Armed Syrian opposition groups have decided to attend peace talks with the government next week in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, according to rebel officials.
The negotiations between parties to conflict in Syria, scheduled for January 23 in Astana, intend to build on a nationwide ceasefire that has largely held despite escalating violence across several battlefronts in recent days.
Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure in the Jaish al-Islam group, said on Monday he would head the rebel delegation to the meeting. He said the rebels were going to the talks to “neutralise the criminal role” of Iran in Syria’s conflict.
“All the rebel groups are going [to Astana]. Everyone has agreed,” Alloush told AFP news agency. “Astana is a process to end the bloodletting by the regime and its allies. We want to end this series of crimes.”
The rebel factions’ decision to send a delegation to the Astana talks came after five days of negotiations in Turkey’s capital, Ankara.
The High Negotiations Committee, Syria’s main opposition bloc, had also said previously that it would extend its support to an anti-government military delegation attending the talks.
However, local media sources reported on Monday that a number of other rebel groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, one of the main fighting forces on the ground, had decided to stay away from the upcoming talks.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has already said his government is ready to attend the Astana meeting and “discuss everything”.
The participating factions said on Monday the talks will only focus on reinforcing the current truce and look at humanitarian issues; a possible political solution to the crisis will not be on the agenda.
The Astana meeting is organised by Russia and Turkey – two countries that have backed opposing sides of Syria’s conflict for years but have worked closely in recent weeks to end the bloodshed.
An official in a Free Syrian Army rebel group that agreed to participate in the talks told Reuters on Monday the meeting would “be a test for the Russians as the guarantor”.
The truce, which began in Syria on December 30 to pave the way for the new peace talks, excludes the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which changed its name from al-Nusra Front after breaking ties with al-Qaeda last year.
Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, set the new diplomatic effort in motion after Syrian rebels suffered a major defeat last month by losing the rebel-held districts of eastern Aleppo.
As with last year’s peace talks, powerful Kurdish groups that control wide areas of northern Syria are being excluded from the talks in line with the wishes of Turkey.
Syria has been enguled by violence since widespread protests in March 2011 calling for Assad’s removal. More than 310,000 people have been killed and over half the population has been forced to flee.
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