* Rebels make small advances as fierce battle rages near
* Eastern outskirts of capital blockaded for over 6 months
* Syria peace envoy meets with Syrian opposition, Iran
(Adds Geneva talks, details on Eastern Ghouta fighting)
By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Nov 24 Fierce fighting to the east of
Damascus has killed more than 160 people in the past two days as
Syrian rebels struggle to break a months-long blockade by forces
loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, activists said on Sunday.
It began on Friday when rebel units attacked a string of
military checkpoints encircling the opposition-held suburbs in
an area known as Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege for
more than six months.
Local and international aid workers say Assad's forces
appeared to be trying to starve out residents - indiscriminately
affecting civilians as much as rebel fighters.
The blockade has cut off rebels' weapons supplies and helped
turn the tide of fighting around the capital in Assad's favour.
The battle has also drawn in hundreds of foreign fighters on
both sides, underlining how Syria's civil war has stirred
Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian tensions across the region.
"It is a ferocious fight between the two sides because it's
a struggle over our ultimate fate here," said Bara Abdelrahman,
a media activist with the rebel Islam Army brigades in the area.
The conflict in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people,
according to the United Nations, and is also destabilising
Foreign powers are trying to bring the warring sides
together for a peace conference in Switzerland before the end of
the year, dubbed 'Geneva 2'. On Sunday, Syria's peace envoy
Lakhdar Brahimi met with members of the opposition to discuss
the talks, which many rebel groups have rejected without a clear
guarantee that Assad will step down.
Assad's government says it welcomes talks but will not
accept any preconditions.
Meanwhile, Assad's forces, emboldened by gains in central
Syria in recent months, have been seizing back towns in the
rebels' northern stronghold.
REBELS ADVANCE IN GHOUTA
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had
advanced in Eastern Ghouta in recent fighting, seizing some
small villages and the once government-held town of Deir Attiya.
Assad's forces responded with three air raids, it said.
The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have drawn support from
radical Sunni groups such as al Qaeda and other foreign
militants. Shi'ite governments and militias have thrown their
weight behind Assad, who is from Syria's minority Alawite sect,
an offshoot of Shi'ism.
Rebels say Lebanon's Shi'ite guerrilla movement Hezbollah
has joined the Eastern Ghouta battle on Assad's side, as has the
Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a militia that includes Shi'ite
fighters from around the Middle East.
The Britain-based Observatory, a pro-opposition group with a
network of activists across Syria, said it had documented about
100 deaths on the rebel side on Friday and Saturday in Eastern
Ghouta, and more than 60 among forces fighting for Assad.
But it said there were likely to be more deaths that had not
"This battle has been one of incredible human losses," said
Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory. "The fighting is
spreading all over the eastern suburbs."
There was no comment on casualty figures from government
The United States, which backs the opposition, and Russia,
Assad's main arms supplier, have been pushing for peace talks
but a major sticking point has been the role of Shi'ite power
Iran, Assad's main ally.
Opposition forces fear a deal curbing Tehran's nuclear
programme will lead Washington to ease pressure on Iran and
Assad in Syria.
Brahimi held separate talks with Iran's foreign minister,
Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
in Geneva in the past two days but did not meet U.S. Secretary
of State John Jerry as expected.
The envoy is to host talks in Geneva on Monday between U.S.
Under Secretary Wendy Sherman and Russia's deputy foreign
ministers, Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Dasha
Afanasieva in Istanbul; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)