The seventh round of peace talks to end the Syrian civil war began yesterday in Astana, Kazakhstan, with focus on the implementation of the cease-fire and de-escalation zones. The talks, which will center on strengthening the cease-fire that came into effect on Dec. 30, are brokered by Turkey, which backs the opposition, and Russia and Iran, which support Bashar Assad. The two-day meeting will also address the release of captives and hostages and humanitarian action on land mines.
The Turkish delegation will be chaired by Deputy Foreign Undersecretary Sedat Önal, while Special Envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev will lead the Russian team, and Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari will head Iran's delegation.
Representatives of the Syrian regime, armed opposition groups, as well as delegations from the U.N., Jordan, and U.S. will attend the talks. Monday's bilateral and multilateral talks will be behind closed doors and a plenary meeting is scheduled for today.
During the talks, participants will also discuss expanding the number of observer states in the Astana process to include such states as Iraq and China. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov previously said he believes that it would be "useful" to expand the number of observer countries.
Meanwhile, Russian delegation head Lavrentyev stressed that establishment of a de-escalation zone in Idlib was a "very important decision."
"There is a pretty high level of tension there, and there is still a threat of offensives by radical groups deployed there," Lavrentyev said.
He added that Russia hopes Turkey would "in the end fulfill their part of the obligations concerning the Idlib de-escalation zone and will stabilize the situation there."
According to Syrian opposition sources, a delegation headed by Ahmet Barri, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, will present four documents to the U.N. about violations of the cease-fire, the situations of hostages, massacres by the Assad regime and the reshaping of Syria's ethnic makeup by Iran and the terrorist Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Also, the Syrian opposition wants Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias to leave the country, an armed opposition leader said yesterday.
Fatih Hassun told Anadolu Agency (AA): "We want Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias to get out of the country. Also, we want separatist Kurdish groups to stand trial for their crimes. We will bring this to the attention of the U.N."
The Russian delegation will raise the issue of establishing a "national reconciliation committee" among Syrians.
During the previous meeting in September, the parties in Astana agreed to the boundaries of the final de-escalation zone in the northern province of Idlib. In a joint statement after two days of talks in Kazakhstan last month, Ankara, Tehran and Moscow said they agreed "to allocate" their forces to patrol the zone covering opposition-held Idlib province and parts of the neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo regions. It said that the zones will be formed for a six-month period and will be extended if necessary.
Turkey, Iran and Russia will send 500 observers each to Idlib to monitor the de-escalation deal, and Russians will be military police, the Russian negotiator said.
In a separate statement released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, a plan to establish a center for coordination was also announced.
Moreover, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched a cross-border operation in the Idlib region this month, taking a step toward de-escalating tensions in the area.
At the fourth meeting in the Kazakh capital on May 4, the three guarantor countries first signed a deal to establish the zones.
Ankara places great emphasis on the Astana talks in putting an end to the six-year tragedy. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in early September that steps taken toward establishing peace in Syria would hopefully be finalized in Astana.
Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since 2011, when the Assad regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests with unexpected ferocity. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, according to the U.N.