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Russian-led Syria peace talks likely to highlight divisions

Kirill Kudryavtsev, AFP| A picture taken on January 22, 2017 shows a man at work to prepare the Syria peace talks conference room at Astana' Rixos President Hotel.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents appear more divided than ever as they prepare for peace talks next week, demoralised by their defeat in Aleppo and unable to unite to defend their remaining territory.


The new diplomacy, led by Assad’s Russian allies, has exposed yet more splits in a rebellion that has never had a clear chief, with rebel factions long fractured by regional rivalries, their ties to foreign states, and an ideological battle over whether to pursue Syrian national or Sunni jihadist goals.

Several leaders have come to prominence only to be killed in the nearly six-year-old conflict, and numerous military and political coalitions have come and gone. After the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo last month, the latest effort to unify the jihadist and moderate wings of the insurgency collapsed.

Assad in strong position

By contrast, Assad is as strong as at any time since the conflict began, his Russian and Iranian backers committed to his survival while the differing agendas of foreign states backing the rebels have only added to their divisions.

The delegation of rebels that will attend the talks with the Syrian government, which will begin on Monday in the Kazakh capital Astana, represents only part of the moderate opposition that has been fighting Assad in a loose alliance known as the Free Syrian Army.

Most are from groups fighting in northern Syria with the backing of Turkey. Other rebel groups seen closer to the United States and Saudi Arabia have been left out.

The delegation will be led by Mohammad Alloush of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, which is at the more moderate end of the Sunni Islamist spectrum and has its main stronghold near Damascus.

Alloush, who lives outside Syria, does not wield influence over the rebellion as a whole but was chosen because he is a member of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), an alliance set up with Saudi and Western support in 2015.

The HNC itself, the broadest opposition body formed since the war began, has not been invited to Astana.

Step closer to peace?

Its chairman, former prime minister Riad Hijab, is the nearest thing the moderate opposition has to “a face”. However, his role is closer to that of a spokesman for the myriad of groups on the ground and he will not be in Astana either.

The HNC has nonetheless said it hopes the Astana talks will be a step towards new peace talks in Geneva.

But while Russia says Astana will facilitate the Geneva talks, some in the opposition fear Moscow is trying to supplant the UN-backed process with its own. There are also concerns that the Kremlin wants to increase divisions in the rebel camp.

“Going to Astana is more dangerous than going to Geneva,” said Mohammad Aboud, a member of the HNC.

“In Geneva, there was a political front for the opposition that had gained international recognition while in Astana there is a lot of ambiguity and with Russia sponsoring this and being an occupying force and not a mediator.”

He said “polarisation may increase” in the opposition and added: “This is perhaps one of the real goals of the Russians - to increase division.”

Video: Aleppo residents hail ceasefire



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