Jan 22, 10:41 AM EST

Syrian rebels meet in Kazakhstan ahead of talks



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ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) -- Syrian rebel delegates huddled in Kazakhstan Sunday ahead of talks with government representatives scheduled to begin Monday, the first such negotiations between the two sides in a year. At the top of the agenda is an effort to consolidate a fragile cease-fire agreement reached last month and ease humanitarian suffering in the war-ravaged country.

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

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 U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol.

The opposition delegation, which arrived in Astana on Sunday, 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.

At the top of the agenda is an effort to consolidate a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey last month. The truce reached on Dec. 30, which excludes extremist groups such as the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, has reduced overall violence in the country but fighting continues on multiple fronts.

"If this can be achieved, this can help the political process," said Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation and a member of the High Negotiations Committee, a political group which led the opposition negotiating team to Geneva last year.

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

Al-Aridi said there was no plan to discuss Assad's position before addressing what he said were ongoing government violations of the Dec. 30 cease-fire.

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

The opposition has also promised to highlight the government's harsh siege tactics that 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.

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