Three-way bid to boost Syria truce after Astana talks

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (UPDATED) – Russia, Iran and Turkey on Tuesday, January 24, agreed to shore up a shaky truce in war-torn Syria, but rebels and Damascus made no breakthrough towards a political settlement of the conflict after indirect talks.

Moscow, Tehran and Ankara, the sponsors of the negotiations in the capital of Kazakhstan, announced they would "establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire" in place since late December. 

The 3 powers also backed the participation of the armed rebel groups at a new round of peace talks set to be hosted by the United Nations in Geneva next month. 

"There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and... it can only be solved through a political process," the final statement by Russia, Iran and Turkey, read out by Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov, said. 

The two days of meetings in Astana – which have left the West sidelined – were mainly a Kremlin initiative and come as Russia has made itself the main powerbroker in Syria with its game-changing military support for leader Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting was expected to see the first face-to-face negotiations between the regime and the armed opposition since Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, but the rebels backed out and mediators were forced to shuttle between the two sides. 

The latest diplomatic initiative to end the bloodshed in Syria that has cost 310,000 lives comes one month after regime forces, aided by Russia and Iran, dealt a crushing blow to the rebels by retaking full control of the country's second city Aleppo.

A ceasefire brokered by Russia and rebel-backer Turkey has been in place since late December but both rebels and Damascus have complained of repeated violations.

The rebels – who insisted they would use the Astana talks to push Damascus to respect the truce – refused direct talks with the regime on Monday, January 23, because of its continued bombardment and attacks on a flashpoint outside the Syrian capital Damascus.

'One goal'

Regime negotiator Bashar al-Jafaari said after the end of the talks that the meeting "succeeded in achieving the goal of consolidating the cessation of hostilities for a fixed period paving the way for dialogue between Syrians."

"Astana has only one goal: consolidating the regime of the cessation of hostilities," he said. 

There were, however, no concrete details given immediately on the three-way mechanism agreed by Russia, Iran and Turkey to strengthen the ceasefire and how it would resolve the thorniest hotspots. 

The rebels have called for a halt to regime attacks on Wadi Barada, an area 15 kilometers (10 miles) northwest of Damascus, but Jafaari insisted operations would continue there. 

There was profound rancor and mudslinging between the delegations from Damascus and the rebels.

It also remained to be seen how the sides could patch up differences on the role of the talks' three organizers, Russia, Turkey and Iran.

A member of the rebel delegation told Agence France-Presse on Monday that the group would agree to have Russia serve as a guarantor of the current ceasefire but not Iran, which controls troops on the ground fighting for Assad.

The Syrian regime, meanwhile, said it would refuse to hold government-level talks with Turkey and sign any document bearing the signature of a Turkish official. –