- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2017

Government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have again pushed heavily into Islamic State-controlled areas in the northern part of the country, a strong show of military force ahead of the latest round of peace talks to end the country’s civil war.

Syrian government troops have encircled the town of Deir Hafer, a Islamic State enclave 30 miles east of Aleppo, which straddles the main thoroughfare between Aleppo and the group’s self-styled capital of Raqqa. Government forces have cut off the main roadway leading to Raqqa and are moving into the town center, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

Thursday’s offensive is the second one carried out by Assad forces against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Government troops, backed by Russian airpower, moved on the Islamic State-controlled city of al Bab in February, taking control of the main roadways leading from the city into Raqqa.

The Deir Hafer offensive comes on the eve of the latest round of peace talks to end the six-year Syrian civil war. Assad and allies from Moscow, Ankara and officials from Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias will meet in Geneva for talks this week.

On Tuesday, Deputy United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy Ramzy met with representatives from the Assad regime. He will hold informal talks with opposition officials during the course of the Geneva summit.

The talks, which began during an initial summit in Astana, Kazakhstan have continued without participation by the United States.

Emboldened by the regime’s victory over anti-government forces in the rebel stronghold of Aleppo late last year has prompted an increased Syrian and Russian presence on the Islamic State battlefield.

That presence, seen as an attempt by Assad to maintain sway over the country and gain leverage during ongoing peace talks, has confounded American and coalition commanders trying to maintain order among the various forces battling the Islamic State in northern Syria.

An Army Stryker unit from the 75th Ranger Regiment was deployed to Manbij to quell infighting between U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish militias and Turkish forces stationed near the city, as well as monitor advancing Syrian and Russian forces who began moving toward the area this month.

Shortly after the Ranger deployment, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford met with his Turkish and Russian counterparts, to ease tensions and deconflict operations among the three nations on the increasingly crowded Syrian battlefield.

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