GENEVA - Syria’s army secured a major battlefield victory Wednesday as Russia vowed no let-up in its aerial bombardment in support of the regime, helping force the temporary suspension of fragile peace talks in Switzerland.

In a major blow to the rebels, a military source said that President Bashar al-Assad’s army cut the last supply route linking opposition forces in the northern city of Aleppo to the Turkish border. The source said the army had broken a three-year rebel siege of two government-held Shiite villages, Nubol and Zahraa, and taken control of parts of the supply route.

The advance was helped by intense bombing by Russian aircraft in recent days throughout the area north of Aleppo city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. The offensive is one of several the government has launched since Moscow threw its military might behind President Bashar al-Assad, adding to support from Iran, on September 30.

The new advance helped undermine efforts in Geneva over recent days by the UN special envoy to coax the warring sides into indirect peace talks to end a war that has killed more than 260,000 people. On Wednesday the envoy, Staffan de Mistura, duly announced a temporary suspension of the talks until February 25.

“I have concluded frankly that after the first week of preparatory talks there is more work to be done, not only by us but the stakeholders,” de Mistura told reporters. “I have indicated from the first day I won’t talk for the sake of talking. I therefore have taken the decision to bring a temporary pause. It is not the end or the failure of the talks,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday he saw no reason for the air strikes to stop, while slamming “capricious” elements in the HNC and the smuggling of arms into Syria from Turkey. “Russian air strikes will not cease until we truly defeat the terrorist organisations ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra,” Russian agencies quoted Lavrov as saying in Oman.

He was referring to the so-called Islamic State group, the extremist group which has overrun swathes of Syria and Iraq and has claimed bombings and shootings worldwide, and to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The opposition says the Russian strikes have almost entirely targeted other rebel groups, many backed by the West, Gulf states and Turkey, which shot down a Russian jet on its Syrian border in November.

Since the conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad’s iron-fisted rule, more than half of Syria’s population have fled their homes — many heading to Europe. The tangled conflict has dragged in a range of international players, from Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states to Western nations and Russia. There has been a brutal crackdown on dissent and the economy is in ruins. World leaders will gather in London on Thursday for a donor conference to try to raise $9 billion (8.3 billion euros) to help Syrians hit by the war and neighbouring countries affected by the crisis.

The hoped-for six months of indirect “proximity talks” are part of an ambitious roadmap agreed by outside powers embroiled in the conflict in November in Vienna. This plan foresees a nationwide ceasefire, an inclusive and non-sectarian government within six months, a new constitution, and free and fair elections within 18 months. But problems beset the process from the outset.

The opposition umbrella group High Negotiations Committee (HNC) only reluctantly arrived in Geneva on Saturday, a day after representatives from Assad’s government. The HNC was insisting on immediate steps including humanitarian aid getting through to besieged cities, a halt to the bombardment of civilians and the release of prisoners.

It was also outraged that while trying to get peace talks off the ground in Geneva, a major offensive was happening on the ground.

The government delegation meanwhile complained that the HNC was disorganised, had not named its negotiators and that the body contained individuals it considered “terrorists”. One such figure is Mohammed Alloush, a leading member of Islamist rebel group the Army of Islam and nominally the HNC’s chief negotiator, who said in Geneva Wednesday he was “not optimistic”.

“The problem is not with de Mistura. The problem is with the criminal regime that decimates children and with Russia which always tries to stand alongside criminals,” he said, clutching a photo of a young boy he said was severely wounded by Russian air strikes. De Mistura said he was asking for the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of outside countries to convene “as soon as possible.”

Reuters/AFP

ERBIL, Iraq

Arab fighters backed by Kurdish forces and US-led air strikes retook a village in northern Iraq on Wednesday in an example of effective military cooperation on the ground between them against Islamic State insurgents.

The offensive in the Makhmour district south of Erbil began early on Wednesday, resulting in the recapture of Kudila - part of a series of planned operations to clear Islamic State from the area, Kurdish and Arab commanders said.

Kurdish forces have driven the ultra-hardline militants back in northern Iraq, but have been reluctant to push further into predominantly Arab territory for fear of being seen as an occupying force by inhabitants and provoking a backlash.

Local Arabs have been training in the Makhmour area as part of the Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Force, a coalition of mainly Shia militias in which Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi would like to include Sunni groups.

“In coordination with the (Kurdish) peshmerga and supported by coalition planes they have a plan to clear and liberate all the areas that the terrorists seized,” said peshmerga commander Qader Qader. “These attacks will continue”.

