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Tensions high at Syria peace talks
02:42 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Peace talks first face-to-face meeting for Syrian rebel groups and government

Parties agree that there is no military solution to 6-year civil war

Astana, Kazakhstan CNN  — 

On a cold and clear Tuesday, you can feel the competing ambitions battling on Astana’s snow-packed Konaev Street.

It’s the final day of the Syrian peace negotiations, and the latest moves toward ending the bloody, six-year civil war – or at least consolidating a fragile ceasefire – are being announced.

On one side of the city’s main thoroughfare, the Rixos President Hotel bustles with shabby journalists, dapper diplomats and wealthy patrons in mink coats.

Across the street stands the Kazmedia center, a large, glass open space intended to showcase the city’s open approach to the world. A block white sculpture reads #kazmedia. Large screens show glossy advertisements for the country’s attractions.

A few blocks down you’ll find the Baiterek Tower, a building 100 meters high that resembles a giant lollipop. It’s a taste of Astana’s eccentric modern architecture.

And here you’ll also get a sense the dreams of the leaders of the Kazakh government, who want the world to see their capital as the Geneva of the East, a place where peace is made.

‘Trilateral mechanism’

After two days of listening to talks and hours spent sitting on cold tile steps with microphones in hand, cameras set and ready, the media were ushered into an expansive conference room to hear the results of the negotiations. The Kazakh Foreign Minister read a communiqué issued by Russia, Iran, and Turkey – the guarantors of a ceasefire that went into effect in December.

The key part of the joint statement said delegates had agreed to: “Decide to establish a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, to prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the ceasefire.”

The statement also reaffirmed the parties’ conviction that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it can only be solved through a political process. But as quickly as the statement was read, each of the delegations split into their respective fiefdoms.

The Syrian opposition held a news conference in the lobby of the Rixos where they said they “hope” the pledges will be implemented but lament the role of Iran in the process.

UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was rushed to the media center across the street, where he praised the results and said the communiqué signals the start of more intensive efforts to revive the UN-backed Geneva peace process.

The Russia delegation called the media to a small room in the Marriott hotel to give its own take on events. As journalists rushed from one place to another gathering statements, it became obvious that, while the Syrian negotiations had reached a critical moment, trust was in desperately short supply.

Dance of diplomacy

Here, in Astana, the dance of diplomacy has seen more snubs than a high school prom. The Syrian opposition delegation would not meet face to face with the government representatives.

The government representative would not meet directly with the Turkish officials.

The Turkish officials would meet with the Russians – but only in their capacity as intermediaries on opposite side of the conflict.

Moscow, Tehran and Ankara brokered the Astana talks. But the UN had brokered its own Geneva talks. The two tracks plan to dance in partnership, according to officials, but analysts say Russia is controlling the focus.

Syria's UN ambassador  Bashar al-Jaafari

Some rebels refused to even come to the talks, and others like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, were never invited. Each of the warring factions quickly threw themselves into the drama.

Just about three hours after talks started on Monday, during a tea break, the head of the Syrian government delegation suddenly marched into the lobby. Dozens of media crews immediately swarmed Bashar al-Jaafari, who also is Syria’s UN ambassador.

Jaafari called the opposition “the delegation that represents the armed terrorist groups,” and accused them of of using water as a weapon of war in the fight for the strategic area of Wadi Bardi, west of Damascus. Shortly after Jaafari’s comments, two rebel spokesmen came down to respond. Their comeback: The other side started it – and now they are hiding behind their big, bad friends.

“We are not the ones who are cutting the water. We said many times we want to send the water back to Damascus but the regime is shelling us in a way that destroyed the water source,” Issam al-Reis said – before he started arguing with crews from Syrian state television

“The Syrian people did not elect Bashar al-Assad!” he said.

“Bashar is now collecting youth from the streets to fight alongside him and they are fleeing. He wouldn’t need to bring in the Iranians and Russians otherwise!”

Still, there is cautious optimism in the lobbies of Astana’s five-star hotels. The warring factions each posed for the media. On the sidelines they conceded that ending the bloodshed is the key priority.

This was, after all, the first time that opposition and government representatives had been face to face since the conflict began in 2011. And the guarantors of the ceasefire, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, wanted to spark a real connection.

“We couldn’t make the two Syrian delegations talk to each other sitting in the same room,” said Aleksandr Lavrentiev, head of the Russian delegation. “However they were at the opening, they looked at each other’s eyes, they listened to de Mistura’s greetings and avoided any harsh actions towards each other. We consider it as a positive step.”

The wallflower, noticeably absent from the diplomatic stage, was the United States, recently relegated to observer status. The new Trump administration opted not to send a delegation, instead tapping US Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol to represent Washington’s interests.

CNN’s request for an interview with the ambassador was declined, part of a policy not to comment on any of the two-day proceedings and an indication of the US’ waning influence on the Syrian crisis.

What’s next?

Astana has left much unresolved. When will the next talks be held? Where will they be? Who will attend?

The UN has focused on Astana as the prelude to a longer affair in Geneva starting February 8, when the parties are slated to discuss both the military and political future of the country. But the warring factions have said this may be too much too soon for such a new and fragile relationship.

“We are waiting for a week to see if we are going to continue the whole process. Until now there is nothing specific to happen. Astana or somewhere else. Even for Geneva we didn’t talk about any date,” Issam al-Reis said.

But de Mistura said he is certain the parties will meet again soon. “Remember Aleppo was a turning point,” he said.

” As long as there was a stalemate in Aleppo one could say there was no other formula … and I think the armed groups have recognized, and the Russians too, this conflict cannot continue like this.”

Geneva seems a world away from Astana, a post-Soviet creation of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Just 20 years ago it was an empty patch of land, notorious for being close to the site of a former Gulag prison camp for the wives of Soviet traitors.

But with the rebels feeling deserted by the United States, there now is room for Russia – the rebels longtime bitter adversary – to make overtures to at least a portion of the armed opposition.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. It already has in part triggered infighting among rebel groups in Syria’s Idlib province. At the end of the talks, CNN asked the rebel spokesman, Issam al-Reis, if Russia is now a part of the solution. He answered with a smile and just two words: “We hope.”

CNN’s Schams Elwazer and Ralph Ellis contributed to this article.