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No Breakthrough in Day One of Syria Peace Talks in Kazakhstan

By Daniel Schearf January 23, 2017

Officials at peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel groups say there was no major breakthrough in Monday's first day of meetings, but negotiations will continue Tuesday.

The officials said the talks in Kazakhstan's capital, backed by Russia and Turkey, did not feature direct negotiations, but rather the two sides communicated indirectly through mediators.

The negotiations in Astana are focusing on cementing a nationwide cease-fire mediated by Russia, Iran and Turkey in December – a truce that has largely held.

Prior Syrian peace talks, including the last negotiations a year ago, made little progress in bringing an end to the conflict that began in March 2011.

"It is our most sincere desire that these talks will bring light at the end of the tunnel for the Syrian crisis," said Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov as he opened the talks. "It is now upon each of us to make the real breakthrough that Syrian people rightfully deserve."

After the first of several rounds of Monday's meetings, Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari accused the opposition of "not acting responsibly."

He criticized allegations that Syrian military operations in the Wadi Barada area outside of Damascus were in violation of the cease-fire. Syria has said Islamist militants from the group formerly known as the Nusra Front are involved in the fighting, which has affected the water supply in the Syrian capital. Jaafari said because the Islamist group is not covered by the cease-fire, anyone who defends the group is "on the wrong side."

Fate of Idlib

Other parts of Syria have been quiet since the truce, among them the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.

Istanbul Kultur University professor Bora Bayraktar told VOA's Turkish service that the fate of Idlib is a key issue for the peace talks.

"So far, Assad's government has fought to gain control of Syrian regions like Aleppo, Homs and Hama that border Turkey and Lebanon, and it has achieved some success with the help of Iran and Russia," he said. "If Assad and his allies try to do the same thing in Idlib, which borders Turkey, this would create a new roadblock to solidifying the cease-fire."

Cease-fire key

Syria's main rebel groups suspended their participation in the peace process earlier this month, in protest at what they said were frequent violations of the cease-fire.

The chief rebel negotiator participating in the talks, Mohammad Alloush, said the rebels "are men of peace," and negotiations on a political resolution to the conflict can only happen when the cease-fire is a "reality on the ground."

Syrian opposition divided

Russia's Interfax news agency reported that Syria's government delegation, led by Syrian U.N. ambassador Jaafari, was ready for direct talks with the Syrian opposition in Astana. But some Syrian opposition figures have said they believe Damascus is looking to negotiate only with the Turkey-backed opposition factions attending the Astana talks. Those factions include Syria's Kurdish National Council (KNC).

Two opposition groups based in Syrian Kurdish controlled northern Syria and opposed by Turkey were not invited to the meetings.

One is the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led coalition that battles the Islamic State militant group in Syria. In an interview Monday with VOA's Kurdish service, its spokesman Talal Silo said, "We will not commit to any decision that comes out of this [Astana] conference." Silo was speaking in the Syrian Kurdish controlled northern region of Hasakah.

The second Syrian Kurdish opposition group excluded from the talks is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish political group in northern Syria. In a separate interview with VOA in Hasakah, its leader Salih Muslim said, "This conference doesn't have any chance of success if effective opposition groups such as Syrian Democratic Forces are not involved."

The main Syrian rebel umbrella group in the previous negotiations, the High Negotiations Committee, also was not invited to Astana, but said it hopes the meeting will be a step forward to U.N.-mediated peace talks in Geneva on February 8.

U.N. Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura is among the participants in the Astana talks, which were due to end Tuesday.

Yildiz Yazicioglu with VOA's Turkish service and Zana Omer with VOA's Kurdish service contributed to this report.



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