Fifth round of Syria talks begin in Kazakhstan
A fifth round of talks on ending the six-year Syrian conflict began in Kazakhstan on Tuesday, focused on shoring up a plan for safe zones in the war-torn country.
Russian news agencies reported that a three-way meeting gathering the co-sponsors of the talks, Russia, Iran and Turkey, was underway in the Kazakh capital Astana, aimed at cementing four conflict-free areas agreed in May.
The two days of meetings are then set to involve a string of bilateral talks before a plenary session bringing together all the participants on Wednesday.
Anuar Zhainakov, press secretary at Kazakhstan's foreign ministry, confirmed to AFP that delegates from the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the rebel factions that oppose him had also arrived in Astana.
An agreement signed by Syrian government backers Moscow and Tehran and rebel-backer Ankara to carve out four "de-escalation zones" in Syria was seen as a potential breakthrough towards calming a conflict that has claimed an estimated 320,000 lives.
The deal laid out the areas where rebels and government forces should halt hostilities, including air strikes, for six months. More than 2.5 million people are believed to live in the zones.
Violence decreased markedly across all four areas in the first weeks after the deal was announced, although it ramped up in Daraa.
However, the sides failed to meet a June 4 deadline to determine the exact boundaries of the zones and it remains unclear how and by whom they will be policed.
The Astana talks received a boost on Monday after the Syrian army unilaterally announced a halt to fighting until midnight on July 6 in the southern provinces of Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida, which cover the rough area of one of the four proposed zones.
Of all the four zones, which also take in the northwestern province of Idlib, parts of the central province of Homs and opposition-controlled Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, it is the southern zone that has seen the worst fighting in recent weeks.
While Damascus has spoken in support of the zones deal, the rebels have been far more pessimistic and slammed any Iranian involvement in the plan.
Russia has argued the agreement will help focus attacks against extremist groups such as Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State group, which are not parties to the troubled government-rebel truce.
Syria's conflict evolved from a bloody crackdown on protests in 2011 to a devastating war that has drawn in world powers, including Russia and a US-led international coalition.
Russian has pushed the talks in Astana since the start of the year as it seeks to pacify Syria after it game-changing military intervention on the side of Assad.
The talks in Astana complement broader political negotiations the United Nations is backing in Geneva that are due to restart in mid-July.