Al-Qaida branch said to play larger role
BEIRUT -- Government forces and rebels clashed Sunday across northern and western Syria, imperiling a monthlong cease-fire ahead of peace talks in Geneva, while airstrikes pounded the Islamic State militant group's de facto capital of Raqqa, killing dozens.
Al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, is playing a leading role on the side of the insurgents, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with a network of informers inside Syria.
The fighting came after weeks of sporadic government airstrikes, culminating with a raid that killed 33 civilians outside the capital of Damascus on March 31 that tested the durability of a U.S.- and Russia-brokered "cessation of hostilities" that took effect in late February.
The Nusra Front and the Islamic State are excluded from the cease-fire, which had brought relative calm to much of Syria for the first time in the 5-year-old civil war between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and those trying to topple him.
Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman said fighting was intensifying around the northern city of Aleppo and "definitely" threatens the cease-fire.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by phone on the need for greater cooperation to strengthen the truce, Russia's Foreign Ministry said.
They also discussed efforts to fight the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other terrorist organizations, agreeing to take additional measures to halt the flow of militants and weapons from abroad, the ministry said.
The diplomats also expressed support for the efforts of the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to convene the next round of talks in Geneva this week between the Syrian government and the opposition, Lavrov's office said. De Mistura is in Damascus to prepare for the talks and was expected to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
But expectations of progress have been dampened by the surge in fighting, the continued obstruction to humanitarian access and the staunch positions by the government, the opposition and their international backers.
A leading member of the opposition Higher Negotiating Committee, which is scheduled to participate in the indirect talks, warned that the cease-fire is on "the brink of collapse."
"The government has resumed using barrel bombs," Bassma Kodmani said in an interview with the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, referring to the crude and indiscriminate weapons that observers say have killed thousands of civilians in opposition-held areas.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halki told a Russian parliamentary delegation in Damascus that Syrian troops and the Russian air force are preparing a joint operation to retake al-Eis, Russia's Tass news agency reported.
In Iran, a top adviser to that country's supreme leader said Assad's removal from power is a "red line" for Tehran. Iran has been a key Assad ally throughout the conflict. State-run press TV quoted Ali Akbar Velayati as saying that Iran believes Assad's government "should remain in power until the end of the presidency term."
In 2014, Assad was re-elected to a seven-year term in balloting held in territory controlled by his forces. The vote was widely condemned and boycotted by the opposition.
Jan Egeland, head of the U.N. task force on humanitarian access in Syria, said Friday that he was "disappointed and disheartened" by the obstructions to humanitarian access. He said the government blocked four convoys from hard-to-reach areas while rebels blocked a fifth in recent days, affecting 287,000 in need of aid.
Insurgents advanced on government positions on the periphery of Latakia province in the northwest, an Assad stronghold, and battles raged south of Aleppo, where opposition forces about a week ago seized the strategic village of al-Eis, killing dozens of government troops and allied fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
In northwestern Syria, a coalition of Islamist and non-Islamist factions led by the jihadi Ahrar al-Sham group and the Nusra Front seized the village of Baydaa, while Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, and other jihadi groups battled government forces on the Sahl al-Ghab plains, north of the city of Hama.
A Lebanese TV station close to the Syrian government, al-Mayadeen, said government forces repelled the offensive on Sahl al-Ghab, while the Observatory said there are reports of several casualties as the fighting continued to rage.
The Observatory said at least 35 fighters died in weekend clashes south of Aleppo.
In the north, the Islamic State launched an offensive along the border with Turkey, seizing two villages near al-Rai, a frontier town it lost Friday to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Islamic State militants seized Sheikh Reeh and al-Bal on Sunday, the Observatory said.
The extremists set off seven bombs around nearby Marea and other villages and towns, according to the activist-run Azaz Media Center, based in a northern town of the same name, which called it the fiercest Islamic State offensive in a year.
The Islamic State-linked Aamaq News Agency announced the capture of the two villages and said a suicide operation targeted opposition-held Kafr Shush.
