A third round of talks aimed at finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria has officially gotten underway in Kazakhstan's capital Astana.
Russia’s Sputnik news agency said the talks kicked off with a meeting between the United Nations (UN) and Russian delegations on Tuesday.
The Astana talks, which have been going on in parallel with UN-brokered talks in the Swiss city of Geneva, have been an initiative of guarantor states Iran, Russia, and Turkey. The first round of the talks took place on January 23-24 and the second on February 15-16.
The Syrian government and the country’s opposition comprise the main sides to the talks, while Iran, Russia, and Turkey mediate the process. Tehran and Moscow are allied with Damascus, whereas Turkey acts on behalf of the Syrian opposition.
Delegations started arriving for the negotiations in Astana on Monday.
The Iranian delegation is headed by Hossein Jaberi Ansari, the deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs.
The armed opposition in Syria has said it will not be participating in the talks because of what it says is Russia’s failure to halt its airstrikes in support of the Syrian government and the Syrian army’s alleged violations of a ceasefire.
Russia has been carrying out an aerial campaign in Syria on a request from Damascus since September 2015. Together with Iran and Turkey, Russia facilitated a nationwide ceasefire in the Arab country late last year.
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The first two rounds of the Astana talks saw participants agreeing on the establishment of a jointly-run mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, which would report to the UN.
According to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, the new round of the talks is expected to consider the creation of a working group on prisoner exchanges as well as conducting mining clearances at sites of humanitarian significance.
Additional US representative at the talks
According to Sputnik, the United States has dispatched a second representative to the current round of the talks, an upgrade from its previous level of participation in the negotiations.
A Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman said that apart from US Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol, who has participated in the previous rounds of the Astana talks, another representative will be present from Washington. The Kazakh spokesman did not explain who the new representative was.
Previously, Krol would join the discussions at the Kazakh government’s invitation as an observer. There has been no indication that the additional envoy partaking in the latest round would assume any expanded role.
Conflict began in Syria in 2011, when foreign states opposing the Syrian administration started pouring arms and militants into the Arab country. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict so far.
‘Turkey responsible for militants’ failure to attend’
Later in the day, Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN and the head of the Syrian delegation blamed Turkey for the militants’ failure to participate.
“When one of the three guarantors breaks their commitment — and I mean Turkey — this means that Turkey must be one that is asked about the non-attendance or participation of these armed groups,” he said.
Ja’afari, however, said progress could still be made in the absence of the militants.
“We are eager to ensure the success of the Astana path... whether or not the armed factions attend,” Jaafari said. “The failure of the armed factions to attend Astana shows the indecency of their politics.”
Separately, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that the boycott came as a surprise and that the reasons provided by the armed opposition for not taking part in the talks were “unconvincing.”
The top diplomat announced, though, that the Russian Defense Ministry was in touch with the Syrian oppositionists who had refused to come to Astana.