By Tom Perry, Lisa Barrington and Tulay Karadeniz
BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – A Syrian army source said the city of Aleppo would soon be encircled by government forces as rebels pounded by Russian air strikes expressed hope that the failure of Geneva peace talks would encourage their foreign backers to send better weapons.
Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, said there was no point to peace talks while Russia carried out attacks in Syria. Moscow confirmed a Russian military trainer was killed in Syria this week, but denied that Russian servicemen were fighting on the ground.
The United Nations on Wednesday suspended the first peace talks in two years, halting an effort that seemed doomed from the start as the war raged unabated on the ground and government forces severed a major rebel supply route into strategically-important Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city before the war began.
Turkey said on Thursday that tens of thousands of refugees from Aleppo were moving towards the border due to air strikes.
Four months of Russian air strikes have tipped the momentum Assad’s way after rebel advances earlier in 2015 that posed a growing threat to his control of crucial areas of western Syria.
With the help of Russian air power and allies including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian fighters on the ground, the overstretched Syrian army is regaining ground on key fronts in the west, where Syria’s most important cities are located.
But vast swathes of the country are in the hands of armed rebels, including a mosaic of groups in the west, Islamic State in the east, and Kurdish militia in the north.
The refugee crisis created by the five-year-long war moved back into focus as donors convened in London on Thursday, with U.N. agencies seeking billions in aid to help the victims of a conflict that has forced millions from their homes.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the first steps in peace talks were undermined by increased aerial bombing. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura announced a three-week pause.
“I think the special envoy decided to suspend the talks because the organisation did not want to be associated with the Russian escalation in Syria, which risks undermining the talks completely,” a U.N. official told Reuters.
Washington and Moscow’s support for opposite sides in the five-year-old war, which has drawn in regional states, created millions of refugees and enabled the rise of Islamic State, means a local conflict has become a fraught global stand-off.
Moscow accuses Washington, which is backing opponents of Assad, of supporting terrorists, while the U.S. State Department said the air strikes around Aleppo focused mainly on Assad’s foes rather than the Islamic State militants Russia says it is trying to defeat.
ALEPPO STRATEGIC PRIZE
Aleppo, 50 km (30 miles) south of the Turkish border, is divided into areas of government and opposition control. Since the start of Russia’s bombing campaign, the army and its allies have launched major offensives to the south of the city against rebels, and to the east against Islamic State.
The army source said operations to fully encircle Aleppo from the west would happen soon. The army and its allies on Wednesday broke through rebel lines to the northwest of the city, reaching two Shi’ite towns loyal to the government for the first time in 3-1/2 years.
If the government regains control of Aleppo, it would be a big blow to insurgents’ hopes of toppling Assad after a war that has divided Syria between western areas mostly still governed from Damascus and much of the rest of the country held by armed groups.
Residents thanked Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in celebratory scenes from the towns of Nubul and al-Zahraa broadcast by Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV. The powerful Kurdish YPG militia, which controls wide areas of northern Syria, meanwhile added to the pressure on insurgents, capturing two villages near Nubul and al-Zahraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
The Syrian Kurds have consistently denied opposition claims that they cooperate with Damascus.
Rebel commanders said they hoped the peace talks’ collapse would convince their foreign backers, states including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that it was time to send them more powerful and advanced weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles.
Assad’s foreign opponents have been funnelling weapons to vetted rebel groups via both Turkey and Jordan.
One rebel leader said he expected “something new God willing” after the failure of the Geneva talks.
Another rebel commander said: “They are promising to continue the support. In what form, I don’t yet know … How it will crystallise, nobody knows … We need to wait.”
Both spoke on condition of anonymity citing the sensitivity of the issue.
MILITARY OPS DERAILED TALKS, U.N. SAYS
While vetted “Free Syrian Army” rebels have received weapons including U.S.-made guided anti-tank missiles, their calls for anti-aircraft missiles have gone unanswered mostly because of fears they could end up in the hands of powerful jihadist groups such as the Nusra Front that are also fighting Assad.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said talks were pointless while Assad’s forces and Russia pressed their attacks, while Saudi Arabia, another major sponsor of the rebels, said the Syrian government had refused to cooperate with the U.N. envoy.
“Russia continues to kill people in Syria. Could there be such a peace gathering? Could there be such peace talks?” Erdogan said in a speech in Peru, in comments published on the presidency website.
“In an environment where children are still being killed, such attempts do not have any function apart from making things easier for the tyrant,” he said.
Ban said: “It is deeply disturbing that the initial steps of the talks have been undermined by the continuous lack of sufficient humanitarian access, and by a sudden increase of aerial bombing and military activities within Syria.”
He said: “The coming days should be used to get back to the table, not to secure more gains on the battlefield.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had agreed on the need to discuss how to implement a ceasefire in Syria during a call on Thursday.
A Russian defence ministry spokesman was cited as saying the Russian military trainer was killed in the shelling of a Syrian army training centre in Homs province.
The defence ministry said the mortar attack took place on Feb. 1. “They (Russian military servicemen) are not taking part in ground operations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We are talking about advisers. This is linked to teaching Syrian colleagues to operate equipment which is being delivered to Syria under existing contracts.”
(Editing by Peter Millership)