Syria, Russia Step Up Airstrikes Ahead of Renewed Peace Talks in Geneva

Talks between the Syrian government and opposition forces aimed at bringing an end to the six-year war resume Tuesday in Geneva.

Nearly half a million people have been killed since the President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on an uprising during the 2011 Arab Spring. Several regional and global powers have intervened in the conflict – and it is they who will likely drive the terms of any peace deal.

Despite the talks, bombs continue to fall. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 50 civilians were killed by Russian airstrikes Sunday on Islamic State-held territory in eastern Syria.

Moscow confirmed its bombers carried out an attack – but said only militants were killed.

WATCH: Airstrikes ahead of peace talks

Since entering the war in 2015, Russia has reversed the major territorial losses suffered by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Jane Kinninmont, Chatham House, said, “So while Russia is now playing peacemaker, it is its military intervention that has really started to create what seems to be an emerging victory for Bashar al Assad.”

He was aided by a fractured opposition. But for the first time at the Geneva talks, the different factions will be represented by a single unified delegation. They’re demanding that Assad plays no part in Syria’s future.

“Everything on the negotiating table is up for discussion,” Opposition Chief Negotiator Nasr Al Hariri said.

Western powers accuse Assad’s government of gross human rights violations, including the bombing of civilians and widespread torture and killings. But their demands for him to be removed from power have waned.

While Russia and Iran have backed Assad, Western powers – including the United States – have supported moderate opposition groups battling Islamic State. Kurdish forces control swathes of the north– angering Turkey, which has sent troops into Syria. On all sides, war weariness has set in, said Kinninmont.

“The conflict in Syria has been started by local causes, but fueled partly by international intervention. So there’s a chance to de-escalate partly because the international powers don’t really want to be fueling this war anymore. However, the goals of the uprising in the first place – to fight dictatorship, to have a more dignified way of life in Syria – none of those have been met,” Kinninmont said.

As with the conflict, rival powers are seeking to influence the peace. Russia launched a round of talks last week separate from the Geneva process, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Syrian opposition groups are divided on whether to engage.

Meanwhile the White House said both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Putin stressed the importance of the Geneva talks in a phone call last week.