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Major powers seek to hold Sochi congress for Syria in late January

Reuters , Friday 22 Dec 2017
Staffan de Mistura
UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura (L) speaks with Russia's chief negotiator for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev (R), during the session of Syria peace talks in Astana on December 22, 2017 (Photo: AFP)
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Major powerbrokers agreed Friday to hold a peace congress for Syria in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi in late January in a bid to speed up a political settlement for the war-torn country.

Sochi will host a "congress of national dialogue on Syria" on January 29 and 30, said a joint statement released after two days of talks spearheaded by Russia and Iran, both key backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and rebel-aligned Turkey.

The "Congress of National Dialogue" will see "the participation of all segments of Syrian society," said the statement released in the Kazakh capital Astana.

"To this end three guarantors will hold a special preparation meeting in Sochi before the congress on 19-20 January," it added, referring to Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hoping to convert Moscow's game-changing military intervention in Syria into a political settlement on his terms.

In November, he convened the leaders of Turkey and Iran in Sochi to discuss the plan for the peace conference.

While both Russian officials and Assad have spoken enthusiastically of the plan, rebel representatives have been wary and the UN has yet to firmly endorse it.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura's office acknowledged Friday the plan to hold the congress in January without throwing its full support behind it.

"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," Mistura's office said in a statement.

Mistura held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Thursday.

Representatives of the opposition have expressed fears the Sochi congress could prove a distraction from the UN negotiations.

The Astana talks have run in parallel to the negotiations taking place in Geneva with the backing of the United Nations, but neither set of talks have borne much fruit.

Since the start of Syria's war in 2011, several diplomatic attempts to halt the conflict have stumbled, mainly over Assad's future.

A previous attempt to convene the Sochi congress in November failed following a lack of agreement among prospective participants.

Turkey has said it will be opposed to any talks involving the Kurdish YPG militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Kremlin has however insisted that Turkey's concerns would not stand in the way of the future peace conference.

Putin, who last week ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, discussed the peace process with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the phone on Friday.

Syria was also on the agenda as Putin spoke by telephone Thursday with Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

A fragile ceasefire brokered at the end of last year by Moscow and Ankara has been bolstered somewhat by the negotiations in Astana. The talks there have focussed on implementing four de-escalation zones to stem fighting between government and rebel forces, among other issues.

But both Damascus and the rebel factions have regularly accused one another of violating the ceasefire the zones were intended to bolster.

The second day of the talks in Astana coincided with the anniversary of a devastating and strategically crucial victory by Syrian forces in Aleppo, the country's second-largest city and once a rebel stronghold, after a blistering Russian-backed offensive.

Since the victory over Aleppo, Damascus has consolidated control over much of the country, wresting territory from extremist factions not party to the truce, particularly the Islamic State (IS) militants.

The war in Syria has left more than 340,000 people dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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