Soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad pose
for a photograph in the Aleppo town of Naqaren.
The Syrian government, preparing for peace talks with
rebels next week, has handed the Russian co-sponsors of the
conference a proposal for a ceasefire in Aleppo and an exchange
There was no response from President Bashar al-Assad's
disparate opponents, whose very attendance at the talks due
to start on Wednesday in Switzerland remained in doubt -
prompting an appeal from the United States, which tried to
assure them that negotiations would lead to Assad's departure
After nearly three years of war, and over 100,000 deaths,
however, Assad's forces have been making gains, helped by
in-fighting among the rebels as well as support from Iran and
new arms and equipment from Russia.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, visiting Moscow,
said he gave Russian officials a plan for a truce in Aleppo,
Syria's biggest city, where government forces have been
unable to dislodge rebels over the past year. He also said
Damascus was ready to exchange prisoners, something rebels
Moscow and Washington, which respectively protected and
opposed Assad since the uprising in 2011, have urged both
sides to make concessions, including ceasefires, access for
aid and prisoner exchanges, to build confidence before the
But there is little sign of coherent negotiating positions -
nor of violence abating. Rebels are fighting each other, in
battles involving Islamist militants whose influence has
cooled Western support for the uprising. Assad's forces, once
reeling, have recovered and have been bolstered lately by new
Russian arms and supplies, sources have told Reuters.
Most of the disparate rebel forces fighting inside Syria have
dismissed the negotiations, known as Geneva-2.
Exile opposition leaders in the National Coalition, which is
backed by Western and Arab powers, began a delayed meeting in
Turkey on Friday to decide whether to take part. It remained
unclear how or when they would reach a final decision,
"The outcome is finely balanced, but I expect a Yes vote,"
said a Western diplomat following the talks, adding that the
United States, Britain and other Western backers had told the
Coalition that a No vote would have unwelcome consequences.
"We haven't used the language of threats," he said. "But we
have made clear the decision on Geneva is a big one and it
will be difficult to deliver on military and political
strategy if they don't go."
U.S. APPEALS TO REBELS
The United States, the co-sponsor with Russia, issued an
11th-hour appeal to Assad's opponents to participate in the
first direct talks to end a war that has made millions
homeless and inflamed tensions across the region and beyond.
The National Coalition, a fractious 120-member body, has
already seen some of its members declare their hostility to
joining the talks starting at Montreux - many for fear it
will undermine their credibility at home to engage in a
process they see as having little chance of forcing Assad to
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Coalition to
attend, insisting that suggestions from Syria, and from
Russia, that the process could result in Assad continuing his
family's four-decade rule were wide of the mark.
"I believe as we begin to get to Geneva, and begin to get
into this process, that it will become clear there is no
political solution whatsoever if Assad is not discussing a
transition and if he thinks he is going to be part of that
future. It is not going to happen," Kerry said in Washington.
"We are also not out of options with respect to what we may
be able to do to increase the pressure and further change the
calculus," he added, without giving details.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference
with Moualem on Friday, criticised the Syrian opposition for
its delay in agreeing to take part: "It worries us very much
that some kind of game is being played," he said.
Moualem said the proposals from Syria could ease the
conflict: "We would like this to serve as an example to other
towns," he said of the ceasefire plan for Aleppo.
Lavrov, who also met Iran's foreign minister on Thursday,
called again for Tehran, Assad's main sponsor in the region,
to be represented at the conference - something other powers
have resisted on the grounds that Iran has not endorsed the
view of a first Geneva meeting in 2012 that an interim
administration should be established in Damascus to end the
REBELS FIGHT EACH OTHER
In the latest fighting, rebels ousted an al Qaeda-linked
faction from one of its northwestern bastions on Friday,
activists said, a significant blow to the group after two
weeks of battles that have undercut the revolt against Assad.
Clashes this month have killed more than 1,000, according to
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitors, and helped
Assad's forces claw back territory around Aleppo.
On Friday, the Observatory and activists said the Islamic
State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had pulled out of the
northern town of Saraqeb, strategically important because it
straddles highways connecting Aleppo, Damascus and Assad's
coastal stronghold of Latakia.
"They burned their cars before the withdrawal and pulled out
after covering fire from a brigade loyal to them," the
British-based Observatory said.
Rival insurgents - including many from the Islamic Front, a
large alliance of some of Syria's most powerful rebel groups
- had been fighting to take the town for days and moved tanks
and machinegun-mounted pickups against ISIL about a week ago.
Local resentment toward ISIL, a reinvigorated version of al
Qaeda in Iraq, had been growing over their kidnapping and
killing of opponents and attempts to impose an uncompromising
interpretation of Islamic law in territory under their
ISIL, which draws strength from a core of battle-hardened
foreign Islamists and which has been active in Iraq, also
angered fellow rebels by seizing territory from rival groups.
But the group's loss of Saraqeb, while significant, is
unlikely to bring the fighting much closer to an end. ISIL
still controls large amounts of territory.
The conflict has spilled over Syria's borders. Rocket fire
into the Lebanese border town of Arsal killed at least seven
people on Friday, Lebanon's state news agency said, in one of
several such salvoes to hit towns near Syria.