Syria talks in Astana delayed for “technical reasons”

A new round of Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana – led by Russia, Turkey and Iran and scheduled to begin 15 February – are being delayed by a day due to unexplained “technical reasons,” the Kazakh foreign affairs ministry said on Wednesday.

“The negotiations have been moved to 16 February for technical reasons,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told AFP by telephone without elaboration.

A subsequent statement from the foreign ministry said the talks would begin at 0600 GMT on Thursday.

The “closed format” negotiations come after representatives from Damascus and the armed opposition failed to make a breakthrough at indirect talks in the city in January.

The meeting – pushed by key government supporter Moscow – is viewed as a warm-up for UN-led negotiations on the protracted war, which are due to begin in Geneva on 23 February.

News of the delay came after Russian jets on Tuesday pounded rebel-held areas of the southern city of Deraaa for a second day in response to opposition gains.

The opposition fighters there are drawn from both Free Syrian Army groups and members of a newly formed alliance – Tahrir al Sham – spearheaded by a faction that was once al Qaeda’s official affiliate.

A rebel source said there were at least 30 Russian sorties on Tuesday, thwarting new rebel gains on Tuesday.

Opposition figures not invited

While Kazakh officials said they invited both the Syrian government and rebels for the new talks, several members of the Syrian opposition who took part in the previous Astana talks told AFP that they have not received invitations.

Damascus has confirmed it will be represented again by its ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari.

Russia is sending presidential envoy Alexander Lavrentiev while Iran said it is dispatching deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari.

UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura said he would not participate personally in the latest Astana meeting but that his office would be represented by a “technical team”.

Jordan will also be represented by a “high level delegation” government spokesman Mohamed Momani said.

Efforts to shore up ceasefire

The Astana initiative has left the West on the sidelines of the latest push to end the war in Syria, which has claimed more than 300,000 lives since 2011 and forced millions of people to flee their homes.

Moscow has invited the US to participate as an observer, but the State Department has yet to confirm whether Washington will be involved.

Talks are likely to focus on bolstering a shaky ceasefire on the ground after Moscow, Tehran and Ankara agreed to establish a “mechanism” aimed at ensuring the truce.

The Geneva negotiations are expected to be wider-ranging, focussing on the key issues that divide the government and rebel sides, including the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia and Iran have helped turn the tables on the ground with their military backing for Assad, while Turkey has supported the rebels fighting to oust him.


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