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Syria Talks in Kazakhstan Get Rough Start «The Wall Street Journal»

The Syrian regime and the rebel opposition ended the first day of peace talks on Monday without reaching agreement on how to monitor a shaky cease-fire, but the sides continued trying to hammer out details of a potential deal.

The indirect negotiations in the capital of Kazakhstan are expected to conclude on Tuesday and it is not clear if any agreement will emerge. The talks that Russia and Turkey had initially hoped would begin mapping out a political settlement to the six-year conflict got off to a rocky start amid harsh rhetoric.

Expectations for the talks have been tempered in recent days as both sides have said the cease-fire, which was meant to be the foundation for a peace deal, was not being adhered to.

Russia's special envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, said Monday's talks were "quite successful" and said participants were working on a statement that they hoped to publish Tuesday, according to Russian news agencies. Russia is a main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"There were meetings with the armed Syrian opposition. The delegation members were somewhat tense at the start, but then the level of mistrust that we saw in them at first evaporated," Mr. Lavrentyev said.

Syrian state media reported that talks were ongoing.

Rebels confirmed that they had met directly with delegations from Russia, the United Nations and Turkey, which backs some opposition groups, about specific monitoring mechanisms for the cease-fire. But they said they were unsure whether the talks would yield any agreement and accused the Syrian regime and its backer, Iran, of not being serious about the negotiations.

The negotiations sponsored by Moscow and Ankara are a test of whether their newfound cooperation can achieve a breakthrough to end the bloody six-year conflict. The U.S. is largely sitting the talks out.

Opposition negotiator Mohammed Alloush said his delegation attended as a "strategic choice to reach a fair political solution" but accused the regime of a "politics of oppression and killing and destruction."

After the opening, Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bashar al-Jaafari, who is heading the regime's delegation, harshly criticized Mr. Alloush's comments.

"We were surprised...by the delegation of the armed terrorist groups who lacked diplomatic tact," he said. "His words were offensive and exhibited bad behavior."

The rebel delegation said it had opted not to engage in direct talks with the Syrian regime because of its continued bombardment in opposition-held areas.

After the opening remarks, the sides met with U.N. moderators in separate rooms, the regime delegation joined by Russia and the rebels with Turkey.

Turkey and Russia had previously said the negotiations would work to map the outlines of a peace agreement. But now, amid continuing clashes between Syria's regime and the armed opposition, they are hoping to establish monitoring mechanisms for a cease-fire signed last month.

The Trump administration on Saturday scaled back U.S. participation in Astana, despite an invitation from the Kazakh government with the backing of Russia and Turkey. It will be represented by its ambassador to Kazakhstan, rather than a full delegation.

The U.S. has been a key backer of Syria's opposition under former President Barack Obama.

Both sides have in recent weeks blamed each other for violating the cease-fire. Opposition activists on Monday reported regime airstrikes and shelling on rebel-held parts of Syria.

The Russian military said Monday evening that it had recorded nine violations of the truce by rebels in the prior 24 hours.

"Every cease-fire attempted in Syria in the past has broken down," U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said at the start of the talks. "The chances of success will be greater if the parties here are able to agree on a mechanism to oversee and implement nationwide cease-fire."

The opposition is being represented in Astana by a delegation comprised mostly of rebel commanders, rather than the political opposition-in-exile that has participated in previous talks. The opposition's participation in the talks wasn't guaranteed and on Sunday it sent word through Turkish backers that if bombardment continued on rebel held areas, it would withdraw.

Mr. Jaafari said the cease-fire wouldn't include areas of the country controlled by Islamic State, former al Qaeda affiliate the Syrian Conquest Front or other groups that didn't sign last month's cease-fire agreement, according to state media.

The Syrian Conquest Front is formerly known as Nusra Front and designated a terrorist group by the U.N. and the U.S. The front maintains a strong presence in swaths of opposition-held Syria and remains an ally of many moderate rebel factions, including some of those attending talks in Astana.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/syria-talks-in-kazakhstan-get-rough-start-1485185648

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