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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

 Fifth round of Syria talks in Kazakhstan focuses on safe zones

All participants from both regime and opposition are attending the two-day meeting.

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN // Powerbrokers Russia, Iran and Turkey on Tuesday focused on shoring up a plan for safe zones in Syria at a fifth round of talks in Kazakhstan to help end the six-year conflict.

Moscow and Tehran, which back Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, and rebel supporter Ankara made a potential breakthrough in May when they agreed to establish four "de-escalation" zones to defuse the war that has claimed an estimated 320,000 lives.

But while fighting dropped off in the weeks after the deal, it has increased in some areas since, and the key international players have yet to finalise the boundaries of the zones or determine who will police them.

Russia's chief negotiator at the talks, Alexander Lavrentiev, said these issues were "under discussion" but there was no agreement yet.

Representatives of both the Syrian regime and the opposition are attending the talks, and the United Nations Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura , was dashing between the delegations. But the two days of talks are set to conclude on Wednesday with a session attended by all participants.

The deal in May roughly laid out the areas where rebels and government forces should cease hostilities, including air raids, for six months, but Russia, Turkey and Iran have failed to meet a June 4 deadline to set exact boundaries for the zones.

More than 2.5 million people are believed to live in the four areas, which include rebel-held Idlib province, northern parts of Homs province, Eastern Ghouta near Damascus and areas of southern Syria.

A major sticking point still seems to be deciding which countries will ensure security in which areas, with Turkey and Iran reportedly wrangling to bolster their influence.

The Astana talks received a boost on Monday after the Syrian army unilaterally announced a halt to fighting until midnight on July 6 in the southern Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida provinces, which together cover one of the zones. Daraa has in recent weeks experienced some of the fiercest fighting in the areas which are envisioned as safe zones.

However, air strikes pounded the key opposition-held town of Douma in a rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta just outside Damascus on Tuesday for the first time since the de-escalation zones were announced in May.

A medical source said a woman and a child were killed in the raid.

While Damascus has voiced support for the de-escalation zones, rebel factions have been far more pessimistic and have slammed any Iranian involvement in the plan.

Russia has argued the agreement will help focus attacks against extremist groups such as Fateh Al Sham, previously known as the Al Nusra Front, and ISIL, which are not party to the troubled truce between the government and rebels.

The talks in Astana are intended to complement broader political negotiations the United Nations is backing in Geneva, which are due to restart in mid-July.

The West has largely been kept on the sidelines of the Astana talks, but Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, was attending as an observer.