Negotiations between the Syrian Government and various opposition groups have begun at the Rixos Hotel in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan as part of the initiative led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
The Syrian Government side was headed by Bashar Jaafari, the current Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations. On the other hand, the opposition was represented by at least 15 militant groups including Jaish al-Mujahideen (Army of Mujahideen), and the Faylak al-Sham (Sham Faction.) A leading figure in the opposition was Mohammad Aloush, a former chief negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee, and a member of the Jaysh Al-Islam rebel faction which wants to turn Syria into an Islamic State under Sharia law. The group is widely regarded as a terrorist group by Russia, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. Representatives from the Free Syrian Army and the High Negotiations Committee have also participated in the talks.
Seven delegations, namely the Syrian Government, the Opposition, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, and the UN have key representations in the Astana talks. The UN was represented by Steffan de Mistura, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Syria, while the US was represented by George Krol, its Ambassador to Kazakhstan.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev opened the talks, remarking that the Syrian conflict could only be resolved through negotiations According to Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan allocated “more than $700,000 to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees,” and has sent over 500 tons of humanitarian aid to Syria. The participants were then greeted by Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov before negotiations were done in a closed-door session.
Members of the opposition quickly shot down any attempts on direct negotiations with the government side. Opposition spokesperson Yehya al-Aridi remarked that “The first negotiation session will not be face-to-face because the government hasn’t committed until now to what it signed in the December 30 agreement,” referring to the ceasefire deal brokered by Turkey and Russia. While direct talks between the Assad government representatives and the opposition remain unlikely, the Astana talks saw representatives from both sides sit together at one table during the opening.
The opposition’s focus on the talks would be on bolstering the existing Dec 30 ceasefire, while the government would be insistent on the rebels’ laying down of arms for an amnesty deal. The talks are expected to carry through until 24 January and would be held behind closed doors for its entire duration. It could then be followed by a UN-mediated meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on 08 February.