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Major World Powers Are Attempting to Rescue the Syrian Peace Talks

World powers and organizations including the EU and the Arab League are meeting to attempt to restart peace talks — while in Syria, there are fears a besieged town is about to be attacked.
Photo by Leonhard Foeger/EPA

Discussions aimed at restoring a ceasefire, getting rebel groups back to the negotiation table, and getting aid into besieged areas of Syria are set to resume in Vienna on Tuesday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will co-chair a meeting of the International Syria Support Group, comprising 17 of more than 20 member organizations and countries. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who are seeking the overthrow of the current Syrian regime, and Iran, a key ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, will take part.

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The UK, France, the Arab League, and the European Union will be represented, while United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura is expected to attempt to secure support for another round of indirect peace talks in a greater attempt to end the conflict. A third round took place in Geneva in April, collapsing after the opposition's High Negotiations Committee announced a "pause" in their participation.

The partial truce that was agreed in February has not held.

Syrian activists in al-Qabun, a neighborhood several miles northeast of Damascus, protesting Iran's involvement in the meeting in Vienna.

Speaking ahead of Tuesday's meeting, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: "We must find a way back into the political process… It's about improving the conditions for the ceasefire and humanitarian aid so as to win the opposition over to negotiate with the regime in Geneva."

A senior Gulf diplomat told the Guardian they did not expect anything significant to come out of this latest round of discussions. "We are dealing with tactical steps, but there is nothing beyond them," they said.

Related: Syrian Regime Blocks Aid Convoy and Shells Civilians Who Gathered to Receive It

Meanwhile, rebel fighters and officials in a besieged Syrian town on the outskirts of Damascus believe government forces are preparing an assault after they turned back an aid convoy last week.

Daraya, situated close to a large air base and just a few miles from Assad's palace, had seen little violence since a broader cessation of hostilities agreement came into effect at the end of February.

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But, with the truce rapidly unraveling across Syria, government forces began shelling the town on Thursday after refusing entry to a desperately-needed aid convoy.

Known for its peaceful protests in the early days of the uprising against Assad, Daraya has been under siege for more than four years, and is regularly targeted by bombings.

"Large convoys of [government] troops are moving from the airport and from Ashrafiyat Sahnaya [the next town south]," said Abu Samer, spokesman for the Liwa Shuhada al-Islam rebel group.

"We are prepared to repel their assault but our main fear is for the civilians besieged in the town who face severe shortages of food."

Residents of the town have told VICE News about the hellish conditions there: Daraya has not had a water supply in more than two years, and inhabitants are surviving by eating lentil or rice soup fortified with grass or weeds.

Despite there being only around 8,000 residents and about 1,000 fighters left in the town, the Syrian army has not been able to establish control of the area.

"Our monitoring showed there were heavy vehicle deployments on the southern edge of the city," said Liwa Shuhada al-Islam head Colonel Said Naqrash on Tuesday.

"The regime is continuing to pour in more equipment, fighters… All these movements indicate that the regime is planning something."

A Syrian military source denied rebel accounts of troop deployments, saying nothing had changed in the area.

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Related: World Leaders Are in London Trying to Raise Billions For Syria

Daraya is controlled by two main rebel groups, Liwa Shuhada al-Islam and Itihad al-Islami Ajnad al-Sham, drawn from local residents. Radical Islamist fighters are not believed to be among them.

"The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is abiding by the ceasefire and only repelling attacks," said Daraya activist Fadi Dirani.

Abu Yamen, a member of the town council, said such concentrations of troops had not been seen since before the truce.

This month, the UN said Syria's government was refusing demands to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of people.

The aid convoy blocked from going to Daraya last week would have been the first delivered since the siege began.

But even then it was not allowed to contain food, only medical and other aid, and residents launched an online campaign ahead of the expected delivery with the slogan: "We cannot eat medicine."

British-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes broke out around the besieged town and government forces started shelling after the convoy was turned back.

Daraya's local council said on its Facebook page on Saturday it was "extremely worried" about a new military offensive, having seen reconnaissance aircraft overhead and troops gathering south of the town.

Related: Syrian Peace Talks Are Due to Start Today But No One Knows Who'll Be There

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd