Syrian rebel group says will not attend peace talks in Kazakhstan

ASTANA (TCA) — One of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, said it will not attend peace talks scheduled to be held in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana on January 23, RFE/RL reported.

Ahrar al-Sham said on its social media site on January 18 that it will not go, but it would support any decisions “in the interest of the nation” that might be negotiated by other rebel groups that are joining the talks sponsored by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

Other leading rebel groups and representatives of the Syrian government are expected to be there.

The talks come after a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey last month that has reduced, but not ended, fighting between rebels and pro-government forces.

Ahrar al-Sham said its stance was due to continued military activity by the Syrian army and Russian air strikes, and was aimed at preventing new divisions between rebels who support and oppose the talks.

Ahrar al-Sham has tried to maintain good relations with nationalist Sunni rebel groups supported by Turkey and the United States as well as militant factions like the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

It has shunned the extremist Islamic State however, which along with the Al-Qaeda affiliate, has been excluded from the talks.

In the meantime, Iran has opposed the United States joining the peace talks on Syria in Astana, which goes against the position of the other two organizers of the talks, Russia and Turkey, which have said the new U.S. administration of Donald Trump should be represented at the Astana talks.

“We have not invited them, and we are against their presence,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on January 17, according to the Tasnim news agency.

“At this stage, we must keep the tripartite setup,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told AFP on January 18. “Any enlargement could increase the risk of failure.”