Sponsors, Syrian Sides Gather In Astana For Uncertain Talks

Organizers downplayed hopes for a breakthrough as the warring sides in the bloody Syrian war gathered for peace talks in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.

Sponsors Russia, Iran, and Turkey are looking to goad the sides closer to a lasting settlement in the six-year conflict, but uncertainty surrounds the negotiations, scheduled for January 23-24.

Aleksandr Lavrentyev, Russia's main negotiator, said it still was not clear whether delegations from the Syrian government and the opposition would meet in person or would communicate through intermediaries.

Aleksandr Musienko, an adviser to Russia's ambassador to Kazakhstan, said preparatory talks among the sponsors on January 22 had been "hard going ... But one needs to give time to our negotiators to let them complete their mission."

"Undoubtedly, one cannot resolve issues like this in just one day," he added.

The peace talks aim to end the conflict in Syria that has killed 300,000 to 400,000 people since 2011, destroying homes and cities and helping to ignite a refugee crisis in Europe.

Russia and Turkey have backed opposing sides, with Moscow supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing rebels seeking his ouster. Russia waged an air campaign in Syria to bolster Assad.

Russia and Turkey remain at odds over whether Assad should remain in power or step down.

Syrian opposition leaders say that consolidating the current cease-fire will be their main goal during talks, not Assad's future.

"At this stage, we have one goal, which has been agreed upon by all the parties included," Osama Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, told Al-Jazeera. "That is to consolidate the cease-fire. That is why we came here."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said ahead of the gathering that talks are aimed at securing the cease-fire deal, adding that 14 rebel organizations have agreed to take part, although some major groups have said they will not attend.

The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is attending. Further talks are to be held in Geneva, led by the UN, and some observers expressed hopes these initial talks might help smooth later negotiations.

The U.S. State Department said it would not send a delegation from Washington to Astana, but the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George A. Krol, will represent the country. He previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan and to Belarus and has had diplomatic experience in Russia.

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