Monday, January 23

Wow. Check out the conference room for the Astana talks. (UPDATED 8:08, 10:00 AM EST)


From AP 'live blogging' timeline of events (via AMN) at the talks:
After the opening ceremony in which the Syrian rebels and the government delegation sat across from one another at a round table, the talks went into a closed session. There was no indication if rebels and government officials would be talking face-to-face behind closed doors but Lavrov's remarks indicated that part of the gathering is more similar to proximity talks, with de Mistura shuttling between the two sides.
So it looks like it's back to sprinting for de Mistura. Disappointing.


That's one of the conference rooms in the fabulous five-star Rixos President Astana hotel, which I highlighted in an earlier post. [squinting] But where where are the platters of cheese danishes? I guess no dropping of crumbs on that rug. And no coffee cups, either; just water bottles. So this is a very serious discussion. 

Now notice that unlike the negotiations in Switzerland, where de Mistura had different groups sequestered in different rooms while he literally ran back and forth between rooms, everybody is seated in the same room -- albeit with plenty of space in case the discussions get terribly heated. That's a good start.   

The AP photo, taken by Sergei Grits, is from Sputnik's report today, All You Need to Know About Astana Talks Sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran. I think Sputnik already covered everything we need to know (see the reports at the above link). Let's see ...... a few new items in the report. Uh oh. The Saudi faction is supposed to be there. I thought they'd been excluded. Phooey! Well at least they can't say anyone's been shut out. 

All right; the report is also a good review so I'll publish it here. The talks, at least the formal part, may have ended for the day; Astana is 11 hours ahead of Washington, DC time (EST), so it's now 6:42 PM at the hotel. So there could be more reports on the meeting very soon from Sputnik.
11:24 - 23.01.2017 (updated 14:48 - 23.01.2017)

Representatives of President Bashar al-Assad and armed rebel groups fighting against him are scheduled to take part in talks, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, in a bid to reinforce the ceasefire and pave the way for a peace process aimed at putting an end to the six-year-long war which has claimed more than 300,000 lives.

Here's what you need to know about the meeting.
Astana vs Geneva
On December 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Damascus and several key radical groups reached a ceasefire deal and agreed to hold a round of talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Until recently, the negotiations on Syria have mainly taken place in Switzerland, with the next round of Geneva talks expected to take place on February 8.
There are several important differences between the two formats. Representatives of armed groups fighting in Syria will take part in the Astana talks, whereas Syrian politicians mostly living abroad have largely represented the opposition to the Syrian government in Geneva.
As a result the Astana talks will focus primarily on military issues. The ways of enhancing the fragile ceasefire regime are expected to be the main issue on the agenda. These agreements, if reached, will pave the way for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis.
In addition, representatives of Damascus and the armed opposition are rumored to be willing to meet face to face. In Geneva, the talks on resolving the Syrian conflict were primarily indirect, with the UN representative shuttling between the parties.
The Astana talks "are a major step toward resolving the Syrian crisis," Russian analyst and former diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov told RT. "The fact that armed groups have arrived [to take part in the negotiations] shows that the first step has been made. In Geneva, the armed opposition refused to come to the negotiating table and [interacted with the delegation from Damascus] through mediators."
24 Hours
The talks in Astana are scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. GMT and will wrap up in 24 hours. Representatives of both sides have arrived in Kazakhstan last week and have already held preliminary talks with diplomats from Russia, Turkey and Iran. Moscow, Ankara and Tehran serve as guarantors of the latest ceasefire agreements.

Bashar Jaafari, Syria's envoy to the United Nations, heads the Damascus delegation. The diplomat has served as Bashar al-Assad's top negotiator at the Geneva talks. Jaafari will be accompanied by Syrian ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad and Ahmad Arnous, an advisor to the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates.
The exact list of armed opposition groups participating in the consultations in Astana has not been unveiled yet, with some militias backing out of the talks. Representative of up to 15 rebel groups, including Jaysh al-Islam, Faylak al-Sham and Jaish al-Mujahideen are expected to come to the negotiating table. Representatives of Free Syrian Army (FSA) and High Negotiation Committee [controlled by Saudi Arabia] will also participate in the talks.
In addition, Russia, Turkey and Iran have sent their delegations to Kazakhstan. The Russian delegation will include officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense, including special presidential envoy on the Syria settlement Alexander Lavrentiev, Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Middle East and North Africa Department Sergey Vershinin and deputy head of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov.
The United Nations special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura will also take part in the Astana talks.
What are chances of success?
"All parties understand that Astana is a milestone on the path to the Geneva peace process," Matuzov said, warning against calling the meeting a breakthrough. "However, the sheer fact that it is taking place is a positive development."
Sergei Demidenko, a researcher at the School of Public Policy of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANERA), told RIA Novosti that Damascus and the armed opposition do not have much in common. In addition, Bashar Jaafari will have to negotiate with an array of groups, "some of which are more moderate and some are less so."
The political analyst described the Astana talks as a "preliminary phase" of a more broad-scale event. "In order to hold massive talks one has to understand whether they should be held under current conditions," he explained.
Demidenko further said that it is too early to hold talks in Geneva.
"The situation is extremely complex. It has become more complicated with every passing day. It is not clear with whom [Damascus] should negotiate. It is likely that the talks in Geneva will yield nothing," he said.


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