Thursday 21 September 2017

Rebel factions in Syria war to attend talks backed by Russia and Turkey

A refugee from Aleppo, Syria, at a camp north of Athens (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)
A refugee from Aleppo, Syria, at a camp north of Athens (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)

Representatives of some Syrian rebel groups have said they will attend talks sponsored by Russia and Turkey, despite mounting violations of a ceasefire across the war-ravaged country.

A rebel adviser said the talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, to be held in the Kazakhstan capital Astana later this month, will initially focus on ways to strengthen and monitor the ceasefire that came into effect on December 30.

Opposition activists have reported widespread violence around Syria. Although the scale of the violence was not comparable to the government-led, Russian-backed offensive against Aleppo that preceded the ceasefire, air strikes and shelling were reported in at least eight of Syria's 14 provinces on Monday.

The ceasefire excludes areas where the militant Islamic State group operates. There, too, fighting raged as militants closed in on a government military base while Turkey-backed and Kurdish-backed fighters clashed with the extremist group in three different provinces.

Faced with the ongoing violations, members of Syrian armed groups have been meeting in Turkey for days to decide on whether to participate and with what delegates. Syrian representatives said the Turkish government, one of the few remaining backers of the opposition, was keen on convening the talks. They are scheduled for January 23. UN-sponsored talks will follow in Geneva in February.

On Monday, Syrian rebel group members and an adviser to the fighting groups said the Astana talks will focus on violations of the ceasefire and ways to reinforce it.

"The first sessions will be to study the violations and implementation of the ceasefire," said Molhem Akidi, a leading member of the Fastaqim group. The group was a leading fighting force in Aleppo before its fighters left as part of a Russia-Turkey brokered deal.

Mr Akidi said the High Negotiations Committee, a political group that represented the opposition in the last Geneva talks, will provide support and technical help for the delegation.

Osama Abo Zayd, a legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army rebel groups, said the first round of talks will last for four days and focus solely on ways to monitor ceasefire violations.

Mr Abo Zayd said Moscow has promised to rein in violations of the ceasefire by government and allied troops. If a mechanism is worked out, there will be a phase two of the talks, he told the opposition-linked Revolutionary Forces of Syria online. "If Russia doesn't live up to its promises after phase one, Russia, Iran and the regime will be the main cause of fighting in Syria," he said.

Mr Abo Zayed and Mr Akidi said Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria's largest rebel groups, was not participating in the talks but support the delegation going. The other powerful group, Fatah al-Sham Front, is not included in the ceasefire, according to the government.

The talks are considered a diplomatic feat for Moscow. After withstanding a crippling, months-long siege and punishing bombing campaign, the opposition surrendered one of its most prized urban centres, Aleppo. Rebel groups had control of nearly half of the city, once Syria's commercial centre, since 2012.

The United States was left out of the ceasefire agreement and it is not clear if the new administration will attend the talks next week.

Rebel fighters and government allied troops have exchanged blame on who is responsible for violating the current ceasefire.

AP

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