Syrian Rebels to Attend Kazakh Peace Talks

Syrian rebels say they will attend peace talks in Kazakhstan next week aimed at ending the country’s nearly six-year-old war.

Rebel officials said Monday the meetings in Astana, the Kazakh capital, on January 23rd will focus on the cease-fire, humanitarian issues and the violations by the regime. The talks are being supported by Russia and Iran, which back the government of President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Turkey, which backs the rebels.

The opposition suffered a major setback in December when it lost the rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo.

Also Monday, Islamic State fighters advanced around the key eastern city of Deir al-Zor, trying to cut it off from a nearby military air base. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors and reports on fighting in the war-ravaged country, said the attack has left at least 82 people dead. It said Islamic State fighters have cut the road linking the government’s access to the airport.

Fighting also continues outside the capital, Damascus, where government forces are trying to recapture a rebel-held area which holds the main water source for the Syrian capital.

The fighting north of Damascus in the water-rich valley has raged since December 22, when Barada River water supplies to the capital and its 5.5 million residents were severely curtailed due to water contamination.

The government accused rebel forces of poisoning the water with diesel fuel, while opposition leaders say the contamination began when government airstrikes heavily damaged a key water processing facility.

Local officials said Friday that engineers had begun repairs to the plant as part of a broader deal that allowed the safe departure of some rebel fighters and a temporary truce with others while repairs were made.

But the observatory said the deal fell apart late Saturday when gunmen shot and killed the head of the negotiating team overseeing the truce