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Astana Talks on Syria continues despite setbacks; Next round will occur within a month

Russia considers the second round of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan a success; Astana discussions were an important step towards solving the Syrian crisis

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Participants of Syria peace talks attend a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, Feb. 16, 2017, VOA
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Moscow, February 20, 2017: Russia considers the second round of Syria peace talks, held this week in Astana (Kazakhstan), a success, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Saturday.

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The director of the ministry’s Middle East and North Africa department, Sergey Vershinin, told Russian state media the talks in Astana were an important step toward resolving the Syrian crisis.

Three guarantor countries — Russia and Iran, which back the Syrian government, and Turkey, which backs some rebels opposed to it — organized the talks in Kazakhstan. In addition to the host country, others attending included representatives from Damascus and armed Syrian opposition groups, the United Nations and various observers, such as the United States and Jordan.

Delegations at the talks in the Kazakh capital were smaller and lower-level than they were during the first round of the Astana Process in January. They were unable to agree on a final statement, and there was still no direct dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition. Despite those factors, Russian officials gave an optimistic assessment of the results.

“I would say that it is going to take a long period of time to realize direct negotiations between the two sides of the Syrian conflict,” Russia’s delegation head, Alexander Lavrentiev, said. “… Little mutual trust exists between them. They have been accusing each other all the time. But I believe that we have to move … forward step by step, leaving no room for more conflicts.”

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Tensions simmer

The talks began a day later than scheduled. The head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar Jaafari, said the lack of agreement on a final statement was caused by the late arrivals of the Syrian opposition and Turkish delegations. Jaafari said those involved were irresponsible, and he accused them of aiming to disrupt discussions.

Syrian rebels said there was no final statement, considered a bare minimum for most such negotiations, because cease-fire conditions were not being met. Armed opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad say the Damascus government and its supporters regularly violate the truce.

The head of Assad’s delegation repeated accusations that Turkey was supporting terrorism and called on Ankara to withdraw its troops from Syrian territory and close its border. Jaafari said Turkish forces were violating Syria’s sovereignty.

Turkish troops have been fighting two foes in Syria: extremists from the Islamic State group, which Turkey is attempting to push back from its border with Syria, and Kurdish militias that Ankara contends are controlled by alleged terrorists from the militant group YPG. Turkish commanders said Friday that they were close to expelling all IS fighters from Syria’s al-Bab town.

Jaafari complained that Turkey had downgraded its representatives in Astana to lower-level officials, but the Syrian rebels’ delegation also was diminished, with representatives of only nine armed groups present, down from 14 when the talks began in January.

And while U.N. officials took part in the meetings, the head of their group, U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, traveled instead to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

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Astana supported

In the Russian capital, de Mistura said there was strong support for the Astana talks, “because we feel that focusing on the cessation of hostilities is the beginning of everything related to any negotiations on Syria. And … that helps — and is helping — the holding of the Geneva talks.”

Talks on Syria are expected to take place in Geneva on Thursday, after bilateral discussions beginning on Monday.

However, the head of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, Vasily Kuznetsov, said he was much less optimistic about what could be achieved when the talks shift to Switzerland.

“While you discuss the problem on the ground, the military problems, you can have some progress,” Kuznetsov said. “But … when you discuss the political process … [in Geneva], the constitution, the government and the election, yes, in this situation of total mistrust between every actor, I don’t understand how they can have any progress in these discussions.”

A third round of talks is expected to convene in Astana within a month.

A political scientist from the Russian Higher School of Economics, Leonid Isayev, said, “It’s much more comfortable for the Syrian regime to find solutions in this [Astana] format,” because the number of participants will much lower than in Geneva.

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Trilateral cease-fire mechanism

Despite the bumps in the Astana talks, Russia, Turkey and Iran hashed out some details of a trilateral mechanism for Syria designed to help solidify a cease-fire agreed to in late December.

The cease-fire, which excludes designated terrorist groups such as Islamic State, has been violated sporadically, but the truce has largely held.

If the political talks in Geneva break down, however, Isayev said the cease-fire could unravel quickly, “especially in the central and southern parts of Syria.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry posted a statement late Friday noting that while the joint group for a Syrian cease-fire was formed to investigate and prevent violations, it would also facilitate humanitarian access and free movement by civilians, and try to organize exchanges of prisoners and wounded fighters, with the help of U.N. experts.

The six-year Syrian conflict has killed over 300,000 people and displaced millions, many of them fleeing to Jordan and Turkey and on to Western Europe. Damascus was losing ground to the rebels until Russia entered the conflict a year ago and turned the tide in the government’s favor. (VOA)

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