The Syrian government and rebels opened talks in Kazakhstan on Monday as part of a Turkish and Russian-backed effort to end the Arab state’s near six-year civil war.
It is the first time the warring parties have held negotiations in a year, and if successful could mark a turning point in a conflict that has killed an estimated 400,000 people, while also underlining the increasing roles of Turkey and Russia in Syria.
The talks are being brokered by Moscow, whose military intervention on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad helped him solidify his advantage in the war, and Ankara, which has been one of the main supporters of the opposition. The US, a reluctant backer of the rebels, has not sent its envoy to Astana, illustrating how its role in Syria has diminished. Washington was represented by its ambassador to Kazakhstan at the talks.
However, some UN officials close to the talks said that the chances of big breakthrough looked unlikely as Mr Assad has not sent a senior official to head the government’s delegation. It is also believed Ankara and Moscow were still not in agreement over how to handle the most contentious issue of any future settlement — the role of Mr Assad.
Turkey has publicly insisted that Mr Assad needs to step down, but has gradually softened its stance as part of its rapprochement with Moscow.
Some Syrian opposition figures fear that the goal of the talks is to push the rebels to co-operate with regime forces to fight common enemies that have seized swaths of territory amid the chaos of the conflict: Isis and Islamist forces linked to al-Qaeda.
“If they force the rebels to sign that, that could mark the end of the revolution — of the forces fighting a war against Bashar al-Assad’s rule,” said one opposition figure, asking not to be identified.
Rebels have fought alongside Islamist groups in their battle against the regime, including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which has links to al-Qaeda and is one of the best armed factions in the conflict. But JFS has also crushed rebel groups that have opposed it and it has been excluded from a ceasefire agreement and the talks.
The rebels are entering the negotiations at arguably their weakest state since the war erupted after they were forced out of Aleppo, Syria’s second city and the opposition’s last major urban stronghold, last month.
If they force the rebels to sign that, that could mark the end of the revolution — of the forces fighting a war against Bashar al-Assad’s rule
The talks were marred by tensions as soon as they began, with some rebels initially refusing to attend the opening ceremony due to the presence of Iran, a long-time regime backer and supporter of foreign Shia militias in Syria. These fighters are particularly loathed by rebels due to the sectarian tensions underlying the civil war that involves Shia forces backing Mr Assad and Syria’s largely Sunni Muslim opposition.
It was also unclear if the warring parties would agree to face-to-face talks or have indirect negotiations.
Both Russia and Turkey appear to be seeking to push through a framework for a deal before US President Donald Trump’s administration begins to define its own role toward the Syrian conflict. Mr Trump has been sceptical of US support for the rebels, but he has also vowed to play a forceful role in defeating Isis, which holds large swaths of territory in Syria.
The challenge for Moscow and Ankara is convincing the Syrian sides to commit to any deal beyond shoring up a shaky ceasefire agreed last month.
“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, an opposition spokesman, was quoted by Reuters as saying.
A regional diplomat close to the regime said Mr Assad’s delegation was equally wary of a deal on Russian terms.
“They don’t want this to work either; the regime and Iran want to win this militarily. But they’re counting on the rebels to screw it up for them by being unable to agree, or walking out,” he said.
In his opening comments, Bashar Al-Jaafari, head of the regime’s delegation and Syria’s UN envoy, said the government wanted to see Turkey close its borders to armed groups. He also called for rebels to agree to “national reconciliation” deals that the opposition despises and sees as a form of surrender.
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