January 24, 2017

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AP) — The U.N. envoy for Syria pressed on with efforts Tuesday to shore up a shaky cease-fire between the Damascus government and its allies and rebel factions, as he shuttled between delegates from the two sides on the second day of peace talks in Kazakhstan.

Staffan de Mistura said there were reasons for “optimism” and promised an “outcome” for later in the day. The talks in Astana on Monday saw only a brief face-to-face meeting between the government and rebel representatives — their first since the Syrian war began in 2011 — that was quickly followed by harsh exchanges.

The U.N. envoy told reporters outside the venue in Astana’s Rixos Hotel on Tuesday that discussions were underway to finalize a declaration to ensure that the cease-fire “becomes more solid.” He did not elaborate.

“We are not far from a final declaration,” he said. “There has been a lot of work done on it. If the one we are seeing is going to take place, there is some optimism.” “There are very intense discussions because this is not about a paper but about a cessation of hostilities, and that means saving lives,” de Mistura added.

Syrian rebel spokesman Osama Abo Zayd said that despite encouraging signs, the opposition is “waiting for something more than statements.” The rebels have pinned their hopes on Russia and Turkey, which brokered the cease-fire that took effect on Dec.30. Iran, a Damascus government ally, has approved of the cease-fire and co-sponsored the Astana conference.

“The people of in the besieged areas (in Syria) … are waiting for action on the ground,” Abo Zayd said. The rebel delegation is seeking to extend the Russia- and Turkey-mediated cease-fire to all of Syria. Violence has subsided since the truce, but fighting continues around the capital, Damascus, where the government and rebels accuse each other of violating the cease-fire.

The government says it is targeting members of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria in rebel-held areas, a group that is not part of the cease-fire. The rebels say the cease-fire should only exempt the Islamic State group and not al-Qaida-linked fighters.

Along with the cease-fire, the United Nations has also been demanding access to rebel areas besieged by government forces areas around the country. Rebels have also besieged two villages in northern Syria.

Abo Zayd said the government’s policy of forcing the surrender of rebel-held areas needs to stop. “For this conference to be successful, we need a cease-fire and a halt to forced displacement,” he said.

In recent months, the government has signed a number of capitulation agreements with rebel groups, particularly around Damascus, whereby after intense fighting and a tight siege, the rebels agree to evacuate along with other government opponents to rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

Damascus sees these as “reconciliation” agreements, while the U.N. says residents and rebels are often not given a choice, which amounts to forced displacement.

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