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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Russia to host Syria talks in Sochi in late January

Agreement reached with Iran and Turkey in latest round of parallel peace talks in Kazakhstan

Syrian chief negotiator Bashar Al Ja'afari, right, and other delegates take part in Syria peace talks in Astana on December 22, 2017. Stanislav Filippov / AFP
Syrian chief negotiator Bashar Al Ja'afari, right, and other delegates take part in Syria peace talks in Astana on December 22, 2017. Stanislav Filippov / AFP

Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed on Friday to hold Syria peace talks in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi next month, a move that the UN special envoy for Syria said should be assessed based on its contribution to the mandated political process under the United Nations in Geneva.

Russian news reports cited Kazakh diplomat Aidarbek Tumanov who said that during Friday's meeting in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, the parties agreed to hold the so-called Congress for National Dialogue in Sochi on January 29-30.

Earlier attempts to convene the congress were thwarted by disagreements over possible participants, primarily the involvement of the Kurds that Turkey has opposed. Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentyev told the Interfax news agency that the parties have yet to agree on the list of participants.

Mr Tumanov said that the three countries had also decided to set up a working group that will deal with prisoner exchanges and agreed on the need to clear Syrian territory of mines.

Turkey has been a supporter of the opposition groups and rebels trying to remove Syrian president Bashar Al Assad from power while Russia and Iran have been his main backers. The three countries have teamed up to help mediate a peace settlement for Syria's conflict, now in its seventh year, which has claimed the lives of 400,000 and caused the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The Sochi talks will open up a fourth track of talks between parties to the complex conflict in Syria. The UN's own Geneva programme has been supplemented by the "technical" talks in Astana brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Russia periodically opens a third track through Cairo. Egypt has provided a base to Syrian reformists seen as acceptable to the Damascus government.

"The United Nations maintains its view that any political initiative by international actors should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the mandated political process under the United Nations in Geneva," the UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said in a statement. "The special envoy will be consulting the secretary general once he has received all the information required."

Mr de Mistura's statement said he reiterated his intention to convene a ninth round of intra-Syrian talks under UN auspices in January.

Syrian senior opposition official Ahmad Toma said in Astana that he would not make a unilateral decision on whether the opposition will attend the conference in Sochi or not, adding that he would have to raise the matter with opposition and rebel leaders in Syria.

"We don't want to take a quick decision," he said.

The head of the Syrian government delegation to the conference in Astana, Bashar Al Ja'afari, blasted the United States and Turkey saying both countries should pull their forces out of Syria without preconditions.

He said Washington's insistence on keeping its forces in Syria was a "flagrant aggression".

The US has said it will maintain its presence in Syria to fight ISIL and "reinforce stability in liberated areas". There are now about 1,500 US troops in Syria that initially came to train and support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the anti-ISIL campaign.

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