Beirut, Lebanon: Syrian rebel groups said Monday they will attend peace talks next week, in a boost to efforts by rivals Turkey and Russia to put an end to the nearly six-year-old conflict.
The pledges came as the Islamic State group, which is excluded from peace talks as well as a nationwide truce deal struck on December 30, advanced in oil-rich Deir Ezzor province, cutting off a key airport from government-held territory.
The talks, beginning on January 23 in the Kazakh capital Astana, are designed to build on the truce that has largely held despite escalating violence across several battlefronts in recent days.
Organised by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, the meetings are the latest bid to put an end to the brutal war raging in Syria since March 2011.
The powers have backed opposing sides of Syria’s conflict for years but have worked closely in recent weeks to end the bloodshed.
If the Astana meetings are successful, they could bode well for fresh UN-hosted political negotiations on the conflict next month in Geneva.
“All the rebel groups are going (to Astana). Everyone has agreed,” said Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure in the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group.
“Astana is a process to end the bloodletting by the regime and its allies. We want to end this series of crimes,” Alloush said.
Sources from the opposition and the regime said the talks would “probably” be face-to-face.
Several rounds of peace talks brokered by the United Nations have failed to produce a political solution to the conflict.
The Astana talks will adopt a different approach, focusing strictly on military developments ahead of the discussions in Switzerland in February.
– ‘Only military’ talks –
Ahmad Ramadan, from the leading National Coalition opposition group, said the Astana talks would aim to reinforce the truce “while the details of the political process will be left to Geneva”.
Osama Abu Zeid, a legal adviser to rebel groups, said rebels were encouraged to attend by the fact that “the agenda will be focused only on the ceasefire”.
The opposition’s delegation to Astana “will be only military” but will consult “a team of legal and political advisers” from the High Negotiations Committee umbrella group, he said.
For Syria expert Thomas Pierret, the participants “will discuss military questions because those are the only ones they agree on”.
US President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has been invited but has not yet officially responded.
Earlier this month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he was “optimistic” about the talks and would be “ready for reconciliation with (rebels) on condition that they lay down their arms”.
Hundreds rallied Monday in the Kurdish city of Qamishli in protest at the exclusion of Kurdish political or military groups from the peace talks.
– ‘Huge reinforcements’ –
Syria’s conflict began with protests against Assad in 2011, but it has since morphed into a war that has killed 310,000 people and witnessed the rise of radical jihadists like IS.
The group advanced Monday around the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, cutting off the regime’s access route to a nearby airport.
“The supply route to the airport is cut, and the city’s eastern half is cut off from its western half”, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
A military source told AFP that government forces carried out more than 20 air strikes on IS positions on Monday.
“IS has resorted to heavy use of infiltrators and huge reinforcements from Raqa and western parts of Deir Ezzor province,” the source said.
Raqa, to the north, is the de facto capital of the self-styled caliphate IS declared across Syria and Iraq more than two years ago.
IS already controls more than half of Deir Ezzor and launched a fierce offensive Saturday to capture remaining government-held territory, where the UN estimates 100,000 people live.
The Observatory said the assault has killed at least 28 regime forces so far, as well as 40 IS fighters and at least 14 civilians.