Abdurrahman said the Islamic State was seeking to protect its stronghold in nearby Dabiq. The town has symbolic importance to the extremists, who believe medieval prophecies that it will be the site of a doomsday battle against infidels.
Airstrikes around Raqqa, the so-called capital of the group's self-styled caliphate, killed dozens of militants and civilians, monitoring groups said.
The group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, made up of activists who still have contacts in the city, said a notorious Islamic State judge, Fawaz al-Hassan, was among those killed. Al-Hassan, also known as Abu Ali al-Shari, had been expelled from the Islamic State for his extreme legal interpretations but was later readmitted to frighten potential defectors, the group said.
Among the dead were three leaders and 21 other militants, as well as eight civilians, the Observatory said, while Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said 20 civilians were killed and more than 50 wounded.
Syria, Russia and a U.S.-led international coalition have been bombing the Islamic State for months. It was unclear who was behind Sunday's airstrikes.
Elsewhere, Turkey's state-run news agency said a Syrian journalist had been seriously wounded in an attack in Turkey -- the latest victim of a series of assaults against Syrian journalists in the country.
Anadolu Agency said the journalist -- which it identified as 36-year-old Muhammed Zahir al Serkat -- was shot in the city of Gaziantep on Sunday by a masked attacker. He was hospitalized in serious condition.
The private Dogan news agency said the journalist had received death threats from the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the killings of three journalists in Turkey. Another journalist had escaped an assault last month.
The attack was caught on a security camera and showed the assailant approaching the Syrian from behind and escaping after shooting at him, Anadolu said.
Thousands of Iraqis have returned to the western city of Ramadi three months after Iraqi troops backed by U.S.-led airstrikes drove the Islamic State out of the provincial capital, the city's mayor said Sunday.
The returning families must go through security checks and are only allowed to return to areas cleared of mines and booby traps left behind by the extremists, Mayor Ibrahim al-Osaj said.
Islamic State militants seized Ramadi last May and held the town until they were driven out in December. As in other cities and towns in Syria and Iraq, the fight to retake Ramadi demolished large parts of the city. Al-Osaj said seven neighborhoods are still off-limits to residents, not only because of the presence of explosives, but because the areas are "totally ruined."
He said authorities have restored drinking water for almost 80 percent of the city, refurbished ten schools and provided up to 600 caravans for those who can't use their houses. He said about 12,000 families have returned since late last month.
But near Iraq's northern border with Turkey, dozens of villages have been abandoned and hundreds of families displaced as a result of Turkish airstrikes targeting militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party.
Of the 76 villages of the Barwari sub-district of Dohuk governorate, which lies along the Turkish border, between half and a third are empty, save for a few people occasionally returning to check on their property or work on their farms, according to Kurdish government officials.
On a recent trip into the mountains of northern Iraq, long a refuge for the Kurdistan Workers' Party that has fought a three-decade war against Turkey for Kurdish rights, Associated Press reporters visited the village of Merga, only a few kilometers from the Turkish border.
The village, a small hamlet of perhaps a dozen houses surrounded by oak, apple and almond trees and set in a green valley among the snow-peaked mountains of the Zagros mountain range, had no inhabitants left except for four old men who said they came there only occasionally to look after their gardens.
"The aircraft keep coming here continuously. They bomb the mountain, they bomb the edge of the villages," said Fawzi Ali, a local farmer, who had just driven up from Dohuk, where he had moved with his family last year, to check on his property. "People cannot live here."
It is not clear exactly how many nearby villages have been affected. According to Ismail Mustafa Rashid, governor of the Amedi district, which includes Barwari, 35 villages have been abandoned. According to Aziz Mohammed Taher, head of the agricultural department in Barwari, 25 villages have been evacuated.
Since the early 1980s, the war between the PKK and Turkey has killed up to 40,000 people. A two-year cease-fire was abandoned last summer, leading to fighting in Turkey's southeast and regular Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq. The PKK has used the mountains of northern Iraq as a refuge since the late 1990s.
Information for this article was contributed by Philip Issa, Sarah El Deeb, Lynn Berry, Balint Szlanko, Salar Salim and staff members of The Associated Press.