Turkey Warns Syria Talks at Risk over Truce Violations

Turkey warned Wednesday that a new round of Syria peace talks was at risk, accusing President Bashar Assad’s government of violating a fragile truce it brokered with Russia last week.

The nationwide ceasefire has brought quiet to large parts of Syria, but has been threatened by ongoing fighting in the Wadi Barada region near the capital Damascus.

Government forces backed by Lebanon’s Hizbullah group are fighting to recapture the area, which is the main source of water to the capital.

Supply has been cut since December 22, with the regime and rebels trading accusations over responsibility.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday urged the regime and its backers to end their “violations” of the truce, warning they were jeopardizing the planned talks in Kazakh capital Astana this month.

“If we do not stop the increasing violations, the Astana process could fail. After the ceasefire, we see violations,” Cavusoglu told the state-run Anadolu news agency in an interview.

“When we look at who commits these violations, it is Hizbullah, in particular Shiite groups and the regime,” he added.

He urged Russia and Iran, which both back Assad and are also helping prepare the Astana talks, to pressure Damascus and Hizbullah to stop the fighting.

Despite the call, fighting continued on the ground in Wadi Barada on Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

It reported ongoing clashes as well as government air strikes and artillery fire in the area, but had no immediate details on casualties.

– Talks to halt fighting –

Wadi Barada has been under government siege since 2015, but government forces upped pressure on the region several weeks ago as they tried to secure a “reconciliation deal” with rebels there.

The regime has reached a series of such deals with opposition forces around Damascus in recent months, offering rebels safe passage to other parts of the country in return for surrender.

The government accuses rebels in the area of deliberately targeting water infrastructure, causing leaking fuel to poison the supply to the capital, and then cutting the flow altogether.

Rebels say the infrastructure was damaged in government strikes and deny responsibility for the damage that has left four million people without water since December 22.

On Tuesday, the government brought reinforcements to the area, the Observatory said.

But opposition officials and Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman also reported ongoing talks on a deal to end the fighting and repair the water infrastructure.

“Local officials want… Russian teams to enter to fix the infrastructure” in exchange for a halt to the fighting, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“But the regime wants control of the spring and the pumps to prevent any blackmail or threats in the future,” he added.

“This is their condition for halting military operations.”

– Iranian official in Damascus –

The opposition accused Hizbullah of preventing Russian officials from entering Wadi Barada to assess the work needed and continue negotiations.

“A checkpoint belonging to the Hizbullah militia prevented the Russian officers from entering,” Ahmed Ramadan of the National Coalition opposition body said in a message to journalists.

The ceasefire and Astana talks are the latest bid to resolve nearly six years of conflict in Syria, which has been ravaged by violence since an uprising began in March 2011.

More than 310,000 people have been killed and over half the country displaced in the violence, which has drawn in regional and international players.

Regime ally Moscow began a military campaign in support of Assad’s government in September 2015, and Turkey launched its own fight against the Islamic State group and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in August last year.

Despite backing opposite sides in the conflict, Ankara and Moscow have worked closely to broker the ceasefire and plan the Astana talks, which Cavusoglu said could take place on January 23.

Regime ally Iran is also involved in organizing the talks, and top official Alaeddin Boroujerdi was in Damascus on Wednesday for talks with Assad.

He praised the government’s recapture of Aleppo city last month, and pledged that Iran would continue to back the government, Syria state media reported.