Russian FM says Syria peace talks to ‘consolidate’ ceasefire
MOSCOW - Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital next week are aimed at consolidating the frail truce in the war-torn country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.
"One of the objectives of the meeting in Astana is first of all to consolidate the ceasefire," Lavrov said of the talks due to begin on January 23.
Lavrov said the talks would also serve as an opportunity to involve rebel field commanders in "the political process" to end bloodshed.
"Those who wish to join must have the possibility to do so."
Organised by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, the Astana meeting is the latest bid to put an end to the brutal conflict raging since March 2011.
US President-elect Donald Trump's transition team has been invited but has not yet officially responded.
Lavrov said Tuesday it was "right to invite representatives of the UN and the new US administration" but did not say whether the incoming Trump administration had confirmed its attendance.
A source in the Russian foreign ministry said the talks would not involve the foreign ministers of participating countries and could last a few days, but did not give further details.
Syrian rebel groups, including the powerful Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), said Monday they would attend.
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, has also expressed its support for the talks.
- Fighting despite truce -
The talks come a month after the Syrian regime took full control of the country's second city of Aleppo from rebels in its biggest victory in more than four years of fighting.
Russia and Turkey last month brokered a ceasefire in Syria but without the involvement of the United States, a negotiator in previous truces.
The truce went into effect on December 30 and has brought calm to much of Syria although fighting continues in some regions.
Nine civilians were killed at the weekend in heavy fighting that erupted outside near Damascus, jeopardising the nationwide truce.
Government troops also lost ground to the Islamic State jihadist group near the Deir Ezzor military airport in the country's east.
The ceasefire excludes the IS group and its rival the Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after breaking ties with Al-Qaeda last year.
If the Astana meetings are successful, they could bode well for a new round of UN-hosted political negotiations on the conflict set for next month in Geneva.
More than 300,000 people have been killed and over half of the population displaced in nearly six years of deadly fighting in Syria. Millions have also fled the country.