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Syria Peace Talks Set to Begin in Kazakhstan after Delegations Arrive

By Daniel Schearf January 22, 2017

Syrian opposition and government delegates arrived Sunday in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, a day before peace talks and an anticipated first face-to-face meeting between the foes in a year.

Russian media reported a trilateral meeting was underway late Sunday between representatives of the talk's organizers, Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

Russia and Iran back the Syrian government forces under President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey and the United States have supported rebels who want to see him removed from power.

Negotiations Monday are expected to focus on cementing a nation-wide cease-fire mediated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey in December that has largely held.

All sides, including a U.S.-led international coalition, say they are targeting terrorist groups inside Syria such as Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates, who have not been invited to the peace talks and are not subject to the ceasefire. But Syria and its supporters, Russia and Iran, have also targeted so-called moderate rebels fighting Assad in the six-year conflict.

Previous cease-fire attempts involving the United States and United Nations quickly fell apart as the warring sides exchanged fire and blame.

U.N. Special Envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is participating in the talks that officially begin Monday afternoon and will last at least until Tuesday.

Russia and Turkey invited U.S. President Donald Trump to send a delegation to the talks some days before he took office. But, citing demands of the presidential transition, the U.S. State Department said its Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol would attend.

Despite disagreement over Russia's military intervention in Syria, the Kremlin appears to want U.S. participation in the peace process.

"I think that Russia wants to create a pretext, one more pretext, to improve its relations with the United States," says Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Alexey Malashenko. "At the same time, Moscow understands very well that without [the] presence of Washington, it [talks] will be more or less difficult."

Rebels partially conquered & divided

The talks come just weeks after the Syrian Army and supporters of Assad overtook the last rebel-held districts of Aleppo in a strategic and symbolic defeat of those opposed to his rule.

Fighting between moderate and extremist-linked rebel groups has hampered efforts to form a more cohesive moderate coalition opposed to Assad.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported Syria's government delegation, led by its Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari, was ready for direct talks with the Syrian opposition in Astana. But some in the opposition have expressed concerns Damascus is looking to negotiate a political solution with only the Turkey-backed opposition in attendance.

The main rebel umbrella group in previous negotiations, the High Negotiations Committee, was not invited to Astana, but hopes the meeting will be a step forward to peace talks in Geneva February 8.

Not having all the players willing to engage in the peace process makes success less likely, says Stanislav Pritchin at the Research Center on Central Asia at Moscow's Oriental Studies Institute.

"But at the same time, it is a completely new format when Russia, Iran, and Turkey with participation of official Syrian government, with participation of military opposition taking part," he notes. "And, it gives some optimism to observers, to people living first of all in Syria, that it might be a very important step forward to resolving this long-term civil war in Syria."

Olga Pavlova contributed to this report.

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