Dozens of people were killed in fighting in Syria’s Aleppo province Friday as an international envoy prepared a Middle East tour ahead of proposed peace talks next month.
UN-Arab League representative Lakhdar Brahimi’s visit, which begins Saturday, comes as the international community ramps up efforts to convene a peace conference in Geneva.
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 the northern province of Aleppo, including 12 Kurds killed by regime shelling in the town of Tal-Aran, where nine people died the same way on Thursday.
The town lies on a strategic route between Aleppo city and Sfeirah, a town under rebel control near a military base where the regime is believed to store some of its chemical arsenal.
Elsewhere in the province, the Observatory said at least 20 regime troops and seven rebels were killed after opposition forces attacked an air defence base southwest of Aleppo city.
In eastern Syria, the Observatory reported ongoing fighting in the city of Deir Ezzor, with regime warplanes carrying out raids.
Rebels had earlier made advances in the Rashdiya neighbourhood 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 Ezzor.”
The Observatory said Jamaa, who was in charge of military intelligence in Deir Ezzor 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.
Brahimi will travel to Egypt on Saturday on the first leg of a regional tour to prepare the ground for the conference.
In Geneva, 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 finalised, she added, but stops in Syria and Damascus ally Iran are expected.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has also been pushing for the conference, will head to Europe next week for talks about the meeting.
“There is no military solution, absolutely not,” he said on US radio Thursday.
“So we are trying to move the process forward. I’ll have meetings next Tuesday in London with the support group of the opposition.”
Kerry and other envoys from the so-called London 11 — the core group of the “Friends of Syria” — will meet with the opposition in Britain on Tuesday to review progress towards convening the conference.
But the prospects for the talks remain dim, with the 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 do so.
The Syrian National Council, a key member of the Coalition, has already said it opposes the talks and threatened to quit if the umbrella group takes part.
The international community has been pushing the rebels and the regime for months 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 talks, which were mooted as early as May, comes after a September deal under which Syria agreed to turn over its chemical arsenal for destruction.
Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said Friday they have visited 14 out of more than 20 sites in Syria.
The inspections were prescribed by a UN Security Council resolution that staved off threatened US military action against Assad’s regime after an August 21 sarin attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.
Under the resolution’s terms, international experts must destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014.