The first full day of peace talks in Astana got off to a rough start after discussion broke down over the very topic they were meant to address.
The roundtable discussion was intended to last until late evening. But it came to an abrupt end when the Syrian regime’s lead negotiator Bashar Jaafari stormed out from the meeting early, after it failed to establish common ground on the strengthening of a ceasefire agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia.
The ceasefire deal has hung on by a thread just long enough to reach the start of the talks in Astana. Fighting has been ongoing since the day the agreement was signed, on December 29.
Sources inside the closed-door talks said the tensions boiled over after Mohammed Alloush – head of the opposition’s military delegation and political officer of the rebel faction Jaish Al Islam – alleged that continuing assaults by the regime and allied militias in the besieged rebel enclave of Wadi Barada constitute a blatant violation of the agreement.
The regime defends its ongoing offensive saying it targets the UN-blacklisted group Jaish Fateh Sham (JFS), claiming the group is to blame for water shortages in Damascus that have affected millions.
The opposition blames the regime barrel bombs for destroying natural water spring in Wadi Barada, causing the water shortages.
Revolutionary councils in the area have denied that JFS is present, and requested that United Nations monitors enter the area as neutral observers.
Speaking earlier in the day, Jaafari lashed out his rebel counterpart Mohammed Alloush.
“For the terrorist to speak out about the Syrian Arab Army’s operation in Wadi Barada is to defend war crimes and atrocities by Al Nusra,” Jaafari said, referring to JFS by its former name, used until July 2016, when the group formally disavowed its links to the international terror network Al Qaeda.
Earlier this month, several rebels groups moved to boycott the talks in Astana in protest over the ceasefire violations, which the regime insists are fair game under the agreement signed.
“Places like East Ghouta and Wadi Barada what are places where we continue to see violations and as I said we are trying to address and minimize these violations within this conference,” Ambassador Sedat Onal, head of the Turkish delegation said.
Despite today’s difficulties, the talks in Astana are expected to continue into their second day tomorrow.
Establishing a comprehensive ceasefire agreement that all parties will hold to remains the top priority for laying the groundwork for the next step in the peace process, which will be a conference in Geneva hosted by the UN, slated for February.
Turkey, which is acting as a guarantor for opposition groups, has established two ceasefire monitoring centres, and has floated more vigorous engagement with Iran as a step toward ensuring full compliance with the ceasefire.
“This is important not only achieving a full ceasefire but at the same time to provide unhindered humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands of people who are in besieged areas,” Onal said.