Syria rebels say will attend Astana negotiations

Mohammad Alloush

DAMASCUS - Syrian rebel groups said Monday they will attend peace talks next week, in a boost to efforts by rivals Turkey and Russia to put an end to the nearly six-year-old conflict.
The talks, beginning on January 23 in the Kazakh capital Astana, are set to build on a nationwide truce that has largely held despite escalating violence across several battlefronts in recent days.
Organised by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, the meetings are the latest bid to put an end to the internecine war raging in Syria since March 2011.
The powers have backed opposing sides of Syria's conflict for years but have worked unprecedentedly closely in recent weeks to end the bloodshed.
If the Astana meetings are successful, they could augur well for fresh UN-hosted negotiations on the conflict next month in Geneva.
"All the rebel groups are going (to Astana). Everyone has agreed," said Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure in the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group.
"Astana is a process to end the bloodletting by the regime and its allies. We want to end this series of crimes," Alloush said.
Ahmad al-Othman from the Sultan Murad faction also said that "the rebel groups have decided to go to the talks."
Sources from the opposition and the regime said the talks would "probably" be face-to-face.
Several rounds of peace talks held by the United Nations have failed to produce a political solution to the conflict.
The Astana talks will assume a different approach, focusing strictly on military developments ahead of political discussions in Switzerland in February, opposition figures said.
- 'Only military' talks -
Ahmad Ramadan, from the leading National Coalition opposition group, said the Astana talks would aim to reinforce the truce "while the details of the political process will be left to Geneva."
"Despite all the truce violations, what pushed us to agree to attend was the fact that the agenda will be focused on the ceasefire only," said Osama Abu Zeid, a legal adviser to rebel groups.
The opposition's delegation to Astana "will be only military," but would be consulting with "a team of legal and political advisers" from the High Negotiations Committee, he said.
The HNC is the main umbrella group for Syria's opposition factions, negotiating on their behalf last year in Geneva.
Abu Zeid said the Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after breaking away from Al-Qaeda, would not attend Astana.
US President-elect Donald Trump's transition team has been invited to take part, but has not yet officially responded.
Earlier this month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was "optimistic" about the talks and would be "ready for reconciliation with (rebels) on the condition that they lay down their arms", according to French lawmakers with whom he met.
More than 310,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes since protests erupted against Assad's rule in the spring of 2011.
Over the years, the conflict has also witnessed the rise to prominence of jihadist groups like the Islamic State group and Fateh al-Sham.
- 'Huge reinforcements' -
IS jihadists on Monday pressed their brutal offensive against government troops around the key eastern city of Deir Ezzor, a military source said.
"Syrian army units in Deir Ezzor city faced a violent attack from Daesh fighters at dawn today," the source said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
He said government forces were fighting back the jihadists near the Deir Ezzor military airport and several other neighbourhoods south of the city, carrying out more than 20 air strikes on IS positions on Monday.
"IS has resorted to heavy use of infiltrators and on huge reinforcements from Raqa and western parts of Deir Ezzor province," the source said.
Raqa, to the north, is the de facto capital of the self-styled caliphate IS declared across Syria and Iraq more than two years ago.
Around 200,000 people live in Deir Ezzor city, which has been besieged by IS since early 2015 and is the capital of the oil-rich province of the same name.
IS already controls more than half the city and launched a fierce offensive on Saturday to capture the remaining government-held territory.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the assault had left at least 28 regime forces dead so far, as well as 40 IS fighters and at least 14 civilians.