Russia’s Syria Peace Effort With Iran, Turkey Hits Obstacles

  • Rebels won’t meet directly with Assad officials in Kazakhstan
  • Meeting seeks to cement truce, encourage dialogue, Russia says

UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, right, and chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush, second from left, of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group arrive to attend the first session of Syria peace talks at Astana's Rixos President Hotel on Jan. 23.

Photographer: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

The joint initiative by Russia, Turkey and Iran to end the six-year war in Syria suffered a setback when opposition groups rejected face-to-face meetings with government representatives at peace talks in Kazakhstan.

“There will be no direct negotiations,” Osama Abu Zaid, a member of the opposition delegation, said after the meeting began Monday in the Kazakh capital, Astana. The rebels and the Syrian government will hold talks in separate rooms with mediation by Turkey and Russia, he said.

Even so, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said prospects for the negotiations were improved by the presence of the militant groups at the Astana summit. Turkey is helping with the contacts with the armed opposition and Iran with the Syrian government, he told reporters in Moscow on Monday.

The talks follow a cease-fire in Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey late last month that has continued to hold in most areas, in contrast to earlier U.S.-Russian attempts. Amid deteriorating relations with the Obama administration over a failed peace effort in September, Russia seized the diplomatic initiative after its forces helped President Bashar al-Assad to expel rebel fighters from Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, last month, a turning point in a war that’s killed more than 300,000.

“We came here to stop the bloodshed of the Syrian people,” Mohammed Alloush, the chief rebel negotiator, who’s from the Army of Islam, told reporters. “The first step is to implement the cease-fire and once we are sure this has happened, we can discuss other things in another round of negotiations, we can move to the talks in Geneva” planned by the United Nations next month, he said.

Truce Mechanism

Another influential militant organization, Ahrar as-Sham, declined to attend the Astana talks, citing cease-fire violations by the government and its allies.

The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who’s due to oversee the Geneva talks from Feb. 8, urged the government and opposition at a plenary session in Astana to agree on a mechanism to oversee and implement the cease-fire. “We didn’t have it in the past, that’s the reason why often we failed,” he told them, according to comments e-mailed by the UN.

The Astana meeting is part of a joint approach announced in Moscow last month by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the three countries with forces on the ground in Syria. While Russia and Iran support Assad’s regime, Turkey -- a key backer of the armed groups opposing the Syrian leader -- helped to negotiate the truce accord signed by seven Islamist groups representing 62,000 fighters and the Damascus government.

The agreement excluded Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria because the UN Security Council has declared them terrorist organizations.

Political Dialogue

While the U.S. had been left out, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan attended the talks as an observer after Russia invited aides to new President Donald Trump.

The U.S. is now “marginal to the war” in Syria and this will “not prevent the Turks and the Russians coming to and implementing an agreement,” said Faysal Itani, an analyst with the Atlantic Council in Washington.

The talks, which are expected to last at least two days and lead to a joint statement signed by the Syrian government and opposition, aim to solidify the truce and pave the way for political dialogue, Russian officials say.

“That would be a big achievement if it happened,” said Bassma Kodmani, a leader of the High Negotiations Council, the main Syrian opposition bloc. “Turkey and Russia are two decisive players on the ground, but there is one player -- Iran -- with which it’s much more difficult to know if there is any interest in a cessation of hostilities and a political process.”

Further rounds of talks will seek to achieve a final settlement by the end of 2017 that includes a power-sharing government, a new constitution and elections, said Rafael Enikeev, head of the Middle East department at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, a Kremlin advisory group.

“Now the ones at the table are the players who are actually present on the ground,” he said.

— With assistance by Stepan Kravchenko

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