Fresh Syria talks open in Astana

NEW HOPE: Russian-backed Syria congress may happen next month –

ASTANA: A fresh round of peace talks seeking to end Syria’s war opened in the Kazakh capital Astana on Monday, as part of a Moscow-led push supported by Iran and Turkey.
The latest round of talks begins days after the IS group was forced out of its de facto capital Raqa in northern Syria, in a major victory for the US-backed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces.
Recent rounds of talks in the Central Asian nation have focused on ironing out the details of a Russia-led plan for four de-escalation zones in Syria.
“Closed-format talks have begun,” Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman Anuar Zhainakov said, adding that the two-day negotiations would conclude with statements to the press.
Zhainakov confirmed that delegations from the Syrian government and the rebels seeking President Bashar al Assad’s ouster had arrived in Astana, as had negotiators from Turkey and Syria backers Russia and Iran.
Despite backing opposite sides in the war, Ankara and Moscow have been working closely on Syria since a 2016 reconciliation ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane.
A de-escalation zones plan was first tabled in Astana in May to minimise fighting between government forces and moderate rebel factions, as well as improve access for aid for civilians living in the zones.
But international organisations painted the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta — covered by the zones deal and located just outside the capital Damascus — in dire terms earlier this month.
Unicef says over a thousand children in the area are suffering from severe, acute or moderately acute malnutrition, with over 1,500 more at serious risk, as aid convoys have failed to reach needy populations.
While the de-escalation zones brought about an initial reduction in fighting, the International Red Cross has voiced concern that the violence has intensified again, including in the zones.
Previous rounds of Astana negotiations have ended without major breakthroughs, but they have made more progress than the parallel UN-driven talks on Syria in Geneva.
The last round of talks in September saw Russia, Turkey and Iran agree to jointly police a buffer zone in the contentious northern province of Idlib, where Ankara and Tehran are viewed as having competing interests.
Zones covering part of the south of the country, Eastern Ghouta, and the central province of Homs had already been agreed during a previous round of talks.
Russian military police were then deployed to secure the areas.
Syria’s United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura urged parties to move on from the zones towards “a more stable political settlement” during a mid-October visit to Moscow.
The next round of Geneva talks will begin on November 28, De Mistura has said.
Meanwhile, a source familiar with the Syrian situation said a Moscow-backed congress of all Syria’s ethnic groups may take place in Russia and begin working on a new constitution as early as next month, the news agency RIA reported.
The congress, which President Vladimir Putin first mentioned earlier this month, may take place in mid-November at Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, RIA said.
The idea of a congress had United Nations backing, a senior Russian negotiator on Syria said.
Russia’s Hmeymim air base in Syria also might be used, he added.
“This matter is still being discussed,” Alexander Lavrentyev, the head of the Russian delegation at Syria talks in Kazakhstan, told reporters between meetings with diplomats from Turkey and Iran.
“As you know UN Special Representative on Syria Staffan De Mistura has in principle supported the idea of holding the congress,” Lavrentyev said. “Although he had some reservations, he supported this initiative of Russia.”
Lavrentyev said the congress would focus on seeking “compromise solutions towards the political settlement” of the Syrian conflict.
— Agencies