ASTANA: A fresh round of peace talks seeking to end Syria’s war began in the Kazakh capital Astana on Monday, as part of a Moscow-led push supported by Iran and opposition backer Turkey.
The latest round of talks began days after Daesh was forced out of its de facto capital Raqqa in northern Syria, in a major victory for the US-backed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces.
Russia’s military intervention in 2015 turned the tables in Syrian president and Kremlin ally Bashar al-Assad’s favour, but the role of diplomatic arbiter in the complicated conflict is a new one for Moscow.
Speaking to journalists after the first day of closed-door talks, Russia’s chief negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev expressed confidence that a political settlement to the six-year conflict was possible.
Assad “has confirmed his readiness for… the preparation of a new constitution and the holding of new parliamentary and presidential elections on this basis”, Lavrentyev said on Monday.
Lavrentyev called Assad’s acceptance earlier this month of a constitutional reform process “a very important announcement”.
He also said Russia is ready to host a “congress of the peoples of Syria” involving both regime and opposition representatives.
The precise date and location of the congress would be determined in Astana, Lavrentyev said, suggesting it could be at Russia’s Hmeimim military base in Syria.
The plan for a congress appears to be a confidence-building measure ahead of United Nations-led talks in Geneva on a political settlement that are set to start November 28.
Recent rounds of talks in the Central Asian nation have focused on ironing out the details of a Russia-led plan establishing four de-escalation zones in Syria.
The plan was first tabled in Astana in May to minimise fighting between government forces and moderate rebel factions and improve civilians’ access to aid.
The most recent round of talks in September saw Russia, Turkey and Iran agree to jointly police a buffer zone in the contentious northern province of Idlib, where Ankara and Tehran are viewed as having competing interests.
Lavrentyev said on Monday that Moscow was prepared to act as “a mediator” between Turkish forces in the Idlib zone and Damascus, which has called Turkey’s military presence in the country illegal.
Despite backing opposite sides in the war, Ankara and Moscow have been working closely on Syria since 2016, following a rift caused by Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane.
The Russian foreign ministry confirmed that the country’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov discussed the Syria talks in a Monday telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu.
The Russian ministry said the diplomats confirmed their “mutual intention to continue efforts, including at international meetings, in the interests of further progress in the talks process between Syrians”.
Zones covering part of the south of the country, Eastern Ghouta, and the central province of Homs had already been agreed during a previous round of talks.
Russian military police are present in all four zones.
Syria’s United Nations envoy Staffan de Mistura urged parties to move towards “a more stable political settlement” during a mid-October visit to Moscow.
While the de-escalation zones brought about an initial reduction in fighting, the International Red Cross has voiced concern that the violence has intensified again, including in the zones.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to Tehran on Wednesday and will hold bilateral talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the Kremlin said on Monday.