Talks on Syria off to rocky start in Astana

Talks on Syria off to rocky start in Astana

Talks on Syria off to rocky start in Astana


Peace talks aimed at ending the Syria conflict through a gathering between the Syrian government and rebel groups made a rocky start on Jan. 23 in the Kazakh capital of Astana. 

The talks had been billed as the first time armed rebel groups were due to negotiate with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the conflict erupted in 2011 and come a month after Syrian forces delivered the rebels a crushing blow by retaking full control of Aleppo, after which a cease-fire brokered by Moscow and Ankara was signed late last month.

Representatives from the two sides sat at the same table as Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov delivered an opening speech.  

Rebel spokesman Yehya al-Aridi told AFP the opposition backed out of the first round of direct talks because of the regime’s continued bombardment and attacks on a flashpoint area near Damascus.

“The first negotiation session will not be face-to-face because the government hasn’t committed until now to what it signed in the Dec. 30 [2016] agreement,” al-Aridi told AFP, referring to a fragile cease-fire deal brokered by Turkey and Russia.  

Fourteen representatives of armed opposition groups gathered at the Rixos Hotel in Astana for indirect negotiations with delegates representing the Syrian government, which is headed by Syrian U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari. 

Syrian rebels also vowed to continue fighting if talks with al-Assad’s regime in Astana fail.  

“If the negotiations succeed, then we are with the negotiations,” rebel spokesman Osama Abu Zeid told AFP on Jan. 23. 

“If they don’t succeed, unfortunately we’ll have no choice but to continue fighting.”

Mohamed Alloush of Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) heads the Syrian opposition’s delegation at the talks.

Syrian regimes calls rebels’ speech ‘insolent’ 

Al-Jaafari denounced as “provocative” and “insolent” a speech delivered by Alloush attending the gathering in Kazakhstan.

Al-Jaafari said Alloush’s speech in Astana did not rise to the level of the gathering of diplomats attending the conference.

In remarks to reporters, al-Jaafari repeatedly referred to the rebel delegation as representatives of “terrorist armed groups,” according to The Associated Press. He also said that the agenda for the talks, which are sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, is “not ready yet.”

The harsh and uncompromising tone of al-Jaafari’s remarks was a bad omen for the talks, which had barely started with an opening ceremony and speeches by various representatives.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistrua would mediate between the representatives of the Damascus government and the rebel factions in Astana.

Lavrov said at a news conference on Jan. 23 in Moscow that Russia is “glad these talks started today, despite predictions and attempts to hamper” them.

He said de Mistura would have the support of the Iranian delegation in contacts with Syrian government representatives while the Turkish delegation would be helping de Mistura reach out to the rebels attending the talks in Astana.

U.N.-brokered talks between al-Assad’s representatives and civilian opposition figures broke down early last year as Russian support turned the war in al-Assad’s favor.  
The two sides of the negotiations also have different positions regarding the talks. 

“We will not enter into any political discussions and everything revolves over abiding by the cease-fire and the humanitarian dimension of easing the suffering of Syrians under siege and release of detainees and delivery of aid,” al-Aridi told Reuters earlier in the day. 

“The Syrian regime has an interest in diverting attention from these issues. If the Syrian regime thinks our presence in Astana is a surrender by us, this is a delusion,” he added.

Al-Assad, on the other hand, on Jan. 19 insisted that rebels lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.

Immediate solution shouldn’t be expected: Kurtulmuş 

A solution at the Syria peace talks in Astana should not be expected in a day or two, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Jan. 23 after a cabinet meeting.  

“There are parties that have been at war with each other for six years sitting around the table in Astana. We are hopeful about the process. Parties that have strong opposing views will get to a point of negotiations as the talks continue,” he said. 

Kurtulmus stressed that Turkey was expecting positive contributions from Russia, Iran and the U.S. and an active participation from U.N. representatives in order to achieve copious results. 

“Almost all of the countries attending have de facto presence in the field. They either have bases or ground troops deployed. Let Syria define its own future. All foreign elements in Syria should retreat,” he said. 

He stated that Turkey defended a permanent and just solution in Syria, where Kurdish, Arab and other components would be included.

The Turkish delegation is be chaired by Deputy Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Sedat Önal while Special Envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov lead the Russian team, state-run Anadolu Agency reported. 

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari and U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol are also participating. 

Russia, Turkey, Iran delegates hold talks

On Jan. 22, delegates from Russia, Turkey and Iran held hours-long talks in Kazakhstan on the eve of negotiations, trying to forge common ground that would nudge forward a political settlement for the country’s civil war.

The talks between the two warring sides are the first in a year, and are meant as a first step to consolidate a cease-fire reached last month.

After more than four hours of meetings with the Turkish and Iranian delegations, Lavrentiev said the three state delegations were “moving toward a united front,” according to The Associated Press. 

The meeting, which has also drawn more than 400 journalists, is due to last until the evening on Jan. 24, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry said. 

Groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, are excluded from the cease-fire and the talks. 

An estimated 400,000 people have been killed and 11 million displaced since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, according to the U.N.