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Expectations low as Syria's warring sides meet

By Olzhas Auyezov and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ASTANA (Reuters) - Syria's warring sides met for talks in Kazakhstan's capital on Monday, flanked by intermediary nations seeking to engineer steps towards a goal other negotiations have failed to reach: an end to the six-year-old conflict.

Sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the meeting marks the first time the opposition and representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have come together since United Nations-brokered talks in Geneva were suspended early last year.

As fighting continued in Syria and organizers played down chances of a breakthrough, the two sides sat opposite each other at a round table in a hotel conference room in Astana before a day of talks got under way.

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The rebel delegation did not plan to negotiate face to face with government representatives but via intermediaries, a rebel source said.

Alexander Musienko, an adviser to Russia's ambassador to Kazakhstan, cast the talks as a step in a long process. "Undoubtedly one cannot resolve issues like this in just one day," he told reporters on Sunday.

There were no senior government figures among the delegations and Kazakhstan's foreign ministry said it expected the meetings to be over by midday on Tuesday.

Pro-Assad Russia and Turkey, which has supported anti-Assad rebels, remain at odds over fundamental issues such as whether Syria's president should stay in power or, as the rebels are demanding, step down.

The head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, said his group's aim was to bolster a shaky ceasefire as a precursor to a broad-based political solution.

Speaking to Reuters, Yahya al Aridi, a spokesman for the opposition delegation, also said political talks were not on the Astana agenda.

Underlying the mutual mistrust the talks will need to overcome, Jaafari played down Turkey's role as a party to the talks, saying they were between Syrians only.

"Turkey is violating Syrian sovereignty so there is no Syrian-Turkish dialogue," he said, a reference to Turkish support for anti-Assad armed groups in the north of Syria.

That message was reinforced on Syrian state TV which assured audiences that the Syrian delegation had met no Turkish officials.

U.S. LOOKING ON

Some observers said the meetings in Astana, which UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is attending, could help jump-start the U.N.-led negotiations.

"The Astana process is a little bit of an unknown quantity," said a senior U.N. Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But provided that it helps get a genuine U.N.-led process up and running again ... then it can play a constructive role."

The talks pointedly exclude the West, though Kazakhstan, with the backing of Moscow and Ankara, extended an invitation to the new U.S. administration last week, which Washington declined.

Iranian officials have said they strongly oppose U.S. involvement, though Russian state television said George Krol, the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, would be present as an observer.

Turkey and Russia - each for their own reasons - both want to disentangle themselves from the fighting. That has pushed them into an ad hoc alliance that some people believe represents the best chance for progress towards a peace deal, especially with Washington distracted by domestic issues.

The opposition arrive in Astana aware that the fall of their former urban stronghold, Aleppo, has shifted the momentum in the fighting in favor of Assad.

On Sunday, war planes bombed rebel-held areas of western Syria, killing 12 people in one location, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, while insurgent shelling of Aleppo killed six.

"The ceasefire is clinically dead, but the Russians and Turks want to keep it alive to send a message to the international community that they are the ones in charge of the Syrian situation," said Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman.

(Additional reporting by Denis Dyomkin and Kinda Makieh in Astana, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in Dubai and Thomas Perry in Beirut; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov/Christian Lowe/Andrew Osborn; Editing by John Stonestreet)

 
 
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