DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces gained new ground, capturing a strategic northern town on Thursday, while a state-owned daily dismissed as "premature" all talk about early presidential elections, amending the constitution or setting up a transition period for the war-torn country.
The editorial in Al-Baath, the mouthpiece of the President Bashar Assad's ruling Baath party, came amid a recently circulated document by the government's top ally Russia. The paper outlines a proposal to end Syria's conflict that envisages drafting a new constitution within 18 months, which would then be put to a popular referendum and that vote, in turn, would be followed by an early presidential election.
The proposal makes no mention of Assad stepping down during the transition — a key opposition demand and a sticking point in all previous negotiations to end the civil war.
The Al-Baath editorial also said prospects of progress in the second round of talks on Syria's crisis, due this weekend in Vienna, are dim because of the previous round's failure to clearly define which groups constitute the moderate opposition.
The Syrian government describes all insurgent groups fighting Assad's forces inside Syria as "terrorists" and says opposition groups outside the country are foreign-paid agents.
The Russian document, entitled "Approach To The Settlement of The Syrian Crisis," focuses on both opposition and "terrorist groups," and the need to differentiate between them.
Meanwhile, Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen on Thursday captured the strategic town of Hader, according to state media and Al-Manar TV of Lebanon's Hezbollah group. The town lies just south of the contested northern city of Aleppo, the country's largest and once commercial center. Syrian state TV said troops "inflicted casualties among the terrorists."
Al-Manar, which has a crew embedded with Syrian troops, showed footage from Hader showing tanks and multiple rocket launchers shelling areas near the town. It also aired footage it said was from inside the town, showing empty streets.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters now control large parts of Hader amid intense battles with militants groups, including al-Qaida's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front.
The capture of Hader and similar battlefield advances by Assad's forces and their allies could boost the government's position in future peace talks. Syria's nearly five-year crisis has killed more than 250,000 people, according to U.N. figures.
Also on Thursday, Syrian troops launched a fresh offensive just east of the capital, Damascus, in an attempt to capture the Marj al-Sultan air base, which has been held by rebels for more than two years, according to the Lebanon-based pro-government Al-Mayadeen and the Observatory.
Government troops on Tuesday broke a siege imposed by the Islamic State group on the northern military air base of Kweiras since 2013, marking the first major achievement by Assad's forces since Russia began its airstrikes on Sept. 30.
The Observatory said the Kweiras battle on Tuesday left 60 Islamic State fighters dead, as well as more than 40 government troops and pro-government gunmen, including Iranian and Hezbollah fighters.
Mroue reported from Beirut.