Syria Talks Underway in Kazakhstan 01/23 06:14
Syria talks brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran and seeking to bolster a
shaky cease-fire in place since last month opened on Monday in Kazakhstan,
marking the first face-to-face meeting between the Damascus government and
rebel factions fighting to overthrow it.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) -- Syria talks brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran
and seeking to bolster a shaky cease-fire in place since last month opened on
Monday in Kazakhstan, marking the first face-to-face meeting between the
Damascus government and rebel factions fighting to overthrow it.
The gathering in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is also the start of a new
effort to end six years of carnage that has killed hundreds of thousands,
displaced half of Syria's population and sent millions of refugees to
neighboring countries and Europe.
The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is participating in the talks,
which if successful, are expected to be followed by more political talks in
February in Geneva.
The new U.S. administration is not directly involved, because of the
"immediate demands of the transition," the State Department said on Saturday,
but Washington is represented by the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George
Krol, who attended Monday's opening session held at the luxury Rixos President
Hotel in Astana.
Osama Abo Zayd, a rebel media representative to the talks, told The
Associated Press before the start that the scope of the negotiations is limited
to strengthening the cease-fire.
"There's no significance to negotiations if the people on whose behalf we
are negotiating are being killed," he said, adding that there has been
absolutely no discussion about elections or Assad's future.
Syria's war is estimated to have killed about 400,000 people since March
2011. The conflict, which started as an uprising against President Bashar
Assad's rule against the backdrop of Arab Spring movements, quickly descended
into all-out civil war.
Ahead of the talks, delegates passed through the hotel's soaring atrium,
where songbirds are kept to chirp in cages, on their way to the conference room.
Reflecting persisting tensions, Arab TV stations said the rebel delegates
stalled, entering the room a few minutes late to register their displeasure at
being seated at the same oval-shaped table as the Iranian delegation. The hotel
was closed off to all but a handful of representatives of the media.
Russia, Turkish and Iranian delegates were all seated around the same table,
along with de Mistura and the U.S. ambassador.
After a short opening ceremony during which Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat
Abdrakhmanov spoke, the meeting went into closed session. It wasn't immediately
clear if there would be any direct talks between the rebels and Damascus
representatives behind the closed doors.
At the top of the agenda is an effort to consolidate last month's cease-fire
brokered by Turkey and Russia. The truce, which excludes extremist groups such
as the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, has reduced
overall violence but fighting and violations continue on multiple fronts.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that
preserving the tenuous cease-fire will be "the most important issue" on
Astana's agenda and that Iran is hopeful the talks can also pave the way for
the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Ghasemi suggested that discussions over a larger political settlement would
have to wait, saying: "Let's wait and see how the process can be continued
based on conclusions that will be announced Tuesday."
The talks, organized by Russia and Turkey, are the latest attempt to halt
the nearly six-year conflict. Russia and Iran are the main backers of Syrian
President Bashar Assad's government, while Turkey supports the armed opposition
trying to topple him.
The two sides have traded blame for repeated violations of the Dec. 30
cease-fire, which was also brokered by Russia and Turkey.
The Astana gathering is the first time Syrian government representatives are
sitting down with an opposition delegation made up mainly of rebel factions.
Previous face-to-face talks in Geneva included an opposition delegation made up
mostly of political figures. During the last round of talks in Geneva in early
2016, de Mistura was shuffling between the delegations sitting in separate