According to the Kazakh foreign ministry, those invited to the summit include representatives from the government and armed rebels, as well as UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, and US officials.
Due to begin Wednesday and expected to last for two days, the talks were postponed until Thursday due to what Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry called “technical reasons” on Wednesday.
On Moday, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said the Astana meeting would be a chance to “monitor the commitment of different parties to refrain from using force and to promote, encourage, the political process.”
However, a Syrian source close to the government stated that the discussions in Astana would be “purely military.”
The Geneva meeting, sponsored by the UN, is scheduled for February 23. It will focus on the key issues that divide the two sides, including the fate of President Bashar al-Assad.
The talks in Geneva have been delayed twice, partly to give time to the opposition, so that they could form a unified delegation. This marks the fifth time the parties have gone to Switzerland.
The Astana process is meant to support the Geneva talks, according to Moscow, amid speculation that it is working to develop an alternative “Astana track” with Ankara.
Sam Heller, a non-resident fellow at The Century Foundation think-tank says, “In theory, it is a complement to a still-live ongoing Geneva process, but in practice it looks like it’s a venue for Turkey, Russia, and to some extent Iran, to arrive at their own understandings and to try to engineer a mutually satisfactory political solution on their terms.”
The Syrian government plans to attend the Geneva talks, and it’s is likely that its delegation will be led by its usual negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari, Syria’s UN ambassador.
The key opposition High Negotiations Committee stated it will send a 21-member delegation to Geneva, which includes 10 rebel representatives. Their negotiator, lawyer Mohammed Sabra, will replace Mohamed Alloush of the Army of Islam rebel group, who will participate in the delegation only in an advisory capacity.
The HNC delegation calls itself ‘unified’, as it includes representatives from two rival opposition groups — the Cairo and Moscow groups. However, both these groups have denied being represented, so it’s not clear if they will attend as separate delegations.
Even more uncertain is the attendance at the Astana talks, although Syria’s Jaafari has already arrived in Kazakhstan.
At least four rebel groups claim not to have received an invitation to the Astana meeting, and several are unsure of whether they would attend, if invited.
UN envoy De Mistura’s office said he would send a “technical team,” and the US State Department is still deciding whether or not to send a representative.
Further, Jordan said it will attend the Astana talks only as an observer.
The Astana talks will focus primarily on reinforcing the ceasefire that has in place since December 30, that was brokered by Turkey and Russia. The last meeting in Astana produced no major breakthroughs, so with the uncertainty of rebel attendance, the talks seem unlikely to generate a negotiation for peace.
In the meantime, the major divisions between the two sides have yet to be resolved in Geneva, most importantly, the fate of Assad. The opposition demands that he step aside, but his government says this is not a topic for negotiations.
Turkey, who backed the rebels, has has show that they are open to more flexibility to resolve the conflict, but the opposition shows little sign that it feels the same way.
The Syrian government may also feel less open to compromise, coming to the talks after it’s recent victories, including the full recapture of second city Aleppo in December.
Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh says, “I still don’t believe the loyalist alliance is serious about… making some serious compromise, rather than asking for the rebels’ surrender disguised as a political settlement. They will try to obtain such surrender, which is why the talks will take place.”