Syria rebel delegation arrives in Astana for talks with regime

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A Syrian rebel delegation has arrived in the Kazakh capital Astana for Russian-led talks aimed at ending the country’s civil war after the group snubbed the previous round, Kazakhstan said Tuesday.

A rebel delegation led by Jaish al-Islam faction leader Mohammad Alloush has arrived in Astana for a fourth round of talks with the regime and key powers set to take place May 3-4, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The multi-party talks -- sponsored by regime supporters Russia and Iran along with rebel-backer Turkey -- are the first since US President Donald Trump infuriated the Kremlin by launching a missile strike against Assad’s forces over an alleged chemical weapons attack last month.

An advisor to the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Yehya Aridi, told AFP that the group will participate in the talks with “approximately” the same delegation as in previous rounds of negotiations.

The rebels did not separately confirm Alloush’s participation. Regime negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari will lead the Damascus delegation.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura will also take part in the talks that could pave the way for a new round of UN-brokered peace negotiations in Geneva this month, the UN said Monday.

The Astana negotiations are viewed as complementary to the broader Geneva talks on a political settlement but neither has yielded real progress so far.

The talks’ sponsors have been pushing negotiations in Astana since January after gains on the ground by Damascus turned the tables in the six-year war.

The latest round of talks in March saw a delegation from Damascus meet with representatives from the three powers, but leaders of armed rebel groups stayed away for the first time over alleged violations of a fragile ceasefire deal.

Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said that an US delegation led by Stuart Jones -- acting assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Affairs Bureau -- will observe this week’s talks.

Jones is the highest ranking US official to observe the talks as the country was represented by its ambassador to Kazakhstan in previous rounds.

Both the White House and the Kremlin have confirmed plans for a telephone call between US President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in which Syria is expected to raised.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s war began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

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