Crucial Syria summit begins in Kazakhstan
ASTANAThe crucial Syria summit, which will bring Syria’s government and rebel fighters to a negotiating table for the first time after nearly six years of war, following 23 days of cease-fire, is set to start in Kazakhstan’s capital on Jan. 23.
Hosted in Astana, the talks will bring together an opposition delegation composed of rebel groups, which will be supported by political advisers, negotiating with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an initiative sponsored by rebel-backing Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran.
Though the talks have been welcomed by all parties in the conflict, delegates from both sides headed to Kazakhstan with apparently opposing ideas about the goals, with al-Assad on Jan. 19 insisting that rebels lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
Although al-Assad said the talks would prioritize reaching a cease-fire, Damascus has insisted it will seek a “comprehensive” political solution to the conflict that has killed more than 300,000 and displaced over half of the country’s population.
The rebels, meanwhile, say they will focus solely on reinforcing a frail nationwide truce brokered by Moscow and Ankara last month, the release of captives held by the al-Assad regime, and an end to regime sieges on opposition-held areas, according to Mohamed Alloush of Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), who will head the Syrian opposition’s delegation at the talks.
Moscow said this week that the objective was to “consolidate” the cease-fire and involve rebel field commanders in the “political process” to end the bloodshed, creating a basis for a new round of U.N.-hosted negotiations in Geneva next month.
Talks to end on Jan 24, Kazakhstan says
The Kazakh Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Jan. 22 that the talks would start at 1:00 p.m. (7:00 a.m. GMT) on Jan. 23 in Astana and that they were scheduled to end in the afternoon of Jan. 24, just one day after its initiation.
While the talks will be held in the city’s luxury Rixos President Hotel, where staff members are setting up a single large table in a conference room under blue banners bearing the hashtag #AstanaProcess, according to AFP, rebels and regime figures are expected to sit in the same room, along with U.N. Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura and representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
De Mistura on Jan. 22 hailed the talks as a “good initiative” in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, an experienced negotiator involved in past failed talks in Geneva, will head the regime delegation in Astana.
The Turkish delegation will be chaired by Deputy Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Sedat Önal, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency, which also reported that Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and General Staff officials would also be present at the talks.
While the same report said that Russia’s Special Envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov were the figures to represent Russia at the talks, Doğan News Agency quoted Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry as saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department head Vershinin Sergey Vasilievich would represent the country.
Iran, the talks’ third sponsor, would be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaber Ansari, the country’s Isna news agency reported.
Kazakhstan will be represented by its Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov.
Alloush to head 14 members of ‘military delegation’
Alloush, who was accompanied by around a dozen rebel figures, including Fares Buyush of the Idlib Army, Hassan Ibrahim of the Southern Front and Mamoun Hajj Moussa of Suqur al-Sham, when he landed in Astana, will lead a “military delegation” of around 14 people, in addition to 21 legal and political advisers from the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) umbrella group, according to AFP.
But key rebel group Ahrar al-Sham said it would snub the Astana talks over cease-fire violations and ongoing Russian air strikes on the country.
Ahrar al-Sham nonetheless said it would support decisions taken by other rebel groups represented at the talks if they were “in the interest of the nation.”
The U.S. under new President Donald Trump will also be represented - with the U.S. Ambassador to Astana George Krol taking part, while not sending a delegation from Washington.
“We welcome and appreciate Kazakhstan’s invitation to participate as an observer. Given our presidential inauguration and the immediate demands of the transition, a delegation from Washington will not be attending the Astana conference,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said on Jan. 21.
A key negotiator in previous cease-fire agreements, Washington was last month sidelined from sponsoring the nationwide truce brokered by Russia and Turkey after months of disengagement from the conflict.
France, Britain and the EU will also send their ambassadors as representatives at the talks.
The U.N. Security Council said it looked forward to the upcoming talks on Syria as “an important step” ahead of the resumption of U.N.-led talks between the Syrian government and opposition in Geneva, which is scheduled for Feb. 8.
A council statement after a closed-door briefing on Jan. 20 by U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman urged all parties to respect the cease-fire. Both sides have carried out attacks despite the truce that has been in place since Dec. 30, 2016.
Denmark allows its soldiers to fight ISIL in Syria
Meanwhile, Danish troops fighting in Iraq will now be able to cross into Syria as part of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Danish Defense Ministry said in a statement on Jan. 20.
Denmark’s parliament authorized special operations soldiers “to perform their tasks in the Iraqi-Syrian border area,” the statement said.
“The fight against ISIL is an important foreign and security policy priority for the government,” Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen told the Ritzau news agency after parliamentary discussions in Copenhagen.
Samuelsen said the coalition had asked Denmark, a NATO member, to send troops to Syria, but he did not reveal how many or where they would be deployed in the war-torn country, nor when.
“The government has, therefore, based on a specific request from the coalition, decided to expand the functions of special operations forces in Iraq and Syria,” Samuelsen said in remarks quoted by public broadcaster TV2.
The Pentagon said on Jan. 20 that a U.S. strike killed more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters at a training camp in northwestern Syria.
The air strike occurred on Jan. 19 on a camp in Idlib province that was in operation since 2013, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said.
“The removal of this training camp disrupts training operations and discourages hardline Islamist and Syrian opposition groups from joining or cooperating with al-Qaeda on the battlefield,” Davis said.
U.S. plane and drone strikes have killed more than 150 al-Qaeda fighters since Jan. 1, Davis said, including Mohammad Habib Boussadoun al-Tunisi, an “external operations leader” in Syria.