Since the last round of talks in April 2016, rebels have lost their stronghold in east Aleppo and seen a new partnership form between their main ally Turkey and government backer Russia.

Ankara and Moscow teamed up in December to secure a truce deal between rebel groups and government forces, but the ceasefire is barely holding across Syria.

Along with regime ally Iran, they have hosted two rounds of talks between government officials and prominent rebels in the Kazakh capital.

More than 310,000 people have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes since Syria’s conflict broke out in 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule.

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