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Syrian government, opposition enter first day of Astana talks

Talks between Syria's warring sides got off to a rocky start with rebels confirming they would not negotiate face-to-face with the Syrian government. The new push to end the six-year conflict is expected to end Tuesday.

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Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan

Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and the opposition assembled in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Monday for the first talks since the United Nations-brokered negotiations in Geneva were suspended last year.

Government and opposition delegates sat together at the same round table as Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov told the parties it was up to them to make the breakthrough "that the Syrian people deserve."

During opening remarks, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called on both sides to agree to a mechanism to oversee and implement a nationwide ceasefire.

"No sustainable, long-term solution to the conflict in Syria can be attained through only military means, but through a political process," he said.

The government and opposition representatives then held indirect talks mediated by de Mistura. The rebels also held three-way talks with Russia, Turkey and the UN to discuss a nationwide ceasefire.

Trading barbs

The meeting in Astana got off to a rocky start after the rebels confirmed that they would not negotiate face-to-face with the government representatives in the first session of the talks.

Following a one-hour closed session that de Mistura mediated, a Damascus envoy denounced a speech held by the head of the opposition factions as "provocative" and "insolent."

The speech was "meant to provoke the attendees," Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's UN ambassador, told reporters.

He was referring to a speech by Mohammad Alloush, the head of the opposition delegation and leader of the Army of Islam rebel group. In the speech, Alloush described Assad's government as "terrorist." He also said that the Syrian government forces and their allies are no different from the militant "Islamic State" (IS) group.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are sponsoring the talks, which come more than a month after the regime captured rebel-held areas of Aleppo, scoring its biggest victory since the conflict started. 

Organizers played down expectations of a breakthrough in Astana as there are no senior government figures among the delegations. Kazakhstan's foreign ministry said it expected the meetings will be over by midday on Tuesday.

Syrien Schnee und Kälte in Aleppo (Getty Images/AFP/G. Ourfalian)

The Syrian army's recapture of rebel-held areas of Aleppo was seen as a turning point in the war

Conflicting goals

Opposition and government delegations also appeared to agree that the talks will involve bolstering a fragile ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey last month - but differed on what purpose the truce would serve. The ceasefire does not include IS and former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham. 

The opposition has said its goals in Astana were to only talk about implementing the ceasefire and humanitarian deliveries, and not engage in political talks.

"We will not enter into any political discussions and everything revolves over abiding by the ceasefire and the humanitarian dimension of easing the suffering of Syrians under siege and release of detainees and delivery of aid," Yahya al Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation, told Reuters news agency on Monday.

The government, on the other hand, has been pushing for rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.

Complicating matters, the main Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the PYD, said they would not abide by any agreement reached in Astana because they were not invited to the talks after Turkey blocked their participation. The Syrian Kurds are at the center of the US strategy to defeat IS. 

Diplomats from Russia, Turkey and Iran gathered separately on Sunday at a hotel in Astana to discuss the coming negotiations. Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides in the conflict, with Turkey providing aid to anti-Assad rebels and Russia providing military support in favor of Assad.

There are hopes that the talks in Astana could help jumpstart the UN peace negotiations in Geneva next month.

The discussions notably exclude the West, although Moscow extended a last-minute invitation to US President Donald Trump's administration last week.

The six-year conflict has killed more than 310,000 people and displaced more than half of Syria's population.

cw, rs/msh (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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