Syrian rebel delegates met in Kazakhstan Sunday on the eve of their first talks with the government in a year, in which the two sides hope to consolidate a cease-fire reached last month and deliver humanitarian aid.
The talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, are sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and are the latest attempt to forge a political settlement to end a war that has by most estimates killed more than 400,000 people since March 2011 and displaced more than half the country's population.
The U.N.'s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is participating in the talks, which are to be followed by more political talks in February in Geneva. The new U.S. administration is not directly involved, because of the "immediate demands of the transition," the State Department said Saturday, but Washington will be represented by the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol.
The opposition delegation, which arrived in Astana on Sunday, is made up of about a dozen rebel figures led by Mohammad Alloush, of the powerful Army of Islam rebel group. The Syrian government is sending its U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, and military delegates.
At the top of the agenda for the talks, which will be held at the Rixos President Hotel, is an effort to consolidate a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey last month. The truce reached on Dec. 30, which excludes extremist groups such as the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, has reduced overall violence, but fighting continues on multiple fronts.
"If this can be achieved, this can help the political process," said Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation and a member of the High Negotiations Committee, a political group which led the opposition negotiating team to Geneva last year.
The scope of the aims reflects the constrained position of the opposition, which last year was pushing for a political transition in Syria that would exclude President Bashar Assad.
Al-Aridi said there was no plan to discuss Assad's position before addressing what he said were ongoing government violations of the Dec. 30 cease-fire.
"I don't think there's a context for that now. Nobody is ready for this," al-Aridi told reporters in Astana. "We need a commitment to that cease-fire," he said, suggesting the opposition is there to test the other side's "good will."
"If the other side doesn't care about stopping the bloodshed in Syria, and cares most about staying in power at the expense of Syrian blood... in that case, nothing will work," he said. Reflecting the enormous distrust, he described the Iranians as "spoilers" and "occupiers" and claimed they are not serious about the entire process.
Iran and Russia have provided key financial and military support to Assad's government, while Turkey has backed the opposition. Experts from all three countries held an hours-long preparatory meeting Sunday in Astana.
Aleksandr Musiyenko, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Astana, told reporters that the task at hand is "not an easy one."
"I can only talk for the Russian delegation. Th?re is a real fighting spirit, decisive, we are trying to find an agreement with everyone, that's what we're striving for," he said.
The opposition has promised to highlight the government's harsh siege tactics, which have cut off hundreds of thousands of Syrians from food and medical access. In the Damascus suburbs such as Madaya, Zabadani and parts of the central city of Homs and its environs, civilians have been under siege by government forces since at least 2015.
Turkey could play a crucial role in the latest attempt to resolve a conflict that has confounded the world's diplomats for years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is embroiled in troubles at home and has moved closer to Russia recently, prioritizing the fight against Kurds and the Islamic State group over support for the Syrian rebels he has propped up for years.
Assad's forces meanwhile recaptured the northern city of Aleppo last month with considerable Russian aid, dealing a devastating blow to the opposition, which had held onto eastern parts of the city for four years.
The talks will be closely followed in Syria and by the millions of Syrian refugees scattered across the globe.
"If Turkey is now feeling the guilt over what it committed toward the Syrian people, we hope that it will give at this conference something positive, to speed up an end to the crisis," said Anas Farfouti, a resident of Aleppo who supports Assad.
At Istanbul's Ataturk airport, journalists and delegates headed to Astana shuffled past Syrians who have fled the country.
"If this war ends in five years, it will be a blessing," said Fadwa, a Syrian in transit between a European country, where she was granted asylum, and the region, where her relatives were still seeking onward passage. She declined to give her last name, out of concern for the safety of relatives still in Damascus.
She accused both sides of prioritizing their foreign sponsors over the protection of civilians, and said the war would drag on until foreign powers "partition" Syria.