BEIRUT: Syrian government officials sat face-to-face with rebels for the second time in three weeks in Kazakhstan on Thursday, as diplomats stepped up efforts to lay the groundwork for UN-brokered peace talks next week.
A leader of the Russian delegation to the talks in Astana, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, said an agreement has been reached to form a permanent contact group of the three nations to ‘preserve and strengthen” a ceasefire that has technically been in place since Dec 30.
The meeting is intended to pave the way for the revival of broader, UN-led peace talks in Geneva next week, but huge challenges remain as both sides criticised each other and continued to spar about the agenda for the talks.
The Syrian government’s envoy to the talks accused Turkey, one of the sponsors, of continuing to support “terrorist” groups and urged Ankara to withdraw its troops from Syria.
Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s UN ambassador, said at a press conference that Turkey “cannot be fanning the flames and be extinguishing them at the same time.” He accused Turkey of continuing to facilitate the entry of “tens of thousands of mercenaries” to Syria, and said the meeting ended without a final statement because of the late arrival of the Turkish delegation and the Syrian opposition delegates.
Turkish troops have been helping Syrian opposition forces battle the militant Islamic State group around the IS-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, near the Turkish border, since August.
Al-Ja’afari also criticised Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbour, accusing it of sponsoring rebel factions that have been clashing with government forces in the southern city of Daraa for the past few days.
“There is an attack by eight factions on Daraa since four days and they... have unleashed thousands of shells at innocent civilians” in the area, he said. In Geneva, UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland called on parties to allow aid convoys to reach besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria to demonstrate “goodwill” before the talks in Geneva on Feb 23.
Egeland lamented that not a single UN-arranged land convoy has reached any of more than a dozen besieged towns or villages this year, citing a lack of approvals from authorities.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2017