Syrian rebels prepare for Russia-led talks with government
Syrian rebel delegates met in Kazakhstan Sunday on the eve of their first talks with the government in a year, in which the two sides hope to consolidate a ceasefire reached last month and deliver humanitarian aid.
The talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, are sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and are the latest attempt to forge a political settlement to end a war that has, by most estimates, killed more than 400,000 people since March 2011 and displaced more than half the country's population.
The UN's Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is participating in the talks, which are to be followed by more political talks in February in Geneva. The new US administration is not directly involved because of the 'immediate demands of the transition', the State Department said Saturday, but Washington will be represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol.
The opposition delegation, which arrived in Astana on Sunday, is made up of about a dozen rebel figures led by Mohammad Alloush of the powerful Army of Islam rebel group. The Syrian government is sending its UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, and military delegates.
At the top of the agenda for the talks, which will be held at the Rixos President Hotel, is an effort to consolidate a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey last month. The truce reached on December 30, which excludes extremist groups such as the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, has reduced overall violence, but fighting continues on multiple fronts.
"If this can be achieved, this can help the political process," said Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation and a member of the High Negotiations Committee, a political group which led the opposition negotiating team to Geneva last year.