Syria talks focusing on planned ‘congress’ in Russia

ASTANA –  The main powerbrokers in Syria’s nearly seven-year conflict were heading towards a second day of negotiations in Astana as uncertainly loomed Thursday over a Moscow-driven plan to quickly reach a political settlement.

Chief Russian negotiator Aleksandr Lavrentyev told journalists that Russia was forging ahead with plans to host a “National Dialogue Congress” in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to accelerate discussions over a political deal that have sputtered in Geneva.

The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has refused to say if the UN will back a plan promoted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but viewed warily by opponents of his government. Speaking after the first day of talks Thursday, Lavrentyev said “quite a lot of time” had been spent discussing the congress proposal at negotiations being brokered by Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, as well as by Turkey, which supports the rebels.

Lavrentyev also said that the regime in Syria and opposition forces would have to “forget old grievances” if they were to move towards a political deal.

The congress, he said, would be “a platform that offers the different representatives of Syrian society the opportunity to solve matters of political settlement that so far have not been (at talks) in Geneva.”

But de Mistura, who was meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Thursday, said peace talks should proceed “one step at a time” and refused to comment further on the congress proposal.

De Mistura, who acknowledged that the recent round of UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva this month “was not a good meeting”, is expected to attend the final day of talks on Friday.

The Astana meeting comes after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian forces in Syria during a surprise visit to the war-torn country last week.

Syria was also on the agenda as Putin spoke by telephone Thursday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, whose country has supported the Syrian rebels but also fiercely opposes Iran’s efforts to extend its influence in the country.

Moscow has spearheaded the rounds of talks in Astana, which began at the start of the year, as it tries to convert its game-changing military intervention in Syria into a negotiated settlement.

At the meeting with de Mistura in Moscow, Lavrov said the talks Friday would focus on which groups and individuals would be invited to the Sochi event.

A 20-member opposition delegation was attending the talks in Astana, along with representatives of the Syrian government and of Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were currently “no dates” for the proposed congress.

Opposition delegates have expressed worries that the proposed event could prove a distraction from the UN negotiations.

Since the start of Syria’s war in 2011, several diplomatic attempts to halt the conflict have stumbled, mainly over Assad’s future.

A fragile ceasefire brokered at the end of last year by Moscow and Ankara has been bolstered somewhat by the negotiations in Astana, where the most recent rounds of talks have focussed on implementing four “de-escalation zones” to stem fighting between government and rebels.

A year after the Syrian government’s strategically crucial victory in Aleppo, Damascus has consolidated control over much of the country, wresting territory from extremist factions not party to the truce, in particular the Islamic State group.

Diplomatic contacts between the main protagonists in the conflict have intensified in recent months, but there is no sign that Damascus and its opponents are any closer to a political settlement.

The war has left more than 340,000 people dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.



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