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Icy, brief face-to-face meeting of Syria government, rebels

  • Mohammed Alloush, head of a Syrian opposition delegation, attends talks on Syrian peace in Astana, Kazakhstan, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. The talks are the latest attempt to forge a political settlement to end a war that has by most estimates killed more than 400,000 people since March 2011 and displaced more than half the country's population. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits

  • The head of the Syrian opposition delegation, Mohammad Alloush, speaks to press at a hotel hall in Astana, Kazakhstan, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Syria talks brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran aimed at bolstering a shaky cease-fire in place since last month opened on Monday in Kazakhstan, marking the first face-to-face meeting between the Damascus government representatives and rebel factions trying to overthrow it. The gathering is also the start of a new effort to end six years of carnage that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced half of Syria’s population and sent millions of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits

  • Bashar Jaafari, Syrian Ambassador to the UN and head of the Syrian delegation, right, speaks to a member of Syrian delegation during the talks on Syrian peace in Astana, Kazakhstan, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Syria talks brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran aimed at bolstering a shaky cease-fire in place since last month opened on Monday in Kazakhstan, marking the first face-to-face meeting between the Damascus government representatives and rebel factions trying to overthrow it. The gathering is also the start of a new effort to end six years of carnage that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced half of Syria’s population and sent millions of refugees to neighboring countries and Europe. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits

  • People walk in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, which is hosting Syria peace talks, is a relatively new name on the map. Founded in the early 19th century as a Russian empire outpost, Akmolinsk was a backwater in the wind-swept steppe. That changed in 1994 when Kazakhstan's first president decided to move the capital from the commercial center Almaty, and Akmolinsk was renamed Astana. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits

  • Bashar Jaafari, top, Syrian ambassador to the U.N. and head of a Syrian delegation, prepares to attend talks on Syrian peace at a hotel in Astana, Kazakhstan, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. The talks are the latest attempt to forge a political settlement to end a war that has by most estimates killed more than 400,000 people since March 2011 and displaced more than half the country's population. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits

  • Mohammed Alloush, center, head of a Syrian opposition delegation, and other members attend talks on Syrian peace in Astana, Kazakhstan, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. The talks are the latest attempt to forge a political settlement to end a war that has by most estimates killed more than 400,000 people since March 2011 and displaced more than half the country's population. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits

  • U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, left, speaks to head of Syrian opposition delegation Mohammed Alloush, right, prior to talks on Syrian peace at a hotel hall in Astana, Kazakhstan, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. The talks are the latest attempt to forge a political settlement to end a war that has by most estimates killed more than 400,000 people since March 2011 and displaced more than half the country's population. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits) Sergei Grits


Associated Press
Monday, January 23, 2017

Their seats remained empty for a few tense minutes after the Russia-Turkey-sponsored talks were officially inaugurated. Then, the Syrian rebel delegation finally walked into the room, marking what was supposed to be an ice-breaking first encounter.

But cold glances and sharp exchanges marred the first face-to-face meeting between the Syrian government and its armed opposition, which lasted about an hour in the freezing cold Kazakh capital, Astana.

The two delegations sat opposite each other on an oval table in the large gilded room. The rebel delegation was separated from rivals by friends: on one side sat the Turkish delegation, which backs the opposition and the U.S. ambassador, whose country has supported the rebels. There is not a single photo frame that shows the two sides together.

Still, that was an achievement. No other international meeting of the six-year conflict has managed to bring the rivals in the same room.

Realizing the symbolism of the face-to-face meeting, the rebel delegates stalled outside the conference hall.

Arab TV stations said the rebels registered their displeasure at being seated at the same oval-shaped table as the Iranian delegation. Tehran has sent thousands to Syria to fight alongside the government.

Rebel delegates said they had no “talks” with government officials. Only barbs were exchanged.

Lead rebel negotiator Mohammed Alloush equated between the Syrian government with the militants extremists of the Islamic State.

After the closed session, Damascus envoy Bashar Ja’afari called Alloush’s comments “provocative” and “insolent.”

The two delegations later headed to separate rooms, and proximity talks with the U.N. as mediators began.