Syrian government forces gain ground in Aleppo

Syrian regime forces Sunday seized a rebel stronghold in the northern province of Aleppo, in the run-up to UN-backed peace talks between the government and the opposition planned for next month, activists and state media said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by fighters from the allied Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, regained the village of Khan Touman on the southern outskirts of Aleppo from Islamist rebels after clashes.

The seizure also followed a rocket bombardment and strikes mounted by Syrian and Russian warplanes in the area, said the Britain-based Observatory. The watchdog gave no casualty figures. 

The observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said fighters from both warring sides were taken prisoners in the area.

Khan Touman is strategically important for the rebels because it overlooks regime-held areas in Aleppo, the Observatory's head, Rami Abdel-Rahman, told dpa.

Syrian television confirmed the government forces' capture of Khan Touman and farms in its vicinity.

In October, al-Assad's forces, backed by a Russian airpower, pushed ahead with a massive attack against rebels in the centre and north of the war-torn country.

Aleppo, Syria's second-biggest city, has been split between rebel control in the east and regime control in the west since shortly after fighting began there in mid-2012.

On Friday, the UN Security Council endorsed a plan for a peace process in Syria, calling for regime-opposition negotiations to begin in January and tasking the UN with aiding the implementation and monitoring of a nationwide ceasefire there.

The plan also envisages the establishment of a transitional government in Syria within six months and new elections within 18 months.

Rebel groups have decried the plan for not demanding al-Assad's departure.

But, speaking in Tehran, Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Rowhani said Sunday that there is no point focusing on democratic change in Syria until after the threat of Islamic State is removed.

"As long as Islamic State is still in Syria, you can't plan any democratic shift in that country," he said during a meeting with the head of the French Senate, Gerard Larcher. That's why the fight against Islamic State has to take first priority, Rowhani said.

He also noted that it would be hard to talk about restoring democracy until Syrian refugees who have fled the country get a chance to return.

"In the end, the Syrians will decide how they want to go about with the transformation," he said.

Iran is a key backer of al-Assad, which puts it at odds with the West. However, both sides agree on the threat posed by the Islamic State.

More than 250,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which started with peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Last update: Sun, 20/12/2015 - 14:54

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