Syria Regime Advances in Northwest ahead of Fragile Peace Talks
Pro-government forces overran the last major rebel-held town in Syria's coastal Latakia province Sunday, as the United Nations prepares to host talks on ending the country's nearly five-year war.
State television said the army, working with pro-regime militia, took control of Rabia after heavy fighting with rebels.
It was the second strategic victory for pro-regime forces in Latakia in less than two weeks, after they seized the town of Salma on January 12.
"In the coming weeks, we will be able to announce that all of Latakia -- city and province -- is free from armed groups," an army commander in Latakia told AFP.
The army would now use Rabia as a launching point for ground operations against rebel-held towns to the east in adjacent Idlib province, he said.
Rabia had been held by the opposition since 2012 and was controlled by rebel groups including some made up of Syrian Turkmen, as well as al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front.
State news agency SANA said government forces were "combing the area to dismantle any explosive devices or mines planted by the terrorists."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Rabia fell on Sunday after regime forces surrounded the town and captured 20 villages in the area.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said senior Russian military officials oversaw the battle and that Russian air strikes "played an essential role" in the fight.
- Blocking rebel attacks -
With Rabia's capture, government forces are closing in on rebel supply routes through the Turkish border to the north, he added.
Armed opposition factions have used northern parts of Latakia province to carry out rocket and bomb attacks on the provincial capital along the coast.
Backed by Russian air power, pro-regime forces are chipping away at that territory in an attempt to secure the Assad clan's heartland.
Rabia "is at the crossroads of supply routes in this region" leading northwest towards the Turkish border and further east to other rebel strongholds, said Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche.
"By controlling this road, the Syrian army can block rebel movements towards the south, towards Latakia, and the rebels will have a hard time getting close and firing missiles at the (coastal) airport."
Russia's air force has operated out of the Hmeimim military airport in Latakia province since September 30.
Also on Sunday, three people were killed when a bomb exploded outside an Internet cafe in a mostly Christian neighborhood of Qamishli city in northeastern Hasakeh province.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the blast.
The latest military advance came as world powers intensify efforts to reach a political solution to Syria's war.
Representatives of the government and opposition were set to meet in Geneva on Monday as part of a U.N.-endorsed 18-month peace plan.
- Peace talks snags -
But sharp disagreements over the makeup of the opposition delegation, namely the inclusion of armed groups among negotiators, have slowed momentum and officials now say they expect a delay of a few days.
U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura was to hold a news conference Monday in Geneva to discuss preparations for the peace talks.
Opposition figure Samir Nashar said that the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee would meet on Tuesday in Riyadh to discuss who will represent the Syrian opposition in exile.
The committee "rejects the inclusion of any new name" to the delegation that would attend the peace talks, Nashar told AFP.
The Riyadh-based alliance of opposition groups, including the National Coalition, has already announced three delegates it will send to Geneva.
But it came under fire for naming Mohamed Alloush from the powerful rebel group Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) as chief negotiator.
The Syrian government considers Jaish al-Islam and other armed opponents to be "terrorist groups" with which it will not negotiate.
On Sunday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said upcoming talks should include Islamist rebels, though not "terrorists and Islamic extremists."
"Where do you expect to find moderate groups after more than five years of civil war, extreme violence and spreading brutalization?" Steinmeier was quoted as telling the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
On the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkish authorities have detained 23 suspected IS militants who were trying to cross over illegally from Syria.
In a statement published Sunday, the army said 21 children were with the jihadists and were also being held.