Syria rebels, regime split on aim of Astana talks

BEIRUT, LEBANON, Layal Abou Rahal- Regime and rebel figures will head to Kazakhstan on Monday for negotiations on ending Syria's brutal war, but will arrive with diametrically opposed approaches to the aims of the talks.
Damascus has insisted it will seek a "comprehensive" political solution to the nearly six-year conflict at the meeting, while rebels say they will focus solely on reinforcing a frail nationwide truce.

The Astana talks, organised by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, are expected to last less than a week.
Several rounds of negotiations hosted by the United Nations, most recently in April 2016, have failed to bring an end to the war that has killed more than 310,000 people.
During those talks, government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari and leading rebel figure Mohammad Alloush often clashed, with Jaafari calling his rival a "terrorist".
The pair will return as the respective heads of the government and rebel delegations in Astana.
Alloush is a prominent figure of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction and studied Islamic jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia.
He will head a "military delegation" of around eight people, backed by nine legal and political advisors from the High Negotiations Committee umbrella group.
Jaafari, meanwhile, is a silver-haired diplomat who speaks multiple languages and belongs to the same Alawite religious minority as President Bashar al-Assad.
His team will include "figures representing the military and the Syrian judiciary", according to the Al-Watan daily, which is close to the regime.
It said the delegation "will be similar to the delegation that previously went to Geneva".
- 'Political solution'? -
But the personal rivalries pale in comparison to widespread differences on the ultimate aim of the talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday said "one of the goals of the Astana meeting is, first, reinforcing the ceasefire".
The truce, brokered by rivals Turkey and Russia, came into force on December 30 and excludes jihadists like the Islamic State group.
In announcing their participation in the Astana negotiations, rebels said that the talks would focus on strengthening the truce, while a political deal would be negotiated in Switzerland in February.
"The main agenda, for us, includes reinforcing the ceasefire, halting forced displacement, and delivering aid to besieged areas without limitations," leading opposition figure Ahmad Ramadan said.
He earlier told AFP that "the details of the political process will be left to Geneva", referring to talks hosted by the United Nations.
Damascus, however, insists it will be pursuing a "comprehensive political solution" to the war, according to an editorial Tuesday in the Al-Watan daily.
"No one thinks Damascus is going to Astana to discuss a halt to military operations, as some want to suggest, or to reinforce the so-called ceasefire," editor Waddah Abd Rabbo wrote.
"Damascus is attending in the framework of its vision for a comprehensive political solution to the war on Syria... and to re-impose the hegemony and sovereignty of the state on all Syrian territory," he wrote.
Abd Rabbo said the Astana talks were effectively "between Damascus and Ankara, sponsored by Russia and Iran, in a land free of Western pressure".
But they could succeed, he wrote, as the attending rebel factions "are on the ground and control thousands of Syrian fighters".
- 'Freeze', not end conflict -
Years of efforts by the international community have failed to put a stop to the war raging in Syria since the spring of 2011.
Last year, the United States and Russia worked hand-in-hand to put a temporary truce in place and sponsored several rounds of talks in Geneva, but they did not secure a political solution.
In late 2016, a new partnership between Moscow and Ankara emerged to take the lead, and the talks in Astana will be the first test of the nascent alliance.
Donald Trump's transition team said Saturday it had been invited to take part in the talks, but indicated that it had yet to respond.
"I think the United States is invited to go there and I would urge the new administration to do that," outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday.
"We are supportive of the efforts of the Russians and the Turks and Iranians to go to Astana," he told Sky News Arabia.
Ramadan said the opposition had yet to receive an agenda on the talks and did not know whether they would be face-to-face.
He said it was also unclear whether previous international agreements, like the Geneva Communique which calls for a transitional governing body, would apply for the Astana talks.
The opposition and the regime remains bitterly divided on Assad's future role, with anti-government factions insisting he should leave at the start of any transition.
Kerry predicted "a change in the course of the next months, that you will see countries begin to be more practical, to begin to engage, and it may be possible" to "get to Geneva, to the full negotiation."

Wednesday, January 18th 2017
Layal Abou Rahal

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