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Toward an unsteady peace

Here’s what you need to know about the Syria peace talks led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran

Here’s what you need to know about the Syria peace talks led by Russia, Turkey, and Iran

Russia, Turkey, and Iran on Tuesday backed the participation of rebel groups at U.N.-led Syrian peace talks to be held in Geneva next month and will seek to maintain the fragile cease-fire in place throughout much of Syria. Rebel leaders, however, are not happy with the results of the tense negotiations, which they say feature Iran in an outsized role against a weakened Turkey.

Russian-led efforts to resolve the six-year civil war in Syria, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions more, come on the heels of a ceasefire agreement brokered with Turkey’s help shortly after Bashar Assad’s decisive win in the key city of Aleppo, which all but assured the Syrian dictator’s presence in any Syrian solution.

In a joint statement following the two-day talks in Astana, the three countries acknowledged “an urgent necessity to step up efforts to jumpstart the negotiation process” with opposition rebels scheduled to take place under U.N. oversight in Geneva next month.

Where the peace talks stand

The result of two days of contentious negotiations in the remote Kazakhstan capital Astana have resulted in the promise by Russia, Iran, and Turkey to establish a trilateral commission to monitor and enforce the current cease-fire in Syria, which went into effect last month. The final document, however, was not signed by representatives of either the Syrian government or the rebel forces.

In a statement read out at the end of the two-day meeting, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Kairat Abdrakhmanov, said the three countries will use their “influence” to strengthen the truce — though he failed to give any details of just how this will work.

Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, who led the government delegation, said the talks had been a success and said the cease-fire had been consolidated for “a specific period of time,” though he didn’t elaborate on the truce’s terms.

The talks came about as the result of a cease-fire brokered by Turkey and Russia last month, with Iran — a key ally to Assad — brought on board as a third guarantor of the cease-fire. Iran’s inclusion angered rebel groups, and immediately after meetings finished, rebel representatives made clear they would not negotiate with Tehran, declaring it has “no say on Syria’s future.”

Why the Syrian rebels are balking

The rebels have accused Turkey of being weak during negotiations, adding that they would not endorse the statement read in Astana on Tuesday. One rebel leader, who declined to identify himself, told Reuters: “Iran is spearheading in a number of areas military offensives and leading to forcible displacements of thousands of Syrians and causing bloodletting. This communique legitimizes this role.”

The cease-fire does not include Islamic State or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the group formerly known as the al-Nusra Front and previously linked to al Qaida. Tuesday’s joint statement called on rebel groups to distance themselves from JFS, a move that has gained fresh urgency after the group launched an attack on Tuesday against the Free Syrian Army in Idlib province. 

The talks were the first face-to-face meeting between representatives of Assad’s government and Syrian opposition forces since the civil war broke out in 2011. However, initial hope for a positive outcome was dashed when talks quickly descended into name-calling on Day One.

On Monday, as all sides sat at a large circular table in the Rixos Hotel in Astana, Mohammad al-Alloush, political leader of one of the rebel groups known as the Army of Islam, used the platform to call the government “a bloody despotic regime.” In response, the government’s al-Ja’afari accused rebels of making intentionally provocative statements and labelled them “armed terrorist groups.”

As the face-to-face talks broke down, diplomats found themselves shuttling back and forth between the two groups, in an effort to rescue some progress from the vaunted two-day meeting. U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, originally in Astana in the capacity of an observer, worked behind the scenes to create the semblance of a workable outcome.

The agreement in Astana may now pave the way for wider U.N.-led talks in Geneva scheduled to take place on Feb. 8, when the political future of Syria will be discussed.

Cover: (REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov)

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