SYRIA'S WARRING SIDES KICK OFF TALKS IN ASTANA
TALKS IN ASTANA OFF TO ROCKY START AS NO FACE-TO-FACE DISCUSSIONS TAKE PLACE BETWEEN RIVAL DELEGATIONS
Adelegation of Syrian rebels attending a new round of talks in Kazakhstan's capital will not hold direct talks with representatives of the government, according to opposition sources. The meetings in Astana, organised by Russia and Turkey, are aimed at strengthening a shaky ceasefire that has largely held despite incidents of violence across Syria. Opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi said the rebels had backed out of the first session of face-to-face negotiations on Monday, accusing the government of Bashar al-Assad of violating the December 30 truce deal brokered by Russia and Turkey.
"If there is seriousness in making these talks lead to something substantial, formality won't be that important," Aridi told re- porters. We haven't seen any signs of commitment to the ceasefire; there should be clarity and agreement on this first." But Bashar al-Jaafari, the head of the Syrian government delegation, also accused rebels of not keeping their end in the ceasefire deal - particularly in Wadi Barada, a strategic area in the Damascus suburbs and home to a major water facility.
Speaking to reporters in Astana, Jaafari repeatedly referred to the rebel delegation as representatives of "terrorist armed groups" and said the agenda for the talks is "not ready yet".
Organisers have played down expectations of a breakthrough, with Turkey's deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, saying the prospect of an immediate solution was still distant. "There are parties that have been at war with each other for six years around the table at Astana," he told journalists on Monday.
"A solution in one or two days should not be expected." The negotiations in Kazakhstan, which are expected be over by midday on Tuesday, are likely to be followed by United Nations-mediated diplomatic talks in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 8. "The talks in Astana are not an alternative to the Geneva talks next month, but are an additional step," Kazakh deputy foreign minister, Roman Vassilenko, said.
CEASEFIRE, AID: Before the talks, Jaafari had played down Turkey's role as a party to the talks and said the agenda would focus on strengthening last month's truce. "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.
Syrian opposition officials also said they were focused on securing the current ceasefire, as well as getting humanitarian aid to people living under siege.
“The besieged areas should be relieved from the torture," Aridi said on Monday. "Aid should reach these besieged areas and the principle of kneel or starve to death should also be humanely removed." When asked whether the rebels would sign an agreement to continue negotiations in February's meeting in Geneva, Aridi replied: "It depends on the productivity and fruitfulness of these [Astana] talks. If they are quite successful, there could come a product, a political one, which could be used in the Geneva talks."
Although Ankara and Moscow have backed opposing sides of Syria's nearly six-year conflict, they have worked handin-hand in recent weeks to try to secure an end to the war. The US Trump administration was invited to participate in the talks, but did not send a delegation.
Iranian officials have said they strongly oppose US involvement, though US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, attended as an observer.
The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will also be attending the talks to play a supportive role. Staffan de Mistura on Sunday hailed the talks as a "good initiative", in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
France and Britain will also be represented at the ambassador level, according to a European diplomatic source.
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.