The United Nations mediator on the Syria crisis called on the warring powers to be ready to engage on substantive political issues at the next round of peace talks scheduled for Geneva as rebels relaunched an offensive around Damascus.
The talks start on Thursday and are expected to last until April 1, a spokeswoman for Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday.
They will focus on four issues “in parallel” – governance, constitutional changes, elections and counter-terrorism measures, UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci said in a statement read out to a UN briefing in Geneva.
De Mistura, who has just held talks in Riyadh, is going to consult officials in Moscow and Ankara before returning to Geneva a day after the talks open under his deputy Ramzy Ramzy, she said.
Syrian regime and rebel delegations have confirmed their attendance at peace, Vellucci said, despite the renewed fighting around Damascus.
“All invitees who had already attended the previous round of talks in February 2017 have confirmed their participation”, she told reporters.
As de Mistura “completes these consultations, Deputy Special Envoy Ramzy (Ezzeldin Ramzy) will engage the parties bilaterally on 23 March in Geneva to prepare the round ahead,” Vellucci said.
The participation of all rebel groups could bolster the UN peace process, after some opposition camps refused to attend separate negotiations in Kazakhstan last week to protest violations of a shaky ceasefire by the Syrian regime.
The parallel series of talks in Astana is aimed at bolstering the truce, in view of supporting the UN negotiations.
Damascus has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent days, with rebels and militants making large incursions into the east of the Syrian capital.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has responded with air strikes on rebel positions.
Rebels and militants on Tuesday launched a fresh assault on east Damascus, two days after Syrian regime forces repelled an initial attack, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“There was a big blast at dawn, most likely due to a car bomb attack by the rebels against a regime position between the districts of Jobar and Qabun,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that fierce clashes continued during the morning.
Syria’s air force responded with raids on opposition positions while rebels shelled the Abbasids and Tijara neighborhoods near Jobar, a few kilometers (miles) from the city center.
The official SANA news agency said that 12 people were wounded in rebel shelling.
An AFP journalist in eastern Damascus reported hearing a large explosion at dawn before clashes broke out.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian regime, which said on Monday it had recaptured all the areas in northeastern Damascus lost after a surprise rebel assault on Sunday in the strategic entrance to the heart of the capital.