Kazakhstan: Syrian Peace Talks Begin

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In the first round of Syrian peace talks to be held since April 2016, officials met in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 23 to open a two-day dialogue on the ongoing Middle Eastern conflict. Though Russia, Turkey and Iran are the talks' primary sponsors, Kazakhstan has a limited presence in them as well, thanks to its role as their host. U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura also attended the summit, as did the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, who participated as an observer.

The Syrian rebels, however, had relatively few representatives at the talks. Mohammed Alloush, a political leader of Jaish al-Islam and of the rebel High Negotiations Committee, led a delegation of 13 rebel groups primarily backed by Turkey. But these groups amount to only a third of the rebels, a testament to the Syrian opposition's minimal participation in the negotiations and, by extension, the low probability of a practical resolution emerging from the talks. The Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, for example, announced that they would not abide by the results of the Astana discourse because they did not attend. Meanwhile, the rebels continue to argue among themselves in Idlib and other remaining rebel pockets, reducing the prospects of a united rebel front forming. 

Alloush has nevertheless made it clear that enforcing the fragile cease-fire in Syria is the rebels' top priority, and that the removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad from office is not negotiable. However, Damascus has stuck to its official line calling for the rebels to lay down their arms.

For Russia, Turkey and Iran, getting Syrian government and rebel leaders to come to the table has been a victory in itself. The three countries issued a joint statement in support of the cease-fire, and advocated the separation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State from the rest of the opposition forces. Despite its inclusion in the statement, though, Tehran — like Damascus — is fixated on spurring the Syrian military's progress on the battlefield forward to improve the loyalists' bargaining position. This partially explains why many rebel groups are wary of Iran's role in the cease-fire and peace talks, a concern a rebel spokesperson voiced on Jan. 23. It is also just one of many factors slowing efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war, and ensuring that the talks stay focused on protecting the cease-fire rather than ending the protracted conflict.

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