ASTANA/WASHINGTON: Members of the Syrian opposition delegation arrived on Sunday in the Kazakh capital Astana for face-to-face peace talks with the war-torn nation’s government.
The US State Department on Saturday decided not to send a delegation from Washington to attend peace talks in the Kazakh capital next week due to immediate demands of the transition.
The State Department’s acting spokesman Mark Toner, however, said US Ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, would attend the Monday talks as an observer.
“We welcome and appreciate Kazakhstan’s invitation to participate as an observer,” Toner said in a statement, “Given our presidential inauguration and the immediate demands of the transition, a delegation from Washington will not be attending the Astana conference.”
Toner said the US was committed to a political resolution to the Syrian crisis through a Syrian-owned process.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday he hoped the new administration of President Donald Trump would send a Middle East expert to the talks.
With Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, not expected to get a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote before Monday, the new administration asked the State Department’s No. 3 official, Tom Shannon, to stay on.
UN Syria mediator Staffan de Mistura has said he intends to convene separate peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 8.
The UN-backed talks have been held intermittently. Russia says the Kazakh talks would complement, rather than compete with, the UN talks.
The Moscow-led effort to revive diplomacy, without the participation of the US, has emerged with Syrian President Bashar Assad buoyed by the defeat of fighters in Aleppo, and as ties thaw between Russia and Turkey, long one of the opposition’s main backers.
Airstrikes and clashes, particularly near the Syrian capital Damascus, have tarnished a shaky cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey since it began two weeks ago, and the warring sides have accused each other of violations.
The talks will be the first time a delegation composed exclusively of opposition groups will negotiate with the regime of Assad.
Chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush flew into Astana on Sunday morning, according to an AFP correspondent who saw the delegation arrive.
He was accompanied by around a dozen opposition figures, including Fares Buyush of the Idlib Army, Hassan Ibrahim of the Southern Front and Mamoun Haj Moussa of Suqur Al-Sham.
A source close to the opposition’s team told AFP that the delegation had been broadened from eight opposition figures to a total of 14, in addition to 21 legal and political advisers.
The 10-member government delegation, headed by its UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, left Damascus on Sunday, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
The opposition leaders have insisted the talks will focus solely on reinforcing a frail nationwide truce brokered by opposition supporter Turkey and regime ally Russia last month.
Although the two countries have backed opposing sides of Syria’s nearly six-year conflict, they have worked hand-in-hand in recent weeks to secure an end to the brutal war that has killed more than 300,000.
The Astana talks, which Assad ally Iran is also helping organize, will be the first test of this new partnership.
They will be held in the city’s luxury Rixos President Hotel, where staff members were setting up a single large table in a conference room under blue banners bearing the hashtag #AstanaProcess.
Opposition members and regime figures are expected to sit in the same room, along with UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.
De Mistura on Sunday hailed the talks as a “good initiative” in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands killed, more than half of the country’s population has been displaced since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule.