Astana talks on Syria begin

Astana talks in Kazakh capital Astana, 23 January 2017 (AA/Aliia Raimbekova)

Talks to bring an end to the conflict in Syria have begun in Kazakh capital Astana today.

Brokered by Russia and Iran, which back the Assad government, and Turkey, which backs the armed opposition, the two-day talks are being attended by many groups involved in the Syria conflict. UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura and US Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol are also in attendance.

Among the groups attending are Jaysh al-Islam and the Sultan Murad Division, both salafist groups backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Other jihadist groups such as Islamic State and Fatah al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) have been excluded from talks.

Turkey has also blocked the participation of Syrian Kurds and other groups allied to them, who are fighting the Islamic State in Northern Syria. Ankara has accused the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US-led coalition against IS, of being affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A Kurdish group Turkey has been fighting a 30 year insurgency against. The Northern Syria Democratic Federation Council, an administrative body including the PYD and SDF have stated they will not recognise decisions taken at Astana.

The Kurdish National Council (KNC), a part of the High Negotiations Committee of the Syrian Opposition backed by Turkey and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has been invited, however the group is known to have little support amongst Kurds in Syria.

The meeting has begun with discussions on violations of the ceasefire, which came into effect on 30 December and has largely held, despite pockets of clashes. Humanitarian aid and prisoners of war are also on the agenda.

Organisers and participants have played down expectations with opposition representatives saying it will not lead to direct negotiations with the government.

The meeting in Astana is expected to support the Geneva talks, with some armed opposition groups joining further United Nations-mediated diplomatic talks in Geneva, Switzerland, on 8 February.