ASTANA – The ninth round of Syria ceasefire negotiations in Astana concluded on Tuesday without any progress and amid controversy over plans for the next meeting to be in Sochi, Russia, which prompted the Syrian armed opposition to threaten a boycott.
The shift from the Kazakh capital to the resort on the shores of the Black Sea is the only new development cited in the statement signed by the three ceasefire guarantor countries: Russia, Iran and Turkey.
“It does not matter where the high-level meeting takes place, it may be in Ankara, in other countries, in Geneva or in St. Petersburg, the format is the same, it’s about the Astana format and process,” said the head of the Russian delegation, Alexander Lavrentiev.
That the next session takes place in Russia “does not mean that the following rounds will not be held in Astana,” he added.
“If (Russia) calls us to Sochi, we will not go. The armed opposition will not go to Sochi,” Syrian opposition representative Ahmad Touma said.
Touma, president of the self-proclaimed Syrian interim government, said that the Kazakh capital was the only acceptable venue for negotiations with Damascus.
“If the guarantor countries want to go to another country, it is their decision, but we want the negotiations to continue only in Astana,” he said.
After a first day consisting of meetings without the participation of the Syrian opposition, Tuesday’s plenary session lasted just over an hour.
The nine-point statement released afterward does nothing more than reiterate previous commitments to “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria,” “the need to encourage efforts that help Syrians to restore normal and peaceful life,” and pledges to fight terrorist groups operating in the Arab country.
Given skepticism about the future of the entire format of negotiations, Lavrentiev said that the Astana process remained alive.
The top item on the agenda for Astana-9 was to advance the exchange of prisoners between the Syrian government and opposition, but the statement said that the delegations only “reaffirmed the necessity to continue joint efforts aimed at building confidence between the conflicting parties.”
Representatives agreed to hold the next meeting of the Working Group for the release of detainees and hostages in June in Ankara.
“We are pleased that this issue will continue to be discussed in the framework of the working group in Ankara, which is an important humanitarian issue affecting thousands of Syrian families,” Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special representative for Syria, said at the end of the plenary session.
Lavrentiev said that “the time has come to give a new dimension to the Astana format,” emphasizing the humanitarian and political components.
“We hope that, in the future, this group (for the exchange of prisoners) will give a boost to their work and we will witness new agreements between the opposing parties,” the Russian diplomat said.
The main achievement of the Astana process has been the creation of four security zones in Syria – in the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Ghouta and on the border with Jordan – where all military activity, including air missions, is prohibited.
Though in some of these areas, such as Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, fighting has continued.