Power brokers seek safe zone progress at Astana

ASTANA: Key international players in Syria’s civil war gathered in Kazakhstan on Wednesday for a fresh round of talks aimed at pushing a Russian-led plan to ease fighting on the ground.
Representatives from government backers Russia, Iran and rebel supporter Turkey held “talks on an expert level” to lay the groundwork ahead of the start of two days of meetings that will include the Syrian government and opposition representatives, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry said.
The talks in Astana are the sixth round of negotiations Moscow has spearheaded since the start of the year as it seeks to pacify Syria after its game-changing intervention on the side of leader Bashar al Assad.
This time around the sides are looking to nail down details of a proposed “de-escalation” zone in the northern Idlib province, after Moscow ploughed on with setting up three other safe areas around the country in a move that has seen violence drop.
There remain major disagreements over which force will be sent to police the zone covering rebel-held Idlib — on Syria’s border with Turkey.
Russia has so far deployed military police to patrol the boundaries of three zones agreed in the south, in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, and in part of the central Homs province.
Yehya al Aridi, an adviser to the Syrian opposition, confirmed the rebel delegation would arrive in Astana, headed by Ahmed Berri, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army.
“The aim of our participation in this round is to strengthen the de-escalation zones in Syria, in Eastern Ghouta, the south, and north of Homs, and to discuss many violations that took place since the ceasefire agreement was signed in Ankara at the end of the last year,” Al Aridi said.
A Syrian pro-government newspaper Al Watan reported that the government’s delegation, led by the country’s United Nations envoy Bashar al Jaafari, had arrived in Astana early on Wednesday.
The de-escalation zone in the south of Syria has also proved sensitive as it lies close to the borders of Israel and Jordan, and Washington is keen to make sure that Iran and its proxy forces are kept out.
The State Department confirmed that Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield will travel to Astana on Thursday as an observer.
Meanwhile, a military source in Syria said after breaking an IS group blockade, Syria’s army is seeking to encircle the remaining IS-held parts of Deir al Zor city. The city is the capital of oil-rich eastern Deir al Zor province, regarded as a strategic prize by both Russian-backed Syrian troops and US-backed fighters.
Last week, Syria’s army and allied fighters broke a years-long IS siege of Deir al Zor, entering two regime-held sections of the city that had been cut off from each other.
Since then, the army has brought reinforcements to the city and is seeking to oust IS from eastern neighbourhoods that run along the Euphrates river, which slices diagonally through the province.
“The army is seeking to encircle IS from three sides by controlling the parts of the western bank of the Euphrates river,” the source said.
Troops would target riverside territory on the city’s northwestern edges as well as strategic areas on its southern outskirts, including the key military airport and the village of Al Jafra, on the banks of the Euphrates.
The operation seeks to “oust IS from the city and the province completely,” the military source said.
— AFP