Syria peace talks at risk over government truce violations, says Turkey

The nationwide ceasefire in Syria, brokered by Ankara and Moscow, has been threatened by continuing fighting in the Wadi Barada region near the capital Damascus

A boy pushes a wheelchair along a damaged street in the east Aleppo neighbourhood of Al Mashatiyeh on January 4, 2017. Bassam Diab/UNHCR/Handout via Reuters
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BEIRUT // Turkey on Wednesday accused Syrian president Bashar Al Assad of violating the truce in Syria and jeopardising a new round of peace talks due to take place this month in Kazakhstan.

The nationwide ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia, has brought quiet to large parts of Syria, but has been threatened by continuing fighting in the Wadi Barada region near the capital Damascus.

Government forces backed by Lebanon’s Hizbollah group are fighting to recapture the area, which is the main source of water to the capital. The water supply has been cut since December 22, with Syrian regime and opposition forces blaming each other.

On Wednesday, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu urged the regime and its backers to end their “violations” of the truce, warning they were jeopardising the planned talks in the Kazakh capital Astana this month.

“If we do not stop the increasing violations, the Astana process could fail. After the ceasefire, we see violations,” Mr Cavusoglu told the state-run Anadolu news agency. “When we look at who commits these violations, it is Hizbollah, in particular Shiite groups and the regime,” he added.

Mr Cavusoglu said the talks in Kazakhstan, set for January 23, are to be preceded by preparatory meetings between Turkish and Russian experts in Turkey, and he urged Russia and Iran, which both back president Assad and are also helping prepare the Astana talks, to pressure Damascus and Hizbollah to cease fighting. But despite his appeal, fighting continued on the ground in Wadi Barada on Wednesday.

Syrian government troops and allied militias have pressed an offensive to take the valley near Damascus from the rebels, claiming the region was never included in the ceasefire agreement.

Amid the government offensive, the rebels have retaliated with shelling and raids on government-held areas in other parts of the country. The rebels also accuse the government of carrying out air raids in the rebel-held province of Idlib, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have sought refuge from the civil war.

Mr Cavusoglu called on Iran, a key ally of president Assad and one of the guarantors of the truce agreement, to address the violations by pro-government forces.

Meanwhile, Mr Assad received a top Iranian official in Damascus and called the Shiite country his “partners in the victory that was achieved in Aleppo,” referring to the city the pro-government forces recently retook from the rebels, with Iranian help.

The Iranian official, Alaeddin Boroujaerdi, in charge of foreign policy and national security portfolios in Iran’s Shura Council,” called the capture of Aleppo a “big step toward restoring security and stability nationwide.”

Wadi Barada has been under government siege since 2015, but government forces upped pressure on the region several weeks ago as they tried to secure a “reconciliation deal” with rebels there.

The regime has reached a series of such deals with opposition forces around Damascus in recent months, offering rebels safe passage to other parts of the country in return for surrender.

The government accuses rebels in the area of deliberately targeting water infrastructure, causing leaking fuel to poison the supply to the capital, and then cutting the flow altogether.

Rebels say the infrastructure was damaged in government strikes and deny responsibility for the damage that has left four million people without water for two weeks.

The truce now appears to hinge on whether Russian teams will be allowed in to repair the damaged infrastructure, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a service which monitors the war through a network of on-the-ground sources.

“Local officials want ... Russian teams to enter to fix the infrastructure,” Observatory director Abdel Rahman said. “But the regime wants control of the spring and the pumps to prevent any blackmail or threats in the future. This is their condition for halting military operations.”

The Observatory also said that 32 civilians were killed in fighting over areas controlled by ISIL, which are not covered by the truce.

* Associated Press