Russian air support will back Syrian regime forces in a joint operation to take Aleppo from opposition forces, the Syrian regime prime minister said on Sunday, as an opposition official says that a ceasefire was on the verge of collapse.
With a UN envoy due in Damascus in a bid to advance struggling diplomatic efforts, the "cessation of hostilities agreement" brokered by Russia and the United States came under new strain as regime and rebel forces fought near Aleppo.
The ceasefire came into effect in February with the aim of easing the way for a continuation of talks to end the five-year-long war. But it has been widely violated by the regime forces. The fighting in the south of Aleppo seems to be the biggest challenge the deal has faced yet.
Diplomacy has meanwhile made little progress with no certainty over the future of Bashar al-Assad, his position strengthened by Iranian and Russian military support.
A top Iranian official, in comments to Iran TV, rejected what he described as a US request for Tehran’s help to make Assad leave power, saying he should serve out his term and be allowed to run in a presidential election “as any Syrian.”
Syrian regime Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said that a delegation of visiting Russian lawmakers of preparations to “liberate” Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and commercial hub before the conflict that erupted in 2011. Aleppo is divided into areas controlled separately by the regime and opposition.
"We, together with our Russian partners, are preparing for an operation to liberate Aleppo and to block all illegal armed groups which have not joined or have broken the ceasefire deal," he was quoted as saying.
“Russian aviation will help the Syrian army’s ground offensive operation,” said Dmitry Sablin, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament and a member of delegation.
The deployment of the Russian air force to Syria last year helped the war to progress in Assad’s favour, as it bombed opposition forces supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States. President Vladimir Putin last month withdrew some of the Russian forces, but maintained an air base in Latakia, and kept up strikes.
The al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and DAESH are not included in the partial ceasefire.
Opposition forces have reported the continuation of Russian air strikes in the south of Aleppo, an important location where Iranian forces and Lebanon's Hezbollah are fighting in support of the army and the Nusra Front is deployed in close proximity to opposition forces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a total of 35 combatants had been killed on both sides in a 24 hour period in the area, where fighting has been raging for some 10 days.
About to collapse
“The last 10 days had witnessed a serious deterioration, the point where the ceasefire is about to collapse”, said a member of the main opposition council. Bassma Kodmani of the High Negotiations Committee also told Journal du Dimanche that a US-Russian ceasefire monitoring mission was "powerless".
The war in Syria, which has so far killed more than 250,000 people, created the world’s biggest refugee crisis, and allowed for the rise of terrorist groups such as DAESH.
"In Aleppo, there is a real collapse of the truce," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The army groups that had agreed to the cessation of hostilities had taken part in Nusra Front attacks on regime-held positions south of Aleppo. Free Syrian Army groups meanwhile blame the fighting on regime violations.
"The air strikes are now roughly back to what they were," said Mohamed Rasheed, head of the media office with the Jaysh al-Nasr group. A Syrian regime forces source said.
"The battles are raging because ... armed groups that were part of the (truce) joined Nusra in the attack."
The Observatory also reported fighting on Sunday between regime and opposition forces near the opposition-held town of Douma outside Damascus, and reported that regime helicopters had dropped barrel bombs on opposition-held areas north of Homs.
Barrel bombs are oil drums filled with explosives. The regime denies dropping them despite the fact that the UN Commission of Inquiry and other commissions have widely recorded barrel bomb droppings on Syria.
Iran rejects US “precondition”
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is due to arrive in Damascus on Sunday evening, and is expected to meet Syrian regime authorities on Monday. He said last week he would go to Damascus and Tehran to strengthen their position on a political transition before beginning a new round of peace talks on Wednesday.
De Mistura has said the next round of talks needs to "be quite concrete in the direction of a political process leading to a real beginning of a political transition."
Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top adviser on international affairs, said US Secretary of State John Kerry had asked "Iran to help so that Bashar Assad leaves.
"We should ask them: "What does this have to do with you? Shouldn't the Syrian people decide?'"
"From Iran's point of view Bashar Assad and his government should remain as a legal government and legal president until the end of his term. And Bashar Assad shall be able to take part in a presidential election as any Syrian citizen. And their precondition that Bashar Assad should go is a red line for us."
In a sign of Assad's confidence, the Syrian regime plans to hold parliamentary elections on Wednesday. Salim al-Muslat, opposition spokesman, said the vote was illegitimate.
"I don't know how they can really announce an election in Syria. In Idlib or in Aleppo or in Deir al-Zor or in Homs, can people go there and vote?" he said.