Expectations low as Syria's warring sides
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[January 23, 2017]
By Olzhas Auyezov and Suleiman Al-Khalidi
ASTANA (Reuters) - Syria's warring sides
met for talks in Kazakhstan's capital on Monday, flanked by intermediary
nations seeking to engineer steps towards a goal other negotiations have
failed to reach: an end to the six-year-old conflict.
Sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the meeting marks the first time
the opposition and representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
have come together since United Nations-brokered talks in Geneva were
suspended early last year.
As fighting continued in Syria and organizers played down chances of a
breakthrough, the two sides sat opposite each other at a round table in
a hotel conference room in Astana before a day of talks got under way.
The rebel delegation did not plan to negotiate face to face with
government representatives but via intermediaries, a rebel source said.
Alexander Musienko, an adviser to Russia's ambassador to Kazakhstan,
cast the talks as a step in a long process. "Undoubtedly one cannot
resolve issues like this in just one day," he told reporters on Sunday.
There were no senior government figures among the delegations and
Kazakhstan's foreign ministry said it expected the meetings to be over
by midday on Tuesday.
Pro-Assad Russia and Turkey, which has supported anti-Assad rebels,
remain at odds over fundamental issues such as whether Syria's president
should stay in power or, as the rebels are demanding, step down.
The head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, said
his group's aim was to bolster a shaky ceasefire as a precursor to a
broad-based political solution.
Speaking to Reuters, Yahya al Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition
delegation, also said political talks were not on the Astana agenda.
Underlying the mutual mistrust the talks will need to overcome, Jaafari
played down Turkey's role as a party to the talks, saying they were
between Syrians only.
"Turkey is violating Syrian sovereignty so there is no Syrian-Turkish
dialogue," he said, a reference to Turkish support for anti-Assad armed
groups in the north of Syria.
That message was reinforced on Syrian state TV which assured audiences
that the Syrian delegation had met no Turkish officials.
U.S. LOOKING ON
Some observers said the meetings in Astana, which UN Special Envoy for
Syria Staffan de Mistura is attending, could help jump-start the
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Reporters work in the media center set for Syria peace talks, in
Astana, Kazakhstan, January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov
"The Astana process is a little bit of an unknown quantity," said a
senior U.N. Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of
anonymity. "But provided that it helps get a genuine U.N.-led
process up and running again ... then it can play a constructive
The talks pointedly exclude the West, though Kazakhstan, with the
backing of Moscow and Ankara, extended an invitation to the new U.S.
administration last week, which Washington declined.
Iranian officials have said they strongly oppose U.S. involvement,
though Russian state television said George Krol, the U.S.
ambassador to Kazakhstan, would be present as an observer.
Turkey and Russia - each for their own reasons - both want to
disentangle themselves from the fighting. That has pushed them into
an ad hoc alliance that some people believe represents the best
chance for progress towards a peace deal, especially with Washington
distracted by domestic issues.
The opposition arrive in Astana aware that the fall of their former
urban stronghold, Aleppo, has shifted the momentum in the fighting
in favor of Assad.
On Sunday, war planes bombed rebel-held areas of western Syria,
killing 12 people in one location, the Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights said, while insurgent shelling of Aleppo killed six.
"The ceasefire is clinically dead, but the Russians and Turks want
to keep it alive to send a message to the international community
that they are the ones in charge of the Syrian situation," said
Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman.
(Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin and Kinda Makieh in Astana,
Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in
Dubai and Thomas Perry in Beirut; Writing by Olzhas
Auyezov/Christian Lowe/Andrew Osborn; Editing by John Stonestreet)
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