New round of Syria talks begin in Kazakh capital
The 16th round of Astana peace negotiations on Syria began on Wednesday in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan, which was known as Astana until 2019.
Delegations from the Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition, and the three guarantor nations Russia, Iran, and Turkey are taking part and the talks are expected to focus on cross-border humanitarian aid to rebel held areas of Syria.
Since 2014, the UN has been providing humanitarian aid to Idlib province and other rebel-held areas of northwestern Syria via crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border without the permission of President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus.
The aid is a vital lifeline for an estimated 4.2 million people living in rebel-held areas but the UN's mandate to provide it expires on 10 July and Russia, which backs the Assad regime, is threatening to use its UN Security Council veto to make sure the mandate is not extended.
Humanitarian groups have warned that over one million people are at risk of starvation if the UN stops providing aid via the Turkish border.
Russia has demanded that the UN provides aid via regime-held territory in Syria instead of through the Turkish border, but humanitarian groups say that this would allow the Assad regime to block the provision of aid to the rebel-held areas.
Sources told The New Arab’s Arabic-language service that the regime and Russia are using the cross-border aid issue as a means to put pressure on the United States to relieve its sanctions – which were tightened in 2020 under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act – on the Assad regime.
The Syrian regime's foreign ministry announced in a statement on Wednesday morning that their delegation met with the Russian delegation prior to the start of negotiations.
The statement said that the two groups discussed the agenda of the talks as well as "mistaken Western policies which seek to continue the war on Syria with all that entails of suffering for the Syrian people."
The statement also briefly referred to Idlib province but only to accuse Turkey of supporting "terrorists" there, without mentioning cross-border aid.
The first round of the Astana talks was held in 2017 and established four "de-escalation zones" in rebel held territory in Syria, where hostilities between the Syrian regime and opposition would supposedly cease.
However, Russia and the regime later attacked and overran three of these de-escalation zones in violation of what was agreed.
Idlib province and surrounding territories in northwestern Syria are the last area of the country to be held by anti-Assad rebels.