Syrian rebels agree to attend peace talks

Damascus, Jan 16 (IANS) Syrian rebel groups have agreed to attend peace talks in Kazakhstan, in what Russia says is a boost to its diplomatic attempts to end the nearly six-year-old civil war.

The talks are expected to build on a nationwide truce that began on December 30 and initially saw a drop in violence across many of Syria’s battle-fronts.

“All the rebel groups are going. Everyone has agreed,” Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure in the Jaish al-Islam rebel group was quoted by the Telegraph as saying.

“Astana is a process to end the bloodletting by the regime and its allies. We want to end this series of crimes,” Alloush said.

However, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, the main armed moderate opposition group, said they would only discuss the ceasefire and humanitarian issues, not political ones.

The opposition had previously threatened to withdraw from the January 23 talks in protest of what they said were violations of the ceasefire by the Syrian regime and pro-government forces.

The summit in the Kazakh capital Astana, brokered by Russia and Turkey, could be the best chance of the Syrian government and opposition building on the fragile nationwide truce and reaching a settlement to end the war.

The US, which has reportedly been the rebels’ main sponsor previously, has until now been left out of the bilateral talks. US President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team was last week invited to take part, but has not yet officially responded.

The truce has largely been holding around the country, but violence has escalated in the countryside outside of Damascus.

Meanwhile, reports emerged over the weekend that Moscow was planning to upgrade its naval and air bases in Syria despite President Vladimir Putin declaring that the country would be scaling back its military presence in the country.

Russia is said to be planning to repair a second runway at Hmeimim air base in the coastal city of Latakia and improve the Tartus naval base so that it is capable of handling bigger ships such as cruisers.

It will also deploy S-300 surface-to-air defence systems and Bastion coastal missile launchers in the naval base, according the Russia’s Interfax news agency.