Harsh exchanges make for a rocky start to latest Syria talks

Negotiators for the Syrian government and representatives of rebel factions traded accusations of terrorism after their first face-to-face meeting on Monday, as talks in Kazakhstan arranged by Russia and Turkey got off to a rocky start.

The gathering in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is the latest in a long line of diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the nearly six-year-old Syrian war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half the country’s population.

The talks are expected to focus on shoring up a shaky cease-fire declared last month and not on reaching a larger political settlement, and Syria’s bitter divide was on vivid display as the delegates emerged from a closed, hour-long session.

Syria’s U.N. envoy Bashar Ja’afari said the opposition delegation represented “terrorist armed groups,” and denounced the opening address delivered by the chief rebel negotiator, calling it “provocative” and “insolent.”

The head of the rebel delegation, Mohammad Alloush, had described Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government as a “terrorist” entity, and called for armed groups fighting alongside it, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, to be placed on a global list of terrorist organizations, according to a video leaked by opposition delegates.

“The presence of foreign militias invited by the regime, most notably the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Hezbollah … contributes to the continuation of bloodshed and obstructs any opportunity for a cease-fire,” Alloush said in the video.

He added that such outfits were no different than the Islamic State group, which is excluded from the cease-fire.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is mediating the talks, which are to be followed by more negotiations in Geneva next month. This time last year, he was shuttling between government and opposition delegations seated in separate rooms in Geneva, in talks brokered by the U.S. and Russia that led nowhere.

The new U.S. administration is not directly involved in the current talks, because of the “immediate demands of the transition,” the State Department said Saturday. The U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, attended Monday’s opening session held at the luxury Rixos President Hotel in Astana.

The two sides were brought to the table by Russia and Iran, which have provided crucial support to the government, and Turkey, a leading sponsor of the opposition. Turkey has recently improved its ties with Moscow, raising hopes for a breakthrough.

But the Syrian parties remain deeply divided over who is to blame for the repeated violations of the Dec. 30 cease-fire, and whether it should apply to the al-Qaida-linked Fatah al-Sham Front, which fights alongside mainstream rebel factions.

Ja’afari accused the opposition of “misinterpreting the idea of the cessation of hostilities,” and defended a government offensive in the Barada Valley outside Damascus. The fighting there has cut off the water supply to millions of the capital’s residents for more than a month.

The government, which has always portrayed the conflict as a war on terrorism, is hoping to garner international support and potentially recruit rebel factions to help it battle extremist groups. A Syrian Cabinet minister, Ali Haidar, told The Associated Press in Damascus that the talks in Astana are a “juncture to test intentions” on the cease-fire.

Osama Abo Zayd, a member of the rebel delegation, said the negotiations are limited to strengthening the cease-fire. “There’s no significance to negotiations if the people on whose behalf we are negotiating are being killed,” he said.

Syria’s conflict began with an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against the Assad family’s four-decade rule, but escalated into a civil war after the government violently cracked down on dissent and the opposition took up arms. The fighting is estimated to have killed more than 400,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011.

In past negotiations, the rebels have insisted that Assad step down as part of any peace plan, but his fate is not up for negotiation at Astana. In another departure, the current opposition delegation is mainly drawn from armed groups, rather than civilian organizations.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that preserving the cease-fire will be “the most important issue” on the agenda, and that Tehran hopes the talks can pave the way for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Bahram Ghasemi suggested that discussions over a larger political settlement would have to wait. “Let’s wait and see how the process can be continued based on conclusions that will be announced Tuesday.”