Syria talks on fragile Idlib truce begin in Kazakhstan

ASTANA: Negotiators from Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana on Wednesday, the Kazakh foreign ministry said, for two days of talks aiming to preserve a fragile 10-week-old truce in
northern Syria.
Talks were under way between delegations from the three regional power-brokers as well as the Syrian government and opposition, the ministry said in a statement.
In addition to cooling the conflict around the northern province of Idlib — Syria’s last major rebel and militant stronghold — discussions will focus on creating conditions for the return of refugees and internally displaced people, as well as post-conflict reconstruction, the ministry said.
The United Nations will be represented at the negotiations by Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, according to the statement, in what will likely be his last engagement on the conflict before leaving the post.
The 10-week-old Idlib truce deal is in the balance after an alleged chemical attack in the government-held city of Aleppo on Saturday which has triggered retaliatory raids.
The exact circumstances of the purported attack on three districts of the government-held city are murky and bitterly disputed.
The Syrian government of Bashar al Assad has blamed fighters in neighbouring Idlib for the attack, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said hospitalised 94 people. The incident has put strain on an already fragile agreement reached in mid-September to fend off a fully-fledged assault on Idlib, which Syria’s regime has said it is committed to re-taking. More than half of the region is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a powerful alliance led by the militants of Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate, who have not commented on the Aleppo attack.
In September, Russia and rebel backer Turkey agreed to set up a U-shaped buffer zone around Idlib to keep pro-government forces outside the region of some three million.
But on Sunday, Russia said its war planes had carried out their first strikes in the zone since the deal was reached. Moscow said the raids were a response to the shelling of Aleppo by “terrorist groups” operating inside a part the planned demilitarised area held by HTS.
The negotiations in Astana were expected to conclude on Thursday and are the eleventh of their kind since Moscow began a diplomatic push in early 2017 that effectively sidelined UN-led negotiations on Syria.
The United States has attended some of the Astana rounds as an observer, but Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey said last week that Washington would not attend these talks.
Meanwhile, UN war crimes investigators called on Syria on Wednesday to tell families what happened to their relatives who disappeared and provide the medical records and remains of those who died or were executed in custody.
No progress can be made towards a lasting peace to end the nearly eight-year-old war without justice, the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said.
After years of government silence, Syrian authorities this year released “thousands or tens of thousands” of names of detainees alleged to have died, mostly between 2011 and 2014, it said in a report released before delivery to the UN Security Council.
“Most custodial deaths are thought to have occurred in places of detention run by Syrian intelligence or military agencies. The Commission has not documented any instance, however, where bodies or personal belongings of the deceased were returned,” it said.
In nearly every case, death certificates for prisoners that were provided to families recorded the cause of death as a “heart attack” or “stroke”, the independent panel led by Paulo Pinheiro said.
“Some individuals from the same geographic area share common death dates, possibly indicating group executions,” it said.
In most cases, the place of death was stated as Tishreen military hospital or Mujtahid hospital,
but the place of detention was not named, it said. — Agencies