Speaking via phone from Kudila with the sound of heavy machine gun fire in the background, one peshmerga said Islamic State had deployed three suicide car bombs to fend off the assault and at least eight militants had been killed.

Sheikh Faris al-Sabaawi, one of the three commanders of the Hashid Shaabi force in the area, said he could see militants’ body parts scattered around the village, which was used to launch rockets on Makhmour.

The Hashid Shaabi retook another village in the area in coordination with the peshmerga several days ago. “We work as one team,” Sabaawi said.

The Hashid Shaabi will advance towards the Islamic State stronghold of Qayara, around 10 km (6 miles) further west, Sabaawi said. This ultimately would increase the pressure on Islamic State-held Mosul, northern Iraq’s largest city, which the peshmerga have partly surrounded.

The US-led coalition fighting Islamic State aims to recapture Mosul this year, working with Iraqi government forces, and drive the jihadis out of Raqqa, their stronghold in northeast Syria, Arab and Western officials say.

Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi has said the Mosul operation will be launched in the first half of 2016.

Meanwhile, the head of Syria’s main opposition arrived in Switzerland on Wednesday to try to jumpstart formal peace talks , as a defiant Russia vowed no let-up of its aerial bombardment in support of the regime.

Riad Hijab’s arrival came as a major push to end Syria’s nearly five-year war was on shaky ground after the opposition, outraged at a barrage of Russian air strikes, cancelled a meeting with the UN special envoy on Tuesday.

Representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s government have denounced the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) as disorganised, insisting that formal negotiations have not even begun yet.

The latest Russian bombings since Moscow threw its military might behind Assad in September allowed loyalist forces to edge towards breaking a long-running rebel siege on two government-held villages near the northern city of Aleppo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday he saw no reason for the air strikes to stop, while slamming “capricious” elements in the HNC and the smuggling of arms into Syria from Turkey.

“Russian air strikes will not cease until we truly defeat the terrorist organisations ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra,” Russian agencies quoted Lavrov as saying in Oman.

He was referring to the so-called Islamic State, the extremist group which has overrun swathes of Syria and Iraq and has claimed bombings and shootings worldwide, and to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.

The opposition says the Russian strikes have almost entirely targeted other rebel groups, many backed by the West, Gulf states and Turkey, which shot down a Russian jet on its Syrian border in November. “Russia is using the political process as a cover to impose its military solution on the ground,” Salem al-Meslet from the HNC said.

UN envoy Staffan De Mistura’s tricky brief is to coax the warring parties in a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people into six months of indirect talks under a roadmap agreed by outside powers in November.

Since the conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against Assad’s iron-fisted rule, more than half of Syria’s population have fled their homes - many heading to Europe.

The tangled conflict has dragged in a range of international players, from Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states to Western nations and Russia. There has been a brutal crackdown on dissent and the economy is in ruins. De Mistura said on Swiss television late Tuesday that if the UN-brokered talks fail, “all hope would be lost.”

He also told the BBC that “the level of confidence between the two parties is close to zero”.

The HNC wants Assad to allow humanitarian access to besieged towns, to stop bombing civilians and to release thousands of prisoners - some of them children - languishing in regime jails.

Damascus complains that the HNC has failed to present even a list of its negotiators and strongly objects to the inclusion within the Saudi-backed body of rebels that it and Moscow view as “terrorists”.

One such figure is Mohammed Alloush, a leading member of Islamist rebel group the Army of Islam and nominally the HNC’s chief negotiator, who said Wednesday he was “not optimistic”.

“The problem is not with de Mistura. The problem is with the criminal regime that decimates children and with Russia which always tries to stand alongside criminals,” he said, clutching a photo of a young boy he said was severely wounded by Russian air strikes.

The HNC was on Wednesday locked in internal talks in a Geneva hotel - barred to reporters since Tuesday - to discuss its next steps, after a tense meeting the previous evening, an opposition source said.

An AFP reporter said de Mistura arrived on Wednesday afternoon at the hotel, with a second opposition source saying he was there to meet Hijab informally.

Western diplomats expressed optimism that Hijab, a former Syrian premier who became the highest-ranking Assad defector in 2012, could help the HNC pull together.

“With Hijab here, the HNC can better demonstrate a unified position in representing the opposition,” one said on condition of anonymity.

Absent for now from the official process are representatives from the Kurds, which backed by Western firepower have made considerable gains on the ground against IS in recent months.