Preparations For Syrian Cease-Fire Talks Intensify In Kazakhstan

The first day of talks aimed at solidifying the cease-fire in Syria’s civil war have ended in the Kazakh capital, Astana, with no breakthroughs reported.

Delegations from both the Syrian government and the opposition participated in the sessions on January 23 but did not address one another directly.

Yahya al-Aridi, the spokesman for the Syrian opposition at the talks, said his group met with the Russian and Turkish delegations in the presence of UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to discuss details of a nationwide cease-fire.

Aleksandr Lavrentyev, the special representative of the Russian president at the talks, said the "intensity of emotions was rather high" but that the government representatives and the opposition delegation "refrained from any abrasive actions toward each other," Interfax reported.

"We think that the first day was rather successful," he added.

In their opening statements, the two sides differed markedly in their interpretation of the purpose of the current cease-fire. Government delegation head Bashar al-Jaafari said it was needed to separate those opposition groups interested in "the political process" from those affiliated with Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.

Opposition spokesman Muhammad Allush said the cease-fire should be the first step toward a political settlement "involving the departure of President Bashar al-Assad and the ruling gang." Allush also called for Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias to leave Syria.

Allush called for putting foreign militias fighting alongside Assad's army on the list of terrorist organizations. He said such groups include Lebanon's Hizballah.

He added that Syrian civilians were facing two forms of terror: "the terrorism of Bashar Assad" and the "terrorism of [Islamic State]," AP reported.

The talks are being facilitated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and are being monitored by the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and the UN special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Syrian National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told AP that although Turkey was one of the sponsors of the talks, Ankara "still has a long way to prove its intentions," as it is still supporting Syrian opposition groups.

De Mistura told Interfax that he was optimistic the cease-fire can be secured throughout Syria if the parties can agree to a monitoring mechanism. He called for both sides to renounce the use of military means.

In an opening statement read out by Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev expressed hope the Astana meeting "will create the necessary conditions for all concerned parties to find a suitable solution to the Syrian crisis."

Russian news agency Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying the Syrian government delegation was sitting with the Iranian representatives, while the opposition delegation was with their Turkish counterparts for the opening statements.

The talks are primarily aimed at bolstering a cease-fire agreement reached in December and at advancing the conflict-resolution process that has been proceeding in Geneva under UN auspices. The next session of the Geneva talks is set for February 8.

Russia and Turkey have backed opposing sides, with Moscow supporting Assad and Turkey backing rebels seeking his ouster.

Moscow has given crucial diplomatic and military support to Assad throughout the six-year civil war and helped avert his government's possible defeat by launching a campaign of air strikes in September 2015.

Russia and Turkey remain at odds over whether Assad should remain in power or step down, though Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Mehmet Simsek said on January 20 that it was no longer realistic for Turkey to "insist on a settlement without Assad."

The talks come at a time when the Syrian government is a strong position, having recaptured the eastern part of the city of Aleppo from rebels in December in an offensive backed by Russia.

Syrian opposition leaders say that consolidating the current cease-fire will be their main goal during talks, not Assad’s future.

"At this stage, we have one goal, which has been agreed upon by all the parties included," Osama Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera. "That is to consolidate the cease-fire. That is why we came here."

The Russia, Iranian, and Turkish representatives met on January 22 to draft a potential agreement for signing.

More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, which followed a deadly government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2011, and about half of the country’s population has been displaced.

With reporting by TASS, Interfax, dpa, and RIA Novosti