Dozens dead in Syria’s Aleppo as world pushes peace talks

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Dozens of people were killed in fighting in Syria’s Aleppo province on Friday as an international envoy prepared a Middle East tour ahead of proposed peace talks next month.

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s regional visit, which begins Saturday, comes as the international community ramps up efforts to convene a peace conference in Geneva in November.

But the prospects for the talks, dubbed Geneva 2, remain unclear, with the Syrian opposition divided and due to vote next week on whether to take part.

On the ground, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported dozens of deaths in northern Aleppo province, including 12 Kurds killed by regime shelling in the town of Tal-Aran.

The group said the Friday deaths there followed another nine deaths from shelling in Tal-Aran on Thursday.

The town lies on a strategic route between Aleppo city and Sfeirah, a town under rebel control that is near a military base where the regime is believed to store some of its chemical arsenal.

Elsewhere in Aleppo province, the Observatory said at least 20 regime troops and seven rebel fighters were killed after opposition forces attacked an air defense military base southwest of Aleppo city.

In eastern Syria, the Observatory reported ongoing fighting in the city of Deir al-Zour, with regime warplanes carrying out air raids.

They came after rebel advances in the Rashdiya neighborhood of the city, where a top intelligence officer, Major General Jamaa Jamaa, was killed on Thursday.

State television said Jamaa was “martyred while carrying out his national duties to defend Syria and its people and pursuing terrorists in Deir al-Zour.”

The Observatory said Jamaa, who was in charge of military intelligence in Deir al-Zour province, was hit by sniper fire during clashes in Rashdiya between troops and jihadist fighters.

It also reported that fighters of the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front executed 10 soldiers after capturing them during the clashes.

With the regime and the increasingly divided rebels locked in an apparent stalemate, the international community has made a renewed push to convene a peace conference in Geneva next month.

Brahimi will travel to Egypt on Saturday on the first leg of a regional tour to prepare the ground for the conference.

In Geneva, his spokeswoman Khawla Mattar said he would begin the trip in Cairo, where he would meet Egypt's foreign minister as well as the head of the Arab League.

The full itinerary for the trip has not been finalized, she added, but stops in Syria and Damascus ally Iran are expected.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has also been pushing for the conference, will head to Europe next week for talks about the meeting.

Speaking on U.S. radio Thursday, he insisted on the need to move the Syrian peace process forward.

“There is no military solution, absolutely not,” he said.

“So we are trying to move the process forward. I’ll have meetings next Tuesday in London with the support group of the opposition.”

On Tuesday, Kerry and other envoys are due to gather with the Syrian opposition in a meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria in London to review progress towards convening the Geneva conference.

But the prospects for the talks remain dim, with Syria’s opposition divided on even the question of whether to attend.

The National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition bloc, said it would hold internal discussions next week to decide whether to take part in the conference.

The Syrian National Council, a key member of the Coalition, has already said it opposes the Geneva conference and threatened to quit if the umbrella group takes part.

The international community has for months been pushing Syria’s rebels and the regime to participate in talks on a negotiated solution to the conflict, which has killed an estimated 115,000 people since March 2011.

But President Bashar al-Assad’s government says his departure from office will not be on the table, while the opposition insists he cannot remain in power.

The renewed push for the peace talks, which were mooted as early as May this year, comes after a September deal under which Syria agreed to turn over its chemical arsenal for destruction.

The agreement, enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution, staved off threatened US military action against Assad’s regime after an August 21 sarin attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.

Under its terms, international experts must destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014.