Peace talks hope over Syrian war

Syria’s warring government and opposition are to meet for talks in January.

The UN said the meeting will begin in Geneva on January 22, adding: “The Geneva conference is the vehicle for a peaceful transition that fulfils the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people for freedom and dignity, and which guarantees safety and protection to all communities in Syria.”

Previous attempts to bring the two sides together have failed mainly because of disputes over who should represent the Syrian opposition and government, and whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be at the table.

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The UN said one of the key goals would be “the establishment, based on mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities.

“The Secretary-General expects that the Syrian representatives will come to Geneva with a clear understanding that this is the objective, and with a serious intention to end a war that has already left well over 100,000 dead, driven almost nine million from their homes, left countless missing and detained, sent tremors through the region and forced unacceptable burdens on Syria’s neighbours,” it said.

It will be the second time that major powers have convened a Syria peace conference in Geneva.

The roadmap for a Syrian political transition, adopted in June 2012 in Geneva, starts with establishing a transitional governing body with full executive powers agreed to by both sides and ends with elections.

But there has been no general agreement on how to implement it, and one of the biggest sticking points has been the future role of President Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, heavy clashes between Syrian troops and rebels trying to break a government siege in the suburbs of Damascus have killed at least 160 fighters over two days, activists have said.

Forces loyal to Assad have laid siege for months to rebel strongholds in the Ghouta area east of Damascus, preventing food, clean water, medicine and other supplies from entering in a bid to crush resistance.

The tactic, which activists say has led to famine, has helped government troops capture a string of rebel-held areas over the past month on Damascus’ doorstep.

The government push around the capital has coincided with gains by Assad’s forces around the northern city of Aleppo as well as a new offensive in the rugged Qalamoun region north of Damascus.

The recent victories have shifted the momentum of the conflict in Assad’s favour and given the Syrian leader greater leverage in proposed peace talks that the US and Russia are trying to convene to end the civil war.

The intense fighting in the eastern Ghouta area began on Friday when several rebel groups attacked government forces, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and an activist based in Qalamoun.

Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said the rebels were trying to open the road between Ghouta and the outside.

He said more than 160 fighters were killed on Friday and Saturday, including nearly 100 rebels, most of them from al-Qaida-linked groups, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Among more than 60 fighters killed on the government side were 20 gunmen from the Iraqi Shiite Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade, he said.

At the weekend, a string of government airstrikes on rebel-held areas of northern Syria killed at least 44 people.

Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the attack on the rebel-held town of al-Bab near the northern city of Aleppo was the deadliest of the three raids.