Cease-Fire Talks Between Syria And Opposition Begin In Kazakhstan

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Delegates from Russia, Iran and Turkey lead talks on Syrian peace in Astana, Kazakhstan, where U.S. involvement is minimal compared to other recent attempts to end Syria's civil war.

The main players in Syria's long-running civil war are meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, Monday for talks that were arranged by Russia. The discussion seeks to bolster a cease-fire agreement that hasn't ended violence in Syria, but officials say they don't expect a breakthrough.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is playing a role at the talks, which will run through Tuesday. As the meetings got underway Monday, Russia's Tass news agency reports that Russia, Iran and Turkey plan to sign an agreement to "create a trilateral mechanism" that will enforce the cease-fire that was reached at the end of December.

From Beirut, NPR's Alice Fordham reports:

"The talks are the latest of many in Syria's nearly six-year civil war, but they're unusual in that they do not have significant presence from the United States or the United Nations. Regional powers Russia and Turkey, with backing from Iran, arranged the discussions. The talks are meant to build on a recent cease-fire, although representatives of the government stress they don't have high expectations for a breakthrough."

The American ambassador to Kazakhstan is at the talks at Russia's invitation, the AP reports. The news agency adds, "For the first time in internationally sponsored talks, Syrian armed groups — not political — are leading the opposition. Thirteen rebel factions, including from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, sent delegates."

As the talks in Astana begin, the U.N. is launching a conference in Helsinki aimed at supporting Syrian refugees and delivering humanitarian aid to some 13.5 million people in Syria.

From Moscow, NPR's Lucian Kim reports that the Kremlin has sought to depict the talks as complementing the U.N.'s attempts to end a crisis that it says has affected more than 22 million people.

"Russia says the main goal of the talks in Kazakhstan is to firm up a cease-fire that went into effect at the end of December," Lucian says.

According to Tass, Russia and its partners in the Syrian talks say they'll also support the upcoming U.N. talks between the two sides of the conflict; those sessions are scheduled to be held in Geneva on Feb. 8.

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