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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Russian-backed Syria congress may happen next month, focus on constitution

The congress, which president Vladimir Putin first mentioned earlier this month, may take place in mid-November at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi

Cars are parked outside Rixos President Hotel, the venue for Syria peace talks, in Astana on October 30, 2017. Stanislav Filippov / AFP
Cars are parked outside Rixos President Hotel, the venue for Syria peace talks, in Astana on October 30, 2017. Stanislav Filippov / AFP

A Moscow-backed congress of all Syria's ethnic groups may take place in Russia and begin working on a new constitution as early as next month, the news agency RIA reported on Monday, citing a source familiar with the situation.

The congress, which president Vladimir Putin first mentioned earlier this month, may take place in mid-November at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, RIA said.

The idea of a congress had United Nations backing, a senior Russian negotiator on Syria said. Russia's Hmeymim airbase in Syria also might be used, he added.

"This matter is still being discussed," Alexander Lavrentyev, the head of the Russian delegation at Syria talks in Kazakhstan, told reporters between meetings with diplomats from Turkey and Iran.

"As you know [UN Special Representative on Syria Staffan] de Mistura has in principle supported the idea of holding the congress," Mr Lavrentyev said. "Although he had some reservations, he supported this initiative of Russia."

Mr Lavrentyev said the congress would focus on seeking "compromise solutions towards the political settlement" of the Syrian conflict.

Mr Lavrentyev also said Russia hopes Turkey can stabilise the situation in Syria's Idlib Province where Moscow believes there is a high threat of attacks by militants.

"There is a pretty high level of tension there and there is still a threat of offensives by radical groups deployed there," he said.

"But we hope that our Turkish partners will in the end fulfil their part of the obligations concerning the Idlib de-escalation zone and will stabilise the situation there."

Russia, Turkey and Iran are holding the seventh round of talks on Syria — which are separate from the UN-sponsored Geneva process — in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, this week.

The latest round of talks begins days after ISIL was forced out of its de facto capital Raqqa in northern Syria, in a major victory for the US-backed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces.

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Recent rounds of talks in the Central Asian nation have focused on ironing out the details of a Russia-led plan for four de-escalation zones in Syria.

"Closed-format talks have begun," Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman Anuar Zhainakov told AFP, adding that the two-day negotiations would conclude with statements to the press.

Mr Zhainakov confirmed that delegations from the Syrian government and the rebels seeking President Bashar Al Assad's overthrow had arrived in Astana, as had negotiators from Turkey and regime backers Russia and Iran.

Despite backing opposite sides in the war, Ankara and Moscow have been working closely on Syria since a 2016 reconciliation ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane.

A de-escalation zones plan was first tabled in Astana in May to minimise fighting between government forces and moderate rebel factions, as well as improve access for aid for civilians living in the zones.