Armed opposition, Assad government attend Syria talks in Astana

Astana, Jan 23 (IANS) Negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition groups, which include Jaysh al-Islam, a major armed group, kicked off on Monday in the Kazakh capital here as part of an initiative led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev opened the talks, stressing that the Syrian conflict could only be solved “via negotiations”.

“The current difficult situation in Syria has drawn the attention of the entire world. I have to admit that the bloody conflict, which has continued for about six years, has brought nothing but misery and sorrow to the holy land where different civilizations and cultures lived,” Nazarbayev was quoted by RT online.

According to Nazarbayev , Kazakhstan has allocated “more than $700,000 to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees,” with Astana recently sending 500 tons of humanitarian aid to the war-stricken country.

The live broadcast from the opening remarks showed the presence of Abdullah Mohammed Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, which is a coalition of Islamist and Salafist units operating in Damascus.

The head of the Russian delegation in Astana and the Russian President’s special envoy to Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentiev, confirmed on Sunday that the negotiations would be attended by delegations of the host nations — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — as well a UN delegation headed by the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, and the US ambassador to Kazakhstan, who has been granted observer status in Astana.

The Syrian government side will be presented by Bashar Jaafari, the current Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the UN. In his opening remarks Jaafari said that terrorists should not be included into the ceasefire agreement.

The two-day event is being held at the Rixos hotel in Astana, with the hosting Kazakh government providing additional security. Some 300 journalists from around the world were covering the high-profile gathering, which hopes to cement a lasting ceasefire in Syria.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov thanked Kazakhstan for accepting to host the event, saying Astana’s assistance was highly appreciated.

“Kazakhstan has been supporting the Syrian reconciliation process from the very beginning. Everyone, the [Syrian] government and the opposition groups, would find this place perfect,” Lavrov said on Sunday after meeting his Kazakh counterpart Kairat Abdrakhmanov.

The negotiations came to fruition after the three nations — Russia, Turkey and Iran — brokered a partial ceasefire between the Syrian government and some opposition groups last month. The deal managed to significantly restrain the intensity of hostilities in Syria, but both the government and the rebels regularly complain of violations.

The truce however, does not include such terrorist groups as Al Nusra Front or Islamic State, with IS currently engaged in a massive offensive against government forces in the Deir ez-Zor province.