Negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition groups, which include Jaysh al-Islam, a major armed group, have kicked off in the Kazakh capital of Astana as part of an initiative led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
The talks on the reconciliation of the Syrian conflict began as scheduled at 13:00 local time (07:00 GMT) Monday.
“Various aspects of the … meeting are still discussed but it will start at 13:00 local time,” Aleksandr Lavrentiev, the head of the Russian delegation in Astana and Russian President’s special envoy to Syria, told journalists on Sunday, adding that the negotiations will be attended by delegations of the host nations – Russia, Iran and Turkey – as well a UN delegation headed by the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and the US ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol, whose been granted observer status in Astana.
The talks are endorsed by the UN and are expected to be held behind closed doors. However, the exact format of the negotiations is still unknown as there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity, with representatives from all sides trying to reach consensus. The host nations are expected to announce the outcome of these on Monday before the actual start of the talks.
On Sunday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari told journalists that Russia, Turkey and Iran are still debating whether there should be direct contacts between the Syrian government and opposition delegations.
“It is still unclear,” he said, adding that this question remains one of the “unresolved issues.” At the same time, Ansari stressed that the Iranian delegation is “optimistic” about the potential outcome of the talks.
The two-day event is being held at the Rixos hotel in Astana, with the hosting Kazakh government providing additional security. Some 300 journalists from around the world are covering the high-profile gathering, which hopes to cement a lasting ceasefire in Syria.
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov thanked Kazakhstan for accepting to host the event, saying Astana’s assistance was highly appreciated.
“Kazakhstan has been supporting the Syrian reconciliation process from the very beginning. Everyone, the [Syrian] government and the opposition groups, would find this place perfect,” Lavrov said on Sunday after meeting his Kazakh counterpart Kairat Abdrakhmanov.
Kazakhstan had no intention to overshadow UN-sponsored Syria peace talks held in Geneva, but would rather contribute to a success of the larger process, Abdrakhmanov said.
Also on Sunday – Russia, Turkey and Iran held trilateral consultations ahead of the talks that lasted more than five hours and were described as “tough” by a member of the Russian delegation.
“The preparations [to the talks] are going on intensively,” he said after the consultations, adding that Russia, Iran and Turkey “managed to bring closer their positions on most issues on the agenda,” Lavrentiev said.
Later on Sunday, the Russian delegation held consultations with the Syrian government and the opposition delegations to conciliate their positions ahead of the talks. Lavrentiev stressed that Russia was doing its best to bring together the viewpoints of the warring parties.
“We are not looking for easy solutions in this long-standing conflict but we are doing everything we can to bring together the positions of the parties to this conflict: the Syrian government and the opposition,” he said.
The Syrian envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, who is heading the Syrian government delegation in Astana, said there are still differences which the two sides are trying to overcome.
“We have not reached yet a clear joint understanding of these two aspects [achieving a lasting ceasefire and fighting terrorism],” Jaafari told RT.
“Further consultations with delegations that have arrived in Astana will come to clarify the picture and to achieve the definitive understanding of these two issues, without omitting other questions, of course,” the Syrian representative noted.
Lavrentiev stressed that Russia’s efforts are “fully supported” by the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who offered “assistance in achieving positive results” at the talks.
The head of the Russian delegation also stressed that the parties to the negotiations should focus on “areas of common interest” instead of differences while expressing hope the delegations would be able to successfully overcome all the differences during the talks.
The meeting between the “three countries who have an influence on the fighting sides is an important one,” de Mistura told RT.
The Astana talks can “produce a cessation of hostilities” and that’s exactly “what the Syrians are looking for,” he stressed.
The rebel delegation in Astana includes a dozen people headed by Mohammad Alloush, of the Army of Islam rebel group.
Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the rebel delegation, told Reuters on Monday that the opposition will insist on an unconditional ceasefire between the militants and government forces, while accusing Damascus of “diverting attention from these issues.”
“If the Syrian regime thinks our presence in Astana is a surrender by us, this is a delusion,” he said.
The opposition delegates are unlikely to attend the opening session of the Astana summit, where they would be in the same room as Syrian government negotiators, however, as they prefer to negotiate through intermediaries.
The negotiations came to fruition after the three nations – Russia, Turkey and Iran – brokered a partial ceasefire between the Syrian government and some opposition groups last month. The deal managed to significantly restrain the intensity of hostilities in Syria, but both the government and the rebels regularly complain of violations.
The truce however, does not include such terrorist groups as Al Nusra Front or Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), with IS currently engaged in a massive offensive against government forces in the Deir ez-Zor province.