Syria regime advances as opposition casts doubt on peace talks
BEIRUT - Syria's regime on Tuesday seized a strategic southern town from rebel forces, as the main opposition coalition was to debate whether to attend peace talks in Geneva this week.
The capture of Sheikh Miskeen in southern Daraa province is the latest victory for government forces, who have been on the offensive since ally Russia began strikes in the country in late September.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday his country's intervention had helped "turn around" the situation in Syria, "reducing the territory controlled by terrorists."
Syrian state media announced the capture of Sheikh Miskeen on Tuesday morning, as did the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
The Observatory said regime troops had taken the town backed by allied militia including fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, as well as Russian air strikes.
Sheikh Miskeen lies on a vital crossroads between Damascus to the north and the government-controlled city of Sweida to the east. It is 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the rebel stronghold of Nawa, another target for regime forces.
A Syrian security source earlier said the town was a "launching pad" for rebel operations, and one of the opposition's "centres of gravity for the whole of Daraa province".
He said seizing control of the town would sever a rebel supply route to areas under opposition control around Damascus.
Most of Daraa province is controlled by opposition forces, though the government holds parts of the provincial capital and a few villages in the northwest.
The town's capture comes after the government captured the towns of Rabia and Salma from rebels in coastal Latakia province, backed by Russian air strikes and military advisors.
Russia began air strikes in support of the Syrian government on September 30, saying it was targeting the Islamic State group and other "terrorists".
But the opposition and activists accuse it of focusing more on Islamist and moderate rebels, and of killing civilians.
The regime advances come as world powers push for a new round of peace talks scheduled to begin on Friday in Geneva, after a delay over who will represent Syria's opposition.
A coalition of key opposition bodies known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has put together a delegation for the talks, but Moscow has criticised it as unrepresentative.
The Committee excludes Syria's main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as other opposition figures, and it has faced pressure to broaden its delegation, or participate alongside a second opposition delegation.
Lavrov on Tuesday warned that the talks would fail if the PYD was excluded, but Turkey has pushed back against the party's involvement.
"We are categorically against the YPG and PYD sitting at the table," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told ruling party lawmakers in parliament on Tuesday.
Ankara considers the PYD and its military wing the People's Protection Units (YPG) to be offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a bloody insurgency in the mainly Kurdish southeast of Turkey since 1984.
"Without this party, without this participant the talks cannot achieve the results that we want, a definitive political resolution in Syria," Lavrov said.
The wrangling over who will attend the latest round of talks has delayed the negotiations, which were originally scheduled to start Monday.
Instead, the UN's envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura said Monday that invitations would go out on Tuesday, with the talks to begin on Friday.
But he refused to be drawn on who would be invited, and the HNC was to meet Tuesday in Riyadh to decide whether it will attend, after threatening to boycott if other opposition figures were invited.
The coalition has also said it cannot attend talks without action to end civilian deaths in government and Russian air strikes as well as regime sieges.
More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria's war, and more than half the country's population displaced internally and abroad.
The conflict has become a complex multi-front battle, involving the regime, rebels, Kurds, and jihadists like the Islamic State group.
ISIS on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed at least 22 people in the regime-held central city of Homs.
Syrian state television put the toll at 22, but the Observatory said at least 26 people, including 16 members of regime forces, had been killed in the twin blasts at an army checkpoint in the Al-Zahraa neighbourhood.