'Terror' accusations fly at Syrian peace talks
Syrian peace talks got off to a rocky start in Kazakhstan yesterday after rebel groups refused face-to-face negotiations with the government, which in turn called the delegation "terrorists".
The talks, sponsored by Russia and Turkey, are the first between the armed opposition and the regime since war erupted in the country in 2011.
The two-day summit is a showcase of the new power brokers in the region, with this week's negotiations the first major peace talks to be held outside Geneva and outside the US's sphere of influence.
Russia offered a late invitation to the Trump administration, which declined to send any senior diplomats but said its ambassador to Kazakhstan would act as an "observer".
Yesterday, Russia claimed to have carried out joint strikes with US-led coalition aircraft against Isil, in what would have been the first example of direct US-Russian military cooperation against the group.
However, US officials immediately denied the report.
The 14-member opposition delegation in Kazakhstan is keen to see a deal which strengthens the fragile nationwide ceasefire that came into force last month, as well as the resumption of aid deliveries to rebel-held areas.
But they have made clear they are not willing to move on to political negotiations until the government halts its military operations.
The rebels cited the regime's continued attacks on Wadi Barada, a flashpoint area near Damascus, as its reason for backing out of the first round of direct talks.
In his opening address, Mohammad Alloush, the head of the rebel delegation and political officer for the powerful Army of Islam faction, likened the pro-government forces fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad to Isil and said they were responsible for bloodshed in Syria.
Bashar Jaafari, the regime's ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the speech as "provocative" and "insolent" and accused Mr Alloush of representing "terrorist-armed groups". The regime is pushing for a political solution to the conflict in which rebels would lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
The Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies are optimistic about getting a favourable deal. Since the previous talks under the auspices of the UN, the rebel stronghold of east Aleppo has fallen.
The current talks were made possible by the recent detente between Turkey and Russia, whose increasingly close alliance has left the US out in the cold. But analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to include Washington, particularly now there is a president less hostile to the Kremlin.