Assad says talks will focus on ceasefire

Damascus: Syrian President Bashar al Assad has said peace talks in the Kazakh capital next week will focus on enforcing a cessation of hostilities to allow aid access across the country.
“I believe that they will focus, in the beginning, and will prioritise, as we see it, reaching a ceasefire,” Assad told Japanese television channel TBS, according to excerpts released by his office.
“This will be to protect people’s lives and allow humanitarian aid to reach various areas in Syria,” he said.
The talks, sponsored by Turkey, Russia and Iran, are set to begin in Astana on Monday.
Moscow and Ankara brokered a truce deal between Assad’s forces and rebel groups in late December, but violence has recently escalated across the country, particularly around the capital.
“At this time, we believe that the conference will take shape as talks between the government and terrorist groups in order to reach a ceasefire and allow these groups to join the reconciliation deals in Syria,” Assad told TBS.
Damascus has reached a series of local agreements that have seen rebels — which it refers to as “terrorists” — evacuate areas in exchange for an end to bombardment or siege.
Assad said if a similar deal was struck in Astana, opposition fighters would “lay down their arms and receive an amnesty from the government. This is the only thing we can expect at this time.”
Such deals have been fiercely criticised by rebel groups as a deliberate strategy of displacement.
Rebel groups announced on Monday that they would attend the Astana talks to discuss the fragile truce and improved humanitarian access.
Powerful Ahrar al Sham group, which counts thousands of fighters in central and northern Syria, said on Wednesday that it would not attend due to “the lack of implementation of the ceasefire.”
But it said it would support decisions taken by other rebel groups represented at the talks if they were “in the interest of the nation”. — AFP