Regime forces descend on IS-held Palmyra as Syria peace talks in final push
Pro-government Syrian forces appeared poised to retake the famed ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group Wednesday, as peace talks aimed at resolving the five-year conflict headed into the final stretch.
"The regime forces are now two kilometres (a little more than a mile) away on the south side and five kilometres away on the west side," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
IS seized the city in May, sending shockwaves around the world as the group demolished some of the most treasured monuments of its UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.
Meanwhile, negotiators in Geneva were making a fresh bid for a breakthrough ahead of a planned pause starting Thursday.
There is some hope that high-level US-Russian meetings in Moscow this week could deliver the momentum needed to move on to a new round.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to the Russian capital and is scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, with Syria a key issue on their agenda.
With the indirect negotiations in Geneva moving at a snail's pace, all eyes are on the Moscow meetings since the two powers hold significant sway over the opposing sides in Syria's brutal conflict.
- 'Interconnected' -
"The diplomatic process in Geneva is interconnected with what is taking place in Moscow," the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said Wednesday.
The group said it hoped that after the Kremlin talks "a clear message will be sent to (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad: He cannot continue to paralyse the political transition that the Syrian people are demanding."
"Syria's future must be decided by the Syrian people, not by a single man," said the group, whose leader Riad Hijab -- a former prime minister under Assad who defected from his post in 2012 -- was set to hold a first official meeting with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura Wednesday.
Assad's fate has been a key obstacle in the latest talks, with the government stubbornly insisting any discussion of him leaving is "excluded" and the opposition saying any talk of allowing him to stay is "absolutely unacceptable".
De Mistura meanwhile voiced "a strong expectation that the talks in Moscow will be productive."
When the two powerful ministers reach a "common understanding", the process is helped "enormously", the envoy told reporters late Tuesday.
Washington and Moscow were instrumental in bringing about a partial, fragile ceasefire declared on February 27, raising hopes for an end to the five-year Syrian conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.
- Palmyra a 'strategic' prize -
The ceasefire does not include areas held by IS and Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front, allowing the regime to launch an offensive to retake Palmyra at the start of the month backed by heavy Russian air strikes.
Moscow, which made a surprise announcement last week that it was withdrawing most of its troops from Syria, has continued support for the government's bid to liberate what Putin described as a "pearl of world civilisation".
The recapture of Palmyra would be a strategic as well as symbolic prize for the regime, since whoever controls the oasis city also controls the surrounding desert -- an area of some 30,000 square kilometres (12,000 square miles) extending to the Iraqi border.
Russia's military intervention in Syria last September at Assad's request has already allowed the regime to retake significant territory it had lost to various armed opposition groups.
But experts say Moscow's withdrawal of most of its troops could help the peace drive by weakening Assad's position.
"If the Russians drop Bashar, he will collapse," France-based Middle East expert Agnes Levallois told AFP.
But the lead negotiator for the Syrian government in the Geneva talks, Bashar al-Jaafari, insisted that thinking Moscow could pressure its historic ally in Damascus was a "misreading" of the situation.
"When we say that the dialogue must be between Syrians, without outside intervention, this also applies to the Russians and Americans," he told AFP in an interview.
© 2016 AFP