Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have made significant advances in recent weeks, as the opposition continues to fragment and finds itself increasingly on the defensive, according to activists and government officials.
Government troops and allied forces seized the town of Safirah, 15 miles southwest of the city of Aleppo, on Friday, bringing them closer to regaining ground in the northern province of Aleppo, where the opposition controls much of the territory. Hundreds of civilians fled the town as rebels withdrew, said Marwan Radwani, an activist who was among those who left Safirah.
Earlier, the government seized a strategic road, cutting off rebel reinforcements. Syrian state media reported that the town was used by terrorists – the term it uses to describe the opposition – as a launching pad for attacks in the Aleppo countryside. Government forces seized explosives factories, weapons and hospitals, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
The government's offensives have come as international attention has shifted somewhat to organizing peace talks in Geneva. The talks would be aimed at ending the civil war and forming a transitional government.
Some rebels say the government offenses come from a desire to demonstrate its upper hand before attending peace talks.
“We think they are doing this to have a strong position before Geneva II and to be able to force their will there,” said Musab Abu Qatada, spokesman for the opposition Damascus Military Council.
A week ago, the government launched intense attacks on the rebel-held neighborhoods of southern Damascus, which have been under blockade for about a year and face severe food and medicine shortages. The districts are under heavy rocket attacks and shelling, said Abu Qatada.
Weeks ago, government soldiers retook surrounding areas, including the town of Bweida, where activists reported dozens of civilians were killed.
The government is also trying to seize parts of the Ghouta Sharqia area, the eastern suburbs that in August were attacked with chemical weapons, he said.
Bashir Saleh, a spokesman with the Tawheed Brigade, one of the largest rebel groups in northern Syria, alleged that the Western-backed Supreme Military Council was withholding weapons and ammunition in an effort to exert pressure on opposition leaders to attend the peace talks and accept a negotiated settlement.
Many of the largest rebel groups in Syria have denounced the planned talks and said they won't attend.
The increased government attacks come amid rumors of a planned offensive against the Qalamoun suburb, a strategic mountainous area bordering Lebanon. Observers equate the potential loss of Qalamoun with the government seizure of the border town of Qusair this year.
The developments also come as the armed opposition continues to fracture, with Free Syrian Army rebels increasingly encountering problems with the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is focused not so much on the civil war but on creating an Islamic caliphate according to its strict religious interpretation.
On Sunday, the head of the Aleppo Military Council, Col. Abduljabbar Aqidi, one of the most well-known rebel commanders, resigned, citing international conspiracies against the Syrian rebels, betrayal from opposition leaders outside the country and infighting among rebel groups.
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