September 25, 2017, 3:29 am
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Syria’s warring sides meet; expectations low

ASTANA -- Syria’s warring sides met for talks in Kazakhstan’s capital on Monday, flanked by intermediary nations seeking to engineer steps towards a goal other negotiations have failed to reach: an end to the six-year-old conflict.

Sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the meeting marks the first time the opposition and representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have come together since United Nations-brokered talks in Geneva were suspended early last year.

As fighting continued in Syria and organizers played down chances of a breakthrough, the two sides sat opposite each other at a round table in a hotel conference room in Astana before a day of talks got under way.

The rebel delegation did not plan to negotiate face to face with government representatives but via intermediaries, a rebel source said.

Alexander Musienko, an adviser to Russia’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, cast the talks as a step in a long process. “Undoubtedly one cannot resolve issues like this in just one day,” he told reporters on Sunday.

There were no senior government figures among the delegations and Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said it expected the meetings to be over by midday on Tuesday.

Pro-Assad Russia and Turkey, which has supported anti-Assad rebels, remain at odds over fundamental issues such as whether Syria’s president should stay in power or, as the rebels are demanding, step down.

The head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, said his group’s aim was to bolster a shaky ceasefire as a precursor to a broad-based political solution.

Yahya al Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation, also said political talks were not on the Astana agenda.

Underlying the mutual mistrust the talks will need to overcome, Jaafari played down Turkey’s role as a party to the talks, saying they were between Syrians only.

“Turkey is violating Syrian sovereignty so there is no Syrian-Turkish dialogue,” he said, a reference to Turkish support for anti-Assad armed groups in the north of Syria.

That message was reinforced on Syrian state TV which assured audiences that the Syrian delegation had met no Turkish officials. -- Reuters
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