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Syrian conflict

Rough start for first face-to-face talks between Syrian rebels and government - they called each other terrorists

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 January, 2017, 10:10am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 11:45am

Talks between the Syrian government and representatives of rebel factions got off to a rocky start Monday after their first face-to-face meeting in Kazakhstan that marked a major shift in the war’s dynamics and confirmed Russia’s role as regional heavyweight.

The gathering in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is the latest in a long line of diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the nearly six-year-old civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half of Syria’s population.

The talks are focused on shoring up a shaky cease-fire declared December 30, not on reaching a larger political settlement. Syria’s bitter divide was on vivid display as the delegates emerged from a closed, hour-long session marked by cold glances and sharp exchanges.

US could join forces with Russia in Syria to fight Islamic State

Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Ja’afari said the opposition delegation represented “terrorist armed groups,” and denounced the opening address delivered by the chief rebel negotiator, calling it “provocative” and “insolent.”

The head of the rebel delegation, Mohammad Alloush, had described Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government as a “terrorist” entity. He called for armed groups fighting alongside it, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, to be placed on a global list of terrorist organisations, according to a video leaked by opposition delegates.

“The presence of foreign militias invited by the regime, most notably the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Hezbollah ... contributes to the continuation of bloodshed and obstructs any opportunity for a cease-fire,” Alloush said.

Such outfits were no different, he added, than the Islamic State group, which is excluded from the cease-fire.

After an opening ceremony, both sides split and did not meet face-to-face again. The meeting later concluded until Tuesday.

Still, it was a significant departure from past meetings, given the fact that Syria’s government delegation sat opposite representatives of more than a dozen armed factions it describes as terrorists.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura mediated the talks, which are to be followed by more negotiations in Geneva next month. A year ago, he was shuttling between government and opposition delegations in separate rooms in Geneva, in talks brokered by the US and Russia that led nowhere.

The talks in Astana, a former Soviet republic, reflected the shifting dynamics in Syria since then, with Russia emerging as the main power broker and the US relegated to the role of observer.

The Trump administration is not directly involved because of the “immediate demands of the transition,” the State Department said Saturday. The US ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, attended Monday’s session at the luxury Rixos President Hotel, a Turkish-owned chain.

The two sides were brought to the table by Russia and Iran, which have provided crucial support to Assad, and Turkey, a leading sponsor of the opposition. Turkey, whose president is embroiled in troubles at home, has recently improved ties with Moscow, raising hopes for a breakthrough.