Kazakhstan: Russia, Turkey and Iran pledged Tuesday in Kazakhstan to bring the Syrian regime and its opponents together for a "congress" to help nudge peace efforts towards a more lasting political settlement.
A joint statement released by Russia and Iran, who support the regime, and Turkey, which backs the rebels, referred to an "initiative of Russia" to put Syrian government representatives and opposition groups face-to-face.
A statement on the Russian foreign ministry website on Tuesday listed 33 Syrian organisations invited to a "Congress of Syrian National Dialogue" in the Russian city of Sochi on Nov 18.
The proposal was one of the few notable outcomes from the seventh round of talks on Syria held in the Kazakh capital Astana, which are widely viewed as Moscow's attempt to stamp its imprint on a settlement for Syria.
Russia's chief negotiator for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, urged opposition factions to "participate and present their positions" in the meeting that he said would touch on constitutional reform.
But Lavrentyev could not confirm that the United Nations and its Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura would take part in the Sochi meeting, despite continuing negotiations.
"We want to emphasise that this event should be part of the international community's efforts to find effective mechanisms for political settlement," Lavrentyev said.
But representatives of the Syrian opposition in Astana cast doubt on the plan.
Yehya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition, called the suggestion "a jump in the air to another place" and said the congress risked sending "a fake message" on Syria.
"We told Russia, 'First stop killing our children'," said another rebel representative, Yasser Abdelrahim, who brandished what appeared to be photos of dead children at the plenary session in Astana.
The Astana talks that began in Jan have run parallel to negotiations taking place in Geneva with the backing of the United Nations, and the congress plan appears to be Moscow's attempt to force the pace in a bid for a political settlement.
Speaking Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov credited the Astana negotiations with waking up a "dozing" Geneva process.
Nevertheless, Lavrov said there had been a recent "slowing in the efforts made as part of the Geneva process."
"We believe it is necessary not to hesitate but rather to seize the initiative," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to Tehran on Wednesday for talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the Kremlin has confirmed.
Recent rounds of talks in Kazakhstan have focused on ironing out the details of a Russia-led plan establishing four "de-escalation" zones in Syria.
The plan was first tabled in Astana in May to minimise fighting between government forces and moderate rebel factions and improve civilians' access to aid.
The fourth and final zone to be established was the thorniest, taking in the northern province of Idlib where Iran and Turkey are viewed as having competing interests.
In Astana, Syrian government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari denounced Turkey's presence in the province and accused Ankara of cooperating with extremist groups.
"We have emphasised that we see the presence of Turkish armed forces in Idlib as an act of occupation," al-Jaafari said.
The zones were initially credited for bringing about a significant reduction in fighting.
But international aid organisations say they are failing to curb a recent uptick in violence which has significantly worsened humanitarian conditions in Syria.
The International Rescue Committee in the Middle East released a statement Monday that said civilian safety had "not improved with the establishment of these so-called de-escalation areas."
It said the situation in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, covered under the zones plan, is particularly dramatic, with the area facing "a malnutrition crisis".
"Air attacks, as well as the impact of fighting between groups, has made it harder for food and medicine to get in," said Tom Garofalo, director of the group's public affairs.
Lavrentyev had described the situation in Eastern Ghouta as "satisfactory" on the first day of taks in Astana.
"Humanitarian aid is able to arrive," he said.
The multi-sided Syrian war that began with anti-government protests in Mar 2011 has claimed more than 330,000 lives.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov has expressed the hope that all agreements reached at the talks on Syria in Astana will be implemented, the press service of Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry reported on Wednesday. "We hope that all agreements that have been reached will be fully implemented. Every item of the agenda, including hostages, detainees, missing individuals, humanitarian demining and other issues, which were discussed during the seventh round of the talks in Astana is very important for all parties," Abdrakhmanov said commenting on the joint statement by Iran, Russia and Turkey following talks held on October 30-31.
The minister noted that Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev fully supports the "Astana process" and hopes the talks in Geneva will be meaningful.
The seventh high-level international meeting on Syria in Astana was held on October 30-31 with the participation of the delegations of the Syrian ceasefire guarantor countries - Iran, Russia and Turkey - the Syrian government and the armed opposition, representatives of the United Nations, the United States and Jordan. The parties agreed to hold the next, eighth meeting as part of the "Astana process" in the second half of December 2017.
The Syrian opposition has rejected a new, Russian-sponsored initiative to reach a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, and Turkey protested against the invitation of the Syrian Kurdish side as Moscow’s peacemaking bid hit early complications on Wednesday.
Having intervened decisively in the Syrian war in 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia now hopes to build on the collapse of Islamic State to launch a new political process towards ending the six-year-long conflict.
Damascus has said it is ready to attend the Nov. 18 Sochi congress which is set to focus on a new constitution, saying the time is right thanks to Syrian army gains and the “terrorists’ obliteration”.
But officials in the anti-Assad opposition rejected the meeting and insisted any peace talks be held under U.N. sponsorship in Geneva, where peace talks have failed to make any progress towards ending the conflict since it erupted in 2011.
The congress amounted to a meeting “between the regime and the regime”, said Mohammad Alloush, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee and a senior official with the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.
The HNC was surprised it had been mentioned in a list of groups invited to the congress and would “issue a statement with other parties setting out the general position rejecting this conference”, Alloush told Reuters.
The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC) political opposition group said the congress was an attempt to circumvent “the international desire for political transition” in Syria.
“The Coalition will not participate in any negotiations with the regime outside Geneva or without U.N. sponsorship,” SNC spokesman Ahmad Ramadan told Reuters.
A Russian negotiator said on Tuesday that Syrian groups who choose to boycott the congress risked being sidelined as the political process moves ahead.
Russia has invited 33 Syrian groups and political parties to what it calls a “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin first mentioned the idea of the congress last month, saying that he believed Moscow and the Syrian government would soon finally defeat militants in Syria.
Helped by Russia’s air force and an array of Iran-backed Shi‘ite militias, Assad has defeated many of the Syrian rebels who were fighting to topple him, leaving him militarily unassailable and the rebels confined to enclaves of the west.
Damascus and its allies have also recovered swathes of central and eastern Syria from Islamic State in recent months, while a separate campaign by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has driven IS from other areas of the country.
The separate campaigns are now converging on Islamic State’s last strongholds in Deir al-Zor province at the Iraqi border.
Kommersant writes that the negotiations had demonstrated that it won’t be an easy task to swiftly convene a representative congress of national dialogue in Sochi. Some Syrian opposition members immediately rejected the idea, viewing this as an attempt to substitute the peace talks under UN auspices in Geneva.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, representatives from 33 parties and movements were invited to take part in the conference. Vasily Kuznetsov, director of the Center for Arab Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, said given the large number of participants, it is unclear what particular results may be expected. "Perhaps, the delegates will be offered to issue a joint communique, or the mere fact of holding this event will be important," he told the paper.
Director of the Institute of Religion and Policy Alexander Ignatenko is convinced that "despite evident hurdles in its implementation, Moscow’s initiative has a chance for success based on at least two reasons." "First, the Syrian Kurds, who started playing a growing role in the Syrian settlement, are involved in the peace process for the first time," he said. "Second, the Russian proposal envisages inviting delegates from numerous ethnic and religious groups to the talks, who aren’t represented in any sort of negotiations now, neither in Geneva nor in Astana."