Syria's regime yesterday seized a strategic southern town from rebel forces cutting a key supply line, 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.The fall of the town on Monday means government forces will strengthen their hold on Deraa province, while cutting off rebel factions from key supply lines.
"The town is very important for both sides. They have both fought fiercely. Now, by taking it, the regime has cut off the rebels links between eastern and western Deraa," said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in the country through a wide network of local sources.
The Observatory said fighting involved government troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, as well as air support from Russian fighter jets. Rebel groups include al-Nusra Front, Islamic factions, and those aligned with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
A Syrian government advance on Deraa began late in December and Sheikh Maskin's fall comes amid international efforts to bring opposing factions to the negotiating table.
On Monday, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said that peace talks originally scheduled to start on Monday would be pushed back to Friday. The proposed-Geneva 2 peace effort has been blighted by disagreements over which rebel groups should be allowed to attend.
Lavrov yesterday argued strongly against Turkey's demand to keep a leading Kurdish group out of Syria's peace talks, and said he expects the UN envoy to resist "blackmail" by Turkey and others, reflecting sharp differences that remain.
IS yesterday claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed at least 22 people in the regime-held central city of Homs. The twin blasts hit an army checkpoint in the Al-Zahraa neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, a report yesterday said al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, is a greater threat to the United States in the long term than is IS. Al-Nusra is "much more dangerous to the US than the IS model in the long run," according to the authors of a report labeling both groups "existential" threats. The report was released last week by the Institute for the Study of War and American Enterprise Institute.
The report criticizes the administration's ISIS-centric strategy, saying, "Any strategy that leaves Jabhat al-Nusra in place will fail to secure the American homeland."