All sides prepare for Syria talks in Astana
ISTANBULProspective participants in peace talks scheduled to take place in the Kazakh capital of Astana were making preparations ahead of Jan. 23, the set date for the start of the negotiations that were brokered by Russia and Turkey.
Mohamed Alloush, who will head the Syrian opposition’s delegation at the talks, said the delegation’s main aims were to secure a cease-fire and the release of captives held by the Bashar al-Assad regime, and an end to regime sieges on opposition-held areas.
“We’re going to Astana in the hopes of securing a cease-fire, especially in the Wadi Barada and Eastern Ghouta areas south of Damascus,” Alloush, a member of the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) opposition faction, told state-run Anadolu Agency.
“If a [cease-fire] deal – that includes observers – can be hammered out, the whole world will know who is violating the truce and who is shelling civilians,” he said.
Alloush stressed that opposition groups had complied with the latest cease-fire in Syria, which went into effect on Dec. 30, 2016, despite alleged violations by the regime and its allies.
“Russia now appears convinced of the need for a political solution to the crisis, unlike its position at the 2016 talks in Geneva,” Alloush said.
The government will be represented by a delegation that will be headed by Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s permanent representative at the United Nations headquartered in New York.
Al-Assad said Jan. 19 that he hopes rebels attending the talks would agree to lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
Details on the format of the talks remain murky, but al-Assad told Japanese television channel TBS that he hoped rebels would “lay down their arms and receive an amnesty from the government.”
“This is the only thing we can expect at this time,” he added, according to excerpts from the interview released by his office on Jan. 19.
Al-Assad said the talks would “prioritize, as we see it, reaching a cease-fire.”
“At this time, we believe that the conference will take shape as talks between the government and terrorist groups in order to reach a cease-fire and allow these groups to join the reconciliation deals in Syria,” he said.
The U.S. on Jan. 19 acknowledged it received an invitation to the meeting in Kazakhstan to help pave the way for negotiations to end the six-year Syrian war.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the Donald Trump administration has not yet announced a response to the invitation.
“Our embassy in Moscow did receive an invitation delivered to them from the Russian Foreign Ministry which they duly passed on to us here … so we are aware that there is an actual invitation for the U.S. to participate,” Kirby said.
“But as far as I know, no decision has been made and this is, as the secretary said last week, this is something that would be up to the incoming team to decide, not him,” he added.
Russia hopes that the administration of Trump will send a Middle East expert to talks on the Syria conflict in Astana, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Jan. 20, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 40 fighters of former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front were killed in air strikes on their camp in northern Syria late on Jan. 19.
The observatory said it could not immediately specify who carried out the strikes in the western part of Aleppo province.
A U.S.-led coalition as well as the Syrian government and its ally Russia have carried out strikes against Fateh al-Sham targets in recent weeks.
“Warplanes, which may have been Russian or coalition aircraft, struck a Fateh al-Sham camp in Jabal al-Sheikh Suleiman,” the Britain-based observatory said.
Fierce clashes near a key military airport in the central Syrian province of Homs on Jan. 19 left at least 18 jihadists and a dozen pro-government fighters dead, the observatory said.