ASTANA, Kazakhstan – Russia, Iran and Turkey presented a united front at the conclusion of two days of talks in Kazakhstan between the Syrian government and the armed opposition, pledging support for the country’s shaky cease-fire and a joint mechanism to ensure compliance.
They did not specify how that would work, and continued differences among the warring sides as well as rebel infighting back home threatened to quickly scuttle the deal.
“It’s going to be a challenge; it’s not going to be easy,” the United Nations’ Syria envoy, who mediated between the two sides in the Kazakh capital of Astana, told reporters later.
Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s main supporters, and Turkey, the rebels’ chief backer, said they will use their “influence” to strengthen the truce, which has been in place since Dec. 30. Their joint efforts have raised hopes for a diplomatic end to the brutal six-year conflict. Previous efforts by the U.S. and Russia for a lasting cease-fire led nowhere.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday the U.S. welcomes actions that de-escalate violence in the country and called on Russia, Iran and Syria to press the Syrian sides to abide by the cease-fire in order to create an environment more conducive to political discussions.
The U.S., busy with the presidential transition, had no significant role in the talks between the Syrian government and its armed opponents in Kazakhstan this week.
Following Tuesday’s declaration, read out by Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Kairat Abdrakhmanov, Syria’s delegates to the Astana meeting held competing press conferences that underlined the enormous differences between the two sides.
“We don’t accept any role for Iran in the future of Syria,” said Mohammad Alloush, the head of the rebel delegation, insisting that all Iranian-backed foreign militias fighting alongside the Syrian government withdraw from Syria.
Syria’s U.N. envoy Bashar Ja’afari, called it “pitiful” that the opposition was criticizing one of the three guarantors who facilitated the agreement.
“The issue here is that finally we have a consensual paper called final communique or final declaration agreed upon by everybody … this is what we care about,” Ja’afari said.
Ja’afari, however, said that military operations in an area near the Syrian capital would continue despite a pledge to enforce the cease-fire “as long as there are terrorists depriving seven million people in the capital Damascus from drinking water.”
The government says al-Qaida-linked militants are present in Ain al-Fijeh, which is located in the water-rich Barada Valley northeast of Damascus. Ja’afari accused insurgents of using the water as a weapon but the rebels deny an al-Qaida-linked group is in the area, and have negotiated to include it in the cease-fire agreement.
The statement said the three nations will continue their joint efforts in fighting the extremist Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria. They called on the opposition to separate themselves from the al-Qaida-affiliate, a sticky point that has previously been the reason for the failure of previous cease-fire.
The rebel groups have formed close links with the group, known as Fatah al-Sham Front, on the ground. Tough fighters, Fatah al-Sham is excluded from the cease-fire according to the government, but the rebels say the truce should include all of Syria.
On Tuesday, heavy fighting broke out in northwestern Syria between Fatah al-Sham and one of the rebel factions present at the Astana talks, the Jaysh al-Mujahedeen. The infighting threatened to expand into wider battles, as other rebel groups rallied around Jaysh al-Mujahedeen.
The U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said Russia, Iran and Turkey would meet soon in Astana to lay the parameters for a mechanism to reinforce the truce.
Russia and Turkey had negotiated the Dec. 30 cease-fire and Iran approved it. The cease-fire greatly reduced the violence in Syria, but violations continued and the Syrian opposition and the government and its allies exchanged blame.
The meeting’s final statement said the three countries “will seek through concrete steps and using the influence of the parties the consolidation the cease-fire” and agreed “to establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the cease fire, prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the ceasefire.”
The statement also said the agreement in Astana paves the way for political talks to be held in Geneva as of Feb. 8, and welcomed the rebel groups’ participation in the U.N. sponsored talks.
Astana featured a brief face-to-face meeting between the government and rebel representatives – their first since the Syrian war began in 2011 – that was quickly followed by harsh exchanges.
But the talks were largely indirect, mediated by de Mistura.
After the final statement and in a briefing with journalists, Syria’s opposition delegation said it is “too early to judge the outcome” of the Astana meeting, saying they are not party to the agreement and have many reservations.
“There is no consequence to statements. Our Syrian people in besieged areas do not have internet or social media to read the statements. They only know actions,” said Osama Abo Zayd, an opposition representative.
He said any occupation of the Barada Valley by the government will render the cease-fire agreement void.
According to both Alloush and Abo Zayd, the opposition provided a paper to Russia detailing ways to monitor and enforce the cease-fire, and Russia has promised to address it within a week, in coordination with Turkey.
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