Russia claimed today it had brokered talks between Syria’s rebels and the Assad regime ahead of a potential peace summit in Kazakhstan but the leading rebel negotiators said they knew nothing about any such discussions.
Moscow has strongly backed the Syrian regime on the battlefield but in recent weeks has been involved in a flurry of diplomatic activity alongside Turkey, which has been one of the rebels’ main supporters.
After successfully brokering a deal on the evacuation of rebel neighbourhoods in Aleppo earlier this month, Russia and Turkey along with Iran have discussed engineering a nationwide ceasefire across Syria.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said Tuesday that he had succeeded in taking a step in that direction by organising preliminary talks between the rebels and the regime ahead of what he hopes will be a full-fledged peace summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.
But Mr Lavrov did not say which rebel groups were taking part and his announcement was immediately met with confusion by those who track Syria’s complex war.
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), an opposition umbrella group which represented the rebels at failed peace talks in Geneva this year, said it had no knowledge of the talks.
“We in the High Negotiations Committee certainly have no connection to this matter,” George Sabra, a member of the HNC, told Reuters.
While the HNC has lost credibility with some rebels groups, it still remains the broadest representative body for the opposition and it is not clear how Russia hopes to organise a ceasefire without its involvement.
One possibility is that Turkey organised for a narrow group of rebel factions to be involved in the talks. Another is that Russia spread false news of secret negotiations in order to sow division among the rebels.
Turkey’s foreign ministry did not comment on the Russian claim but pro-Turkey rebel leaders said that in previous negotiations in Ankara they refused a ceasefire offer because it only covered some areas and some factions.
“No matter how great the differences [between rebel factions] we will not allow the enemies to drop out of the cracks of those differences to drive a wedge between regions and groups,” said one commander from the Jaish al-Mujahideen Islamist group.
The rebels said they insisted that any ceasefire be extended to all armed groups, including some that are considered by the international community to have links to al-Qaeda.
Iran’s defence minister Hossein Dehghan said today that Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, should not be allowed to take part in peace talks because of its uncompromising opposition to Bashar al-Assad.
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