Astana: Syria’s warring sides are set to meet in Kazakhstan’s capital on Monday with Russia, Turkey and Iran, sponsors of the talks, trying to make progress towards a goal others have repeatedly failed to reach an end to the six-year-old conflict.
The talks are the first time the opposition and representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have come together since UN-brokered negotiations in Geneva were suspended early last year.
Organisers played down expectations of a breakthrough in the capital, Astana. There are no senior government figures among the delegations and Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said on Sunday it expected the meetings to be over by midday on Tuesday.
The main Russian negotiator at the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, said it was still unclear if the Syrian government delegation and the opposition would meet face-to-face, or communicate via intermediaries.
Adding to the difficulties, Russia and Turkey remain at odds over fundamental issues such as whether Assad should stay in power or step down for the sake of reconciliation.
The head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, told reporters on the plane to Astana on Sunday that the agenda would focus on strengthening a ceasefire that has been largely in force since last month.
Jaafari played down Turkey’s role as a party to the talks, saying they were between Syrians only.
“Turkey is violating Syrian sovereignty so there is no Syrian-Turkish dialogue,” he said, a reference to Turkish support for anti-Assad armed groups in the north of Syria.
Diplomats from Russia, Turkey and Iran gathered separately on Sunday at a hotel in Astana to discuss the coming negotiations.
Alexander Musienko, an adviser to Russia’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, told reporters that preparatory talks had been “hard going … But one needs to give time to our negotiators to let them complete their mission.
“Undoubtedly one cannot resolve issues like this in just one day,” he said.
Some observers said the meetings in Astana could help jumpstart the Geneva negotiations led by the UN. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is attending the meetings.
“The Astana process is a little bit of an unknown quantity, not quite sure what the Russians in particular have got in mind,” said a senior UN Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But provided that it helps get a genuine UN-led process up and running again … then it can play a constructive role.”
The talks notably exclude the West, although Moscow extended a last-minute invitation to the new US administration last week.
Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides in the conflict, with Turkey giving aid to anti-Assad rebels and Russia’s military having turned the tide of the conflict in favour of Assad.
But Turkey and Russia – each for their own reasons – both want to disentangle themselves from the fighting. That has pushed them into an adhoc alliance that some people believe represents the best chance for progress towards a peace deal, especially with Washington distracted by domestic issues.
The opposition arrive in Astana aware that the fall of their former urban stronghold, Aleppo, has shifted the momentum in the fighting in favour of Assad.