Syrian pro-government forces recaptured Rabiya, a key rebel-held town in coastal Latakia province, on Sunday, building on battlefield advances in the area before planned peace talks this week in Geneva.
Government troops and allied fighters, supported by Russian airpower and joined on the ground by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian forces, have pressed offensives in Syria's west and northwest in recent months, seeking to reverse gains made by insurgents last year.
The latest advance comes before peace talks originally set for Monday but now likely delayed, partly because of a dispute over which opposition groups will be included in the negotiations. Also, the opposition said that before it joins talks, Russia must stop bombing civilian areas and Damascus must lift sieges of rebel-held areas.
The recapture of Rabiya paves the way for an advance to the border with Turkey, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Syrian state television confirmed Rabiya’s capture.
Turkey supports insurgents battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, who has the backing of Russia and Iran.
The Observatory described Rabiya as the “second-most-important base for [rebel] fighters in the northern Latakia countryside,” after the town of Salma, which pro-government forces seized earlier this month in one of the most significant advances since Russia joined the fight.
The United States has said it is confident the talks in Geneva will go ahead this week despite continued disagreements.
Lead opposition negotiator Mohamad Alloush said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put pressure on the rebels to attend the Geneva talks in order to negotiate a halt to Russian bombardments, the lifting of blockades and the release of detainees — measures the opposition has insisted must be implemented before any negotiations go ahead.
“Kerry came to pressure us to give up our humanitarian rights,” Alloush, a politburo member of rebel group Jaysh Al-Islam, told Reuters. “There will be a big response to these pressures,” he added, without elaborating.
Asked about the chances of negotiations going ahead, he said, “We leave this to the coming hours.”
Earlier a Western diplomat said talks would be unlikely to begin before Wednesday, with the opposition negotiating team, formed after a conference in Saudi Arabia last month, taking stock in Riyadh until Tuesday.
The United Nations has said it will not issue invitations to talks until major powers reach agreement on which rebel representatives should attend. United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura had been expected to issue invitations on Sunday.
Syrian rebel groups said on Saturday they held the Syrian government and Russia responsible for any failure of talks.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Saturday the United States and Turkey were prepared for a military solution against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria should the Syrian government and rebels fail to reach a political settlement.
Washington is waging an air campaign against the group in areas it controls in northern and eastern Syria.
Russia is separately striking ISIL, including in Deir al-Zor province, where, the Syrian Observatory said on Sunday, raids believed to be carried out by Russian jets killed 63 people.
The Syrian conflict, which began in 2011, has killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced 11 million others.