Astana Hosts Preparatory Syria Peace Talks

Astana’s Rixos President Hotel where the Syria peace talks are to be held on Jan. 23-24   Astana’s Rixos President Hotel where the Syria peace talks are to be held on Jan. 23-24

Parties to the Astana meeting on the Syrian crisis held preliminary talks in the Kazakh capital, on the eve of 24-hour negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition groups toward ending the devastating Syria conflict that has left hundreds of thousands dead and driven millions from their homes.

Behind closed doors, representatives from militant groups that have been clashing with the Syrian Army for six years in the hope of toppling the system will hold their first face-to-face talks with government officials.

The talks follow a December 20 meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow, where they agreed on principles any settlement of the Syria crisis should adhere to.

Delegations of the three countries, which are in charge of overseeing the talks, arrived in the Kazakh capital on Saturday. 

Iran and Russia support the Syrian Army's anti-terror drive, while Turkey is a main supplier of arms to militants.

The Iranian delegation, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari, held two meetings on Saturday and Sunday with the Russian delegation, headed by Russian presidential envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev. 

A separate meeting was also held on Saturday between the Iranian group and the Turkish delegation, which is led by Turkish Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry Sedat Onal.

A meeting among the trio was expected to be held on Sunday. 

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday that the Astana talks will start at 0700 GMT on Monday and end at 0700 GMT on Tuesday.

It added that a press conference was scheduled for 0800 GMT on Tuesday, although it was unclear whether the conference would be held.

A UN delegation headed by its Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura also arrived on Saturday. 

The Syrian government delegation, led by Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, and the opposition delegation, headed by Mohammed Alloush, a leader of the Jaysh al-Islam militant group, arrived in the Kazakh capital on Sunday.


  Platform for Wide-Ranging Discussions 

The opposition group comprises field commanders of Turkey-backed armed groups that joined a ceasefire agreement of December 29 and not the political opposition. 

The nationwide ceasefire, which was mediated by Russia, Turkey and Iran, took effect at midnight of December 30 and was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council on December 31.

It came after a deal brokered by the trio to evacuate militants from Aleppo late last month, handing the Syrian troops a major victory in liberating the second biggest Syrian city.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has hoped the meeting in Astana would be a platform to discuss "everything" with opposition groups.

Russia has announced that Astana talks would complement the UN-hosted Syria peace negotiations in Geneva, a new round of which is to be held on February 8.

The Astana talks mark the first time since the beginning of the conflict that the US has not been at the center of diplomacy on Syria. It has been invited by Russia and Turkey to attend the talks.

The US State Department said on Saturday it will not send a delegation, because the process of power transition is underway in the US, and instead, US Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol will participate as an observer.

Iranian officials had voiced their opposition to US being a party to the talks, with Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi saying other parties could be added to the trio after "successful first steps".

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