For the first time, government delegates and representatives of armed groups meet. Rebels refuse to hold the first session “face-to-face” to protest the government’s failure to respect the truce. Syria’s chief negotiator calls the opposition’s attitude "provocative". Russia’s role and Turkey’s shift are key factors.
Astana (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Syria peace talks opened this morning in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, convened by Russia, Turkey and Iran, in the presence of representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition.
Their aims are the consolidation of the still “fragile nation-wide truce” in force since late December and finding a solution to propose to the next round of UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva, set to start on 8 February.
For the first time, the opposition delegation includes only representatives of the armed groups active on the ground. Until now, the UN talks in Switzerland saw the participation of exiled members and representatives who are in Astana only as consultants.
At the last moment, the rebel front decided against a face-to-face session with the government, saying that the latter had not respected the ceasefire deal of 30 December.
Rebels claim that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad raided the Barada River Valley, a strategic area for the water supply to the Syrian capital.
The loyalist army justified the action arguing that groups associated with the former al-Nusra front are active in the area. The former (along with the Islamic state) are not included in the truce.
The two sides sparred verbally on the first day with mutual accusations.
Bashar Jaafari, the Syrian government's chief negotiator, slammed his rebel counterpart's "provocative" comments. For their part, the rebels said that they are ready to fight in case talks fail.
Russia and Iran, which are close to the Syrian government, and Turkey, which has long supported the rebels, are behind the talks.
Organisers have tried to minimise expectations, noting that no breakthrough is likely. Nevertheless, the meeting highlights Russia's role as a new hegemonic power in the Middle East.
UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is present at talks, together with the ambassadors of Western countries to Kazakhstan, most notably France, Britain and the United States.
Recently, the possible presence of a representative of the new US administration was discussed. Only last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued an invitation.
European Union delegates are also present, but pro-Western Kurdish militias, which are unpopular in Ankara, are not. A Western diplomat said that "with the capture of Aleppo" by Assad’s troops, and the expulsion of the rebels "everything has changed" as a new balance of power has emerged.
One of the signs of change is Turkey’s current position. Once a leading rebel supporter (including perhaps Jihadi groups like the Islamic State), now it is open on the political future of Syria’s President.
"The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, so Turkey can no longer insist on a settlement without Assad. It is not realistic," said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek.