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

Pakistan Today (Karachi) - - FOREIGN NEWS -

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.

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