Jan 22, 2:33 PM EST

Intensive negotiations ahead of Russia-led Syria talks


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ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) -- Delegates from Russia, Turkey and Iran held hours-long talks in Kazakhstan Sunday on the eve of negotiations between Syrian rebels and President Bashar Assad's government, trying to forge common ground that would nudge forward a political settlement for the country's civil war.

The talks between the two warring sides are the first in a year, and are meant as a first step to consolidate a cease-fire reached last month.

Whether Russia and Turkey will manage to bolster the cease-fire they brokered on Dec. 30 will be a key measure of success for the Astana meetings, Syrian opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi told reporters in the Kazakh capital Sunday.

The opposition delegation, which arrived in Astana earlier in the day, is made up of about a dozen rebel figures led by Mohammad Alloush, of the powerful Army of Islam rebel group. The Syrian government is sending its U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, and military delegates.

The U.N.'s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is participating in the talks, which are to be followed by more political talks in February in Geneva. The new U.S. administration is not directly involved, because of the "immediate demands of the transition," the State Department said Saturday, but Washington will be represented by the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol.

The talks are sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and are the latest attempt to forge a settlement to end a war that has by most estimates killed more than 400,000 people since March 2011 and displaced more than half the country's population.

At the top of the agenda for the talks, which will be held at the Rixos President Hotel, is an effort to consolidate last month's cease-fire. The truce excludes extremist groups such as the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. It has reduced overall violence, but fighting and violations continue on multiple fronts.

"If this can be achieved, this can help the political process," said al-Aridi.

The scope of the aims reflects the constrained position of the opposition, which last year was pushing for a political transition in Syria that would exclude Assad.

Al-Aridi said there was no plan to discuss Assad's position before addressing what he said were ongoing government violations of the cease-fire.

"I don't think there's a context for that now. Nobody is ready for this," al-Aridi told reporters in Astana. "We need a commitment to that cease-fire."

"If the other side doesn't care about stopping the bloodshed in Syria, and cares most about staying in power at the expense of Syrian blood ... in that case, nothing will work," he said. Reflecting the enormous distrust at play, he described the Iranians as "spoilers" and "occupiers" and claimed they are not serious about the entire process.

Iran and Russia have provided key financial and military support to Assad's government, while Turkey has backed the opposition.

Ja'afari told reporters on the plane to Astana that in addition to cease-fire talks, a priority was to "unify efforts to combat terrorism." He said the meeting will "test the credibility and seriousness of participants sitting around the table and those who support them."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's special adviser on Syria, Alexandre Lavrentiev, said after more than four hours of meetings with the Turkish and Iranian delegations that the three state delegations were "moving toward a united front."

It was not clear whether the two sides will hold face-to-face meetings. If they do, it would be the first time in three years, and the first time Syrian government representatives sit down with an opposition delegation made up mainly of rebel factions.

The opposition has promised to highlight the government's harsh siege tactics, which have cut off hundreds of thousands of Syrians from food and medical access. In the Damascus suburbs such as Madaya, Zabadani and parts of the central city of Homs and its environs, civilians have been under siege by government forces since at least 2015.

Turkey could play a crucial role in the latest attempt to resolve a conflict that has confounded the world's diplomats for years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is embroiled in troubles at home and has moved closer to Russia recently, prioritizing the fight against Kurds and the Islamic State group over support for the Syrian rebels he has propped up for years.

Assad's forces meanwhile recaptured the northern city of Aleppo last month with considerable Russian aid, dealing a devastating blow to the opposition, which had held onto eastern parts of the city for four years.

The talks will be closely followed in Syria and by the millions of Syrian refugees scattered across the globe.

"If Turkey is now feeling the guilt over what it committed toward the Syrian people, we hope that it will give at this conference something positive, to speed up an end to the crisis," said Anas Farfouti, a resident of Aleppo who supports Assad.

At Istanbul's Ataturk airport, journalists and delegates heading to Astana shuffled past Syrians who have fled the country.

"If this war ends in five years, it will be a blessing," said Fadwa, a Syrian in transit between a European country, where she was granted asylum, and the region, where her relatives were still seeking onward passage. She declined to give her last name, out of concern for the safety of relatives still living in Damascus.

She accused both sides of prioritizing their foreign sponsors over the protection of civilians, and said the war would drag on until foreign powers "partition" Syria.

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Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Aleppo, Syria, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

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