New talks seek to end Syria's war after nearly six years

Two rounds of talks on Syria are due, those in Astana likely to focus on bolstering a ceasefire, while Geneva will likely focus on key issues dividing the sides (AFP Photo/AMER ALMOHIBANY) (AFP/File)

Beirut (AFP) - As Syria's war approaches its seventh year, two new rounds of talks on resolving the conflict are scheduled to take place in Astana and Geneva.

Here are some questions and answers about the upcoming talks:

What talks are scheduled?

The first meeting is in the Kazakh capital Astana, and is expected to build on talks held there last month sponsored by the Syrian government's allies Russia and Iran, and rebel backer Turkey.

The Kazakh foreign ministry said representatives from the government and armed rebels, as well as UN envoy Staffan de Mistura and US officials, would be invited to the summit.

The discussions were due to begin Wednesday and last two days, but were postponed until Thursday due to unexplained "technical reasons", Kazakhstan's foreign ministry said Wednesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday said the Astana meeting would be a chance to "monitor the commitment of different parties to refrain from using force and to promote, encourage, the political process."

A Syrian source close to the government said the discussions in Astana would be "purely military."

By comparison a second meeting in Geneva, now scheduled for February 23 and sponsored by the UN, is expected to focus on the key issues that divide the two sides, including the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.

The talks in Geneva, the fifth time the parties have gone to Switzerland, have been pushed back twice already, in part to give the opposition more time to form a unified delegation.

Moscow says the Astana process is meant to support the Geneva talks, but there has been speculation that it is working with Ankara to develop an alternative "Astana track".

"In theory, it is a complement to a still-live ongoing Geneva process," said Sam Heller, a non-resident fellow at The Century Foundation think-tank.

"But in practice it looks like it's a venue for Turkey, Russia, and to some extent Iran, to arrive at their own understandings and to try to engineer a mutually satisfactory political solution on their terms."

Who is attending?

The Syrian government has indicated it will attend the Geneva talks, and its delegation is likely to be led by its usual negotiator, Syria's UN ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari.

The key opposition High Negotiations Committee has announced a 21-member delegation to Geneva, including 10 rebel representatives.

A new chief opposition negotiator, lawyer Mohammed Sabra, replaces Mohamed Alloush of the Army of Islam rebel group, which said it would participate in the delegation in an advisory capacity.

The HNC touted the delegation as "unified" and said it includes representatives from two rival opposition groupings known informally as the Cairo and Moscow groups.

But both denied being represented, and it remains unclear if they will seek to attend in separate delegations.

Attendance at the Astana talks is more uncertain, though Syria's government is being represented by Jaafari who has already arrived in Kazakhstan.

At least four rebel groups told AFP they had not yet received an invitation to the meeting, and several cast doubt on whether they would attend if invited.

De Mistura's UN office said he would send a "technical team," and the US State Department said it was still weighing whether to send a representative.

Jordan said it would attend the Astana talks as an observer.

What obstacles remain?

The goal of the Astana talks has been narrowly defined, primarily to reinforce the ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia in place since December 30.

But with rebel attendance uncertain and the last meeting in Astana producing no major breakthrough, talks there seem unlikely to shift the conversation on the peace process.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, all the main divisions between the two sides remain to be resolved, key among them Assad's fate.

The opposition insists he must step aside, but his government says his future is not a topic for negotiations.

Rebel backer Turkey has signalled new flexibility on resolving the Syrian conflict but there is little sign the opposition feels the same way.

Syria's government also comes to the talks on the back of recent victories, including the full recapture of second city Aleppo in December, which may leave it less open to compromise.

"I still don't believe the loyalist alliance is serious about... making some serious compromise, rather than asking for the rebels' surrender disguised as a political settlement," said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh.

"They will try to obtain such surrender, which is why the talks will take place."