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Syrian opposition denounce 'terrorist' regime as talks in Kazakhstan end without deal

Hopes that Damascus and armed opposition would agree on a committee to draw up a new constitution are dashed again
Negotiations have been going on for more than a year to choose names for the 150-person committee in which each side will have 50 seats (AFP)
By Jonathan Steele in Nursultan, Kazakhstan

Hopes that the Syrian government and the armed opposition would agree on a committee to draw up a new constitution for the war-torn country, a key component of any peace deal, have been dashed once again.

The disappointment came after delegates from both sides met separately with Geir Pedersen, the new UN envoy for Syria, in Kazakhstan's capital city last week within the framework of the so-called Astana process led by Russia, Turkey and Iran.  

Astana was renamed Nursultan last month in honour of the country's retiring president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. 

We have to make the final leap

- Aleksandr Lavrentiev, Putin's special envoy for Syria

Negotiations have been going on for more than a year to choose names for the 150-person committee in which each side will have 50 seats. 

Fifty other members are to be chosen by the UN from Syrian civil society. 

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Syrian government intransigence is blocking a final agreement, Ahmad Toma, the leader of the opposition team, told Middle East Eye after the meeting ended here.  

"Forty-four of the UN's 50 are agreed, but the regime wants to pick the last six names. They want more people than us. This is the obstacle," he said.

In a joint statement, officials from the Astana process's three guarantor nations, Russia, Turkey and Iran, accepted the failure.  

They said they had held "detailed consultations in order to speed up work aimed at launching the constitutional committee as soon as possible" and the next effort would be made at talks with the UN in Geneva.

"We have to make the final leap," Aleksandr Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for Syria, told a press conference on Friday after the two-day meeting.

'Biggest terrorist in Syria'

Western governments have been sceptical about the Astana process, which began in 2017 and which they fear is a way of detracting from the Geneva talks which have sputtered on for seven years.

In November, Staffan de Mistura, the outgoing UN envoy for Syria, described the failure of the last attempt at forming a constitutional committee as a "missed opportunity".

Five months later it is still not agreed, but many analysts believe the Geneva talks have also achieved very little.

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Even when the committee is formed, there will be further scope for disputes over its agenda and voting mechanisms. Then there is substance.

Last week's meeting showed how wide the gap is between the two sides.

Although the government delegation, headed by Bashar Jaafari, Syria's representative to the UN in New York, and the opposition team sat in the same hall in Nursultan for the concluding plenary session, they did not talk face-to-face, either then or earlier, in the two days of meetings.

At separate press conferences there was no hint of compromise.  

Toma said: "The regime is the biggest terrorist in Syria. How can we co-operate with such a regime?"

Meanwhile, Jaafari denounced people "who use phrases like 'the moderate opposition' and who said there were no terrorists in Syria".

Sochi disagreements

There were also major disagreements over Turkey's role in Syria.  

Turkey has given aid and military backing to opposition forces in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, one of the last areas which the Syrian government army, backed by Russian air power, has not yet regained.

Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed in Sochi last year on a de-escalation mechanism under which a 15km-deep buffer zone between government and rebel forces would be established around Idlib and the main road to Damascus would be re-opened. 

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Turkey would help to disarm militant groups, in particular Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an affiliate of al-Qaeda.

In return, the Syrian army would hold back on any ground offensive to retake the province.

The Russian-Turkish deal was also meant to promote prisoner exchanges.   

Nine Syrian troops held by the rebels, and nine rebels held by the government, were swapped last week in a village south of al Bab, under the supervision of the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.   

It was the third such exchange. Some 64 detainees were swapped in two earlier releases.

Turkish 'occupation'

But the de-escalation plan has not led to a decrease in HTS activity in Idlib.  

On the contrary, in January the group clashed with other rebel forces and took control of most of the province where an estimated three million people live.

The Turkish side is occupying 6,000 square kilometres of territory in the north of Syria

Bashar Jaafari, Syria's representative to the UN

Jaafari told the press conference: "Some 85 per cent of the terrorists in Idlib are HTS and who is behind them?  

"Turkish intelligence and Turkish forces are behind them. The Turkish side is occupying 6,000 square kilometres of territory in the north of Syria.    

"This is four times more than Israel is occupying in the Golan Heights."

Turkey ought to fulfil its obligations to help de-escalate the tension in Idlib, he said. Instead, it was making the situation worse. 

He accused Turkish forces of supplying chemical weapons to people in Idlib "in order to raise indignation and accuse the Syrian army in case of an assault to liberate Idlib. This is intellectual terrorism."

Toma, the leader of the opposition team, took the opposite line.
"We trust our neighbour and strategic partner, Turkey. They came at the invitation of Syrian people to protect people while the regime kills people," he said.

Speaking in Beijing on Saturday, Putin said that he could not rule out a full-scale assault against armed groups in Idlib but that it was not "expedient now" due to concerns over the area's civilian population.  

"I don't rule it [a full-scale assault] out, but right now we and our Syrian friends consider that to be inadvisable given this humanitarian element," Putin told reporters in the Chinese capital.

United Golan condemnation

Russia's envoy Lavrentiev conceded that HTS now controls "90 per cent of Idlib".

In talks with the opposition, he said he urged them to break any contacts with HTS and regain control of the area.    

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Asked by MEE if he agreed with Jaafari's assessment that Turkey was not complying with the de-escalation deal, he expressed "disappointment".

"It raises a lot of questions. Time passes and implementation is going very slowly," he added.

Meanwhile, the Russian envoy took issue with the administration of US President Donald Trump's flip-flopping on whether US forces will be withdrawn from eastern Syria.   

Russia favoured a "stakeholders' dialogue," he said, in which the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds should decide on the area's future, but without undermining Syria's territorial integrity.

In a rare meeting of minds, both the Syrian government and the opposition did at least find common ground at the meeting in condemning Trump's decision earlier this month to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.

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