Thursday 5 December 2019

Geneva peace talks over Syria conflict postponed

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has opened the mini-summit on Syria (AP)
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has opened the mini-summit on Syria (AP)

The next round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva has been postponed until late February, Russia's foreign minister has announced.

The UN-mediated talks in Switzerland, previously set for February 8, will instead take place by the end of the month.

Sergey Lavrov made the announcement at a mini-summit in Moscow with state-approved representatives of the Syrian opposition.

Syrian rebel factions fighting to remove president Bashar Assad had declined an invitation to attend, raising doubts that the Moscow meeting could offer anything beyond another Syria discussion panel.

However, some of the rebel groups fighting in Syria were represented at talks this week in Kazakhstan, brokered by Russia and Turkey and aimed at shoring up the December 30 ceasefire with Mr Assad's forces.

Those talks, which brought the armed rebel factions face-to-face with Mr Assad's representatives for the first time, ended with an agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran- all with forces deployed to the war-torn Middle East nation - to consolidate the truce, take joint action against extremist groups and jump-start peace negotiations.

The Kazakhstan talks were also supposed to pave the way for the revival of the Geneva peace process, which stalled last April.

In a move certain to rattle Turkey, representatives of Syria's leading Kurdish party attended the Moscow gathering on Friday. Turkey is waging a low-grade war against the Democratic Union Party in Syria, which Ankara views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency with its own borders.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Kurdish participation in the Geneva process is "necessary".

According to Kurdish adviser Nasser Haj Mansour, two Syrian Kurdish representatives at the Moscow gathering - Khaled Issa and Rody Othman - have presented Mr Lavrov with a plan for a federalised Syria, which would diminish Mr Assad's authority over the country and bolster the Kurds' gains in northern Syria.

The federalisation proposal has in the past been rejected by Syrian rebels and Damascus, as well as Turkey, which is seeking to keep Syrian Kurds and their growing influence in check.

Mr Lavrov, meanwhile, said that Russia has also floated a draft proposal for a future Syrian constitution in a bid to encourage debate - not as an attempt to enforce Moscow's will on the Syrians.

"We made an attempt in the draft to put together some common elements we heard from representatives of the government and the opposition," Mr Lavrov said.

In the Kazakh capital of Astana, Syrian rebels factions had refused to discuss the draft.

"We did not even lift the paper off the table," said rebel legal adviser and spokesman Osama Abo Zayd.

The fighting in northern Syria has complicated the rebels' position.

Ongoing clashes with the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front has pushed several of the factions which attended the talks in Astana into the embrace of the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group out of self-defence.

This potentially undermines their efforts to portray themselves as moderates prepared to play a role in a post-war transition period.

The clashes, which broke out on Wednesday in the Idlib province, continued into Friday, according to Ammar Sakkar, a military spokesman for the Fastaqim faction.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said other factions were caught up in the clashes as well.

Idlib and neighbouring Aleppo province are host to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians who are threatened by government and rebel violence on a daily basis.

In the town of Atareb, in the Aleppo province, a few hundred protesters called on the rebel factions to unite against the Fatah al-Sham front in a demonstration recorded by Thiqa News Agency, an activist media outlet.

PA Media

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