ASTANA � Syrian government and opposition delegates gathered Monday in Kazakhstan’s capital for peace talks backed by Russia and Turkey that rebel sources said would not include direct negotiations.

The negotiations in Astana were expected to focus on cementing a nation-wide cease-fire mediated by Russia, Iran and Turkey in December that has largely held.

Previous cease-fire attempts involving the United States and United Nations quickly fell apart as the warring sides exchanged fire and blame. Prior peace talks, including the last held a year ago, have also made little progress in bringing an end to the conflict that began in March 2011.

“It is our most sincere desire that these talks will bring light at the end of the tunnel for the Syrian crisis,” said Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov as he opened the talks.”It is now upon each of us to make the real breakthrough that Syrian people rightfully deserve.”

U.N. Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura is participating in the talks that will last at least until Tuesday.

Russia and Turkey invited U.S. President Donald Trump to send a delegation to the talks some days before he took office. But, citing demands of the presidential transition, the U.S. State Department said its ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, would attend.

Despite disagreement over Russia’s military intervention in Syria, the Kremlin appears to want U.S. participation in the peace process.

I think that Russia wants to create a pretext, one more pretext, to improve its relations with the United States, says Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Alexey Malashenko. At the same time, Moscow understands very well that without (the) presence of Washington, it (talks) will be more or less difficult.

Rebels partially conquered & divided

The talks come just weeks after the Syrian army and supporters of President Bashar al-Assad overtook the last rebel-held districts of Aleppo in a strategic and symbolic defeat of those opposed to his rule.

Fighting between moderate and extremist-linked rebel groups has hampered efforts to form a more cohesive moderate coalition opposed to Assad.

Russia’s Interfax news agency reported Syria’s government delegation, led by its ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, was ready for direct talks with the Syrian opposition in Astana. But some in the opposition have expressed concerns Damascus is looking to negotiate a political solution with only the Turkey-backed opposition in attendance.

The main rebel umbrella group in previous negotiations, the High Negotiations Committee, was not invited to Astana, but hopes the meeting will be a step forward to peace talks in Geneva February 8.

Not having all the players willing to engage in the peace process makes success less likely, says Stanislav Pritchin at the Research Center on Central Asia at Moscow’s Oriental Studies Institute.

But at the same time, it is a completely new format when Russia, Iran and Turkey with participation of official Syrian government, with participation of military opposition taking part, he notes. And, it gives some optimism to observers, to people living first of all in Syria, that it might be a very important step forward to resolving this long-term civil war in Syria.

Source: Voice of America

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ASTANA � Syrian government and opposition delegates gathered Monday in Kazakhstan's capital for peace talks backed by Russia and Turkey that rebel sources said would not include direct negotiations.The negotiations in Astana were expected to focus on cementing a nation-wide cease-fire mediated by Russia, Iran and Turkey in...